Old/New Albums: Kool & The Gang’s Self-titled

kool and the gangMy first two entries in this series were country and folk albums, so I needed something radically different to shake things up. I went with the self-titled debut album of Kool & The Gang. Released in 1969 (I’m hitting the ’60s pretty hard so far), this album is a lot different than I was expecting. When I thought of Kool & The Gang prior, my mind always went to their hits like “Celebration” and “Jungle Boogie.”

This album is a lot different. This is more along the lines of a Booker T. & The M.G.’s album than anything I was expecting. What they’ve given us here is a collection of 10 instrumental cuts. The only vocals are the background yells and cheers of the musicians having a grand old time as they find groove after groove, and then some mantra-like repeating of the song title during the album closer.

So from a listener’s perspective, there isn’t lots to do here. Lyric-less music can be a challenge for me sometimes, because if I don’t have a guitar in my hands, I don’t have an immediate way to connect to the visceral nature of the music. I can get there with time, but playing guitar often brings down the activation energy necessary for me to feel the music.

That being said, this album deserves far more than a passing listen. Where some ’60s soul music can sometimes run together for me, Kool & The Gang is stacked with hooks. These songs stand out from each other, and if I’ve got it on in the background, my ear will pick up when the songs change rather than it all becoming one long horn-filled track. This makes it fun to come back to and listen each day.

Earlier I compared the sound to Booker T. & The M.G.’s. I’m going to tweak that a bit after a few listens and say it sounds like an album of instrumentals by Sly & The Family Stone around 1967-1969. Maybe with some very early Jackson 5 thrown in. To my untrained ear, the bass engineering sounds nearly identical to the rest of that late ’60s soul/funk sound. Booker T. is good for the occasional listen, but for my money, I listen to Booker T.’s organ for too long and it quickly becomes a cheesy sound. The sound that Kool & The Gang create here sounds like it belongs on the animated sketches of early ’70s Sesame Street episodes, which were some of my favorite segments when they were recycled in the mid-’90s. I’ve written about the pinball sketch before. This album is full of hooks like the music of the pinball sketch. Which, for me, makes it eternally listenable.

And then we’ve got the big old elephant in the room, track 4. “Sea Of Tranquility” will be immediately recognized by fans of D’Angelo as the musical foundation for the song “Send It On” from Voodoo. When I first discovered D’ used an interpolation of this Kool & The Gang tune for his own, I didn’t know the difference between an interpolation and a sample, so when I first listened to “Sea Of Tranquility,” I had my sample-hunting ears on, ready to spot the tiniest hint of similar sounds between the two songs and identify what exactly D’ had sampled from Kool & The Gang. I was taken aback when the song started and it is essentially an instrumental version of “Send It On” recorded by a different band in 1969.

So as I began to understand it, a sample is actually using a portion (or “sample”) of one song as some instrumental element of another song. You’re taking something and using it in a much different way than was originally intended. On the flipside, an interpolation is actually where an artist will record their own version of someone else’s song, kind of like a cover but again, the artistic license is flexed here where the music is used in a different way than was originally intended. If anyone with deeper music pedigree would like to correct me here, I would welcome it because this distinction had confounded me for years.

So D’ didn’t sample “Sea Of Tranquility,” he interpolated it for “Send It On.” Aside from being the main reason I wanted this album to be part of this series (it’s an influence on D’Angelo, come on.), “Sea Of Tranquility” is a very soft and light-hearted tune. Because of the year recorded, equipment used, and artists recording, you’ve got an entirely different feel between the original and its offspring. K&TG’s has some flower-power innocence to it, like a musical cousin to the The 5th Dimension. D’s version is obviously smoother with more groove.

That being said, it’s not my favorite song off the record. That surprised me, but after giving the albums numerous listens, I’ve just grown to love D’s song so much and to hear its inspiration is great, but I’d take his over theirs 9 times out of 10.

One other interesting thing about “Sea Of Tranquility.” It’s got about a minute long outro/coda that D’Angelo did not use in his song, which was really surprising when I realized it was still the same song playing. This is why I’ve enjoyed this album so much. It makes me wonder why D’ chose to leave off that tag in his own song, and even more so, why did he choose “Sea Of Tranquility” over any of the other tunes as the inspiration for his own song? This album series is such a blast because it allows me to delve into albums that have meant something to someone who means something to me. Digesting and learning these albums is a small glimpse into the brain of my musical idols and it gives me greater context in which to understand the music that I already hold so dear. On top of it, I get exposed to great music, like this album, which I’ve really enjoyed. I’m now curious to see if and how Kool & The Gang changed their sound as the ’70s dawned.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. “Breeze & Soul”
  2. “Sea Of Tranquility”
  3. “Let The Music Take Your Mind”
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