[25 May 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If you haven’t heard it in a while, put on Freda Payne’s 1970 hit “Band of Gold”—the one where she and her husband stay in separate rooms on their honeymoon—and listen to that opening guitar riff. THAT’s Dennis Coffey, and his riff’s steely wah-wah and flatted final note set the scene for all the shit that’s about to go down. That riff is the rising curtain, the operatic overture, the Bernard Herrmann title music to Payne’s horrific sex-deprived nightmare. It’s the darkness of a lonely room, filled with sadness, filled with gloom. Of course, it’s also a killer rock hook on an AM-radio soul hit; hence Coffey’s historical importance as a session guitarist.
There are few hipper cats releasing self-titled 14th albums this year, and the new Dennis Coffey arrives with a sheen of capital-C Cool. It trots out some of Coffey’s old session hits, like Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Knock My Love” and 100 Proof Aged In Soul’s “Somebody’s Been Sleeping”, that have aged remarkably well. It features young garage-soul singers, like Mick Collins of the Dirtbombs and Lisa Kekaula of the Bellrays, who are carrying the old Funk Brothers torch. It’s got several spacily-titled instrumentals in the tradition of “Scorpio”, Coffey’s biggest (#6) hit and the foundation for a parsec’s length of rap records. The symmetrical time-lapse album cover even mirrors Coffey’s ‘73 album Electric Coffey, with the electrified artist in the darkness of a lonely room.
So it’s a little disappointing when Dennis Coffey opens with… a pretty good bar-band funk workout. It’s got horns, congas, the works, but it’s all very polite. The guitar solo even stops to make room for the hackneyed horn fills, and everything just chugs along smoothly and competently. The band sure sounds well-rehearsed. They practically tell you to tip your waitress. Said opener is the spacily-titled “7th Galaxy”, which does very little to evoke astronomical netherworlds—Coffey could have named it “Motion Lotion” or “Crimestoppers are GO!!!” (these are just suggestions) and it would’ve had the same effect.
Most of the covers have the same problem. L.A. funk revivalist Fanny Franklin sasses “Don’t Knock My Love”, but she doesn’t approach Pickett’s feral screams-outta-nowhere, so the song just sits there. Same with Ann Arbor soul revivalist Mayer Hawthorne—his rendition of Parliament’s “All Your Goodies are Gone” is slick and respectful. That’s an unusual take on what was originally a sinister rewrite of “Like a Rolling Stone”, with George Clinton’s weird vocals slipping around the mix like a vial of bodily fluids. When Clinton sang the word “rectify”, he evoked an evil proctologist. Hawthorne sounds more like a moonlighting lawyer.
The instrumentalists don’t exactly help matters. They plow through “Goodies” like they’re afraid of outstaying their studio time. Their version of Funkadelic’s stalking “I Bet You” is faithful down to the screaming guitar escalations, but the arrangement isn’t as dark, and it’s way more homogeneous. Again, these musicians are all beyond competent, but aside from Coffey they don’t play with much personality.
The big exception is their cover of Rodriguez’s obscure Edgar Winter-ish “Only Good for Conversation”, with a startlingly mean vocal from Scottish singer-songwriter Paolo Nutini. It’s a lurid mustache of a song, suitable for a Dazed and Confused soundtrack. Also fine is the new instrumental “Knockabout”, with wordless “DAH! DAH! DAH!” vocals and a groove that’ll make you shake whatever’s handy—tambourines, moneymakers, babies. Coffey handles his riff and a short wah-wah solo with aplomb. He’s from the Keith Richards school—no extravagant meltdowns, but he makes every note sound like himself.
Dennis Coffey and his mates should play this music on cruise lines. Or maybe at theme parks—picture an all-ages extravaganza called “The Sound of Funky Detroit City”, with Coffey and his new jack pals trotting out the legacy hits for young and old, seven nights a week. The grown-ups would get a pleasant nostalgia buzz, the kids would concede that Coffey is plenty cool and they could’ve been dragged to much worse, and Detroit’s economy would get a needed boost. They’d have to excise the word “bitch” from “Conversation”, but otherwise it’d be a natural fit for Cedar Point or someplace.