Sunday, October 26, 2014

Motown Throwdown

As I sit and type I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of my new iPhone, me and a few million people. I'm an Apple junkie. I'm in the process of transition into a Microsoft and Android (cringe) free environment. My brother-in-law, the professional IT guy would touch a porcupine on fire before an iPhone. You can't pick family right? Fact is, there are seemingly mundane things that people are very passionate about, things that are very similar, and both quite good in their own right. But both will always have their supporters and detractors. My friend Joey and I have been having a similar discussion over the last week or so about something that is a perfect follow up to this weeks 'Blue Eyed Soul' review.

'Rock'  can describe any number of genres: Classic Rock, Hard Rock, Punk Rock, Pop Rock, the list goes on and on.  While the genres of Soul music aren't so distinct, there is in fact a distinction to be made. Any fan of classic R&B music will know the difference between Memphis,  Motown, and to a lesser extent Philly soul.

Most people think of Motown when they think of 60's era black music. Diana Ross, The Temptations, The Jackson Five all came through Hitsville along with many many others. Songs like 'Stop In The Name Of Love' and 'My Girl' have become part of American culture. But there are are just as many heroes from Stax. Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, the 'Queen Of Soul' Aretha Franklin. Throughout the 60's and 70's Memphis and Detroit pumped out hits like the factories in Detroit made cars. The process wasn't that different. At least not at Motown. And it showed in the final product.

Berry Gordy, the owner of Motown had creative control and the final say of every song that came through Motown. The label had a 'finishing school' that each act was required to attend until their act was flawless. Every song that was recorded went through a kind of 'quality control' and didn't get released until it passed.As a result, the Motown records have perfect instrumentation and vocals. The harmonies are spot on, and there is very little room for improvisation.

Memphis, however was different. They encouraged their singers to express themselves and simply looked to record good music. Improvisation was accepted and sometimes encouraged. The recording have a raw gritty edge to them. Songs like Aretha Franklin's 'Respect' and Otis' '(Sittin' on)Dock Of The Bay would be still be favorites 50 years later.

Joey and I have been friends for about 7 years now, and while we don't always see eye to eye (the Federation would so kick the Empire's butt), we always have a good time. But this one, hit a  little close to the belt. With the advent of Spotify and Social media, we're able to recommend music to each other. I've been listening to classic R&B all my life, so I figured I'd give my friend a crash course in said music. I split the music into two playlists, sent him both and let him decide for himself.  I just didn't know he'd decide wrong.

Before we go any further, I want to say, when it comes to soul music,
Blue eyed, Memphis, Motown. There's enough love in my heart for all of it, and I wouldn't say one is better than the other. I'd just say Motown is my favorite.

Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross all came through Motown. Michael Jackson has the best selling album of all time. Stevie Wonder is. Well, he's Stevie Wonder, what more can I say?

But, what do I know? I'm just the guy who writes the blog. I leave it to you, dear readers to pick your favorite. I figure if all five of you vote we can avoid a tie. The two fighters in today's bout represent an entirely different music style which do you prefer?

Otis Redding
'I've Got Dreams To Remember'

In this corner we have the champion Otis Redding. He's Memphis' golden boy, and they'd never send anyone but their best into the ring. Everyone's heard Otis sing About leaving Georgia, and a lot of people know how to spell thanks to him, even though they don't know it. (R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Look it up) Otis is going to be a tough challenger to beat. In this particular song, you can hear the heartbreak in his voice as he describes watching another man kiss his girl. Harsh. I can't help but picture the poor guy standing in the rain, watching the whole thing. That's what Otis Redding does. He sings with a passion that few have matched. The raw unrehearsed emotion is typical Otis Redding, typical Memphis soul.

Jimmy Ruffin
What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted

In Motown's corner we have underdog and one-hit-wonder Jimmy Ruffin with 'What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted' . Jimmy's brother David Ruffin was one of a few hundred Temptations, but he was the only one to sing lead on smash hits like 'My Girl' and 'Ain't Too Proud To Beg'. While 'Brokenhearted' isn't nearly as popular as either of those, it was a number one single when it was released, and I dare say one of Motown's finest. The title alone 'What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted' sounds poetic and introspective. With horns and strings, it feels more jazzy than bluesy. Instead of picturing a man on the street, a man on a stage with an orchestra. This is one I can't listen to without singing along.

So there it is folks, Memphis or Motown. Who's the winner?

No, I didn't forget Philly Soul. But they're kind of a third party candidate so, yeah. But, in the interest of fairness

Teddy Pendergrass
Love TKO

Most people know a few Phi soul songs and they don't even know it. Play the first few bars of the O'Jay's 'For The Love Of Money' and most Americans would know the first line. But if you ask me Teddy Pendergrass is THE voice of Philly soul, so enjoy. He'll never be as popular as Stevie Wonder or Otis Redding, but Teddy P. is a legend in his own right, in my mind at least.

Be sure to check out my new YouTube Channel. More great music.
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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Blue Eyed Soul

In the beginning, there was soul. There was Motown and Stax. The Temptations and Otis Redding. And it was good. There was Rock & Roll, the Rolling Stones, And it was good.  Then in 1964, Righteous Brothers looked at Soul music and said "Let There Be White!" and with their hit single "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" blue eyed soul was born. And it was good.

