Saturday, April 28, 2012

Bobby Womack is The Bravest Man In The Universe

Who can deny a good comeback story?  Remember when Steve Jobs got fired from Apple in 1985? His comeback was one of the most inspirational and financially astounding stories of all time (I guarantee at least 50% of those who read this do so on a Macbook, iPad, or iPhone).  Remember when Curren$y was on Young Money and no one knew who he was? Now who is everybody’s favorite drawled-out stoner?  Remember when everyone in the mainstream had virtually forgotten about Raekwon, until he dropped Cuban Linx II? Now he’s on tracks with Bieber and Kanye.  Remember just a few days ago when the Sox were crushing the Yankees 9-0, and the Yanks came back to win 15-9? (Sorry, had to throw it in there).  These incidences happen, and the longer the wait, the sweeter the result.

            Bobby. Womack.  Brought into the wonderful world of soul music by none other than Sam Cooke, Womack has since spent more than five decades in the music business.  Like various other soul artists, Bobby can make us feel something.  Starting with the Valentinos, a group that consisted of Bobby and his brothers, Womack was born to play.  Did you readers know that Womack means versatile in Yiddish? Well, it doesn’t, but it should.  Womack’s wiki page is rife with genres including: soul, gospel, R & B, rock n roll, doo-wap, funk, blues, country, jazz, and others.  If I had to create a subgenre for Womack’s sound, it’d be something like nu-gravel-soul.  His voice is so enthralling, that you could put him over an Insane Clown Posse track and I’d be head-bobbing and copping their CDs in a matter of seconds (but fuck ICP).  He has maintained his signature gritty and hoarse voice over his entire career, and luckily it gets raspier with time.  It’s as though you can hear the years of his life through his vocal chords, his history is audible with each word.  
            Womack went on from the Valentinos to his solo career, which included providing the score to a few blaxploitation films, which are famous for their soundtracks (see Superfly by Curtis Mayfield, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs by Quincy Jones, or Black Caesar by James Brown).  These cinematic glimpses into Bobby’s work make him all the more appealing.  It’s like how I didn’t realize how great of a song “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers is, until I saw it used in 127 Hours for a brief, but uplifting montage where Aaron decides today is the day he’ll get out from under the rock.  I didn’t realize how useful funk and soul could be in matching a visual tone, until I heard Womack’s “Across 110th Street.”

            Whereas his soundtrack work may be compared in sound to others like Quincy Jones or Curtis Mayfield, his other work shows a higher level of diversity.  Some songs can be reminiscent of the transitional era between funk and disco like “Stand Up” which is a fast paced, guitar riff-tastic track overflowing with hand claps, repeating chants, electronic organs, and an undeniable 80’s vibe.   Other eras of his career reflect more of a darker avant garde funk that may be compared to someone like Sly Stone.  The title track from his 1971 album Communication has odd percussive noises as well as the ever-present wah wah pedal, a staple of most funk music.  Whatever the case, Bobby’s got the funk in his blood.
            This is my favorite part.  Bobby was not quite forgotten in the 1990’s and on, but was certainly not the music icon that he was in the 60’s through the 80’s.  This is where Damon Albarn comes into the picture.  I love the Gorillaz, and Rocket Juice and the Moon is poised to be one of the most inventive funk groups of the new millennium, but I would not have picked Albarn as the spark that reignited Womack’s career.  However, a powerful collaboration between Mos Def, Damon Albarn, and Bobby Womack was put together for Plastic Beach, a Gorillaz album released in 2010.  The star power on this record is dizzying.  It features guest appearances from Snoop Dogg, De La Soul, Little Dragon, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of The Clash, Lou Reed, and others.  The songs which feature Bobby are “Stylo” and “Cloud of Unknowing,” the former a more aggressive and fast paced electro funk song, the latter a slow and poetic showcase of all of its ingredients, which are Womack’s vocals, Albarn’s production, and Sifonia VIVA’s gorgeous orchestration.  Womack was also featured on “Bobby in Phoenix,” from The Fall by Gorillaz, which spotlights Womack’s guitar playing (which is a whole other article completely) and his signature vocals. 

            It only gets better from there. He is set to release The Bravest Man In The Universe in June on XL Recordings, the same label that has put out some of the most important records of the last 10 years, including, but not limited to, The xx’s self titled record, 21 by Adele, and I’m New Here by Gil Scott Heron.  I’m New Here and The Bravest Man both mark important transformations by their respective artists.  Gil had completely retooled his sound, thanks to XL owner Richard Russell.  Russell is a motherfucking genius.  His production on I’m New Here was revolutionary for a variety of reasons.  He brought attention to a classic artist that was only know by youngsters because Common and a million other rappers quoted “The revolution will not be televised,” one of Heron’s famous lines.  The collaboration between Russell and Gil was a unique combination of singing, rap, and poetry, all over a collection of songs produced by Russell, featuring modern production techniques and heavy utilization of the MPC.  The record was also reworked by Jamie XX of The xx into a full remix album entitled We’re New Here, which kept Heron’s vocals over a collection of new and flashier songs.  The beat for Drake and Rihanna’s “Take Care” was originally Jamie XX’s remix to “I’ll Take Care of You” from We’re New Here. Russell cites Jamie XX as an inspiration for his production on the original album. 
This is likely the case for Womack.  Russell and Albarn teamed up to produce “Me and the Devil,” the standout track from I’m New Here.  The team decided to take on the whole record together with Womack’s The Bravest Man, and the partnership has yielded one of the most exciting sounds in this new age of technologically advanced music.  The only song that has been released thus far is “Please Forgive My Heart.”  The song is magnificent.  It does a spectacular job of showcasing Womack’s soulful voice, as well as an interesting hi-hat call and response type arrangement, and synthesizers that take the place of weeping strings.  Where Gil Scott Heron’s gravelly voice calls for a more dramatic and rugged approach to production, Womack’s gravelly voice works best with elaborate melodies, and a more subtle approach to production, which is highlighted in “Please Forgive My Heart.” 
Recently, funk has largely been overlooked as “sample material” for rap, which has replaced soul, funk, old school R & B, and jazz and the main form of popular African American music.  I truly believe this upcoming record has the power to change that, or at least challenge the norm.  With Albarn’s mass appeal and tried-and-true production efforts, and Russell’s creative and fanatic approach to working with artists, not to mention his extraordinary ability to run one of the best labels in current music, it wouldn’t even matter if Womack was on the album or not.  Luckily, he is.  If The Bravest Man In The Universe is anything like I’m New Here, we will have an overwhelmingly positive fan response, and maybe a Jamie XX remix album, who knows.  All I know is I’ll pay for this album, which is more than I can say for most others.  

by Ken Glauber