Good God! Born Again Funk
I’m terribly late in discovering the joys of the Numero Group’s excellent “gospel funk” anthology– a follow-up to their earlier “gospel funk hymnal” of the same name, this superb set came out in January of this year– but I am neither surprised nor particularly disappointed that it took me so long to get around to it. As to the former, it seems like there’s a release like this nearly every year that I don’t catch until the very end, something along the lines of 2006′s stellar underground funk box set What it Is or last year’s epic black gospel collection Fire in My Bones; this particular album falls almost exactly in the middle, seemingly with one foot in each of the two camps represented above. And as to the latter– well, I suppose I’m just glad to have discovered it at all; this is utterly riveting music from top to bottom, and I suspect it will spend enough time in my player to more than make up for lost time.
This “born again funk” collection is the result of endless crate-digging, something the Numero crew seems to have endless time and resourcefulness for; everything here could charitably be described as obscure, vintage cuts that some true believers you’ve almost certainly never heard of. And it’s exactly what it says it is: Deeply funky music made from a pious place, but devoid of any hint of gnostic-style rejection of the sweaty, the earthy, the human. It’s exactly the kind of album that I find to be endlessly fascinating, in other words– sacred music, performed with supreme attention to sensual pleasures.
And the pleasures are many. These eighteen nuggets fit onto a single CD, yet they suggest a depth and a vastness of sound and experience that is somewhat surprising for what is technically a fairly narrow subgenre. As a collection, it all hangs together impeccably well– these songs all could have come from the same label, or the same studio, certainly the same era– and yet the range of moods and expressions is impressive, to the extent that each song here sounds as though it could probably serve as a door to an entirely separate realm of terrifically sweaty and spiritual funk music. The first song on the album– performed by Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir, and called “Like a Ship”– is remarkable, funky keyboards and jangling tambourine suggesting a fairly earthly flavor but the choral backing sounding like straight-up church music. The next song is just as good, and fairly dissimilar to the first; Ada Richards’ “I’m Drunk and Real High (In the Spirit of God)” is pure roadhouse funk, perhaps even on the bluesy tip, performed with the kind of righteous piety that saves the could-be-campy lyrics through the sheer audacity of its sincerity.
What everything here shares in common: The heart may be on the heavens, but the eyes are on the hips. That first song has the kind of fathoms-deep bassline that shakes the walls and would have been a point of jealousy among any secular funk band of the era, as would the similarly throbbing bass and ice-cold hi-hat work on “The Same Thing it Took,” performed by the Inspirational Gospel Singers. The latter song features a lead vocalist who belts it out just like Aretha would– though whether it’s gospel Aretha or soul/R&B Aretha is up for discussion, as the material here blurs the distinction significantly. I can’t decide whether Richards’ vocal, for instance, is the stuff of a juke joint or a church house, and I suppose it really doesn’t matter. Other songs are fairly well drenched in organ, funky keyboard tones, and wah-wah guitar– but also in singing that’s pure gospel.
That said, while the balance on these songs is fascinating, the charm of a collection like this is in its mess and its loose ends; this particular set is one delightful left turn after another, and some of the best stuff here is the most off-balance, like Andrew Wartts and the Gospel Storytellers’ “Peter and John.” Honestly, the track sounds like it takes cues from a blaxploitation film– only, the story is straight out of the Book of Acts, and its intentions are purely evangelical. Some, I suppose, will find it to be a little cheesy, but I think it’s totally righteous– honest-to-God gospel/funk magic, equally driven by its devotion to the Lord Jesus and to getting those asses up out of the pews.