Social Distancing Spins – Day 55

By Joel Francis

With today’s entry, we cross the 300 album threshold for social distancing spins. How many more will be added? As much as it takes for everyone to be safe in public.

George Harrison – Brainwashed (2002) George Harrison’s final album appeared 15 years after his previous release and a year after his death. Of course, this meant Brainwashed received far more attention than it would have otherwise, but the extra press didn’t diminish the fact that Brainwashed features some of the most consistent songwriting and playing in Harrison’s catalog. Certainly being able to cherry-pick the best work from such a long period of time works in the album’s favor, but the songs all hang together as a relaxed portrait of the Quiet Beatle abandoning any pretense of chasing a hit and meditating on the same themes of spirituality and mortality that go back to “Within You, Without You” and “The Inner Light.” The tablas and sitars of those Beatles songs have been replaced with acoustic guitars and ukuleles. Although completed after Harrison’s death by his son and fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne, Brainwashed never feels incomplete or patched together. It is an incredible, cohesive parting gift from a major talent.

Carolyn Franklin – Chain Reaction (1970) Carolyn Franklin may not have the pipes of her older sister Aretha, but then again, few people did. What she is also sadly lacking on Chain Reaction, her second album and first for major label RCA, is a sympathetic producer. Most of the songs on Chain Reaction are drowned in strings and the type of earnest production that sunk many of her sister’s better moments on Columbia. Also, curiously, despite penning the hits “Angel” and “Ain’t No Way” for her sister, Carolyn Franklin didn’t write any songs for Chain Reaction. The album is pleasing – Franklin is too good a singer for it to be a bust – but also leaves me wishing she had punchier production like Aretha was finally receiving at Atlantic at the time Chain Reaction came out.

By the end of the decade, Carolyn Franklin was all but out of the music industry, although she did appear as one of her sister’s backing singers in The Blues Brothers. Sadly, Carolyn Franklin died from breast cancer in 1988.

J Dilla – The Shining (2006) J Dilla’s third album was more than halfway done before the revered hip hop producer succumbed to lupus six months before The Shining’s release. As such, it feels a little incomplete as an album and rushed as a tribute. There are some amazing moments to be found here, to be sure. Common and D’Angelo ride a sample of the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Say Goodnight” into the spiritual stratosphere. As a bonus, the version on The Shining is 60 heavenly seconds longer than the one on Common’s album Finding Forever. Another high point is the Pharoahe Monch feature “Love,” built around Curtis Mayfield and the Impression’s “We Must Be in Love.” Less successful is Busta Rhyme’s pointless profanity on the introductory cut and MED and Guilty Simpson’s waste of a great percussive track on “Jungle Love.” Solid contributions from Black Thought and Dwele make up for these missteps, but it’s hard not to wonder if executive producer Karriem Riggins had waited a bit longer he could have found stronger contributors for all the tracks. Then again, maybe Busta and Guilty Simpson were already in the can when Dilla passed. It’s hard to know for sure. What is definite, however, are Dilla’s skills as a producer (and MC, as he shows on the final song here). Gone too soon at age 32, any time with Dilla is well spent.

Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite – No Mercy in This Land (2018) Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite won a Grammy for their first album together, so a sequel was inevitable. Funny thing, though – I like No Mercy in This Land even more than the first one. Chemistry wasn’t a problem before, but it feels like the two musicians play off each other even better this time around. Maybe all the time on the road broadened their musical rapport. The songs here, again all written and primarily sung by Harper, are uniformly excellent. Musselwhite knows exactly how to dart around Harper’s voice and guitar, to accent and punctuate without getting in the way. The song “Love and Trust” first appeared on Mavis Staples’ album Livin’ on a High Note two years prior (and discussed back on Day 41). It’s hard not to miss her husky, soulful voice on this version. Otherwise No Mercy in This Land is the blues at its best.

Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody (2017) The days of the Flaming Lips being able to write a catchy pop melody along the lines of “Do You Realize” or “She Don’t Use Jelly” were well behind them when they started work on their 14th album. Instead, the songs on Oczy Mlody – Polish for young eyes – float in the same atmosphere, equally informed by hip hop beats as much as psychedelic prog rock.  As such, most of the songs tend to blend together. One of the sonic experiments that stands out is “There Should Be Unicorns.” I’m not going to attempt to decipher the lyrics, but the song itself is a wonderful mix of bells, drum machines, droning synthesizers and falsetto vocals. The arrangement is captivating on its own terms, but also screams for a remix with someone rapping over the top. Album closer “We a Famly” (featuring Miley Cyrus on backing vocals) is the closest thing to a single here, bringing this unsettling yet satisfying anthology of fairy tales to a close.

Jenny Lewis – On the Line (2019) Before the release of On the Line, I was more of a Jenny Lewis appreciator than a fan. Then I had the opportunity to see Lewis in concert at the Ryman Auditorium a few weeks after On the Line came out. That night converted me, in no small part because the material from On the Line is so strong. A Southern Californian bacchanal, On the Line is steeped in the 1970s MOR sound of Carly Simon, Carole King and Stevie Nicks. Lewis processes the death of her mother and the end of a long relationship with help from studio aces Benmont Tench (from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers), drummer Jim Keltner, Beck, Don Was and, unfortunately, Ryan Adams. The lyrics are peppered with references to Elliott Smith, Candy Crush, the Beatles and Stones while the music swoons like someone stepping into a sunny Los Angeles afternoon fighting a hangover.

Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream (2012) The second album from Los Angeles-born R&B singer Miguel starts with what sounds like a sideways interpretation of the synth and drum line to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” Miguel, however, is more about the sexual than the healing. What keeps the album from being a one-topic wonder, however, are the masterful arrangements that make each song feel like a different psychedelic fantasy. The soundscape grows even more fascinating as one discovers the snippets of the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and the Carpenters “We’ve Only Just Begun” casually slipped between the futuristic soul spells.

A closer look at the lyrics, however, reveals that Miguel isn’t as interested in the sex as much as the intimacy. He confesses to wanting to the lights off in “Use Me” and wants to play paper, rock scissors in “Do You.” The reverie ends with “Candles in the Sun,” an entrancing song that asks hard questions about living in poverty and being ignored by the larger society. It’s a somewhat surprising end to an album that has been so inward-focused most of the time, but it also fits with Miguel’s passions. He feels everything so deeply that it is all magnified, especially the existential questions that can’t be easily answered.

Kraftwerk – The Man-Machine (1978) It’s been a while since the excellent Drive soundtrack brought synthpop bubbling back to the surface alongside bands like Cut/Copy and Phoenix. But really, from Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby in the ‘80s to Chvrches and Shiny Toy Guns today, the shiny, synthetic music pioneered by Kraftwerk more than 40 years ago has always survived in one form or another. The Man-Machine didn’t start this movement – that honor mostly likely belongs to Trans-Europe Express, Kraftwerk’s previous album – but it built upon the concept of layering minimalist songs until they form something more elaborate and inviting for the dance floor. As a result, The Man-Machine became the defining album in Kraftwerk’s catalog. In fact, when I saw the band nearly five years ago (time flies!) they performed every song from the album. To make it even more exciting, they had actual robots come out and perform “The Robots” for the first encore.

Florian Schneider played an immense role in taking Kraftwerk from the primitive nob-twiddling on their early albums to the expansive synth masterworks that defined their best songs. I’m not versed enough in the band to tell you where he added to specific songs. The group likes to remain fairly nebulous. Even seeing them in concert, it looked like four men at podiums. However, Schneider was a founding member of Kraftwerk and present on all their albums through Minimum-Maximum. He also got name-checked by David Bowie on Heroes, and that’s enough street cred for me. Sadly, Schneider died from cancer in late April. The next time you’re on a dance floor, moving to a pulsating synthesizer, or tearing down the highway humming the melody to “Autobahn,” remember this pioneer.

