Thursday, April 24, 2008

Toadies - Rubberneck

Toadies - Rubberneck
by Joel Chaffee

Todd Lewis should’ve been raised by religious zealots and punished in tiny closets and other frightening Bergmanesque scenes. On achieving adulthood, he’d escape the house with his heart/soul/brain on fire. Fleeing to some place in Texas, he’d start a band that wrote a huge hit which nobody could totally comprehend that everyone said was about vampires. Only that last part exists outside my imagination actually, but damn, can’t you just see the rest?

My friend summarizes Rubberneck, for a long time Toadies’ only record, with a chuckle: I am angry and I don’t love Jesus. The first lyrics on the album ask, “Are you gonna save me?/Can you save me?” Lewis, over the course the album, fights to live in relentless opposition to salvation. Hardly a new rock and roll trope, this could be tiresome over an entire career, but in 36 minutes will certainly do.

Opener “Mexican Hairless” is all fast, cyclic power-chord riffs via Darrell Herbert’s lead guitar (as mean as Kanna and jubilant as the devil). Combines with second track “Mister Love” it makes a hectic monster of an intro, which heralds the threat, “We gonna show you a thing or two about love.” And still, the album doesn’t really start until song three, the torrential shuffle “Backslider.” The LP finally tells a story, about baptism and the fear of reversing one’s salvation: “And I threw up my hands/And I heard ‘Amen’/And I prayed 'Sweet Jesus, don’t let me become a backslider.’”

While the lyrics are angry, the riffs are positively buoyant. Like another dollar-bin favorite, Dandelion’s Dyslexicon, Rubberneck is the sound of a band as ballsy and visceral as punk but accidentally formed into hugely melodic pop. Perhaps there is a weirdness about the albums that set them apart. I find it difficult to name a band when prompted that “sounds like” the Toadies.

Perhaps the artistic success of Rubberneck is the simultaneity of its angriness and its joy. There are hooks all over the place; just about every rhythm, lead and bass guitar part is a hook. But the hooks snag like barbed wire; what's more, they like it. All Music Guide complacently compares the Toadies to standard-bearers Pixies and Nirvana; yes, Rubberneck is in the neighborhood of punk, and also of pop, but sounds nothing like pop-punk (a distinction they join with, ironically, Pixies and Nirvana). But all these references are fatuous and misleading. Rubberneck is its own entity; like a well read novel or well tread memory.

On “I Come From the Water,” Herbert squalls and sparks off harmonics through a jaunty progression just as “Mexican Hairless” earlier found him blistering high notes. His (and often Lewis’) strings are constantly bent and pulled and whammied and in all ways compellingly fucked with. The complications of little stutters or additional half-measures work themselves into the Toadies’ structures to throw the listener off; they are not writing hymns.

But it’s not all noise and pyrotechnics. “Tyler” is a sweet, creepy seduction. “I found a window in the kitchen and I let myself in / ...I stumble in the hallway / Outside her bedroom door / I hear her call out to me / I hear the fear in her voice.” This terrifying-yet-softhearted tale of lovers losing their virginity is the climax of the record. It is Lewis at his most articulate and primal, howling defiance—of culture, fear, religion. In case you did not hear, he comes from the water.

Near the album’s close is “Velvet,” as violent and wounded as the record gets with its opening cry, “Get away! / Get away!” over a hammered octave as Herbert snakes his way up the neck and the rhythm section builds towards “You hurt me, you fuck/cunt” verses. The sinister “Happyface” screams through choruses of “No no no more son of a bitch / No more happy face.”

There is redemption in closer “I Burn,” and the only acoustic guitar. The song’s dark bombast is as euphoric as a crippling accident. “Stoke the embers / Cleanse the spirit / A prayer in every spark / Feel the lick of bad religion.” The cleansing here is scary but how satisfying. No more backsliding or quitting or son of a bitch. “Fire is bright / Fire is clean / Efficient and divine.” It is real and definitive as a burn.

