People Get Ready!: The Curtis Mayfield Story
Although this lavish three-disc set is devoted to the musical achievements of one man, it also acts as a kind of rhythm and blues history. As much as James Brown, Curtis Mayfield has helped chart the course of the music for the better part of the past 40 years. From Fifties doo-wop to the sweet soul music of the Sixties, from the politically charged funk and black pop of the Seventies to the reality-based rap and hip-hop of the past fifteen years, Mayfield has been there, breaking new ground as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer.
Mayfield's first hit, 1958's "For Your Precious Love," cut with the Impressions and featuring Jerry Butler on vocals, brought gospel passion to the smooth vocal sound of doo-wop and helped pave the way for the rough-hewn Southern soul of the Sixties. Following Butler's departure in 1960, however, Mayfield forged a new sound for the Impressions, using inventive song arrangements and lush string accompaniment to showcase his supple falsetto voice and crafty guitar work. Hits such as the gliding "It's All Right," the Latin-tinged "Gypsy Woman," and "I'm So Proud" -- possibly the greatest ballad in the soul canon -- define a kind of romantic optimism that is akin to the R&B-pop hybrids of early Motown, yet without the orchestral bombast.
By the late Sixties, Mayfield's optimism was beginning to sour as he observed the progress and ideologies of the civil rights movement. He lent musical voice to its concerns and passions, first with thinly veiled calls for awareness ("People Get Ready," "We're a Winner"), later with slightly more explicit testimonials of unity ("Choice of Colors") and insistence ("This Is My Country"). When Mayfield went solo in 1970 with the album Curtis, he no longer pulled punches, nor did he find it necessary to drape his sentiments in metaphor. Powered by the blazing, hard-funk admonitions "Move On Up" and "We People Who Are Darker Than Blue," the album kicked off an era of socially relevant commentary on the state of black America, an era Mayfield would best define on his masterpiece, Superfly, the soundtrack to the 1972 blaxploitation flick of the same name. The album produced two Top 10 pop hits -- "Freddie's Dead" and the bongo-crazed title cut -- and would influence a legion of rap and hip-hop artists, including Public Enemy and Ice-T (the latter appropriated Mayfield's "Pusherman" for his own hit, 1988's "I'm Your Pusherman").
People Get Ready! masterfully documents the highlights of Mayfield's career, tracing the evolution of his songwriting and salvaging the best moments from his lackluster post-Superfly releases, including some excellent live tracks from 1971 and lost gems such as "Kung Fu," "Mother's Son," "Future Shock," and "To Be Invisible." You could argue that MCA's 1992 collection Anthology better represents the Impressions (with 30 cuts, compared to 12 on the boxed set), and that no Mayfield set is complete without a sampling of his many productions for other artists (he crafted numerous hits during the Sixties for soul artists, including Major Lance and Walter Jackson). Still, of all the Mayfield sets released following the 1990 stage accident that left him paralyzed (a lighting scaffold fell on him during a concert), People Get Ready! best serves the man's legacy.
By John Floyd
Quick, who is this guy? "Axel F"? No. "Blinded Me With Science"? No, wait, I got it -- "Mexican Radio"!
Virtually forgotten outside the ranks of the early Eighties video cognoscenti, Stan Ridgway is the former lead singer and songwriter from the arty new-wave band Wall of Voodoo, whose aforementioned big tune (from 1982's Call of the West) was a staple on MTV during the Martha Quinn years. Ridgway split the band not long after the wonder started to fade from his one hit and embarked on a solo career, where he remains to this day. Waiting, along with Harold Faltermeyer and Thomas Dolby, for lightning to strike again.
No, that's not fair. It's not like Stan has been sitting around eating barbecued iguana for thirteen years. Black Diamond is his fourth solo album, and along the way there has been some prominent soundtrack work (with Stewart Copeland on 1983's Rumble Fish) and a few near misses on the goofy-tune circuit (1991's "I Wanna Be a Boss" got some radio play). But his quirky vocals and wry, knotty songwriting are a hard-to-acquire taste. Ridgway has a distinctive, nasal twang of a voice that makes even the most heartfelt of sentiments sound vaguely disreputable, and his songs are arch, dark comedies peopled by characters out of Jim Thompson potboilers and Johnny Cash tunes. Not surprisingly, he goes over better in Europe.
Black Diamond doesn't have quite the cinematic scale of earlier solo discs such as '86's The Big Heat or '89's Mosquitos, and the stripped-down production (and typo-riddled CD booklet) probably hint more at minor-label budget constraints than artistic intentions. Nevertheless, Ridgway admirers should come away happy with the oddball whimsy of "Knife and Fork" or the bitter smarts of the opening "Big Dumb Town." For the noncultist, the solo acoustic "Gone the Distance" makes for a restrained Harvest-era Neil Young impression, and "Luther Played Guitar" and "Wild Bill Donovan" offer clever deadpan tributes to long-time Johnny Cash sideman Luther Perkins and CIA founding father Bill Donovan. Ridgway still has brains to burn, and while Diamond is a little rough around the edges, it doesn't deserve the obscurity it is likely doomed to.
By David Dudley
Truth from Lies
Although k.d. lang made it cool to be a lesbian, Melissa Etheridge made it marketable. Let's hope Catie Curtis helps make it irrelevant. The young folkster's major-label debut is full of smart, lively songs that manage to wax eloquent about emotional politics without making her sexuality an issue. For example, take "Radical," the strongest cut here and a joyous anthem that showcases Curtis's supple voice: "I'm not being radical when I kiss you/I don't love you to make a point/It's the whole of my heart that cries when I miss you/And keeps me alive when we're apart." Because of her understated approach and insight, you have the freedom to interpret the tune as you see fit. Interracial love? Gay relationship? In the end, what does it matter?
"You Can Always Be Gone" is a brisk rocker, fueled by slashing guitars that counterpoint Curtis's delicate alto. "Crocodile Tears" is a delicious dollop of blues that thumps to a Bo Diddley beat, while a juicy bass line propels the laconic wit of "The Wolf." "Slave to My Body" offers a mordant account of feminine vanity. Curtis works the turf between pop and folk like an old pro, and if her style lacks the vocal gymnastics of Rickie Lee Jones and the inventiveness of Michelle Shocked, comparisons to these fine artists are both inevitable and deserved.
By Steven Almond
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Viva! La Woman
It's hard to pick on the two young women of Cibo Matto, not only because their public personalities are so charming, but because they are genuinely talented. They're also being genuinely hyped right now, and Viva! La Woman -- the duo's debut album -- doesn't live up to the hoopla.
Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda are two Japanese Americans living in New York City who sing and rap, mostly about food, over sounds and beats generated by a sampler. Their music falls loosely into the category of trip-hop, the critically praised new dance trend in which leisurely paced funk grooves are blended with hip-hop percussion and electronic, vaguely techno soundscapes. Although the genre has produced some interesting artists -- Tricky and Laika, most notably -- trip-hop and its related subgenres such as jungle and British postrock too often act as little more than fashionable if innocuous background music.
Viva! La Woman is emblematic of the genre. Its cool atmospherics and club grooves never surprise or engage the listener, and the sound effects never create or sustain any kind of mood. Still, I take heart in the song "Birthday Cake." Supposedly, Cibo Matto's music evokes the worldly spirit of New York's Lower East Side, but only on "Birthday Cake" -- a screeching, horn-driven slice of global-village hip-hop -- does the pair define the cosmopolitan anarchy of the district, its energy transcending the limitations of the style in which it was produced.