It’s hard to translate into words just how I feel about listening to Ashford & Simpson as their music transmits that rare magic which only seems available to a very few artists. Maybe it is something to do with a certain nostalgia the era between 73-81 conjures up, although I’m pretty sure it’s purely down to their sublime (I use the word carefully in this case) vocals that combine to elevate life in all its rich complexities. I’ll try to bypass the word Soul here too, despite it being a ready and necessary reference point, as there is also something truly universal, transcendent of genres contained within the music they wrote together. If you can find a more perfect song than Ain’t no Mountain High Enough written for a then solo Diana Ross at Motown, good luck to you. After all, their calibre as songwriters always did speak for itself. This triple CD collection however is all about their years at Warner Bros and contains many beautifully poignant pieces of music, which both touch the dancefloor as readily as they do reach out for the heart. Perhaps most relevant for our purposes are the extended versions found on the additional third disc (to the double vinyl release) with numbers such as Found A Cure remixed by Tom Moulton, Joe Clausell’s wonderful remake of Bourgie Bourgie, Mike Maurro and Wayne Dickson’s tastefully funky take on Stay Free, plus an all-time favourite in the shape of It Seems To Hang On remixed by Jimmy Simpson – which expands the spine tingling vocals into an ecstasy all of their own. There remains something particularly singular and unique about this music. In addition, the main sleeve notes once again arrive care of Christian John Wikane who must surely by now qualify as one of the most foremost authorities on R&B/ Disco. Listen on with pleasure…
I’m starting to wonder if we’ve actually skipped a generation of music and care less about the present (at our own expense) every time the word Disco reappears. Because it’s blatantly apparent that for many the past is simply more exciting than the here and now providing some sense of forgone authenticity. But while there may well be some truth in that once you hit the play button on this superlative collection of John Luongo’s extended mixes all your hopes and dreams are right there: realised, shinning, glittering, beautiful. The hugely influential Boston DJ added his own distinctive dancefloor flair to a number of now classic cuts reshaping The Jacksons ‘Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)’ – complete with that elevating synth rush – alongside a wealth of other artists which we won’t see recreated anytime soon. All-time favourite Melba Moore’s exquisite ‘Pick Me Up, I’ll Dance’ sits favourably next to Dan Hartman’s epic ‘Vertigo/ Relight My Fire’, while Marlena Shaw’s heart-tearing vocal ‘Touch Me In The Morning’ sings out for the loss of soulful song writing. Santana reaches for the sun on the life-affirming ‘One Chain (Don’t Make No Prison)’ contrasting with the brash bass-heavy lines of The Quick’s sassy, funky ‘Zulu’. Finally, at the very real risk of repeating myself once again Christian John Wikane explores the fine detail of the stories life and times across the accompanying booklet. And is, par for the course, a treat to read in itself.
Save The Children
Big Break Records/ Philadelphia International Records
bbr once again rise to the occasion with yet another classic re-release. This time in the shape of Intruders 1973 album which opens with the rather fine version of Gil Scott-Heron’s timely title track, finely honed in this version with typically soulful infused orchestration and exquisitely arranged movements. It’s always a pleasure to listen music that transcends the timeline so effortlessly and while, of course, I’ll Always Love My Mama stands up like the classic it is – here complete with Tom Moulton’s definitive remix, along with his String drenched reworking of (Win, Place Or Show) She’s A Winner – there are plenty of other rousing moments too, such as Hang On In There closing the show with its hopeful message. Also happy to report Christian John Wikane again supplies the sleeve notes so all the background info and beyond you may need is at hand.
It all goes back to Ashford & Simpson’s production of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for Diana Ross. I was two years old. I remember finding the 45 single in my mom and dad’s record collection. Hearing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” singlehandedly revealed to me the transformative power of music. The introduction, the choir, the orchestration, Diana’s voice, the build towards that climax, Paul Riser’s arrangement, the unique structure of the song … all of those elements created a masterpiece that still moves me to this day. At two, I wasn’t analyzing any of that of course, I just knew that I wanted to hear more. In fact, the other night I was talking with Joshie Armstead, who was one of the background singers on that song, and even she still marvels at how that song was produced, so it was very special for me to share that love with her. The flip side of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was “Can’t It Wait Until Tomorrow,” which I also loved. The yearning in Diana’s voice really got to me, the way she almost cried “tomorrow.” This is why I hold Nick Ashford, Valerie Simpson, and Diana Ross in such high esteem and so dear to my heart. They started me on my journey through music.
What made you want to become a writer (and not a DJ to share your love of music)?
