Saturday, August 25, 2012

Music Reviews-Andre Williams, The Watts Prophets, Melanie, AC/DC: Powerage, Isaac Hayes: Hot Buttered Soul

Andre "Mr. Rhythm" Williams is an Alabama born and formerly Detroit based singer, frontman, producer and songwriter who worked in the fields of blues, doo-wop, rock-n-roll, R&B, soul, country, punk rock, and hard rock. Williams has worked with or written for a who's who of rock-n-roll and R&B including but not limited to The Contours, Ike and Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, The Chi-Lites, Mary Wells, Edwin Starr, The Five Du-Tones, The Dirt-Bombs, Jon Spencer, The Sadies and Parliament-Funkadelic. He is also one of the dirtiest old men alive. Imagine if Redd Foxx (who was one of Williams' friends) had decided to be a musician instead of a comedian. I mean you have to be careful listening to Andre Williams' music because it might give you some hopelessly depraved ideas about what to do with certain body parts. Williams knows what goes where and why and he will gleefully tell you all about it too. "Jailbait" is something that R.Kelly should be forced to listen to.

For the most part, especially in his older music, Williams accomplished some sleaze by judicious use of metaphors and double entendres but in recent years with various punk-blues or alt-country bands he has been much more direct. I have a mixed feeling about some of his later stuff. The guitars tend to be much louder and more distorted. There's much more use of profanity. His modern bands aren't quite as flexible in their musical approach. But songs like "Everybody Knew" (which has VERY EXPLICIT ADULT ONLY language-I am really not kidding about this) or "Let Me Put It in" are really over the top. They're almost funny. YMMV. Those are the hardest of hard blues/rock. The raunch on "Let me Put It In" matches or exceeds anything ever done by The Rolling Stones or Guns N' Roses or any modern rapper. You may find Williams' later music "offensive", "profane" and any other negative characterization you care to use.  I wouldn't disagree. I do generally find his older music like "Is It True" and "Cadillac Jack"  to be more fun. At the very least you can listen to those songs with children or female relatives in the house. So there's that. "Pass the Biscuits Please!" is funny, clean and true to life.

Like James Brown, Williams is not a great singer although unlike Brown he has an extremely resonant and expressive baritone voice. So Williams often talks or raps over his music as much as he sings over it. If you want to start with his older stuff look for his work on Fortune Records or Chess Records. Chess Records needs no introduction of course but Fortune Records was the low-rent brother to Motown Records in Detroit. The recording studio at Fortune was a dirt floor garage. Production quality was often hit or miss (more miss) but they did have a few wild rock-n-roll performers, of whom Williams was the most infamous. Being small they could and did take more chances than Motown, whose goal from the start was to reach the mainstream.
Williams 90's update of the classic Dominoes doo-wop song The Bells is more than worthwhile. I also like his older cuts I wanna know why , Going Down to TijuanaBacon FatGreasy Chicken, Pulling Time, and Sweet Little PussycatLooking down at you looking up at me is a modern sleazy tune but it manages to stay just this side of explicitness. I really like the frantic hurried rhythms used here.

Williams is one of the last living links to the earliest days of rock-n-roll and has tons of interesting and harrowing stories to tell about his experiences. He's never really been at the top but he has definitely been down and out. Honestly if you saw him on the street you might either give him a few bucks because he looks desperate (he HAS been homeless in the past) or step out of his way because he looks desperate. If you are interested, on Hulu and elsewhere you can find the film "Agile, Mobile and Hostile". This 90 minute documentary from 2008 looks at a day in Williams' life and his past glories and failures. It's probably only worthwhile if you are a serious Williams fan but I mention it here just in case you want to know more.

The Watts Prophets
It is sometimes difficult to discover who exactly was the first to come up with something in the creative world. Copyright aside, people always share, steal and are influenced by others. In this post alone Andre Williams and Isaac Hayes could be said to have inspired rap as they were doing spoken word and rap in some form long before the late seventies. You could go back to Jamaican toasts, southern dozens, and even Louis Jordan to look for other arguable antecedents to what is today known as rap.