And of course, I still celebrate the big hit, “Possum Kingdom,” as fondly as the first time I heard it. “Do you wanna be my angel?” is dopey innocence and as direct as the songs’ initial command to “Make up your mind / Decide to walk with me / Around the lake tonight / ...I’ll show you my dark secret.” The song’s final and oft-repeated question, “Do you wanna die?,” sung in Lewis’ snide, satyr-like voice, is the most fun the record has this side of the water. “Do you wanna die?” It is less a question than a command. Yes, of course you do. Behind the boathouse. What is the dark secret? “I Burn?” Maybe. Something tells me it’s a lot more fun—and a lot scarier.

Joel Chaffee is a writer of prose, music, and poetry and the founder of artist collective Charity Case. He is 27 years old and in collegiate exile in Rochester, NY.


Monday, April 21, 2008


WWIA is currently looking for more staff writers, guest writers, celebrity guest writers, and musicians whom Pitchfork has emblazoned with a sharp, red "0.0" across the chest.

If you have something (barely) competent to say about a snubbed fave or personal dartboard, please email me or Todd Hutlock (contact links to the right) with proof that we can entrust 500-1000 words to you every few weeks.

We also need guest writers who voted in Pazz & Jop more than eight years ago for a new column. Contact me for more details if you've got the credentials.


Friday, April 18, 2008

Mike Jones - Who is Mike Jones? (Screwed and Chopped by DJ Michael “5000” Watts)

Mike Jones - Who is Mike Jones? (Screwed and Chopped by DJ Michael “5000” Watts)
by Jonathan Bradley

Kingdom Come. Encore. Electric Circus. It’s no secret that good rappers can make bad albums. Talent on the mic has never been any insurance against dismal studio output. But just as true, though far less recognized, is the converse: Bad rappers can and do make good records. As rappers go, Mike Jones is one of the worst.

Jones, the loud, graceless Houston MC, is a terrible rapper. It is useless to even try to evaluate him by the standards of good rap, because he does not conform to them. How do you judge the wordplay of a rapper who has none? How do you consider the metaphors and imagery of a rapper who gives no indication that he understands what those words mean, let alone how to use them in his music? The kindest thing that could be said for Jones’ microphone talents is that he appears to be genuinely in love with rhyming. That is not to say that he shows admirable dedication to his craft, spending a lifetime fine-tuning his phrasing, poring over his verses and pouring creativity into the construction of his couplets. No, Mike Jones sounds like he never got over being fascinated by the simple fact that he can highlight the similar ending sounds of certain words by placing them in close proximity with each other. Even if the endings aren’t particularly similar. Even if the words in question are actually exactly the same word. Jones sounds like he’s having the time of his life hollering them out anyway.

When toward the end of 2004, major labels turned their attention to the thriving independent Houston hip-hop scene, the city possessed a wealth of talented artists of a variety of styles. From veterans like Scarface and UGK’s Bun-B to the thoughtful, introverted cousins Z-Ro and Trae; from the weed-whacked weirdo Devin the Dude to the easygoing, poppy Lil’ Flip and to mixtape maestros Lil’ Keke and Chamillionaire, Houston was a city brimming with talent. For the first time since the heyday of the Geto Boys, out-of-towners were paying attention. And yet somehow, whether through hustle, business acumen or pure good fortune, the task of introducing the legacy of Texas hip hop to the nation fell to Mike Jones.


Mike Jones.

And yet Jones didn’t stumble. He refused to allow megalomania or arrogance to derail his hometown’s opportunity. Quite the reverse: Who is Mike Jones? is a missive from a relatively humble ambassador for his local culture, one who was smart enough to let his more talented and more deserving peers grab the attention while he took a back seat. His album serves as a kind of companion piece to a prior, independently released Houston primer, the Swisha House mixtape Major Without a Major Deal (The Day Hell Broke Loose 2), which also featured him prominently.

