Swamp Dogg – Rat On! (1971)

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Swamp Dogg
Rat On!
Original release 1971 Elektra (EKS-74089)
Reissue 2013, Alive Naturalsound Records (0142-2)

Do You Believe     2:50
Predicament #2     3:07
Remember I Said Tomorrow     2:41
Creeping Away     2:51
Got To Get A Message To You     4:08
God Bless America     3:34
I Kissed Your Face     3:51
That Ain’t My Wife     3:15
She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye     3:05
Do Our Thing Together     4:07

Baritone Saxophone, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone – Sonny Royal
Bass, Percussion – Robert Popwell
Drums – Jasper Guarino
Flugelhorn, Trumpet – Mike Stough, Stacy Goss
Guitar, Backing Vocals – Jesse Carr
Producer, and arranged by Jerry Williams, Jr
Piano, Vocals, Performer [Everything Else Of Any Importance] – Jerry Williams, Jr

Engineer – David Johnson
Photography By [Back Cover] – Siegfried Halus
Photography By [Cover] – Willis Hogans, Jr.*

Recorded At – Quinvy Recording Studio, Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Remastered (very well) by Dave Cooley at Elysian Masters

I don’t see what the big deal is about the album cover.  Apparently it frequently makes the top of ‘worst album covers’ lists, but I can think of far worse.  In fact I think it’s a thing of beauty, down to the awful pun (for the non-native English speakers, the title is a pun on how the phrase “right on” might sound pronounced in a black US southern drawl).  It could reasonably be argued that such a silly cover does a disservice to the high quality of music inside.  But it is definitely eye-catching, and leaves you with handful of pertinent questions — what? why? who? and again WHY? – none of which will really be answered after listening.

You see, Swamp Dogg is the artistic monicker of one Jerry Williams, who had been writing and intermittently recording as Little Jerry since the 1950s with little fanfare.  I had no idea there was something of a Swamp Dogg revival going on at the same time that I had been searching for clean copies of the original vinyl for his first few releases.  I scored the third album, “Cuffed, Collared, and Tagged”and had planned to share it here, but even though it was sealed New-Old-Stock vinyl it had a really obnoxious defect where the entire second side has sounds like someone crunching a potato chip with every rotation of the album.  So I was damned delighted to find out that his first three albums (at least) are being reissued.  And listen up closely when I say this, because you know I don’t say it often about reissues – The remastering of this record is REALLY NICE, a nice warm analog glow that keeps all the dynamics.  Bravo.

As with all revivals of between-the-cracks music there are apparently articles springing up in places like Mojo magazine.  Now I have nothing against Mojo, they have some excellent writers working there, I just don’t have time for them.  I don’t mean that dismissively but *literally* – for now and for the foreseeable near future I just do not have the luxury to read music journalism, no matter how engaging.  It’s all I can do to catch up on the stacks of LPs collecting dust here and occasionally shoot off a blog post when I can rub one out.

So while I am sure there are some cool articles out there and that they help fill in the back story of this fascinating, mercurial artist – who is still around and wrote the notes for these reissues – I prefer to focus on just what I am hearing.  And when my eyes passed some press blurbs and quickly glossed over, seeing comparisons to everyone from Sly Stone to Frank Zappa, or calling him “psychedelic soul,” I decided I would just ignore all of that for the time being, digest the music and write about why I find it so intriguing.  Because while phrases like “psychedelic soul” make for good journalistic shorthand (and probably help sell a few units to a niche market), it doesn’t tell us much.  Listen, Baby Huey was psychedelic soul.  Swamp Dogg was just, well, Swamp Dogg.

The convenient and – I hope – more useful analogy that comes to my mind is Eugene McDaniels.  Both had backgrounds in straight-up traditional soul music (obviously Gene Daniels had much more success at it).  It is not difficult to understand how with bizarre album titles like “Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse” or “Total Destruction Of Your Mind,” potential audiences would be at turns put off or alienated, contemporaneous critics would fail to take them seriously or notice them all, and their creative work would occupy those in-between-spaces where so much unmarketable music dwells.  Both of them donned iconoclastic masks for their own records where they could comfortably let loose their creativity with seemingly no concern for generating hummable hits, while both men were also perfectly capable of operating as professionals.  McDaniels was writing successful songs for Roberta Flack around the same time he was making his own unique records; Swamp Dogg produced Z.Z. Hill, Arthur Conley, Doris Duke, Irma Thomas, and wrote a hit song for Johnny Paycheck with his friend Gary “U.S.” Bonds.

