It has been four years since the musically talented instrumentalist/singer/songwriter John Legend released an album of all new material. Last Tuesday it finally came in the form of Love In The Future. Now I listened to this with wide eyed wonderment-hoping for a consistent album length revelation of the same strong talent who wrote songs such as “Ordinary People” and “PDA (We Just Don’t Care)”-songs with the potential to be contemporary standards. As stated in my review on Amazon.com,upon listening to it the album suffered from the same situation as all of Legend’s albums thus far: the complete unity of the songs never come into full focus. The reason as I’ve come to discover in my weekly discussions with my friend Henrique have to do with performance rather than effort and talent. Having been consistently produced by mentor Kanye West from his debut album,John Legend has been perfectly content to remain in the fern bar mentality of musicians who may have enormous individual talent but prefer to blend into the back round like musical wallpaper. This results in Legend being one of many musicians who seem more like a sideman than a headliner on his own records. Even the album cover artwork is extremely anonymous.
Love In The Future is the idea example of an album that frustrates me because,when listening to it I hear so many things I’d personally like to change. Mainly,the level of Legend’s musical participation in the production and instrumentation. Actually,this article is about selfishness. Not in the narcissistic way of feeling as if the music you listen to is the only superior kind. But more about the mirror of creativity into our own lives-a powerful motivational factor in artistic expression. I find that music often impacts someone most when they feel no need to translate it to their lives too heavily-when in fact the person actually says “you know? I wish I could’ve made that record!”. It doesn’t express jealously,it expresses a strong creative urge. As a person whose only dabbled with my Tascam cassette porta studio to make insignificant demos,even that minute aspect of the musical recording process has bought out that some of my favorite albums reflect the mirror of the sounds that I myself create to the rhythm and melodies of life. So I’d like to present a few albums of that sort in my life and why I feel that way about them.
True many of my favorite albums are made by this band. But something about this album transcends that even to me. In fact,this album is not their most funky in the standard sense of the word. Their hit era producer Charles Stepney passed away as they recorded this. And somehow the swelling,cinematic grooves-built around melodic dynamics that transcended the barriers between the gospel,Benedictine and African styled choral vocal harmonies. The arrangements,guitar/bass lines and rhythms are all based on these factors. Songs such as “Imagination”,”Spirit”,”Earth Wind & Fire” and even the hard funk of “Saturday Night” do more than just convey a transcendent level of emotion: they create an entire level of transcendent emotion in and of itself. Even aside from the positive minded lyrics when I am confused and uncertain,just hearing the musicality of this album says to me I am somehow on the right track in whatever I am doing.
It may have been the Temptations’s David Ruffin who sang he would weep for a lady to stay by his side even though “a crying man was half a man”. But Gino Vanelli took off from such concepts on this 1975 album and rewrote the book. Inspired perhaps by the lyrical orientation of Thom Bell’s male Philledelphia vocal groups, this album poetically explores (both lyrically and musically) the idea of the male gender expressing different levels of sensitivity. On “Love Me Now”,infidelity is expressed as a form of patronizing. On “Father And Son”,Freudian complexities are explored as two related generations still love one another even as a gap develops. Most telling is “Where Am I Going”,a young man admitting to a fear of aging-to the degree that even 35 seems elderly to him. Of course Gino’s is totally lascivious on what seems to be one last fling on “Love Is The Night”. The male ID is explored not only beautifully on this album,somehow with a lack of pretension but the unique music fits the bill-with it’s mixture of synthesizer laden cinematic funk/soul with plenty of jazz and pop melodic twists. Even the awkward interracial sexuality of “Mama Coco” tells its own unique story. Though Gino was and is proudly heterosexual,this album is acknowledged as having an enormous homosexual male audience. And I can see why. It even helped me to understand what being a man really was beyond the more sexual cliches. The motivations,the underlying reasoning,a young man with bigger thoughts than he can even carry out: its all here.
