Friday, April 30, 2010

Herbie Hancock: Head Hunters (1973)



I knew Herbie Hancock's name and a good deal of his music years before I knew the difference between Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Does that make me somewhat ignorant or does it speak to the fact that any way to fall in love with music is the right way? You can say what you like about fusion, and I'll probably agree with you; the stuff is driven by pure virtuosity and noodling for noodling's sake and I can't relate to that because I like my stuff driven by songs. But if Head Hunters is fusion, call me a fuse-head and send me down to the Weather Report concert. This was a hugely important album to me growing up, and while it's easy to split apart the things you once loved and how much you cared for them (I thought the Police were the second greatest band in history when I was in seventh grade), I don't think you can discount what formed your tastes and how it all meshed together, and Head Hunters was the first album I ever bought and loved that could remotely be called "jazz." It would be years before I could even begin to understand why it felt so right to me, and I guess in a way I still don't.

Recorded quickly almost to the point of being tossed off, Head Hunters captures a singular mood and sicks with it. From the opening blips of "Chameleon" to the assured, shimmering abstractions of "Vein Melter," Head Hunters feels to me as if it aims to seduce. The criticism of fusion -- both theoretically and usually in action -- is that it is a purely cerebral genre, jazz without the passion. But this is music I feel in my bones; it is dance music, funk, body movement. For sure you can lean back in your chair and be impressed with it if so inclined, but who needs to think when your feet just go? I don't seek any greater truth in my music than that, honestly. And I can assure you that I was taught so much by these grooves which ramble onward for as long as fifteen minutes but are never boring, chiefly about the strange warped beauty in the best improvisation. I wasn't a musician and I'm still not, so the technical specifications I can't delve into, but that's why I think this holds up so well for me -- it doesn't need explanation and even defies it. It's direct communication, so for me -- length regardless -- it's rock & roll.

And listening to the disc again today, I find it's like revisiting one's old world and finding as much joy in it as ever. I know more Hancock now, a lot of which I really love and some of which I probably love more than this and some of which I do find as tiresome as a Return to Forever album. I've heard Miles Davis' batshit experiments that make Hancock going out on a limb sound so much less extreme, but Head Hunters still moves me in this curious way. All four cuts are memorable and unfold breathlessly. It's playful. It has wit. "Sly" is as explosive an integration of ideas, "Watermelon Man" as gorgeous a reinvention, "Chameleon" as tight a groove as you'll ever hear. And etc. I don't know if you need this record, but I know I do.

I got hit with a copyright notice from someone last week over my Goldfrapp MP3s. I haven't quite been sure how to continue since I want to find a way to share without stealing but I'd rather not piss anyone off. Here, from the Youtubes, is "Sly," the song (a perfect tribute to the Family Stone) that made me want to hear this album when I heard it on a mix someone gave me ten years ago.

I'm working on a better option to play music here that will be more fun for me than YouTube videos but hopefully won't make anyone feel infringed-upon.

Since it's been a while since I posted (in large part due to the self-doubt imposed by the copyright violation notice), I'll just toss the latest music news down here. Sorry to focus on Yo La Tengo again, but really quick: They've announced a new EP, this one of remixes of their Popular Songs standout "Here to Fall." Remixers include De La Soul and Pete Rock! I'm excited about this one. It's out the same day as the new Roots album, which I personally think will be loads of fun (it features a guest shot from Joanna Newsom!).

Speaking of our idols growing up, Blur was a major one for a lot of us, and April brought huge elation for Blur fans with the release of their first new song since the outstanding Think Tank (2003) on an exclusive Record Store Day 7" (UK only). The song, "Fool's Day," is a total one-off with no further recording plans being made, so of course it's tantalizingly great. You can hear it at their official website.

