Gem of the Week: “Smiling Faces Sometimes”-The Undisputed Truth

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Song: “Smiling Faces Sometimes”

Artist: The Undisputed Truth

Album: The Undisputed Truth (1971)

Long before mixtapes were a thing, Motown record producer Norman Whitfield was DJ’ing his own trip-funk soundtrack; getting his name out via his own collective of hippie soul singers on a succinct portfolio of R&B jams, entitled The Undisputed Truth.

It was the handcrafted group’s breakout release: an 11-track-deep LP that could craftily lure the orthodox Smokey Robinson radio fan down a rabbit hole of deep-soul psychedelia, chittering snares, and purring bass riffs.

Like Isaac Hayes’ Shaft, Roy Ayers’ Coffey and Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, Whitfield’s 1971 Undisputed compilation follows suit in the early ’70s trend of snappy, ultra-cool grooves composed by the low-profile recording artist.

Amid two funkified covers (“Like a Rolling Stone”, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”), deep-groove syncopated cuts (“California Soul”, “That’s What The World is Today”), and enough slow jam interludes (“We’ve Got A Way Out of Love”), side 2 houses the smoothest track, [and Top-40 hit], “Smiling Faces Sometimes”.

A snooty strings-and-bass overture, some bongos, and a couple side-eyed “Can You Dig It?”s ease you into the jazzy track’s deep-seated voodoo. Contrary to the standard scowl, lead singer Joe Harris warns of the opposite facial expression: (“Smiling faces sometimes pretend to be your friend; Smiling faces show no traces of the evil that lurks within…”). With each of his smoky-toned belts, the rhythm guitar flickers and the bass goes wild.

Enjoy below.

Gem of the Week: “Rain In My Heart”-Frank Sinatra

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Song: “Rain in My Heart”

Artist: Frank Sinatra

Album: Cycles (1968)

You wouldn’t think that cranking out an easy listening compilation in the height of dazed hippie takeover would be an easy task; especially for Frank Sinatra, the championed OG crooner whose American Standards/Songbook peak–[at least the period most agreed on as such]–was since long gone.

But alas, in 1968, arrived Cycles–a Christmastime-released, well-crafted array of folk-to-soft pop covers from the seasoned singer. From his baroque-y take on Joni Mitchell’s soul-subduing cut, “Both Sides, Now” to kindergarten lulla-croons (“Little Green Apples”), and stuff right out of a country-road hymnal (“Cycles”), the album is Frank in all variations…yet none of these musical terrains feel contrived.

The refreshing air of the album, in fact, is Frank’s adherence to his old-school-slick pipes over mostly pop arrangements. While the scenery throughout Cycles may at times flicker to folky, there’s no uncomfortable submission to airy-voiced, flower-childspeak, despite its generational context.

While all of its songs make the mark–it’s the 10-track LP’s chest-belty overture, “Rain In My Heart”, that’ll truly catch your breath. The track’s murky, mournful entrance is like a ’40s romance film’s enfeebling buildup…which, at first, seems not quite Sinatra. It’s only when the surging drum & piano hook bursts out of the darkness and spills waltzy boldness all over the lovespell that a warm familiarity of feather-fluffing, “My Way” Frank infiltrates the ears. It’s wide-open-hearted and smooth, overpoweringly so.

Gem of the Week: “Sweet and Sour”-Firefall

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Song: “Sweet and Sour”

Artist: Firefall

Album: Elan (1978)

Not only did the 1978 Elan studio album serve as a third, moody-bluesy succession to the Boulder, CO soft rock band’s prior installments, but it followed a key Firefall golden rule: laying all seething scorn–inflicted by the witchiest of women–on the line.

Stylized by embittered tracks like “Cinderella” and “Piece of Paper”, the same kind of estrangement seeped throughout the sulky, succinct acoustic matter of Elan—a ten-track, mixed narrative of sourly spun tales of detachment (“Strange Way”, “Sweet and Sour”), wooing pop balladry (“Count Your Blessings”), and all the token, down-South rock trappings (“Wrong Side of Town”, “Get You Back”). Praised for their harmonic edge, above-average instrumentalism, and ability to cover a trifecta of rock sound—from soft to country to pop—Firefall’s solid rep has managed to hold up on vinyl and radio since their 1974 start.

