Archive for February, 2009

Total Soul Classics: Teddy Pendergrass

In August of 2007, Philadelphia International Records licensed its entire catalog to SONY BMG, and reissues have been gradually appearing on the Legacy label.  The most recent collaboration is the Total Soul classics series, which so far has resulted in newly remastered reissues of six classic Gamble & Huff albums that include new (albeit brief) liner notes and an occasional bonus track. The three reissues covered in this review focus on the contributions of Teddy Pendergrass, who captured the essence of Philly soul (other reissues in the series include 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, the O’Jays’ Back Stabbers, and Leon Huff’s Here To Create Music).

The Philadelphia sound, also known as the “Philly sound,” is a style of soul music featuring the elements of funk, strings, horns and lush orchestral arrangements. Pop vocals and R&B rhythm sections fused to create this new sound/genre, and laid the background for disco and the format known on smooth jazz radio stations as the “Quiet Storm.”  The Philly Sound, or Philly Soul, was pioneered by the producing and songwriting duo of Leon Huff and Kenneth Gamble. They formed Philadelphia International Records (PIR) in 1971 and worked with many artists including Patti Labelle, Archie Bell and the Drells, the O’Jays, the Jacksons, Lou Rawls, the Stylistics, Jean Carne, Phyllis Hyman, Billy Paul, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and Teddy Pendergrass, amongst many others. Gamble & Huff routinely used the same group of studio musicians, known as MFSB (Mothers, Fathers, Sisters, and Brothers), which produced a consistent hit-making sound. Since 1963, Gamble & Huff have earned 175 gold and platinum records, dominating the pop and R&B charts for over twenty years. They’ve written over 3000 songs that were nurtured from the church pulpits and streets, tackling topics like family, poverty, politics and relationships.

Title: Wake Up Everybody
Artist: Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
Label: PIR/ Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697-340102
Release date:  2008 (1975)

One of the most recognizable male vocalists to come out of PIR was Teddy Pendergrass. Like high premium chocolate, Teddy Pendergrass has a voice that is smooth, rich and velvety. Pendergrass’s vocals promote sexiness, sultriness and sensuality, and he convincingly belts out with the prowess necessary to render social change, equality and global consciousness. Affectionately known as the “Teddy Bear,” Pendergrass has been famously known to cater to women by holding “women only” concerts and handing out roses, teddy bears and hugs and kisses.

Originally hired as the Cadillac’s drummer, Pendergrass began singing with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes when the two groups merged. Many hits were made through this collaboration, yet it is the title track from the album Wake Up Everybody that arguably stands out as one of the best soul/R&B songs of the seventies. What makes this song so vital and beautiful is the lush orchestration, well-executed production, and perfect harmonies. The lyrics offer a cry to the world to literally wake up and see what is going on (similar to Marvin Gaye’s plea) and take accountability. There is no excuse or reason for society to allow poverty, crime, illness and the many plagues that affect us all if we choose to stay in a dormant state. According to his biography, Pendergrass is an ordained minister. His vocal approach is very similar to the calls and wails of black preaching- commanding yet convincing. With a wonderful balance of gruff pleas and smooth vocals, Pendergrass demonstrates his gift to blend both styles effortlessly. The ability to show vulnerability with a masculine commanding voice is not easy to achieve and Pendergrass is one of the masters.

The remaining tracks on Wake Up Everybody are primarily love songs with the stand out cut, “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” This 1975 release was Pendergrass’s final album with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Only one bonus track has been added, an extended Tom Moulton mix of  “Don’t Leave Me This Way.”

Title: Teddy Pendergrass
Artist: Teddy Pendergrass
Label: PIR/ Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697-29484 2
Release date: 2008 (1977)

Pendergrass’s first solo album, self-titled Teddy Pendergrass, was originally released in 1977 and was also produced by the dynamic team of Gamble & Huff. Two singles charted from this album, “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me.” The track “Somebody Told Me” recalls the vocal styles of gospel, while “If I Had” evokes the best of the blues. These songs in particular showcase Pendergrass’s ability to pull from both the secular and the sacred to create emotive soul-stirring music whose appeal is most obvious to women, yet also addresses feelings that both men and women have experienced. A very consistent album with no dull tracks, Gamble & Huff concentrated on Pendergrass’s vocals, using female backing vocals or Pendergrass’s own voice to truly showcase his lead vocals. “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “The More I Get, The More I Want” offer soulful disco tracks ideal for dancing, while also incorporating a great rhythm section, pounding percussion, and beautiful orchestrations.

Title: Life Is a Song Worth Singing
Artist: Teddy Pendergrass
Label: PIR/Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697-29485 2
Release date: 2008 (1978)

Life is a Song Worth Singing was Pendergrass’s second solo album, again produced by Gamble & Huff.  Pendergrass sings with raw conviction, yet offers tenderness in tracks such as “When Somebody Loves You Back.” The title track is a well-arranged mix of horns and strings that could provide any action movie from 1978 with a formidable soundtrack. The fervor of this CD is more intense than Pendergrass’s first album. He confidently makes it clear what he wants and what he likes as in the track “Only You,” while songs like the top charting “Close the Door” build from slow seduction to intense passion, displaying his vulnerability. This album solidified Pendergrass’s position as one of the sexiest, most sensual balladeers in R&B music.  The two bonus tracks include the single version of “Only You” and an extended disco version (7:09) of “Get Down, Get Funky.”

Though primarily known for his love songs, Pendergrass is much more than a balladeer. His body of work crosses many genres, such as disco, funk, soul and R&B. He sings from a spiritual fervor, bringing soul to every song. Whether Pendergrass is lamenting his woes of love gone wrong, the joys of loving someone when someone loves you back, or calling out to the world to show compassion towards our fellow brothers and sisters, it is very clear he has made an indelible mark on music that will never be duplicated.

Posted by June Evans

View review February 3rd, 2009

Back To Now

Title: Back to Now
Artist: Labelle
Label: Verve
Catalog No. : 8001151-02
Release Date: October 21, 2008

The music industry seems to be interested in only one demographic,  the 15 to 25-year-old listener. What these listeners may not be aware of, is that singers like Kelis and Pink, and the girl groups TLC and Destiny’s Child, may have never existed if it weren’t for the groundbreaking powerhouse vocal group Labelle.

Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sara Dash began their career in 1961 as the trio Labelle. They have been transformative, starting out as a doo-wop girl group in the sixties and morphing into a psychedelic funk group in the seventies,  before embarking on their own solo projects in the eighties and nineties. Labelle has occasionally reunited for special events, however this new release is a landmark collaboration, and shows that these women can still make an outstanding record (click here for a video preview).

Producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, Lenny Kravitz, and Wyclef Jean all lend their talents, showcasing the uniqueness Labelle has managed to maintain, including their ability to sing practically anything effortlessly while addressing issues such as racism, sexism and eroticism. Labelle’s strength has always been their ability to sing varied genres of music and Back to Now is no exception, delving into rock, soul, and funk.  Songs range from slow ballads to classic standards such as “Miss Otis Regrets.”  A stand out track is “Dear Rosa,” produced by Nona Hendryx, which is an ode to the mother of the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks.  ”Rollout” embodies female empowerment through declarative statements like  ‘I’m not your superwoman,’ while “Superlover” evokes passion and sexual gratification, unashamedly.  ”Tears for the World” laments the current state of the world and social neglect, bringing Africa, Asia, and tragedies like Hurricane Katrina into question, and wondering why we don’t answer.

Labelle has picked up from where they left off, creating timely music that empowers women and addresses socially oppressed communities, while retaining an edge in style and maintaining vocal harmonies and musical integrity.  If today’s music executives were truly interested in good music that contains meaningful lyrics, well-produced tracks, and beautifully blended harmonies, they would produce more CDs like this.

Posted by June Evans

View review February 3rd, 2009

Come and Get Me, I’m Ready!

Title: Come and Get Me, I’m Ready!
Artist: Kim Tolliver
Label: Reel Music
Original Release Date: 1973
Reissue: June 3, 2008

“Music is a cruel business where talent never guarantees commercial success and Kim’s name is not half as well known as it should be.” -John Ridley, August 2007

Dorothy Kimberly Tolliver was born on June 21, 1937, and raised in Cleveland. She sang in local churches and eventually found her way to secular music, performing in clubs and bars in the late 1950s. In 1968 she released four 45s on the Rojac label, including her first single, “I’ll Try To Do Better,” a slow ballad of immense maturity and conviction. Tolliver’s debut album was cut in 1971 and self-produced with Freddie Briggs. When he couldn’t get Stax interested in the project, Briggs pressed copies on his own Kimbrig label. In 1973 Chess took notice of Tolliver and released her second album, Come and Get Me, I’m Ready. Though her recordings never sold well, Tolliver developed a following and toured both in the U.S. and abroad.

Come And Get Me, I’m Ready is a classic deep soul tour-de-force, reminiscent of R&B artists Eddie Levert, Millie Jackson, Betty Wright and Mavis Staples.  This CD is the first of her material to be officially remastered and reissued, and contains some of her best songs. Tolliver is primarily a storyteller, lamenting her woes of lost love in an R&B framework that evokes country, blues and gospel. Similar to many blues women, Tolliver unabashedly sings her desire to love and makes no apology for her decision to love whom she chooses, regardless if the object of her affection loves her back.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Tolliver wrote solo and collaborated with husband Freddie Briggs on seven of the nine tracks, including “I’m Losing the Feeling,” “She Don’t Know You (Like I Do),” and “The Other Side of Town.” At first listen, it is apparent that Tolliver has great vocal skills. The production quality is only adequate and some of the tracks are laden with heavy orchestration, diminishing Tolliver’s vocals which are not allowed to truly shine. However, her talent is very evident and incites much sparkle.

Sadly, Kim Tolliver passed away in 2007 before this reissue project came to fruition. Perhaps this new edition of Come And Get Me, I’m Ready will find the audience that Tolliver never managed to reach during her lifetime.

Posted by June Evans

View review February 3rd, 2009

From the Heart

Legacy Recordings has launched a new From the Heart series this month to coincide with Valentine’s Day and Black History Month. Like the previous Beautiful Ballad series released in February of 2007 and 2008, each From the Heart compilation features classic R&B and jazz ballads that have been digitally remastered and come with gift tags affixed to the jewel case.  Among the nine featured artists are Babyface, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, the Isley Brothers, and Etta James (Frank Sinatra, Air Supply, and Dolly Parton discs are also available).

Of course we have to kick this off with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, since he’s an Indiana native (his brother was once a member of IU’s Soul Revue). Babyface was one of the masters of the romantic ballad in the ’80s, and this compilation draws strongly from his early work on the Solar and Epic labels. Included among the chart topping hits is his cover of the Stylistic’s “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” along with a good representation of his original songs, such as “Whip Appeal,” “When Can I See You?”, “Never Keeping Secrets,”and “Everytime I Close My Eyes.” The most recent material is drawn from his 1996 album The Day, including “This Is For the Lover In You,” featuring LL Cool J.

If you’d prefer instrumental ballads, the Miles Davis CD offers them in abundance. As one might expect, selections include “My Funny Valentine” (a rare live version from 1965), “Stella by Starlight” (1958, with Coltrane, Adderly and Evans), and the Gershwin favorites “I Loves You Porgy” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” from Porgy and Bess arrangements by Gil Evans. The one rather unexpected track is Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” which Miles turned into a jazz standard in this 1985 version.

Given all of the attention on Etta James lately, its no wonder that Legacy chose to dust off some of her masters. Most of the tracks are from recordings she made in the last couple of decades, and focus more on jazz than R&B.  If you’re not overly familiar with James, the compilation does show off her versatility.  The CD opens with her first big hit “At Last,” which of course was recently covered by Beyonce in the film Cadillac Records and at one of the inaugural balls (and no doubt will be heard ad nauseam on this season of American Idol).  There is a definite focus on the Great American Songbook, including “My Funny Valentine,” “The Man I Love,” “Night and Day,” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” but her R&B side is not completely ignored. Cover versions of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and Brook Benton’s “I’ll Take Care Of You” are thrown in for good measure, and certainly don’t disappoint.

