Dittyday 3: Gotta have the funk

I’ll be featuring three songs this fine day, and will estimate that the majority of readers, should any such creature exist, will be familiar with only one – but that particular one might be different among different readers, and I’ll explain shortly. Yet they all have their appeal and should certainly be better known. Let’s do this in reverse order, with the most recent first.

‘Most recent’ does not qualify as ‘recent’ however, in that strange quality of the English language (well, possibly a lot are like that, but I only speak English) – we’re going back to 1992 for this one, from a new album by Peter Gabriel. It had been a decade since So, which was okay because that was a damn good album, but Us had its own strengths even though it didn’t have quite as much that made for appeal on the pop charts – there was a lot more subtlety, more moodiness from Us, and I was about to say a bit more experimentation, but that’s silly – Gabriel has always been one for experimentation, genre-skipping, and cultural inclusions. And among the slower, background-heavy tracks thereon leapt out ‘Kiss That Frog,’ one of the best songs to test out the bass response of your system, barging around kicking empty drums in the sub-basement. Attached to that we have a wonderfully compressed, ’70s electric guitar, some soul harmonica (is there any other kind, come to think of it?) and eventually an electric piano from the same era. R&B background singers round out the ensemble, though they’re hardly a new factor among Gabriel’s songs. And of course, paying attention to the lyrics is important:

Kiss That Frog – Peter Gabriel

Now, I’ve never heard for sure what the song is supposed to be about, but I know what I think, and it fits in line with the lasciviousness that tends to occur more often than not with Gabriel. I get the impression that he really wanted to sing more as a bass than a tenor for this song, though, but it’s good that he didn’t try too hard to accomplish this, because that often just sounds wrong.

By the way, Gabriel’s live performances are definitely something to see – I passed on the chance back in the early 80s when he did the So tour, not knowing enough of his music then and regretting it within the year, and finally managed to catch a concert in 2003 for the Up tour, but Secret World Live (following the Us album) is available on DVD and well worth the money if you have even the faintest interest in his music. The Girlfriend prefers the live version of ‘Kiss That Frog’ from this video while I’m a fan of the album version, but ‘Across The River’ from that concert, although brief, has drive.

Our next exit on the Wayback Highway is 1976, with the soul/R&B group of Rose Royce. The song does this phenomenal build, new instruments stepping in like multi-part choral harmonies, introducing yet another nuance as the song works its way up to the main riff, and even afterward, the different sounds slotting into place provide a slick feel; listen to the bass carry the chorus sections out. This was produced while disco was still dominant and has the horns section to prove it, but it lacks the ‘glam’ feel that a lot of that music possessed (and ultimately carried it out of popularity.) Here we have, ‘Car Wash.’

Car Wash – Rose Royce

Lead singer Gwen Dickey (identified at the time of this release as Rose Norwalt) did not learn to sing in her church choir, for which I am grateful, since there is a definite trend in that style among black female singers and I personally cannot stand wailing (Whitney Houston is a pox on the ears.) The song itself was created for the soundtrack of the movie by the same name, a ‘day in the life of’ story that I saw many, many years ago – the song is far more memorable and entertaining. If anyone asks you what “groove” is, play them this song.

Now we get to the part of the post where I confess to corrections. First off, I would have sworn that the next song was at least a couple of years before the one above, but on doing a modicum of research, it appears that they came out the same year, all part of our nations’ bicentennial celebration (no they weren’t.) Second, I was all set to claim this was so obscure that most people had never heard it, only to discover that it had been used in the soundtrack of Avengers: Infinity War (which I’ve never seen.) So a lot more people have heard it, or at the very least parts of it, than just a few years ago, but I can pull my hipster cred in saying that it’s been within my music collection since shortly after it could be found on YouTube. This is another one that builds, not quite as distinctly as ‘Car Wash,’ but more triumphantly – I will, one day, be able to play that keyboard riff. So let’s get to ‘Rubberband Man’ by the Spinners:

Rubberband Man – The Spinners

The very compressed, clipped sound of the bass and percussion, no sustain at all, is counteracted by the keys and horns holding their notes for many beats, nicely mixed. Much of the melody comes from the vocals, and lead singer Philippé Wynne gives the impression that, after the song was written, he was still too excited to stick to the penned lyrics and had to embellish, which carried the idea quite well, but good luck trying to accurately sing along. Even as the last chord crashes into silence, you’re kind of waiting for him to still interject something (which would have fit right in with Avengers.) Numerous people have covered this song at one time or another, mostly back during its popularity, and this should never have been done – no one can come close to the original, including other lead singers in the Spinners themselves after Wynne left. It’s not exactly dance-able, which is funny because it has enormous energy, but hey, I don’t dance anyway (white boy here) so I’m not bothered by it. And if you want a great example of the era, look for any live performance of it; you’ll see the gaudy jumpsuit line-dancing that was popular at the time (you can also look up The Osmonds for the same, without anywhere near the funk.) And curiously, both of the latter two songs work quite well for relaxing, just mellow sound even with the tempo, so keep them handy. It’s cheaper and far less stupid than alcohol.