Tag Archives: Curtis Mayfield

Old/Newish Albums: Curtis Mayfield’s “Got To Find A Way”

mayfieldAs with a lot of classic black soul music, I was led to this album by way of D’Angelo. His first performance in the United States in over a decade was a monumental covers jam at Bonnaroo, backed by several members who would eventually become known as The Vanguard, along with a few others. They played covers alone, no D’ originals, but the set ranged from Led Zeppelin to Ohio Players to The Time. One of these covers was “Mother’s Son,” found on Got To Find A Way.

It’s been interesting to hear the song in the context of the rest of this album, because while D’Angelo and his Superjam band made the song an enticingly funky affair, the original is fairly tame, along with the rest of the album. Mayfield is known for mixing funk and soul really well, but this album falls flat.

There’s just very little memorable here. To be fair, I don’t know Mayfield’s discography well enough to know if this is a trend or not. I know his first few solo albums pretty well, but I don’t know the album immediately preceding or following Got To Find A Way, so I only have a few points of reference off of which to base my thoughts on it. But compared to his 1975 album There’s No Place Like America Today, this is a muddled work. That album (which I reviewed at the beginning of this year) has a distinct vision and identity. The songs coalesce but they don’t blur together, which is exactly what happens on Got To Find A Way. The two real stand outs are “Mother’s Son” and “So You Don’t Love Me,” and even these have their faults.

“So You Don’t Love Me” is the requisite ballad on the album, and I really do like this song a lot. It’s got a nice orchestral flavor to it and Mayfield does those flowery arrangements so well. But again, not groundbreaking. And “Mother’s Son” never quite reaches a real funky groove, although it comes close. I would’ve liked it better if the song was about two minutes shorter and had stuck to the musical theme that’s laid out in the opening. But instead, Mayfield takes it all waaaay down low in the verse, stripping the instrumentation down to a sparse drum beat and the bass riff, with light guitar flourishes thrown in. It saps all the energy that was built in the beginning. Again, this is a funky tune but I feel like it could’ve had so much more fire to it.

So I’m left with the feeling that this isn’t a standout in Mayfield’s catalog. A couple good tunes but he’s got better albums to seek out if you’re interested.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. So You Don’t Love Me
  2. Mother’s Son
  3. Cannot Find A Way

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Old/New Albums: Curtis Mayfield’s “There’s No Place Like America Today”

Welcome to 2015 and the continuation of my blog series from last year, Old/New Albums. Every two weeks, I listen to the same album every day and write about it. The album can be from any genre, any decade; the only caveat is that I’ve never heard it before. It might be an old album, but it’s new to me (hence, Old/New).

curtismayfieldI’m kicking off this run of the series with Curtis Mayfield’s 1975 album, There’s No Place Like America Today. I’ve listened to a fair amount of Mayfield’s music since 2006, when I heard him sampled by Kanye West in “Touch The Sky” and essentially ripped-off by John Mayer in “Waiting On The World To Change” (to his credit, Mayer referenced Mayfield explicitly for the song’s inspiration). Take a listen to “Move On Up” and “We’re A Winner” to hear the genesis of those songs, respectively.

There are a few Mayfield albums I could’ve chosen, but this album cover really caught my eye. In the wake of the palpable racial tension of the last few months, it’s sad that an album cover from 40 years ago can resonate so strongly today.

It is based on a photograph published in 1937 by Margaret Bourke-White. The photo showed a billboard labeled “World’s Highest Standard of Living” (here replaced by Mayfield’s name) and the message “There’s no way like the American way” (here replaced by the album’s title) on top of a picture of a happy white family riding in their fancy car. In front of the billboard is a line of black folks, displaced by the Ohio River Flood of 1937, waiting for food and clothing from a relief station. The disparity couldn’t be more clearly communicated. The American Dream is a myth, a utopian ideal; real life seems constantly stacked against real people.

The lyrical content of this album reflects that theme again and again. “Billy Jack” tells the story of an acquaintance of the singer who was killed in the middle of the day by a stray bullet. “When Seasons Change” is heartbreaking poetry about how the hardships of time can bear down on a soul. “Hard Times” is probably the most straightforward telling of the hardships of the black American experience. Even “Jesus” reads like a prayer for salvation from the social ills that surround the singer.

One thing that I loved was how perfectly Mayfield’s music set the tone of the album. This is not a fast album; most of the tempos are relatively slow and plodding, matching the feeling of the line of people on the cover. But the speed of the music suits it very well, as it creates this tension of unmet aspiration. Life in that line seems like an unending slow march and that’s the atmosphere created by Mayfield’s music.

All of the songs on this record are great examples, but “Billy Jack” and “Hard Times” are especially well-paced. “Hard Times” is a cover of the Baby Huey & The Babysitters tune, but Mayfield has dialed the speed back a great deal, creating this feel of gritty restraint. It’s got a funkier edge, with some real stank in the guitar work, that emotes a different point of view than the original. This is a fantastic cover of an already great song.

Finally, I have to some love to the one non-social-issue song on the album. “So In Love” was my favorite song, even if it didn’t totally fit into the rest of the album’s theme. It such a gorgeously relaxed song with a fantastic horn arrangement. There’s nothing hurried or frantic about the love Mayfield sings about; it feels lived in and comfortable. The music effortlessly reflects that mood so well.

I read a number of reviews on this album that spoke negatively towards the pacing, saying they were looking for more of an in-your-face feeling given the social activist nature of the music. After spending a couple weeks in this record, I firmly disagree. Sure, this is a slow album with no songs that will get people out of their seats to dance. But that slowness lends an air of reality to the record and helps communicate so much better the difficult truths contained within. Mayfield points his unique lens at the disparity between the varying degrees of quality of life in America. This album helped me understand that disparity a little better.

If you’ve got no experience with Curtis Mayfield’s body of work, I actually would steer you away from this album and towards something like Superfly or his self-titled Curtis, due mainly to the accessibility and popularity of those records. This might not be the best starting point for Mayfield’s work, but There’s No Place Like America Today is a really high quality album. You’ll learn a lot from listening.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. So In Love
  2. Billy Jack
  3. Love To The People

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