Graded on a Curve:
The Poets of Rhythm, Anthology 1992–2003

Back in the ‘90s, if a listener desired to hear some uncut soul, they almost certainly turned to recordings at least two decades old. But as Daptone Records’ fresh compilation of The Poets of Rhythm makes clear, it didn’t have to be that way. Anthology 1992-2003 corrals eighteen tracks of raw Soul/R&B/Funk exuberance of Clinton-era vintage and intriguingly Germanic origin, and as it plays it’s frequently outstanding. That it also serves as the impetus for this music’s contemporary resurgence brings the record sizeable historical élan.

Unsurprisingly, this set’s excellent liner notes open with a succinct background study into The Poets of Rhythm that also stands as a testimonial on their behalf, and what’s immediately notable is how this combination of info and enthusiasm offers a perspective of substantial worth. Therein, the writer opens by relating his first exposure to the band in 1995 and a few lines later sums up this discovery as providing him with the evidence that soul music “wasn’t dead.” But it’s really the name at the bottom of text that drives its importance home; it’s signed by none other than Bosco Mann.

Many will recognize that nom de guerre as belonging to one Gabriel Roth, for as the Grammy winning producer for Booker T. Jones and Amy Winehouse, bassist/bandleader for Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, and just as notably, as co-founder of Daptone Records, Mr. Roth has been at the forefront of Soul/R&B/Funk’s renaissance as a thriving, “living” music for the 21st century. And quite striking is how a figure so instrumental in the revitalization of this aesthetic once considered the source of his passion to be located completely in the grooves of decade’s old records.

But the year of Roth’s epiphany was 1995 after all, and if you were around and digging music at that point it should be easy to understand the apparent severity of his assessment prior to encountering The Poets of Rhythm. While the spirit of classique Soul/R&B/Funk was indeed a major component of what I and others consider to be hip-hop’s golden era, the actual rudiments of this vibrant music, a form that required the energy and dedication of a multi-talented live band to realize its ambitions, did seem solidly rooted in the past.

Greatly intensifying the situation was the appearance in 1991 of not only Star Time, an absolutely stunning 4CD career retrospective of James Brown, but also The Complete Stax/Volt Singles 1959-1968, an exhaustive and eternally mind-bending 9CD tutorial into the 45s that emanated from what just might be the finest non-jazz studio America ever produced.

Listening to both of those collections certainly provided quite a kick well into the mid-‘90s and beyond, but they could also leave a person with a tangible feeling of greatness lost. For in that decade’s scheme of things there was nothing that offered this sort of very specific instrumental firepower. Well, almost. There was The Poets of Rhythm, but in 1995 my knowledge of this German group’s existence was simply nada.

And it’s important to note that Roth, an indefatigable record hound, had heard The Poets of Rhythm prior to 1995 via their surfacing on a funk compilation under the pseudonym The Bus People Express, and that he made the understandable assumption that the cut was but one of the numerous rare delights unearthed by his equally diligent crate-digging brethren.

That’s a huge clue into The Poets of Rhythm’s appeal. They are an entity so intensely dedicated to a sonic ideal that their music can be slipped into a playlist of vintage sounds with nary a disruptive element rising to the surface. For some, this might seem like an admirable but limiting exercise, but there’s a dual logic for why the band’s recordings add up to a considerably hefty sum.

For starters, there’s really no good reason for Soul/R&B/Funk’s decade’s long decline, a plummet so intense that even its most ardent fans assumed it was a tradition not just moribund, but effectively dead. There are some very bad reasons, though. Dubious trends in studio recording, specifically a need to exploit any technological “advance” in the pursuit of a contempo and often sterile production sheen, naturally deflated the music’s band-derived verve. So from the somewhat curious locale of Germany, The Poets of Rhythm’s deliciously executed funky-soul workouts served as a primer into an essence lost in the wrongheaded quest for modernity.

And secondly, as the half-dozen tracks that open Anthology 1992-2003 make plain, The Poets of Rhythm were most definitely not a simple nostalgia trip. Rather than attempting to painstakingly reproduce the well-documented highpoints of late-‘60s/early-‘70s groove-science with a photogenic accuracy, the group instead explored these achievements through reliably in-the-pocket musicianship, just as consistent studio savvy and most importantly, their own original compositions.

So instead of sounding like a good-natured forgery of triumphs past, their songs connect with the energy of rarities culled from the record bag of a passionate and discerning collector as they unwind with the smoothness of a smartly programmed DJ set. This nicely underscores Roth’s assumption that The Bus People Express was an old act rediscovered. And as stated, this aura of unearthed plunder is especially evident on the first six selections of this release.