As far as I am concerned,the most significant moment in the musical and personal growth of Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. On this album,Mike’s “first career” as a child prodigy comes to an end. He is now a bona fide adolescent-with a voice booming with hormones and eagerness for life. When he sings “your just another heartache I have to learn to take/your just another habit I have to learn to break” on “Don’t Say Goodbye Again”,his tone gives the impression that he is by this time more than aware of that more adult variety of heartbreak than he might’ve been on some of the inappropriately mature songs he was singing several years earlier before his voice changed. For sure it’s a coming of age album. Musically it also removes any trace of bubblegum soul with heavy metal/rock guitars on their epic “Hum Along And Dance” along with the conceptually linked songs that even include Leon Ware’s observational (and at the time very innovative) reggae number “It’s Too Late To Change The Time”. As for my connection to this album,I was the exact same age Mike was during this era when I first heard this album. It very accurately reflected the evolving emotions and musical interests I myself was experiencing during the time which,perhaps might’ve been similar to that of the late MJ himself at that point in his life.
Why would a 16 year old harboring complicated feelings for someone nearly a decade older than him relate to what essentially amounts to an album about the break up of this Motown icon’s first marriage? Well at that time my mid adolescent emotions were very similar to that of Stevie’s 20 something outlook on this album. Surrounded by feelings of dread,anxiety and fears of inadequacy there was the search and hope for happiness and a peaceful state of mind. Stevie evoked all of that throughout this album. And the music reflected that. The person I had feelings for was very complex. And Stevie created melodies and harmonies on this album-so unusual in their electronic funkiness and unsingable even on “You’ve Got It Bad Girl”,”Maybe Your Baby” and “Looking For Another Pure Love” that,very such as was the case of EWF’s Spirit amounted to funk that transcended even itself. For me this album was about freedom from fear,it’s big hit “Superstition” conceptualized throughout an album to a degree. To me anyway it’s an expressive work of genius that we may have to wait until long after Stevie Wonder’s passing to fully appreicate
Musically speaking? This album is a sonic danceable pop/funk treat through and through. Rod Temperton’s production and the late Johnnie Wilder’s amazing songwriting and singing come together to make this an sonic treat of the latter end of the 70’s funk era-not to mention some of Ohio funk’s most melodic material. What fascinates me is it’s appropriation of the genre’s metaphor,as typified by James Brown and to an even greater degree by George Clinton of the dance of life. Most of these songs sound as if they are about dancing at first. But when I listen more carefully to how the lyrical phrases are suggested,it’s clear that this album lyrically reflects on the trials and tribulations of lower middle class single life as a non stop dance-filled with unexpected moves and pauses. Of course on “Send Out For Sunshine”,one of this albums funkiest songs, that message is all the more explicit.
Many people are as unfamiliar with the broader scope of Jan Hammer’s musical work as I was when I first heard this 1977 album. Musically it is a minimalist 70’s electronic jazz/funk/pop dynamo-easily on a par with Stevie Wonder’s masterworks in the same area. The compositions,as the title suggests are all based in very strong melody and superbly eloquent musical compositions. Lyrically songs such as “Too Much To Loose”,”Peaceful Sundown”,even the plea for creative freedom on the hard funk of “Just For Fun” showcase an almost Shakesperean flavor to them. Here we see a group of musicians witnessing the end of the funk era renaissance and the beginning of the modern era-which tried to hard to simplify everything it sometimes lost touch with it’s own purpose. And hear Jan Hammer and drummer/singer Tony Smith in particular challenge this ethic by putting forth at least one last creative musical act. It was not their last of this sort. Yet Tony’s “Window Of Love”,almost a piano pop standard that’s never been,something about the hopeful lyrics and music helped me out of a time when I was profoundly hopeless about life-with romantic woes and old friends dying in war. Very powerfully…unknown music to be sure.
The only things Todd Rundgren used to make this album was his mouth,body and an early digital sampler called a Synclaviar. That’s it. At times “Runt” is just having a bit of good rocking fun with songs such as “Hodja” and “Something To Fall Back On”. Other times Todd himself becomes the epitome of what only perhaps Stevie Wonder came close to achieving the decade before: becoming not only the entire band but the backing symphony orchestra as well. What could’ve been interpreted as a preposterous display of egoism (and some critics still seem to view it that way) this might actually have more pure soul than anything Rundgren ever recorded. On “Blue Orpheus” and the indescribably beautiful harmonies of “Lost Horizon” he expressed himself in a way that was perhaps as a little scary to me because,by this time I’d written many lyrics of my own which were eerily similar to these songs. I felt Todd and I had creatively similar thought processes from an extreme distance. This 1985 album more than perhaps any other inspired me to create something musical of my own.
