Welcome to our first blog post of 2016! My enthusiasm for tending to this blog has slackened once again, but this time it has nothing to do with my dear readership or the “blogosphere” in general and everything to do with the dour notes that ended my 2015. So why not start the blog-year with something (not completely) different?
I will leave it for another post to say more about my slowly gestating interest in calypso and soca music. But along with finding random interesting stuff at record shop digs or on the virtual stacks of the internet, over a year ago I asked a good friend with good connections among record dealers and traders to “hook me up” with a stack of such titles, because I assumed his city must be drowning in the stuff. I went home with a bunch of cool music that day but this is the first title I have gotten around to sharing here.
I don’t know a lot about keyboardist Ed Watson and his band Brass Circle, so any calypsonians out there feel free to write in with comments. About six months after getting this record, I stumbled on another one from 1982 in which the liner notes state that he had kept a group together for 20 years, so therefore he got his start in the early 1960s. A few enthusiastic calypso/soca/kaiso YouTubers have uploaded a bunch of his material spanning the mid 70s to the 90s. Although I can only assume lots of musicians came and went in this band, the sound on this record is definitely a group that has spent a lot of time in live performance. It’s from the transitional period when cheesy synth patches were just beginning to proliferate, but there is enough leanness to the overall sound – including lots of electric piano and guitar – that I actually find the keyboards glorious.
[EDIT: I’ve always thought of my blog as a learning process, in public, so I’m only slightly chagrined that I didn’t know Mr. Ed Watson was the arranger of the famous monster hit for Lord Kitsch, Sugar Bum Bum. I’m adding this here but I expect that my next Ed Watson post will have more information about the man’s legacy as I live and learn]
The four original tunes here are skin-tight smoking soca. Punchy horns, rippling rhythm guitars, and that bass drum that hits you in the diaphragm like you’ve been kicked by a startled horse who keeps perfect time.
Unfortunately, those are only half the tracks.
The tightly animated originals are interspersed with some cover songs of contemporary soul hits. And unlike with reggae artists, where a singer would reinterpret an American soul tune backed by a clever arrangement, there is no attempt here to turn these songs ‘soca’: they are pretty much played as straight covers, with the exception of the bouncy faux-reggae lilt given to “Sail On”. A couple of them are instrumental or only feature vocals on the chorus. They remind me of something you’d expect to hear a wedding band play: they’re not bad, but they are also nothing special. In fact a more apropos analogy would be a cruise ship or hotel band, and I think there might be actual historical considerations here (as opposed to just talking out my ass). Many a steel band and calypso singer made their bread and butter playing in hotels or on cruise ships for tourists. It wouldn’t be unrealistic to speculate that Ed Watson paid the bills that way at least some of the time. The kind of repertoire on display here – spirited originals alternating with familiar hits of the day – would not be out of place on the tourist circuit. We can be glad at least that Mr. Watson had good taste in his song selection: Larry Graham, The Commodores, and The Manhattans are the chosen purveyors of 1980 chart happiness. I can’t quite fathom the reason why none of these covers have a lead vocal, as singer Errol Asche seems more than capable of giving these tunes a worthy spin. Instead, they come off as a bit like karaoke backing tracks.
Okay, let me revise something I said earlier, about these covers being “not bad”: the version of Larry Graham’s “One In A Million You” is just downright awful, with a spiritless saxophone playing the vocal melody. It’s not my favorite Larry Graham cut anyway, but there’s no excusing this dreary rendition. I suppose these tracks were what the band played when it deemed it time to initiate an intimate slow dance, seeing as soca is seemingly inimical to slow couples-dancing. If your tongue is halfway down your partner’s throat I guess it doesn’t matter much how the music sounds or if the sax is slightly out of tune.
The other two covers are better, especially The Manhattans “Shining Star”, which really makes you want to sing along (hey the mic is wide open, go for it!). But rather than share a clip for one of the covers on this album, I’ll share one from another of his records to prove without question that the formula can work. In the clip below, witness what – as my friend Bertha Butt has proclaimed – may be the best version of “Feelings” ever recorded.
Seriously, I just love everything about the instrumentation, production, and arrangement. I want it played at my funeral in lieu of a eulogy. Pop culture historians are free to argue the point, but I contend that for a time in the 1980s and 90s, singing a few lines of “Feelings” was the pre-internet equivalent of being “Rick Rolled”. AND did you know the original singer of the tune, Morris Albert, was a Brazilian whose real name was Maurício Alberto? So there, don’t let it be said that my first blog post of 2016 had no Brazilian content.
The other record I have, 1982’s “Dat Is Soca”, is a more solid listen that won’t have you reaching for your ‘skip’ button as often as this one. With any luck I’ll post it some time.