Growing up, I collected all of these books about music, Billboard books, the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Music, etc. Initially, it was just so I could have photos of my favorite artists but then I became fascinated by the words on the page. I was eight when I got my first music book, “Paul Gambaccini presents the Top 100 Albums” where all these critics listed their Top 10 albums, which Paul Gambaccini then compiled into a master list of 100 albums where he wrote comments about each album. The seed for writing about music must have been planted there. I just absorbed all of these facts. I still reference some of what I learned back then in the essays I write today. Lily Tomlin calls that process “imprinting.” You spend the first 20 years of your life imprinting all of this information and then you spend the next 20 years releasing it through your work.
When I was 12, I wrote my first artist bios, just for fun. It wasn’t a school assignment or anything like that. I used my sister’s typewriter. CHIC and Patti Smith were the first artists I wrote about. I must have had a fascination with NYC. It wasn’t until college that I even considered the possibility of a career in writing. Before then, I’d majored in music and theatre, I’d done many musicals in high school, but I finally realized that I didn’t want to be involved with music from the performance side of things. It was actually through writing about plays in my theatre classes that I realized how much I enjoyed writing, period. After trying four different majors, I finally created my own major and took courses that gave me the opportunity to write about music by examining the social and cultural conditions that influenced artists and their work.
It’s funny you should mention DJ-ing. When I was eleven or twelve, I used to make mixes on cassettes where I’d create my own edits of songs. In college, I bought DJ gear and actually played a couple of parties …. so maybe I have some latent desire to be a DJ! Actually, the main reason why I could never be a DJ is because I enjoy dancing too much. I’d keep leaving the console.
How would you describe your working day and the process of writing?
My working day always begins with a good cup of coffee! I work from my apartment. The day can start as early as 5:30 a.m. and end as late as 3 a.m. I try my best to avoid having too many late nights, though. The day itself varies depending on whether I have to prepare for an interview, conduct an interview, transcribe an interview, research, write an essay, or edit an essay … or some combination of all those tasks. Today I’m putting the finishing touches on a Kleeer essay and preparing for an interview with Kathy Sledge later this evening.
My actual writing process? A professor of mine once said, “Writing is re-writing.” That is so true, especially if you know the writing’s going to be published. I think of the specific kind of writing that I do as storytelling. Ultimately, I just want to tell the story about the artist and their music. I try to find some some sort of hook that I hope catches the reader’s attention and keeps them reading.
One mantra that I created for myself is “It’s better to be clear than clever.” It’s easy to be impressed with a word or sentence you wrote but what good is that if your audience doesn’t understand what you’re saying or if it disrupts the tone of the essay? Sometimes the things that I want to include the most end up in the trash bin because I realize they’re only significant to me and wouldn’t mean much to anyone else, at least in the context of the essay I’m writing. That ties in to another tenet I observe, especially in writing liner notes: be invisible. I know that’s antithetical to everything we’re supposed to do in 2015 but I learned this when I started writing for PopMatters in 2006. When people are reading about an artist, very few of them want to hear about you the writer, unless there’s some compelling reason that you need to insert yourself in the essay. Over the years, I’ve been very careful about using “I, me, my” in anything I write. There are a few instances where I did “appear” in the essay but it was to establish the fact that the quotes were culled from a first-hand interview. All that said, these are just my personal guidelines and what I’ve found works best for me. I’m still growing. Oh, one more thing that my 8th grade English teacher Linda Fuller told our class: “Lay off clichés.”
I know it’s a big ask. But who have you most enjoyed interviewing?
Wow! There isn’t just one person because there have been so many. I’ve interviewed more than 300 different artists, and have interviewed some of those artists on multiple occasions. Donna Summer was the very first artist I interviewed, so that conversation will always stand apart from the others, especially since it pre-dated my first published article. The interview was for an independent study I was doing in college that I later presented at NYU. I will tell you that one of the most meaningful and memorable interview experiences I’ve ever had was interviewing Nona Hendryx, Ruth Pointer, Kathy Sledge, and Rochelle Fleming onstage at the Apollo Theater earlier this year. I’d interviewed each of them previously but to have them all there together and see the rapport between them … I still get goosebumps thinking about it. I’d never moderated a panel before so to have that be the first panel, especially with those phenomenal women, was a life-defining moment for me.
Do you find that the more famous a person is the more guarded they are?
To tell you the truth, no. I think it really all depends on the person and how comfortable they are with themselves and with whoever’s asking the questions.
Tell us about life living in New York?