First introduced to me by my more recent friend Thomas Carley,this 1987 album by Basia is a strong reminder of the type of music that shaped my musical interest as a child. And therefore represents me coming to a degree full circle. Basia and her enormously talented musical partner-pianist Danny White have a very unique approach to the late 80’s pop music ethic. Musically and vocally Basia’s unique style draws a great deal upon jazz and Brazilian effects into a melodically dynamic funky freestyle dance context. There is a strong sense of atmosphere to this album musically. Call it sophistipop,dance friendly jazz,whatever-it’s Basia’s lyricism on every level that says it. Everything is covered here-from commitment on “Promises” to living vicariously through “Prime Time TV”. I see her in the same league as Kid Creole & The Coconuts August Darnell-a unique combination of witty cultural commentator and melodically musical eclectic. If I possessed the talent to reinterpret this album from a male viewpoint much as same way as Macy Grey did with Talking Book I’d do so without hesitation.
Willful musical eclecticism is basically what defines the artistry of Prince Rogers Nelson. But take away whatever rock,jazz or folk influences he has on the melodic end of his music and you’ll find that funk is always the base holding everything together from the bottom up. Few albums of Prince’s this express bottom heavy musical strength quite so much as 1987’s Sign O The Times. Eventually released after much chaotic retooling,this album has the advantage of being both uneven yet totally musically consistent. Mainly because,so it appears Prince mixed the individual songs by rhythm as opposed to time period recorded. One could imagine a fully secure contemporary James Brown of the late 80’s recording a song as funky as “Housequake”. The jazzy “Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”,with it’s mind bending pitch bent synthesizer lead,keeps that funky LINN drum multi track rhythm there and lyrically fools the listener at every possible turn. On “If I Was Your Girlfriend”,Prince even tries to come to terms with the feminine psyche-an interesting choice for an artist constantly accused (and seemingly sometimes proud of) being a misogynist. Whenever I am in doubt of the validity of any of my creative endeavors,the sheer nerve of this album puts me back in shape fast.
Somewhere around 2002-2003, I began to give up hope that any new music released in the R&B/soul/funk spectrum would be truly impressive musically. While I was enjoying experiencing sounds from the past I’d never heard before I was still secretly wishing for newly released music to really reveal itself with such quality throughout an entire album. But it seemed to be a single song mentality in R&B during the early years of the new millennium. Attention spans no longer seemed open in that world to album length musical explorations. Just as a certain level of depressive cynicism began to set in to stay,a miracle came into my life:Janelle Monae. The album was impressive upon first hearing it. But seeing the amazing performer/musician-moving James Brown style one moment and playing acoustic guitar on a stool the next, after that concert this sprawling concept album revealed itself as great and coherent art. It’s blend of space funk,jazzy folk,cinematic electronic sonic’s as well as the most artful aspects of hip-hop this album fully restored my faith in the musical creative process. And that the funk era dynamic of creativity,so important to human creative progress,was still alive and well somewhere.
PHEW! So there is my list. This blog probably took longer to write than many of the others. There was a great deal of thought process put into these particular choices. Today it’s a very visual oriented culture. Its not difficult to discuss how that which we see on television and the silver screen impacts upon the mirror of our own lives. Articulating one’s own personal needs visually is extremely easy. Especially in Western societies. Yes when one contemplates those same articulations orally,than you might fact the possibilities of confronting your own abstractions. That’s because people use their eyes more than their ears in contemporary society. There’s too much back round noise much of the time to live solely by what one hears. Music puts a person in their metaphoric drivers seat in that regard. Forces them to confront their thought process. And whether or not you want to make or remake what you hear,its important we all let those dynamics within us come to the surface sometimes at least-to inspire and encourage us to keep on stepping in this dance of life.