We're still massive Beatles fans here and we love Paulie even though he can be kind of a fuckwit (just kiddin', Paulie), so it's kind of interesting to hear that the Wings and Paul McCartney (and possibly Thrillington!??!) back catalogs are to be reissued by the boutique label Concord, which (news to me) is somehow associated with the weirdass Starbucks label he's on these days. Post-Beatles Paul is kind of a minefield but if you dig around long enough, you find some rich rewards, so dig away, and feel good about not helping out the deservedly ailing EMI anymore. (No such consolation if you're in the market for October's Beatles vinyl remasters.) If you're in the mood for some completely sick Wings shit you've probably never heard, find some way to get the b-sides "Sally G" and "Country Dreamer," further proof that Paul with his guard down trounces professional Paul.

In other Beatles news, we acquired Beatles Rock Band this month and while I -- a video game rank amateur -- am learning to be competent with the fake geetars, I think my money's worth comes from unabashedly drooling over the glimpses of multitracks and session material that show up here and there. I'll give those guys even more money if they burn all that on some DVDs for me.

This past week we saw the Tallest Man on Earth at a tiny chapel in the University of North Carolina and it just might have been the best and most intimate show I've ever seen. More on that when I review his brilliant new album before too long.

Finally, just a few days ago, one of my favorite schlocky boy bands, Interpol, released a new song, which is very good and is apparently the first sign of a new LP from them. Always good to hear from those kids. Listen to the new track at their website as well!

Been spinning lots of new records this month and I'll try to do a better job of talking about them in the coming weeks! Briefly: Apples in Stereo = their best since Discovery of a World Inside the Moone. Tallest Man on Earth = genius. New Pornographers = strong showing, still making up my mind about it. New record I probably won't review for a long time because it kind of sucks: Eels' End Times, a disappointment in a string of same. New records I want to spend some time with and haven't yet: Gil Scott-Heron, Kaki King, and I still haven't quite figured out how I feel about Owen Pallett yet (though John Darnielle's recent endorsement in his blog has me keeping it in mind).

See you guys tomorrow with some Gram Parsons discussion.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hot Chip: One Life Stand (2010)



Oh man, I'm excited about this album; having just listened to it again, I'm not sure if I can do it justice, but I'll try. It was either "No Fit State" or "One Pure Thought" that initially hooked me on the UK techno-pop fivesome Hot Chip a couple of years ago. These are essentially disco songs which capture that inexplicable euphoric feeling of flipping off somewhere into oblivion. Being a nearly-lifelong synthpop convert (as captured in the last two entries here), I was thoroughly knocked out by what this group was doing, pounding ahead with confidence and no fear of body or mind. "One Pure Thought" is, for me, one of the five greatest singles of the 2000s. Although I loved The Warning and Made in the Dark, I was a casual enough fan that I didn't even know until recently that the band actually had an earlier album (Coming On Strong). But One Life Stand has changed all that forever now; whatever Hot Chip does from now on, I'll be paying attention.

I don't know why this record feels so different to me from the wildly ambitious, gem-filled earlier albums; early reports of it being darker and less beat-driven turned out to be grossly exaggerated. But there was a certain kind of song on those older LPs, and "One Pure Thought" and "Boy from School" are good examples, on which Hot Chip would take some left turn onto a groove that would just feel impossbly right, and time could almost just stop. It took me a long time to realize that those songs were special and stood out because if you took every bell and whistle away from them, they would be manificently written pop music. They are cathartic by sheer force of melody, and often lyrics (Neil Tennant with a paranoid streak). Some critics have said it feels like One Life Stand doesn't have any really tight, balls-out singles to offer; to me, this could be a greatest hits collection. It's just that the songs themselves are unified, restrained, complete. Production, good as it is, is only a secondary asset.