If you’re looking for more jazz ballads, look no further than the Lady Day.  Once again the focus is on the Great American Songbook, and here Billie Holiday launches into her most popular classics, some of which duplicate the Etta James selections.  Most of the recordings were drawn from her 1933-1944 Columbia catalog (issued on the Brunswick and Vocalion labels), and include “Night and Day,” “Summertime,” and “The Man I Love,” along with “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” from her final Columbia session in 1942 (before she jumped over to Decca).

The Queen of Soul is represented by some of her earlier Columbia releases, including “Unforgettable” from the 1964 Tribute to Dinah Washington, and “Misty” from the 1965 album Yeah!!!.  The bulk of the Aretha Franklin CD focuses on her work with Luther Vandross in the early ’80s and features the hit “Every Girl (Wants My Guy)” along with “Love Me Right,” “I Got Your Love,” and “Giving In,” among others. Her collaboration with producer Narada Michael Walden is represented by several tracks, such as the duet with James Brown “Gimme Your Love,” while the final tracks are drawn from more recent albums.

Last but not least is a collection of slow jams from the Isley Brothers, primarily drawn from their T-Neck and Epic albums of the ’70s and early ’80s, and of course including tracks from 1985′s Caravan of Love (the latter officially released under the name Isley, Jasper, Isley).  Some of the biggest hits from this period are represented, such as “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time For Love),” “Choosey Lover,” “Lay Lady Lay,” and “Let’s Fall In Love (Parts 1 & 2).”
Now that’s got to be enough to put anyone in the mood for Valentine’s Day! None of these are by any means definitive compilations, but for the most part they include a well-balanced mix of romantic favorites, and the CDs will certainly last longer than flowers or a box of chocolates. Buyers should note, however, that some of these compilations have been previously released under alternate titles.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 3rd, 2009

Super Sol Nova, Volume 1

Title: Super Sol Nova, Volume 1
Artist: The Family Stand
Label: Go Entertainment / Rounder Europe
Catalog No.: Go 70323
Release date: January 2008

After a nine-year hiatus following the 1998 publication of The Family Stand’s last album, Connected, Sandra St. Victor, Peter Lord, and V. Jeffrey Smith reunited to record and release Super Sol Nova, Volume 1.  The release of the album and the group’s recent concert tour is a reaction, at least in part, to the false arrest of Donovan Drayton, son of Family Stand guitarist Ronny Drayton, by the NYPD in November 2007 for premeditated murder and robbery.  According to The Family Stand website, the group members are trying to fight Donovan’s indictment for second degree murder by “bonding together to secure legal funds for this long and tedious process via concerts and outreach to the community” (a benefit concert with Nona Hendryx is planned for October).  Although Donovan’s story doesn’t seem to play a role in the album itself, it is serving as the inspiration for the group’s continued activity.

Super Sol Nova is a mixed bag in terms of sound and quality.  Many of the songs draw upon the rock aesthetics established by earlier songs like “In the Midst of Revolution” and “Plantation Radio” from Moon in Scorpio rather than from the mellower jazz and R&B sounds that characterized Connected and Chain.  These tend to be the stronger pieces on the album and I’ll touch on several of them in a moment.

A number of the other songs on the album range from sweet, if somewhat banal, love ballads to sonic experiments gone awry.  “009,” for instance, opens with a spoken spoof by Viki Wickham of the typical enemy agent monologue you would expect in a James Bond film.  The song itself imitates the 007 soundtracks intermixed with rap solos.  The style shifts are so frequent and jarring that the work continually feels like it’s on the verge of a train wreck.  Another song that seems to have just passed the brink of disaster is “I Thought I Had,” a break-up song backed by a happy sounding string section with oddly placed attacks on a tympani and bell set.  “Slipped,” another break-up song consisting primarily of voice and acoustic guitar, has an equally random bell part that is out of synch with the rest of the music.  Maybe this is the band’s way of sonically representing relationships gone sour, but it feels more like bad multi-tracking.

Fortunately, there are twelve other tracks on Super Sol Nova.  The album’s title track mixes rock and soul with hip hop style vocals and a solo by Milk D.  The lyrics make an attack on corporatized rappers as fakers and posers.  Milk D. suggests that “more than a few MC’s need neck slaps” and claims that “every other motherfucking word is fuck” when they rap because of their lack of mic skills and their inability to deliver on stage.  In place of the boring sounds cranked out by the music industry, The Family Stand offers to feed the hungry hearts and minds of the masses with the explosion of their super sol nova.

“Super Sol Nova” transitions purposefully and seamlessly into “Everything Works Out,” but quickly drops the harder rock elements in favor of a looped sitar track and tabla-esque percussion, giving the song an Indian flavor.  The theme of the lyrics also shifts, switching from accusations of selling out to corporate puppeteers to reveling in the peace and love of discovering the God inside of you and being “who you wanna be.”

Other songs on the album are blatantly political.  “In the Name of What?” is a scathing critique of the actions and policies of the Bush administration, particularly the lies about finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the betrayal of CIA agent Valerie Plume by Karl Rove, and the government’s failure to provide aid to the victims of Katrina.  Drawing on a musical style reminiscent of WAR, The Family Stand mixes in news clips and the sounds of gunfire and explosions throughout the song.

“Divided We Stand”-an obvious inversion of “united we stand, divided we fall”-is a bluesy criticism of Americans’ failure to overcome the divisions caused by party politics and religion. “Dangerous,” although not political per se, compares a new lover to the dangers of the Iraq war including snipers and landmines.  And if that’s not irreverent enough for you, you’ll probably find the line “It’s like a terrorist is roaming in my heart” deeply satisfying.

Other songs worth checking out on the album include “Getting Happy,” a song about new found love delivered as a duet between Sandra and Lord that mixes R&B with a looped viola line; “Highway,” a slow rock ballad about recovering from bad choices; “Blazin’” a big band style instrumental piece featuring Smith on soprano sax; “The Break Down,” an all around solid rock song featuring Corey Glover on background vocals and Mike Ciro and Clifford “Moonie” Pusey on guitar; and “Innizout,” a meld of brooding bass-driven rock with strings that warns of the danger of losing yourself while trying to climb the social ladder.