One of those antecedents though certainly would have to be The Watts Prophets, who in the late sixties and early seventies, released two albums, Rapping Black in a White World and On the Streets. These albums combined a militant black nationalism with social realism. They had rap, chants, spoken words and poetry. The music was often raw, angry and harsh but it also drew deep from blues, jazz, gospel and soul influences. There was always a hint of love peeking out through the rage. Although they were never that commercially successful I consider much of their work to be a more faithful updating of blues tradition than anything that say anyone from Britain ever released. Their music sought to illuminate and educate and inspire as much, or really more than it tried to entertain anyone.
As mentioned much of their music at this time was extremely profane which likely was one reason that they didn't get as much success as some other groups. It was a different time. Standards were different. I look back at this music as a necessary purging of some very bad feelings that black people had been forced to bottle up for centuries. I was able to pick up both of their albums in a used record store a few years back. If you can find them and you are into this sort of music definitely buy the albums. They have since been re-released on one CD. The Watts Prophets were generally a core trio (Otis O'Soloman, Anthony Hamilton, Richard Dedaux) with sometime member Dee Dee McNeil (a musician and songwriter who had worked for Motown) often providing the female vocals. I believe that's her on "Black in a White World", which is probably my favorite Watts Prophets' composition. As this group originally grew out of a local writers' workshop, exact membership at a given time was somewhat fluid.

Some of their music is below. It is as detailed, explicit. I probably wouldn't listen to some of this at work unless you have headphones or failing that, bosses, co-workers and customers who share your musical tastes, ideas about profanity and political views.
What is a Man?  Black in a White World   What is it Sisters Everybody Watches
The Days The Hours  The Prostitute   Clowns All Around  Tenements and The Master

I don't know if Melanie was the first Caucasian-American folk singer to come up with the idea of using an African-American choir for a song she wrote. I would guess not. But for my money she did it best. Lay Down (Candles in the Rain) is a beautiful song. It is a collaboration with The Edwin Hawkins Singers. I really like the contrast between the higher pitched more nasally vocals of Melanie and the haunting gospel vocals of the choir. Melanie wrote the song after performing at Woodstock. She initially had a bit of a struggle to convince Edwin Hawkins that performing a secular song was a good idea. But as the sound is about peace, love, and brotherhood, Hawkins and his choir were convinced. The song was recorded live in one take. The rest as they say is history. I never would have known of Melanie were it not for The Edwin Hawkins Singers. If that were all Melanie had ever done, I would still find her worthy of mention just because that song is so wonderful. But she had a lot of other musical interests as well. As she was something of a flower child these songs tended to be about standing up for what was right and resisting corruption. (Look What They Done to My Song Ma, Peace Will Come (According to Plan, The Nickel Song ) But she also wrote or sang songs with more personal or earthier interests (Brand New KeyPsychotherapy,  Do You Believe) And how can you resist anyone who is a Winnie the Pooh fan? Check out her song Christopher Robin.

by AC/DC
In another life when I was a fledgling financial analyst my then boss was a huge AC/DC fan. I had never heard of the band but upon listening became fascinated by the combination of sped up Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed riffs, lead singer's Bon Scott's strangled Howling Wolf meets Little Richard voice and lyrics that were often naughty but rarely explicit. Unlike some other rock bands AC/DC often had a bit of syncopation and bounce to their sound. It wasn't just plodding music.

This album saw the introduction of a new bassist and perhaps not coincidentally a different production approach, one with a lot more clarity and actual audible bass. It didn't quite have the hits of later albums but I do think the album is a bit underrated.
The songwriting is a bit more mature this time around although to be honest mature songwriting is usually not what you're looking for in an AC/DC album. Angus and Malcolm play their riffs. Bon screams and howls into the microphone. The rhythm section furiously bashes away. And Angus does a bluesy solo, often while doing a Chuck Berry duckwalk or having a spasm on the floor. That's their formula. It worked. That is it worked until unfortunately Bon died and the band had to regroup with a different singer, Brian Johnson. I like Johnson's work but Bon still remains a favorite. There's nothing here that I would call funk but "Gone Shootin" certainly grooves and makes what sounds like at least a nod towards soul and funk while also staying faithful to Angus's most obvious influence, Chuck Berry.