The songs on One Life Stand hang together through a contradiction, and contradiction is the secret of great pop music. They share an assured vulnerability. Though it's a lyrical conceit, it invades everything. The first notes of track one, "Thieves in the Night," could hook anyone with even the most remote attachment to disco or synthpop. Alexis Taylor's coolheaded but subtly frayed voice comes aboard and starts spilling out some paranoid cautions then slips into an album of confused, sweet, sentimental, occasionally laughably domesticated love songs. Who knows what it really means, but every time his voice shakes on these songs, I feel more like these songs, beats, and lyrics have enough detail to continue revealing themselves for years. This isn't an album for 2010, this is an album you'll be keeping around for comfort, and it isn't often that's so abundantly clear so quickly.

The first record of the 2-LP set offers four powerfully propulsive killers in a row; "Thieves in the Night," the shattering "Hand Me Down Your Love," and the irresistible "I Feel Better" build up to a phantasmagorically thrilling climax with the title track. Then, a left turn: the amazingly delicate and emotional "Brothers," a song that completely fails to question its own near-banal honesty ("I can play Xbox with my brothers"), and is all the more impressive for it, in the process proving Hot Chip's alarming melodic chops. They could have been a power-pop outfit just as easily as they became electropop, and they'd be a blast either way.

But it's a mistake to believe they only know one way to make an electropop song: The immediate explosion and onward to fadeout is not a rigid formula here. "Alley Cats" begins as a reflective, quiet dirge and builds to beautiful chillout with an unstoppable rhythm; Taylor and Joe Goddard's voices bounce off each other to glorious effect, and Hot Chip places all their electric trickery well into the background, giving their own opinion of what's most important. (And this makes it harder to ignore that the song is brilliantly composed and quietly touching.) The breezy but potent "Keep Quiet" amps up the potential for the New Order comparisons I'm sure plenty of people have made, backing up its skittering beats and hushed, persuasive vocals with a wonderfully incongrous string section, post-punk with a knockout beat.

The riskiest, most uncommercial cut is the highly proficient modern doo wop "Slush," which opens the second record. I'm sure dance purists are more than a bit put off by the song itself and its perverse positioning, but if perversity represents a diverse expression, is there anything wrong with perversity, particularly with a band this adventurous? And "Slush" doesn't deserve to die on some b-side or iTunes exclusive someplace. The menace and desperation (but of course, detached desperation!) that color its final two minutes make for what is among the most special moments of the record.

Side Four features some of Hot Chip's purest dance music so far. "We Have Love" is completely convincing disco-soul, with just the perfect Pet Shop Boys tinge of regret to make it linger in the mind long after its monstrous big beat has flattened you. "Take It In" moves to industrial and Music for the Masses for its inspiration but explodes in a rainbow of sound and harmony for its widescreen chorus, becoming a melting pot of dance history to attain nirvana for anyone who spends their life getting their kicks this way, the increasingly weird and misfit set that never thought disco had died. The song is beautiful enough to be loved by any pop music audience, but apart from that it's best described, like so much of One Life Stand, as sounding like a culmination, a fulfilling of potential. Something like this garden of love and delight, specifically that captured by "Take It In" and "One Life Stand," is ultimately why we have dance music, and why it has endured.

Not one of the ten cuts here is too long, or inessential. None of the slow ones get stuck in a spot where it kills the party momentum, and I don't have an issue with seeing this exceptional album as party music. Just as easily as you can fall in love with this music on headphones, you can find a million places in it to escape to bright lights and body movement. To hear this record is to celebrate the sheer timelessness of rock & roll in all its durability, for living room shaking or dancefloor communion or sad reminiscing or private consolation, never tempering its intelligence and soul. And if you love the indescribable feeling of the best dance music as much as I do, trust me, this is full of the transcendent moments you spend long nights looking for. Let's keep Hot Chip at this magical state of simultaneous vulnerability and confidence for at least another couple of albums. Then they're allowed to evolve. But the only problem with this album is it's too short. More ASAP.