In case you’re curious about the “Volume One” in the title, there is no “Volume Two.”  The Family Stand explains on their website that this album is the first step of “the next journey. . . The Family Stand reborn letting loose it’s creative gases and sonic molecules so that it may form another and even more powerful creative life force to shine its vibrations throughout the universe.”

Although there is currently another project in the works, the tentative title is Definition as opposed to Super Sol Nova, Volume 2, and it will focus exclusively on “one” genre that band calls “Rock/Soul.”

Posted by Ronda L. Sewald

View review February 3rd, 2009

Destiny and Triumph

Title: Destiny (expanded edition)
Artist: The Jacksons
Label: Sony Legacy
Catalog No.: 886973086926
Release date: January 27, 2009

Title: Triumph (expanded edition)
Artist: The Jacksons
Label: Sony Legacy
Catalog No.: 886973355824
Release date: January 27, 2009

The Jackson 5 were Motown’s last hurrah, a boy band to rival the Monkees but with the wholesome family ties of the Partridge Family.  They also grew up on record, and their popularity in the mid-to-late-seventies mirrored that of Motown, their flagging label.  A few scattered hits and lack of creative direction led the group’s manager and father Joe to split for CBS in 1976, fetching the group a record contract and short-lived variety program on the television network.  The band’s first two albums for CBS, Destiny (1978) and Triumph (1980, as “The Jacksons”), re-established the group’s chart success and spawned two incredibly successful world tours.  Epic/Legacy have remastered and rereleased both albums, hoping to capitalize on the incredible success of their reissues of Michael’s solo albums, Off the Wall and Thriller.

The Jacksons’ narrative is of course all their own, but there are many familiar elements.  For Destiny, the brothers expressed their strong desire to write and produce their own material for the first time.  While the results can’t compare with their pop heyday and the songwriting consortium of Motown, Destiny is a slick, densely produced but still light collection of timely pop songs. The album draws from Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s lush, string-laden Philly Soul aesthetic as well as Earth, Wind & Fire’s take on funk music, with the inclusion of a few schmaltzy ballads (“You Push Me Away,” “Bless His Soul”).

The centerpiece of Destiny is its second and most successful single, “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground).”  An eight minute club cut (whittled to four minutes for radio) penned by Michael and Randy, “Shake” proved that the group could, on its own, tap into the still-ascendant disco marketthe track reached number seven on the American pop chart.  “Blame it on the Boogie” is equally lithe and arguably just as catchy, but stalled in the mid-fifties on Billboard.  The title cut and third single, however, is Destiny‘s most ambitious moment, opening with a lone acoustic guitar before segueing into one of Michael’s more world-weary lyrics, capped by an ever-so-brief refrain that could have been pulled from a Doobie Brothers or Christopher Cross track.  Destiny is a disco record through and through, and a reasonably successful one, but tracks like this make it clear that the group had designs well outside of the dance floor.

Between Destiny and Triumph, the Jacksons, especially Michael, lived up to the grandiose titles of their records.  The Destiny tour was a worldwide success, launching the Jacksons back into the popular imagination.  Michael, however, had been tapped for a starring role in The Wiz, producer Quincy Jones’ all-black remake of The Wizard of Oz starring Michael’s former advocate Diana Ross as Dorothy.  Michael and Quincy’s relationship blossomed, leading to their collaboration on Off the Wall, which cemented Michael’s reputation as a solo star.  “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You” (written by Heatwave’s Rod Temperton, who would later collaborate with Jones and Jackson on Thriller) were better songs than anything on Triumph, and stand as two of the best moments from the disco era.  Much of this was due to Jones’ wrangling of some of the best studio hands of the time, including Temperton, Jeff Porcaro, Larry Carlton, George Duke, and Greg Philligaines. Michael took the opportunity to work on his dance moves and visual style for Wall‘s music videos as well, a notion that would pay off rather well a few years later.

Though Michael was clearly on a star bound trajectory in 1980, he was still devoted (and contractually-bound) to recording and touring with his brothers.  Triumph moved away from disco toward the realm of stadium-sized electronic pop, topping Destiny‘s sales and reaching platinum status.  The lead track, “Can You Feel It,” with shared lead vocals by Jackie and Michael, reflected the group’s stratospheric ambition and self-regard. The video (released the same year MTV launched, and three years before the network committed to playing black music videos) positioned the group, quite literally, as emerging from prehistoric cosmic forces and standing larger than life.  “Feel It” stalled in the ’70s on the pop charts (though it charted much higher in Europe). The first single, “Lovely One,” essentially a retread of the horn-and-string-laden, groove-based Destiny singles, reached no.12.

Though it didn’t succeed as a single to the extent of “Lovely One”, the Michael-penned “This Place Hotel” (changed from “Heartbreak Hotel” to avoid a lawsuit) signaled his clear separation from the group, as well as his obvious admiration for another former teen idol who moved toward making “adult” music, Paul McCartney (whom Jackson met during Off the Wall). “This Place Hotel” was in many ways a precursor to Thriller‘s “Billie Jean”: a narrative of being “done wrong” by a mysterious woman.  The lyrics suggest as much: “We came to this place, where the vicious dwell / And found that wicked women run this strange hotel.”  After Triumph, Michael would reconnect with Jones, McCartney and others to record 1982′s Thriller.  Though the Jacksons would reform for the 1984 LP Victory, Michael’s moonwalk during the 1983 “Motown 25″ special, coupled with a few groundbreaking music videos of his own, meant that the longstanding star of the Jackson family had finally broken off on his own.

These new “expanded editions” do much to clean up the poor digital mastering from the original CD pressings of the albums, but they do not contain much else in the way of essential bonus material.  The five extra tracks include four remixes from the same era by noted DJ and producer John Luongo, and the liner notesby critic Ernest Hardyspeak in very romantic language about the impact of the Jacksons on pop culture, pop music, and African American art in general.