Four Tops – “Still Water (Love)”

Four Tops – “Still Water (Love),” Pop # 11, R&B #4

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Four Tops needed this.

The departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland was a devastating blow to all of Motown, but the Tops felt it especially hard. “Bernadette” made them the top Motown act in U.K., second only to the Temptations at home. But just when they made it to the top, their songwriters and producers left.

After the HDH exodus, the Tops dabbled on the fringes of psychedelic soul (“It’s All in the Game”), the folk revival (“If I Were A Carpenter”) and covered the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” to solid, but not spectacular results.

Finally, after being passed around to Ashford and Simpson, Ivy Jo Hunter and Norman Whitfield, the tops were paired with Smokey Robinson, who, with Frank Wilson, wrote and produced “Still Water (Love).”

Singer Levi Stubbs opens the track drenched in echo, inviting the listener “Walk with me/Take my hand.” The arrangement has a distinctive Motown touch, filled with a great guitar hook, clavinet and an ornate percussion figure pushed to the front of the mix. As always, the Tops’ vocals are great, and while Stubbs isn’t given much room to cut loose, he still belts a couple notes before the chorus.

“Still Water (Love)” opened the Tops’ 1970 concept album “Still Waters Run Deep,” which inspired Marvin Gaye to compose “What’s Going On.” “Still Water (Love)” was covered by the Jean Terrell lineup of the Supremes in the early ‘70s, and soul singer O’Bryan.

Four Tops – “Still Water (Love),” Pop # 11, R&B #4.

The Four Tops needed this.

The departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland was a devastating blow to all of Motown, but the Tops felt it especially hard. “Bernadette” made them the top Motown act in U.K., second only to the Temptations at home. But just when they made it to the top, their songwriters and producers left.

After the HDH exodus, the Tops dabbled on the fringes of psychedelic soul (“It’s All in the Game”), the folk revival (“If I Were A Carpenter”) and covered the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” to solid, but not spectacular results.

Finally, after being passed around to Ashford and Simpson, Ivy Jo Hunter and Norman Whitfield, the tops were paired with Smokey Robinson, who, with Frank Wilson, wrote and produced “Still Water (Love).”

Singer Levi Stubbs opens the track drenched in echo, inviting the listener “Walk with me/Take my hand.” The arrangement has a distinctive Motown touch, filled with a great guitar hook, clavinet and an ornate percussion figure pushed to the front of the mix. As always, the Tops’ vocals are great, and while Stubbs isn’t given much room to cut loose, he still belts a couple notes before the chorus.

“Still Water (Love)” opened the Tops’ 1970 concept album “Still Waters Run Deep,” which inspired Marvin Gaye to compose “What’s Going On.” “Still Water (Love)” was covered by the Jean Terrell lineup of the Supremes in the early ‘70s, and soul singer O’Bryan.

Edwin Starr – “War”

Edwin Starr – “War,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Temptations had cut other political songs, such as “Message for a Black Man,” before they recorded the original version of “War” in 1969. Although the songs were generally well-received, they were closer to Norman Whitfield songs featuring the Temptations’ vocals than true Tempts cuts and rarely performed them in concert. Although Motown received several requests to release “War” as a single after it appeared on “Psychedelic Shack,” Berry Gordy feared ruining his group’s image with such a political number and resisted. Instead, he handed the number to another artist in Whitfield’s stable: Edwin Starr.

Prior to cutting “War,” Starr had been kept out of the studio for six months. His last big hit “25 Miles,” which reached No. 6, was 18 months old and long forgotten. Consequently, Starr was hungry when he was finally able to reach the mic. His pent-up energy added more charge to Whitfield’s already incendiary lyrics. Starr’s impassioned singing put Dennis Edwards and Paul Williams to shame on the now-placid Temptations reading.

Bolstering Starr’s vocals was a powerful horn riff, funky organ line and a smorgasboard of wah-wah guitars, fuzz bass, tambourines and nearly every other trick in Whitfield’s psychedelic bag of tricks. The production was Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound reimagined for the trippy, proto-metal flower child age.