This is terrific on vinyl! Buy it! (But be aware that it doesn't come with a download, and oddly transposes two tracks.) If you don't know Hot Chip, download the two songs provided below; I selected the two most "immediate" rather than my favorites this time. I truly believe this is their best album thus far (although the songs I've recently sampled from their debut really impressed me, I must say), so if you like these, pick up the record and keep an eye on Hot Chip, who are growing to be one of my favorite current bands. (In case you're wondering, I think my two favorites are "Hand Me Down Your Love" and "Alley Cats." For now, at least.)

One Life Stand
We Have Love

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Information Society (1988)

(Tommy Boy)


If you grab the first person you know with a general knowledge of 1980s pop music and ask what he or she thinks of Information Society, you're likely to be told they were a Midwestern cash-in on the wild popularity of two of the then-biggest bands in the world, Depeche Mode and Talking Heads, taking advantage as a bonus of the Heads' inactivity by the latter part of the decade. They'll remember -- and possibly be nostalgic for -- the biggest hit, "What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)," and might even remember one or two of the followups, but that's likely the only penetration the Minneapolis group will have achieved. The U.S. charts don't give you much else to go on, either. And experts and critics, even those who follow synthpop and dance music pretty heavily, aren't likely to have much of an opinion. But I discovered in that last couple of years that, somewhat surprisingly, Information Society are a group that is worshipped and spoken of with amazed reverence among a very specific group: DJs. They live on in considerable significance if only in this fashion, much like their labelmates Naughty by Nature. The first couple of Information Society albums are widely considered, today more than ever, a DJ's best friend, and dance music masterworks.

Listening to this album again, the reasons are obvious. With the lone exception of the errant ballad "Repetition," a song that doesn't deserve to share the vinyl with the other nine, every track is immediate, fast-paced, and muscular; you don't have to know what the fuck it is to respond to it. The innovations are striking: they sample other media in a rhythmic manner I don't believe anyone else was tackling yet (and not many others have since, though the Books seem pretty proficient at it). Their seamless, utterly nonchalant integration of rap and Latin traditions is breathtaking now and I find it hard to believe it wasn't then.

The first half of the album keeps this on the down-low and fairly conservative, but it still has some excellent conventional dance-synthpop such as the emotional "Walking Away" and the Pet Shop-infected "Lay All Your Love on Me." I even like the power move "Tomorrow," which could've been a Eurythmics song. But it's on side two that things get moving and the group starts to go a bit mad. I played every one of these songs in blocks of '80s music on various nights DJing and they fit seamlessly with better-known material. Even the experimental one-minute closer "Make It Funky" was useful as a way in or out of something, and I have heard it at least twice played by others (and it points the way to some of Daft Punk's voice manipulating nine years or so later).

I guess what I find most remarkable about these songs is that they are unapologetic beat-driven dance music; the intellectual pursuits the band name might suggest appear nowhere, and yet they play nearly as well on headphones, where the rhythmic sidesteps and stereo tricks have an insanely modern seductive power. "Over the Sea," to begin with, is aurally huge, and confidently propulsive, a top-drawer kick in the gut where you least expect it. "Attitude" somehow fuses Art of Noise with blues-rock, and does it brilliantly. "Something in the Air" adds mysterioso vocal distortion and amps up the classic artistic power move of pulling in uncommercial ingredients to make pop music that falls on the ear perfectly. And for all of these songs, the pulsing forward and the late-night caffeinated beat are unrelenting.

The record's best cut might be its penultimate, which saw earlier life as the Society's debut single. "Running" is seven minutes of radical kitchen sink disco, going farther in Latin inflections than any other cut, offering up an achingly hungry-to-be-sampled electro hip hop backing, and jumping off the cliff of sanity in a way as convincingly devoted as when the Velvet Underground used to do the same thing on songs like "The Murder Mystery." "Running" takes you to the edge of the body-movement world and dares you not to fall. Only Daft Punk puts more batshit balls-to-the-wall head-explosive synth-drum-bass-sampling onslaughts into the mainstream now, and god knows if anyone did then.