Swamp Dogg / Jerry Williams is, when you get down to it, just good deep southern soul music.   A lot of fun and with a lot more going on than meets the ear.  A balanced mix of mid-tempo groovers and ballads that are sometimes disarmingly poignant.   I’ve seen his stuff tagged as ‘country soul’ and that is a great descriptor, reflecting not only the stuff he heard on the radio growing up but also that the color line was first crossed in recording studios before the civil rights era even got moving, and that the decade of the sixties saw so much productive intermingling between those too genres.  His eclecticism, his off-kilter, sardonic sense of humor, and his occasional raunchiness – Cuffed, Collared and Tagged has a track that consists almost entirely of an orgasm (simulated, I hope) over a riotous funk groove, and then of course there are these infamous album covers.  He was able to be both “out there” and “earthy” at the same time.  Maybe this is what the British mean when they say someone is “a bit bent.”  You can take a song like “Predicament #2” and laugh it off as a humorous anecdote about infidelity, but it is also kind of deep, almost a philosophical reflection on the constraints of monogamy and a person’s ability to love more than one person simultaneously.  At least, that would have been a convenient way to describe it to his partner(s) at the time.  It’s like a less maudlin David Crosby’s “Triad” for soul music.  And of course the typically male double standard rears it’s head when we come around to “That Ain’t My Wife,” but I’m not overly concerned with philosophical consistency here.   The bus-riding protagonist of “Creeping Away”  is also a loveable tramp, when he tells us “I got my bread in North Carolina, and my butter in Tennessee.”  Safado.

From sexual to racial politics to American imperialist war-making, the record was probably too all over the place for most casual fans of soul and too “identifiably black” for crossover success in what had become an increasingly polarized and segregated music industry in post-riots, early 70s America. “Remember I Said Tomorrow” is just plain brilliant, and just as relevant now as it ever was.

Tomorrow we’re gonna pass a law that’ll make everything all right
With equal opportunity for everybody, whether they’re black or they’re white
Tomorrow we’re going to bring the boys home, the end of the war is on its way
Tomorrow you’ll even have freedom of speech, just be careful of the things you say
Didn’t I promise your forefathers they’ll be an end to pain and sorrow
Well then shake off those fears and wipe away those tears
And remember that I said tomorrow.

(In fact I think this song could have been played at Barack Obama’s second inauguration ceremony.)

Swamp Dogg could also lay on some heavy emotional vibes.  “I Kissed Your Face” is an irresistibly pretty and poetic soul ballad with delicate sax runs from Sonny Royal, proving that Williams could “play it straight” with the best of them.  Which brings me to his impeccable choice in handpicking cover tunes, which I think is in some ways a key to Swamp Dogg’s musical  weltanschauung.  Much like the old phrase “he/she is a musician’s musician,” well these tunes are “a songwriter’s songs,” ones that somebody personally familiar with the craft can appreciate in their totality.  The Bee Gee’s “Got To Get A Message To You,” sung from the point of view of a death row prisoner in his final hours, lopes along in a stately, elegiac build-up decorated by lush harmonies (overdubbed by Dogg himself, as far as I can tell).  Then there is an entry from the catalog of that genius of Nashville, Mickey Newbury, with “She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye.”  This is the real deal, people.  You probably didn’t expect this from a man riding a giant rat on the album’s cover, but he embodies these down-on-your-luck narratives with genuine pathos.  To be able to look in these dark places and evoke a feeling without relying on sentimentality or other gimmicks is the essence of the best soul and country music, which must be why he sounds completely at home in these songs.  That gentle darkness continued in his next record, which starts with the amazing John Prine song “Sam Stone” and ends with “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home” by Joe South.  Dude sure knew how to pick ’em.

