Happy 50th Birthday, Your Highness!

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Michael Joseph Jackson, The King of Pop, hit the big 5-0 today.

Words can’t express how much I love this man’s music. Controversy and tough times aside, this man is the blueprint. From Usher to Chris Brown, you see the influence of those fluid moves and inimitable vocal inflections in all of today’s up and coming black talent. The world will never see another star of his magnitude, plain and simple. I loved him over two decades ago when I was trying to learn his every dance move and make the sidewalk light up a la “Billie Jean,” and I love him now.

He’s still the man.

Happy Birthday, MJ!

Vinyl examination: This ‘Odyssey’ is more than a disco fantasy

I loved the elegant soul of Odyssey before I even knew who they were.

Their 1977 hit single and signature song “Native New Yorker” was immortalized on “Good Times” when Thelma Evans, played by Bernadette Stanis, did a heavenly dance to the song as part of a talent show to save the community center’s day care program. (Don’t act like ya’ll haven’t seen that rerun thousands of times.) Aside from Thelma’s smooth moves, I was taken by the sleek, urbane sway of the song and the catchy story it told. I found out years later that “disco” trio Odyssey – Lillian Lopez, Louise Lopez and Tony Reynolds (later replaced by Bill McEachern) – were the voices that took the song to No. 6 R&B/No. 21 pop and made it a staple on R&B radio decades later. Though Odyssey (who was managed by a then-unknown Tommy Mottola) was signed to RCA – a label that experienced tons of success in the disco market with acts like Faith, Hope and Charity, Vicki Sue Robinson and The Hues Corporation – one listen to the trio’s eponymous debut proves they were a soul act first and foremost.

This was hardly paint-by-numbers disco, as “Odyssey” (No. 16 R&B/No. 36 pop) had more to do with uptown soul than danceable histrionics. The luminous, island-flavored backdrop was perfect for the group’s sweet blends, a formula buoyed by the chops of session men like Richard Tee (keyboards), Randy Brecker (trumpets) and Michael Brecker (reeds). The bubbly, vibraphone-infused “Weekend Lover” (No. 37 R&B/No. 57 pop) and “The Woman Behind the Man” are lush, beautifully orchestrated creations that emphasize melody as much as vocal presentation. Lead singer Lillian Lopez had a rich vocal timbre that gave the group’s material a warmth and earthiness akin to the free-flowing garments and braided hair they donned in their photos. Still, there were some dancers there: The Latin disco of “Easy Come, Easy Go” and the spiritual “Thank You God for One More Day” are pleasing, tuneful delights that work in the contexts of both listening and dancing.

Amazingly, the ballads were the LP’s strong points. “Ever Lovin’ Sam” and “Golden Hands” excel, with the latter featuring an affirming message about a boy named Michael who aspires to have his hoop dreams lift him out of the ghetto’s oppression. It sounds sappy, but it works surprisingly well when you consider the time it comes from. Elsewhere, “You Keep Me Dancin’”, despite its misleading title, is meant to do anything but – it’s a romantic tribute to the man whose sweetness is the song that transcends any superficial advances hurled at the singer. Such sentiments are what made this album an interesting release. Even though it was issued in the dizzying days of disco, there’s an overwhelmingly positive, almost poignant feel to its selections. I can’t help but wonder if it was their goal to put a spin on their debut that was the antithesis of the “let’s get high and screw” underpinning of what surrounded them on shelves, airwaves and dance floors at the time. Indeed, there was much promise to be explored here.

Odyssey continued to record for RCA through 1982’s “Happy Together” which featured the Top 20 R&B hit and steppers’ favorite “Inside Out.” (If you’ve ever heard it or plan on seeking it out, the similarities between it and Slave’s “Watching You” are astonishing. It has been written that there was some rhythm-section overlap between the two hits, including Slave’s Steve Arrington himself on drums. It’s still funky as hell regardless.) Though they never scored another hit as big as “Native New Yorker,” they were one of the more interesting groups to emerge during the late seventies. While this and their other LPs are long out of print, their songs are regularly featured on compilations and soundtracks: “Native New Yorker” was prominently featured in the film “54,” while “Inside Out” was included on the album “Smooth Grooves: After Hours.”

No matter what you’ve read or may have heard, this is an “Odyssey” that’s not typical of its era. A more than fitting addition to any collection of sophisticated soul, it’s the kind of record that goes beyond the singles-driven period it surfaced in. What you have here is a fully realized, highly enjoyable work, if I do say so myself.

Check out the hits “Native New Yorker” and “Weekend Lover” below.

We hear you, Keaton Simons

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The times we’re living in have been pretty murky on the music tip. Over the last few years, we’ve been subjected to a blur of Kewpie doll ingénues masking their shit vocals in bleeps and blips and hypermasculine hip-hop cartoons with little to no redeeming value. So I was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled across an article in the Express newspaper a while back about singer-guitarist Keaton Simons’ latest release. His CBS Records debut, the freewheeling “Can You Hear Me,” is one of the best records I’ve heard this year. Light and lean, it’s the perfect summer record and showcases a young voice with quite a bit of potential.

Simons, who’ll appear Aug. 24 at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Va., on the Sweep the Leg Tour, has a mastery of rollicking, rootsy blues-rock that’s wise beyond his years. His resume is a musical gumbo of sorts, as the young singer has notched stints with everyone from The Pharcyde’s Tre Hardson to Brand New Heavies chanteuse N’Dea Davenport. The open tone of the West Coast music scene is prevalent in Simons’ approach, a sensibility perfected across past efforts “Currently” and “Exes and Whys” and expertly executed on “Can You Hear Me.” There’s a soulful sweetening to the sparse, guitar-sprinkled arrangements of the album’s 11 cuts that suits the rasp of Simons’ vocals to a tee. Whether singing about the secret joy of forbidden love on “Nobody Knows” or relaying the sunny ode to optimism that is the lead single “Good Things Get Better,” Simons brings quite a bit of charm and exuberance to his material. But the singer rocks hardest on “Mama Song,” a frenzy of fuzzy guitar that’s as unrestrained and ballsy as a mid-nineties Lenny Kravitz groove. A little edge goes a long away, and it’s a look that works for him.

Most of the album, however, is in the confessional singer-songwriter vein perfected by the likes of Carly Simon and Stephen Bishop many moons ago. “Unstoppable,” “To Me,” and “Currently” are paeans to the many sides of love that are notable for both their introspective narratives and ripe sensuality. Such intimacy beams brightest on “Without Your Skin,” the opening track and arguably the strongest among the lot. When he sings “without your skin … I’m naked,” you feel it – and sensuality morphs into untouched sexiness in one vocal swoop. Simons’ understanding of bringing across a variety of emotions is his trump card, the asset that raises him above the mediocrity of the pack.

In short, “Can You Hear Me” is an outstanding record, another step in Simons’ move into the league of extraordinary singing tunesmiths. Not too brash and not too mellow, Simons’ brand is one that will grow more and more appealing as the passage of time seasons his craft.

He says it himself, after all: Good things get better.

Keaton Simons will appear at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Va., on Aug. 24 as part of the Sweep the Leg Tour. For more information, click here.

Check him out singing “Good Things Get Better” below.