The accusations that the group ripped off Talking Heads are rooted in nonsense; Tommy Boy seems to have attempted to sell the band's image in this way with the self-consciously quirky music videos (and perhaps even the touting of both bands featuring a female member, which evidently was a much bigger deal in 1988 than it would be now). The "What's On Your Mind" video, though very appealing, is pretty derivative. But little, polyrhythms excepted, in the music recalls Talking Heads, who were influenced heavily by disco and dance music but never really attempted it. And the Heads, as the same malcontented press moaned a few years earlier (and as the same malcontented press moaned even earlier about Bow Wow Wow and Adam Ant, and today about Vampire Weekend), did not invent polyrhythms. The Depeche Mode comparisons, meanwhile, are inevitable because of the vocals, but for one thing, everyone who made synthpop or dance music in the '80s ripped off Depeche Mode; for another, Mode sidestepped soul and directness in favor of melodrama and irony, and I don't recall them having any of these simple pleasures and simple quirks and, hey, Latin-infected rhythms and hip hop influences. And in the end, Harland seems to mean what he says, and part of the point of DM is you never really know what they mean.

I personally was glad to discover there was still some sort of a fondness for this band, as I've always been pretty impressed by them and was never sure why. One of the things I particularly love is Kurt Harland's voice (he sings all but one of the vocal tracks), which is a bit technically stronger than that of most male singers in this genre -- think Dave Gahan after his vocal training in 1997 -- and seems weathered with wit and emotion. I also like that they underline the arbitrary separation of synthpop and dance music by casting off the strained seriousness of most acts in the former category but also feeling no need to bring in layers of irony to gloss over their fun. They're really a dance group dabbling in every cutting-edge style of the time that just integrates a few synthpop ideas. None of the trappings and pretensions of impression-making are here; this is people who love music making music, which is timeless. If only there'd been more popular groups like Information Society (and Fine Young Cannibals) at the time, maybe dance music would be taken more seriously now, as it's long deserved to be. And who else in America wasn't afraid of this kind of music then? Even the people who said they weren't were. Or else we'd have more to show for it.

Over the Sea
Something in the Air

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Goldfrapp: Head First (2010)


I discovered Goldfrapp in 2005 on, of all places, what used to be 120 Minutes before it moved to MTV2 and changed its name to something I can't quite recall anymore (crack research team unavailable). The video was "Ooh La La," from their Supernature LP. I was pretty blown away by the seductive, mildly goofy pop bliss of the song, and by the 1970s afro featured by one of the sidemen in the video. Expecting further power pop madness in the obnoxiously wonderful vein of Slade or suchlike, I listened to the album and instead discovered eclectic modern dance music, like Eurythmics reimagined as something altogether more exotic.

Subsequently I acquired -- and dug equally -- the prior record, Black Cherry. (I haven't yet given my undivided attention to their debut, Felt Mountain.) Unfortunately, while I've spoken to a few people who adore it, I was left cold by the 2008 followup Seventh Tree, a rather bizarre hybrid of ambient and '70s British folk-rock. The only song I really liked wasn't even actually on the record; it was a remix of the track "Happiness." I remember thinking that Goldfrapp's fear of pure dance music worried me a bit, because that's a step on the path to some hardcore pretension. I'm sad to report that now, Goldfrapp has put out their most no-holds-barred dance pop album to date, and although I'm finding it an improvement on Seventh Tree, I'm still disappointed and I can't say I particularly like where this group is headed. Goldfrapp has journeyed back not to the '80s of Yaz and the Cure but to the '80s of Olivia Newton-John and Xanadu... you know, the shit we never really liked that much to begin with. Fat synths, plunky drum machines, Stacey Q gloss, big arid soundscapes of cruel days and crueller nights, straight from a 1986 nightclub to the Muzak machine at the 2010 neighborhood K-Mart.