I mention all of these before getting around to the massive “God Bless America For What” because they help understand where he’s coming from.  A superficial encounter with this song, still years away from the end of Vietnam, probably would have inflamed the passions of many who heard only an anthem for anti-patriotism.  It’s a small wonder that he didn’t end up like Gene McDaniels with Spiro Agnew tapping his telephone; once again, the giant rat rodeo on the front cover might have persuaded the authorities there was nothing up the sleeve to be taken seriously.  But they would have been wrong, all of them.  The lyrics are defiant and angry but also simple and frankly compassionate – a little over halfway through the tune, the band grooves on a slow vamp as Dogg goes into a spoken passage urging us not to say anything at all in response or rebuttal, but to stop and think about it a little, let it sink in, do some soul searching about where we’ve been and where we’re going.  Ain’t nothing unpatriotic about that.   At the end of the day, Swamp Dogg’s America is a place I wouldn’t mind living in.

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Tim Maia – Nuvens (1982)

NUVENS
Tim Maia
Released 1982 on Seroma LP-TM-009
Reissue 2011 on Editora Abril

1 Nuvens
(Deny King, Cassiano)
2 Outra mulher
(Tim Maia)
3 Ar puro
(Tim Maia, Robson Jorge)
4 O trem – 1ª parte
(Tim Maia)
5 A festa
(Tim Maia)
6 Apesar dos poucos anos
(Beto Cajueiro, Tim Maia)
7 Deixar as coisas tristes para depois
(Pedro Carlos Fernandes)
8 Ninguém gosta de se sentir só
(Tim Maia)
9 Hadock Lobo esquina com Matoso
(Tim Maia)
10 O trem – 2ª parte
(Tim Maia)
11 Casinha de sapé
(Hyldon)
12 Sol brilhante
(Rubens Sabino, Tim Maia)

 Tim Maia would have been 70 years old today! So in spite of the efforts of US corporations imposing their mentality on the rest of the world, I am dedicating one more post to the grande mestre.

In his biography of Tim Maia, Vale Tudo, Nelson Motta called this album the best Tim Maia record that nobody ever heard.  Similarly the notes on this reissue go to great pains to point out its small cult following and contrast it against its lack of commercial impact.  Motta is prone to hyperbole in general, and the shoddy liner notes from Editora Abril on their series of Tim reissues can’t be taken too seriously.  But I remember the first time I ever heard this album, at the house of a guy who had an autographed vinyl copy.  I hadn’t even known of its existence, and the rather unflattering photo of Tim entering his Marshmallow Man phase had me skeptical.  So I was surprised at hearing all these new solid tunes, and after much beer and churrasco on that lazy Sunday afternoon I was probably ready to acclaim the album in similar hyperbolic terms.  It would be years before I was able to hear it again.  Does it deserve to be better known?  Most certainly.  Is it one of Tim’s best albums?  Depends on the listener, but its obviously well crafted and a mostly strong set of songs.  (However it is hard to reflect on the music when you can BARELY HEAR what is going on — see below!)  The thing about “Nuvens” is that you can’t call it a “commercial failure” because, as Motta said, nobody really got the chance to hear it.  So even Brazilians who were fans before Tim received the recent surge of hipster interest were by and large unaware of this album.

At this point in his career, Tim had pretty much alienated everyone in the music business through his often volatile temperament, penchant for not showing up for high profile gigs, and appetite for hedonism.  Label execs and promoters were wary of dealing with him.  During the 70s, however, Tim was one of the first Brazilian artists to control the publishing rights for his own material: perhaps taking inspiration from some of his North American soul music counterparts, he recognized music publishing as one of the most egregious forms of exploitation and set up his own company, SEROMA, to publish his songs.  Seroma was a publishing company first and only later an occasional record label, in which capacity Tim consistently lost money.  In many ways Tim was a shrewd businessmen but a horrible administrator, promulgating the motto that Seroma was the only label that “pays on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays after 9 o’clock.”  He kept the label’s treasury under lock and key in his own apartment, was known to occasionally pay musicians with drugs in lieu of money, and seems to have decided what to pay his band Vitória Régia based on his mood.  The decision to make Seroma a label in the first place was practically an accident, developing after RCA rejected the double-album project with which they had lured Tim away from Polygram.  This was what would become the two Racional albums, the sessions for which started out as straightforward soul and funk songs until Tim was introduced to his new-found (and short-lived) religion in Cultura Racional, after which he discarded all the lyrics and any vocal tracks, replacing them with bizarre musings on the world of Animal Energy and commands to “Read the Book, the Book of Life!”   The second Seroma release came a few years later with a wonderful little album, 1978’s “Tim Maia Em Inglês.”  Seroma would stay dormant as a label for a while afterwards, with Tim putting out records on major labels again (plus one on Som Livre in 1977).  Once more disenchanted with the music industry’s vampiric practices, in 1982 he resolved to release yet another album himself and prepared for it by putting out a single that yielded a huge hit, “Do Leme ao Pontal,” and then funneling all the profits from it into the new record.

