1970, Music

Curtis (1970) by Curtis Mayfield

There is some hype out there about this record and I’m not sure I’ve listened to enough contemporary psychedelic soul and funk (specifically from 1969 and 1970) to know how seriously to take it.

Yes, this record is a notable departure from the sound of The Impressions, at least as far as I’m aware. (I have heard only 1 or 2 of their records, however…) But I’m not sure how much of this is Mayfield’s own invention, and how much of this is influenced by Hendrix, Sly Stone, James Brown and Motown, among others. (I tried a quick Google search to see who invented the particular rhythm wah sound that is on this record and thousands of later funk records and I couldn’t find out. Hendrix did something, similar of course, just not explicitly this, at least released by 1970.) It’s certainly an elaborate record, with a more stylistic variation than most soul records of the era (particularly in the use of the studio). Is it the Sgt. Pepper’s of soul? I’m not sold on the idea.

Mayfield’s songs are strong, as you would expect. Mayfield was one of the better lyricists of the soul world of the day – if not the outright best – and his melodies are mostly pretty strong. And at least one song is a suite, which is really out there for this genre. The combination of strong material with interesting arrangements is compelling and I think I can understand why some people think it’s a really big deal.

But I remain unconvinced by his particular version of soul, not just because of his vocal performance – which is polished, as always – but because his sound skews more to elaborate and sophisticated rather than raw and passionate. Though there is studio tinkering, and though there is funk, this is still a pretty slick record and so I find it hard to love. Like even when the band jams out the mix emphasizes his voice, rather than whoever is playing the guitar solo (could be him), and then…horns! It’s like he’s never met an overdub he didn’t like.

Still, it’s well done.


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