The problems are apparent on the very first tune, "Rocket," which is propulsive and sexy ("I've got a rocket / You're goin' on it") and hook-filled but also begins shortly to slide into the slack-jawed boredom of adult contemporary pop. It's one thing to detect a cunning sense of fashion somewhere deep in those generic grooves (see Pet Shop Boys' Behavior), but placing them up as something specifically to care about and be nostalgic for, I just don't relate. I never liked Berlin and I still don't like Berlin, and this is a Berlin record. The title track and "Dreaming," for instance, are the sort of thing that would render me very likely to change the dial during a 4:00am drive with Jammin' 99.9 FM on.

Head First continues in precisely this regard: eminently listenable, even enjoyable in its infectious visitations From Beyond the Grave of various Madonna and Bananarama hooks, but periodically -- and, it seems, deliberately -- lazy and boring. At least Seventh Tree was creative; this is just a step or two above a freaking Garbage album, and Alison Goldfrapp's presence can hardly compare to someone who fakes this shit as well as Shirley Manson. Posturing has always been a part of Goldfrapp's formula, but it's never been the point until now. The one unqualified success is the shimmery "Believer," strong and reverent but not quite backward-looking dance music that should have been the model for the rest of the LP. Among the rest, even the best songs are surprisingly derivative, and even if that's the whole idea, I find it tiresome. "I Wanna Life" is a perfect example: it feels great running down your throat, to use the most disgusting analogy I can think of, but not only do I find myself enjoying it strictly because it reminds me of some of my favorite hits of twenty years ago, I quickly realize that those hits actually had far more personality and were simply better than what Goldfrapp is tossing around here. Adding insult to injury: they close a nine-track album with another of the ambient annoyances that they've occasionally dropped before, the inconsequential "Voicething."

Personality is what's missing here for me, really. And yet again, what I don't understand is that the absence of it and the slide into MOR seem purposeful, even like a statement. Please tell me boring music imitating hits of the past isn't about to become stylish (though Goldfrapp are neither the first or the worst offenders in this regard in the current indie-rock world). I don't mean to rag on Goldfrapp here... with two mediocre records in a row, I'm just starting to think their direction is one I can't really follow. But if you are in the mood for a total nostalgia trip, by all means, take this one. You can listen to "Rocket" (included because it's a good representation, and rather catchy) and "Believer" (included because I like it a lot) right here, and I think they'll give you a good idea of whether you'll want to seek out the whole shebang. I don't mean to let my disappointment color everything here. If you need a good party record, you could easily do far worse. But be careful; these grooves do relent and reveal the pillowy mush underneath. It's true almost any of these songs would blend in perfectly between your favorite Wang Chung and Haircut 100 singles. I just question whether that accomplishment is the best use of Goldfrapp's ample talents.

I understand there's a really good remix of "Rocket" floating around. Maybe the pattern will repeat itself?

[Download links to "Rocket" and "Believer" removed because of a copyright claim from Mute Records. Soz. You can probably listen to them at Lala.]

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Archie Bell & the Drells: Tightening It Up- Best Of (1967-79)



Nothing that Archie Bell & the Drells recorded after "Tighten Up" could hope to achieve the earth-shaking simplicity and singularity and simple joy of that masterpiece. Inherent to the song's content is the awareness that it's made of lightning that could never strike again. Usually when you buy a greatest hits CD by a group with a particular song that overshadows everything else, you find a lot of attempts to recapture the moment (witness, say, Chubby Checker), and what a moment they had in this case. But Archie and the Drells were an Atlantic and Stax band, and Atlantic and Stax (not to mention Archie) were smarter than that. "Tighten Up" stands apart and outside because that's the way it's designed. Only one song -- "Do the Choo Choo" -- even half-heartedly exploits the luck of their signature 45.

Luck is a key word. "Tighten Up" just falls into place, sounding so off-the-cuff it's easy to believe it was an accident. I don't think it was, but we're not talking about that today. All over the other eighteen grooves on this superb disc, what you hear is not luck but hard work. Seriously hard work to produce some of the hottest, most disgusting '60s-'70s soul you've likely never heard. The Drells were pretty consistently successful on the R&B charts, but nothing they did aside from "Tighten Up" permeated the culture, so it's not unreasonable to expect this is all new to you. It was to me when I got this several years ago. I realized instantly I'd found something incredible. Just how incredible is something I continue to learn.

