Patty & the Emblems
If you’ve run out of Stax and Atlantic and, oh dark days, Motown records to listen to, then this’ll be a treat: NJ’s favourite complete unknowns, Patty & the Emblems might’ve scraped the US top forty just the once, and that almost half a century ago, but it isn’t without reason that they went on to become northern soul staples (which, I suppose, is hardly saying much, but still.) Their big – or as big as they ever got – single was Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl, which is nice enough, but it gets better. Patty Russell is a singer of Martha Reeves’ formidable calibre, the songs themselves are fine examples of sixties’ R&B, more to the pop end of the spectrum than the blues (i.e. more Motown than Stax), and the arrangements feature crisp grooves, horns and strings in equal measure, marvellous tenor backing vocals from the Emblems, and bassplaying of a kind which would later resurface in England in the hands of soul-worshippers like Bruce Thomas.
Highlights include, but aren’t limited to, the romping I’m Gonna Love You a Long, Long Time, the understated, reverby, and very pretty It’s the Little Things, complete with xylophone, and the heaving, emotional rush that is All My Tomorrows, which could quite easily – though probably by pure accident – sit with Amy Winehouse’s best.
So why it is that the two-disc comp I own is out of print, and that the only one you can find is this, which criminally omits both Little Things and All my Tomorrows, I can’t begin to guess. In the absence of even a functional torrent, you’ll have to rely on YouTube or Soulseek to hunt these songs down. But persevere: your efforts will be rewarded. And tell me what you think.
Have Fun with Snake Wagon
Here’s a ramshackle bit of goofiness I found. Snake Wagon bill themselves as “comedy/gospel”, which is a classic example of two adjectives which, whilst completely accurate in theory, wholly fail to capture the essence of what they’re trying to describe. What this record is, is a total hoot: loud carolling, shambling honky-tonk piano and much tubthumping in aid of such topics as giving all your money away (“but wait, can’t I keep my desk, it’s only that I use it to read the Bible?”), the Law of Inevitability and Those Lesbian Blues (which features a sound I can only think of as electric mud), all written and delivered with the same cheery, irreverent intelligence.
If you like the more Yea, Heavy and a Bottle of Bread aspects of the Basement Tapes, then this one’s for you. On Oh Lolita, the singing Snake Wagon says,
“It was just an ordinary Halloween before they caught us
I had my basket of special apples for all the kids
You joined me in my unmarked white van for to make sweet love
Then the cops pulled up and the rest is history.”
Bam Intifada – the Ska Vengers
There’s something I forgot to mention on the recent Ska Vengers post, and it’s time to put it to rights. Sat amidst all the jolliness, there’s a track called Bam Intifada: maybe it’s the Arab spring of last year, and the fact that a look at the newspapers often makes it seem like this country is on the verge of apocalypse, but the song sounds more taut and urgent each time I hear it. The argument about whether social protest has any place in art can be had elsewhere (Vladimir Nabokov was famously opposed to the idea, and he may well be right); indeed it’s not the “protest” bit of it that drives this song so much as the actual performance.
I don’t know if the Ska Vengers intend to release this as a single, though, in these days of attention-deficit, that would probably be a bad idea: the song goes from part to part, methodically clenching and unclenching, full of grimy, urban distorted organ and skronky wah-wah guitar, building up the tension systematically, until it pauses, takes a breath, and launches itself into a reckless, headlong rush that is as spectacular a demonstration of musical muscle as any you’ll have heard. At some point in this charge, all the instruments drop out except the drums, the police-siren keys and the singing: you’re left gasping, suspended in mid-air, held up by momentum, clinging on for dear life until they eventually decide to come in for a belly-landing.
What’s more, that Delhi Sultanate is a terrific singer. Where they found him, I don’t know, but this performance would fall apart in the hands of a lesser talent.
Superstar – the Carpenters
Owing to a well-founded bias against early seventies soft-rock, with its platitudes and its non-committal feel-good pleasantries, the Carpenters are normally made to live well off my radar. And yet, here’s something brilliant from them: a famous, famous cover of Delaney and Bonnie’s Superstar, a track which is so ubiquitous, I thought I’d never need to hear it again. Until I did, and it turned out to be a piece of pure class.
In case you don’t know already, Superstar is a girl’s lament about a touring musician who, in short, has had his way and moved on. She hasn’t forgotten and, by the looks of it, never will: and that’s the gist of the whole song. Karen Carpenter’s low-key singing makes it. She could well have given in to drama but, even at her most emotional, she stays honest, restrained. “Don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby? You said you’d be coming back this way again, baby.” Heartbreaking. And the last line kills it, the haunting, desperate, aching “baby, baby, baby, baby, oh baby, I love you.”
Soulfulness isn’t the same as sentimentality. This is soul.