Tag Archives: Odyssey

Free – Deniece Williams

Those of you who find your way over here regularly and have read pieces I’ve written on the Delfonics, Boz Scaggs, Marvin Gaye, Hall & Oates, the Bee Gees, Bobby Caldwell, Odyssey, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Michael Jackson, and so on, may remember that I like my soul and disco music smooth and opulent: steady-bottomed drums, deep bass, lush orchestration, electric piano, wah-wah guitar. That’s the stuff that really speaks to me.

The opulence of Deniece Williams’s Free was provided by the duo of Earth, Wind & Fire singer Maurice White and writer-arranger-producer Charles Stepney, a man who had already done nearly as much as the more celebrated Thom Bell and Gamble & Huff to move soul into new, rock- and psychedelia-influenced territory – he’d produced Marlena Shaw’s The Spice of Life (California Soul, Woman of the Ghetto), Terry Callier’s What Color is Love, and Minnie Riperton’s work (both solo and with the Rotary Connection). A pair of heavy-duty talents, then.

The full unedited album cut of Free starts out like an out-take from In a Silent Way, all abstract electric piano tinkles and out-of-tempo percussion, while Williams sings in her breathy upper register. After a full minute, the song kicks into life. At first it sounds like nothing so much as an R&B take on Harvest-era Neil Young, with Young’s trademark boom-boom-tssch drum pattern and the simplest of ascending basslines. At the first verse proper, though, Verdine White’s bass starts dancing and the song becomes something else entirely.

It’s a masterpiece of arrangement. White’s intricate bass playing provides all the of the internal movement: Al McKay on guitar plays a simple comp part, the horns are so laid-back they’re practically horizontal, and Jerry Peters’ piano, like the guitar, largely keeps it simple except in his brief solo and during the coda.

Williams’s vocal performance is similarly tasteful and soulful. Capable of nearly the same glass-shattering heights as Minnie Riperton, Williams largely underplays her hand during Free, singing quietly and intimately (appropriately for a song in which she twice sings “Whispering in his ear, my magic potion for love”), and reserving improvistation in her upper ranges for the song’s minute-long coda.

As celebratory of physical intimacy as it is, though, Free is ultimately a song about not wanting to be in love – “I’ll only be here for a while” is the last line of the final verse, while Williams’s plea “I want to be free, free, free” is underlined both by the pushed phrasing of those repeated “free”s (they fall on the quaver before the one) and the increasingly elaborate decoration she applies to the simple upward melody.

Free was a surprisingly big hit on both sides of the Atlantic: number one in the UK two years after it was recorded (and keeping her former employer Stevie Wonder off the top spot) and number two on the US R&B chart. Free, in its way, doesn’t sound like a hit. It’s so intimate, it doesn’t feel like it should be the property of the masses, especially compared to her other big hit, Let’s Hear if for the Boy (from Footloose), which went all the way in the US and hit number two in the UK. Free, as I’ve said, is a masterpiece, one of the very best of its type.

Deniece WIlliams

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The Songs from So Deep pantheon

Apologies for my somewhat odd posting schedule of late. I’ve been both pretty sick (chest infection) and hellishly busy (end of quarter), and have defaulted to writing about current preoccupations like British politics. I’m away this weekend, so won’t be back until next week now, but thought I’d leave you with what’s hopefully a fun one.

This blog has been running well over three years and in that time I’ve talked a lot about favourite songs and favourite albums, but without having put down a list in black and white.

So I thought I’d give it a try, and actually, it’s a tough exercise. The hardest thing is deciding how whether to include old favourites that you, if you’re honest, don’t listen to anymore. I’ve mentioned that Nirvana’s Nevermind was the album that inspired me to pick up a guitar and start playing, and in my teens I must have listened to it hundreds of times. But I’ve not sat down and listened to the whole thing as an album in a decade at least. I decided not to include it in favour of things that I still listen to regularly, but if the list were of albums that have meant the most to me, no question it would have to be in there.