The journey really starts with track #2, "I Can't Stop Dancing," a mini-opera of Archie lamenting the fact that he can't "eat my lunch in peace" because anytime he hears music, he is incapable of stopping his body from responding. Comparable (to an extent) to concurrent Motown singles but just a little bit nastier, this is a remarkable document of joy outside social unrest. Archie even nods to the Coasters with his spoken word interludes, but here you start to realize that -- outside of his emceeing role on "Tighten Up" -- he is a perfectly capable and cheerful soul vocalist.

You won't find much sadness or emotional range in Tightening It Up, but I resent the notion that fun -- which is what every fucking cut on this fucking comp is, and pure and in spades -- is somehow a lesser achievement than reflection. Even "Do the Choo Choo," the ripoff number, is a capably performed and enthusiastic -- and funky -- novelty. But it's on songs like "(There's Gonna Be A) Showdown" that you wonder why anyone else bothers, so concise and complete is Bell's command of rock & roll glory with a snazz and sympathy that keep you from understanding the point of other music, because fucking Christ, this is a real jam. Like James Brown or the Beatles, Bell is about precision. If you aren't seduced and knocked out by the countup in the bridge of "Showdown," if you're not ready to surrender and apply to truce with the boastful Archie, who is certain -- and correct -- that he's a better dancer than you, I wouldn't trust you with a kitten, much less a radio dial. I have "Showdown" on 45 and it's a prized possession. I used to play it on stage and felt the unmistakable sensation of a gap of forty years disintegrating as we all became participants in Archie's oblique competition. We know he's the Top Cat, so we only bother fighting because we want to see how it feels to walk with the master. He knows he's good, so you'd better be better.

Bell's skills as a frontman shine on the slower numbers, especially the priceless and pricelessly sick slo-jam "Love Will Rain on You," which may in fact be the most confident ballad I've ever heard in the R&B genre. Bell represents coy, cocky purity. He feels no need to prove his shit to you because you already fucking know who he is and what a motherfucker he is.

Four cuts from 1969 represent the Drells' versatility. "I Love My Baby" is so tight one wonders how it landed on dance floors without heads exploding; rhythmic shifts and unexpected shakes and turns abound, but it all flows like a Box Tops number. The trickiness pays off on what's maybe the second greatest Archie Bell song, the immortal "Girl You're Too Young," which is the sort of song we listen to today and wonder how the fuck anyone ever managed to pull shit off and make it sound like it was just another day at work. But that's what I'm telling you... this was working class fucking music, okay? This is the sound of people at a factory elbowing their way through to do their damndest to make everyone get it. You don't get results like this unless you know where every note is supposed to sit. Just the first forty seconds of "Girl You're Too Young" (listen below) are hard (harder than virtually any Motown single) and transcendent to the point you feel the years and times are being transported to you, feelings and losses and moments like the one "Tighten Up" documented, only now filtered through experience and emotion. What's curious is that even given the time to think about it all, Bell and the Drells don't lose their illusion of spontaniety. If we knew how they did that, we'd all do things differently I bet.

"Girl You're Too Young" also offers a fascinating glance at the racism of the times ("Don't make your people hate us") and it's as sexy as Prince's "Adore," with an extra layer of the forbidden. But given these two singles, you might think you have some idea of where the Drells are headed and what they're capable of, then they go and throw you right off the track with the entirely unexpected "My Balloon's Going Up," a left-field play at innocence that fuses Spanky & Our Gang with Stax/Volt in a way that makes the Fifth Dimension sound even more contrived. Just as when he was slamming the door on you in "Love Will Rain on You," Bell sounds convincing even with this song's self-help platitudes. By "A World Without Music," Bell has nothing left to prove, everything he's throwing at you is so flawless (but flawlessly raw).

