Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Shuggie Otis - Inspiration Information

Shuggie Otis is one of those thoroughbred musicians--being the son of early R&B pillar Johnny Otis provided a host of life-long in-person musical inspirations and paved the way for a Mozart-like career beginning for the 15 year-old Otis when he co-billed on Al Kooper's Kooper Session.  By his most "recent" full length, 1974's Inspiration Information, Otis had undoubtedly found his own voice, if not much of a commercial niche for himself.

Of course, great music doesn't go away, and today there's a lot of cult appreciation for Otis' music in the form of samples by major artists and healthy, in-print reissues of his albums.  What I really like about Inspiration Information is the subtlety and variety.  While there's a number of tracks that satisfy what you'd probably expect from a 70's soul album (the title track and only single, as well as "Sparkle City" possess the low-end bounce and horn/organ instrumentation of the day), there are a number of songs that cut the funk with something more orchestral and moodier, and even more that fit neither here nor there when it comes to standard 70's soul fare.

Songs like "Island Letter" and "Aht Uh Mi Hed" stretch the formula further out, spinning languid soul grooves whose strengths lie not in booty-shaking beats but in the subtle spaces between buzzing string arrangements and Otis' often jazzy guitar lines.  This tendency becomes even more pronounced on the atmospheric instrumentals "Rainy Day" and "Pling!", the song where the music least likely demands a titular exclamation mark.  "Pling!" also features one of the arrangement elements that makes this album distinct--Otis' experimentation with early drum machines here adds a subtle, forward-looking twist, while on the brief "XL-30" (probably my favorite track) the drum machines and wonky organ grooves start to slide in a funky early electronica direction.  Add to this fascinating experiment a couple more in "Happy House" and "Not Available," which both jump between smooth psychedelic orchestration and crisp funky R&B, and you've got an album--albeit a short one at 32 minutes.

It's easy to see why Otis has maintained a cult following in spite of decades of inactivity, with such idiosyncratic and forward-looking music, but it's also easy to see why big-time commercial success eluded him--there's far too much tempo variation here to make a successful funk album, and a reliance on instrumental tracks always alienates much of the LCD pop crowd, which almost exclusively demands vocals singing simple lyrics.  Interestingly, the 2001 CD reissue's addition of three tracks from Freedom Flight bolsters the album with more "songs" (including Otis' undoubted royalty annuity "Strawberry Letter 23") and more hooks, as well as a considerably more enticing cover that replaces the original's drab earth tones with bright, stylized colors.

Get 'er here.