Unfortunately for Tim, without a distribution deal, Tim was essentially doing all the legwork for the promotion and distribution himself, work for which he clearly was not suited.  The record went largely unnoticed, and was subsequently overshadowed by the phenomenal ‘O Descobridor das Setes Mares’ from the following year.

So, when I first heard that this record was at long last being reissued in 2011, I was very excited.  Until I began to actually hear the results from Editora Abril, that is.  Ed.Abril is actually a publishing company, responsible for the likes of trash-news magazine Veja, and their reissue series was originally intended to be sold at news stands.   In spite of having had a few cool series on LP (the informative História da MPB composers series), they are an empire of paper, and it shows.  The reissues had 50 page “booklets” that were light on information but full of garish graphic design and superfluous photos probably culled from their vast archives (Lulu Santos? Gretchen? why??).  And the sound was PAPER THIN.  Conspicuously avoiding any mention of master tapes or remastering, they managed to somehow downgrade the sound for the records that were previously widely available on CD at one time, such as his first four albums on Polydor.  This isn’t just the nit-picking of an obsessive audio junkie either.  Compare the Ed. Abril versions with any of those, or in fact the newer releases from the Universal boxset, and you will be forced to admit that Editora Abril did something very very bad to the audio.  All the more tragic in the case of ‘Tim Maia em Inglês” and “Nuvens” because those two titles have been long out of print. and fetching ridiculous prices from collectors.  It is painfully obvious that used subpar source material, and then applied a heavy-handed “noise filter” that makes these tracks sound like low-bitrate mp3s even when you are listening to 16-bit PCM WAVs.  Now that the the Abril editions are also out of print, I have been seeing vendors on Mercado Livre (a place notoriously out of touch with reality when it comes to pricing records) selling those pitiful reissues for questionable amounts of money justified by the catchphrase “out of print”.. Time to put a stop to that by any means.

Whether all this preamble above is necessary before talking about the actual music is debatable, but I will say this:  the experience of listening to this shoddy reissue is so much less enjoyable than hearing it on the original vinyl on that lazy Sunday afternoon, that it makes any kind of objective assessment nearly impossible for me.  That is in fact why I waited a year to even write this post – my disappointment was so profound that it killed completely killed my enthusiasm about the record.

Working again with his frequent collaborators Cassiano and Hyldon, Nuvens is from the start an organic set of soul tunes.  The production is slick but avoids the pitfalls of so much early 80s music (contemporary records by icons like Chico Buarque, Caetano or Gil sound positively silly by comparison).  Acoustic guitar, electric piano, percussion, meticulous horn arrangements.  The opening title cut has Cassiano’s melodic stamp of mellow soul all over it, and the next three tunes are pure Tim.  In their original analog form this is a record for breezy summer days.  “Ar Puro” picks up the tempo to get the dance floor moving, and the instrumental funk workout ‘O Trem’ is tremendous, although oddly divided up between the first and second sides.  The magic is broken by the turkey “A Festa” which is ruined by overdubs of giggling women, and even without them the song is the equivalent of Tim ‘phoning it in’.  “Apesar De Poucos Anos” was not written by Cassiano but sounds as if it were, his falsetto backing vocals adding to that feeling.   It could be an affect of the lousy CD reissue but Tim’s lead vocal is almost completely lost in parts of this song, making for a very odd mix.  The ballad that follows is really one of Tim’s best.   “Deixar As Coisas Tristes Prá Depois” opens with a baroque-tingued acoustic guitar figure by Pedro Carlos Fernandes, very brief but very unlike anything else in his discography, and which continues throughout the tune.  The production and arrangement is majestic — or rather it would be if it weren’t stifled by Editora Abril.  The few bars of acoustic guitar and saxophone at the minute and a half mark just slay me.  Next is an awkwardly direct, autobiographical “Ninguém Gostar De Sentir Só” that gives a glimpse to the loneliness hidden behind Tim’s ebullient personality.  It’s also a great tune.  The next is a turkey – “Hadock Lobo Esquina Com Matoso” pays tribute to a São Paulo streetcorner and Tim’s days ‘before the fame’ hanging out with Roberto and Erasmo Carlos.  It’s honestly pretty awful.  O Trem (part 2) continues the funk workout from the first side.  “Na Rua, Na Chuva, Na Fazenda (Casinha de Sapé)” is Hyldon’s signature song and the title of his first album.  Tim is a natural choice for recording this song (which has suffered some awful remakes in recent years) and his voice is much more powerful than Hyldon, but I prefer the original for being more emotionally satisfying and better arranged.  The closing number “Sol brilhante” has a riff that is uncannily similar to the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love.”  It could be just my imagination or coincidence but it wouldn’t be the first time Tim lifted something directly from US music.  It’s a light and fluffy bit of summer breeze that blows shut the window pane on this little treasure of a record.  Hopefully it won’t be another 20 years before somebody gives this one the reissue it deserves.  I listen to this disc much less than I would if it sounded even halfway decent.

