Saturday, October 19, 2013

Music Reviews-The Como Mamas, United Soul (US), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

The Como Mamas
Just as you might expect from the name, this trio of singers (Ester Mae Smith, Angela Taylor, Della Daniels) hails from Como, Mississippi. Two of them are sisters. The Como Mamas sing the kind of hardcore real gospel and spirituals that inspired and informed so much of African-American popular music. They generally do so a cappella. This isn't music that they went to school to learn how to sing. This is stuff they grew up with in their community. Smith is also a preacher while Taylor's and Daniels' grandfather Miles Pratcher was a professional musician (guitarist, fiddler) who played with many other bluesmen, including Mississippi Fred McDowell. So this music is something they've been with all of their lives. Della Daniels once had an invitation to record in Nashville as a young woman but her mother turned it down out of protectiveness. Smith is the primary "lead" singer. Obviously the three ladies were also inspired by such people as Dorothy Love Coates, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and of course Aretha Franklin. The women have been singing together since they were children.

The album which I have by them is Get an Understanding which was recorded live in their local church. It's a pretty representative sampling of what they sound like. It is made up almost entirely of traditional gospel or gospel blues songs or works by Thomas Dorsey or James Cleveland that are so well known that they might as well be traditional. Cuts include "God is Able", "Nobody's fault but mine", "Ninety Nine and a Half Won't Do", "One More River to Cross", "I know it was the blood" and many others. There are occasionally a few flat notes or other mistakes but not very many. Their harmony is not the tightest I've ever heard but if a woman's voice may be said to have gravitas and authority, and I think it may, all three of these women's voices have those qualities. I don't know that I would get more work by them yet or not but I was certainly quite happy with what I heard. I think all three women are contraltos. Some of their music (mostly alternate versions) is included below.
Trouble in My Way   I got Jesus Count Your Blessings We're Getting Ready (For the Room Upstairs) Old Landmark

US (United Soul) 
Music with Funkadelic
United Soul was both a Funkadelic side project as well as a farm team for Funkadelic . Some United Soul members would later officially join Parliament-Funkadelic. George Clinton's stated ambition was to build an entire funky empire that could be as artistically diverse and as financially successful as Stax, Motown, or Invictus. He didn't quite reach that goal but there are a number of Detroit or New Jersey based music groups that came out of the P-Funk organization and had at least some success. US wasn't really one of them probably because this, their only official album was never released back in the day by Westbound Records. So I guess that sort of put a damper on plans of worldwide renown. 

This self-titled release is virtually indistinguishable from Funkadelic in terms of songs but the production is much much better and cleaner than early Funkadelic albums. Most of these tracks would show up in different forms in later official Funkadelic releases. P-Funk fans will recognize several of them. This is a very short album even by seventies standards and especially by Funkadelic standards. It's really more of an EP than an album. It walks that fine line between hard-core soul and funky rock-n-roll that P-Funk and other groups perfected. As mentioned the players/singers on this album include obviously George Clinton himself and a few current Funkadelic players as well as then current United Soul members guitarist Garry Shider and  bassist Cordell "Boogie" Mosson, who would each become integral parts of the P-Funk sound in later years. Shider was always a visually arresting part of the P-Funk concert experience as he would often perform wearing a diaper.

My favorite song on here is "Be What You Is" which is an ode to naturalism and honesty, a paean to staying in your own lane and virtually the 11th Commandment from God Himself, delivered in a stentorian baritone that had me believing that Isaac Hayes was appearing on the cut. But nope. I'm pretty sure that's Garry Shider singing. I've said it before but it does intrigue me that this sort of hard soul singing has mostly vanished from modern R&B. It's been replaced by male singers whose singing sounds to me as if they never went through puberty. But to each their own. 