Most of the records on my list I bought in my twenties. The one that’s newest, to me, is also the most recent, Hem’s Rabbit Songs, which I love for personal as well as musical reasons. The ones I’ve been listening to longest, Dust and Murmur, I first heard as a teenager in the 1990s, and I still hear new, fresh details in them each time I listen.

Top of the list, my two favourites, are Judee and Joni. I’ve written about both records here before. In fact, I’ve written about songs from most of these albums, if not the full albums themselves. Click on the links below for detailed thoughts.

  1. Judee Sill – Judee Sill
  2. The Hissing of Summer Lawns – Joni Mitchell
  3. Paul Simon – Paul Simon
  4. Good Old Boys – Randy Newman
  5. Murmur – R.E.M.
  6. Dust – Screaming Trees
  7. The Band – The Band
  8. Rabbit Songs – Hem
  9. The Heart of Saturday Night – Tom Waits
  10. Fred Neil – Fred Neil

The songs list is a bit less heavy on singer-songwriters and has more soul, funk and disco. For whatever reason, I’ve never found those musical forms as satisfying at album length, but maybe that’s down the road for me. Unsurprisingly, I’ve written about every single one of these here.

  1. Native New Yorker – Odyssey
  2. Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time) – The Delfonics
  3. She’s Gone – Hall & Oates
  4. Silver Threads & Golden Needles – Fotheringay
  5. Stormy Weather – Nina Nastasia
  6. Tennessee Jed – Grateful Dead
  7. What You Won’t Do For Love – Bobby Caldwell
  8. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
  9. Someone to Watch Over Me – Blossom Dearie
  10. Rock With You – Michael Jackson

Inside Out – Odyssey

Odyssey had several big UK hits between 1977 and 1982, yet all of these songs were musically and emotionally distinct from each other. The band seemed to transform themselves with every single: the world-weary elegance of their first hit, Native New Yorker, gave way to the resigned despair of If You’re Looking for a Way Out; the Caribbean dancefloor celebration of UK no.1 Use it Up and Wear it Out was followed by the triumphant nostalgia of Going Back to My Roots. This puzzlingly diverse but magnificent run ends here, in the bleakest and most disturbing of their singles, Inside Out.

Written by the helmeted, kilted and claymored Scotsman Jesse Rae (watch Over the Sea here and give yourself a New Year’s treat), Inside Out – like If You’re Looking For a Way Out – deals with a love affair that the singer knows is all but over. This time, though, the lover is already on his way, and Lillian Lopez sounds empty; the warm, agile voice she sang in on her earlier records is absent, replaced by something tired, strained and hollow. If Billie Holliday had lived long enough to record disco, it might have sounded a little like this.

Inside Out was produced, phenomenally well (in standard Odyssey fashion), by Jimmy Douglass, who assembled a crack band for the occasion. Steve Arrington (from the Ohio funk band Slave, whose style this song resembles) is on drums, and Sandy Anderson channels Arrington’s bandmate Mark Adams for his magnificent performance on bass guitar, while Lenny Underwood (like Anderson, a member of New York group Unlimited Touch) creates the patchwork of squiggly synths that gives the record so much of its colour.

The result is a track made up of fragmentary hooks, stray bits of melody, hard-funk slap bass, disco strings, and harshly staccato backing vocals (‘In! Side! Out!’), yet the result is a record that not only coheres, but adds up to something I find as just as compelling as the timeless Native New Yorker (which, as those who’ve been following this blog a while may remember, is my push-comes-to-shove favourite single of all time) despite the vast sonic and emotional gulf between them.

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Odyssey

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Jesse Rae

Music can’t die as long as I can listen to Starless and Native New Yorker

I was going to write a piece today prompted by Sophie Heawood’s article in the Guardian this morning (‘Music has died now I’ve thrown away my CDs and only listen on my laptop’) so here it is. But only kind of.