The experimentation pushes into Holland/Dozier/Holland territory with "Don't Let the Music Slip Away," but there are still unusual melodic and rhythmic changes that throw you into a warped groove even before the perfect drums and bass fall in. The Drells are doing a bit more singing now, adding an interesting "straight" counterpoint to Archie's casual, ruthless flamboyance. The '70s songs from here on follow rather than set trends. It's possible to track the evolution of soul music and soul production through these songs: "Wrap It Up" is a delightful George Clinton imitation, "Dancing to Your Music" inevitably calls attention to a Jackson Five comparison, with a decidedly adult bent (but curiously, not nearly the coarse and streetwise adulthood depicted in the '60s sides). "Ain't Nothing for a Man in Love" could be a Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes reject; Archie charms on it but his voice wasn't made for this kind of thing. "I Could Dance All Night" is generic but enjoyable disco. "The Soul City Walk" (1975) is the same, except equipped with an unbelievably catchy chorus and Archie's most confident singing in years. It's surely the first '70s cut to build on the evolution heard in the first nine tracks.

It's merely a prelude, though, to the staggering "Let's Groove," which actually sells itself short at the start as a cheap sequel to "Tighten Up," but is in fact a state-of-the-art, utterly magnificent smooth soul knockout that lives in but transcends the disco genre. The chorus (even more infectious than that of "The Soul City Walk"), belted out seductively by the Drells, swims and floats above the killer funk groove that you never want to stop (six minutes feels like not quite enough, which is the way it should damn well be) while Archie chirps along encouraging the proceedings the way he would if this song existed in your dreams. Every second of "Let's Groove" is valuable, smart, convincing, but it's body music and makes no apologies. Archie sounds like a dictactor when he demands we all "get out on the floor" and "dance, dance, dance some more" and the drama of that relentlessness creates a communal sense of importance. We have to groove because it's all we've really got, now as in 1976. That "Let's Groove" isn't a world-famous track baffles me. Listening to it right now I keep wanting to take out my headphones and scream "WHAT THE FUCK" at them, because why is this so goddamned fresh?

I couldn't get behind the overly drawn-out R&B balladeer move "I've Been Missing You" if I didn't think Archie's voice was still one of the world's most charming. Luckily, that's the only drag close to the end of the disc. The group puts their signature on the disco movement with the other three closing songs, "Everybody Have a Good Time," the audaciously catchy "Glad You Could Make It," and the particularly cunning "Strategy," all loud, capable, resilient, and propulsive. The Drells don't sound like they're in the shadow of "Tighten Up"; they sound like they're in the permanent shadow of a series of beautiful and transformative moments, the first of which was captured on tape on that first single. Everything since then has been an exploration of the meaning of that moment, and each exploration has taken these guys somewhere new. Holy fuck, this is a great record.

This Rhino comp presents all the songs in their original (usually mono) single mixes. I have considered picking up a couple of Bell and the Drells' LPs, but I'm not sure I want to spoil the perfection of this album that I love so dearly. I know the album version of "Tighten Up" is often preferred because it's a bit longer and adds the full intro with delectable opening bass. Maybe someday. I don't think I need Archie to prove he could record a whole album of great stuff at once, because he recorded a masterpiece over a twelve-year period without even meaning to. But perhaps someday I'll take a listen and report to you.

Below: Listen to two of the sickest Archie Bell & the Drells tracks. These are WMA format because I ripped this CD before I stopped using WMP. If you can't play WMAs, fucking call me on the phone if you have my number or at least email me so I can get these songs to you some other way as soon as possible because you need them urgently. This is the screaming dancing "aww, yeah" sound of liberation and life. Thank you.

(Also: Read a very keen interview with Archie Bell here.)

(There's Gonna Be A) Showdown (1968)
Girl You're Too Young (1969)