Frank Popp Ensemble: Touch And Go

[18 May 2006]

By Dan Raper

You’re an assassin. You fly into London for a job; while drinking at the hotel bar, you spot the target at the cigarette machine. You seduce him with a flick of your (presumably blonde) wig; you accidentally trip as you walk past him, look up into his sparkling eyes. You’ve got him right where you want him. An hour later in his room, when you’re standing over him, gun pointed and silencer on, you’re thinking about his lips; his smile; his eyes widened in surprise. Moral of the story: “Business and pleasure / Never get the two mixed up / Oh no, never ever / Fall in love when you’re on the job.”

All that violence and intrigue—and that’s just the first song. Düsseldorf’s Frank Popp Ensemble has collected a funky, overwhelmingly fun set of tunes that run from James Bond-style hedonistic danger to disdainful love to boogying down like it’s 1969. The crooning vocals of Sam Leigh-Brown (female), are accompanied here by all the traditional instruments of ‘60s soul: Wurlitzer, rhythm guitar, and lots and lots of brass. The result is catchy, kitschy, undeniable.

Frank Popp Ensemble is a vehicle for the leader, Mr. Frank Popp, to pay homage to some obvious musical heroes, and he doesn’t so much update as re-create those sounds. For those of us who weren’t around to hear the sound of the original Northern soul movement, Touch and Go‘s a mini-history lesson; think Motown, soul, and early R&B and you’re pretty much there. But as filtered through years of spy films and spy film parodies, the music takes on a knowing, modern sheen—the group knows it’s somewhat tasteless, but the attitude is, the hell if that’s going to stop us having a great time. And for the most part, they pull the listener along with them.

So we get upbeat soul songs with organic, catchy melodies. “Don’t Waste My Time” has the Motown optimism of Michael Franti & Spearhead’s “Sometimes” with none of the social commentary. “Enough” incorporates strings into a fuller texture that really wouldn’t sound out of place as the theme song to Goldfinger. “Gettin’ Down” is a buzzy Wild West dance anthem, with an accordion lick and a honky-tonk funk that’s unstoppable. Go-go rock ‘n’ roll has a stronger influence on the funky, shuffling “Leave Me Alone”, with its classic “go baby go” chorus; though the opening is reminiscent of the Sesame Street theme, the vocals’ scorn for the male character brings the song past influence and evokes real emotion.

By the second half of the disc, you’re comfortable predicting the vein that each next song will take; but there’s just enough variation on the album that this is only a slight problem. “Fonce Dans Le Coeur” doesn’t have the overt lounge feel of Nouvelle Vague, but uses the sensual sound of the French language to great effect, like Fabienne Delsol on “Laisse Tomber Les Filles”. The instrumental closer “Slaughter at Primrose Hill” is like a soundtrack to a campy thriller, with a twangy rhythm guitar bass line, Wurlitzer, and prominent brass. But the brief dip into regular R&B territory doesn’t work so well, on “All I Need”. For some reason, on this track Leigh-Brown’s voice is drained of its sensibility (when the song needs it most). So instead of Alicia Keys’ moaning virtuosity, we get a pretty but too-pure imitation. And the one track with a male vocalist, “Psychedelic Girl”, feels a little out of place with its tinges of Krautrock influence.

These subject-matter on Touch and Go is so typically associated with the musical soundtrack Frank Popp Ensemble has crafted here that you almost get the sense that a lot of it is done tongue-in-cheek. The chorus from “Business and Pleasure”, for example, has a keen sense of irony. But Leigh-Brown’s vocals consistently win the listener over, communicating either derision, or deep sexiness, or longing with great versatility and equal success.

That’s the rub on this disc: you know you should be above it, but it’s just too much fun. Go ahead, enjoy it.

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