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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

BING JI LING - SHADOW TO SHINE

Tummy Touch Records (2011, March)

TUCH2025

Rating: 8.8/ A+

Category: soulful-funky-disco/psychedelic pop/acid rock

Format: CD 

'Do not judge a book by its cover' seemed most appropriate when trying to impress upon my friends what (not) to expect musically from this relative new-comer. If you are like me, groove-based music is not the first thing that springs to mind when glancing at the bland front cover artwork. Folk, 'roots music' perhaps but 'soulful-funky-disco', you have got to be kidding, right? Wrong, that is exactly the correct musical ingredients regarding many of the foot-stomping songs; add a few sprinkles of psychedelic pop and acid rock here and there and you end up with a very 'sizzling musical melting pot'.

New York based producer-musician Bing Ji Ling (mandarin for ice cream) came out last year with an album inspired by the glory days of disco circa 1977 as well as the "Woodstock' decade-changing soul-rock. Now before you skip to any false assumptions, let's be clear here; just as there are many styles of rock , there are also many stylistic variations of disco and on this album, we are far from the highly commercialized 'Saturday Night Fever/Village People/Dancing Queen' brew; rather we are talking about sweet sophisticated yet accessible disco. Augmented by an organic flavouring at times weaving 'fuzzy' electric guitar, cowbells, brass and strings; there is sufficient compositional diversity as to not categorize Shadow To Shine as a purely retro disco tribute album. Soul inspired singer-songwriter Shuggie Otis along with Beck, Jamiroquai and even a hint of Maroon 5 readily come to mind when browsing through the album.

Born Quinn Luke, the San Francisco native was a prior member of NYC psych-soul band Phenomenal Handclap Band as well as - skater turned musician - Tommy Guerrero’s band. Playing at numerous music festivals around the world, Shadow To Shine is the latest release under his current Chinese alias following on the heels of 2008's June Degrees in December, 2006's Fire and Ice Cream and his 2003 debut Doodle Loot Doot Doodle a Doo [Kreme Kul].

The CD is housed in a 'plain vanilla' carton gatefold. Keegan Mchargue's artwork presentation of subdued color saturation along with Freddy Anzures for props cover design does not do justice to the musical vibe of the album. Opening the gatefold, on the inside left we find the usual credits printed white on dark background halfway cut by a horizontally triangular multicolored mosaic. The one redeeming quality being the CD label graphically prolonging and 'matching' the right side background artwork when perfectly aligned on it's spindle. Finally the back cover list the eleven song titles in an 'out of place' font over a multicolored pastel mosaic with the barcode at the bottom - truly boring and non-inspiring. The whole package spells low budget, does not command attention and unfortunately may even cause its corresponding core audience to turn a blind eye; truly this artist deserves better in my opinion. But now to the more important stuff - the music:

"Move On" leads the way with a four-bar drum & percs intro that would do justice by any disco standard. The uptempo rhythm soon introduces the choir-like vocals over 'stuttering' violins, the latter 'borrowing' loosely from the famous riff of the Holland-Dozier-Holland penned "You Keep Me Hanging On" - nicely covered by David Matthews' 1976 (B side) 12-inch single [Kudu KU 3317]. Roberta Kelly's 1977 - Giorgio/Bellotte produced - "Zodiacs" from Zodiac Lady [Casablanca NBLP 7069] also pops into my - DJ - mind. Brass, flute and delicate strummed acoustic guitar blend in perfectly before the BV's welcome us singing 'Good Morning...' bringing a smile to my face and recalling the first time I heard The Hues Corporation's 1974 disco hit "Rock The Boat" from 1973's Freedom For The Stallion [RCA APL1-0323]. Bing Ji Ling's soulful vocals navigate in Curtis Mayfield territory and perhaps by sheer coincidence, the latter's 1970 debut "Move On Up" from Curtis [Curtom CRS 8005] subliminally summons the sunny style of "Move On". Towards the halfway mark the disco beat transitions to a smoother psych-soulful Blaxploitation break with wah wah pedal on the side a la Temptations' "Cloud Nine" and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" [both on Gordy]. The sound is loud, somewhat compressed yet is not ascendingly aggressive. Instead the bass is full, the tonal balance uniformly excellent with the top end well detailed but there is some listener fatigue because of the general lack of dynamics. A reduced compression ratio would alleviate a lot this problem for what is an otherwise fine soundtake and mix. Musically, leaving a strong impression.

Complete change of direction and pace with "Bye Bye". Slower groove, late 1960s fuzz guitar a la Cream, Hendrix and Guess Who. Nice sounding tambourine and background organ-type keyboard by Phenomenal Handclap Band's Daniel Collás; crunchy guitar; lots of cymbal splashes. Things get faster and harder heading towards the coda. Though very different, musically on par with the opening track. Sonically, very organic with great tone, placing it a bit superior in sound.

"Hold Tight"'s intro has the a cappella chorus loud and 'sweetened' with reverb. Fortunately this is kept quite short and changes gear with a midtempo, early 1970s soulful-rock style, incorporating background organ with nice warmly-distorted guitar and lots of drum rolls. Later the break reduces the tracks to percussion and chorus only; after which great lead guitars meld in and out during the fadeout. Another 'killer' track in both departments.