The first single from Who is Mike Jones?, the song that first focused national attention on Houston, particularly Swisha House’s slice of Houston, was the stunning “Still Tippin’.” The track, a dark, crawling banger built on a mournful string figure and a slowed-down vocal sample — a technique that was, at the time, rare outside the city —had been floating around on mixtapes, including Major Without a Major Deal, for quite a while. It could be credited to any of the three rappers who contributed verses: Slim Thug, Mike Jones and Paul Wall. There was even an alternate version with a different beat and a verse from Chamillionaire.

That Jones, the least impressive rapper of this collection, ended up with the song as his first single could be attributed as underhanded opportunism on the rapper’s part, and perhaps it was. But it could just as easily have been the result of admirable selflessness. “Still Tippin’” gave national exposure to two superior rappers who outclassed Jones, as he must have known they would. Even with his inclusion of reasonably dexterous localisms like, “catch me lane switchin’ with the paint drippin’/turn your neck and your dame missin’/Me and Slim we ain’t trippin’/I’m finger flippin’ and syrup sippin’/Like Do or Die, I’m po’ pimpin’,” this was a Mike Jones track in name only. As far as its impact was concerned, and as far as many first time listeners were concerned, this was a single credited to the city of Houston.

And Who is Mike Jones? scaled this approach up to album length. Jones does all he can to disappear into the background and to act as, at best, master of ceremonies for his own city’s coming out party. It is as if he understood his limitations, and did all he could to offset them. He opens the album up to a number of local luminaries and these rappers, like Bun-B, Lil’ Keke and Killa Kyleon, all effortlessly put their host to shame. Jones’ most gracious move is the laid back highlight “Flossin’,” which sounds exactly like it might be a Big Moe solo track, even though Moe only sings the hook.

The production of the album is also fiercely local, with the few interloping beat makers (like Three 6 Mafia, responsible for the superb “Got It Sewed Up”) adjusting their sound to conform to the prevailing aesthetic. Where the far more talented Slim Thug sprinkled his major label debut with expensive Neptunes beats, Jones understood that the bizarre Houston sound was one of his best selling points, and there was little point diluting it with production that could have come from anywhere.

And with beats like the frenetic “Turning Lane,” or the sparse, reggae-tinged “Know What I’m Sayin’” Jones doesn’t need to say much of interest. While his rhymes may be entirely lacking in creativity, he can flow, and he never embarrasses himself with the kind of clumsiness Rick Ross is apt to exhibit. He shouts his lyrics with boyish enthusiasm, and his generally good-natured outlook makes him an easy rapper to listen to. When not dwelling on his favorite talking points — his name, his phone number, his staggering wealth — he sticks mostly to running through local cultural signifiers like candy paint, prescription cough syrup and screwed music. The album’s sense of place is so strong that you begin not to mind the over-excitable tour guide.

Even the few songs that do broach less standard themes succeed. “Scandalous Hoes” morphs from boilerplate misogyny into an account of distrust and rejection. Jones sounds genuinely hurt when he complains that women “don’t want me for me,” which taken with “Back Then,” in which he explains that the girls he liked had no interest in his chubby frame when he didn’t have any money, almost hints at a complexity you wouldn’t believe possible from a rapper who seems most interested in shouting his name and his phone number at you. And “Grandma,” Jones’ ode to his deceased grandmother doesn’t have much pathos, but it doesn’t have much bathos either. Jones doesn’t stop shouting for this elegy, but his uncomplicated approach works in his favor: he sounds like he wants nothing more out of the track then to tell you how awesome he thought his Grandma was.

(Incidentally, Jones’ Grandma is a great minor character on this record. She appears to be part mentor and part consigliore for Jones, a role that has her advising him on how best to market his record in strip clubs, and warning him to be wary of unscrupulous women.)

The original Who is Mike Jones? is a fine album, but in proper H-Town fashion, it is best appreciated in its chopped and screwed form. On its original release, the album came packaged with this slowed down edition as a bonus disc; the remixed version can still be purchased separately.

