Akimbo – “Akimbo” (1984)

akimboSome bands just don’t seem like they should work.  Take Akimbo, for example.  A 1980s duo featuring a white guy (Andy) and an African American woman (Deb’bora).  Andy is from the UK, a musician and instrument maker; Deb’bora is from the Bronx and trained in theater at the California Institute for the Arts.  And they play a style of music that defines categorization, if for no other reason than that they mix it up so much from song to song.  When I re-read the above description, Akimbo doesn’t sound very appealing.  But their 1984 self-titled release is one of the most refreshing albums I’ve heard in a while.

Akimbo opens with “Broken Dreams,” a song that startled me because it sounds so much like the style of Iceland’s Epic Rain, a sort of speakeasy hip hop, with vocals that are a blend of singing and speaking.  So OK, I thought, this will be a sort of hip hop thing.  Then “No Hiding Place” came on, and things went into more of a soul direction, with with some low key 80s synths.  Then “Sojourner Truth” with its spoken, feminist intro that evolves into an “I am woman, hear me roar” kind of thing.  Then “You Don’t Fool Us,” which brings Andy to the vocalist position sounding a lot like a less produced James Taylor, accompanied by some piano and the occasional raspy saxophone.  And that’s just side A.

Akimbo is a record that truly defies description.  But it never feels forced – it doesn’t come across like them just trying to be “different”.  Deb’bora’s theater background is evident in her singing style, one that sounds as if it’s influenced by experience in doing stage productions, relying more on her voice itself than on the microphone and effects to get the sound she wants.  Some of the lyrics are feminist, others political… but its done in a way that’s relatable, and Deb’bora sings them like an experienced stage performer.  Andy’s music is generally simple and basic, but not in an untalented way – it’s very intentional, doing no more and no less than is necessary for the song.

I feel like I’ll be playing this one a bit.  There’s just something about it…

Donny Hathaway – “The Best Of Donny Hathaway” (1978 / 2014)

Soul is certainly not a genre I know a lot about (to be fair, I know close to nothing about it), and my experiences with it have been mostly limited to hearing AM radio in my parents’ cars as a kid, I guess.  In fact, I didn’t even know the name Donny Hathaway when this album made its way to me through a friend, though I did recognize his voice instantly when I heard “Where Is The Love.”

Hathaway’s story is a tragic one, a talented singer who was stricken with depression and paranoid schizophrenia just as his career was starting to peak, illnesses that likely contributed to his all-too-early passing at the age of 33.  It seems like we’ve lost so many talented musicians at awfully young ages over the years… though that’s probably as much because we simply are more likely to hear about and lament their passings than we do those of random people we never encountered.  When you hear Hathaway’s voice it’s sad to think how many great songs he probably had out there to share… and of course what his continued presence would have meant to his friends and family.

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One of his close friends is someone even I have heard of – Roberta Flack, who appears on two songs on this new re-release of The Best Of Donny Hathaway (which originally came out in 1978, a year before his death).  In addition to joining Donny on the song I recognized, “Where Is The Love,” the two also paired up for a version of the Carole King classic, “You’ve Got A Friend,” two of the high points on the record.  The best number, however, is also the most unique, the live, sort of free-form jazz of “The Ghetto,” a 12 minute wandering musical gem with just a few vocal interludes.  The record closes in an odd way, at least to me, with a Christmas song called, aptly, “This Christmas.”  Mind you, it is October so Christmas isn’t that far away, but it’s still not what I was expecting to hear on a soul greatest hits collection.

This is an example of a record that helped me expand my ears – while I doubt that I’ll be buying more Hathaway albums, I feel somehow musically more completely having heard a bit of Donny’s smooth voice, and I won’t hesitate to drop the needle on this one again when I need some chill out music.  Or maybe just a Christmas song…

The Niteskool Project – “Double Major” (1985)

I won’t lie.  Part of the reason I bought this album is because I thought it was underpriced.  It was in the new arrivals bin at Easy Street for $7, and when I looked it up online (because the cover intrigued me) I found copies selling in the $25-75 range.  So why not, right?  Which is of course stupid, since it’s not like I’m buying stuff to flip for a profit.  But old collecting habits, unfortunately, die hard.

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As near as I can tell this is a private label, student release, though one with “Special thanks to the Miller Brewing Company for their support” and the Miller logo on the reverse.  I think it’s tied in some way to Northwestern University given the credits, though I can’t figure out exactly how.  My best description of this would be “contemporary soul,” if your contemporary period happened to be 1985 and you wanted songs with an “IBM PC Keyboard,” lots of synths, a bell tree, and a samba whistle.

It’s actually kind of cool in a very dated mid 1980s kind of way, though the track “Heroes Up Against the Wall” is almost more prog rockish than soul.  But just barely.  At six songs it’s just about the right length – anything more and I’d probably start to get annoyed.  But if you have fond memories of 1980s movies, Double Major certainly could have soundtracked one and will be just enough for a little trip down memory lane.

