[20 May 2010]
Lawrence Ross’s is a story perfect for reissue glorification and vinyl digger endorsement. At the time of Still Loving You‘s recording in 1981, Ross’s day job was a night shift manager in a General Mills factory. If Still Loving You had enjoyed a wider release, his coworkers and the funk world at large may have been fairly impressed with what Ross was putting together in his mind in the breaking hours of the morning on those shifts. Unable to afford (or perhaps trust) bandmates, Ross single-handedly constructed and recorded all but the brass on Still Loving You, Paul McCartney or Prince-style, in about a week on a budget of $1,200.
Ubiquity Records, a quickly rising west coast soul and funk label, is smart to revive these two Twilight recordings and shine a light on a lost career. The opening “Play My Game” storms out of the gate equal parts Earth, Wind & Fire and Steely Dan, while “Give Love a Try” feels like a would-be late period Motown hit. Twinges of disco crossover are apparent in a few of the rhythms, but mostly Ross was able to keep it funky and loose. It really is remarkable to hear this album when understanding every piece of sound comes from him, if only because the practice was not so widely accepted or easily achieved as it is today.
The first issue that always seems to stand out as “Come With Me” queues up is that Ross was a bit one-note in his recording. Perhaps it’s a result of how he conjured music up, but the follow-up, 1986’s Pains of Love, suffers from similar problems. He isn’t a very adventurous lyricist and rarely goes for the kill on his melodies, so many of his songs sound fairly similar on the surface. Secondly, many of the songs here feel like they start mid-section and search for a beginning from there. Over the course of 11 tracks, this sort of thing can only be distracting and derailing. The songs themselves are good, but “Come With Me” is an example of a song that feels more like a second attempt at better songs on the disc than a new avenue for the album.
“Scorpittarius”, the song that landed Ross a (short-lived) career in music, is intriguing, but to my ears suffers from too openly revering Brazilian samba and folk music rather than finding Ross’s own vision for the sound. It’s essentially the story of the album as a whole, and something it would seem he tried to answer for with his synth-oriented sound on his next LP. Still Loving You doesn’t sound as unique as Pains of Love, but it may be the more timeless of the two sets. In the hands of a more powerful vocalist, some of these songs—“Love’s the Way” in particular—would be strengthened considerably, but Still Loving You is definitely an admirable one-man side project from Lawrence Ross, instinctually funky General Mills night shift manager.
Though Still Loving You was put out on a very limited run, it did earn Ross some local cache as a songwriter. His talent for putting various elements of a band together by hand and making them come to life were evident from the recording, and so logically he sought to put his next effort out through a live band. Paul Mack, Jr., someone in promotions at Atlantic Records, had helped make Twilight’s “Scorpittarius” a regional radio hit, and got Ross in the studio with local funk group Smith and Wessun to cut some demos. Those demos, five of which appear here in re-worked form, were favorable for Atlantic, but Smith and Wessun broke up before a contract could be finalized.
Ross really enjoyed the sound he was getting out of songs like “You Look So Good” and “Pains of Love”, so he returned to his newly built personal studio with a brand new Prophet 5 synthesizer in hand and went to work remixing the album. It’s a sharp shift from the sound of Twilight’s debut, as the Prophet 5 becomes by far the dominant characteristic of Ross’s sound. It seems to have been his ultimate muse, as well.
“You Look So Good” draws perhaps Ross’ best and most versatile vocal, a far cry from even the thin (though endearing) work on this album’s opening track. The song’s summery bounce contains elements of Earth, Wind & Fire and late-period Motown, but thanks to the reliance on synth, sounds more like it’s own thing than it would have otherwise. “I Wonder Who” finds Ross doing something like imagining Stevie Wonder penning a tune for Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and a lot of the songs here stay in that same mood: mid-tempo, love-obsessed balladry. “You Look So Good” excels at this, but it’s the couple of dance cuts that really steal the show.
On first listen “You’re in Love” isn’t the most sensational of cuts—this type of jam was consistently dotting radio playlists in the mid-‘80s already, and modern revivalists of this California funk like Dam-Funk have arguably harnessed this stuff in more gripping ways. But I quickly found it was the one song that could really sink its teeth in, even today, and quickly become a very familiar sort of song—like going through old Billboard charts and finding hits long since forgotten.
“Never Want to See You Low” and “Find Someone Else” are the most in the vein of Ross’s previous work as Twilight. Both songs sound more like a full band backing him with flourishes of keyboards in the background rhythms. The former is a pretty competent dance floor number, though it rests on a repetitive vocal, but “Find Someone Else” just doesn’t feel right here. It startles the album’s momentum early, and just doesn’t feel up to the caliber of everything else on the album. “Give All My Love” is a ballad that strains for a plodding, proto-Boyz II Men sort of feel and does a similar derailing.
Ultimately, Pains of Love reveals a lot of its original inspiration as a set of demos, as the lyrics and some of the melodies aren’t any more significant than decorations. Both albums are certainly intended for the serious collector of synth funk, a sound that’s experiencing a healthy revival currently in the same parts of the world. Lawrence Ross often hinted at a future in music, but ultimately he was never afforded the opportunity to flesh out those flirtations. These Luv ‘n’ Haight reissues do the best possible job of glorifying and anthologizing his contributions to his own local scene, though. And any time you can get a record that was going for hundreds if not thousands of dollars in collector auctions for the price of a regular CD, that certainly deserves some recognition as well.