"I Miss My Baby" is pretty generic soul that's typical of the Northern soul sound of the time. It's not bad but I don't find a whole lot that's special about it either.
"The Rat Kiss the Cat on The Navel" is a nazzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzty sounding song both lyrically and sonically. As I've mentioned elsewhere this sort of stuff is updated hard core blues of the kind Elmore James and Howlin Wolf did. It wouldn't have sounded too out of place on their albums if the song were slowed down and the guitar effects and volume were removed/reduced. But if you like fuzz, this song is for you. There are alternate (more danceable) versions of later Funkadelic classics "Baby I Owe You Something Good" and "This Broken Heart". There are only seven cuts on this album/cd so don't go in expecting a huge sprawling release. There may be more out there from this group but we'll have to wait and see. AFAIK, George Clinton doesn't have the rights to this music. Those are owned by Westbound records owner and publisher Armen Boladian. So who should have this? If you're a P-Funk fanatic as I am, you should and probably do have this already. For less enthusiastic P-Funk fans this might be worth buying just for "Be What you Is". Depends on the price. If you're into stoner type music but want a little rhythm this could be up your alley. But if you don't like P-Funk or are just mildly curious about them, this probably isn't for you. There are better, cheaper and more representative releases that P-Funk newbies should check out.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
by Elton John
This was Elton John's most successful studio release and imo has most of his greatest hits. It was a double album that wasn't initially meant to be released as one. I was too young to remember when this first came out but a few years later at the school I was attending at the time I recall a few cuts from this album being played. Also black radio dj's weren't averse to playing "Bennie and the Jets". Elton John was invited to play that song on Soul Train. Still, it wasn't until much much later in life that I really started listening to Elton John and went back and picked up this album. It's rare that a double album only has a few clunkers on it and that happens to be the case here. There is a very high signal to noise ratio on this album. I always thought the album cover was a bit of an inside joke by Elton John to clueless fans. The album was released a few years before Elton John came out as bisexual in a Rolling Stone interview. This, strangely enough, upset and shocked some of his American fans in the seventies. There was so much camp and gender bending going on in pop music at the time that even a man dressed up like a modernized Liberace complete with red rhinestone heels and pink jacket, apparently just wasn't enough to trip any gaydar in seventies America. Go figure.

Anyway, if you have listened to any pop, rock or classic rock radio in the past forty years you've probably heard some of these songs, maybe even more than you would like or care to admit. 
This album spans a pretty wide range of genres and styles. At some of them John is more skilled, at others, not so much. No one is ever going to mistake him for a reggae artist and thus the less said about the truly execrable Jamaica Jerk Off, the better. As you probably know Elton John generally writes and arranges most of the music he records but most of the lyrics are usually written and written first by his longtime songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin. This seems to be a rather odd way to work as Elton fits the music to the lyrics rather than the other way around but obviously it's been quite successful. 

I've always been impressed with Elton John's prodigious piano playing skills but I also love the way in which the songs are written leaves a LOT open to interpretation. I think this was by design. Taupin always knew his friend and co-writer was gay and so there aren't a lot of extremely specific "MAN WANT WOMAN" type of songs in the Elton John ouevre but nevertheless the emotions that are raised are not really peculiar to any gender or sexuality. Love can sometimes hurt. People get lonely. It's good to have fun. Those are things everyone can agree on no matter the angle of their dangle or the particular glide to their stride. And songs are often more fun when they aren't so obvious anyway.

Some people have claimed that Dirty Little Girl flirts with misogyny but I don't see it. The song could also possibly be the greatest F*** you song ever recorded. Bennie and the Jets is stripped down pop/R&B that puts a lot of emphasis on the one. All the Girls Love Alice tells of the lesbian adventures of the underage title character. Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting is old school highly danceable 50s style FUN Rock-n-Roll with a modern sound. It's Little Richard meets David Bowie.  Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding is somber prog-rock that swells into bouncy rock-n-roll. Candle in the Wind is a homage to Marilyn Monroe (later retrofitted for Princess Diana). I've Seen That Movie Too is another breakup song. Sweet Painted Lady examines the prostitute's life (this is a theme that Taupin returns to frequently) while Harmony is another beautiful sad piece that can be understood any way you like. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is another masterpiece that defies easy interpretation. It could be another relationship gone wrong. It could be about getting off the road to fame and fortune. It could be about a number of things. It's up to you. That's only about half of the songs from this album. I love this release. Its hits outshine the crap. Sonically everything is crisp and clean with guitars often getting almost as much prominence as Elton's piano.
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