“Sweet and Sour” is the album’s second track: a bongo-ridden jam laden with the band’s honeyed harmonies: the crystal-clear vocals of Rick Roberts and Larry Burnett layered with twangy arpeggios. It’s bluegrass meets pop-rock, energizing and steady. Each preceding verse revved-up and snappy, the hook—a torn-up confession penned by Roberts and lead guitarist Jock Bartley—feels new every time.

Though it’s more about the bad taste in Robert’s mouth, (“And it’s such a thin line, lyin’ in between our love and hate”…), the track feels just as destined for road-trippin’ as it does sulking around.

[listen below]:

Gem of the Week: “Do You Feel Alright”-KC and the Sunshine Band

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Song: “Do You Feel All Right”

Artist: KC and the Sunshine Band

Album: Who Do Ya (Love) (1978)

Every KC and the Sunshine Band record is a take-home fiesta; a one-way portal to shameless disco-ball devotion, Bee Gees-esque falsetto, and glittering, 70s dance-floor funk.

The theme of their 1978 LP Who Do Ya (Love) itself is total contentment and celebration of self, so when lead singer Harry Casey asks during the album’s opener, “Is your mind in touch with your groove and such?”…it’s like he really wants confirmation.

This highly zen approach wasn’t just a stint. Proponents for little other than corny, unconcerned funkadelia and street-wide harmony, the multicultural, bell-bottomed posse circulated 20+ members in the course of its 12-year existence: a wild turnover for any other band–but in KC’s case, appropriate, considering the group’s ‘open-invitation’ feel.

Their full-band adrenaline, powered by tambourines, trumpets, keyboards, and nasal-tinged falsetto, dominated the 70s disco scene—via still-hits and now wedding essentials (“That’s The Way (I Like It)”, “Get Down Tonight”) and deeper cuts (“Sho Nuff”, “Come To My Island”, “Please Don’t Go”).

For some, the band’s sequin-ablaze image still earns a tacky connotation, but for others–their look, sound, and legacy only makes for guilty pleasure. Inarguably, they nailed the funk.

Straight off the band’s fifth studio album, Who Do Ya (Love)‘s “Do You Feel All Right” features the KC composite in its natural habit—this time, leading a rhythmic disco hymn that nods to dancefloor unity. Decked out with a street-parade brass ensemble, glittering chimes, and one funkily restless bass-line, the radiant track is everything it should be for the Sunshine Band.

Gem of the Week: “Between The Bars”-Elliott Smith

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Song: “Between The Bars”

Artist: Elliott Smith

Album: Either/Or (1997)

The mark Elliott Smith left on the world was an uncontested kind of sad; a medicinal one at that. Until his abrupt death in 2003, the singer-songwriter notoriously penned songs for the lonely and jaded demographic, stringing together delicate, alt rock riffs with poetic contemplation. His three most glorified projects, Either/OrXO, and Figure 8 together form the ultimate indie-grief trilogy, a handful of notable tracks comprising the somber score for the Academy Award-winning film, Good Will Hunting (1997). 

His studio album from the same year, Either/Or, pegs classic-status for its listenability and comfortingly lonely effect: a quality beautifully grasped by Smith and accompanying lo-fi slur of weepy guitar. The theme is soothing to the masses, revolving around deep heartache and loner-to-loner consolation. And while Smith’s melodies melt into the ears via six-string quietude and fairly basic percussion, they bear a heaviness almost antithetical to their otherwise instrumentally basic setting.

“Between The Bars” is Elliott at his most bare-all and love-bruised; the soft-voiced indie rocker settles you down with a warm vulnerability that gently aches the heart with Smith’s shy, alt rock drear. Over a lightly picked acoustic, he hums sweet-nothings to a lover; ones that—despite their affection–seem unheard: (“Drink up with me now, forget all about the pressure of days, do what I say/ And I’ll make you okay, drive them away/ The image is stuck in your head…”).

Gem of the Week: “Move On Up”-Curtis Mayfield

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Song: “Move On Up”

Artist: Curtis Mayfield

Album: Curtis (1970)

The legacy of Curtis Mayfield is one stamped with eternal coolness. In addition to lead-producing blaxploitation film scores, he mixed his own records, played the guitar, piano, and sang with a kind of velvety richness paralleled by few other than Marvin Gaye or Al Green.  His composition and style, and unfaltering, rhythmic technique were primarily essential for the soul genre’s development, yet somehow exhaled funk, jazz, and pop all at the same time.

His 1970 breakout studio LP, a rogue work of music for such an overwhelmingly hippie-rock era, is an R&B staple: a funky, soulful source of energy crafted with the legendary Superfly soul singer/producer’s freshest sound.

There’s a cool, soul-reviving quality to “Move On Up”—a hard-funk groove that shakes you and wakes you to an unexplained, spiritual sunshine–led by Mayfield’s fuzzy falsetto and some mighty optimistic trumpet in every refrain. It’s designed for a dance in the streets, or a milder head-bob under headphones. Either way, it motivates movement through its sunny mind-release.

The track might also win the award for tightest, most succinct drum riff of the decade; a bongo-led brigade of barreling snares, cymbals, and other excessive percussion. In the midst of all the funky radiance, Mayfield takes a moment to tell us what’s up, with an embracing hook: (“So hush now child and don’t you cry, your folks might understand you by and by/ Move on up and keep on wishing, remember your dream is your only scheme, so keep on pushing…).

Gem of the Week: “Bra”-Cymande

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Song: “Bra”

Artist: Cymande

Album: Cymande (1972)

As far as Afro-Brit 70s funk goes, Cymande takes the cake for cuckoo rhythms and multi-cultural dimension. Flavored with vibrant, West Indies percussion, Jamaican tempos, Calypso-ed out vocals—and hollow, electric American familiarity to neutralize the bongo-heavy atmosphere—the free-flowing 9-piece, though now dissolved, brought all their roots to the surface during a time where rock took nearly all precedence.

The band rotated its members—some who hailed from Guyana to Saint Vincent, London, Jamaica, and beyond—to even better seal their credibility in the areas of blues, jazz, and other African-based styles. They etched world-fusion onto rock’s door, merging colorful melodies with percussive intricacy, especially on tracks like “Zion I” and “One More”–which drum-n-snare fadeouts succumb to explosive, funky relapses of full-on jazz tantrums.

Though modest, Cymande did spark a kind of following. Jazz and funk lovers alike could flock to the group’s soulful substance and find it an equally satisfying charm to the ear. Decades later,  Cymande’s material continues to resurface, some tracks even employed as samples on iconic hip-hop albums such as De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising and The Fugees’ The Score.

“Bra” is one of Cymande’s eternally cool tracks; a loose jam sesh that generously spans five minutes, featuring a chunky, muffled bass guitar, rich saxophone, and some the tightest-sounding congas ever. 2:50 pauses for a bluesy solo: a minute-long, bass and kick-drum buildup that gets the feet shuffling and head bobbing. As for the message: Cymande’s Ray King sings a single, unfazed hook (“It’s alright, you can still go home…”) over the funky, multi-ethnic symphony.

Gem of the Week: “Squonk”-Genesis

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Song: “Squonk”

Artist: Genesis

Album: A Trick of the Tail (1976)

For criminal-themed macabre swaddled in art rock bizarro–with a young Phil Collins on vocals–try Genesis’ 1976 A Trick of the Tail on for size. The obscure LP hosts Collins’ first trial in Peter Gabriel lead vocal-succession; the spark of his pop-and-beyond relevance and perhaps the band’s best career move of the decade.

There’s a misfit-like mystique that surrounds the album, though not just validated by its persistent, offbeat folklore (“Entangled”, “Mad Man Moon”) and cheekily murderous satire (“Robbery, Assault and Battery”). Minimally produced, its 8 tracks are made substantial by Steve Hackett (lead guitar), Tony Banks (on synths, organ, and piano), Mike Rutherford (bass), and Collins, nailing a duo of drums and vocals.

Likewise, there’s no edgy thematic element missing; sometimes the band drifts into arcane, magical reverie-speak (“I took off in the air, I flew to places which the clouds never see/ Too close to the deserts of sand, where a thousand mirages–the shepherds of lies–forced me to land and take a disguise…) and other times they warn—of devilish, menacing invisibles and other matter almost too heavy for a progressive rock album (“They’ve got no horns and they’ve got no tail, they don’t even know of our existence…).

A Trick of the Tail is worth treasuring for its unexpected strangeness…a gentle, sedating sort of weird that paints wild images of fantasy in the unassuming mind of one who only expected to hear four Brits rock out. The result is much more intoxicating than that; a creepiness handcrafted by the organic talents of a younger, much grittier Genesis.

“Squonk” is side-A’s urban legend, armed with thrashing drums from Collins, a formidable electric guitar lead, and caution of a Northern-Pennsylvania beast (“Not flesh nor fish nor bone, a red rag hangs from an open mouth/ Alive at both ends but a little dead in the middle, a-tumbling and -bumbling he will go…). Metamorphic in both sound and mood, the track is the perfect sample from A Trick of The Tail—melody and oddity in all the right places.

Gem of the Week: “Apple Tree”-Erykah Badu

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Song: “Apple Tree”

Artist: Erykah Badu

Album: Baduizm (1997)

Neo-soul’s queen Erykah Badu, ever-decked out in headwrap and nasal-tinged funk vocals, entered the R&B scene during one of its most pivotal, female-dominated generations. From the mid-90s onward, the songstress’ beatnik presence, whiny tonal oddity–and preference for scratchy, old-school beats as her instrumental canvas–made her and her first studio album, Baduizm, instant classics.

The 1997 EP, not only iconic for its significance in R&B, became a hallowed haven for hip-hop and rap sampling, amassed radio circulation, and [still] serves as one of the decade’s smoothest and most soothing slices of soul. Amongst the work’s nods to jazz, pop, African, soul, and more–a free-flowing optimism oozes from the heart of it, its beyond-instrumental ambience nothing short of spiritual.

More so, Baduizm proved that Badu could—without losing a conceptual focus—play sleek storyteller (“Apple Tree”), rhythm zealot (“Rim Shot (Intro)”), elusive flame (“Next Lifetime”), and blasé, tea-wielding sage (“On And On”). As organic as it is mod, the album breaks all genre-dividing rules as Badu formulates her own, and throws the R&B aesthetic for a curve.

On “Apple Tree”, a cozy and content Badu murmurs, “It was a stormy night, ya know the kind where lightnin’ strikes/ Incense was burnin’ so I’m feelin’ right, aight…”, draping the glossy, unbothered track with her signature soul-child garnish and a ‘let it be’ virtue. Employing the song’s title in shrewd, natural metaphor (“see, I pick my friends like I pick my fruit”), the singer croons her verses around self-love and keeping your circle small.

Gem of the Week: “Tell Me To My Face”-The Hollies

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Song: “Tell Me To My Face”

Artist: The Hollies

Album: For Certain Because… (1966)

Call to mind the words “British Invasion” and the brain likely floods with the Beatles—in all of their deserved regalia—or maybe the Stones…and eventually, members of the 1960s’ ‘less-exposed’ stratum: The Animals, Kinks, Zombies, or The [insert other noun-monikered band(s) here]. You likely won’t think of The Hollies: the fresh-faced, boy-pop empire in which CSNY’s very own Graham Nash made his cozy niche for six years.

Before leaving the nest and flying hippie-bound with the likes of Neil Young, David Crosby, and Stephen Stills, the honey-voiced Nash melted harmonies with the Brit foursome: a jaunty, long-haired lineup whose all-star roster–by 1966–featured himself and Allan Clarke on lead vocals, Tony Hicks on guitar, Bernie Calvert on bass, and Bobby Elliott on drums.

The Hollies had a unique flair, though their appearance was certainly grounds for misconception as another cliché ’60s-pop archetype–(your standard three-part harmonic, head-swinging boy band). But get past the long hair, matching suits, and semi-corny adolescent presence–and it takes just a moment of watching any live performance to feel the hypnotic effects of their strangely perfect melodic energy.

“Tell Me To My Face”, a less-renowned ‘deep track’ off the band’s 1966 For Certain Because LP,  bottles Hollies singularity in a deeply minor-keyed samba. Pop masterpiece swathed in Latin spice, the spiteful song spotlights a smug Nash on vocals, and Hicks with revved-up bursts of Greek-tuned guitar riffs–highly spicy and salsa dance-suitable.

Meanwhile…the chorus says nothing but disgust: (“Is it just that you can’t face the future with me? Can’t you tell me to my face?/ You just took the coward’s way to say goodbye, how would you feel here in my place?…)