Ronald Isley / Burt Bacharach: Here I Am

Mark Anthony Neal

Ronald Isley / Burt Bacharach

Here I Am

Label: DreamWorks
US Release Date: 2003-11-11
UK Release Date: Available as import

Without a doubt, Ronald Isley possesses one of the most exquisite voices to ever grace American pop music. But much of Isley's recent work as R. Kelly's sidekick "Mr. Biggs" has had little to do with garnering the critical acclaim that has largely been beyond his reach thus far, and more to do with his need to pay the bills. Now in his early sixties, after nearly 50 years in the business of making pop music, Isley has embarked upon a project that should finally earn him status as one of the great song stylists of the last three decades.

No doubt Ronald Isley Meets Burt Bacharach: Here I Am represents one of the most bizarre couplings seen in pop music in some time (Bacharach paired with Elvis Costello on Painted from Memory back in 1998), particularly for a generation of folks who only know Isley as "Mr. Biggs" or possibly as one of the classic purveyors of the "pre-coital" soul ballad. And of course they have even less knowledge of singer-songwriter Burt Bacharach, who with partner Hal David, dominated the pop charts in the 1960s writing and producing songs like "Walk on By", "I Say a Little Prayer", "The Look of Love", and "Baby It's You". At this point, most folks who really dig Isley's evil twin "Mr. Biggs" only know Bacharach's primary interpreter Dionne Warwick because of her infomercials for the Psychic Network. But Isley told Rolling Stone writer Andrew Dansbey back in July that Bacharach's songs are the "type of songs I walk around the house singing … I think I'm more familiar with his work than he is". For his part, Bacharach admits that the project allowed him to revisit and thus rethink some of his classic material, adding that Isley's vocals are "impeccable … He's a brilliant, brilliant singer". Guess game recognize game. To add to the classic feel of the project, the recording was done at Capitol Studio A & B in Los Angeles, the same studio where Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole laid down their legendary tracks for the Capitol label.

With the exception of two new songs ("Count on Me" and "Love's (Still) the Answer"), Isley and Bacharach mostly delve into the most recognizable of the Bacharach/David oeuvre. Bacharach and Isley laid down five tracks in their first session, including striking string-laden versions of "Alfie" and "Make It Easy on Yourself", which was a breakthrough commercial hit for the "Iceman" Jerry Butler in 1962. Isley's upper register has never been as unfettered as it is on his brilliant rendition of "In Between the Heartaches", but it's the stirring version of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" that gives the best testament to Isley's singular talent. A fine song when first recorded by BJ Thomas in 1969, the song has long been rendered a pop music cliché (the kind of song that kids first sing in grade school), but Isley infuses the song with a soulfulness that allows him to live up to the claim that he could "sing the phonebook" and still elicit sanctified shouts.

Though Dionne Warwick is most associated with Bacharach and David compositions, in recent years Luther Vandross has presented (in no small part due to his love for Warwick's artistry) some of the most sophisticated readings of those compositions. In this regard, Isley clearly worked in Vandross's shadow on tracks that are largely associated with the recovering balladeer, particularly among R&B audiences. Isley's read of "Anyone Who Had a Heart" is closer to the Warwick original, than the spiraling, soul singed version that Vandross presented on Give Me the Reason (1986) and thus can stand on its own as an Isley interpretation. More difficult to judge is Isley's rendition of "A House is Not a Home", which has been Vandross's signature tune since his solo debut in 1981. Ironically, like Vandross, the Isleys have been celebrated for their distinct rearrangements of pop tunes (their versions of Seals and Croft's "Summer Breeze" and Todd Rundgren's "Hello It's Me" immediately come to mind). It would have been interesting to hear how Isley would have interpreted "Anyone Who Had a Heart" and "A House is Not a Home" if it would have been a straight Isley Brothers project with Ernie Isley's stirring guitar riffs in tow. The versions that appear on Here I Am represent Isley's profound respect for Vandross, but with a touch of competitiveness that has long defined the Soul Man tradition.

Other standouts on Here I Am include the title track, a swing-happy version of "This Guy's in Love with You" (first recorded by Herb Alpert in 1968), and a plaintively beautiful version of "Close to You" (long associated with the Carpenters, but given a definitive "Soul" read by Isaac Hayes on Black Moses).

As witnessed by the commercial success of Rod Steward's recent As Time Goes By: The Great American Song Book (Volume 2), the pop standard remains one of the ways that aging stars remain relevant to their older audiences and offer the chance to reinvent themselves, as Tony Bennett did a few years ago and Marvin Gaye clearly would have had he lived to oversee the release of his collection of pop standards, Vulnerable. Courtesy of "Mr. Biggs", Ronald Isley has already re-invented himself; Here I Am is just a reminder as to why such a re-invention should have been unnecessary in the first place, as Isley remains one of the great pop vocalists of the last three decades. Somewhere, Whitney Houston should be taking note.

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

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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