Social Distancing Spins – Day 25

By Joel Francis

I’m still lost in the catacombs, down in the groove.

Lou Reed – New Sensations (1984) Lou Reed released several endeavors that sound more intriguing in concept than execution, but New Sensations stands out in a deep catalog full of non-sequiturs: It is relentless optimistic both lyrically and musically. I have no idea what put Reed in such a good mood, but it is a delight to hear praise impulsive behavior on “Doing the Things that We Want To,” turning the Detours’ “Do You Love Me” sideways for “I Love You, Suzanne” and celebrating a compatriot on “My Friend George.” If this sounds slight, fear not. There’s nothing here as lightweight as “The Original Wrapper,” which appears on his next album, Mistrial. New Sensations it a strong conclusion to an incredible – and diverse – trilogy of albums that appeared in consecutive years and represent Reed’s strongest run of material outside of the Velvet Underground.

Coathangers – The Devil You Know (2019) When first playing this sixth release from the all-female Atlanta trio one might think there was a mix-up at the pressing plant. Opening cut “Bimbo” opens with a light, bouncy guitar and piano line and airy vocals. Then the distortion kicks in at the chorus and we realize how the sonic dichotomy supports the song’s lyrics about making assumptions about women. Very clever. “Stranger Danger” employs a similar trick as coquette-ish repetition of the song title plays against more defiant vocals in the verses before all hell breaks loose on the chorus. The song does a great job of capturing #metoo-era menace in under three minutes. “Stranger Danger” sets the table nicely for “Fuck the NRA,” a song as brash and straightforward as its title and the album’s best moment. Clocking in at just over half an hour, The Devil You Know makes it point and quickly departs.

Sam and Dave – Double Dynamite (1966) Soul music abounds with upbeat songs and combos, but I don’t know of any as relentlessly happy as Sam and Dave. You can even hear them smiling during serious ballads like “When Something is Wrong with My Baby (Something is Wrong with Me).” Double Dynamite is Memphis soul at its finest, with Booker T. and the MGs serving as the backing band and Isaac Hayes and David Porter providing songs. The first side of this album has several of the duo’s hits, including “Soothe Me,” “Said I Wasn’t Going to Tell Nobody,” and “You’ve Got Me Hummin’.” The second side is less-known but still great and features a version of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham’s “I’m Your Puppet.”

Bob Dylan – Sidetracks (compilation) – This collection gathers all the non-album tracks released on box sets and hits collections over the years. The majority of the cuts come from the Biograph box set and are quite good, but I am partial to the songs from Greatest Hits, Volume II, which was a staple in my college dorm room. Dylanologists can rejoice than they no longer need skip through a half-dozen other anthologies for these hard-to-find tracks. Casual fans looking for the hits won’t find them here, but they will encounter a lot of great songs to send them scurrying deeper into the catalog. Non-albums singles like “Positively Fourth Street” and 1999’s Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed” which will satisfy both audiences.

John Entwistle – Whistle Rymes (1972) – John Entwistle solo albums can be a dicey proposition. The majority of them are more miss than hit, I’m afraid. Thankfully, Whistle Rymes (sic), The Ox’s second solo album is a safe endeavor. That’s not to say it’s not for the faint-hearted. The liner notes, penned by Entwistle, is the beginning of a fairy tale about a girl named Boobity. So, yeah. (If this tale was ever completed elsewhere, I don’t want to know about it.) The closing song, “Nightmare (Please Wake Me Up)” is a glorious cacophony of horns, piano, violin and drums. The rest of the album is quite good. Anyone who heard The Who songs “Boris the Spider,” “Silas Stingy” or “Heaven and Hell” and thought they needed some more will be pleased with Whistle Rymes.

Wynton Marsalis – Black Codes from the Underground (1985) The jazz world lost a tremendous gift when Ellis Marsalias, patriarch of the great jazz family passed last week. I saw Marsalis at a small theater in Kansas City about a decade ago with a combo that included his son Jason on drums. Somehow, after the show, a neighbor who played saxophone and went with me had talked our way into joining the band – minus Jason – for drinks at the hotel across the street. I soaked in the conversation and experiences until Ellis arrived. He started telling stories about when Charlie Parker was in Jay McShann’s band. McShann, Ellis said, tried to get everyone to take his young horn player because he was so undependable. “You found him, you keep him!” Ellis remembered the other bandleaders telling McShann as we all laughed.