For instance, there’s opener “Funky Train,” the A-side of their debut 45, issued in ’92 on the aptly-titled Hotpie & Candy imprint. The sturdy and intense wahed-out guitar playing is more prominently placed, and therefore distinct, from the big-label material that obviously gives the cut its inspiration, and while the horn charts are admirably conceived and delivered, the appearance of a flute solo mid-tune accentuates the scope of The Poets of Rhythm’s vision.

While it’s true that Brown’s work from the JB’s-era and the ludicrously funky early material from New Orleans’ The Meters lend The Poets a real sense of energetic focus, they also mess with the program in very interesting ways. As one example, “Augusta, GA (Here I Come)” initially comes off as “just” a wicked rip of James from the midst of his muscularly hyperactive early-‘70s funk peak, but highly notable is the song’s employment of hand drums, its lack of horns, and the scrappy intensity of JJ Whitefield’s guitar lines.

Yes, it’s basically a stone cinch that any human being cognizant of Brown’s ‘70s stuff will be reminded of its glories as “Augusta, GA (Here I Come)”’s succinct two minutes speed by, but like a bunch of young punks reworking a Dead Boys number, the refreshingly familiarity of its formal acquisitions bloom into their own sweetly vigorous thing.

But there’s also much variety to be found here. “South Carolina” is a nasty slow groove that holds faultless rhythmic flexing, stinging guitar and spicy organ flavors in abundant equality, “More Mess on My Thing” offers a mid-tempo funk progression fleshed out with horns that happily never succumb to the underwhelming atmosphere of mere vamping, “North Carolina” bursts out at a speedier clip and spotlights both their talent as an instrumental unit and acumen at arrangement, and “It Came Over Me” reins in the pace and introduces an urbane string section nabbed from primo early-‘70s R&B.

All of the abovementioned tracks came early in The Poets’ run, located on that first 45, their early name-shift into The Bus People Express and from the group’s first LP Practice What You Preach, which hit racks via the Soulciety imprint. Issues with that label caused them to record a massive batch of 7-inch discs under a variety of different monikers including Organized Raw Funk, The Pan-Atlantics, Soul Saints Orchestra, The Whitefield Brothers, and my two personal favorites, The Woo-Woos and Bo Baral’s Excursionists of Perception.

This material was eventually compiled by Soulciety onto Original Raw Soul Vol. 1, and the songs find the band kicking into high creative gear. For one example amongst many there’s “The Donkey,” a torrid instrumental that includes a bass line so thick and echo-laden it sounds like a half-insane bodybuilder blowing a tuba from inside a huge metal drum (to say nothing of ragged tenacity of the guitar and a massively employed hi-hat). It’s one of the sickest James Brown-rips these ears have ever heard. And trust me; they’ve soaked up a few.

Also very worthwhile is “Wallow in the Myrrh,” an adaptation of The Doors’ “Light My Fire.” Anybody gassed by the suave version found on ‘69’s Al Green Gets Next To You should also find this one a treat, but The Poets’ take is noted for snuggling up against strains that are almost hippie-funk in nature. To be frank, in less astute hands this sort of audacious maneuver could’ve easily spelled disaster, and that it doesn’t really emphasizes the group’s depth and the skill of the Soul-Saints production team in particular.

And The Poets’ range kept growing. To wit, “Summer Days” is a major plunge into a drowsy soul featherbed holding the lounging ghost of Chicago’s Terry Kath. While it scratches an itch I don’t really recall having, it’ll surely be a fitting soundtrack for my next stone soul picnic. Please check your mailbox for the invite. The latter cuts on Anthology 1992-2003 derive from their Discern/Define album, initially recorded for issue on Roth and Phillip Lehman’s pre-Daptone label Desco. After shifting musical interests surfaced, it was eventually issued in 2001 on DJ Shadow’s Quannum Projects.

While these tunes are slightly less impressive in their instrumental vitality, finding them growing into a laid-back vibe more indicative of mid-‘70s soulfulness (Shuggie Otis fans should certainly take note) and even then contemporary studio-based post-techno groove-mining (I’m thinking of Shadow and other Mo’ Wax releases), they do a fine job of essaying the outfit’s continued evolution, with “Discern/Define” even including a tasty bit of abstract sax soloing.

In summation, Anthology 1992-2003 is a fantastic compilation surveying a band of considerable historical importance and musical dynamism. If you missed them the first time around you certainly weren’t alone, and there is no time like the present to pick up the mammoth grooves these cats laid down so exceptionally well.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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