Various Artists: The Best of Perception & Today Records

Various Artists
The Best of Perception & Today Records

Listen — it’s usually par to use a record label’s “Best Of” compilation as an opportunity to talk about genres begetting genres, weigh the careers that benefitted most from their time on said record label, and maybe bind it all together with an “Oh, those were different times” speech on how our own “fragmented” era compares unfavorably. Surely all of that could be done with these 30 cuts, collected from a short-lived New York label from the early ’70s: the cover describes the contents as funk/soul/breaks/jazz/Latin/rock, and the fact that Perception existed only from the tail end of the ’60s through 1974 — the year of Watergate and the start of the Vietnam War’s fade-out — adds historical implications that books could and have been written about. There’s certainly a running theme of sadness or yearning (as there tends to be with anything that ends too soon) that’s accentuated by the music’s muffled sound and sparer-than-you-might-think sense of arrangements; it’s the sound of frustration at ideas having blurred away with no specific aim (if indeed they ever had one) and the sound of positivity that comes with trying to find a new footing with the leftovers of those ideas.

As I started spending more time with these songs, blueprints of hip-hop and otherwise, and considering Perception’s capital-I “Importance”, the label’s own slogan began to seem more and more relevant: “If it’s on Perception, it’s Today”. Even leaving aside that that could be taken literally, a countercultural motto of sorts, the music itself seemed to gain a newness with each listen, and I realized that the important thing wasn’t just that the stuff was made in the early ’70s — which is crucial, of course — but that the compiled stuff arrived when it did: now. Not to get all determinist on y’all, but the fact that such stimulating (and assimilating) music was released in the spring of 2012 — and awaits your summer eagerly — can only be a sign of the times. This is the best compilation of any kind of music I’ve heard in a long time, always in motion but never wearying; always contrastive but strangely cohesive. And also, y’know, really really fun.

So yes, the music. Worth noting immediately is that this comp will be a gold mine for hip-hop fans: whether you want icy soul (the hard, assertive chord progression of Black Ivory’s “I Keep Asking You Questions” re-sinisterized by Raekwon for “Criminology”) or mellowed-out dissonance (the squeals of Tyrone Washington used by Madlib for “Return of the Loop Digga”), the sample-matching over both discs can run as thick and far as the drum sounds. And if there’s a problem with the package it’s the liner notes, which are tight but could’ve been more informative about those samples — and for that matter about the artists themselves, some of whom haven’t received reissue treatment until now. But in terms of specifics to recommend, it’s hard to even begin. There’s a couple of bigger, recognizable names: Dizzy Gillespie developed a true clarity with “fusion” on Perception, one of jazz’s original titans taking the form into its next (last?) great era (dig pianist Mike Longo’s high chime on “Alligator”), and the perma-hip Astrud Gilberto passed through with an album called Now that freeze-dried her tricks and lulls at their most optimistic. (The squeaks that drive Gilberto’s “Gingele” are outright eccentric — is that a dog barking through a door? A heel spinning on glass?)

After them, aesthetic gets harder to nail down. Instrumentally, muted horns are common and thankfully so. The low end of the drums has a muffled sound that brings out a kind of fragility in even the tightest-wound grooves: the tick of cowbell in the Fatback Band’s terrific “Njia (Nija) Walk” is just enough to make you crave without being underwhelmed, and the percussion in Bill Curtis’s “Dance Girl” seems to catch itself over and over again while a determined voice states things like “Earth” and “Keep on truckin'” over the funk. Everything’s tight, but it all has crucial hints of syncopation. The oozing groove of J.J. Barnes’s “You Owe It to Yourself” lets the strings shiver up and down — there’s something missing that needs to be found, and Barnes is smart enough not to show all his cards at once.

And in terms of sheer musicianship, this stuff is tops. Ingenious songwriting details — the bass doubling the organ halfway through its climb in Madhouse’s “Get Some of This” over hissy hi-hats; the flute and xylophone peeking melodies over each other in forgotten great Joe Thomas’s “Chitlins & Cuchifritos” — flicker by so casually that it’s easy to just drift away, dreamlike. The Eight Minutes seem at times like a pleasant but instrumentally flatter Jackson 5, but more listens will reveal a touching plaintiveness in the echoey space left by their harmonies and their beautiful singing: “Looking for a Brand New Game” is a push-us-forward growing up song, and the backing chorus that comes midway through “Take My Love Don’t Set Me Free” is tuneful in a particularly desperate way. (That’s a compliment.) And just when you think the sequencing is about to lean too heavily on bass-drum interplay, Bartel does as much for raw guitar funk as the others do for the low end — the distortion in “Naturally Good” is so on-the-mark that the little twirls and fills feel like hallucinations. Only Johnny Pate’s “Brother on the Run” has aged poorly, and that’s mostly in comparison to similar, more assertive anthems from blaxploitation (i.e. “Freddie’s Dead”).

But I’m getting too academic, and this is music that deserves a more visceral approach. This is music that appeals to your hips, your fingers, and your feet, which isn’t to cheapen it by implying that it’s “just dance music”. The piano in J.J. Barnes’s “Wishful Thinking” will empathize with you at three in the morning. James Moody’s flute is conducive to curiosity. Black Ivory will calm you down with piano in “You and I” (sampled and sped-up by Q-Tip for “Gettin’ Up”) just as much as they’ll pump you up with a horn hook in “Surrender”. Bobby Rydell will remind you of a time when ballads felt like the singer was searching for something, rather than just announcing. And Wanda Robinson closes each disc with poetry that distinguishes racial identity while simultaneously mapping a grand universal experience that transcends race entirely. (“With blossoms in my hair, I might have danced with a man who, taking my hand, would fill my mind with the goodness of things to come/Talk to my thighs, make my belly rise ’til I can feel, really feel, the aching movements of a proud, unborn warrior, impatiently awaiting the time when he too could eat the heart of a lion….”) And the last 30 seconds of the long-forgotten Albert’s “One Life” is simply beautiful: as the horns slip down in that conflicted, heartbreaking way of theirs, you can almost see the movie fade-out from a technicolor sunset.

But when it comes down to it, Perception’s general “sound” wasn’t as decked-out or opulent as all these lush pianos and tingly violins might suggest — and yet it wasn’t down-and-dirty raw, either. It was both, which is to say it was neither, which is to say that it’s complicated. Even though the washed-out sounds and distant harmonies recall fatigued records like Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On — the greatest musical statement of the counterculture’s failure — the positivity and energy runs straight through without a hitch. You wouldn’t be able to imagine this music, so never-give-up in spirit, coming from any time but the early ’70s, but you wouldn’t be able to imagine this compiled product coming at a better time than the spring of 2012. Talking about Perception’s importance in the spiderweb of musical influence probably requires a greater understanding of black culture than I’m capable of giving. All one can do is approximate past experiences through outside forces — like, say, music. I envy the thought of anyone discovering these tracks anew, because the grooves are so hard that they can’t breeze by as mere pleasantries and because the charms come so easy that anyone with hips can get into them. The common threads are pleasure and rhythm — after that, you’re on your own.

RATING 9 / 10