Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Deep space

I've been meaning to write something about Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984 for a while now. At first I held off until the vinyl came out and then I decided to bag it altogether because someone else had already written way more thoughtfully and attentively about it than I could hope to.

Personal Space was compiled by Dante Carfagna, a Chicago based record collector/writer/DJ whose knowledge of obscure soul and funk releases from 1970s completely humbles my own. I suspect he mined this vein for a long time before assembling the compilation. The selections, which are uniformly deep and often great, illustrate how new home recording technology in the 1970s liberated artists to make music without outside help and how this isolation bred sounds that were unique and often, perhaps inadvertently, totally alien.

This is one of the more conventional songs on Personal Space, but also a favorite:

Guitar Red: "Disco From a Space Show" (Mod-Art, 1976)

If I have one complaint about Personal Space, it's that the liner notes are a bit spartan. In conversation, Dante is prolix, endlessly informed and ready to spill gossipy anecdotes about seemingly every release, so I was a little surprised by the restraint he shows here. There's a paragraph that outlines the compilation's theme and each release garners a few sentences that add biographical detail and context, but I hoped for a little more.

So James Cavicchia's essay about Personal Space over on O-Dub's soul-sides blog is a lovely complement. He surveys audio clips of many of the selections and adds observations like this, which threw the compilation into sharp relief for me: "[F]rom this reduced reliance on humans comes also a reduced invocation of them. There is the inescapable sense that without the technology we would never have been able to hear such personal work, but that this same hand of technology has created within the work an alienating distance." (For another great recent piece by James, see his personal, very discursive take on Aretha Franklin's 80s-era recordings, rediscovery and authenticity.)

While fishing through a cache of things I'd ripped to post here eventually I rediscovered this, which seemed like an apt complement to the music on Personal Space:

Leon Ware: "Tamed to Be Wild" (UA, 1972)

Although Ware's classic stepper "Why I Came to California" still gets some run, he's best-known for his work with Motown artists. In the 1970s he wrote or co-wrote hits like Michael Jackson's "I Wanna Be Where You Are" and Marvin Gaye's "I Want You" (Ware also produced and arranged the latter) as well as releasing a handful of solo LPs.

"Tamed to Be Wild" closes out Ware's self-titled first LP and has an unusually weird vibe for a major label soul track. While a female vocal lets you know we're not completely gone into loner territory, everything else points towards desperation and damage-- Ware's mumble-to-a-shout vocal, the wandering, sinister mini-moog line and especially the drums. It's hard to tell what's what's going on with the percussion-- I think there's both a drum machine and a tape loop of live drums-- but the pattern is so stiff and awkward it creates a bizarre kind of propulsion. Who this side of J-Dilla has ever made 4/4 sound so damn unnatural?

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