Andre Gibson, Chicago native and frontman for the Universal Togetherness Band, was a literal student of music in the late ’70s and early ’80s when the Universal Togetherness Band recorded. He was mired in a musical dissertation with no deadline. But when the audio engineering program at Columbia College went looking for acts students could record in the studio, Gibson and his band jumped at the chance. From 1979-1982, the band recorded — for free, with students using the experience to learn basic engineering skills — a huge mass of Gibson’s compositions. Numero Group’s Universal Togetherness Band compiles a tight cross-section of those recordings, showing the bands tight chops and expansive taste.
The band is most often identified as disco-funk, and there’s some accuracy to it when you hear the taut thump of “Real Thrill” and especially the more spare percussive danceability of “Ain’t Gonna Cry”. But both songs show an appreciation for organic sounds. Where the most garish disco sanded its instruments down to soft sounds, “Real Thrill” lets the guitar maintain some bite, and “Ain’t Gonna Cry” shifts into a psych-rock breakdown with a brilliant call and response from the guitar and piano. The band is clearly interested in getting you to shake your hips with these songs, but there’s also something bittersweet in the wordless refrains of “Ain’t Gonna Cry”, and brash defiance in the playful braggadocio of “Real Thrill”. More than contrasting dance grooves with more complicated emotions, though, the band also knocks genres together to see what kind of crash they’ll make.
The genre shifting continues over the course of these eight tracks. “My Sentiment” sounds, at first, like straight ahead soul pop. It bounces along on basic piano chords and lean percussion. It also provides us with Gibson’s most nuanced and tuneful singing, and the vocal harmonies the group adds only elevate the melodies. But there’s also keys and horns that push at the constraints of structure, suggesting something closer to fusion than pop music. “Once In A Lifetime” is not a Talking Heads cover, but it plays with rhythms the way David Byrne’s band did, and the song’s deeply funk groove takes a backwards route through musical traditions, circling through Afrobeat before coming back to James Brown.
The influence of Afrobeat subtly works its way through the entire collection. Sure, “Call For Love” sounds more like Mayfield or Gaye, and “Try Try Try” feels almost too spacey to classify, but there’s an approach that unites these disparate sounds. The songs are deeply rooted in hooks and melodies, but like Afrobeat, the overall effect is not one of catchiness but rather repetition. Choruses become endlessly repeatable mantras as these songs stretch out. Verses that help shape the songs get left behind quite often. The band seems to be keenly aware of pop sensibilities, and is constructing songs to get stuck in your head, but Gibson — like his endless dissertation — seems to want to stretch these songs past their logical end, past a breaking point and into a whole new realm. The results, at their best, are transfixing. Even if these songs were created in school, there’s nothing academic about them in practice.
The songs here are energetic and energizing, and the production impressive considering where and how the tunes were recorded. There’s also a feeling, though, that this collection is just getting started. The songs represent the best the Universal Togetherness Band can offer, but the eight songs also feel like an entryway to a world music fans can and should get lost in. In that way, the album succeeds while also denying you what you want. The set feels too short, though you can appreciate wanting to leave us wanting, perhaps to open the door for future releases. So Universal Togetherness Band is a strong introduction, though it could stand to let us get a bit more familiar, a bit more entangled, with such a formidable group.