[21 April 2006]
According to most accounts, guitarist Vernon Reid dedicated himself early on to the idea of genre-independence as a creative impulse; by conceptually drawing from the diverse history of music created by black artists without imposed limitations, the resulting sound would be boldly original while still adhering to tradition. It’s a cosmology that can be traced back as far as the launch of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1965, but when Reid and a handful of like-minded individuals founded the Black Rock Coalition 20 years later, the organization offered a rockist revision in its quest to unite all strains of Great Black Music under one mothership of a melting pot. Reid’s band Living Colour rose to prominence shortly thereafter, embarking on a high-profile manifestation of the Coalition’s tenets that continues to this day—the group’s nearly ten-year hiatus notwithstanding.
Everything Is Possible: The Very Best of Living Colour isn’t the first time the band has been anthologized, but it does present an opportunity to reconsider the band’s work, particularly in the context of its reunion and 2003 studio recording, Collideoscope. But as on previous compilations, Living Colour’s seemingly rapid ascent due to the strength of its 1988 debut Vivid, a series of inescapable videos on MTV, and subsequent gig opening a leg of the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels tour is the story Everything Is Possible‘s producers (Jeff Magid and Reid himself) seek to preserve. Six tracks from Vivid open the disc, cementing the status of a band that combined prog, metal, and funk like few others before them—although Bad Brains and 24-7 Spyz were at least on the same wavelength.
At the time, many guitar connoisseurs dis(miss)ed Reid’s playing as “sloppy”, which wasn’t necessarily all that surprising, coming from critics who often place higher value on technical abilities at passion’s expense. Regardless, his distinctive blend of metal speed and hardcore intensity fully informed Living Colour’s sound. Vocalist Corey Glover also made a strong impression—occasionally too much so, with his over-emotive tendencies and penchant for body suits—while the rhythm section, with Muzz Skillings (later replaced by Doug Wimbish) on bass and Will Calhoun on drums, proved itself able to handle anything that came its way—from the Afrocentric Yes of “Cult of Personality”‘s middle-section riff to “Funny Vibe”‘s schizophrenic flip-flopping between driving rock and bright, slap-happy funk.
But Vivid was merely the beginning, and although many critical evaluations unfairly consider it to be the beginning of the end as well, this compilation makes a valid case for the superiority of the group’s second album, Time’s Up. As heard here, the heavier songs from Time’s Up—“Type”, “Pride”, and the title track—rock harder than anything on Vivid, except perhaps for “Middle Man”. The band also displayed an overall maturation in its approach to songwriting. For example, the take on West African high life in “Solace of You” is significantly more convincing than its Vivid predecessor, “Glamour Boys”. The progress wasn’t just limited to musical concerns, however, as the group’s socially progressive lyrical content broke free of the didactic simplicity that makes a few of the Vivid tracks sound dated in retrospect.
The disproportionate weight of the playlist becomes abundantly clear after the Time’s Up material: 11 of the disc’s 17 tracks come from the band’s first two releases, while the rest offer brief representation for 1993’s Stain, 2003’s Collideoscope, and a handful of loose-end covers—like Jimi Hendrix’s “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”, taken from the rarities LP Biscuits and the True Lies soundtrack, respectively. Unlike the group’s version of the Talking Heads’ “Memories Can’t Wait” from Vivid, neither the Hendrix nor the Cream covers bring anything stellar in terms of reinterpretation, unless Reid’s ill-advised guitar synthesizer work on “Midnight Lamp” counts.
Unfortunately, Everything Is Possible repeats the blasphemy for which precedent was set by the 1995 compilation Pride: “Love Rears Its Ugly Head”, arguably the group’s biggest hit, is presented in an inferior “Soulpower Hip Hop Remix” version. Which begs the question of what audience the band and label are really trying to reach with this release—with Pride now out of print, newcomers wishing to check out what they missed back in the day get a slightly clearer picture of the band’s entire career to date, but with the tracks so skewed in favor of the first two records, the savvy consumer might do better to pick up Vivid and Time’s Up and call their Living Colour collection complete.