Unfortunate though it is to admit, contemporary pop music has left me pretty cold for around a decade now, but for me my playback equipment is a long way down the list of things that are wrong. Like Heawood, I have also disposed of my old separates system, but I still listen to music on the best speakers I can afford in the best quality files I can get hold of. And I have, at least for now, kept all my CDs and records in case I one day have the space again to house a proper hi-fi set-up. But as hard-drive space gets cheaper every year, there’s no reason to suppose that lossless files won’t be the invariable norm in a few years and the old MPEG-1 Layer 3 consigned to history’s dustbin.

What’s sad to me, contemplating contemporary pop and rock music, is that when I do hear something I like, I tend to tire of it quite quickly – the trends towards total rhythmic quantisation, the tuning of every vocal part without listening to it first to hear whether it actually sounds in tune or not, and the brutal and unmusical over-compression of every element within the mix, and of the stereo mix at mastering, have led to the creation of an art form that does little for me, whose pleasures are exhausted quickly. I tend not to be able to live inside these songs.

I love being able to live inside a song. And thankfully it still happens pretty regularly that I find something that takes me somewhere entirely new. Recently I have been spending a lot of time wandering around the apocalyptic blasted-heath landscapes of King Crimson’s Red, the album’s final track, Starless, in particular. It’s an incredibly sad song, it sounds like the world ending. Strangely, though, I find a lot of comfort from this exhilarating, harsh piece of music.

While I freely admit a bias towards early-nineties alt. rock and seventies singer-songwriters, relatively few of my absolute favourite songs are by my favourite artists (a list which is heavy on those seventies singer-songwriters and nineties rock bands). Instead, there would be a lot of one-off disco, country, hip-hop, soul records by artists whose work I am less familiar (who are in some cases only useful to me for one song). Let me tell you about one of these records, the track that, if forced to, I’d nominate for the title of best record ever made.

A few years ago, on a freezing January Sunday, I first heard Odyssey’s Native New Yorker. I remember a lot about that day: meeting my then girlfriend in town for lunch, going for coffee afterwards, then cycling home in the cold. There was nothing exceptional in these activities; I remember them only because of what happened next. When I got home, I sat down at my computer and caught up with some websites I visit regularly. Some folks had been discussing Use It Up and Wear It Out on Freaky Trigger (where Tom Ewing reviews every UK number-one single as part of a feature called Popular. Years after starting, he’s in the mid-nineties now). I’d heard that song without taking much notice of it, but the big claims made on behalf of Native New Yorker by a couple of the regular commentors prompted me to have a listen to it on YouTube. I then downloaded the LP mix and listened to it 11 more times. In a row. One after the other, for over an hour, drinking it all in, the best (my apologies to Nile Rogers and the Bee Gees) disco record ever made. A great song (by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randall), brilliantly played, sung, arranged, recorded and mixed. A song I could live inside of for ever. A warm-hearted, urbane, bittersweet evocation of a place, a tribute so wonderful it actually makes me somewhat disinclined to ever visit it, in case the real thing was a let-down after years of living in Odyssey’s version of New York City.

The goal of any music fan must surely to be to find the songs that make you feel this way. I’m not suggesting that Sophie Heawood’s disenchantment with music would be magically fixed if she adopted a steady diet of New York disco and English prog. What works for me won’t necessarily work for anyone else, and there’s no reason why it should. But despite the predictable cynicism and jeering of the comments below the article (a good way to lose your faith in humanity is to read the comments of any newspaper article – the internet really does bring out the worst in people), I suspect Heawood’s realisation that the music she’s listening to every day is doing nothing for her is actually a commonplace one.

Whether the article would have been better placed in the Culture section, or used as the basis of an informal podcast discussion, is perhaps a worthwhile discussion. But the article’s basic premise is her lived experience, and as such can’t be denied by any amount of snark from the 690 people who’ve commented thus far. If they’re happy with their everyday music-listening experience, that’s great. I am too. Good luck to Heawood in improving her own.

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Top: King Crimson (l-r, Bill Bruford, Robert Fripp, John Wetton)

Bottom : Odyssey (l-r, Lillian Lopez, Tony Reynolds, Louise Lopez)