On the Move (I Can't Get Enough)
I Like It Like That
Last year, longtime James Brown sideman and co-composer Bobby Byrd released On the Move (I Can't Get Enough) and the JB Horns came out with I Like It Like That. Though these are two of the best albums in recent memory, you probably aren't familiar with them. Understandable, given that until just lately they were available only as a German import; now, though, New York's Instinct Records (26 West 17th Street, New York, NY 10011) has done us all a service and made them available stateside.
Byrd's gruff bass-baritone can be heard on virtually every James Brown song from the early '60s through the mid-'70s, many of which Byrd helped write or arrange. And since the Man himself has gone Vegas (not that we should begrudge a legend cashing in), this is the hit of new, JB-style funk we haven't had in a while. This is not just a James Brown album without James Brown, though -- Byrd does things his own way, which is a little looser, has more backing vocals, and, one senses, is less dictatorial.
Funk is a collective endeavor, and Byrd has a fine supporting cast. Bruno Speight, formerly of Kool and the Gang and the SOS Band, kicks in on guitar; Byrd's wife, Vicki Anderson, and daughter, Carlene Anderson, help with the vocals; the horns are by the SOS Band's Atomic Horns and the ubiquitous Tower of Power (though some of the charts are credited to the "On the Move Horns," who appear to be German converts to the Way of JB).
"Try It Again" and "I'm on the Move" get the funk happening with some classic call-and-response workouts; "The Way to Get Down" and "Sayin' It and Doin' It Is Two Different Things" focus more on Byrd's singing. The soulful vocals and bluesy lyrics of the autobiographical "I Got It (It's been a long time coming)" are unique in funk history -- the "it" for which the singer has been aching is not, you know, it, but rather a recording contract with a small German label. (Byrd does have a valid complaint -- there's absolutely no reason a man with his discography should have to wait decades for a solo deal.) "Sunshine," with the Tower of Power Horns, has the best charts on the disc. The closer "Never Get Enough" leaves you dying to hear it live.
The JB Horns -- Pee Wee Ellis (tenor sax), Fred Wesley (trombone) and Maceo Parker (alto sax) -- are also longtime James Brown collaborators, as if you couldn't guess from their name. They've played on countless funk and soul sessions over the last 30 years, and all three have their own solo projects. This, though, is their first collective studio project in a decade.
Fans are frequently disappointed when sidemen step out front to run their own shows; the JB Horns sidestep that issue by collaborating with Richard Mazda, who's listed as executive producer and is credited as co-songwriter on five of the eight tracks. Mazda, with occasional sessionmen overdubs, plays all of the bass, drums, "groove piano" and guitar. He also adds some vocals. His multi-instrumental talents are obvious, but Mazda doesn't seem to have much of a personality; his name appears nowhere in the band's promotional material. That's okay, though, because this is a JB Horns album, and it's the horns -- and the horn players' vocals, chants and scats -- that stay with you. The end result is somewhere between groovy make-out music and a funk throwback, and it works whether you keep it in the background or listen to it up front. Because Instinct is a small label, these discs may be hard to find, but your favorite independent record store can probably order them for you.
-- Peter Kelly
You Must Ask the Heart
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Though he's a matter of personal taste, Jonathan Richman deserves his due as a great pop cultural hero simply for being the original postmodern songwriter -- and doing it at least a decade before we knew what that meant. Unfortunately, Richman's output has been paltry of late. But even if You Must Ask the Heart runs a mere 32 minutes (half of which are taken up by covers), it'll do fine.
Call him what you will -- a rock-devolved folkie, an over-precious child-man, an adenoidal enigma -- when he sets his mind to it, Richman can still write songs as whimsical or as plainly astute as any guitar-slinger around. Self-conscious perhaps, but never self-indulgent, his songs don't get mired in the vague soul purging that makes many singer-songwriters insufferable. That's because Richman's songs almost always bear the seed of a good idea: "To Hide a Little Thought" discusses the subtle human mannerisms that betray what you're thinking; "Just Because I'm Irish" (sung by SNL's Julia Sweeney) is a woman's explanation for why she shouldn't be expected to know all the pubs in New York; and the title track explains the mind's inadequacies in love.
But a glut of covers from a guy whose chief asset is his songwriting suggests a drying well. He Richman-izes Sam Cooke and "The Rose" with his sincere nasal singing and acoustic strumming, but offers fairly standard readings otherwise. Only the up-tempo shuffle of Tom Waits' "The Heart of Saturday Night" truly refigures the original.
-- Roni Sarig