Tag Archives: funk

I don’t know why, seven years after the release of Station To Station, David Bowie thought it necessary to team up with Chic’s Nile Rodgers in order to make the disco-centric Let’s Dance.

Back in 1976, he cornered the market all by himself with “Stay”, a six-minute funk odyssey with classily struck chords, a light pattering of tropical percussion, and the meanest bass-line this side of Compass Point Studios (which itself wasn’t built till a year later). Near the end, there’s a brilliant interplay between bass and lead guitar, the latter of which is busy wailing away to the Thin White Duke’s wildest coke-fuelled nightmare.

Taken from Station To Station (RCA Records, 1976).


Slowed-down, mutant funk, with groaning guitar interludes, and a Super 80 outro running on buzzing synth pads. St. Vincent‘s “Dilettante” is, to paraphrase Ryan Dombal, a playful take on David Bowie’s “Fashion”.

Taken from Strange Mercy (4AD, 2011).

It’s jam I require

Do you remember the 1990s, when all shades of pop music briefly flourished, through the medium of the one-hit-wonder on Top of the Pops, before briefly fizzling out? Life’s constants were chiefly innocent manufactured pop groups like Boyzone, Take That, Spice Girls—trade blocs whose domination was tolerated because of their lack of offence. And, somehow, an acid jazz collective fronted by a hat- and car-lover became an actual big deal.

It might be that album-wise, the apotheosis of Jamiroquai was 1996’s Travelling Without Moving. But for their finest five minutes, you have only to look to the opening track of the album which followed this. The pre-millennial Synkronized kicks off with “Canned Heat”, which sees classic disco influences seeping into their chart-friendly jazz. An orchestral flourish ushers the listener into a heady—but ultimately innocuous—slice of funk. The strings permeate through virtually every phrase, sending Jay Kay’s distinctive vocal phrasings skywards. Phat bass-lines swap between disco octaves and a kind of synthesised slap-bass riff. Twinkles of overdriven Rhodes and Clavinet summon memories of Stevie Wonder and the acme of soul. This is emphasised in the final minute, wherein subtle bongos fill out the spaces between the four-to-the-floor rhythm.

Is it not peculiar that no subsequent scene in music has explicitly nodded to Jamiroquai? For sure, their music was utterly derivative when boiled down to its root elements—the aforementioned presence of soul and funk greats (consider the closeness of “Virtual Insanity” and Luther Vandross’s “Never Too Much“), more than a whiff of Prince in Jay Kay’s falsetto and the predominant texture of the keys. But this surprisingly compelling melange still crops up now and again: if you want to be startled, listen to Hercules And Love Affair’s “This Is My Love“, and compare it with Jamiroquai’s “Alright“. We think of H&LA as channelling decades of disco music in the spirit of the best historian—so why do the efforts of Jay Kay and his chums go unappreciated?

In fact, the only wider cultural reference I can think of having been bequeathed to Jamiroquai is a brief, pivotal scene in Napoleon Dynamite (see above video), in which the titular protagonist wins over an audience of his dubious schoolmates in order to promote his friend’s election campaign by unexpectedly boogying to “Canned Heat”. It’s essentially apropos of nothing, and maybe it is that by-the-wayside quality of Jamiroquai’s music that earned it a place in the scene. Perhaps it is the case that we just don’t think of these passing fancies of the 1990s as being created with the intention of having cultural impact down the line.

Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid

It totally gets people every time I reveal this, but one of my guilty pleasures is really good R&B. Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, even Usher – these are artists who have made some of the most enjoyable music during my lifetime, and I’ve always defended them to the hilt. The best music of this kind looks back – to Michael Jackson, Prince, Motown – yet is unafraid to take cutting-edge stylistic risks: consider how ground-breaking “SexyBack” sounded back in 2006, and how derivative all JT’s slavish impersonators sound by comparison.