password: vibes

 

Tim Maia – Tim Maia (1971) Ed.Abril 2011 Reissue

TIM MAIA
Released 1971 as Polydor (2451 006)
This reissue, Editora Abril / Vitória Régia 2011

1 A festa do Santo Reis (Márcio Leonardo)
2 Não quero dinheiro [Só quero amar] (Tim Maia)
3 Salve Nossa Senhora (Carlos Imperial, Eduardo Araújo)
4 Um dia eu chego lá (Tim Maia)
5 Não vou ficar (Tim Maia)
6 Broken heart (Tim Maia)
7 Você (Tim Maia)
8 Preciso aprender a ser só (Paulo Sergio Valle, Marcos Valle)
9 I don’t know what to do with myself (Hyldon, Tim Maia)
10 É por você que vivo (Rosa Maria, Tim Maia)
11 Meu país (Tim Maia)
12 I don’t care (Tim Maia)

Produced by Tim Maia and Jairo Pires

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So far the Editora Abril series of Coleção Tim Maia has been kind of a huge disappointment. With no information on where they are getting their source tapes (a few of the titles I have so far, “With No One Else Around” aka “Tim Maia Canta em Inglês” from 1978, and ‘Nuvens’ from 1982 — the sound quality is akin to a lossy mp3. The reissue of Racional Vol.1 is inferior to the one released by Trama Records a few years back, although Vol.2 fares slightly better. And the booklets! It’s as if they are under some contractual obligation to produce 45-page booklets with each edition, and fill them up with useless trivia of the period like pictures of Jim Morrison. If you cut the pointless graphics and photos out of this, you would have a decent 20 page booklet.

How do I feel about this 1971 in terms of its quality as a reissue? I haven’t had it long enough to say, and up until now I have only had this one on vinyl — you can find my vinyl rip of this one HERE. So far this is probably the best-sounding of the reissues I’ve gotten my hands on, but I haven’t had time to give it a critical listen. The music is so damn happy and upbeat it would put me in a good mood if it was being played through a broken megaphone, so subjectivity is hard.

You can also read my review of the album there, as I don’t have anything else to add to it that I didn’t say the first time.

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Curtis Mayfield – There’s No Place Like America Today (1975)

CURTIS MAYFIELD
There’s No Place Like America Today
Released 1975 on Curtom
Reissue on Charley / Snapper 2001

1 Billy Jack 6:07
2 When Seasons Change 5:23
3 So In Love 5:10
4 Jesus 6:10
5 Blue Monday People 4:45
6 Hard Times 3:42
7 Love To The People 4:06

   Arranged By – Rich Tufo
Bass – Lucky Scott*
Design – Lockart*
Drums – Quinton Joseph
Engineer – Roger Anfinsen
Guitar – Phil Upchurch
Illustration – Peter Palombi
Keyboards – Rich Tufo
Keyboards, Guitar – Curtis Mayfield
Percussion [Congas And Bongos] – Henry Gibson
Producer, Written-By – Curtis Mayfield

_____________________________

(Special Independence Day post for our United States readers…)

