Best of 2010 Pt 1: Soul & Funk

Funky Funky Iran

The modern Soul revival continues to present us with a steady stream of quality releases and rare gem re-issues come flying out of the crate-digging culture that thrives, out of sight for many. Yes, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings cut another slab of chunky goodness for the Soul-starved, but you won’t find it on this list. To be honest, I have long since tired of some of the same old worn out James Brown rhythm section miming on their previous records. Logically, it follows that I didn’t pay much mind to their aught-ten offering as there was enough actual vintage Soul and Funk records to still collect or some higher quality present day platters to lay down on the turntable and spin. Soul and Funk styles are something near and dear to my heart, soul and hips, but one thing I love about them is that they kind of live in the Jazz world of things. Eighty five percent of the worthwhile tunes in the genres came out before 1980, so the rate of consumption and amount of attention to be paid to these records is minimized, which makes more room for some more prolific, contemporary genres. I guess, in a sense, that even though these genres are highly nourishing to my essence, they can happily exist as ‘fringe’ genres. In other words, they take up a minimum of listening time and give the old wallet a bit of a break.

So, what replaces Sharon Jones in the Soul revival department?

The Budos Band damnit! This year, they released album III. My best friend turned me onto these fabulous Daptone Records labelmates of Jones and company. Rhythm section tight as hell and in the pocket? Check. So super bad and they play huge but with room for everybody to contribute; clavier, trap kit, congas, rhythm and bass guitar all laying incredibly buttery phat grooves down to back an on-point horn section. And then there are those vintage keyboards that come popping out of the humidity-drenched leaves of that rhythm jungle. A perfect blend of American Funk and Afro-Cuban styles, but with a slightly edgy darkness to them, like they’re not just all about dancin’ and bein’ carefree and shit. Did I mention what an incredible horn section they have?

On the other side of the pond, the Brits delivered a well-conceived album of Soul, Funk and Jazz elements in the form of Lost Where I Belong by Andreya Triana. She’s backed, incidentally, by the primate percussion of Simon Green, aka Bonobo. This album is a nice push forward in the Vocal Soul/Funk and Jazz directions and gives Ninja Tune an ever-broadening palate. Triana possesses some serious old school Jazz vocal skills, in the smokey traditions of Holiday, Vaughan, Jackson and Simone. Though, she does lack some of the tenor her predecessors had. The best track on the album is “Darker Than Blue”. There seems to be a collision between “Strange Fruit” and a number of Tom Waits’s more somber songs. One thing of note: this is certainly the best musical work of Simon Green’s in the past few years. I’m just sayin’.

The rest of the genre’s best offerings for 2010 are either mixes or compilations. The one mix is by some obscure DJ and it’s simply called Eccentric Breaks and Beats. On vinyl it’s just two sides of continuous mixed old school breaks from some pretty under-appreciated-until-now crates of Soul and Funk and even some assorted weirdness. Definitely good for filler time when I can’t figure out what else to play at work to keep the bar toe-tappin’. As for the compilations…

I’ve never been a big fan of the so-called World Music genre and scene. A lot of the stuff has that vanilla NPR vibe that is aimed at a lowest common denominator appeal for liberal yuppies in sweaters (knit by children in Vietnam), who ‘concern’ themselves with the plights of the African continent. That mouthful of vitriol said, I have found that the crate-digging community has begun to unearth some real gems from the 60’s and 70’s from all around the world, which share similar passions with a lot of the Psychedelic, Funk, Soul and Hippie movements here stateside. And aside from the time warp, political and aesthetic similarities, there’s also that groovy analog recording quality, replete with fuzz and wear and tear. These qualities lend the music a truly unique ‘living creature’ quality, because it has aged, whether with grace or in rapid decline. 2010 offered up two brilliant compilations of Pysch, Funk and Pop from the Fertile Crescent. First up to bat, Turkish Freakout.

Bring Me Some Saffron!

I had already been turned onto Erkin Koray a bit ago by a friend, but it’s always nice to get a bigger taste of what a country and a specific scene/era have to offer. This compilation is on a super low profile label called Bouzouki Joe Records. Interesting to struggle so hard to find info on a label that seems to have surprisingly good distribution. What I have learned is that the Bouzouki is a stringed instrument focal to much of Greek music. How this pertains to Turkish Psych and Funk I don’t know, except that I imagine the Turkish utilize a similar lute in their traditional musics and something of that sound shows up on a couple of the tracks. The packaging is also really nice; sturdy card stock for the cover and pretty hefty, yet not 180-gram, wax. There’s also a little bonus 7″ inside, along with some healthy liner notes. Somebody did their research! I have to admit that one of the things that attracts me even further to this music is that I have no clue what the singers are saying. All the vocals are a mystery to me and thus they become more instrumental. The melodies and intonations are a delight (yes, there’s a Turkish pun there). Something else to dig is, as I alluded to earlier, the incorporation of more ‘traditional’ instruments, those that most whacked-out 60’s & 70’s musicians might not think as part of the equation. Middle Eastern Clarinet, I’m dreaming of you. But, the award for this category has certainly got to go to the Finders Keepers label’s super gem of 2010.

Pomegranates: Persian Pop, Funk & Psych of the 60’s & 70’s is such a killer compilation that some university with a self-respecting ethnomusicology department should award a scholarship in the label’s name for best work in musical archaeology. Seriously, this label and their crack team of crate diggers are doing a real service to us all by preserving that which may be fading into the dank corners of abandonment. Side A kicks off immediately with a real funk banger, “Helelyos” by Zia, that could fit nicely next to some New Orleans’ style Funk in a DJ set. Jangly rhythm guitars and annunciative horns over some sandy-hot drums and you’ve got yourself a real winner, but add on top of that some real ‘call of the wild’ vocal freakouts and this track is unbeatable. It’s the 2004 Red Sox after Game 3 of the ALCS. I’ll say right now that whoever decided track order and sound continuity has an exquisite ear, because immediately following that track is “Biya Bar-e Safar Bandim” by Mohammad Nouri. The song is considerably more stolid sounding, but the use of brazen horns connects the two. Again, as with Turkish Freakout, most of the instrumentation is ‘normal’ to most Westerners; guitars, bass, drums and organ. Yet there is always a nice mix of some indigenous instrumentation, primarily in the rhythm sections with the use of hand drums (presumably tablas), but also with sitar-like stringed instruments. One other factor in making this collection so superior is that the educationally pertinent liner notes are obviously written by an actual expert in the field of popular Iranian music, which is a keen move to make on the part of Finders Keepers. Don’t fudge your way through a history lesson you yourself just learned.

And when you can’t seem to pick a favorite song on an album and there’s no skipping through the tracks, you know it’s a quality rekkid!! So, the cheers to Pomegranates for stealing the first award of the show!

Winner: Finders Keepers’ Various Artists compilation Pomegranates.

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