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No New Abnormal

Tag: one and nines

A Killer New Album From Midwestern Soul Legends the Diplomats of Solid Sound

A few years back, a friend of this blog moved back to his hometown Iowa City. Asked what the music scene there was like, he had two words: “Sarah Cram!”

She’s one of the three phenomenal lead singers for the Diplomats of Solid Sound, who were every bit as important in the Midwest for keeping the flame of classic 60s soul burning as Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings were here. Happily, the Diplomats are still together. Even though their band members have dispersed, they still make great vinyl records chock full of catchy songs that would have been hits fifty years ago. And they still tour occasionally. Their new vinyl record A Higher Place is streaming at Spotify. Pretty much everything here is three minutes or less: no wasted notes, uncluttered purist playing, a real clinic in retro beats and riffs.

The snap of bassist Ben Soltau and drummer Forrest Heusinkveld kicks off the opening track, Common Ground, a Marvelettes-style, go-go flavored number, the band’s formidable vocal frontline – Cram, Katherine Ruestow and Abbie Sawyer – harmonizing over Nate “Count” Basinger’s punchy organ and Douglas Roberson’s spare guitar. Saxophonist Eddie MacKinley’s bright riffage is the icing on this sonic cake.

The strings behind Cram’s warm, comforting vocals and playful jump-rope melody combine for Supremes ambience in Crazy About You, Basinger’s organ fueling an unexpectedly edgy bridge. Good to Do is a punchy, serious wake-up call to a girl who’s gettting played: it brings to mind New Jersey’s excellent One and Nines.

Sometimes starts off as a guitar-driven swamp-rock tune, then the band take it back even further in timewith an early 60s vibe. Gotta Find That Man is a sly, bittersweet, hungover post-hookup scenario set to a snaky Booker T groove. Move On could be a Bill Withers tune with horns and a sultry trio of voices out front. Then the band pick up the pace even further with Already Gone, a pulsing roller-rink bubblegum soul tune with a cool garage-rock bridge.

Fool – as in “You’re a fool to let her go” – shows what else the group can do with that same Girl From New York City riff, in this case making an early 70s-style soul strut out of it. The lushly orchestrated Brave New World is a cynical, spot-on look at how social media and online dating are killing romance.

Hole in Your Soul has a mid-60s Memphis bounce and some nifty stairstepping piano, then the band slink their way into dramatic soul-blues with Take Some Pity on Me Baby. They wind up the album with a toweringly gorgeous Muscle Shoals-style ballad in 6/8 time, Dry Land, the women’s vocals rising from matter-of-fact angst to a defiant wail. The group claim to have twenty million Spotify hits (for which they might have earned a few dimes or quarters). Although online numbers can’t be trusted, it’s hardly a stretch to believe that count. Sharon Jones has sadly gone off to the great stage in the sky, but the Diplomats of Solid Sound are still going strong: nobody does oldschool soul better than this crew.

The Diplomats’ next gig is a hometown show on Sept 20 at 8 PM at Wildwood Smokehouse and Saloon, 4919 Walleye Drive in Iowa City; cover is $15.

Get the Right Now

The Right Now looks back to the late 60s and early 70s, when soul music was taking on all kinds of different dimensions. But on their latest album The Right Now Gets Over You, the oldschool Chicago soul band takes that idea to the next level. Like Damian Quinones (just reviewed here), no verse or chorus is exactly the same, and guitarist Brendan O’Connell’s songs don’t follow a simple verse/chorus progression. They’re little soul symphonies. So if the band happens to interrupt a period-perfect mid-70s soul/funk ballad with a break for a darkly reverberating 60s strut, they’re not being anachronistic: this is how they do it. There are a lot of great retro soul acts out there – New Jersey’s One and Nines bearing the closest resemblance to this band – but there’s none quite like the Right Now. Frontwoman Stefanie Berecz gets a lot of props for her powerful pipes and command of 60s idioms, but the band behind her is every bit as good. Fitz & the Tantrums, eat your little British hearts out.

There are so many neat touches on this album that it’s impossible to catch them all. On the wickedly catchy, pulsing first track, I Can’t Speak for You – available as a free download, as is their 2010 ep Carry Me Home– it’s Greg Nergaard’s fuzz bass kicking off the second verse. Berecz evokes a Tammi Terrell sweetness that rises to a longing, or a righteous anger, on several of the songs: Good Man, with its Muscle Shoals guitar and the horns punching in at the end of Berecz’ phrases, is a prime example. Can’t Keep Running blends rap-era snideness with a lush, balmy early 70s ballad vibe: “I saw you in the clothes you wore since last week – watching me through the night won’t bring me back,” Berecz tells her scrubby stalker. Likewise, Tell Everyone the Truth nicks the chords from You Keep Me Hanging On and turns it into a mini-epic with lo-key funeral organ, a cool horn arrangement, a funky bass interlude and a big anthemic windout at the end.

