Kool and the Gang: Sweat (Phonogram 838233-1); Van Dyke Parks: Tokyo Rose (Warner Bros 925968-1)

Moving forward to the past

ON AUGUST 22 a reader asked The Times to explain a T-shirt message which proclaimed: “Bring Back Neo-Futurism Now”. The question: “Is this a new type of ‘nostalgia’ for things yet to come?”, was particularly thorny. A breathlessly anticipated new single by Tears for Fears, ‘Sowing the Seeds of Love’, clearly looks to the future with its lyrics, yet blatantly recycles at least four Beatles songs from 1967.

Veterans of the industry have never had it so complicated. Their careers have taken them into middle age, doubtless far further than they ever imagined, and now their music is being fed back to them in strange, refracted simulacra by musicians young enough to be their children.

The core members of Kool & the Gang began playing music in Youngstown, Ohio, by banging paint pots. In the latter part of the Sixties, having moved to New, Jersey, they evolved a raw rhythmic sound that was influenced by avant-garde jazz, Afro-jazz, Latin soul and Sly and the Family Stone.

From the late Seventies until the mid-Eighties they produced a string of hit records with songs like ‘Celebration’ and ‘Joanna’. These middle-of-the-road anthems were like a second coming for the group; now they have to find a third.

The cover of the new album depicts a perspiring torso. This, along with its title, suggests that Kool & the Gang have belatedly discovered a connection between dance and physical fitness. This is old news as well as bad news. The music, superficially at least, has many of the right contemporary noises, but it is a pity that the group finds it so difficult to accommodate the idea that numerous new record-makers are influenced by its rough early work. After the years of playing leisure parks and casino ballrooms, perhaps it is unreasonable to expect it to produce the kind of sound that is effortless for hungry young Turks. Despite the sporadic attractions of Sweat, there is still that uncomfortable feeling of an ageing relative caught between sentimentality and trying to be one of the young folk.

VAN DYKE Parks has never really made much of an attempt to be trendy. A photographic study on the front cover of his 1968 album, Song Cycle, shows a conservative, handsome fellow in brown suede loafers and sports jacket. Only a discreetly flowered shirt gives any clue to period. Song Cycle is legendary in its impenetrability, a lush, somewhat saccharine work about the myths and dreams of developing America. It bore scant relationship to any other music of the time and, consequently, was punished by commercial failure.

Parks had already driven a wedge, albeit unintentionally, into the already riven world of the Beach Boys with his lyrics for ‘Heroes and Villains’, ‘Surfs Up’ and ‘Cabinessence’. This has given him an enduring notoriety in rock history. Over the last two decades his projects have been low key. He has written string arrangements for U2 and Brix Smith’s Adult Net, among others, and released three more solo albums.

Now his hair has turned that silvery grey shade that people term “distinguished” and he has released another chapter in a canon typified by a fascination with history, imperialism, exotica and nostalgia. “Dust off Pearl Harbour Time” was the closing line of Song Cycle, and here, 21 years later, Parks has done just that with Tokyo Rose, a series of songs about post-war Japan and its economic and cultural legacy. Seemingly oblivious to fashion, his music ploughs its charming, obscure and highly original furrow, faintly evoking Gilbert and Sullivan or Rodgers and Hammerstein rather than any discernable acknowledgement of rock, soul or pop.

UPDATE

Adeva: Respect (Cooltempo CTLP 13)

Adeva has a striking image and a forthright, all-stops-out voice. Some of the songs lack personality, but her debut is all the stronger for resisting the temptation to try and please everybody.

© David ToopThe Times, 2 September 1989

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