Posted by Eric Harvey

View review February 3rd, 2009

Let Me Take You There

Title:  Let Me Take You There
Artist: Cheryl Keyes
Label:  Keycan Records
Catalog No.: 88450104256
Release Date:  October 2008

Let Me Take You There, the debut album by Dr. Cheryl Keyes for Keycan Records, is a must have for those who are searching for that eclectic music production. Put succinctly, this project, nominated for the 2009 NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding World Music Album, is a shining light in the era of monotone harmonic and melodic vamps and mindless lyrics that saturate the airwaves. Keyes, a professor in ethnomusicology at UCLA, composed, arranged and orchestrated all of the music on the CD and contributes background vocals, keyboards, and flute.  Her backup band features Gerald Pinter and Charles Owens on saxes, Bijon Watson on trumpet/flugelhorn, Phil Ranelin on trombone, Lionel Loueke and Wali Ali on electric guitars, Frederico Ramos on acoustic guitar, Robert Hurst on bass, Ralph Penland on drums, and Munyungo Jackson on percussion.  The ten tracks consist of essential funk, earthy shuffle, romantic, jazz, soft rock, and rhythm and blues ballads interspersed with Brazilian and Latin flavors.

Keyes’ project hearkens back to the early ‘70s when albums were diverse and lyrical content was more thoughtful.  However, make no mistake, this music is not dated.  In fact, it is very progressive.  For instance, “Sleeping With The Enemy” is a shuffle groove that references the Godfather of Soul’s “Doing It To Death” (you should upgrade your soul and funk catalogue if you don’t know this song) and develops the blues in a unique way.  Keyes borrows from the harmonic and rhythmic foundation of the song, creating a smoother adaptation.  In addition, instead of the “funky good time” expressed by James Brown, Keyes superimposes lyrics highlighting an intimate relationship with the wrong person over a funky beat.

The groove of “Sleeping With The Enemy” is infectious to the extent that the story line Keyes inserts establishes a sense of irony: How can one sing of such misery over a “feel good” pallet?  Wait…isn’t that an aspect of the blues?  Keyes demonstrates that we can still transcend a bluesy circumstance via blue tonality.  If you’re not sure about my perspective concerning the body of this song, simply listen to its intro. It is a dead giveaway, complete with thunderous sound affects and a minor key center established by piano and strings in low to mid registers signifying the 1991 film Sleeping With The Enemy, a love tragedy starring Julia Roberts.  Then, we suddenly groove to the orchestrations and warm alto vocal textures of Keyes expounding about a blues event with the adversary.

“My Fantasy” is another progressive moment reminiscent of an art song with a lush romantic style orchestration. This track is a representation of melodic poetry that expresses an innocent and, some might say, idealistic yearning for unrequited love and eternal friendship. Keyes’ head-tone and forward focused vocals on this track demonstrate that she is no novice to singing. She delivers a thoughtful word painting that is filled with arch-shaped phrases, allowing the listener to visualize the peaks and depths of desire and unfulfilled emotions.

“Wind Me Up” is just straight funky!  The punchy horns, wah wah guitar, rim shots on the beat, and Keyes’ soulful vocal runs and slurs hump (groove) all the way to the “One” (for those who are not true funkateers, the “One” is the socio-musical, political and psychological focal point of the groove-in other words, when you feel like turning up your nose and dancing, you’re probably feelin’ the “One!”). This song will dance you from beginning to end as Keyes’ lyrics and vocal delivery tell the story of that special pleasure one receives from an insightful significant other.  Another notable track is “Hyacinth,” a contemporary jazz piece that not only presents Keyes’ command of the genre’s vocal tradition, but also her impeccable technical and language facilities on keyboard and flute.

With the exception of the abrupt beginning of the first track, “Feelin’ Down,” the songs are well positioned and the sound production is very clean. However, the mix warrants minor fine-tuning, as some instruments such as the drums tend to be too forward, which results in loss of vocal essence.  In addition, Keyes’ vocal mix (lead vocals) could be a little dryer (less reverb), warmer (more bass frequencies) and have more presence and clarity (more amplitude and mid frequencies) on some tracks (see “Let Me Take You There”). We could only wish that these meager issues were the problems of most radio hits today.  In this project, there are no musical gimmicks such as hiding behind the vocoder (you know, Roger from Zapp could really sing!!).  Nor is there a flamboyant CD cover with scantly dressed people to take your mind away from the musical lack…the list goes on! Let Me Take You There is a quintessential representation of an artistic product steeped in the Black continuum.  Dr. Keyes has certainly done what the producer (Dr. Charles E. Moore) states in the liner notes.  That is, she presents music that distinguishes her “versatility at songwriting, composing, and arranging in various styles…and by her unique voice.  Without a doubt, she is truly a phenomenal talent!”

Posted by Tyron Cooper

View review February 3rd, 2009

Original Soul Men

Title: The Original Soul Men
Artists: Sam & Dave
Producer/Director: Joe Lauro, Historic Films
Publisher: Hip-O/Universal
Format: DVD, Dolby, DTS Surround Sound, NTSC (120 min.)
Release Date: December 9, 2008

Sam Moore was supposed to have been Sam Cooke’s replacement in the Soul Stirrers, after Cooke made his historic decision to pursue secular pop music. But then Moore saw Jackie Wilson, and everything changed. The Original Soul Men: Sam & Dave is an invaluable visual document that shows the connection between Moore and partner Dave Prater. Featuring seventeen of the duo’s fiery live performances, the DVD is also interspersed with testimonials from Stax/Volt founder Al Bell, Moore himself, bassist Duck Dunn and others, that highlight the connection of soul music to its roots in the black church.

Before we see the duo perform “Soothe Me,” Moore admits that the title was adopted from the gospel song “Save Me, Jesus, Save Me.” Bell confesses one of his marketing maneuvers for “You Don’t Know Like I Know” (which we see performed on the German Beat Beat Beat program) was to pitch it as a “holiday” song to radio DJs the day before Christmas, which worked because of its clear musical connections with the church. The DVD’s bonus features include three live performances labeled “The Roots of Sam & Dave,” which also highlight the pair’s connection to sacred music. In particular, Jackie Verdell and Brother Joe May’s duet on “You’re Gonna Need Him After a While” is, by itself, worth the price of the entire DVD.

