Chicago

‘Getting Nowhere Fast’/’Soul Strut,’ single, Floyd Smith (Dakar Records, 1968)

What a phenomenal single from Floyd ‘Guitar’ Smith. The contrast between the perfect on every level lament speaking of love and loss on side a) and the boss groove – it’s bossy too – of side two is something of real note. It’s hard to think of other releases as varied as this.

When doing some research on Floyd Smith, the fact that he had a career spanning two very different genres and sharply contrasting musical moments made me doubt whether it was in fact the same person: I’m still not completely confident that it is (the same man).

How was it possible that the same man who met and played with Django Reinhardt in Paris during the Second World war ended up recording 70s soul/disco greats (and even won the heart of one)? To quote da wik: 

In the 1970s, Smith moved into writing songs and record production, working with Dakar/Brunswick Records in Chicago, for which he recorded a few singles. He produced two albums with R&B star, Loleatta Holloway for Aware Records of Atlanta, as well as two (one completed, but un-issued when the label folded) with John Edwards, who later became lead singer of the Detroit Spinners. He produced two Top 10 R&B hits on Aware with Edwards (“Careful Man”, No. 8 in 1974) and Holloway (“Cry To Me”, No. 10 in 1975). In the late 1970s, he produced tracks on several albums with Loleatta Holloway for Gold Mine/Salsoul Records. He managed the former gospel singer and later married her.

Here’s a maybe too intense disco song from Smith, 1975.

Check out this strong interview with Smith by Jas Obrecht (former editor of Guitar Player and the founding editor of Pure Guitar magazine), published on his site, date unknown.  

‘Way Up’ &’Holy’ Jamila Woods (Heavn, Closed Sessions, 2016)

With its synthetic-operatic beginning and over-sized drumbeat challenging Jamila Woods to match the intensity – something she does flawlessly, effortlessly – this song immediately captured my attention for its beguiling mix of dreaminess and affect (and the big, big sound). 

‘Just cos I’m born here, don’t mean I’m from here,’ Woods sings.   

The song conveys so perfectly that feeling of being apart, that sensation of feeling different from those around you, alongside a desire for escape: I've been waiting for so long/Call me by my name/They keep telling me I'm wrong
We are not the same
I don't belong here
I don't belong here.

I'm feeling high
My money's gone
Can't find my home
I wanna go
To my own private planet I've been dreaming of
Little moon in my head I be moving on
Up and away
Up and away

I’m wondering if the repeated line – ‘I don’t belong here’ is a nod to Radiohead’s 90s anthem Creep (it could be, as another song on the album is a reworking of The Cure’s ‘Just like heaven’ so maybe this is a musical-historical touchstone of hers).

What I particularly like about this song is the way the production refuses the predictable route of making it sweet & lovely, spare & tinkly to match the vocal delivery or the apparent softness of the subject matter. The lyrics are almost adolescent - that’s no criticism from me, especially the line: No one knows I'd rather spend my days alone on my pillow - you can imagine the younger Woods dreaming as she writes her innermost secret thoughts in her diary. And yet the accompanying music is tough, soldier-like almost (and very loud).

Such a production approach is smart, it seems to me, as it makes the delicate, lilting nature of the vocal and the teen-sentiment of the lyrics come through even stronger. This kind of battling against the vocal, to the point of almost subsuming it one strain in contemporary hip-hop and R&B production and something I find refreshing. The very loudness – and intensity - of the music operates like a mask, it hides something, while also highlighting the lightness of the vocal line (and saving it from becoming too saccharine).

Having such a sharp contrast between the production/sound and the singer’s performance encourages us to take notice and listen differently. And here, the disjunction inherent in the music – or essential conflict - reinforces the song's message of not belonging and alienation. As Jamila Woods sings: ‘I'm an alien from inner space/They can't read my mind all in my face.’ 

Another wonderful song from Jamila Woods' Heavn is ‘Holy’ … the message/perspective is touching as well.

Her voice is just so beautiful here.

Have a listen to this lovely live performance of ‘Way up’ by Woods recorded in New York in December last year: