The O'Jays: For the Love

Maurice Bottomley

The O'Jays

For the Love

Label: MCA
US Release Date: 2001-09-25

It has been a good year for soul music. Not only have the neo/nu coterie all dropped solid releases but, for the first time in ages, older artists have made comeback albums that have not been embarrassingly under-produced and/or hopelessly dated. Special mention must go to Shabazz and Main Ingredient, two acts who have totally exceeded expectations, but this set is also a winner and is possibly the best project the Philly veterans have been involved with since the late Eighties.

Not that this is packed with "Backstabbers" type masterpieces. The Gamble-Huff era is long gone. Nor is it the O'Jays go hip-hop/R&B in a vain attempt to crash urban radio's narrow playlist. They sound as they should -- a mature act, more at ease with ballads than faster numbers but with an awareness of contemporary production styles. Some tracks are more obviously "now" in conception than others, but there is little that sounds forced. Mostly, For the Love is made up of mid-tempo to slowish tunes sung perfectly over some crisp and careful arrangements. As such, it puts most recent black vocal group efforts to shame.

Original members Eddie Levert and Walter Williams, plus relative newcomer Steve Corbin, all come from the pre-nasal school of song. Its superiority over the more recent model has been recently demonstrated by younger singers such as Tank and Calvin Richardson -- and the success of Jaheim in particular hopefully means that the real thing is back for good. The O'Jays are nothing if not the real thing. They began way back in the doo-wop era and were already seasoned performers when they became the central platform for the Philly sound in the early seventies. Their dancier numbers rather obscured their talents as balladeers and also simply as vocalists of distinction, but Levert especially is now deservedly recognised as one of soul music's great voices.

Here he and his partners have strong enough material to do those voices justice. Of the 11 tracks, at least three are markedly "modern" but the majority could fit almost anywhere in the nearly five decades of the group's existence. The perils of current programming probably mean you will only hear the newer-sounding songs, unless you buy the record, but the best cuts are probably those for which the adjective timeless will probably be pressed into service. Better perhaps to say that the emotions and musical values embodied in songs like "I Don't Know", "Baby Making Love" and "Sounds Like Me" will always appeal to anyone for whom the term Soul still means something.

Credit for this happy state of affairs is due to the O'Jays as writers, producers and arrangers as well as singers. With the exception of one track it is very much their album. Experience obviously counts in more areas than one. Co-producer and string arranger, Derek Nakamoto, who additionally plays a mean keyboard, also deserves mention -- as do all the musicians gathered together in the Palace Studios, Cleveland that was home to the whole operation. If other long-serving soul acts are thinking of once more gracing us with their presence, my advice is that they head for Ohio. They seem to understand how to do this sort of thing there.

As to the songs that are more obviously tailored to current tastes, it is a relief to report that they are more than satisfactory. "Latin Lover" sways along efficiently - spoiled only by the tiredness of the lyrics. Do Hispanic women get fed up with this cheap exoticism within which they are always depicted? I hope so. They should protest, it might make songwriters think a tad harder. The most R&B cut is "Let's Ride" and though musically it works, again the lyrics sound somewhat off. Guys, you are just a little old to be cruising for shorties to take back to your crib, sorry. No such problems with "Long Distance Lover", sassy bass-line, excellent B-3 licks and anguished vocals all combine magically -- quality urban sounds, whatever generation you belong to.

The only weak track of the more traditional cuts is "Come on Over to My House" -- full of clichés and nowhere nearly as sexy as it thinks it is. Of the others, the Valentinos borrowings of "Searching for My Lost Love" work well -- although Bobby Womack may find it too close to "Looking For A Love" for his liking. The ballads "Put Out the Fire" and "I'm Ready Now" are suitably expressive and have a cool funkiness to them. Towards the end of the set come the three killers. "I Don't Know" is classic two-step soul, melodically as smooth as silk but with real heartbreak in Levert's voice. My favourite track, "Baby Making Love", is a lush, mid-tempo dancer from the very top drawer while "Sounds Like Me" is as intense a wailer as any male singers are likely to deliver this year. Any one of these treats would make the record worth investing in. They have that mixture of passion and urbanity that the vocal groups from the industrial Northern cities always possessed. It is a joy to hear it again.

The absence of a storming uptempo song is a pity but no real surprise. Don't be fooled though. There is genuine power here, although it may not hit you as instantly as it once did. In some ways that is an advantage. This is a record whose charm increases with each hearing. Like the act itself I suspect this disc has built-in longevity. I would go as far to say that any future "Best of the O'Jays" compilation that does not include something from For The Love would not be a true "Best Of". Given the strength of their back catalogue that is saying something. The O'Jays never really went away but they have not sounded this good for a while. Let's hope the fickle pop market takes 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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