29 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #26

The Isley Brothers, It's Our Thing (T-Neck, 1969)

The Isleys are one of those acts who have lasted so long that no one can remember when they started and how exactly they lasted so long. Well, the Isleys started in the '50's as a gospel quartet, and they managed to last so long because Ronald Isley is a brilliant (if often too unctuous for his own good on the ballads) soul singer, because Ernie Isley's terrific Hendrix-inspired guitar sound became a wondrous sonic signature for them, and because, to put it uncharitably, they followed trends - from gospel, to soul, to funk, to disco, to electro-dance, to modern R&B. And man, were they good at it. I mean that last sentiment as a compliment, however. The Isleys might have been putting out product at the end of the day, but it was incredibly solid, extremely influential (on James Brown and Jimi Hendrix certainly), consistent, enjoyable, and even wonderful product at its' finest. However, they never innovated too much, except for a few occasions. It's Our Thing, in contrast to much of their discography, shows the Isleys really innovating. Freed from a dictatorial Motown contract that forbid them to write their own material and essentially relegated them to minor artists within the label's pecking order, the Isleys started up their label T-Neck and started writing and recording their own material again. It must have been a huge relief, because they immediately put out a 26-minute LP filled with pleading ballads in the great love man tradition (that Ronald Isley didn't invent, but certainly helped to define), energetic soul belters, and most importantly: brilliant hard funk.

Of the ballads here, "Save Me" features great horn arrangements, a fantastically intricate and almost unnoticed guitar part, and Ronnie wooing the ladies, reveling in his vocal prowess (he sounds utterly delighted with himself every time he hits a high note) and slinging the bullshit as only he can. "Feel Like The World" is a beautifully downtempo number with more fantastic Ronnie Isley showmanship. On these ballads, he's not going to move your soul, but he is going to entertain the hell out of you. The energetic soul belters include "Somebody Been Messin'," where Ronnie exclaims "Aw, let me rap to you this morning!" in the first twenty seconds and pretty much guarantees it as a classic from that point on. (The awesome soul riffs certainly help on that front too.) "I Must Be Losing My Touch" has fantastically driving rhythm and incredible backing vocals that assure Ronnie that he is, indeed, losing his touch. "Don't Give It Away" has great, intricate drum parts, nagging and memorable guitar riffs (including a good solo too), and more of that unimpeachable Isley singing. There's just so much joy in this music! I really have to think that this kind of music is functionally impossible to dislike.

But the best stuff here is the hard funk. Funk was really just starting to gain prominence when the Isleys released this album in February 1969; the Isleys' efforts in the genre really helped to define it. "Give The Women What They Want," "He's Got Your Love" and "I Know Who You Been Socking It To" all have astonishingly strong riffs, singing from Ronnie that's so delighted and so brilliantly performative that it hugely elevates the material, and rhythms that you literally cannot stop yourself from dancing to. But the best song, which all three of those funk songs were probably inspired by, is the almost-title track, "It's Your Thing." (Well, what else was I going to pick?) "It's Your Thing" is one of those songs that was almost certainly regarded as an instant classic when it first came out, and is still a stone classic today. The song is a cornerstone of funk music. It's so good that it actually deserves to be called sublime. It's a stroke of near-total genius and almost certainly the Isleys' finest moment. It's Our Thing is a fantastic snapshot of a very good group at an artistic peak that helped change music.

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