I love living in New York. I’ve lived here since August 2004 and have lived in Hell’s Kitchen, specifically, since March 2005. I’m very aware of the history that gives the city its lifeblood, though much of that history is disappearing. I’m glad I could attend shows at CBGB’s and the Lenox Lounge before they closed, or dance at the Roxy before it shuttered. It’s still a thrill to walk by Studio 54, even if it’s not a club anymore. With the type of work I do, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Everyone comes through this city! If I may, I must give a shout-out to The Public Theater, which houses my favorite music venue in all of New York, Joe’s Pub. I’ve hosted and/or produced eight shows there over the years for artists like JOHNNYSWIM, Aziza Miller, David Bronson, as well as a benefit concert I founded called Three of Hearts. It’s intimate, sophisticated but not pretentious, centrally located, has an excellent staff and superb sound/lighting. Let’s see … that’s where Amy Winehouse made her NYC debut, where I saw Alice Smith for the first time, where they supported Allen Toussaint after Hurricane Katrina, where Janelle Monàe danced on table tops, Carly Simon held a private CD release show, Nona Hendryx climbed atop the drum set, Martha Redbone premiered “Bone Hill,” Alfa Anderson and Norman Jean Wright sang “Saturday” and “I Want Your Love,” and Martha Wash/Linda Clifford/Evelyn “Champagne” King recently performed two-sold out shows as the First Ladies of Disco … I could go on and on. They support developing and established artists alike. They just do amazing work.
Is there such a thing as bad music or is it all in the eye of the beholder?
Mostly, I think it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Music is such a subjective thing. I respect music critics and I respect the institution of music criticism but I just don’t enjoy critiquing music. I’m much more interested in documenting the stories behind the songs. That’s why I pretty much stopped writing CD reviews. Who am I to say something’s bad if it brings you joy? If my 8-year old niece is smiling and dancing to a song, even if it’s a song that I’d never willingly listen to, then that’s a beautiful thing. However, I’d want to make sure that she also knows some of the classics and expose her to other types of music. (Actually, my sister already does a good job of that!) I know there’s music I loved when I was 13 that I’d never listen to at 36, yet it helped me through that particular part of my life. I think of it as another stop on the journey.
Truthfully, some albums that are considered the most influential of all-time are albums that I wouldn’t necessarily play or have in my collection. I personally might favor the Brand New Heavies over the Velvet Underground, but I understand the appeal that both bands have, depending on the listener. It’s easy to fall into a herd mentality where you buy something or force yourself to like something just because it’s on every critic’s list. Over the years, I’ve kept myself in check about that. Do I like this because it moves me or because Pitchfork says I should I like it? I also don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I feel that’s a construct created by the rock elite who secretly or “ironically” enjoy a song like “Physical” whereas I openly, un-ironically enjoy “Physical.” Why feel guilty if you enjoy the music?
I must say, Smokey Robinson was the artist who instilled that belief in me. I remember when the 20th Anniversary of Rolling Stone special aired on TV. I think it was 1987 because that was also the summer PBS aired a special on “The Summer or Love” and I saw the Monterey Pop Festival documentary for the very first time. I taped both all those programs and would watch them over and over again. Anyhow, I can remember Smokey’s quote from the Rolling Stone special almost verbatim: “Music is a thing that touches you way deep down inside where you cannot deny yourself. You can’t say to yourself, Hey I don’t like that because I’m not supposed to like that. If you like it, you like it.”
What are your thoughts on the art of songwriting now?
I was at a panel sponsored by the Polar Music Prize back in April where one of the panelists made the point that pop songwriting used to be more about melodies and chord progressions and now it’s about hooks and beats. I thought that was an interesting way to characterize the difference. I know songwriters who are doing fabulous work but either they’re new artists who’ve yet to get massive support from the industry or they’re veteran songwriters who the industry doesn’t seem to value anymore. That’s really a shame because both the emerging songwriters and veteran songwriters have things to say. In the case of established artists, some of them are even better now than they were 30 years ago. I must be honest though, in the realm of dance music, I’d take anything that was written or recorded in the ’70s over contemporary EDM any day. Give me strings, horns, chord changes, a rhythm section, and outstanding vocals!
What are you looking forward to in 2016?
I’d love to build on all the high points of 2015. It’d be wonderful to lead another panel discussion and work on a music documentary. For years, people have been asking me about writing a book so maybe I’ll start exploring what that book could be. There are lots of great re-issues on the horizon. As you know Greg, I’ve been writing the essays for BBR’s re-issues of Ashford & Simpson’s Warner Bros. albums. In early-2016, BBR will release A&S’s first two Warner albums, Gimme Something Real and I Wanna Be Selfish, so I’m looking forward to that since it will complete BBR’s campaign of all the studio albums Ashford & Simpson released on Warner. I’m also working on a re-issue of Circle of Love by Sister Sledge. It will include bonus tracks of the group’s work with Phil Hurrt and Bobby Eli. Lots of good stuff happening in the new year!
The Moment Not The Memory EP
Work Them Records
Time for Spencer Parker’s contribution to the label with two new tracks each provoking different sides of House/ Techno. For me, and for those who love beautiful chord progressions, Faster Forward is just perfect. Keeping you guessing from the outset as pulsating beats pitch themselves in a tough manner things soon proceed to get emotional as the tactile piano notes and warm pads simply ooze atmosphere over a total of almost nine minutes. The flip-side, Spacial is altogether more about Detroit and I guess ticks all those boxes just right too.
A standout production which may not be to everybody’s taste but certainly should be. Teaming up once again with vocalist Gretz who adds a haunting, spiritual dimension to the opening Blood Burgundy while also being a captivating piece of music in its own right. Floating seamlessly across your stereo and emitting enticing frequencies that feel deep though full of energy this sounds in a class all of its own making. Followed by the electronic eighties inspired Concrete Jungle and then complimented by the left field ambience of Against the Rain it’s all first rate. This only leaves a Reprise of the title track to tease you still further…
Great release from Mobilee sister label Leena and yet another excellent set of productions from Ross Evans. Kicking things off is Caliente which is deceptively Disco but positively twisted into almost something else via a harsh set of beats and treatments of the sample and voices. Part Of The Dream is up next providing a totally different aspect with rich, ambient tones and crisp drums combining tastefully. “Asylum”, isn’t as devilish as the name suggests but a techy form of release that never loses breath, leaving Walk Of Shame to strike a familiar chord after every late night return by way of funkier synths and intense bass.
Big Break Records/ Sony Music
Always good to add a touch of class to the proceedings and Patti LaBelle is certainly that, and more. Her fourth album saw the angelic vocalist team up once again with Allen Toussaint and this album positively shines all the more for it. Of course he also produced Lady Marmalade with Patti as Labelle in 1974. But fast forward to 1980 and the more contemporary sound of Disco with the opening Give It Up (The Dawning Of Rejection) and the full version of the uplifting Release (The Tension), plus Get Ready (Looking For Love) – they do like brackets! All great stuff and with Christian John Wikane’s detailed sleeve notes you can never go wrong. Listen for yourself below…
Art Of Tones
Elephants & Flies
Lazy Days Recordings
Ludovic Llorca aka Art Of Tones first release on the label comprises three originals plus one dub version. And it’s all too easy for me to say that title track Elephants is a simply outstanding slice of music that cuts the atmosphere it generates with a knife. I’d be intrigued to know what the Elephant reference is, but in the meantime this captivating exploration of tones sees punchy keys and swirling notes feel cinematic and thoughtful against a backdrop of shuffling rhythms and stinking sounds. The Dub tweaks the elements providing something altogether more dancefloor orientated, although doesn’t capture quite the same emotions. Next Myself, My Body has bluesy voices over tougher beats, bass and accompanying strings, while The Right Movement’s intense, jazzy inflections provide yet another reason to pay attention.
Another Darius Syrossian production, time for another killer bassline. I’ll Do Anything does anything but disappoint with its funky Detroit flavoured bass offset by soulful vocals and abrasive yet seductive drums. Straightforward and straight to the point, how could you not like this? The remix is from label heads Leftwing & Kody and they give it a fresh sheen with snare rolls and infectious House riffs complimenting the original perfectly. Second track I’m Not Weird, You’re Just Normal says all that needs to be said as jazzy keys get lost in another slammin’ succession of big time beats completing a great debut for this brand new label.
Don’t know why, but I wasn’t expecting Bonar Bradberry’s vocal to be quite so appealing in such an infectious way, but it is. The title tracks deep, shuffling rhythms underpin it all as the voice intones with a uniquely English quality which provides such a refreshing change here, that of course and that the music’s so hot too. Mario Basanov provides the remix with trademark eighties influences sounding tastefully funky as always, and indeed gives the vocal that extra something. Rollerball doesn’t have the same charm but is none the less is an atmospheric journey through the landscape of European electronics.
Overground/ Underground? Never mind all that. I’d much rather this deeper, funky number in the charts then most of the rest of it. Lifted from their album and with remixes forthcoming their latest single sees Howard Lawrence on vocals sounding rather fine. Judge it all for yourself….
release: August 18
Hold Your Horses – Expanded Edition
You know that expression: beg, borrow or steal? Well, this is exactly what they were referring to. Time to get very excited!! The history bit reads a little something like this: After scoring major dance classics such as Let No Man Put Asunder in 1977 the group went on to record their second album also in part produced by Norman Harris, but now with the additional magic of Tom Moulton and Thor Baldursson was released in 1979. Not only does it include Let Me Down Easy but also the seminal Love Thang with that ‘gets you every time’ vocal delivery from the trio, and Double Cross which both appear here via various remixes including Larry Levan, Tee Scott and Bobby DJ Guttadaro. Once again there a superlative sleeve notes care off Christian John Wikane whose invaluable reading of history is essential.