Just over 15 years after its initial release, Bruce Springsteen took the song back into the Top 10 with his cover. Although no major U.S. conflict was brewing at the time, the song still packed a powerful punch. A little more than 15 year’s after the Boss’s version, “War” illustrated how far society had regressed when the song was placed on a list of “lyrically questionable songs” banned by the Clear Channel Communications corporation in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The list also included “Imagine” by John Lennon and Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.” Sadly, it is hard to picture as political statement as powerful as “War” penetrating the airwaves again.

The Temptations – “Ball Of Confusion”

The Temptations – “Ball Of Confusion,” Pop # 3, R&B # 2

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Clocking in at over four minutes, “Ball of Confusion” was an epic by Motown standards. The arrangement and themes, however, were very much in line with the top-shelf, psychedelic social commentary songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield had been consistently turning out.

Sonically and thematically, “Ball of Confusion” doesn’t stray from the formula Whitfield developed for the Temptation in 1968 with “Cloud Nine.”

If Sly Stone were Martin Luther, this is how he would have delivered his 95 Theses. In a cadence cribbed in Bob Dylan’s delivery from “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dennis Edwards lists his grievances: “segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation, humiliation, obligation.”

The arrangement is just as claustrophobic and frustrated as the lyrics, with nearly every instrument – electric organ, wah guitar, drums and vocals – threatening to strangle each other in the mix. Brief bursts of harmonica or horns provide the only moments of relief. Edwards handles the lion’s share of the singing, but once again the other four members tag-team lead duties. Bass singer Melvin Franklin memorably punctuates each verse with the adage of complacency – “and the band played on.”

“Ball of Confusion” isn’t exactly a fun song, but it is a lot of fun to listen to. The song was the Tempts’ second strong single of the 1970s, landing in the Top 5 on both the pop and R&B charts. It also marked their third straight solo Top 10 hit.

The complex number isn’t easy to replicate, but that hasn’t stopped others from trying. Shortly after the Tempts’ number had dropped in the charts, Berry Gordy handed the tune to another Motown group, the Undisputed Truth, to try their hand. A generation later, pop band Duran Duran and metal outfit Anthrax both released covers in the 1990s. The 21st century also saw a resurgence of interest in the song, with the Neville Brothers, Widespread Panic and Tesla all releasing covers.

The song also appeared as a centerpiece in the film “Sister Act Two: Back in the Habit” (featuring a young and then-unknown Lauryn Hill). It’s biggest distinction outside of Motown, however, is in kick-starting Tina Turner’s solo career in the early ‘80s. Turner’s reading appeared on a 1982 tribute album, it wasn’t a big hit in the United States or United Kingdom, but it did hook her up with the songwriters and producers who helmed Turner’s multi-platinum comeback effort, “Private Dancer.”

The Temptations – “I Can’t Get Next To You”

The Temptations – “I Can’t Get Next To You,” Pop # 1, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Surprisingly, “I Can’t Get Next To You” was the first Temptations single to top both the pop and R&B charts since “My Girl,” five long years before. Although these Temptations featured 80 percent of that lineup – David Ruffin had been replaced by Dennis Edwards – the group had been handed off from Smokey Robinson’s smooth, straightforward approach to Norman Whitfield’s groundbreaking psychedelic arrangements.

In other words, just because they had the same name and most of the same members, the Temptations of “My Girl” were long gone by the time “I Can’t Get Next To You” reigned at No. 1.

The song opens with canned applause and a barrelhouse piano roll that sets the song in an old parlor or juke joint before the chicken-scratch and wah guitars thrust the song into the future. Just as they did on the previous year’s “Cloud Nine,” the five Tempts trade lines, adding kinetic energy to the track. The guitars, electric piano and insistent drums and percussion make the song feel like a cousin to something Sly and the Family Stone would have cooked up. When Edwards finally erupts with the line “girl, you’re blowing my mind,” the song carries the same intensity and sexuality of James Brown’s hard funkin’ “Sex Machine.”

