“Strawberry Letter 23” - The Brothers Johnson
Written by Shuggie Otis
From Right on Time (A&M, 1977)
A little sonic marvel, “Strawberry Letter 23” is one of Quincy Jones’ finest moments as a producer. It begins with an instantly identifiable, semi-ominous keyboard figure. Soon after, a tight funk groove kicks in, riding on Brother Louis’ slippery bass, Harvey Mason’s always-funky drums, Brother George’s slinky rhythm guitar, Ralph MacDonald’s sleek percussion, and a mini-choir of smoothed out background vocals. Jones at the board really outdoes himself here, achieving a stately funk-elegance in the production which makes the whole thing a powerful, hypnotic listen from start to finish. The setting for Lee Ritenour’s guitar solo is particularly memorable.
“Strawberry Letter 23” was written by Shuggie Otis, son of the great bandleader Johnny Otis and a fine, maverick R&B artist in his own right. The lyrics are a trip; to this day, I’m not exactly sure what they’re all about. Dig the first couple of stanzas:
April might be a bit late for a list like this, but I did hear from some Expert on NPR that the decade does not technically end until December 31, 2010. So really, I’m early! And although every rock rag in the world did their lists months ago, I will submit my picks now.
Caveat: these are based purely on personal quirk. Before you call bullshit, let us remember the wise words of Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, “How can it be bullshit to state an opinion?” They are simply the albums that shaped my musical landscape, for which I know every lyric of every song backward and forward, that I would take with me to that mythical desert island we music lovers always talk about. They comprise the soundtrack that was playing when I fell in love, when I got married, when I had my babies, when I went to work, when I fell out of love, when I got divorced, when I did all the good and bad and fun and serious and stupid things I did in this oddest of decades. Most people, places and things come and go, but one truth that has never left me since the day I was born is my intense and abiding love for my music. This is my music. Maybe some of it is yours, too.
There’s a youthful embrace for all things synth coming from musicians barely or not even alive in the ‘80s. As one who gasped with the crowd as the Cure took the stage without a drum kit and began the set by pushing play to beats on a prerecorded track, I’m enjoying the current offerings by bands such as Passion Pit, Friendly Fires and Two Door Cinema Club. Two Door Cinema Club began three years ago by a trio of boys in Northern Ireland when they were 15—do the math and be amazed. Sam Halliday and Alex Trimble actually knew each other in grammar school and began studying music together before meeting Kevin Baird. When a drummer dropped out, they experimented with manufacturing their own drum tracks and decided they liked it that way. Their name comes from a mispronunciation of a local cinema, known as the Tudor Cinema club and their new debut album, Tourist History, refers to the popularity of their hometown of Bangor as well as the band’s extended travels with their gain in notoriety. This follows songs on a Kitsune music compilation and an EP produced by the French record label last year. Tourist History is comprised of ten tightly composed songs which bounce along with shout outs, crowd noises and walls of electronic sound.
I discovered “Something Good Can Work” last spring and promptly put it in a prominent spot on my personal playlist. Its unabashed happy-go-lucky feel had me hooked.
Another favorite off the EP, “Do You Want It All”, leads off with manufactured high hats, guitar arpeggios and keyboard chords before Trimble’s sweet vocals. The next song, “This Is the Life” is a new fun find, cranking up a funky groove into another wash of synths before the vocals come in—the title becomes the chorus followed by ‘woos’ most appropriately. “I Can Talk” starts with percussive vocals which explode to a full blown rollicking sound to amp up the energetic approach.
“Eat That Up, It’s Good For You” also begins slowly with lyrics like “You would look a little better, you know, if you wore less makeup” as a reminder of the teen viewpoint but all is forgiven by another explosion of sound at the chorus with more cheerful shout outs in the background. Everything dramatically drops out to end with only the hum of a chord.
Tourist History can be previewed until May 5th on kcrw.com and the band will visit the station’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” show on May 4th. It’s a live session that I already have marked on my calendar.
Miike Snow are the International Men of Mystery of the electro-pop scene. Whether disguising their faces behind ghostly white masks or hiding behind their Jackolope logo, there is something coolly enigmatic about them. Swedish producers Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg were famous behind the scenes, crafting pop hits for Madonna and Britney Spears (the duo won a Grammy for their work on Spears’ Toxic) before recruiting American musician Andrew Wyatt to form Miike Snow. Their 2009 eponymous debut is a smooth hybrid of throwback soul, ‘80s synth, and electro anthems, with just the right amount of sex appeal and songwriting chops to attract the ladies and discerning hipsters alike. Finally getting to meet the men behind the masks, I sat down with Miike Snow before their sold-out, April 5th appearance at Chicago’s Metro Theater.
Few artists get to a stage where they need to release an album to dismantle people’s perceptions. In many cases, these types of albums are known as “career suicide” albums. Think Faith No More’s Angel Dust or Nirvana’s In Utero as a reaction to people’s perceptions of the band based on hearing only one of their songs. Think Kiss’ The Elder as their bid to be taken seriously. Or think Garth Brooks’ excursion as Chris Gaines as his reaction to…something.
In terms of hip-hop, De La Soul was one of the pioneers of the genre, so it was appropriate that the band released one of the first perceived “career suicide” albums in hip-hop. De La Soul is Dead was released in 1991 as gangsta rap was still the dominant force in rap. Before Dr. Dre’s The Chronic made gangsta rap more palatable to suburbia, bands like N.W.A. and the Geto Boys as well as Ice Cube’s solo work participated in a one-upsmanship in terms of their hardness. This left De La Soul even more out of the mainstream than when they released their classic debut album Three Feet High and Rising. In addition to competing with gangsta rap on the radio, De La Soul was dealing with the stresses of releasing a follow-up album to an instant classic, a mass of hangers-on begging them to listen to their demo and the label of being “the hippies of hip-hop.”