It’s hard to pick a favorite Curtis Mayfield album, and my judgment is
surely clouded by the fact that this album was under-celebrated at the
time and still often overlooked.  But as speaking objectively as I can,
this is surely Mayfield at the top of his game.  And possibly my
favorite album.  Clive Anderson’s liner notes on this Charly reissue may
be a bit pretentious, opening up with a citation from Wordsworth, but
they do pretty much nail the album and do it justice.  The album is truly like
an extended meditation on the American underclass, and particularly the
despair in the Black communities of the mid-70s.  He is right to point
out that (unlike previous albums, like his landmark Superfly), this
record “refrains from excoriating Black Americans for their
predicament.”  Gone are the warnings about self-destruction, as well as
the anthems of ‘racial uplift’ like Move On Up or Miss Black America.
It’s as if the utopian optimism born in the Civil Rights movement, and
its counterpart in revolutionary consciousness like that found in the
Panthers, have fizzled out into a resignation to grim realities.
Still, the record may be spare and solemn, but it’s not bleak.  Music
can still get you through the Hard Times, and Mayfield manages to show
us the redemption found in everyday moments and daily struggle, of
turning to the people close to you when everything else has let you
down.

It’s worth pointing out that the song ‘Hard Times’ was
first recorded by Baby Huey on his one and only album, produced by
Mayfield.  And even if it’s one of the funkier cuts on the record, it’s
still downbeat, much more so than the Baby Huey’s frantic version.  Also
there’s no adlib about living on Oreos and drinking Thunderbird.
Further testament to Mayfield’s genius that he could recast his own
compositions into such different contexts and wring two different
stories out of them.

this is also one of the BEST SOUNDING CD’s I OWN.  It makes me want to find the other Charly pressings of Curits’
stuff, because the Rhino reissues sound really harsh by comparison.  I have the vinyl too and this Charly / Snapper is as close as you’ll get to perfection short of that.

 

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VA – Rubber Soul Clap, Volume 1 (2010)

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Various Artists – Rubber Soul Clap, Volume 1
Private pressing 2010
Flabbergasted Vibes Special Products (FBV-01)

This fun little compilation was something I had put together as a holiday gift for a friend last year, with promises to put together a second volume that is still unfinished. The idea should be pretty obvious – exploring the long arm of influence of the fabulous foursome into the furthest reaches of funkiness. They shall be named in the interest of this blog surviving a little longer, nor shall any song titles be listed here other than in the back cover art above. Some of the selections are well-known, even over-played, others much less so. Lots of cool stuff here, but I think The Crusaders probably steal the show. I hope you enjoy it, and – who knows? – maybe Volume 2 will see the light of day before year’s end…

in 320 em pee three

in FLAC LOSSLESS AUDIO

for complete liner notes and rare photos send a SASE to my PO Box in the Kayman Islands and a cashier’s check for $200.

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Leon Thomas – Full Circle (1973) (24-96khz vinyl rip)

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Leon Thomas – Full Circle

1973 Flying Dutchman (FD-10167 A/B-R)

1 Sweet Little Angel (B.B. King, J. Taub) 4:59

2 Just In Time To See The Sun (Carlos Santana, Gregg Rolie, Michael Shrieve) 2:58

3 It’s My Life I’m Fighting For (Neil Creque) 10:10

4 Never Let Me Go (Joe Scott) 2:28

5 I Wanna Be Where You Are (A. Ross, L. Ware) 4:22

6 Got To Be There (Elliot Willensky) 4:27

7 Balance Of Life (Peace Of Mind) (Leon Thomas, Neil Creque) 7:02

8 You Are The Sunshine Of My Life (Stevie Wonder) 5:47

9 What Are We Gonna Do? (Leon Thomas) 5:56

incomplete credits from `Discogs` website — full credits are in the LP jacket

Bass – Richard Davis

Berimbau, percussion – Sonny Morgan

Drums – Pretty Purdie, Herbie Lovelle

Guitar – Joe Beck, Lloyd Davis

Percussion – Richard Landrum

Piano – Neal Creque

Saxophone – Pee Wee Ellis

Trumpet, Flugelhorn – Jimmy Owens

Flute – Joe Farrell

Vinyl original pressing ; Pro-Ject RM-5SE turntable (with Sumiko Blue Point 2 cartridge, Speedbox power supply); Creek Audio OBH-15 ; M-Audio Audiophile 2496 Soundcard; Adobe Audition 3.0 at 32-bit float s 96khz; Click Repair light settings, additional clicks and pops removed in Audition ; ID Tags done in foobar2000 v.1.0.1 and Tag & Rename. For 16 bit/ 44.1 khz version, additional processing in iZotope RX Advanced.