Along with Otis Redding, Sam & Dave were Stax/Volt’s standard-bearers for soul straight from the pulpit. Soul Men even features a performance of “I Take What I Want” by the duo-in matching fire truck-red suits, no less-on Redding’s own short-lived TV show called “The Beat.” Later in the film, Moore confesses to a bit of friendly competitive rivalry between the duo and Redding, based around which act could produce the most incendiary live performance. The performance of the classic “Hold On, I’m Coming” featured in the film proves beyond any doubt that the duo was able to match Redding’s own flair for the dramatic. Taking place in front of a ravenous crowd at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1967, the intense, constantly zooming and cutting cinema-verité style photography of the performance directly recalls the manner in which D. A. Pennebaker’s crew captured Redding that same year, performing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” at the Monterey Pop Festival. Moore and Prater allow the Stax/Volt band to vamp for a few minutes at the end of the performance, as they dance exuberantly and allow crowd members to touch not only the hems of their garments, but also their hands.

The film pays brief homage to the duo’s backing musicians as well, an important inclusion for those who think that the MGs were the sole soul providers of the music behind the singing. Moore recalls wanting a band that could “dance and play at the same time,” which led to the formation of what he calls a “22 piece orchestra.” That group is as much a part of this film as Sam & Dave themselves, injecting as much refined energy on risers in the background as the two men testifying up front. The film includes a performance of the band alone performing “Roadrunner,” as well as a fun bonus track of the band playing a brief version of “Secret Agent Man.”

Much of the rest of the film is evidence of the popular music atmosphere during the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when the music was proliferating wildly, and live producers were inventing new ways to present it using available technology. From Danish television, the performances of “You Got It Made” and “I Don’t Need Nobody” feature Sam & Dave singing in the center of the screen, framed on either side by two women go-go dancing in front of polished metal backdrops, creating a dated, vaguely psychedelic tableau. The video for “You Got Me Hummin’” sees the duo in impossibly bright, nearly glowing yellow suits, backed by their band in variations of yellow and blue suits on risers behind them. Finally, the filmed promotional video for “Baby Don’t Stop Now” is evidence that, in 1970, most people still didn’t know what to do with the music video medium. The clip mostly shows Sam & Dave, dressed to the nines in fur and leather, walking around what appears to be London, peering in shop windows and trying their best not to look at the camera.

According to Bell, Sam & Dave playing on the Ed Sullivan Show “was like manna from heaven.” They certainly made the most of their appearance, and their medley of “Soul Sister Brown Sugar” and “Lucky Ol’ Sun” is the highlight of the film. Sam’s vocal on the Ray Charles-penned “Sun” is his best performance here, but that’s only the start. “Sun” expands dramatically, picking up its pace and threatening to collapse from its unreleased energy, and then segues seamlessly back into “Soul Sister,” which ends the set. The music echoes cavernously throughout Sullivan’s studio, but that only gives the performance an increased sense of bigness to match the of-the-era sense of liveness.

Later, two other high-profile performances show the group’s sense of humor and ability to stretch beyond rhythm-based soul music. Burt Bacharach jokes about shooting the pair with tranquilizer darts to calm them down, and then asks them to sing his “Make it Easy on Yourself” with, as Bacharach notes, “a whole lot of strings attached.” On the Mike Douglas Show, Douglas comments that “it wears me out just watching you guys,” and then they put him on the spot, giving him a vocal solo on “Lucky Ol’ Sun.” Needless to say, this bit is more of an enjoyable historical curio than a crucial performance.

The video’s main point of historical significance is mentioned in a brief title card after the video fades out, which tells us that, “After shooting this promotional video, Sam & Dave broke up the act.” The film picks back up in 1980, when the duo had been persuaded to appear on Saturday Night Live. Their performance of “Soul Man” showed that they were still more than capable, 13 years after the song’s original release, of investing it with their uniquely passionate approach, even when their backing band breaks down mid-song into something that sounds less like soul and more like Billy Preston-style piano-driven gospel funk. It’s fitting, of course, that performances of “Soul Man” bookend the film. Watching the two chapters back-to-back on the DVD, especially with the knowledge that Prater passed away in 1988 (in the film, his widow offers a few bits of insight about the duo), is a poignant reminder that, though they were only around for a brief time, Sam & Dave’s musical and performative legacy is one that will be remembered and re-visited for years to come.

Posted by Eric Harvey

View review February 3rd, 2009

The Recession

Title: The Recession
Artist: Young Jeezy
Label: Def Jam
Catalog no.: B001153602
Release date:  September 2008

Possessing a distinctive voice is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, everyone recognizes it immediately, while on the other hand, there is no way to disguise its sound and whatever connotations are associated with that particular timbre. Young Jeezy has one of those voices, gritty, gravelly, and forceful, and therefore it is impossible for him to avoid sounding aggressive. It would be akin to James Earl Jones trying to sound timid and kittenish – not going to happen. As a result, Jeezy smartly avoids delivering many lyrics pertaining to love or sex, because to do so with such a voice would immediately sound predatory.

Thus, the bulk of The Recession, Young Jeezy’s third major album release, sticks to a lot of similar topics. In addition to the narrow group of subjects addressed in the lyrics, the instrumental backing of the tracks remains relatively static. Many of the tracks are formulaic, following a protocol which has worked for Jeezy in past efforts and continues to deliver in this album as well. It goes something like this: a slow introduction (sometimes with spoken words which foreshadow the upcoming lyrics), which the leads into a synth string or brass ostinato layered with a frenetic hi-hat pattern and topped with snarling lyrics from Jeezy. If you’re a fan of this pattern, you’re in luck, because “Welcome Back,” “By the Way,” “What They Want,” “Amazin’,” “Hustlaz Ambition,” “Who Dat,” “Don’t You Know,” “Word Play,” “Vacation,” “Don’t Do It,” “Put On” (feat. Kanye West), and “Get Allot” strictly adhere to the layout.

