[7 February 2011]
As a producer, Dimitri from Paris made his name by blending swinging and silken exotica with disco and boogie, pinned together by virile house beats. Get Down with the Philly Sound is his fourth outing with Barely Breaking Even, a UK label who have been putting out obscure disco and boogie records for the last decade. The partnership boasts output like 2000’s Disco Forever, The Kings of Disco from 2004, and 2009’s Nightdubbin’. This, partnered by his “soundtracks” to the Playboy Mansion, has meant that Dimitri from Paris has largely been associated with music for girls to flex their flat stomachs to, and for mediating lusty glances across crowded dancefloors. This compilation, then, signals a turn towards the past, as Dimitri here soundtracks less sticky floors with the finest Philly soul.
For the uninitiated, Philly soul was a very popular brand of (yes) soul music emanating from (yes) Philadelphia. It was very popular in the early 1970s, and it has proved to be highly influential: It paved disco’s ascent to popularity in the later part of that decade, and profoundly influenced what we now call R&B. Indeed, much like disco, but perhaps less than contemporary R&B, Philly soul was a producer’s medium. Producers like Gene McFadden, John Whitehead, and Kenny Gamble slicked out songs with deep, smooth grooves and laced them with arching strings and flaring horns.
Get Down with the Philly Sound collects a series of classic Philly soul tracks on disc one, featuring contributions from Teddy Pendergrass, Eddie Kendrick, and the Trammps. Many of these tracks are extended cuts, which offers the listener the chance to explore Philly soul’s contribution to modern electronic dance music in its most organic, and perhaps purest, form. Where disc one documents Dimitri’s curatorial abilities, disc two demonstrates his skills as a remixer. Here, he expands the percussion and generally beefs up the tunes for the digital age. There is also a dinky little booklet for those who buy a physical copy of the compilation, which contains the story of Philly soul and includes interviews with key session musicians and colour photos.
Obvious stand-out tracks include “He’s a Friend” by Eddie Kendricks, the Trammps’ brilliant “The Night the Lights Went Out”, which refers to the New York City blackout of 1977, and Teddy Pendergrass’s shocking ability to make psychoanalysis sound sultry on opener “You Can’t Hide from Yourself”. Less obvious highlights appear in the form of John Davis & the Monster Orchestra’s cosmic “Night & Day”, the swooning “Hurt So Bad” by the Philly Devotions, and Charles Mann’s cover of Steely Dan’s “Do It Again”. By stripping the song of the Dan’s characteristic nasal irony, and smoothing out the hook, Mann plays it as a straight soul number. It works just as well, and it might even be the best thing on here, exuding a new-suit smartness—exactly what Philly soul stands for.
Teddy Pendergrass is all over this compilation, providing it with a focus, a central theme, that translates into a very satisfying sense of consistency. This highlights how broad his contribution to soul music has been, but, at times, it threatens to saturate the record, narrowing its coverage of the genre and risking its sense of history. Indeed, one gets the sense from Get Down with the Philly Sound that it doesn’t fulfill either of the roles it claims to play particularly well. It is not a comprehensive document of the genre of the sort found in Soul Jazz’s excellent run of form over the last decade. Nor does it cradle a series of dusted-down rarities, and Dimitri’s curatorial role doesn’t live up to the standards set by people like DJ Norman Jay, whose radio show had a strong emphasis on this sound. However, where Soul Jazz compilations are often a little self-serious, bordering on the geeky, Get Down is clearly focussed on the dancefloor.
Ultimately, while thoroughly imperfect, it will no doubt provide newcomers with an spit-shined accessible course into the organic roots of much contemporary dance music, and it has the potential to provide connoisseurs with a fresh look at a sound that they already know and love.