The late '60s and early '70s were a flowering period for soul music. The record labels, especially Motown, were gradually forced to relinquish their vice grip on creative control. Black artists, previously satisfied with (or coerced into) making hit records, began to experiment sonically, to sing about racism, war, ghetto blight, greed and things other than love. Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin and others made important musical and social statements during the period. So did The Temptations, although the group is not always mentioned among the elite. They should be. The terrific two-disc compendium Psychedelic Soul proves it.
David Ruffin, the gruff shout to Eddie Kendricks' sweet falsetto, left the act in '68. The even gruffer Dennis Edwards replaced him. Producer/writer Norman Whitfield (along with co-writer Barrett Strong) took the helm. The new team cooked up a whole passel of fresh ideas. Psychedelic Soul begins with the Tempts first post-Ruffin single, a doozy: "Cloud Nine" told the tale of a kid who grows up poor and takes refuge in drugs. The single blew up. The group dove headlong into their elastic new sound. The bass grew fatter; the wah-wah guitars chattered away; the singers took turns on the mic (a precursor of hip-hop), sparring as often as harmonizing; the grooves toughened; string sections darted and swirled. Whitfield occasionally added heavy echo and other effects most associated with Jamaican dub. The Funk Brothers, Motown's crack studio band, stretched out; the songs lengthened — eight, 10, 13 minutes. (This was before 12-inches, mind you.)
Psychedelic Soul includes versions of hits and album tracks alike. "Runaway Child Running Wild" clocks in at 9:21, "Psychedelic Shack" at 6:19, "Masterpiece" at 13:49. And then there's the true masterpiece of the collection, none other than "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," a 12-minute opus that chillingly addresses fathers who desert their families and the emptiness they leaves behind.
Psychedelic Soul does have its minor shortcomings. These recordings, the last of which came out in '73, rely too much on recycling. Whitfield's open-ended songwriting style tended to churn out similar hooks. But in the end this is a minor quibble. Psychedlic Soul beautifully chronicles one of pop music's best acts during an especially creative period. 1/2—Eric Snider
God, I was really looking forward to just tearing this disc a new one. Think about it: Four perfectly coifed, pierced and belt-buckled young dudes whose single is so Hoobastank it might as well be Hoobastank (NOT a compliment). Whose debut record also features an appearance by their singer's mentor, Papa Roach's Jacoby Shaddix, perhaps the most irritating frontman in nu-rock and certainly its worst lyricist. I envisioned another formulaic chunk-punk outfit aimed squarely at soft-drink commercials and the gap between The X Games and The Warped Tour. And that's exactly what Die Trying is, but the band's first outing actually shows just enough promise that it, and they, can't be entirely written off. (Damn.) Its first two tunes, "One Day at a Time" (snicker) and "Runaway" are spunky, listenable numbers where singer Jassen Jensen's postured, histrionic angst works well; and guitarist Jack Sinamian's clever, attitude-laden playing shines. Now, the balance of the disc is an indifferent, transparent mess of chugga-chugga riffing, heavy-handed rhythms and inane lyrics about chicks and what a tough old world it can be out there ("I medicate my fears with more beers and more tears," dig it). But occasionally, Sinamian's inventive, ballsy playing demands notice and evinces the potential for an eventual identity. So what I'm saying is, you probably shouldn't buy this album. But maybe, just maybe, you should buy their next one. —Scott Harrell
JAMES WILLIAM HINDLE
British import James William Hindle has a voice that comforts, one that moves gently with the wandering melody of his songs. His album brings about a sense of bittersweet longing and has a folk appeal similar to that of Simon and Garfunkel. "You Will Be Safe" is a somber yet sweetly gratifying ballad while "Hoboken" bounces along with an upbeat and charming sensibility. In "Country Song," Hindle achieves a sort of bluegrass feel using banjo and harmonica. Calm, reflective and poignant, Prospect Park is a strong effort by an intriguing new songwriter. 1/2 —Leilani Polk
The Ugly American
Thirsty Ear Recordings
Cranky, cynical and more sensitive than an art school student's literary ex-boyfriend, Mark Eitzel works hard at being our collective conduit for misery on The Ugly American. His former band, the critically praised American Music Club, was for years signed to a major label, but never found a substantial following in the U.S. and broke up quietly in 1994. It is not surprising, then, that Eitzel chose to record The Ugly American, a collection of reworked songs from his past, entirely in Greece using classical musicians. It maintains the haunting, delicate melodies of his other albums and proves to be an even more refreshing insight on a man who has clearly given up any delusions of stardom. Songs like "Western Sky," though written years ago, have even more poignancy now: "Time for me to go away/ I'll get a new name, I'll get a new face." Eitzel successfully experiments with different instrumentation, which also affirms his songwriting's adaptability to any setting. After all, where else can you hear bouzoukis and bagpipes worked so effectively into rock songs? Intelligent, meditative and lonely, The Ugly American is a sparse narrative of an underappreciated performer still looking for a home. 1/2—Mark Sanders
You are My Sunshine
"Tis a rare thing, indeed: A trio album by a top jazz pianist without the patina of cool. On the cover of You are My Sunshine, Cyrus Chestnut smiles broadly as he gets a kiss on the cheek from a little girl we presume is his daughter. He plays with the same open-faced joy. The album is largely made up of gospel titles — "God Has Smiled on Me," "Sweet Hour of Prayer," "Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior" — augmented with a handful of standards and Chestnut originals. The result is a disc that resonates heavily with the emotion-stirring elements of blues and R&B. Music that goes more for the gut than the intellect. Chestnut's style ranges from rumbling trills to delicate single-note passages, from the celebratory feel of the revival tent to the desolation of a barroom at closing time. —Eric Snider