A few tracks deviate from this pattern and are a welcome respite from tracks that, at first, are difficult to distinguish from one another. “Circulate” (feat. Real Talk) features sweet interludes from Real Talk and brassy samples from Billy Paul’s 1975 track, “Let the Dollar Circulate.” “Everything” (feat. Anthony Hamilton and Lil Boosie) actually does follow the formula outlined above, but it is more soulful, thanks to Hamilton’s sung choruses (Hamilton was first introduced to audiences in Nappy Roots’ 2002 track “Po’ Folks”) and Lil Boosie’s distinctive tenor range in his guest verse. A curious pulsating, fluttering synth opening in “Takin’ it There” (feat. Trey Songz) and sounds more like Philip Glass or the Reading Rainbow theme than the intro to a hip-hop track, and Songz’s sung delivery in the chorus is very reminiscent of mid-1990s pop ballads. “My President” (feat. Nas) is underlain with an Americana-patriotic-esque theme. The guest vocals on the track are performed by Nas, which came as a surprise to many fans after Jeezy publicly doubted Nas’s skills. Nas’s rapid-fire verse on “My President” trounces any of Jeezy’s efforts in the same track, so listeners may read into that however they see fit.

Lyrically, most of the songs address various aspects of Jeezy’s hustler ambition, superiority over other rappers, dealings in drugs, and avoidance of the feds. Most lyrics with a political bent are observations or complaints aimed at the current administration, such as “I think Bush trying to punish us, sending little messages out to each and every one of us,” (from “Crazy World) or “Bush robbed all of us, does that make him a criminal? And then he cheated in Florida, does that make him a Seminole?” (from “My President”). While The Recession doesn’t tell listeners anything they didn’t already know, it’s still a strong, sharply engineered effort from Young Jeezy and his many collaborators. It delivers exactly what is expected, nothing more, nothing less.

Posted by Amanda Sewell

View review February 3rd, 2009

Ain’t Times Hard

Title: Ain’t Times Hard: Political and Social Comment in the Blues

Artists: Various
Label: JSP
Catalog No.: 77109
Release date:  October 2008

British label JSP Records has been steadily culling the annals and crevices of American vernacular musics and creating invaluable box sets of off-the-beaten-path roots music.  JSP box sets, which all contain four or five CDs, are compiled from the familiar and the unknown, arranged chronologically, and presented with limited but generally thoughtful and well written liner notes.  They have made a name for themselves by refining their product to the essentials, keeping the cost low, and it works- their sets are generally less than $30.

Ain’t Times Hard is an attempt by blues historian Neil Slaven (credited as compiler and annotator) to document a theme of political and social commentary in the blues during the first half of the 20th century.  The project is successful by the nature of the form, in that the blues has often commented on hard times brought on by circumstance, and by the specific selection of songs that speak to the particulars of the early 20th century.  Ain’t Times Hard limits those circumstances to the social, and by association, the political.  Hard times brought on by women, drink, or other such vices are given a pass this time around.

As David Evans, scholar and bluesman, has written: “[Blues] became more introspective, self-absorbed, individualistic, serious and worldly at the very time that the majority of Whites were viewing all Blacks as an undifferentiated social caste with stereotyped mental behavioral traits that cast them as ignorant, humorous, and carefree.”(1)  Ain’t Times Hard takes this notion one step further by exploring not only the general internal strife of black Americans, but their relationships and commentary on historically located events, situations, and injustices from 1928 to 1954.

The exciting and significant difference between most JSP box sets, and Ain’t Times Hard is no exception, is that the recordings selected are not the standard of any genre, but rather are selected to attempt a broader picture of the time, location, or topic set forth.  What we have then in this box set is, like a blues song, variations on a repeated theme, “Political and Social Comment in the Blues.”

The first disc addresses both general and specific hard times brought on by the Great Depression, such as Leroy Carr’s “Depression Blues” or, as Barbeque Bob calls it in “Bad Time Blues,” “the panic crash.” Lyrics recount hard times in familiar terms of joblessness, hunger, and depression, as well as in unfamiliar histories, seen in Charlie McCoy and Bo Carter’s “The Northern Starvers Are Returning Home,” which tells the story of migrants who, at a loss for jobs in the North, return to the South.

Disc two addresses historical moments such as the Mississippi Flood of 1927 and the ensuing damage. Selections include Lucille Bogan’s “Red Cross Man,” Walter Roland’s “Red Cross Blues no. 2,” and Walter Davis’s “Red Cross Blues.”

Disc three gives variations on the hard times of the unemployed, living in Hoovervilles, and the low wages and poor conditions of available jobs.  During the 1930s we see many songs describing the difficult times with WPA and PWA jobs, as well as life on relief and “charity.”  Even with a job, hard times persisted, as evidenced in Peetie Wheatstraw’s “Working On the Project,” or Lonnie Johnson’s “Hard Times Ain’t Gone Nowhere,” singing “People is ravin’ about hard times, I don’t know why they should… If some people was like me, they didn’t have money when times was good.”

The last disc brings in new sounds to familiar themes.  Jump blues and boogie-woogie enter the mix, singing and swinging about hard times during war and post-war “Reconversion Blues” times, as Ivory Joe Hunter calls it.  As troops returned from overseas, unemployment among black populations rose and hard times continued in familiar terms.  The general plight of working class African Americans is given specific political voice as well as target in J.B. Lenoir’s “Eisenhower Blues.”

The collection provides an ironic twist to the phrase “Ain’t Times Hard,” which casts a light on the struggle and suffering of African Americans that lead to the Civil Rights Movement. Times were indeed always hard for black Americans, it was just the specifics that changed.  I do not think it is by any means a coincidence that the last track in the collection was cut in 1954, the year of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, KS.  No doubt that times would be hard for blacks in the coming years, perhaps harder than they had been in a long time, but the times were changing, and a whole new set of social and political circumstances now began to take effect.

(1) Evans, David.  2006. “Blues.” In African American Music: An Introduction,  eds. Portia Maultsby and Mellonee Burnim, 79-96.  New York: Routledge.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

View review February 3rd, 2009

Let Freedom Sing

Title: Let Freedom Sing: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement

Artists:  Various
Label:  Time Life
Catalog No.:  80051-D (CD box set)
Release Date: January 27, 2009

You don’t get a black president overnight. Songs . . . in this box set make you understand the collective voices that make it happen.” –Chuck D (from the preface)

Just in time for Black History Month, the folks at Time Life have produced a wonderful 3 CD deluxe box set that is a must have for every library and educator. To sweeten the deal, a companion feature length documentary will also air this month on TV ONE, and possibly PBS (more on this following the review).  Sometime later this year the documentary will also be released on DVD, perhaps in an expanded version.

