[23 January 2009]
The Chicago-based reissue label Numero Group has made its name hunting down and compiling long-defunct and always-obscure R&B sides from decades past—Detroit’s Big Mack label, Chicago’s Bandit label, and Columbus, Ohio’s Capsoul are but a few of the treasures unearthed in Numero’s ongoing “Eccentric Soul” series. Occasionally, the label directs its gaze elsewhere, past the dust-covered crates of forgotten soul sides, and trips across other pockets of obscurity, including folkie Catherine Howe, the Yellow Pills power-pop collection, and other eclectic oddities on its new-ish Asterisk imprint.
The Numero Group’s latest compilation, Titan: It’s All Pop!, is an example of the latter; the collection surveys the power-pop scene of Kansas City, Missouri circa 1978-1981, through the eyes of the Titan label. Titan was short-lived, and despite best intentions, only released a handful of material: seven singles and two LPs—a compilation and a live album. (Co-owners Mark Prellberg and Tom Sorrells had lots of stuff in the works when the money ran out—hence the 42 tracks spread across two discs on this compilation.)
Most of the music here can be traced to the nerd-glammy, commercially hungry power-pop of the day—Badfinger, the Raspberries, and Cheap Trick are the obvious, not to mention righteous, touchstones. And yet, the majority of these tracks are simply awesome in their own right, songs of sweaty hope and nervous release rife with fast-moving calculation and ecstatic melody. Highlights include Gary Charlson’s country-rock mover-and-shaker “Shark” and “Real Life Saver”, which plays like an AM radio-ready incarnation of Big Star; Secrets’ propulsive and jagged “It’s Your Heart Tonight”; songs that make pleas like “Please Change Your Mind” (Boys) and “Brown eyes, I can’t take any more of your lies” (Charlson, again, truly the hero of this collection, with “Brown Eyes”); and most magnificently, Millionaire at Midnight’s “Coit Tower”, which packs Midwestern longing, windswept rock ‘n’ roll drive, and cowbell into a killer chorus. For even the power-pop tourist, Titan: It’s All Pop! is all kinds of supreme.
Titan: It’s All Pop! is as much the document of a community as it is of a label’s meager output. That sense of community is at the heart of Eccentric Soul: The Young Disciples, the latest entry in Numero’s “Eccentric Soul” series. In 1966, Allan Merry, a woodwind player and recent graduate of Tennessee A&I’s music program, was hired by the South End Neighborhood Opportunity Center, in East St. Louis, Illinois, to help get kids off the street and start playing music. (As the set’s liner notes detail, East St. Louis had devolved from being one of the National Civic League’s “All America” cities in 1959 to a hotbed of crime and vice, even earning the dreaded “Murder Capital” tag for a few years.)
Merry offered lessons to anyone with an instrument, and soon he had organized the Young Disciples, a youth group comprised of eager R&B musicians—horn and woodwind players, drummers, guitarists, all of them pursuing something beyond the ennui of the streets. After the collective made its debut on Halloween of 1967, the city began to embrace what Merry had begun; before long, the Young Disciples were rehearsing in City Hall, performing Motown-esque revues as far away as Washington, D.C., and starting their own label.
The story behind the Young Disciples is arguably stronger than the actual music, which mirrors contemporary trends in R&B and soul without establishing a truly original sound. LaVel Moore’s “The World Is Changing”, built up with strings and horns à la Curtis Mayfield, has a weirdly quasi-goofy vibe. The Young Disciples Co.‘s “Crumbs from the Table” mines the well-worn James Brown groove, while Third Flight’s self-titled number recalls Norman Whitfield-era Temptations. The stand-out track in my mind is Bobby McNutt’s “Country Loving Country Style”, which boasts a confident strut and vocal, and a whole lot of gritty Southern soul-isms. McNutt’s vocal is a little uncontrolled at times, but it’s an undeniable track—breathless, ready, a thing that wants to be bigger than it actually is.