Boogaloo Times: A Discourse on Funk and Soul – Lee Fields, and The Sound Stylistics

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  1. MP3: Lee Fields & the Expressions – These Moments
  2. The Sound Stylistics – The Taking of Peckham 343

Production does a lot for the music we listen to. Just think about it for a moment–some sort of production must have, at one point or another, generated an effect upon every single vibration that has ever passed through any set of speakers worldwide. Period. Whether the result can be found in the artist’s instrument selection, microphones, choosing between analog or digital recording methods, editing, or in your speakers themselves–everything is produced somehow. I can even casually identify the names of a few prominent artforms that bank entirely on the ability to digitally interpret sound–electro, IDM, krautrock, chiptune, D&B/jungle–things like these would be nothing without audio editing. Furthermore, the manner in which an album is produced can occasionally transform otherwise inadequate sound into a critically lauded Pitchfork 8.7 (ahem, the xx?). Just sayin’.

Bringing it back to the Boogaloo though: I don’t think anyone would be particularly astonished to realize that funk and soul are not exempt from the presence of this phenomenon. Although both genres are traditionally analog-based, and, for that matter, stuck in the past, there are still ways to tastefully produce both using modern techniques that do not alter the aim or consequence of either. To illustrate this, I’ll examine the impact modern production displays on two of 2009’s most qualitatively dissimilar releases in funk and soul–Lee Fields & The Expressions’ My World, and Greasin’ The Wheels by The Sound Stylistics.

My World, released on Truth and Soul Records, blew the shit out of this twenty-year-old-middle-classer’s mind. Fields’ vocals–tender, crackly yet vivacious–sound better today than they ever have before. But that’s not where My World really shines. The heart of the record belongs not to its charismatic frontman, but to The Expressions. Their instrumental tracks, each one of them, are spectacularly affectionate; “Expressions Theme,” “These Moments,” and “Last Ride” are all, for their funky chops alone, more entertaining than any lone voice. Naturally, there are also tracks (namely “My World Is Empty Without You”) that would flop outright if not for Fields’ soulful contribution. As it stands, however, soul is practically marinating in the midst of all its voices; what’s really valuable is a backing band talented enough to construct soul without a throat. The Expressions may well be musicians of this caliber, but there’s still no question that they benefited from an upgrade in production.

If you compare The Expressions to say, Sharon Jones’ Dap-Kings, a markedly different aesthetic becomes perceptible to most anyone. The Dap-Kings, part of Sharon Jones’ chaste revival-funk outfit, strictly choose to utilize only those production methods that would have been available to artists in funk’s heyday. Judging by the way My World sounds, this probably isn’t exactly how things work in the studio with Lee Fields’ Expressions. Contrasted with the Dap-Kings’ faithful approach, the Expressions appear crisp, clean, limber, and at times, even unrealistic. The Dap-Kings, in turn, are top-notch troubadours of classic chunky-funk style–plagued with analog fuzz, and lacking dimension. These shortsightedly insignificant distinctions become more pronounced with every subsequent listen; eventually the connection and mutual influence between these two groups (which are quite strong) obscures considerably.

As a brief aside, however, I’d like to quickly resolve an innocent misconception that this last bit may have induced. Although according to my previous depiction classic funk production might seem less alluring in comparison to the new stuff, there’s still never been anything more funky than heedlessly overlooking production values in the pursuit of groovy gold. Funk’s just as much an attitude as it is a sound; Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings have both in spades.

Contemporary funk production isn’t all sunshine and dandelions, though. 2009 alone yielded a handful of releases that seemed to do their very best in showcasing modern techniques at their most tawdry: the dilution of respectable sound down to watery faux-funk. Greasin’ The Wheels by The Sound Stylistics (from the first-rate Freestyle Records), for instance, might have delivered to its listener a prime kick in the rumpus if its production values hadn’t defected. The record is chock full of ineffective rhythm sections alongside leads that sound like they were recorded to accompany Starbucks coffee. Frankly, it’s boring. Now, that’s all somewhat to the fault of the musicians themselves, but their production still would have done some good to trash the sterile mix and throw in a little grit. The bulk of what has relatively recently become labeled Neo-Soul has likewise found its way into coffeeshop-cool production extravagance. There are plenty of singles coming out these days (some of which I will discuss in the next Boogaloo Times) that plainly betray their implicit vow to soulful authenticity by senselessly lathering on layers of glossy shit in an attempt to make their work more smooth. That just ain’t right.

[Note: Greasin' The Wheels does occasionally contain spectacular funk music; "The Taking Of Peckham 343" is a superb example. Listen in for a hearty dose of star-gazing space-funk.]

Funk’s relationship with modern production has, at last, also been a major player in the discovery of several other rhythm-based genres. A few of the digitally dependent styles I listed earlier are of just this heritage. That being the case, I intend to provide an ample survey of these funky offshoots for Boogaloo Times’ third installment. When initially apprising genres such as funk and soul, most people usually lack any sort of real comprehension about how supremely rich the field is. In reality, these grooves require deeper examination than most. My hope is that the Boogaloo Times column improves awareness for all those who read it. And, although this post only included two examples of funk and soul in all their diametric modernity, my current plan is to employ a much greater number of releases in the discussion for the next Boogaloo Times. For now, lets all just take a listen to some cuts and, you know. Get Funky.

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One Response to “Boogaloo Times: A Discourse on Funk and Soul – Lee Fields, and The Sound Stylistics”

  1. dave says:

    Production proper is surely to be distinguished from arrangement and engineering, as an intermediate stage between performance and reproduction: production thus defined constitutes a transformative intervention in the sound for creative rather than merely technical ends, usually by a third party. And most of it sucks. That’s not to say there aren’t “light-touch” producers who leave the raw material as undisturbed as possible while trying to give it the right “oomph”, but few get it right.

    And thus defined, I’ve heard plenty of unproduced music and generally prefer it to the reworked final product. It’s very unusual for production to preserve the immediacy of the original, warts & all. The demo CD has shown us that we don’t need it anything like as much as we were told (most of all by producers, oddly).

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