The entire album is a textbook demonstration of how to make two guitars mesh together but "Gone Shootin" does that the best in my unmusical opinion. "Down Payment Blues" was one of the first AC/DC songs that I was able to work out on guitar. It's easy but fun and I like the lyrics. If you've ever found yourself a bit light on cash you might be able to appreciate the humor and desperation in the song. I also like the tom-tom breakdown. The lyrics to "What's Next to the Moon" are more than a bit surreal and a true example of rock-and-roll poetry.  Sin City speaks for itself. Gimme a Bullet burnishes Bon's tough guy image and Rock-n-Roll Damnation  is a lyrical and musical forerunner to "Highway to Hell".  Bon was true to who he was and rarely if ever tried affectations of other people's cadences or accents. You have to appreciate that. Well at least I do.

Hot Buttered Soul
by Isaac Hayes
Although this was not Isaac Hayes' first release as a leader for Stax Records it was the one that put him firmly and permanently on the map as a songwriter, interpreter, sex symbol and superstar. Hayes had long been a producer, session musician and writer for Stax Records and shows up on quite a few Stax hits of the sixties. With ownership transition of Stax Records and Stax's betrayal by Atlantic, the new Stax management and ownership was open to new ideas-hopefully ideas that would earn lots of money. And Hayes had evidently decided that the time was right for him to move into the spotlight. His first release flopped badly but undeterred Hayes came back for a second try, insisting on total creative control. The result was Hot Buttered Soul, an album which both anticipated later watered down soul artists who spent 30 minutes moaning orgasmically over "beats" and also made discerning listeners yearn for the real thing on display here.

Hayes' and team's production on this release was simultaneously sparse and quite busy. Female choruses merge with lush string sections and horns almost seamlessly. Often times a piano can get drowned out by loud electric guitars but here everything is in balance. There's just the right touch of what seems like room reverb on the drums with maybe a hint of studio trickery. And the bass booms and rolls without either dominating the sound or getting lost in the mix. Compared to "modern mixes", say anything recorded after 1990 or so, the mix is clean and loud but not overwhelmingly so. It's rare that you would want to turn this down.  It sounds like everything was recorded live in one session-even though that probably wasn't the case. And finally of course there's the true lead instrument here, Hayes' bass voice. Much like Andre Williams, Hayes had a singular deep resonant singing voice the likes of which I don't hear in much of today's popular R&B music. Of course I hardly listen to any of today's popular R&B music if I can help it so feel free to correct me if I'm mistaken.

Hayes was as much of an interpreter as he was a songwriter.  This album only had four songs. Only one of them was written by Hayes but he makes them all his own. None of them are less than five minutes long. So there are some extended grooves. Hayes takes his time getting to the point but you will likely enjoy the ride all the same. On his take on the country tune "By The Time I get to Phoenix", Hayes speaks, preaches and raps as much as he sings. Before he starts singing you may well be crying for the pain he's going through. This is just really good stuff in my opinion. Growing up more than a few people in my extended family had this album and considered it proof of Hayes' musical genius. I have no qualifications to say that but I will say this is one of my favorite Isaac Hayes albums. This is the kind of music one listens to in a basement party with blue lights and a little incense or something else burning.  Three of the four songs are about infidelity and loss of love. It's really updated blues. Hayes was backed musically by the revamped Bar-Kays, back from their near deaths in the plane crash that took the life of Otis Redding.

Younger folks will likely recognize "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic" from its sampling by Public Enemy in "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos". I like how the beat turns around in the song. As mentioned Hayes made a serious and mostly permanent break from the 3 minute soul song here. Some people like to intimate that this was influenced by rock musicians. I kind of doubt that because there were TONS of contemporaneous similar jazz and funk musicians starting to expand the realm of what was possible. Hayes and his band were also much tighter than any rock band performing, then or now.  Walk on By is his take on a Burt Bacharach song while  One Woman again speaks of a man struggling with infidelity, only this time it's the man himself who is untrue.
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