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This is probably one of Leon Thomas’ lesser-known albums, and I can see why. Not that it’s bad, it just completely bizarre by virtue of its utter normality. Putting this album on the turntable for the first time was a jarring experience for me, because I would never have envisioned the singer I know through Pharaoh Sanders’ band – the guy who innovated “jazz yodeling” as a technique all his own — covering songs from B.B. King, Santana, The Jacksons, and Joe Scott (writer of “Never Let Me Go” and also responsible for the classic “Turn On Your Love Light.”) The title of the album, Full Circle, might indicate a return to R&B and soul-music roots for Thomas. The album cover, which has him pimped out in bad-ass blaxploitation-soundtrack garb, does nothing to clarify this mysterious record.

The first time I played it, I thought it was a confused, incoherent mess of songs. It probably still is that, but over time I’ve come to enjoy it quite a bit for what it is. According to Discogs database, there were two versions released in quick succession with different track running order — according to this, I have the second of those two. They also seem to have been issued in the same year — it seems like maybe Flying Dutchman also didn’t know how to market this stylistic jumble of tunes and tried messing around with them. I would be curious to hear from somebody who has the other version, as I have one major gripe with the mix on some tunes: the songs that have strings have the strings mixed WAY too loud, overpowering everything else.

The album leads off with “Sweet Little Angel”, which oddly enough seems to have been the most played track on my copy if the surface noise is any evidence — I am thinking “college radio DJ at a southern university where they like their black men playing unthreatening, beaten-to-death blues standards…”. It’s not terrible, but its not terribly convincing. Thomas makes an okay blues singer. The next tune, a cover of Santana’s “Just In Time to See The Sun” is actually quite good, with no attempt to “rock” but instead given a full soul-jazz Latin-tinged treatment with Pee Wee Ellis on sax. So far, things are getting better. The next song is the first original tune and one of the highlights of the album for people who have followed and admired the rest of Leon’s career. “It’s My Life I’m Fighting For”, written by keyboardist Neil Creque, is driven by his Rhodes electric piano, its ten minutes of a soulful jam with `free` elements and, FINALLY some jazz yodeling! I never thought Thomas’ jazz yodel would sound so welcome to my ears. Herbie Lovell on the drums on this track really keeps things going, with great riffing from Joe Farrell on flute, solos by Creque and Jimmy Owens that keep this solidly chugging along. The song is then inexplicably followed by old-school R&B ballad “Never Let Me Go”…. the word “buzzkill” comes to mind. Leon redeems himself with “I Want To Be Where You Are,” a Jackson 5 tune that seems to have been in vogue with soul-jazzers in the early 70s: Gary Bartz also released an instrumental version around this time where he went all modal on its ass. Here, this is easily the most successful of the cover tunes on the albums, slowed down a notch, augmented with some choice Muscle Shoals slide guitar courtesy of Joe Beck, punchy trumpet from Farrell, and Leon just can’t help himself — he lets rip a few JAZZ YODELS here and there on the chorus. But they only last for a couple of seconds, as if he remembers suddenly that he is supposed to be a soul music balladeer on this song and must restrain his urges. Flip the LP over, and another Jackson-related tune, “Got To Be There”, is a huge disappointment, with Leon just taking it on as a straight interpretation with nothing particularly remarkable about it. “Balance of Life (Peace of Mind)” is another original tune and brings us back to more familiar Leon Thomas territory. Opening with the Brazilian instrument, the berimbau, accompanied by other urgent percussion that seemlessly gives way to a mellow jam led by Creque’s electric pianoa and congas by Pabldo Landrum and Sonny Morgan, it keeps the groove going for 7 minutes with a full-on percussion jam in the middle. Then, once more, the album shifts gears for a basically pointless reading of Stevie Wonders “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”. It is almost a novelty song for its straightness, getting slightly trippy towards the end. The album closes with the somber and soulful “What Are We Gonna Do?” which is just Thomas on vocal and Neil Creque on acoustic piano. A meditation on ecology, peace, love, and violence, its a beautiful tune, reminding me of all the reasons to love Leon Thomas in the first place.

Perhaps this album was meant to `prove` that Leon Thomas could have been a huge figure in straight soul and rhythm and blues, which he probably could have been if he felt inclined. But the album is indeed a weird jumble. The three original tunes are the best here, followed by “I Want To Be Where You Are” and “Just In Time To See The Sun.”

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