The chopped and screwed technique offers DJs a place in contemporary hip hop other than curator (DJ Drama, DJ Khaled) or niche-audience technical wizard (DJ Shadow). Michael Watts approaches his remix of Who is Mike Jones? like he’s performing a set, and the album follows a natural progression. He drops elements from tracks into others, creating an uninterrupted listening experience, and subtly reorders songs to improve their flow. Mike Jones’ verse in “Still Tippin’,” for instance, is moved to the end of the track, meaning the repeated lines “Back then hoes didn’t want me/Now I’m hot they all on me,” blend seamlessly into “Back Then,” which samples that lyric as its hook. Likewise, he introduces the syncopated melody line from “Screw Dat” halfway into the previous track, and, after the track begins, augments it subtly with the sampled yodeling from “Cuttin’.” Watts’ scratching and chopping is not flashy but it is effective, and adds to the disorienting ambience already induced by the pitched-down music. Jones voice becomes a dragged out bellow, just one more sonic element in this mix, and his fondness for repetition coalesces with the favored screw technique of repeating phrases. The individual tracks cease to have rigid structure and dissolve into an uninterrupted volley of beats and flow, perfect for long, slow drives down packed freeways in the hot sun.

Mike Jones has had a tough time getting his follow-up album released, despite a few likable singles (“Mr. Jones,” “My 64”) that were apparently not liked by enough people. There’s every possibility that Who is Mike Jones? could end up being his only major label release, and it may even be better for his legacy if it is. On mixtapes leading up to Who is Mike Jones? release, Jones shouted gleefully that this album would be arriving in stores shortly; these lines remain preserved on the album that actually hit stores. His whole career seemed designed to lead up to this release, and when he did release it, he helped elevate his entire community. Texas rap’s star isn’t shining quite as bright as it did in 2005, but the city is now considered a major hip hop center, a status it decidedly lacked before Who is Mike Jones? hit stores. If, in the future, Jones slips into obscurity, and “Who is Mike Jones?” become a question few are able to answer, his album will still have done its work.

Jonathan Bradley has written for Stylus Magazine, Lost at Sea, Volume Magazine and the Western Front, and rules over his own miniature Internet fiefdom, the Screw Rock 'n' Roll blog. Although it's not widely known, he is Australia's best music critic.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is Not That Great
by Mike Orme

Putting it mildly: Neutral Milk Hotel poisons everything.

A genre-spanning clusterfuck of traditional instrumentation working within the medium of ‘90s college rock, an indulgent yarn about an inspiring but complex WWII, a jewel in the crown of a much-loved Southern pop music commune, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea stamped a punctuation mark on the 20th-century underground and inspired emotional acres of musical prospectors. Its followers (we’ll call ‘em the ‘98ers) furiously mine the human condition while excavating from a rich quarry of disparate musical influences. To say that NMH begat the obtuse experimental folk movements which include Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom is not a huge overstatement. It’s a shame, then, that Aeroplane has wasted the time of so many worthy music lovers.

From the outset, Aeroplane declares alliance to simplistic usage of the American folk tradition and a vomitous affinity to Eastern European gypsy music. Frontman Jeff Mangum’s—d’oh—mangum opus, a loose concept album about, kinda, Anne Frank, has acted as a gateway drug for many into the beguiling and ill-defined world of indie music. But ten years later, his legacy remains the tacit permission to afford musicians the right to musical tourism. Mind you, I’m not a poseur hater: Everyone deserves the freedom to explore music for which the challenge is determined by their own willingness to open their ears and to traverse the intellectual continents—it’s just… where’s the respect for history? Culture? Why do we continue to think we have the mandate to belittle everyone else?