There was very little happening on Motown like this at the time. Ironically, the next act to incorporate this much funk was a group aimed at a younger audience, the Jackson 5. They Indiana quintet re-appropriated the bridge from “I Can’t Get Next To You” for their 1970 hit “ABC.”

One year after it’s mid-1969 release, Al Green transformed the song into a smoldering cry for love. Green eliminated the kaleidoscopic vocals and swirling arrangement, building the song around his voice and a slinky guitar line. The only element these versions hold in common is the lyrics. Green rode his arrangement to No. 11 on the R&B charts.

An unexpectedly versatile song penned by Whitfield and Barrett Strong, “I Can’t Get Next To You” was transformed into a jazz number by Woody Herman, converted to reggae by the Jay Boys and given the pop treatment by the Osmonds and Edwin McCain. Most recently, it was covered by Anne Lennox on her 1995 album “Medusa.”

Temptations – “Cloud 9”

Cloud 9
Temptations – “Cloud 9,” Pop # 6, R&B # 2

By Joel Francis

When the Temptations kicked David Ruffin out of the group in 1968, they cleaned house. Free of their troubled lead singer and his drug dependence and egocentric demands to rebill the quintet “David Ruffin and the Temptations,” founding member Otis Williams decided the psychedelic stylings of Sly and the Family Stone were the sound of the future. Although producer Norman Whitfield was reluctant to change the band’s sound with something “that ain’t nothing but a little passing fancy,” he eventually relented.

The wah guitar and flat cymbal sound that opens the song was completely unlike anything Motown had issued before. Instead of featuring one vocalist, the number finds all five Temptations passing the lead around. Williams and Whitfield’s early interest in Sly and the Family Stone is betrayed by the arrangement, which mirrors the San Francisco group’s No. 8 hit, “Dance to the Music.”

The lyrics also hit on what would become another touchstone of the post-Ruffin Temptations. The socially conscious themes of poverty, abuse and danger in the urban core would be repeated in the hits “Ball of Confusion,” “Run Away Child, Running Wild” and several other album tracks.

Williams has denied that the songs glorifies drugs as an escape to the world’s problems. For him, the key line is when Eddie Kendricks explains that cloud nine is “a world of love and harmony.”

“Cloud 9” brought Motown its first Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental. The new category was just in its third year and had previously been awarded to Ramsey Lewis and Sam and Dave. The song paved the way for later psychedelic hits “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” “Psychedelic Shack.” These songs placed the Temptations on the vanguard of soul music and helped clear the way for Funkadelic, Earth Wind and Fire and the funk movement of the 1970s.

“Cloud 9” was run through the Motown stable and covered by Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and Edwin Starr. Meshell Ndgeocello performed the song live in the excellent Funk Brothers tribute/documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.” The song has also been covered by reggae artist Carl Dawkins, Latin musician Mongo Santamaria and Rod Stewart.

The Temptations – “I Wish It Would Rain”

rain
The Temptations – “I Wish It Would Rain,” Pop # 4, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

“I Wish It Would Rain” had been out less than two weeks when songwriter Roger Penzaben took his life on New Year’s Eve, 1967. The heartache and melancholy Temptation David Ruffin poured into his singing was Penzaben’s story.

In the spring of 1967, Penzaben caught his wife in an affair. Unable to cope with the pain and betrayal, Penzaben dumped his feelings into the lyrics. Producer Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, who had previously teamed on Tempts’ classics EX.

The song opens with a few stately piano chords before Ruffin takes over. Backed only by a tambourine, it’s practically a cappella. Ruffin’s voice drips with so much sorrow that it’s hard to believe just three years prior he had “sunshine on a cloudy day.”

The understated strings and arrangement bear the hallmarks of Motown’s classic Holland-Dozier-Holland productions. It’s hard to believe that in less than a year, Whitfield and the Temps would be on the vanguard of the psychedelic soul movement.

