Saturday, July 25, 2009

Rubber soul man, rubber soul.

31 The Chi-lites, ‘Have You Seen Her?’; 32 Boyz II Men, ‘The End of the Road’

You’ve probably worked out by now that I’m not black; I didn’t grow up in Chicago or Philly or Detroit; I didn’t have parents who mistreated me or denied me love or who deserted me via divorce; I found my true love 25 years ago and we treat each other well. I have, therefore, very little background in which to identify with blues or soul music. I love the blues, though, and I love the expression of the human drama that makes up soul music, even though both forms talk about stuff I have no direct experience of.

Nick Hornby is right when he calls soul 'grown up' music. Soul troubles itself with the real things that happen to real people. Unlike my twin brother from another mother, I have never stratified my listening. I didn’t get to 1976 and move away from prog and heavy rock to embrace punk. Once that had run its course (three years at best) I didn’t then move onto soul and 'grown up' music. All of my eclectic listening has overlapped for the last 40 years. At the moment, while I type this, I am listening to Isis – a prog metal band from California. Also in the 5 CD disc changer is a soul collection, The Doves Kingdom Of Rust, a NZ sixties music compilation and Prince’s 1999. Pretty varied stuff. The soul compilation has a favourite track of mine by The Chi’lites that includes spoken word sections.

I’m a sucker for the spoken word section in a song. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the literary part of my brain or the fact that the singer suddenly breaks off from the reality of a song, steps forward, and actually speaks to me directly. The very first time I experienced this thrill was in the song Dance All Around The World by New Zealand’s Blerta.

They are not a group I know much about even now. Here is the sum total of my Blerta knowledge – Bruno Lawrence was their drummer at some stage, Beaver sung for them at some stage, they were a commune of some kind I think, and they put out at least one other single – Joy Joy (I know this because I own it). I also seem to have a vague recollection that they toured around in a bus, a la the Merry Pranksters.

When Dance All Around The World came out in the early seventies I responded to the hippy trippy message and that spoken section which culminates in the spine tingling (still) message that the guards and teachers threw open the castle gates and ‘danced out into the field’. The plummy voice, phased drums and guitar are the key triggers of my enjoyment.

The Chi-lites are a band that I know even less about. I don’t even know any of their other songs but I know I love Have You Seen Her? Somehow they tap into a universal soulful moment. The song has two spoken word sections and even STARTS with one. That's ballsy. These bits set the mood – all dark. She’s left him and, pathetically, he thinks he sees her around town but…nope – she’s gone, and he thought he had her in the palm of his hand. The organ backdrop and the interlocking voices make this a song I can hear innumerable times. Like the blues – it’s not a depressing song, even though the substance of the song is not a rosie picture. Miraculously the song never strays into self-parody.

It’s those voices, singing in harmony and trying to outdo each other that set it apart from all the other soul bands for me. There is something magical that happens when certain talented people who can sing, get together and harmonise. Take Crosby Stills and Nash, The Beach Boys, The Four Tops, The Beatles, The Hollies, The Byrds, The Temptations, The Jacksons, The Grateful Dead, and Boys II Men, for instance. Each has a distinctive sound from the sum of their parts.

Boys II Men are part of this rich musical history and, unlike me, were born in Philly (I think). I’m not sure but they must also have been well versed in gospel or street corner doo-wop or something. They must have been. When they sing End Of The Road they sell the song completely. I believe it. Not once, but every single time I hear it, and I hear it a lot. Again the song includes a really natural spoken word section. The last section where the band falls back and we get hand claps and voices has me singing along every time, at the top of my lungs. Something magical must be happening inside this music for me to identify so strongly. I don't really want to analyse it too much though. It's the spirit inside the music and it moves me. That's enough.

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