Happy Music: The Best of the Blackbyrds

[11 July 2007]

By Justin Cober-Lake

The liner notes to Happy Music: The Best of the Blackbyrds explicitly hits the primary reason for these new Blackbyrds compilations (the band’s largely been forgotten), but it also acknowledges the two nearly insurmountable obstacles to establishing the act as a top R&B group: The Blackbyrds “were not primarily innovators,” and they were “neither fish nor fowl” (funk/soul or jazz). The group’s music doesn’t fit easily into any category, but it also doesn’t completely carve out its own space. If those two ideas hold up, it’s difficult for the Blackbyrds to grab stereo time. Both ideas remain largely true, but the Blackbyrds, at least on Happy Music, prove that neither one limits the entertainment level of a good record.

The compilation contains a handful of monster tracks, most notably “Happy Music” and “Do It, Fluid”. The former shows the band’s ability to tightly integrate various hooks, matching a higher guitar part with a resounding low-end sound, and running an energetic bassline beneath more excited horn parts. The matched pieces allow the band to maintain a simple groove through different sections of a song (including the bass whole notes). “Do It, Fluid” maintains a more steady bounce, relying primarily on the bass, but also effectively using background vocals as a rhythmic device.

Those two tracks stand out, but nearly all the 14 tracks on this disc reveal the Blackbyrds strengths in blending jazz influences into a harder funk sound. “Blackbyrds Theme” (which, like quite a few of these numbers, has been repeatedly sampled by hip-hop artists) feels poised to take off at any moment, even as the band stays tightly in the pocket. Tracks like “Walking in Rhythm” smooth it out a little too much, but still reveal artists who fit their pieces together very well.

Unfortunately, the cuts on LoveByrds: Soft & Easy suffer too much from that smoothness without offering enough rewards. This disc compiles love songs from the Blackbyrds’ career, apparently to respond to the idea “that the band was just for bumpin’ and funkin’ up the party.” What it actually does, though, is show how much better the group was at the hard funk than at this style, in which they mostly produce inoffensive, unobtrusive music—not the best for romance.

Opener “A Heavy Town” sets a mood that not much on this disc could overcome, with a slow trumpet part leading into far-too-smooth jazz. The group replaces memorable melody and rhythm with atmospherics, but the sound doesn’t stick, fading into background music—or worse, uninteresting music you still hear. It’s music for when the lead character takes a lonely walk down a city street, but in a movie that bores you too quickly. Following track “All I Ask” turns completely into hotel lounge music, enough so that it’s even hard to imagine the same group is performing on this compilation as on Happy Music. It feels like the band is indulging its serious musical side, ignoring the fact that their funk is serious even when it’s playful.

Not all the cuts are this forgettable. “Wilford’s Gone”, for one, builds a nice ambience around a little bassline and a nice horn part. The players sound more aware of having a statement to make. Even without going for funk or a groove, they push their instrumental message forward, like it matters. Too many of these songs miss the essence of the romantic cut that either sets the mood or inspires further awareness of the listeners’ circling of each other. Despite the artistic success of numbers like “Lady”, these pieces are often too intrusive for real atmosphere but too dull to stand up as a rewarding source of entertainment. They might be intended as love songs, but some of these tracks don’t work outside of the stereotypical lounge (I see gold couches) or the nightlife of a ‘70s sitcom. It’s a shame because the steady flow of these numbers is a disservice to a band that really could get it together.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-blackbyrds-happy-music-the-best-of-the-blackbyrds-lovebyrds-soft-easy/