"Sunshine Love" represents yet a third different music style to BJL's repertoire. In this instance, clean acoustic guitar takes center stage on this smooth, soulful, folkish, rootsy pop song. Lovable catchy chorus reminiscent of mid-1970s California Sound/soft rock and early America. Ling's vocals come out great. The tambourine along with the layers of acoustic guitar and vocal arrangements blend in perfect harmony. Superb tone with full bass and clean transparent mids and treble. Much less compressed earning the title of best sounding track of the album.

"A Little Love" brings us back to the opening track in music style. Very uptempo punchy brass sounding like a speeded-up version of - Jamaican-born - Jesse Green's 1976 12-inch single "Flip" [Red Bus Tempo 12-RBT-1010]. Quite disco'ish hihat with vocal delivery and melody a la Maroon 5's 2011 single "Moves Like Jagger" [A&M/Octone] plus violins and brass recalling the happy days of summer 1976. A kind of 'high octane' discofied "Moonlight Feels Right" by Starbuck [1976, Private Stock PS 2013] ending in a fadeout. Still good sound but would have preferred a bit less compression.

Whoever decided to put the short duration "Interlude / Welcome" halfway through the album made a huge mistake. This 'combined' track absolutely should have been place right at the beginning of the album; in effect 'welcoming' the listener and leading to or segueing into "Move On". That aside, the long fade-in has reverbed conga followed by BJL's spoken words 'bathing' in echo-delay; sounding somewhat like Shuggie Otis, vintage Timmy Thomas and William Devaugn's 1974 Philly-soul classic "Be Thankful for What You Got" [Roxburry RLX 100]. 

"Like We Used To Do" re-energizes the atmosphere with a magnificent midtempo track. Very snappy snare assisted by rousing rockish electric guitar interspersed with 'four on the floor' disco hihat. Ends with slowing-down tempo and descending pitch reproducing a typical DJ turntable effect but in what sounds like 'real time' recorded. Sound maintaining the same high standard.

"Hypnotized" sports a loud vocal chorus and organ intro then switching to a soulful, full body, groovy 'fat' sound. Great chimes, guitar, organ, flute and clavinet. Collás' vibes and arrangements would fit right in the early 1970s sophisticated soul era. Note that on the back cover of the CD this track is mistakenly inverted with the following track. I have thus identified the song title sequence in the true CD order.

"Dreamin" has a drum intro a la Montreal Sound's 1979 12-inch single "One More Time" [Totem 30C-4765]. Uptempo, this is the most 'pure' disco track of the album with the chorus, synth, tambourine and back vocals honoring well the 'zenith' of the discothèque period. Music and title influences from Don Downing's 1973 "Dream World" [Roadshow 7006], Crown Heights Affair's 1975 "Dreaming a Dream" [De-Lite Records DEP 2017] and The Honeybees' 1976 12-inch single "Dream Express" [Roxbury Records RBDC 31] readily come to mind. Funky clean guitar break; four on the floor disco hihat plus psychedelic reverbed electric guitar a bit too loud and compressed in the mix bringing the sound a colder edge that causes listener fatigue. Interesting chord changes veering towards quasi-progressive disco. Vibe near the coda recalling the great Vince Montana Jr. from the Philly and Salsoul Orchestra glory years. While not awful sounding, it is nonetheless the only sonically disappointing track, rating only fair, simply because of the colder, higher compression. Most unfortunate because this could have been wonderfully warm and enjoyable if a Joe Tarsia, Doug Sax or Kevin Gray would handled the recording, mixing or mastering stages. 

"Some Things Never Change" changes to a much smoother 'vibe'. The very first chord instantly recalls the intro to Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes' 1973 Philly Soul proto-disco "The Love I Lost" from Black & Blue [Philadelphia International KZ 32407] accompanied by ride cymbal, hihat, reverbed vocals. Superb detailed tambourine; percs; late 1960s light psych-pop and souful BVs.

Finally "Where Am I Gonna Go" paints a completely different canvas. Heavily reverbed acoustic guitar and vocals plus awesome vibes. Nice breathy, heavenly atmosphere. Piercing 'space' synth panned left to right and ending with Roland Space Echo panned in reverse.

In conclusion, Bing Ji Ling's fourth released Shadow To Shine strangely but successfully straddles the ensuing and conflicting eras of the groovy acid rock/hippie 'nature freak' of the late 1960s-early 1970s to the 'happy party' care-free days of the mid to late 1970s - post Vietnam/pre-AIDS - period. Thankfully this album does not replicate the then ubiquitous 'filler-up' material of the times and all this with pretty good sound to boot.

Assisted by Pablo Zukowski and Jim Bazzano at Duro of Brooklyn studios, Brooklyn, NY, NY; mixing engineer, Canadian Scotty Hard, whose lists of credits include producing such 'heavyweights' as Joe Spencer Blues Explosion, Medeski, Martin and Wood and mixing/engineering work on Antibalas, Bjork, Cypress Hill, De La Soul and Lisa Standfield to name a few, did an excellent job with the instrument and tonal balance. As for the general lack of dynamics - so common in today's world - it is nearly impossible to assign that specific criticism on the mixing or the mastering stage given that the latter's name is not credited and the engineering details are quite scarce. Also a slight 'warmth' would have been welcome in relation to the 'revisited era'. Perhaps a vinyl version would have addressed some of these minor issues but alas there seems to be no such format for this release. Given the musical style explored and Quinn Luke's DJ past, this baffles me to the utmost in this strong vinyl renaissance we are experiencing.
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