Kool & The Gang – The Albums Vol 2: 1979-1989 (Box Set)
As acknowledged in the introductory notes to Edsel’s first Kool & The Gang box set released earlier this year (The Albums Vol. 1: 1970-1978), there are two solidly distinct chapters in the band’s rise to fame through the ’70s and ‘80s. It’s quite likely that casual listeners familiar with both early hits such as “Jungle Boogie,” “Open Sesame,” and “Hollywood Swinging” and later chart-toppers ranging from “Celebration” to “Joanna,” “Cherish,” and “Ladies’ Night” might conclude that the executors of the former anthems were completely different than those of the latter—for example, by way of hearing the tunes on the radio and not being familiar with the group’s namesake.
Yet, a dedicated listen to the first box set and the second installment, The Albums Vol. 2: 1979-1989 (comprised of eight studio albums and three discs of bonus 12” mixes, edits, and B-sides), makes crystal-clear just how remarkable Robert “Kool” and Ronald Bell and their comrades were at reinventing the wheel of their musical nucleus time and time again over a 20-year time span. In the pop world, many marvel at Madonna’s ability to redefine her sound with the assistance of top-tier songwriters and producers from album to album. The Bell brothers and longtime Kool members such as Dennis Thomas, Charles Smith, and George Brown, however, accomplished the feat of presenting themselves in multiple stylistic contexts with far more vast sonic variations—in a largely self-contained fashion.
Fans who dig the hardy funk foundations of Kool & The Gang’s stunning first wave of albums (ten studio and two live ones) are advised to delve into the Vol. 1 box and revel in the fierce consistency of both instrumental and vocal-laden grooves that embody the true essence of a dedicated funk band leaving no stone of the rhythm section unturned. For purposes of this review, however, let’s examine The Albums Vol. 2, an 11-CD set covering the chapter of The Gang’s career that propelled them into global mainstays with a more instantly identifiable—and unabashedly more commercial—sound. One which, in some ways, gradually had less and less connection to releases prior to the arrival of lead vocalist James “J.T.” Taylor and producer Eumir Deodato.
A chief aspect of K&TG’s ‘70s output was its bold and seamless meshing of a blazing horn section with gutsy guitar and bassline grooves. When they started to add group vocals (and the occasional solo) in the middle of the decade, the rhythmic and melodic components of the band’s arrangement were enhanced in such a way that audiences could listen more actively; yet the core sonic template remained intact underneath the new adornments. But subsequently slumping sales warranted a fresh new take; the resulting decision to revolve the band around one familiar voice and a proven producer-arranger’s mainstream capabilities meant the end of an era.
Although “Ladies’ Night,” the title track to the 1979 album premiering both Taylor and Deodato in their respective roles, boasted a semi-chanted chorus that subtly brought to mind pre-disco hits like “Funky Stuff,” the arrangement was notably sleeker and more compact, with a shift in focus from free-form variation to repeated structure and smooth sectional transitions. Simultaneously, in keeping with disco trends of the day, the songs were getting longer in duration and fewer in quantity. The Ladies’ Night LP yielded six tracks clocking in at 33 minutes. With the exception of “Too Hot,” the second hit from the album, the remaining fare is not too memorable—although “Got You into My Life” has an idyllic lyric and summery melody that make for an ideal quiet-storm playlist addition. “Too Hot,” though, an uptempo yet understated jam, made up for what was missing in other songs by infusing a notably “kool” new element into the band’s stylistic palette. There’s no presumptuousness in the softly jazzy undertones and quiet funk influences, while Taylor’s crisp and straightforward delivery got the song’s message across without a hitch.
If “Ladies’ Night” firmly signaled a change in direction for Kool & The Gang, then the opening of the eighties swung the floodgates open with the arrival of “Celebration,” a rousing call to bask in the good times to the tune of a carousing number which blurred the lines of pop, R&B, and funk. Many fans of “Funky Man” and “Love the Life You Live” may well have been baffled by this 180-degree turn from the group’s roots; the world at large, however, couldn’t have been happier. Certainly, a lengthy essay could be penned about the song’s success in sales and airplay; awards earned; its use in commercials, special events, as an anthem for sports teams—and the list goes on…
While the core of the band had not changed over the previous decade, some additional members had come and gone. The relatively pared-down approach worked in K&TG’s favor in entries such as “Jones vs. Jones,” a plaintive midtempo single from the Celebrate! album which solidified the group’s new standing as capable balladeers. Taylor’s effortless range and easy-sailing tones often were mistaken for being lacking in soul; in fact, his pliability and confidence in bringing a story home without going over the top are hallmarks of soulfulness. As with Ladies’ Night, however, the Celebrate! LP missed the mark somewhat. For sure, the upbeat instrumental “Morning Star” was a nice touch, though cuts such as “Love Festival” and “Night People” are somewhat generic and more forgettable.
As the eighties moved forward, K&TG had a lot of steam coming off of “Celebration.” Their next three albums—1981’s Something Special, 1982’s As One, and 1983’s In the Heart, wisely steered clear of futile attempts to create a part two of their ubiquitous smash. That said, they weren’t necessarily looking to stray too far from the approach that brought them widespread acclaim. There was an improvement in the overall flow of uptempo tracks on Something Special, which included the Michael Jackson-influenced “Steppin’ Out” and the much-loved “Get Down on It,” which was a welcome attempt to bring a bit more of the funk back into the affair.