James Brown – “Sex Machine” (1970)

Three facts about James Brown:

1.  He’s the godfather of soul
2.  He’s the hardest working man in show business
3.  My wife Holly does not like his music

If you only knew two of the three facts above, don’t feel bad – so did I prior to putting Brown’s live double album Sex Machine on the turntable yesterday.  And to be clear, I did not learn about him having a nickname that I’d never heard of before, so that pretty much leaves #3.  You think you know someone after being married to them long enough that if your marriage were a person, it would be allowed to buy cigarettes and vote (but not drink alcohol).  Go figure.

I first became aware of James Brown as a teenager through the brilliance that was Rocky IV.  OK, it wasn’t brilliant, but it was a classic cold war US versus Russia story done with sport, and Brown’s pre-fight intro at the start of the movie with the song “Living in America” is, frankly, amazing.  It’s SO over the top, and SO good!  In fact, I just went and watched a clip of it on YouTube, and it’s every bit as fantastic as I remember.  The rest of the movie followed predictable lines, and the lack of further live James Brown performances certainly hurt it, probably as much if not more than the stilted acting of Dolph Lundgren.

(Studio Guy:  “Look, we’ll get Dolph Lundgren to play the Russian.  It’ll be great!”
Casting Guy:  “Um, I’m pretty sure he’s Swedish, not Russian.”
Studio Guy:  “Sweden.  Russia.  Who cares!  He’s a foreigner, right?  No one will notice!”)

Released in 1970, Sex Machine includes live performances from Augusta, Georgia, right in Brown’s backyard.  It includes a number of the obligatory hits like “Get Up (Sex Machine)” and “It’s a Man’s Man’s World”, plus a few songs written by other artists like “Spinning Wheel” and “If I Ruled the World”.  Each of the four sides includes the MC announcing James Brown’s arrival on the stage, which seems a bit egocentric until you remember that this is James Brown we’re talking about.  The man was 100% ego.

The sound quality of Sex Machine is very good, and Brown’s band is of course excellent, so the album provides some great versions of those James Brown classics you know so well.  Definitely a fun one to spin when you’ve got some company over and are hanging out with some food and drinks, as Brown never disappoints.  Unless you’re my wife…

Geater Davis – “Lost Soul” (2013)

My records are housed in an eight cube (four by two) Ikea Expedit shelving unit – the most cost effective and yet still reasonably attractive way to store your vinyl.  The bottom four cubes are almost full and include almost all my records, ordered alphabetically by artist.  Of the top four cubes, one is filled with books on music, one is devoted to only Icelandic vinyl (which, amazingly, is full!), one for assorted box sets, 10″, and 7″ vinyl, and the last is for stuff I bought but haven’t gotten around to listening to (or blogging about) yet.  Usually that “new arrivals” cube has only a few records in it, but frankly my habit has been getting a bit out of control, what with trips to Reykjavik, San Diego, and Minneapolis recently, plus the opening of the temporary Sub Pop Mega Mart store and Silver Platters acquiring the DJ Masa collection… so I’ve been going a little record crazy of late.  So when I was looking for something to put on this afternoon, I was surprised (but not very…) to find that I still had a record I bought in San Diego back in May that I still hadn’t heard.  And that was a situation that needed to be rectified.

I’ve mentioned San Diego’s coolest record store, FeeLit, previously in the blog, and that was where I bought Geater Davis’ Lost Soul.  I only bought maybe a half dozen record from FeeLit but almost all of them were from outside my musical comfort zone, things like dub, folk, and soul.  I can’t give you an explanation as to why this happened, but I’m thankful that it did, and that Markalan has a great shop with just that kind of stuff in it for me to dip into.

I’d never heard of Davis prior to looking at this record for the first time, but a quick online search while at the store indicated he was a talented soul singer who passed away suddenly in 1984 at the all-too-young age of 38.  I’m always intrigued by singers who left us too soon… and I even picked up a Jim Croce record from FeeLit that day, so maybe I was channeling some kind of vibe.  Regardless, I added Geater Davis to my short stack of records and brought it back to Seattle.

Let’s get this out of the way right up front:  Geater Davis has an insanely good voice that was made for singing.  I’m willing to bet he could have been successful in almost any genre with his deep, smooth sound.  It’s a shame we lost him so young, since often those smooth voices of youth develop a lot of character as they get older, especially in the world of soul.  I wonder how he would have sounded today, almost 30 years later…

Lost Soul is packed full of great music, a double album with 16 songs.  The two best in my opinion are the surprisingly long (at a very radio un-friendly 7:32) “Cry, Cry, Cry” and a unique and surprising version of the jazz/soul classic, “St. James Infirmary”, a song made famous by Louis Armstrong in 1928 and more recently recorded by one of my favorite bands, Devil Makes Three.  Davis’ version is a totally different take, tweaking the lyrics and slowing it down as a mournful soul tune.  Great stuff.

I know this is a vinyl blog, but I realize that not everyone has a record player, and that most people who don’t have one don’t want one (gasp!).  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t get your hands on some of the music I blog about, and Lost Soul is available on iTunes for just $9.99 – so you don’t even have an excuse to not go on there and at least give a few tracks a listen.  Expand your musical horizons.