History puts the record’s excessively discussed beginning at “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1” and the blandest of acoustic chord progressions that seems to recall a pop pretender as transparent as Jack Johnson. Of course, Mangum develops the progression into a complex and memorable ditty, but one marred with the same kinds of problems that dot the entire album. Mangum, predictably, carries his nasal and quite grating voice somewhat like Bob Dylan fronting the Pixies: He picks rather obvious canonical folk hooks for his verses (for the uninitiated: they’re difficult to grasp, easy to apply, quick to be tired of), and then raises his voice an octave on each chorus (“Carrot Flowers” as an example, is just the first of many). Great, just what we need to close out the 90s—the vocal equivalent of Kurt Cobain’s (and Mike McCready’s, and Gavin Rossdale’s, and Daniel Johns’) DOD-brand “Grunge” distortion pedal. Seriously, was this not incredibly obvious to any old sad-sack open-mic singer-songwriter who came before him, let alone the Conor Obviourst-ish folks who copied him?

Well, whatever. As I said above, opening people’s minds to folk tradition is not a bad thing. Certainly the Athens, GA-based Elephant Six collective has opened doors not only to their Southern compatriots but to indie fans and dilettantes alike by rhapsodizing the canonical elements of capital-W Western pop. They did it admirably not from a well-funded Motown or Nashville recording studio, but as an ill-funded Dixie hippie colony recording out of their bedrooms. The Olivia Tremor Control, fronted by E6’s loose leaders Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss, channeled the voracious musical appetites of the Brian Wilson and Paisley Underground types by probing for striking melodies in Music from the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle while engaging in a conversation between psychedelic pop and ambient textures of the “Green Typewriters” suite. There’s no denying that the Elephant Six has reeled in a number of fans with the panacea of classic pop and has helped broaden listeners’ horizons by subversively injecting challenging elements of ambient music.

Yeah, so you could understand that people could immediately appreciate Mangum’s sparse folky wail—I mean, if decades of folk tenors did it and created an American songbook, and Dylan did it badly and became a legend, why not Mangum? What’s a shame is that his voice has become a mimetic signifier to dozens of well-known low-fidelity warblers, each of whom revels in their vocalic cacophony and each of whom expects the poetry and ambience to carry the song.

Well, never mind the poetry—I concede that Mangum is a starkly kaleidoscopic imagist, capable of claustrophobia and galactic poetry in practically the same breath. I’m currently concerned with Mangum’s gypsy fetish. This guy wears his Balkan horns like a badge. Seriously, how many mildly talented sackbut players do we need to bear before acknowledging that this is all an exercise of either boredom (likely in NMH’s case) or the paralyzing need for attention (as is the case for every horn-toting band following them)? Is it really important to lionize multi-instrumentalists who affect Renaissance airs, swapping instruments with glee, reveling in their own self-styled virtuosity, when only half of them can even play their four instruments?

The natural counter-argument here is that it doesn’t actually matter how well the players play their instruments. The music composed and played on this album contains elements from ambient and free jazz, and what’s more important than the ability to play the instrument is the ability to play the sound of the instrument, adding to the piece with texture more than virtuosity. And certainly Aeroplane, like all the great Elephant Six records, presents a varied palette of continent-spanning hues, from the dusty golds of American folk to tarnished Eastern Bloc reds. The record’s gypsy affinity actually brings up an interesting question—Did it predict the Bulgarian wedding music movement that has made so many waves in post-9/11 Europe? Or, more likely, did it beget that godawful gypsy-punk-tourist scene that has some New Yorkers named Gogol Bordello [Mike, you’re dead –ed.] and a New Mexican named Beirut the darlings of the nebulous haze of the blogosphere?