As One infused some electronic elements into the mix. The opening “Street Kids,” which includes references to video games and other modern devices, is an innocuously fun ode to youth replete with smooth and catchy harmony vocals. The remaining six tracks are a mixed bag. The reggae-posturing “Let’s Go Dancing” is one of the more boring numbers in the group’s catalog of party anthems, and “Hi De Hi, Hi De Ho” doesn’t have much more personality in either words or music. The main moment worth savoring is the title ballad. Its chord structure, modulations, sensitive lyrical disposition, and vocal warmth—not to mention, the glorious trumpet intonations of the late Robert Mickens—are timeless.
K&TG ended their ties with Deodato after As One. Subsequently, In the Heart found them in a slightly less polished groove, even as the output remained in keeping with the hits of recent years. “Joanna,” the best-known song from the album written by Taylor with guitarist Claydes Smith, remains a masterfully relayed slice of ‘60s nostalgia with a synth-dreamy ‘80s underpinning. The almost-as-successful “Tonight” signaled the band’s first go at a rock-driven number. It can be argued that much of the material on In the Heart is even further removed from the group’s beginnings, given the increased reliance on synths. However, the addition of new talent to the group (including keyboardist Curtis Williams) and the more relaxed feel of arrangements on numbers like “Rollin’” and “You Can Do It” feel more authentic and less restrained than much of the material on As One and Something Special.
Continuing the production relationship they started with Jim Bonnefond on In the Heart, K&TG scored four top-10 hits from 1984’s follow-up, Emergency, which would become their biggest-selling album to date. The band honed in on the spare finesse of “Joanna” and rock influences of “Tonight” on the title cut and “Misled,” while adding to the catalog their most defining ballad, “Cherish.” Penned by Taylor and Ronald Bell, the song brilliantly accomplished the honorable feat of perfectly pairing a heartfelt lyric with a soul-transporting melody.
While not the last album represented in this box, Forever would, ironically, be Taylor’s last LP with K&TG for a decade. The 1986 release found them largely handling production chores themselves—with mixed results. The lightweight lead single, “Victory,” which charted well despite lacking the musical chutzpah of its lyrics, is indicative of a handful of other numbers. The faceless “I.B.M.C.,” meandering title ballad, and saccharine “God’s Country” sound, to this day, like random hodgepodges of lyrical clichés and musical afterthoughts. The only real saving grace is “Stone Love” (another Taylor-Smith co-write), which would be the band’s last significant American R&B and pop hit.
Perhaps the most oft-forgotten album of Kool & The Gang’s decades-spanning discography is 1989’s Sweat, the first release by the group following Taylor’s exit. While far from groundbreaking, Sweat is considerably stronger than Forever. What likely caused its lukewarm reception—and fast track to record-store bargain bins—was that it comes across as a solo album by Taylor’s replacement, Skip Martin. He’d established credibility as a trumpeter and vocalist with The Dazz Band earlier in the decade, though he’d not widely gained recognition as a lead vocalist by the time he joined The Gang. Furthermore, there’s not any sort of unifying concept of positivity and prosperity that permeates most of the other albums in this box, and more than half of the tracks are handled by outside producers without K&TG input. Add to that, almost every track is heavily programmed sans any of the trademark horns or rhythm section components. That said, Sweat is not bad—but this is not a Skip Martin retrospective.
The three bonus discs in The Albums Vol. 2 offer a total of 40 extra tracks: mostly radio edits and extended mixes, with a few B-sides and other material thrown in. Disc nine, titled 7” Singles Selection, is an excellent way to listen hit after hit in their original radio versions. At 20 tracks, it’s pretty much its own greatest-hits collection, from “Ladies’ Night” to 1989’s “Raindrops”—with the addition of B-sides “Dance Champion” and “Amor Amore,” plus single versions of two cuts recorded for the band’s 1988 retrospective, Everything’s Kool & The Gang (“Rags to Riches” and “Strong”).
Discs 10 and 11, the two-part 12” Singles Selection, is probably the most comprehensive collection of Kool & The Gang extended mixes in one place that there is. With the added draw of extra-long disco versions of pre-Taylor hits “Open Sesame,” “Love & Understanding,” and “Mighty Mighty High” (each clocking in between eight and 12 minutes), the assemblage of infrequently heard versions such as the UK Remix of “Take My Heart” and 12” Remix of “Hangin’ Out” with the smile-inducing 12” Spanish Version of “Celebration” (“Celebremos”) and other less obvious cuts stands out as a worthwhile component of this far-ranging box set. (The, ahem, misled late-‘80s remixes of “Funky Stuff,” “Hollywood Swinging,” and “Jungle Boogie” are, thankfully placed at the end of the last disc.)
Kool & The Gang undoubtedly made their most groundbreaking music in the 1970s. Their releases from 1979 through most of the ‘80s, however, were groundbreaking in another important way. Never before had a self-contained African-American ensemble band with jazz-funk roots managed to transform and translate their sound—and message—to such a wide audience for such a long period of time. In the process, they created and recorded an impressively large catalog of albums with a plethora of hits that defied genre boundaries. They missed the mark sometimes in perfecting their strategy. More often than not, though, they succeeded in delivering well-conceived and well-executed R&B and pop for the ages, with a positive message and iconic voice at the helm. Edsel’s The Albums Vol. 2: 1979-1989 does a fine and fulfilling job of representing this ever-important body of work. Recommended.