Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Civilization and its discotheques

All signs point to this summer being a disco one. Of course every summer is a disco one for me—and every fall, winter and spring. But it's not often there's a new album by my current favorite disco chanteuse, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, plus a double-barrel compilation attack: Disco Deutchsland Disco and Dimitri from Paris' Cocktail Disco. Where Dimitri found the tunes on his double CD, I cannot fathom, but they are absolutely extraordinary samples of the super-orchestrated subgenre of disco that was produced in the mid- to late 1970s. Best of all, the tracks are not mixed together or edited down; many are 12" versions, which of course are always preferable when it comes to disco. I've been listening to these songs obsessively since getting them, but two really stick out right now.

The first is Jonelle Allen's 1978 "Baby, I Just Wanna Love You," which actually concludes Cocktail Disco—it's the comp's post-coital cigarette. It starts off with chimes, which usually are a sure sign that a song will
remain a simmering, panting stew of anticipation. This impression is confirmed by funky but subdued organ riffage at 0:11. At 0:21, a piano comes in to deliver the hook that'll form the song's melodic spine, immediately followed by backup singers cooing "Aaaaa, I wanna love you." They repeat. And again. More sighing. Yep, this is fireside/white tiger rug disco. Not my favorite but I can live with that piano.

But whoah! At 1:08, the anonymous backup singers take it up a notch in intensity, while the string section (a trademark of arranger Charles Veal) makes its entrance. Things are beginning to cook, and Jonelle's vocals gradually gain overtones of bunny-in-the-oven instability while the strings add a dramatic counterpoint. By 2:46, she's whipped herself into a full-fledged frenzy, roaring, squealing; it sounds like she's losing both the plot and the pitch, but who cares? At 3:37, the guitar comes back in to calm things down as abruptly as they heated up. Ah, a guitar-bass-drums break: we're in disco territory all right. And then Jonelle starts peaking all over again. But forget about her: I'm spent!

MP3 Jonelle Allen
"Baby, I Just Wanna Love You" from Dimitri from Paris' Cocktail Disco

Next we have Marti Lynn's "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)," which has also been performed by the likes of Tony Bennett and Dusty Springfield (I can't resist posting her version for comparison purposes). The 1979 track starts off very show-tuney, and for a reason: It's from Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley's 1965 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd. Yet it goes on to overcome a sax solo and ends up working for three reasons: 1. well-written, complementary charts for strings (dreamy) and horns (aggressive); 2. Marti Lynn's belting, very Love Boat vocals; 3. a pair of diabolically funky breaks, for which we can probably thank producer Wardell Quezergue (who I believe hailed from New Orleans).

The first of these breaks completely interrupts the by-then-familiar flow at 2:40—it's as if we were listening to the clumsiest mashup of all time, with two completely different songs grafted not together but one after the other. The track almost stops dead, then the instrumental voices are reintroduced one by one: drums, then guitar, then bass, then strings, then horns. It's straight out of the Chic playbook, and more transporting than the purest hallucinogenic drugs. The first time I heard it, I was at the gym and almost fell off the treadmill.

More stuff happens—Marti comes back, there's a second break, Marti starts hiccupping lyrics ("Tell me who/Tell me who who who?")—as the song spirals up and out into the 11th hour number in the glitterball disco musical that never was. Bliss doesn't come any purer than this.

MP3 Marti Lynn "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)" from Dimitri from Paris' Cocktail Disco
MP3 Dusty Springfield "Who Can I Turn To" from Ev'rything's Coming up Dusty (1965)


Tommy said...

This is some divine disco indeed! Can't wait to get Cocktail Disco.. Thanks for giving us a lil' sip :)

soulbrotha said...

Hilariously accurate review! I damn near fell out of my chair at the "bunny-in-the-oven instability" & "Love Boat" vocal descriptions! I have been trying to find a way to describe those kinds of singers and you captured it beautifully. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

GĂ©nial ! Quand est-ce qu'on va danser ensemble ?

Anonymous said...

That's the best review I'v ever read on one of my comps !
Thanks !!

Anonymous said...

Just got back from a week at the lake...jamming this the whole time there. "Who Can I Turn To" had me dancing the whole ride back. LOVE IT!!!!