The fact that Aeroplane is even mentioned in the same sentence as these phenomena is testament to its tourist sensibilities and the quainster* ideology—that which seeks out the world’s facile pleasures and marginalizes them into semi-ironic indulgence. You all know that guy: the dude who studies abroad in Japan and only brings back post-apocalyptic comics about some sort of sexual nuclear war for cheap laughs with his buddies, not understanding the complex cultural and political theatre that has led to a society which condones it. Mangum has professed his love for old-time circus imagery—the cover for this particular atrocity was lifted from a European circus postcard—and songs documenting intricate plights like the overly charming “Two Headed Boy” only underscore his appropriation of the marginalized freakshow of the gypsies, the Jews, and other less-than-perfects that certainly would have been targeted by a Final Solution. But apparently now Lebanon can be reduced to a few horn spurts (as with Beirut), the millions lost in the Soviet fight can be summed up with a gruff voice (Gogol Bordello), and the Anne Frank’s tale can be channeled into a time-machine wish (N-M-friggin-H).

God, even my Holocaust argument is dubious: the 20th-century European plight is far too complicated for me to fix anything by stressing reverence for six million Jews (or the five million gypsies, or the 20 million Soviets). Perhaps, more importantly, the greater lesson of the 20th century is that it’s dangerous to use aesthetic as meme, even worse to use aesthetic as weapon. Much is made of Mangum’s gift for melody on this record, but what seems more appropriate is that it’s a record of outsourcing. The melody is lifted from the folk tradition, the story is swiped from 20th-century lore, and the horns lifted from the same peoples who had to endure that painful chapter in the heavy tome of European civilization. Granted, all indicators seem to place this as a heartfelt and soulful account of a bittersweet and, in retrospect, masterfully chosen subject that reflects Mangum’s own insecurities. That, in turn, has empowered the insecure public to embrace and strengthen the independent music scene.

I dunno. Perhaps the worst part of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is that it is actually a very good record, constructed with a certain reason and a worldliness that is almost unthinkable for those without an understanding of the intricacies of the Deep South, or more broadly, of our own human weakness. This may be the first real record to herald the everything-at-your-fingertips world of the Information Age, fer chrissakes. And yes, yes, I’m picking nits, because Jeff Magnum’s magnum opus is deeply flawed in its underlying selfishness, but more importantly, I just don’t (forgive me for a breach of objectivity) like it. All that I can be left with is faith that this record was constructed, by some sort of design, to make me unhappy about the smugly scientific future of music.

* Quainster = “quaint” + “hipster,” which equals SUCK.

Mike Orme has written for Stylus Magazine and Pitchfork Media, and currently works on technologies enabling you to have involved conversations with your car stereo.


Friday, April 4, 2008

Diana Ross - The Boss

Diana Ross - The Boss
by Christian John Wikane

Why doesn’t the critical cognoscenti consider Diana Ross an album artist? Diana Ross is scarcely represented in the canon of popular music by anything other than singles —but with good reason. Her solo efforts at Motown, by and large, varied in quality and didn’t always build on the strength of her biggest hits. For every “Touch Me in the Morning” or “Love Hangover,” there were two tracks of filler. Quite often, her albums were even padded with songs recorded from sessions up to five years old. With an average two album a year release schedule during the 1970s, inferior tracks were inevitable. You can almost forgive the oversight of Ross’ albums during that post-Supremes era.

“Almost” is the key word. Of the seventeen albums Ross released for Motown between 1970 and 1981 (excluding two compilations), four contain consistently superb material: Diana Ross (1970), Surrender(1971), The Boss (1979), and diana (1980). Each record paired Ross with individuals whose writing and producing styles pushed her to give the strongest performances of her career. Not coincidentally, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson produced three out of the four (the latter was produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards). From the outset of Ross’ solo venture, the dynamic songwriting duo gave her two signature songs, “Reach Out and Touch” and her masterful reworking of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” It figures that they’d also create the gold standard against which any Diana Ross album should be adjudicated—The Boss.

In his Rolling Stone review of The Boss, Stephen Holden wrote, “Diana Ross looks and sounds like a sexy human being instead of a gaunt mannequin.” His observation is not without merit: Ross’ previous three studio albums, Diana Ross (1976, not to be confused with her 1970 debut), Baby It’s Me (1977), and Ross (1978) depicted the singer with an alluring but chilly visage. The music itself ranged from sublime dance floor cuts to beautiful, understated ballads to second-rate disco to forgettable schmaltz.

