Gladys Knight & the Pips
Here to Make Music
(The Right Stuff)
This trio of R&B rereleases from The Right Stuff label dates back to the heart of the disco era. Released at any other time, two of the albums would easily have been classified as soul of the highest order, while the third would've remained a muddled all-star album unworthy of any real notice. Panelists, put on your blindfolds and we'll begin.
The earliest effort, Gladys Knight & the Pips' exquisite 1974 soundtrack to the film Claudine, is doubly blessed since it was written and produced by Curtis Mayfield. By this time, Mayfield's own records were being unjustly ignored, an obvious reason being the meaningless mire of disco, which spelled commercial doom for his brand of message songs. It could also be possible that Mayfield, like the Bee Gees in the Eighties, had an instantly identifiable sound built around a crooning falsetto that the public quickly grew tired of.
Despite the dip in the popularity of their own records, both Mayfield and the Gibbs were able to write and produce highly successful albums for female singers. In Mayfield's case, he produced soundtracks for Aretha Franklin, and the Staple Singers, but Claudine remains the best of the lot simply because in Knight's voice he found the perfect vehicle for his always relevant social commentary.
On a politically charged number like "Mr. Welfare Man," Mayfield at his most urgent would've sounded either worried or angelically upset singing a line like "I'm so tired of having to prove my equal rights." Instead, Knight tears through the song with all the anger and dignity that the movie's Oscar-nominated lead, Diahann Carroll, was expected to display.
Even with a "Shaftian" instrumental plunked in the middle, this brief 30-minute album plays like a Gladys Knight & the Pips Greatest Hits. Only two cuts, the repetitively likable "On and On" and "Make Yours a Happy Home," were issued as singles. A pair of gorgeous ballads, "To Be Invisible" and "The Makings of You," could stand alongside "Neither One of Us" or "I'm So Proud" as the best work Knight or Mayfield ever produced. "To Be Invisible" is extraordinary as Knight's make-believe vanishing act works on a political level (struggling black woman in an unjust world) and a personal one (hurt-by-love-ain't-no-one-gonna-see-me-cry).
Whatever "it" is, Bobby Womack has always had his share. Even in recent years when he's appeared on dubious tribute albums, he still defies the inherently lowered expectations, sweating like it's 1966 and he's got to follow Sam and Dave. Since Womack never packaged himself as an "album" artist the way Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder did, his work is undervalued, remembered more for a spate of great moments than one coalesced statement.
The Poet, released in 1982, is as close as he ever got. While the poetry is usually on the level of "Just like some good Kentucky Fried Chicken/Your love is good enough to be finger-lickin'"--it's the multiple knockout punches Womack lands that make this album memorable.
The R&B hit "If You Think You're Lonely Now (Wait Until Tonight)" is as close to a sermon as the master testifier offers here. After dedicating the song to "all the lovers out there," he asks permission to "talk about his woman back home." Instead of extolling her virtues, he castigates her for always wanting him home, knowing he's got to work to buy her the things she complains about not having when he is home. "Woman, I can't be two places at one ti-i-i-i-i-me," he cries. An audience hearing this plaintive plea is going to reward him with multiple encores to ensure he doesn't go home at all.
The Poet only falters when the writing tablet is handed over to Womack's brother Cecil for two numbers. "Stand Up" is a formulaic dance tune about "boogie wallflowers," and "Just My Imagination" is a countrified, Lionel Richie-esque rewrite of the Temptations' tune of the same name that displays no imagination at all.
Most people don't recognize Leon Huff's name unless it's situated alongside Kenny Gamble's, and, after hearing this negligible solo effort, rightly so. Together, Gamble and Huff were responsible for writing hits like "Expressway to Your Heart" and "The Love I Lost," and orchestrating the success story known as the Philadelphia International label--home to the O'Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, MFSB and many more. By 1980, things were winding down for the label, and this album sounds like a clearinghouse of ideas that Huff neglected to show his partner.
Despite the presence of Pendergrass, Eddie Levert, McFadden & Whitehead, and the Jones Girls, only a guest appearance by Stevie Wonder on harmonica distinguishes itself. Full of half-baked ideas and artistic self-indulgence, Here to Make Music is to Philadelphia International what Jamming With Edwards was to Rolling Stone Records.
South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut--
Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture
While the feature film version of Comedy Central's animated cult hit South Park clocks in at well under an hour and a half, this soundtrack album holds nearly an hour of music. Even allowing that several of the CD's 20 cuts aren't actually featured in the film, the meatiness of the album still suggests how central music is to the South Park movie.
Director-composer-lyricist-performer Trey Parker's first film, made in his pre-South Park days, was a low-budget comedy called Cannibal! The Musical, which dressed up the legend of the notorious Colorado people-eater Alferd Packer as a rollicking frontier musical in the vein of Oklahoma! or Paint Your Wagon. Cannibal! showed that Parker had a deep and plainly affectionate understanding of the musical-comedy form. Parody or not, it was almost certainly the best American live-action musical film of the '90s. But since it only had Newsies to beat out, if memory serves, that praise may be too faint.
With South Park, Parker and his crony Matt Stone put the Disney-style animated feature through their meat grinder of defiant scatology, sacrilege and savagery. The film just might be the most verbally obscene and profane ever to come out of a major Hollywood studio, yet what really emerges triumphant from it is musical-comedy, that great American art form fallen into disrepute.
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Most of the tunes from South Park's song score, written by Parker (with an assist from veteran composer Marc Shaiman), are direct parodies of immediately recognizable song types. "Mountain Town" spoofs the opening number of Beauty and the Beast ("You can see your breath hanging in the air/You see homeless people but you just don't care/It's a sea of smiles in which we'd be glad to drown. . . . It's Sunday morning in our quiet, little, white-bread, redneck mountain town.").
"Up There," a longing lament sung by Satan about his desire to live in the world above, recalls the tunes in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Little Mermaid in which misfit heroes sing of their desire for acceptance ("Up there, there is so much room/Where babies burp and flowers bloom/Everyone dreams, I can dream too . . ."). And the marvelous "La Resistance" medley, which shifts between the viewpoints of the various factions of characters in the manner of Les Miserables, is a thrilling first-act curtain.
The closing reprise of "Mountain Town" features a couple of seconds of Isaac Hayes' beautiful, rolling basso profundo as Chef, of which we hear too little in the film. Devastating as these lampoons are, the real surprise is how genuinely rousing many of them are--the anthem "What Would Brian Boitano Do?" could bolster anyone's courage.
--M. V. Moorhead