If you’ve never listened to a record by B.T. Express, this probably isn’t the place to start. Not that it is a bad album, it’s just not a really good album – but the good cuts on it are pretty damn good. The quintessential 1970s funk sound of the band’s classic years is being “updated” for a new era here, complete with futuristic themes in the cover art and a little bit of the music. Take the opening cut, “Taking Off!”, which appears to be about getting an aerobic workout in outer space. It’s important to stay healthy in zero gravity, after all. This song only becomes listenable after about the two-minute mark, when a blast-off of delay on the vocals signals that it’s time for the Express’ best asset, slinky horn lines. Over all, though, the song is pretty awful, flirting with a “yacht rock” sound that is absurdly becoming hipster-trendy and undergoing a “revival” by certain contemporary music artists who want to argue for it’s musical sophistication while they tell their audiences not to yell out during concerts or show up in football jersey’s because that’s too low-rent for their wine connoisseur pretensions. Seriously, “yacht rock” and AOR are the new crate-digging frontier? What’s next, Madlib remixes of Barry Manilow tracks? Sorry but I’ll pass and wait for the next fetish they come up with, I ain’t biting on this revival.
Oh right, I was discussing a B.T. Express album. Well, the Michael McDonaldisms get put away and things get more enjoyable. There are a lot of non-band members on this record, most likely assigned to it by Columbia after their previous album failed to do much on the charts. There is something shameless about the interference in the band’s work ethic here, and the attempts at FM-crossover hooks in the choruses doesn’t always work for me. I mean the second track is called “Heart Of Fire,” for Pete’s sake. It’s almost like it was intended to confuse a slightly drunk person at a jukebox looking to for Earth Wind & Fire’s “That’s The Way Of The World” aka Hearts Afire. Aside from the title, though, the similarity ends there. It’s a good disco-funk burner, and has subtle poetry in lines like, “But my love for you, it keeps on comin’ and comin’ and comin’ and comin’…” The third song, however, sounds to my ears like almost a direct theft of the tune “Don’t Hold Back” by Chanson to a degree that would even embarrass Robin Thicke and Pharell. I can’t objectively say anything about this tune.
The big track that people remember from this album, the one that charted, is “Give Up The Funk,” which sports another profoundly unoriginal title. Thankfully there are no Parliament ripoffs to be found here, and no references to “the bomb,” as the sound is 100% B.T. Express with an updated sound, including the ray gun ‘pew pew pew’ of electric tom tom drums. The tune also brings back the Express’s best trademark: long, darkly-hued horn phrases used to punctuate the jams in a an understated way, as if Maceo Parker took a few Valium and was trying not to be noticed off somewhere near the back of the stage. Sax player Carlos Ward may have shunned the spotlight, but it’s the big failing of this record – and evidence of typical major label short-sightedness – that the one and only track that he arranges is also the only one to be a hit. The others are all arranged by outsiders Morrie Brown and Gary Scott. It should be noted that this cut contains an unusual spelling, “F-F-U-F-U-N-K”, which the band determined was the way our Alien Overlords were going to spell their favorite genre of music, due to their leader having a chronic stutter.
Side Two opens with the ballad “Closer,” the first ballad of the album. I was talking to a friend a few weeks ago about how so many albums from this period would open with a tight, upbeat song for four minutes to get you dancing, then on the second track they would go all Barry White. Too soon, man, not even Barry moves that fast. So bonus points to B.T. Express for holding back until the second side. This track is melodic and smooth, but not overdoing either one of those qualities. The best thing about it is a completely nonsensical saxophone solo at the end, which begins each bar all Grover Washington but ends all Eric Dolphy. What would Barry think of that? Barack?
“Have Some Fun” is a good mid-tempo roller-skating tune, and the only time they dust off the old Hammond organ that featured so prominently on earlier albums. Again, the chorus sounds written by committee, a formulaic hook that is pretty forgettable an hour later. It has a nice breakdown with cool riffing on flute, organ, and guitar that makes me pretty happy, though. It’s probably been sampled a bunch of times. The next song, “Better Late Than Never,” probably could have just gone with “never,” I don’t have much to say about this tune either. In fact you could probably just stop the record after “Have Some Fun” and preserve a better memory of this album, because the closer “Funk Theory” is pretty bad. While putting together this post I noticed that it seems reasonably popular on YouTube, so what the hell do I know? The title sort of says it all, it’s as if a bunch of number crunchers wrote a program in DOS that would churn out FM-friendly funk hits, with lyrics that would look better on a chalk-board written a hundred times by an errant, unfunky student.