[29 October 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
“Come along with us and get ‘STRUNG OUT.’” Who could resist that invitation? There, on the back cover of Gordon Staples and the String Thing’s 1970 album are those eight words, punctuated by the signature of the the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster himself. An album bearing the image of a violin might seem incongruous for a label that had just struck gold with the Jackson Five, but that’s to miss just how vital Gordon Staples was to the stream of hits that kept Motown artists on the charts throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. Just imagine Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together” without that distinct string introduction, and the significance of Staples’ contributions are instantly comprehended.
Strung Out was a full-length immersion into the genius of both Staples and arranger Paul Riser, who composed seven of the album’s 10 tracks. Long an obscurity among crate-diggers and fans of Blaxploitation cinema (much of it appeared in the ‘76 film, Mean Johnny Barrows), Strung Out now has a second life in the 21st century thanks to Reel Music. From the opening tune-up on the title track, which quickly launches into an irresistible groove courtesy of the Funk Brothers, Strung Out promises not just a listening experience but a listening excursion. In fact, “Sounds of the Zodiac” is a journey of its own accord. The first and third parts of the piece are alternately suspenseful and dreamy, like a spider slowly weaving a web. The second part is uninhibited funk that transports the listener to the Sanctuary (the legendary Manhattan club), dancing spiritedly among revelers. It’s an intoxicating piece written by Riser and conducted with scintillating precision by Staples.
Indeed, the strongest moments on the album are those written by Riser. “If Your Love Were Mine” and “It’s Got to Be Alright” illustrate his range from writing sprawling romantic pieces to rhythmic ear candy. While time has not treated some aspects of the album particularly well (the sitar on “Toonie”), Strung Out still serves up a potent potion of soul and symphony. Heed Gordon Staples’ invitation.