And now we have a new inspirational artist on the scene – except this one’s also no slouch when it comes to about a dozen other genres. I have no idea to what extent Janelle Monáe has exploded onto the scene, but a label endorsement from Puff Daddy can’t hinder matters; neither can executive production from Big Boi. More importantly, with an album like The ArchAndroid under her belt, Monáe can practically do no wrong.

This album is epic in every way: over an hour in length; packed with bells, whistles, horns and the sonic trademarks of all her influences; skipping between brassy soul and rollicking funk and pastoral folk. Even better than this wide-eyed ambition is the quality of the songwriting – and frankly, I don’t care how much or little input she had on this front, because the quality never lets up: not in the hooks, not in the beats, not even in the city-scaping, city-aping arrangements. And, best of all, Monáe’s voice is a continual delight, keenly matching the tone of each song, from the wailing Beyoncé-plus of single “Tightrope”, to the dusky husky murmurings on “57821”. Her shape-shifting reminds me of Madonna, in a way, but Monáe’s got a considerably stronger set of pipes, and arguably her stylistic decisions are as honest as they are startling and unexpected.

This album is epic in every way: over an hour in length; packed with bells, whistles, horns and the sonic trademarks of all her influences

And then we come to the lyrics. I’ll admit, she loses me a couple of times with her Afro-futurist references, but there’s no denying that her unique vision shines through. Monáe has talked of the album as being like an amalgam of song, cinema and soundtrack, and throughout she succeeds in reaching this lofty target. Using androids as a metaphor for segregated minorities is pretty clever, mind, but it’s going to take listeners a while to digest her sophisticated, tangential, self-aware phrasing.

In the meantime, we should applaud Monáe for making what is probably the pop album of 2010. It’s catchy as anthrax, and never shies away from experiments, and if she keeps on like this, she could have a Bowie-esque career ahead of her.

Serious funk

I’ve finally got my hands on Talking Heads’ magnum opus, 1980’s Remain In Light, and my god it is funky. The first half of the album is built solely on repeating grooves, over which Byrne sings and mumbles about all manner of emotional and societal disconnection, while atonal squawks and whirring noises swirl around the ether. Many would regard Brian Eno’s great production feat as being U2’s The Joshua Tree – still the only album by said band that I can really palate – but I’d be willing to stake a claim for this masterpiece.

What struck me immediately about the album is just how brash it sounds, despite the sophistication of the music and lyrics lurking beneath. Exploding in with “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On), the pace and energy never really lets up. What sounds like a modem enters the song halfway through, with a weird, dazzling solo; African percussion fills up all the spare air, creating multiple layers of syncopation; towards the end, Byrne’s vocal tics resemble someone with epilepsy or Tourette’s – behaviour echoed by the frontman in the video for the album’s centrepiece, “Once In A Lifetime”.

The second half of Remain In Light takes on a more chilled-out vibe, using disconcerting washes of synth and discordant brass to create more tension. Finally, in the album’s closer, “The Overload”, we find a strange, Joy Division-inspired funeral march, which crawls at snail’s pace alongside waves of buzzing synth bass and undertones of keyboards. According to the album’s Wikipedia article, “The Overload” was indeed the band’s attempt at replicating the Salford quartet’s enviable sonic aesthetic, without ever having heard any of their music. It’s testament to the band’s songwriting variety and multi-talented instrumentation that the experiment works so well – far from sounding like a novelty party piece, it book-ends the album perfectly, sending a final farewell of anxiety to the listener in much the same way as “Decades” does on Joy Division’s parting shot, Closer.

Remain In Light, then, explores both sides of Talking Heads’ lyrical and musical concerns – it is at times deeply life-affirming; at other moments mid-life-crisis depicting. It is also perhaps the truest example of a collision of black music and white music, created at a time when the two disciplines never felt further apart. In that respect, we must of course thank the pioneering inroads made by Messrs. Byrne and Eno, which led to such a work. Last year, people heard Vampire Weekend and thought of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Though Remain In Light is undoubtedly a darker work than Vampire Weekend, maybe it is the more important antecedent in providing musical inspiration.