The 70's came, and racial lines began to blur. Elton John played his hit "Bennie & The Jets" on the traditionally black "Soul Train". The (not so) Average White Band Picked up The pieces, and Cut the Cake in fine Funk fashion, and with the worst of the civil rights era behind us, our music was becoming far less segregated.

The 80's and 90's brought more integration, and sadly less soul.. We had blue eyed greats like Michael McDonald and Teena Marie, but soul music as a whole was on a decline. The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder. All of those artists who we loved in the 60's and 70's, with the era of new jack swing and hip hop seemed to mean an end to mainstream soul as we knew it. Rap music exploded in the 80's. We saw the meteoric rise of Michael Jackson. And then we had artists in the 80's like Hall & Oates & Rod Stewart still making blue eyed soul music. Or trying to anyway.

Fast forward to today, and the racial lines in pop music seem to have been washed away entirely. Katy Perry, Adele, Justin Timberlake. It's really cool to see how the lines have been blurred (did you catch that?) and all we're worried about is making good music.

But it kind of bothers me, thinking about classic soul, and today's R&B. I don't want to take anything away from today's artists, but it's just different. The sound of classic soul isn't there and I miss it. That's why I find myself listening to Otis Redding on Spotify all day, and not Chris Brown. But, there is one guy who's in my rotation that seems to fit in quite well with the classics

Paolo Nutini
Scream (Funk my life up)
Caustic Love (2014)

This is the lead single from Nutini's album "Caustic Love". The album debuted at number one on the UK Album Charts and was certified platinum by the BPI in June. In July, the BBC referred to him as "Arguably Scotland's biggest musician today".  People often ask me what kind of music I listen to. It's a hard question to answer because there are a bunch of artists that I like that just can't be categorized. Depending on the album, or even the song they move casually between folk jazz and R&B like a whiff of smoke, making beautiful music in the process. That's how I discovered Paolo Nutini. I created a radio station on Spotify based on Martin Sexton (see below) and his song 'Coming Up Easy' came on the station. It's a toe tapper and I liked it instantly. Later on, YouTube recommended the official video for this particular song. To find a recording of him singing it at the Bing Lounge was almost a gift. This review was kind of a no brainer. You can tell when you watch the video that this guy has got a set of pipes, and is getting into this song. I don't like music that's overproduced, so this is right up my alley. The vocals are solid, and to me reminiscent of a classic soul song. I can hear Memphis Stax running though Paolo's veins and hear the groove in his voice. Singers are a dime a dozen. To be able to take a song and make it your own is rare and that's exactly what Nutini does here. Like Otis Redding or Donnny Hathaway, it's almost like he's on his knees, singing to a woman in front of him. Which, I don't think is coincidental. In 2006 Nutini became the newest, and sadly last artist signed by Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun. Yes, the same gentleman responsible for launching the careers of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and you guessed it, Otis Redding. Looks Like Paolo is in good company

Jamie Lidell
Little Bit Of Feel Good (La Garage Mix)

I love the internet. Jamie Lidell is another artist that I would have never heard of were it not or eMusic. I downloaded a free album, and was pleasantly surprised to find two artists that I liked on the album.

In the UK, Jamie Lidell is known for recording his voice one and performing the percussion and melody as a sequenced, beatboxing one-man band. Then over the recordings, he sings soul-inspired songs. I haven't seen him in concert, or heard any of his concert recordings, but I can say this; The guy is good in the studio. If you listen to his album "Jim", you can see that Jamie Lidell has a clear idea of what good R & B sounds like. But where Lidell really comes alive is the remix. Listen to this song and not get into it. Go ahead, try it. You can't, can you? This song to me is evocative of 'Cloud Nine' era Temptations. Motown soul with a splash of psychedelia. The electro-funk of this track is electric, and Jamie Lidell's soulful vocals, with the distortion effects make for some classic sounding soul that would make Berry Gordy proud.  This song makes me want to dance every time. When I'm alone in the car, I roll the windows down and turn the radio up with this one. Jamie Lidell is good that way. If you like this one, be sure to check out 'Multiply' and 'Another Day'.

Martin Sexton
Seeds (2007)
Will It Go Round In Circles

Martin Sexton is another gentleman who is a performer. Listen to any one of his three live albums, an you can clearly hear how this man is cut out for the stage. He's also been known to take a song and make it his own. From Johnny Cash to Prince to Van Halen. Nothing is off limits to Martin Sexton, and he does them all surprisingly well. Here he covers Billy Preston and he doesn't let us down. On his 'Satellite Sessions' live recording, Martin explains how he was recording Seeds when her heard Billy Preston passed away, and decided to record 'Circles' as a tribute. I think Mr. Preston would be proud. As someone who lived though the 60's and got to hang out with the Beatles, Billy Preston knew good music when he heard it. I wouldn't call this soul, per se but it's definitely got a funky feel to it. Martin Sexton is another artist I discovered courtesy of a free album from eMusic. I came across his song 'Freedom Of The Road' and was highly impress when I heard him singing. He hit high notes that no grown man should be able to hit. Martin Sexton has some vocal chops. Seeds is a great album, but "Satellite Sessions", a stripped down acoustic live album is even better. Check out "Happy" "Going To The Country" or 'How Far I've Come", all three are on both albums and are great live and in studio.