Monday, October 22, 2012

Classic Kansas City soul - "Smoke "Risin'"

Having been repeatedly disappointed, over the years I've become extremely skeptical of records that are hyped by dealers.  I'm glad to tell you that this soul rarity is one of the isolated exceptions to the rule.  If anything, it may actually even be better than the hype would have you believe. 

The Kansas city-based Smoke showcased the talents of Larry Brown, brothers Arthur and Ernest Malone, and  Melvin Manning.  Signed by the small Kansas city-based J-Bridge label, the group made their recording debut with a 1975 single:


 - 'I'm So Lonely' b/w 'Have I Really Lost You' (J. Bridge catalog number T.C. 7542A)  

A nice old school ballad, the song generated considerable regional attention, but failed to break nationally.  Still, that was enough for J. Bridge management to finance an album.  Produced by Les Matthews and Elmer Overton (the latter was also responsible for writing nine of the album's ten tracks), 1976's "Risin'" managed to combine small label rawness with a surprisingly accomplished big label sound (the latter helped by an impressive cast of Chicago sessions players).  Musically nothing here was particularly original; the group offering up a mixture of conventional mid-1970s soul ballads ('Don’t Take Your Love (Away From Me' and 'Make Believe') and more up tempo numbers ('Have I Really Lost You' and 'I Can Feel Your Love (Coming Down On Me)').  As alluded to in the liner notes, if you enjoyed The O'Jays and The Spinners, then this was going to be right up your alley.  That said, the performances were uniformly impressive.  I wish I knew more about the four members - I can't even tell you who handled the leads so you'll have to take my word for it when I tell you the overall results were simply fantastic.  With all four apparently getting a shot at the spotlight, each brought a unique sound to the proceedings.  With the possible exception of the closing ballad  'Make Believe' there wasn't a disappointment on the album.   

- Opening up with some tasty Stevie Wonder-styled Moog and a cool skitterish guitar riff,  'I Can Feel Your Love (Coming Down On Me)' was a pounding soul number.  R.J. Jenkins fawning liner notes compared these guys to The O'Jays, Spinners, and Temptations and I've got to tell you those outfits seldom recorded anything with as much energy as this track.  Only complaint - the song faded out too early.   rating: **** stars
- 'I’m So Glad You Came Along' found the group working in a more contemporary soul group genre.  A breezy, up tempo number, this one served to showcase the group's impeccable harmony vocals.  Would have made a perfect top-40 single ...   rating: **** stars
- Complete with rainstorm sound effects, an old-school ballad like 'Rainy Night (Puts You In the Mood for Love)' normally would have struck me overly cheesy.  Mind you it was cheesy (the harp arrangement makes me laugh every time I hear it), but these guys managed to pull it off with such earnestness you simply had to surrender to the performance.   Again, my only complaint was the song was too short.   It almost sounded like they'd edited out a segment of the song.  rating: *** stars 
- Pulling a page out of Holland-Dozier-Holland's catalog, 'Cream Of The Crop' was a soul song that had a catchy pop edge to it.  If you liked General Johnson and The Chairmen of the Board, then this was something that would appeal to your ears.   Great lead vocal.  rating: **** stars
- Released as their debut single, 'I’m So Lonely' showcased the band against a slow grind, bluesy background.  While it was hardly the album's most original effort, it was easily one of the  best vocals.  Again, I don't know which member handled the lead vocal, but the result was a hard driving, Gospel-tinged delivery that would have made Teddy Pendergrass envious.  Unlike the single which clocked in at about three minutes, the album version stretched out over eight minutes - not a second of it wasted.  rating: ***** stars
- Side two opened up with another up tempo number.  With lead vocal duties split between two members,, the first segment was actually a bit clunky, but the song found its groove when the second singer kicked in (whoever it was had a bit of Stevie Wonder in his performance).  After the slow start, 'Have I Really Lost You' turned into one of my favorite performances.   rating: **** stars
- Yeah, the falsetto was a bit sharp, but 'Now You’re Gone'  was another catchy up temp number with one of those melodies you couldn't get out of your head.   rating: *** stars
- Hard to imagine someone didn't tap 'You Will Always Be A Part Of Me' as a single.  With a silky smooth lead vocal, this one was easily as good as anything those other better known soul entities were releasing (I suspect The Spinners would have killed for a chance to record it), and it had a great guitar riff too boot.   rating: **** stars  
- Simply said, heartbreak seldom sounded as good as on 'Don’t Take Your Love (Away From Me)' ...  Whoever the lead was sure hit some high notes on this one drawing comparisons to Russell Thompkins, Jr. and The Stylistics.   rating: **** stars  
- The only song not written by Elmer Overton, 'Make Believe' was a pretty, but somewhat anonymous ballad.  Perhaps because it was the final track, the only thing that really stuck in my mind on this one was the weird keyboard sound - it almost sounded like an electronic pipe organ ...     rating: ** stars  

Simply one of the best soul albums I've heard in the last couple of years.  

"Risin'" track listing:

(side 1) 1.) I Can Feel Your Love (Coming Down On Me)   (Elmer Overton) - 3.17

2.) I’m So Glad You Came Along   (Elmer Overton) - 2.55

3.) Rainy Night (Puts You In the Mood for Love)   (Elmer Overton) - 3.13
4.) Cream Of The Crop   (Elmer Overton) - 2.23
5.) I’m So Lonely   (Elmer Overton) - 8.21   

(side 2)

1.) Have I Really Lost You   (Elmer Overton) - 2.51

2.) Now You’re Gone   (Elmer Overton) - 2.23
3.) You Will Always Be A Part Of Me    (Elmer Overton)- 3.14
4.) Don’t Take Your Love (Away From Me)   (Elmer Overton)- 4.23
5.) Make Believe   (Eugene Smiley) - 3.49    

Got this Smoke-related email: 

I was checking out your website and noticed you had rated my Dad, Ernest Malone and the group he belonged to called SMOKE. I notice you weren't sure who sang some of the leads on the album. My father was the lead singer on "I'm So Lonely" and "Make Believe". He currently lives in New Haven, CT and performs for local clubs. Thank you so much for your kind remarks on his band. Erika Malone, October, 2011

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