Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Little Dabs - E.T. (Everytime)

Side 1 label
Side 2 label

• The Little Dabs - E.T. (Every Time) - 12"
Musicworks, 1982, MWE-1203
Produced by R. Dabney & L. Davis
Executive Producers P. Klein, F. Friedberg & A. Maharajh

In honour of my recent Electric Funk & Latin Freestyle obsession, I digged up this 12" of questionable quality, which kind of fits into the Electric Funk category, in order to reassess it. Because of its ties with the E.T. movie and the fact that it was a number one hit in Canada, this is one record that's been popping up a little bit everywhere. And everyone seems to be saying the same thing: after hearing it, it's still not clear whether this is any good. It's a strange track, though. That's for sure.

The Little Dabs were two boys aged 4 and 6 from Philadelphia. Their father, Russell Dabney, was the drummer in a band called Gypsy Lane, back-up band for such bumpin' acts as the Village People and Instant Funk. His Gypsy Lane co-hort Larry Davis also wrote and arranged music for artists like The O'Jays, Lou Rawls, James Brown and Euro-Dance embassadors 2 Unlimited (on a "Sports Anthem", no less). There might not be a better place to hone the craft of music than Philadelphia, judging from this guy's C.V.

Canadian producer Paul Klein flew in to Philadelphia to record Gypsy Lane in 1982 and decided to cut a record with Dabney's two young sons, with Dabney and Davis at the writing-and-production end of things. Klein claims The Little Dabs were the first kiddie band, but I highly doubt that. He took the record back to Canada, put it out on Musicworks (Klein founded a music-catalogue accquisition company based in Miami called Empire Musicwerks in 2000) and got himself a gold record. It was later licensed to the Belgian BMC label. The Little Dabs went on to record less than a handfull of singles, and nothing quite matched the success they earned with their strange ode to E.T.

So, how's the track? Well, some of it is truly wonderful. Getting 4 and 6 year-olds close to microphones is one of the best ideas ever devised by mankind. The Dabs' high-pitched, slightly nasal and off-key singing voices are a perfect match for all those pitched-high warbly robot voices chattering away in Electric Funk bands like Newcleus and really make the track worth listening to. Daddy's lyrics make the song sound like any other song about tormented love, except little boys are singing and E.T.'s the object of their obsession. Apparently, this slightly disturbing angle is present in most E.T.sploitation tracks, where kids tear their hearts out over the toady creature.

The musical accompaniement is suitably sci-fi and surprisingly dark, with plenty of "atonal" synth licks. You can tell Dabney and Davis were soul/disco guys, though, as some elements are a little too disco-bouncy, foregoing Electric Funk's jagged stop-starts. Still, the contrast between the dark, metric verses and the funkier chorus is quite effective. Other nice touches include two instances where the Extra-Terrestrial himself spits some bars: namely the ubiquitous "E.T. phone home" and the seemingly random choice of "Ouuucccchhh!" That last one really drives home the point that this is a kiddie track, utilising only the purest kiddie logic.

The flip offers A Little Fierce Instrumental Remix, which sticks fairly close to the original track, minus the vocals. The Little Dabs do appear in a chorus near the end, but there is something evidently missing when they aren't singing.
So, how's the track? Still not sure.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Exponians of the Steel Orchestra - Trinidad & Tobago Present...

Exponians of the Steel Orchestra - Front sleeve Exponians of the Steel Orchestra - Back sleeve Exponians of the Steel Band - Side 1 label Exponians of the Steel Band - Side 2 label

• Exponians of the Steel Orchestra -
Trinidad & Tobago Present... - LP
RCA Victor, 1968, PCS-1209
Directed by James Clarkson
Engineered by Mike Ethier

• A1 Goin' Out Of My Head (♫)
• A2 Sweet Memories
• A3 Mary In the Morning
• A4 Yesterday I Heard the Rain

• A5 Never My Love (♫)
• B1 Delilah (♫)
• B2 Love is Blue
• B3 Rhapsody in Blue (♫)
• B4 Miss Tourist
• B5 Can-Can

"The steelband, incredible as it may look and sound, can produce music which is equal to that of any other orchestra. The instruments, which represent conventional ones, are made from empty oil drums. The tops are sunken and burnt, then notes are grooved with the skill of a tuner to various sizes and tuned to a musical range."

So start the liner notes of this fantastic steel-drum orchestra album. They go on to explain that the Exponians of the Steel Orchestra were formed in March of 1967 by the Trinidad Government in order to represent the country at Expo '67, happening in Montréal at the time. The Exponians were such a big hit over at the fair that they were asked to come back for a return engagement at Man and His World in May of 1968. They ended-up embarking on a cross-Canada tour sponsored by Air Canada and the West Indian Celebrity Group of Toronto. They also stopped by the RCA Studios in Montréal long enough to cut two sides of steel-drum heat, culled strategically from a western "Pops" repertoire (the one exception being Miss Tourist, a Lord Kitchener Calypso hit of the same year).

It was while preparing for their '68 gig that the Exponians crafted an "experiment in sound" which led to this album's signature: a complete range of steel-drums augmented by a curiously snappy drummer, an occasional wordless chorus and band leader James Clarkson's trumpet. "This was very effective, and as some fans termed, 'the greatest sound'", claim the liner notes. Despite some very minor reservations, mostly to do with the recording's mix (the trumpet is somewhat too "front" for my taste), I'm inclined to agree.

The album opens with a cover of Little Anthony and the Imperials' Goin' Out Of My Head (♫), a song that was getting a lot of airplay in 1968 due The Lettermen coupling it with Can't Take My Eyes Off of You all the way up the charts that year. The Exponians' version is astounding. The steel drums provide a beautifully lush bed for the trumpet's suitably languid melody while the drum kit gets a somewhat square but undeniably punchy workout.

Andy Williams' Sweet Memories gets an up-tempo Calypso rub on the next cut, and it also introduces one of the orchestra's most interesting devices, namely singing the chorus in key-words-only unison ("Swee-eet Memories...La La La La La La La La La Laaaaaa"), something that I've grown quite fond of. Mary in the Morning is next, a nice ballad. The smoothness continues with the fourth cut, Tony Bennett's Yesterday I Heard the Rain, notable for some of the Bach-like elements of the arrangements.

Never My Love (♫) is the last cut on side 1 and undoubtedly the album's highlight. Already a killer tune by The Association, The Exponians manage to outshine the original in sheer vitality and inventiveness. Yes, it's the return of that snappy drummer, his square sense of rythm somehow going so far out that it boomerangs back into decidedly funky territory. And when the men hit full choral mode by tune's end, you will've never seen your fore-arm hairs stand at such attention.

Side 2 starts with a full-steam-ahead Calypso armoured tank-with-no-brakes bang. Tom Jones' murder-serenade Delilah (♫) turns into a maniacal Caribbean freak-out in the Exponians' hands. It's absolutely unrecognisable until the trumpet melody comes in, and even then its frantic pace is dizzying. Trumpeter and band leader James Clarkson even has time to throw in a torreador-suited solo.

Love is Blue is a far prettier version of the Paul Mauriat orchestral easy-listening number that must have been piped into every public restroom in North-America at the time. It's a notable entry due to the absence of the trumpet. Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (♫) follows, exposing the steel-drum's versatile dynamic range. The ebb and flow of the steel-drum swells at the beginning of the song is spell-binding in that "exotica" sort of way. And when the intended jazz portion of the song hits, your neck'll be poppin' to those syncopations.

Lord Kitchener's calypso song Miss Tourist gets a pleasant straight steel-drums-only versioning. It's interesting to see how percussive Kitch's original melody lines were, as you can really imagine him singing those staccatto steel-drum leads. The album closes with what must have been quite the crowd-pleasing number over at the old Expo grounds, namely a version of that French Can-Can song. It comes off on the wrong side of gimmicky, despite it being requisitely lively. I've never been partial to that tune, so it could just be me.

As a fan of both Expo '67 and steel bands, I couldn't quite believe it when I yanked this number free from the Sally Ann bins. But with their "experiment in sound," the Exponians have totally surpassed my already high expectations. Hope you dig the tunes.

Monday, February 4, 2008

SNOB Organization - Are Women Snobs?

Front sleeve, sorry for the bpm sticker Back sleeve Side A label Side B label

• SNOB Organization - Are Women Snobs? - LP
Heroes of North America, 198?, WLP 1024
Produced by Helen Le Roy, Philip and Jimmy Walter

A1 Look Again (♫)
A2 Message From the Stars (♫)
A3 Le Robot (♫)
B1 Women (♫)
B2 Le Love
B3 Carnaval

I figured I should pick something nice for the first post, so why not make it one of my all-time favorite disco albums? Are Women Snobs? is quite the eye-brow raising title, but consider that the band itself is called SNOB Organization and things get blurry really fast. Though the whole album is a little bit hit-and-miss (as is almost always the case with Thrift Sounds), there is still alot going for this under-documented slab of Montréal Disco.

Side A is the winner, hands-down. Look Again (♫) starts it off with a with a hot up-tempo funk work-out that manages to combine a pushy female chorus, an incredibly confident male protagonist with slightly less-than-perfect mastery of English (hey, Montréal would be nowhere without Frenchies), occasional string swells, a hot percussion break and a New Orleans Jazz bit. Message From the Stars (♫) follows with a slightly reggae cosmic slow-jam. Not the best cut on the record, but still unusual enough to be mentioned.

Le Robot (♫) is the jaw-dropping crown-jewel. A punky new-wave bass lick, crisp snare & hand-clap hits, alien synth washes, Babe Ruth-like twin-lead solo, Jethro Tull-ish growling flute, and that apocalyptic warbly voice (presumably the title's Robot) talking about lying, stealing and killing for, and OD-ing on, Disco. This should have been their big single, but they inexplicably left it an album cut.

Side B is more miss than hit though Women (♫), the first track, is still quite a good one. Leaning towards the happy-sound side of things, the insanely impenetrable lyrics still make it quite enjoyable. Something about a galaxy devoid of both women and "universal charity." Thankfully, action is spotted on Planet 23, where the main attraction is "satisfaction guarenteed." There are two Proggy breaks (while Quebec remained a Disco strong-hold long after it had all but vanished everywhere else, it also fervently nursed Prog Rock, possibly keeping Pink Floyd's career alive through their lean years) that are quite jarring, but add a lot to the mix. All this leading to the predatorial chorus "Women! Women! We're gonna get you!" which turns into a kind of psychotic minor-key mantra for the last part of the song. This one was released as a single on PBI (W12035) with Look Again on the flip. Le Love is a pretty generic funky disco track with shades of Bee-Gees vocalising, a Cerrone-like effected tom break and completely unimaginative Franglish lyrics. Carnaval, the last track is abso-fucking-lutely unbearable, and quite long to boot. A terrible way to end a record containing so many outstanding moments, unfortunately.

Are Women Snobs? was recorded at Studio SNB (for SNOB perhaps?), which is still active to this day. Action in Ville St-Laurent! Executive producers Phillippe Renaux, Patrick Barbero and George Antiglio have chops too. Renaux was boss of French dance-label Clever (sub-label of Carrere) and is still at the music production game. Barbero also has quite a few production credits to his name, including a Rap version of Suzanne Vega's Tom's Diner. Antiglio has a more modest CV. He seems to have been mostly active in the early 80's, with some occasional appearances in the 90's. Though his Disco version of Devine's The Name Game sounds like it could be a good time!

Heroes of North America is an amazing name for a label, though I've found very little else about it but this SNOB release. I remember coming accross another H.o.N.A. release during the very bin-raid that unearthed this beauty. It was a 3-man sports-themed character band (football, baseball maybe? or tennis?) that sounded like the Bee-Gees. I dropped it like a wet tissue.

PS: Spotted this LP for sale on a European web-store while researching this post. It was selling for €60, in used but mint condition, naturally. My crapped-out copy is probably still worth the ¢99 I originally paid for it though.