Friday, February 8, 2013

Isaac Hayes: Branded

When you're going to release an album from an iconic singer, you use an iconic image on the cover, right? So for Isaac Hayes' first album in seven years, and his first (and last, as it turns out) studio album, Virgin's Pointblank label featured a cropped-in closeup of Ike's shaven head and sunglasses -- an image instantly identifiable to soul lovers everywhere.

Also instantly identifiable was Hayes' voice, that signature deep baritone that could shout, whisper and coo without dropping a beat. By the time this album was released in 1995, he'd become a genuine Godfather of soul and hip-hop, taking his place up next to George Clinton in the halls of the Funky Fathers.

Some comebacks can be disappointing. Not this one - Ike was in full form, with his signature brass and wah-wah chuck-a-lucking in the background, strings swelling, and the musical canvas awash with love, sex and booty-bumpin'. Just like the Hayes of yore.

The disc starts off with one of Hayes' signature extended atmosphere pieces, 12 minutes' worth of mood setting to get you into the proper frame of mine, y'see. Although listed on the jacket as four individual tracks, the pieces flow smoothly into each other, getting the groove lubed up for what's to come.

After the opener comes another Hayes signature: a slowed-down, extended vamp on the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer In The City." And when Isaac intones "Back of my neck gettin' dirt and gritty," you'd best believe it - you can feel the sweat and heat in every syllable. As the album moves along, Hayes plays tribute to himself, with an almost note-for-note reprise of "Soulsville", one of the standout cuts from the "Shaft" movie soundtrack he scored nearly 30 years before. But just so you know he ain't no has-been, he launches into the album's closer, "Hybperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic", a 12-minute chunk of sharp hip-hop funk that features a sharp female chorus chanting the title 'word' at regular intervals while Ike raps on. It's since become a club classic.

It's a tour-de-force, and it turned out to be his last. After this disc, Hayes put recording on the back burner while he romanced his second love, acting. He was recording tracks for a new album in 2008 when high blood pressure claimed him; the album was never finished. He was just 65. "Branded" stands as one of his best, and a testimonial to a multi-talented, multi-faceted career.

For More Research:

Heart: Bebe Le Strange

Heart had a pretty amazing ride in the '70s. Coming from nowhere in 1976, they ripped up the charts with their debut Lp, "Dreamboat Annie", and the radio killers "Magic Man" and "Crazy On You". Fans were in love with Ann & Nancy Wilson, not only because they were smokin' hot, but because they were women who could rock. Ann's delivery was regularly likened to that of Robert Plant (it didn't hurt that a bootlegged concert cover version of "Battle of Evermore" leaked out from Heart fanboys). They were on fire.

Then came "Heartless", and "Little Queen" and "Barracuda", and "Dog And Butterfly". It seemed the band was unstoppable, but personnel changes behind the scenes were making things rough. By the time 1980 came around, Heart had already released 4 Lps; "Bebe Le Strange" would be their 5th, and it was the hardest rocking album to date.

The title track was an FM radio hit, played on every album-rocker from KMET to WMMS. And "Even It Up" was a Top 40 hit, but it only got to #33, a victim of the punk/New Wave tide that was sweeping over pop radio. The ladies tried to update their sound to match the trend, but it was a bust - songs like "Break" and "Down On Me" rocked hard and edgy, but the melodies were nowhere to be found. As a result, the record sounds unfocused and uneven, even with the presence of the two aformementioned radio hits and the gorgeous "Silver Wheels", which ends Side 1.

I think this album has aged poorly due to this lack of focus, but it's certainly not Heart's worst - that (dis)honor would come a couple of years down the road, when the Wilsons traded their guitars for synthesizers to regain radio play.

For further research:
  • "Magic Man" performed live on The Midnight Special, 1977, with original guitarist Roger Fisher rippin' it up. Ann is at her most Plant-ish here.
  • "Dreamboat Annie" recorded live on stage, but with no audience about the same time, 1976-'77 or so. This clip showcases Nancy fingerpicking her acoustic while the band harmonizes behind her.
  • The controversy surrounding Heart's 2nd Lp, "Magazine", is not only the stuff of legend but an inside look at how the music industry works. Read about it on Wikipedia.

Flatt & Scruggs: Hard Travelin'

After listening to the big 2LP set of Flatt & Scruggs (reviewed here), I dug out a studio album that I picked up on a trip to Lancaster, PA last year. "Hard Travelin'" was released in 1963, just about the time of the Beverly Hillbillies debut on TV - notice that the jacket calls out "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" prominently!

While F&S are renowned for their bluegrass roots, "Hard Travelin'" features precious little bluegrass - it's more of a straight country album in the mold of the early-60s. Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of bright spots, like "Ballad", and "99 Years Is Almost For Life", the story of a young man wrongly put away for a long time by a judge who wanted his fiancee. There's also "The Wreck Of The Old 97", a train song in the best Southern tradition of train songs, complete with "you'll be sorry" danger warning. And "Pastures of Plenty" is a farm-worker's lament, very much like that of Woody Guthrie's "Deportee", but from the other side of the coin.

All in all, not a bad record, but an average one. Listeners looking for a hard fix of bluegrass pickin' will not sate their lust here, but if you're in a Country barn-dance sort of mood, this might just fit the bill. (Later reissued as "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" by Columbia, who knew a good thing when they saw one.)