Ross had also starred as Dorothy in The Wiz (1978), a known flop. Suffering a critical and commercial blow was difficult for the star, but the film actually worked to Diana Ross’ advantage. Singing a vocally demanding song like “Home” strengthened her voice and expanded her vocal range exponentially. By the time The Boss sessions commenced, she was in command of her voice like never before. When the album hit record store shelves in May 1979, listeners saw and heard a completely confident and reinvigorated Diana Ross.

Track for track, Diana Ross brings sensuality and sensitivity to Ashford & Simpson’s pop-soul gems. Whether shouting with defiance or screaming with elation, there’s a vitality jumping out of her performances. Within seconds of “No One Gets the Prize,” the album’s sizzling opener, Ross unveils her newfound vocal prowess with a prolonged cry that intimates a kind of catharsis. Her muscled, exuberant timbre is the defining quality of the album. Ashford & Simpson made her sing harder and sassier than she’d ever sung before. “Back off,” she hisses to a backstabbing girlfriend. “I was denied the love that satisfied,” she cries towards the song’s conclusion. Though Ross plays the victim on “No One Gets the Prize,” her performance is triumphant.

Slowing the BPM count down a few beats, “I Ain’t Been Licked” contains Ross’ winning recovery from heartbreak. Ashford & Simpson weave a little gospel into the refrain, “They keep a-holdin’ me down but (I) rise.” The duo’s soaring background vocals, along with Ullanda McCullough and Raymond Simpson, complement Ross’ vocal elasticity here and on the album’s seven additional tracks.

“The Boss” is the exclamation point that closes side one. In fact, it was the only cut from the album to dent the both the pop (#19) and R&B (#12) charts. The winning combination of lush strings, punchy horns, Anthony Jackson’s winding bassline, and the propulsive kick-drum by John Sussewell could hardly be accurately transmitted through radio. This song was meant to be played loud in a club. (Interesting note: Ashford & Simpson’s own “Found a Cure” unseated “The Boss” in the number one spot on the dance charts.) “The Boss” is arguably Ross’ greatest performance, if only for the incendiary vocalizing she unleashes midway through the song.

The first-rate production by Ashford & Simpson, of course, is the album’s other star. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the gorgeous ballad, “Sparkle.” Buoyed by Valerie Simpson’s piano, the instrumental track is tinged with exotic flair. Ross’ voice rises from a misty backdrop of flutes, muted bass, cymbal brushes, harp, and percussion. Michael Brecker’s sax solo and Ross’ “ooh-ooh-whoo” intertwine for a sexy climax. Ashford & Simpson layer all the ingredients to underscore Ross’ longing in a way that’s both romantic and erotic.

Even though the album is chock full of such exceptional moments, The Boss narrowly missed the Top 10 (it eventually earned a gold record) and didn’t spawn a string of hits outside its incessant club play. Allegedly, the lack of promotion stemmed from Berry Gordy’s resentment that Ross was boldly stepping out from under his protective wing. The self-reliant spirit of the album foreshadowed Ross’ ultimate departure from Motown one year later, but not before she released the most commercially successful album of her career, diana, a masterpiece of a different kind.

What makes The Boss special is that every song is a vessel for Diana Ross’ gifts. Whereas other producers approached the singer like a fragile pearl, Ashford & Simpson treated her like a rough diamond. Whether the flirtatious charms of “It’s My House” or the tension of carnal desire and fulfillment that paints “Once in the Morning,” The Boss holds its own nearly thirty years later and dismantles any notion that Ross was only capable of hit singles, Classy, thrilling, and eminently soulful, the album remains a stunning musical achievement for Diana Ross.

Christian John Wikane is a contributing editor for PopMatters. He also writes for SoulTracks and David Nathan’s He resides in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC.