Digging in the Crates, Vol. 1

Sound Salvation

Thank God for radio. Not commercial FM radio, which has been dead for as long as anyone can remember, but the good stuff. The stuff at the lower end of the dial. College radio. Pirate radio. Internet radio too.

A couple years ago, I was sitting on the couch in my apartment in Berkeley, California doing something or other. The sun had been down for a while, and I was tuned into KALX, UC-Berkeley's radio station, half-heartedly listening to something I've now forgotten, probably experimental noise music of some sort. While I was so engaged, the DJ's did a shift change, and a new show came on. And suddenly my little apartment was filled with some of the most expressive music I'd ever heard. Serious bass lines. Wailing saxophones. This was real funk and soul music. I had to find out what I was listening to. So I called the DJ, we talked for a sec and he turned me on to a couple bands from the seventies that I'd like to pass along.

The first band is called the Montgomery Express. They released just one album in 1974, called The Montgomery Movement and (as I just found out) hailed from Indiantown, Florida. Strangely enough, I drove through Indiantown a couple weeks ago on a motorcycle (in 90 degree heat and trying to shake off a rough night, as it happened). The town has about 5000 residents and is in a little corner of the state where highway 76 intersects with highway 710 a few miles east of Lake Okeechobee. Pretty rural, pretty run down and pretty much off the map as far as most people who aren't from there are concerned.

I remember wondering what the hell do you do if you live here? I guess if you're in the Montgomery Express, you make one amazing album, hit the road playing gigs for a couple years, break up, and then disappear, going in whatever direction life takes you. Well, an amazing album might be a slight overstatement. A few amazing tracks would be more accurate. But the good is so good that I'm going to go ahead and call it an amazing album.

Let's start with the instrumental track "Party Fever". I've got a feeling a few DJs advertised as spinning "rare grooves" have thrown this track on in clubs from Tokyo to Berlin, just at the right time of the night/morning and made some people very happy.

Along with "Party Fever", the opening track "Montgomery Movement" is pretty hopping. The other tracks are slowed-down and sound more like what most people would expect when they think of soul music. The songs "Precious Wings" and "Left Me With a Memory" are some more gems.

So if anyone out there has heard any stories about what happened to the Montgomery Express, fill us in! And one more thing I've got to mention. You know how you have those go-to CD's when you're trying to set the right mood with the right person. Well, this one is pretty major league. And if you don't agree or you find yourself with someone who's got no love for the Montgomery Movement, you may want to rethink things. 'Nuff said :-)

The second band is Cymande, and they are definitely more high profile than the Montgomery Express, although I'd never heard of them before the encounter with the KALX DJ. You do hear their samples in a lot of hip-hop songs. The song "Bra" always sounded familiar to me and I finally realized why. It's the main sample in the song "Change in Speak" off De La Soul's classic Three Feet High and Rising album and it's also on the soundtrack to the Spike Lee movie Crooklyn.

Cymande's roots are a far cry from the Montgomery Express. The group formed in London and members of the band are originally from places as far-ranging as Guyana, Jamaica and St. Vincent. They put out their first album, called Cymande, in 1972 and that's the record I was lucky enough to get my hands on.

The thing that really stands out for me about this band is their musicianship. Now, I'm not one of those people that wonks out on just anything that's technically impressive. You won't find any Rush or Stevie Vai in my CD collection. That being said, I can definitely appreciate that the members of Cymande can really play their instruments and know what rhythm's all about.

Give the track "Pon De Jungle" a listen for a taste of just how out talented and adventurous Cymande's rhythm section can be. But despite getting pretty out there on a few tracks, this album seems to always make it back to a comfortable place. That is, genre-defying songs that are somehow still straight-up soul music. On "Willy's Headache", they blend flutes, a couple guitars and a thumping bassline, by all rights a pretty compicated arrangement, that somehow still comes across as beautifully simple.

And they know how to break the funk out, as evidenced in the song "Brothers On The Side"

Both these albums might be over twenty years old, but they still sound amazingly fresh and if you are just now discovering the funk and soul music of the seventies, this is a great place to start.

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Here are links where you can purchase these albums:

Montgomery Movement

Cymande

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