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Archie Bell & the Drells: Tighten Up

In a more perfect pop world, San Francisco label DBK Works' reissue of Archie Bell & the Drells' 1968 debut Tighten Up would help the Houston favorites jettison the one-hit wonder status that dogs them everywhere else. In retrospect, it's an understated precursor to Philly soul and an homage to the sound that made Motown Records a chart-ruling juggernaut the same year that the Detroit label began heading in new directions. A cover of Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood" neatly bisects the rhythm section from the swinging horns and subterranean organ, with a sort of call-and-response meets doo-wop approach in the vocals. The one-in-a-million title track, all but Houston's official theme song, retains the James Jamerson-like bassline and shoe-shuffling beat that endeared it to America in the summer of 1968, when it hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100, and later to an infinity of late-'80s hip-hop craftsmen and disciples of the British movement known as Northern Soul. "When You Left Heartache Began" and their version of Sunny Ozuna's "Give Me Time" are pure embryonic Philly soul: sugary-sharp strings, measured grooves and almost robotic vocals. Fittingly, Bell and the Drells signed with Philadelphia International Records not long after Tighten Up, joining pre-disco kindred spirits McFadden & Whitehead, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and the O'Jays. And while the 40-year-old album plays campy in spots, Bell's best work is when he eschews love-me/love-me-not phrasing and channels his Vietnam experiences into the war ballad "A Soldier's Prayer, 1967." It proves Bell's songwriting was capable of real depth, and just how misplaced that "one-hit wonder" tag really was.

 
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