Dexter Wansel: Stargazer

Stargazer compiles all of Dexter Wansel’s Philadelphia International recordings, but the collection’s sequencing leaves something to be desired.

Dexter Wansel

Stargazer: The Philadelphia International Records Anthology 1976-1980

Label: BBR
US Release Date: 2016-08-12
UK Release Date: 2016-08-05

A master producer, arranger, composer, and session musician within the Philadelphia International stable of artists, Dexter Wansel set out in the late ‘70s to prove he could just as easily do for himself what he had done for others. Using then-popular science fiction and interstellar themes as a jumping off point, he released his solo debut, Life on Mars, in 1976 and followed it up with three other records before the decade ended.

Somewhat strangely, Stargazer: The Philadelphia International Records Anthology 1976-1980 is arranged stylistically rather than chronologically. Not that there’s much of a difference between the tracks on Life on Mars or, say, 1978’s Voyager, rather it’s that, having separated the straight funk tracks from the slower ballads, you end up with a solid first disc and a subpar second. If the uptempo tracks of disc one had been interspersed with the more low-key tracks that make up disc two, it would have helped the flow, serving to ensure the dancefloor doesn’t become overheated. As is, the collection does Wansel a bit of a disservice. The tracks from Life on Mars, in particular, illustrate this. Because of the layout of this collection, the album has been chopped up and reassembled across both discs, which lessens the impact of the original album.

Fortunately, the first disc is full of the style of music for which he is best known: pure mid-‘70s funk. It’s a near-perfect collection representative of everything Philadelphia International was up to at the time, melding elements of R&B with jazz, funk, and fusion to create a sort of crossover blend that promised widespread appeal. The driving “Disco Lights” uses the prototypical four-on-the-floor disco beat set against more intricately funky instrumental passages.

The single-note guitar line of “It’s Been Cool” dances around the main melodic theme used by Stevie Wonder on “Superstition”. It’s an apt allusion as Wansel is clearly enamored of Wonder’s early-‘70s material. Unfortunately, he lacks Wonder’s melodic and lyrical gifts. That said, he makes up for this deficit with the overall funkiness of the music. There’s simply no disputing the wickedly funky power inherent in each track on disc one. These are the tracks for which he is rightly heralded by crate diggers and sample hounds across the globe.

Yet by the time the high-energy P-Funk-esque “Funk Attack” concludes, listeners will find themselves keyed up and in the mood to dance. Disc two has other plans, however, slowing things to an interminable crawl. Disc two does little to diminish Wansel’s skill or reputation—instead showing off a range of R&B styles and approaches—it’s simply too much of a slow thing after the collection’s first half.

Given the fact that the collection brings together all of Wansel’s late-‘70s recordings for the Philadelphia International label, it serves as a fine entry point for those interested in his work out of the producer’s chair. A minor suggestion for those who do use Stargazer as such: re-sequence the collection and return the tracks to their original running order to get the full effect of Wansel's original intent.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.