The Let Freedom Sing box set was produced with the assistance of noted music historian Colin Escott, who has written extensively on rock, rhythm and blues, and country music, and is known as much for his meticulous research as for his writing skills.  His liner notes situate each track within the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement, both within his descriptions of the music, and through the use of timelines. Though other CD sets with a similar focus have been released in the past, this compilation actually goes well beyond the Civil Rights era, including 58 seminal songs presented in mostly chronological order from 1939 through 2008 and the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. What I most appreciate about the set is the song selection, which is at times both surprising and provocative, but always representative of the struggle for equality.  The producers, which also include Mike Jason and Bas Hartong, spent two years on the compilation, and their care and attention to detail is evident in every aspect of the project.

The first disc covers a lot of ground, beginning with the popular spiritual “Go Down Moses” (sung by the Southern Sons in 1941), then veering off sharply to Billie Holiday’s ominous 1939 ballad “Strange Fruit” about Southern lynchings, before heading into the war years with “Uncle Sam Says” by Josh White. Post WWII disillusionment is expressed in “No Restricted Signs” by the Golden Gate Quartet, “Black, Brown and White” by Brownie McGhee (a rare blues track), and the original 1949 version of “If I Had  Hammer” by the Weavers. The tracks from the ’50s were selected to follow the Brown vs. Board of Education and other anti-segregation rulings, and include “The Death of Emmett Till” by the Ramparts, “The Alabama Bus” by Brother Will Hairston, and “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?” by the Staple Singers. The disc concludes in the mid-1960s, commenting on the Civil Rights Movement through “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone and “We Shall Overcome” by Mahalia Jackson, but also including Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind” and Phil Och’s “Too Many Martyrs.”

Disc two focuses exclusively on the years 1965 through 1970, with the bulk of the songs released at the end of that period. Though many popular favorites are included, such as the Impressions’ “People Get Ready” and James Brown’s “Say It Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud,” again the producers have added a number of interesting selections to the mix. Oscar Brown, Jr. addresses reparations in his 1965 song “Forty Acres and a Mule,” while John Lee Hooker’s “The Motor Town Is Burning” comments on the July 1967 riots in Detroit. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., George Perkins sings “Cryin’ in the Streets” while Smokey Robinson and the Miracles lament three separate assassinations in “Abraham, Martin, and John.” Other highlights include the original “Yes We Can” released by Lee Dorsey in 1970, Syl Johnson’s “Is It Because I’m Black,” and Swamp Dogg’s “I Was Born Blue.”

The final disc of the set picks up in 1971 with Gil Scott-Heron’s proto rap “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and follows with a number of popular Black Power era songs by the Chi-Lites, Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers, and the O’Jays, along with Aaron Neville’s “Hercules” and Bob Marley and the Wailer’s “Get Up, Stand Up.” From this point the disc segues briefly into the ’80s with the Jungle Brother’s hit “Black Is Black” and the Neville Brother’s “Sister Rosa,” while the ’90s are represented only by Chuck D’s “The Pride.” The set concludes with five recent releases, including “Unity” by Sounds of Blackness, “None of Us Are Free” by Solomon Burke, “Eyes on the Prize” by the Sojourners, “Down in Mississippi” by Mavis Staples (from her 2007 Civil Rights album We’ll Never Turn Back), and, fittingly, “Free At Last” by the Blind Boys of Alabama.


(Excerpted from the press release) TV One will premiere Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement, a two-hour documentary that chronicles how the power of lyrics and songs helped move a nation during the most turbulent days of the 20th century, Sunday, Feb. 15 from 8-10 PM. The special will repeat at midnight and also air on Sunday, Feb. 22 at 1 PM (HD/all times ET).

Let Freedom Sing will trace the interaction among the music, the movement and the people involved. The film showcases how the music calmed tensions when protesters were arrested and how creative pioneers in gospel, blues, R&B and pop brought music, medium and message together as never before, composing a soundtrack perfectly tuned to the tempo and pulse of its time.

The film includes interviews with musicians, civil rights activists, music industry executives, historians and others involved in the movement, including former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young; actress Ruby Dee, influential musicians Pete Seeger, Gladys Knight, Jimmy Carter and the Blind Boys of Alabama, Ruth Brown, Jerry Butler and Chuck D; and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) co-founder Dr. Bernard Lafayette.

Let Freedom Sing begins in the era between the wars when segregation was often brutally enforced in Southern states, and when jazz and blues evolved from songs sung by African-Americans in church and in the fields.  It will feature never-before-seen footage from the 1960s, while tracing the influence of Civil Rights-inspired music around the world and revealing the enduring impact it retains on today’s popular music. Chronicling a musical and cultural past, the film also shows how this music is living history that inextricably binds the past with the present.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 3rd, 2009

Welcome to the February 2009 Issue

This month’s issue covers three timely topics- Black History Month, Valentine’s Day, and the economy.  We’re featuring an exciting new project, Let Freedom Sing: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement, which consists of a CD box set from Time Life and a companion documentary scheduled to air this month on TV One.  Economic woes are nothing new, as evidenced in another CD box set, Ain’t Times Hard: Political and Social Comment in the Blues. Providing a more contemporary spin on the issue is Young Jeezy’s The Recession (mentioned briefly last month).  On a lighter note, there are plenty of romantic favorites, including Legacy’s “From the Heart” series and Teddy Pendergrass reissues on PIR/Legacy’s “Total Soul” classics series. New releases include Labelle’s Back To Now, the Family Stand’s Super Sol Nova Vol. 1, and UCLA ethnomusicology professor Dr. Cheryl Keyes’ debut album Let Me Take You There. Also featured in this issue is the new Sam & Dave documentary The Original Soul Men, remastered expanded editions of the Jacksons first two albums for CBS, Destiny and Triumph, and soul diva Kim Tolliver’s forgotten classic Come And Get Me, I’m Ready.

View review February 3rd, 2009

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