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