The beloved San Fransisco record store celebrates two decades with a collection of rare groove from its Luv N'Haight label.
What better place than San Francisco's famed and infamous Haight district for a truly groovy, old-fashioned record store? That's precisely where Groove Merchant Records has resided for the last two decades. From the beginning, the store specialized in "rare groove", or obscure, hard-to-find soul, funk, jazz, and Latin music. It didn't take long for the store to spawn its own record label to release some of its finds. The Luv N'Haight reissue imprint was soon joined by Ubiquity, which focused on signing and developing original talent. Both labels have played major parts in the popularity and development not only of rare groove, but also downtempo, trip-hop, acid jazz, and hip-hop.
The title Groove Merchant Turns 20 might seem odd to jazz fans, who might recall producer Sonny Lester's Groove Merchant jazz label that for over 30 years has released albums from the likes of Jimmy McGriff and Groove Holmes. This compilation, rather, celebrates the 20-ish anniversary of the Groove Merchant store. It features 14 ultra-rare selections, hand-picked by store founder Chris Veltri. One attribute both the Groove Merchant label and the Groove Merchant Turns 20 have in common is they are ripe for sampling by dance/downtempo/hip-hop artists and producers. That actually might be Groove Merchant Turns 20's best attribute, because listening to this compilation is like digging through the record bin at a garage sale or Goodwill store. You can almost hear the faded, raggedy record sleeves and the dusty grooves. You'll find a few gems here, sure, but you'll also find a bunch of stuff that's just… old.
All of these tracks date from between 1970 and 1982, and reflect the pretty wide variety of sounds that were available over that period. That includes the soul, funk, and jazz-influenced pop and dance music that rare groove is built upon, and makes for a fairly solid collection. As you might expect, it's like punk never happened. Without question, the "rare" part of the equation holds true here, as everything was originally self-released or issued by tiny, independent labels. The quality, though, is inconsistent. Quite frankly, while none of them are bad in the least, not many of these tracks rank among the best of their genres -- underground, mainstream, or otherwise.
On the soul tip, McCrary's "Emerge" twinkles along electric piano and with nice, vocalese-type harmonies. One definite highlight is the Numonics' "You Lied", which starts out as a piece of lumbering funk before the sweet, easy harmonies kick in, recalling the Spinners' "It's a Shame". Another highlight is Jodesha and Star Ride's "The Answer", a truly groovy, flute-driven tune that makes you imagine Curtis Mayfield fronting War. But then there's a merely pleasant curiosity like Twilight's one-man-band, synth-heavy "Straight to My Heart", which could have been a Hall & Oates album cut.
The least inspiring points come when Groove Merchant Turns 20 widens its scope beyond what might be called "urban music", into more psychedelic folk territory. While a borderline-loungy yet still-fresh track like Stump's "September" is at the very least forward-thinking, the hippy-dippy, sub-Grace Slick imagery of April Fulladosa's "Sunlit Horizon" has dated badly. Rod Abernethy has a very nice voice, but his "Ron and Eddie Blues" fares little better.
Leave it to disco, perversely enough, to save the day. What may have been Veltri's most self-indulgent entry turns out to be his most brilliant. That would be Round Robin's nine-minute workout, "Our Love Is So True". It's smooth, it's crisp, yet resonates with Robin's rich, warm voice and mantra-like refrain. With a 4-on-the-floor anchor, funky bass, and the requisite extended breakdown, it's a true masterpiece of the form. If there's a "lost classic" to be found among the collection, this is it. The deadpan funk of Arthur Roy's "Get Up and Dance" is the perfect chaser.
In a sense, you wish an entity with a history like Groove Merchant's could be represented here with more such definitive moments. Then again, Groove Merchant Turns 20 does a great job of demonstrating that even several decades ago, musicians were creating solid, viable material well outside the major label system. And the stories behind some of these songs, as detailed on Veltri's accompanying track-by-track blog, makes them even more intriguing.