Strange and sweet is the perfect combination
The middle of summer, the start of my holiday, and it’s raining. So what? We need to wash away our cares and woes, and it’s perfect weather to dig out Thelma Houston’s Sunshower. “… And the light and the water share the same sky in the same eye”. That will make some people smile.

Back when the 1980s became the 1990s the legendary Cheapo Cheapos in Coventry St, Soho, seemed to have an endless supply of bright yellow copies of this record for ridiculously low prices. Lots of friends found it irresistible, and came to swear by it. Now I understand it’s only available as a Japanese CD edition, but please seek it out. Be brave and reckless!

Originally released in 1969, the clue to this record’s eternal appeal is in the subtitle: “produced and arranged by Jimmy Webb …”. What more do you need to know? Put it alongside the great man’s artistry on the Fifth Dimension’s Magic Garden and those two absurdly wonderful Richard Harris sets, and you have something that I have never quite managed to put my finger on. A gift to turn the exotic pop setting into something far grander, ambitious, experimental, and special.

Sunshower remains my favourite Jimmy Webb work, and there is in particular the one song, 'Mixed Up Girl', which has the most exquisite Horace Silverish piano motif at the start, and one of the greatest choruses which goes: “… why can’t I be lonely like that lonely rushin’ river …” And today is just the day for this record to lift your soul.

I would put it up there alongside Come To My Garden, the debut solo Minnie Riperton set, from the same year. And there is a case for arguing that Minnie’s own arranger Charles Stepney is an artist, adventurer and genius in the vein of Jimmy Webb. I have really had a whale of a time recently getting back into his experiments with the Rotary Connection following the inclusion of their 'Memory Band' on the superb Chicago Soul collection on good ole Soul Jazz.

I have always struggled with liking Soul Jazz as much as I should over the years, but the truth is they now have a track record second to none. In a vintage year (acr, Arthur Russell, Konk, Studio One Dub, Bell …), Chicago Soul is perhaps their best yet. Plundering the Chicago Chess archives, the set mixes straight joyous ‘60s soul (Fontella Bass, Laura Lee, and Eve Barnum each provide glorious gems) with updated blues excursions (Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and Buddy Guy each get transformed by the electric imagination of Charles Stepney).

Best of all, however, are the instrumental adventures. Two of my all-time favourite songs are collected here: the Soulful Strings’ 'Burning Spear' and Dorothy Ashby’s 'Soul Vibrations'. The product of the pioneering composer Richard Evans, I doubt I will ever tire of these tracks. What is frustrating is that the six Soulful Strings’ titles remain unavailable here, and so let’s hope someone like Soul Jazz sees sense.

I absolutely adore the fact that people like Jimmy Webb, Charles Stepney, and Richard Evans created something so special and enduring by fusing the most perfect pop with a sense of the avant-garde and unique. I could argue that that spirit is being continued by the likes of young Canadian Jeremy Greenspan with his Junior Boys project. It’s the best contemporary record I have heard for a long time, and at last we have someone accepting the challenge of fusing exploratory electronica with wistful ballads, in the way say New Order and Section 25 did. In fact the Junior Boys’ Last Exit set feels very Factory-ish and feels right for that. It’s a great pop record, and could be my dear friend this summer.

The other contemporary (electronica) record that is tickling my fancy just now is Bell’s Seven Types Of Six on, yup, Soul Jazz. I have to confess to knowing nothing about this record, but it’s lovely and bleepy, in the vein of some old treasures like LFO and Urban Tribe. But it’s crying out for some achingly sad soulful words on top.

Which reminds me that somewhere out there is a heartbreakingly wonderful acoustic version of the A Man Called Adam classic 'Barefoot In The Head'. You just have to hear it …

© 2004 John Carney