Several months ago a friend at work brought in a compilation of 1970's Philadelphia soul (this one, if I remember correctly.) A lot of it was more than familiar--like listening to my childhood--though none the less welcome for it. The one track that blew my mind, making me wonder how I had possibly never heard it before, was Dee Dee Sharp Gamble's version of "Ooh Child." It's hard to think of many songs of its type that, at this point, fall further into the category of cliche than that one. I remember putting it on 1970's mix tapes 20 years ago or so and everyone enjoying it, but for a long time now it's buried under the weight of ersatz Aaron Neville renditions and the like. Dead, dead, dead.
There's nothing dead about Sharp Gamble's take. To a post-seventies listener, the introduction with piano and strings sounds like the sort thing that, within a year or so of her recording, would be used to lead into a frantic disco beat. Instead, as the music crests and the bass and horns ease into the song with unexpected delicacy: ooh child, things are going to get easier . . . In part it's the great production (so much space in those recordings!), but the match of Sharp Gamble's vocal and the instrumentation comes across as a perfect balance of warmth and generosity. The last minute or more of the record may switch the mood into agreeable but minor vamping, but it can't do anything to take away the impact of the first few minutes. It'll make your head much lighter.
It's growing on me. When I first listened last night, I found it a bit too slow, but it doesn't feel so much that way now. The intriguing ensemble includes, along with Bragg and other notables, folk icon Martin Carthy and his daughter, fiddler Eliza Carthy, not to mention Paul Weller. The idea of approaching traditional music from a contemporary blend of styles and instruments drawn from the musics of modern Britain's many cultural groups certainly delivers a rich, if sometimes sonorous, sound. One request: if Bragg isn't going to play, at least let him hold a guitar--he has no idea what to with his hands.
The Imagined Village project certainly blends well with Bragg's current interest in what constitutes an English identity today, a topic about which he's written and even devoted most of an album. I didn't find that record very successful as music, unfortunately, though I look forward to reading the book. I do wonder what Bragg and Weller say to one another these days. Obviously it's been a long time, and no doubt they've had plenty of opportunities in the relatively small world of British pop to meet and talk, but I recall from Bragg's official biography a movement on his part from admiration for Weller to a certain amount of disappointment and disillusionment in the aftermath of the Red Wedge effort. Whether that was deserved, or Bragg was simply misguided, or if I'm even remembering correctly may all be doubted, but it interests me nonethless. Anyway, a clip from old times to end this post.