I mention all this here because I don’t have an Ellis Marsalis album and because there will be other opportunities to discuss the rest of the Marsalis family. I have no doubt somewhere in heaven the newly arrived pianist is sitting in on a heck of a jam session.

Stax vs. Motown (part two)

The second of three installments in my conversation about the golden era of Stax and Motown with soul music fan and Stax afficiando Brad. Don’t forget to check out part one.

Brad S.: I have to admit, when I think of Motown, I almost only associate it with the ‘64-‘65 period. Although I know, to cite one example, one of my old favorites, “Reflections” incorporates just enough psychedelica to distinguish it from what I consider Motown to sound like.

So what are some of those Motown songs that brought you back in?

Joel Francis: For a label so reliant upon singles, it was the albums that drew me back into Motown. “What’s Going On” made me realize there was more to Marvin Gaye than “It Takes Two.” Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book” and “Songs in the Key of Life” and The Temptation’s “Cloud Nine.”
These albums showed more depth, emotion and creativity than the monotonous parade of mid-60s oldies radio staples would have you believe. Motown may have made its name with its assembly line parade of hits in the first half of the ’60s when it set the agenda, but its output gets more interesting to me in the second half of the decade as it responds to the Beatles, psychedelica, the civil rights movement, etc. That’s when the artists and songwriters really started to grow.

Getting back to Stax I don’t think it ever really recovered from the death of Otis Redding. The near-simultaneous loss of its biggest star in a plane crash and back catalog to Atlantic records was the beginning of the end. I know they regrouped and had massive success with Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and Wattstax, but the Stax I enjoy most – Otis, Sam and Dave, Rufus Thomas, Booker T and the MGs, sessions with Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Aretha – was never entirely recaptured.

BS: I hear you with the post-Otis era of Stax, but that also begs this question: What were the true prime lifespans of these labels? I’m not talking about the point at which they continued only in name. The other question that comes to mind is how much of the label’s success is because of a fortunate luck of the draw with artists or is it because of the efforts of record owner or signature producer? Or to put it another way, is there an equivalent to (Motown founder and visionary) Berry Gordy on the Stax side?

JF: For me, Motown loses its luster when it relocated to Los Angeles. There are two reasons for this decline. The first factor is the rise of disco, which practically killed soul music until the neo-soul rebirth of the late-’80s. Second, Berry Gordy’s ambition to branch out into movies and television scattered the label’s focus and brought “mission creep” into his boardroom.

Stax golden years for me are its time with Atlantic when the late Jerry Wexler was helping run the studio. With the exception of Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers (who were signed later), no one performed as well after the split as they did before. That said, it’s important to remember Stax two big ’70s non-soul successes bluesman Albert King and power pop rock combo Big Star. Many of today’s indie rock bands owe a huge debt to Alex Chilton and Chris Bell’s fantastic Big Star.

If there was a Berry Gordy figure at Stax, I would say it was Wexler in the early days and Al Bell in the later period. Not only was Wexler involved with much of Stax material, but he was also the person responsible for bringing other Atlantic artists, like Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Solomon Burke, to record at Stax.

After Wexler left, Bell assumed more production duties and became Stax co-owner. Bell patterned his business model off of Gordy. Bell was the person responsible for getting Stax into the soundtrack business (think “Shaft”) and movie business (think “Wattstax”). Ironically, after Stax bankruptcy and demise, Bell worked with Gordy at Motown in the ’80s.

To answer your question, though, I’d say both Motown and Stax’ success came because they were great at identifying talent – be it the songwriting teams of Holland-Dozier-Holland or Hayes-Porter or the raw talents of Mary Wells and Carla Thomas – and had a great business plan for delivering that talent out to the masses. Success breeds success and once those initial singles broke the charts, other artists wanted in.

Continue to part three.