It’s also hard to believe that “Rain” was Ruffin’s next-to-last single as a Temptation. Ruffin’s cocaine addiction and insistence that the group follow Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross’ leads and  be renamed “David Ruffin and the Temptations led to his firing in the summer of 1968. When the Temps again cracked the pop Top 10 with “Cloud Nine,” both Ruffin and Whitfield’s traditional arrangements were long gone.

Shortly before the Tempts debuted their psychedelic sound, Gladys Knight and the Pips took gave “Rain” an encore lap that reached Nos. 41 and 15 on the Pop and R&B charts, respectively. In 1973, Marvin Gaye recorded a funk version that was released as the b-side of his No. 1 hit “Let’s Get It On.” That same year, British slopsters The Faces had a U.K. hit with their interpretation. Aretha Franklin and hair metal band Little Caesar have also recorded versions of this miserable masterpiece.

Gladys Knight and the Pips – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”

grapevine
Gladys Knight and the Pips – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Pop # 2, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Unlike nearly every other soul singer at the time, Gladys Knight didn’t want to go to Motown. She was (rightly) worried she and her group, the Pips, would end up playing second fiddle to Diana Ross and the Supremes. However, the Pips were a democracy. When the rest of the group voted to migrate to Hitsville, Knight reluctantly acquiesced.

“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was a thrice-heated leftover when Norman Whitfield presented his song to the group in 1967. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles cut a version the previous year that didn’t make it out of Berry Gordy’s Quality Control meeting. A second Miracles recording of “Grapevine” was buried as an album cut on 1968’s “Special Occasion” LP.  The Isley Brothers were rumored to have recorded a version during their brief stint on the label, but no recording has surfaced to date. Several Motown scholars believe a recording session with the Isleys to cut “Grapevine” was scheduled, but then cancelled.

This is likely the case. In 2005, Motown released the two-disc clearinghouse “Motown Sings Motown Treasures.” This incredible and enlightening collection presented many recordings – Kim Weston performing “Stop! In the Name of Love,” the Supremes doing “Can IGet A Witness,” and the Miracles original, unissued version of “Grapevine,” among others – previously locked in the vaults. It seems unlikely that the Isley Bros. version of “Grapevine,” if it exists, would have been omitted from this collection.

Although it wouldn’t be released for another year, Marvin Gaye had also cut his reading of “Grapevine” by the time the Pips were hearing Whitfield’s pitch.

Whitfield’s latest “Grapevine” arrangement was inspired by Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and Whitfield’s desire to “out-funk” Franklin. It’s clear from the great snare-and-cymbal intro that Whitfield was on to something new. Motown had been a lot of things until that point, but it had rarely been so overtly funky. In the coming years, Whitfield would help place Hitsville at the epicenter of psychedelic soul. This recording was one of the first steps down that path.

Whitfield’s attempt to out-do the Memphis soul sound Aretha was getting from Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler was buoyed by Knight’s singing. The gospel background isn’t as obvious in Knight’s delivery, and her voice is a little earthier than Franklin’s, but Knight’s vocals can soar just as high. In fact, the song is little more than drums, piano and Knight’s powerful voice until a scratch guitar enters during the first chorus.

Stealing a page from the Holland-Dozier-Holland production book, the tambourine is mixed front and center. The instrument serves as a tractor, dragging the entire song it its wake. The signature organ line that introduces Gaye’s chart-topping “Grapevine” makes a cameo on the piano about a minute into the song. The saxophone solo bisecting the song is a straight-up homage to King Curtis, the Memphis soul legend. Even the juiciest gossip is rarely this much fun.

The fourth time was the charm for Whitfield, as the Pips’ powerful “Grapevine” finally made it past Gordy’s Quality Control meeting. That didn’t guarantee label support, though, as Knight was forced to rely on her DJ connections to promote the song. When “Grapevine” finally caught on, it caught fire holding the top spot on the R&B chart for six weeks and stalling behind the Monkee’s “Daydream Believer” at No. 2 on the pop chart. Although it was Motown’s best-selling single to date, the “Grapevine” story was far from over.