Should’ve Told Me is an artsier, Chicago-themed take on early 70s Three Degrees-style soul-funk, the warm but wary attractiveness of the melody perfectly matching the lyrics. They take I Could Kiss You (I Could Cry) from a tense, distantly gospel-tinged vamp to a big, steady backbeat and a long, soaring, full-voiced crescendo before bringing it down again. He Used to Be is packed with cool touches: dark organ, wah guitar, a verse where the organ goes completedly distorted until the horns blast it back to the band. It has the feel of a Dina Rudeen song.

The best song on the album is Half As Much, another free download: with its surfy reverb guitar and ominously bluesy melody, it’s like a noir Lee Hazelwood take on 60s soul. And Higher takes a classic mid-60s melody and sets it to a funky, disco-flavored 70s shuffle with lots of seductive horn swells. The album’s production has a richly analog feel, graceful flourishes from the instruments peeking out from every corner of the sonic picture, bass and drums plenty high in the mix but leaving plenty of room for the other instruments. The Right Now’s next show is October 6 at 8 PM at Off Broadway in St. Louis.

A Rare Soul Gem by Mickey Murray Finally Gets an Official Release

Boutique label Secret Stash Records began as a self-release project for a couple of Afro-Peruvian folk projects. Since then they scored a mighty coup with the first American version of one of the iconic albums of chicha (the inimitably Peruvian blend of surf music, psychedelic rock and a million south-of-the-border sounds), Los Destellos’ 1971 classic Constelacion. One of their latest rediscoveries is also a doozy, and like Constelacion, it may be the first time it’s seen an official release in the US, a crime since it was recorded for the label that James Brown made famous. Soul singer Mickey Murray’s People Are Together goes back to 1970. Sadly, its Sam Cooke-inspired title track and its message to the entire world to “stop this discrimination thing” and stir up “a big old melting pot” reputedly met with fervent resistance from urban radio at a time when defiant messages of black power and solidarity were all the rage (and at point in history, there was every reason why they should have been). It appears that the label withdrew the record at that point, effectively putting Murray’s career trajectory on ice.

Murray’s vocal style is often raspy and fervent in a Wilson Pickett vein, but he can also be elegant like Otis Redding. The band, and the arrangements are primo. It may not be true that they don’t make records like this anymore (Sharon Jones, the One and Nines and Spanglish Fly all mine a similar deep molasses analog sound), but there aren’t a lot of them. The bass here sounds like it’s been amped up a little in the remastering, which is fine, because the groove is laid-back yet penetrating: a hollowbody Vox played through an old tube amp maybe?

And the tracks are strong, and sound older than their turn-of-the-70s vintage. Try a Little Harder features ornate hammer-on soul guitar, a slowly burning brass arrangement and incisively minimalistic piano. Deadric Malone’s Ace of Spades has a vintage Curtis Mayfield vibe – it would have made a great blaxploitation movie theme. I Found Out, with its funky Rhodes piano and staccato guitar, works a mid-60s JBs vibe, while the band gives Money – the future Flying Lizards hit – a psychedelic Memphis funk treatment.

They go back to the Godfather of Soul for Fat Gal’s insistent, bass-driven pulse, “all meat and no potatoes,” as Murray puts it. There’s a brand-new dance, The Buzzard, complete with moves, growls and a shout-out to Murray’s hometown of Augusta, Georgia; there’s also a bizarrely spot-on critique of suburban sprawl, Explosive Population, clocking in at a brief minute and 46 seconds. Murray’s version of The Fever goes for a hastily shuffling feel with organ and latin-influenced percussion in lieu of Peggy Lee boudoir ambience. The album winds up with a blues-tinged talking-soul vamp and a surprisingly hard-rocking closing track with fuzztone bass and wah guitar. In addition to the usual digital formats, the album is available on limited-edition high-quality vinyl: fans of oldschool soul are in for a treat. RIYL: James Brown, Lee Fields, Charles Bradley, Willie Hightower, Howard Tate and other underrated 60s/70s soul crooners who’ve recently gotten a well-deserved second look.

Gorgeous Oldschool Soul From the One and Nines

Over the past couple of years, New Jersey retro soul band the One and Nines have been putting out gorgeous, oldschool analog singles – on vinyl! They’ve got a brand-new one out today that’s as warm and memorable as anything else they’ve done. The A-side, Tell Me (an original, not the Stones/Dead Boys song) has scurrying guitar, fat punchy horns and a groove that’s somewhere between soul and oldschool Jamaican rocksteady. Guitarist Jeff Marino takes the lead vocal on this one; at the end,there’s a big, deliciously blustery guitar/trumpet outro. The B-side, Make It Easy, has the One and Nines’ signature sound, and frontwoman Vera Sousa gives it her most buttery, gently irresistible delivery yet. Live onstage, she’s a ferociously intense, Aretha-style performer; this is something of a shock…the best kind. In addition to vinyl, the single is also available in the usual digital formats.