There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
“You like the Delfonics?” Samuel L. Jackson’s gunrunner incredulously asks Robert Forster’s middle-aged, white bail bondsman in one of the funniest scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. “They’re pretty good,” replies a stoic Forster, whose Brown-smitten character has spent the better part of the movie driving around with the Philly soul group’s “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” on his tape deck.
That’s one of several good jokes about music Tarantino tells in his adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch; by then, the director has already performed a twist on Jackson’s character, depicting him listening to Johnny Cash’s “Tennessee Stud” before embarking on some typically dirty business. But just as old surf records established the feel of Pulp Fiction, it’s the ’70s soul trackstwo of them from epochal blaxploitation flicks, including a vintage performance by title star and Tarantino muse Pam Grierthat set Jackie Brown’s overriding tone.
That mood is often yearning, what with the supersticky Bloodstone slow jam “Natural High” outlining Forster’s crush, but it’s also one Tarantino is willing to subvert by putting the Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23” to Scorseselike use as background for a murder early in the picture.
Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, of course, gained Tarantino a reputation as a director whose music cues never push too hard but whose soundtrack albums made great listening while redefining some of their better-known tracks. (Think of how the memory of John Travolta’s Pulp heroin addict subtly changed “Son of a Preacher Man,” and vice versa.) In and on Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s selections are occasionally more literal than before but as suggestively ironic as ever. If anything, his practice of inserting dialogue snippets between tracks on the CD detracts from the listening experience in a way it hasn’t before. More damaging, though, are the album’s final three songs, which make it too easy to punch “stop” before disc’s end. The inclusion of Minnie Riperton’s “Inside My Love,” barely heard in the theater, approaches a vapidity that Tarantino’s raised eyebrow almost can’t mitigate. And the Vampire Sound Inc.’s loungesploitation “The Lions and the Cucumber” and ex-Cars guitarist Elliot Easton’s closing tiki-Ventures knockoff “Monte Carlo Nights” unhappily suggest a caricaturish effect the filmmaker is smart enough to have avoided onscreen.
More characteristic is the choice of “Street Life,” a sleek piece of studio funk by Randy Crawford that wraps a little bit of dread in its glitzy, post-disco aura. Like Tarantino’s most deft matches of music and visuals, its use in Jackie Brown touches lightlynot too hardon the reality of the characters and the costs of their folly.
Those costs were writ large in the blaxploitation classic Superfly, whose Curtis Mayfield-penned soundtrack has reappeared in a double-disc package that makes the album sound better than ever while lovingly recalling some of the foldout-sleeve excesses of the era. Mayfield used his album not only to examine the film’s characters but to investigate its plot involving Priest, a coke dealer looking to make one more big haul and rip off his white bosses in the process. In his own sly take on the dealer’s moves, Mayfield added lyrics scathingly lamenting the fate of one of Priest’s runners to “Freddie’s Dead” only after completing his obligations to the movie’s producers. At the same time, his sympathies extended at least formally to Priest, who got his say with the definitively slinky “Pusherman” while being gently rebuked in the title song.
Superfly remains a textbook case of the marriage of soul grooves and wisdom to the conventions of action-film scoring. Mayfield’s already lushly tricked-out band, with its percussion virtuosos and a leader capable of a vast array of guitar tones, was ideal for the match. The new edition’s second disc further illuminates Mayfield’s intentions with instrumental versions heard in the theater, along with one bare-bones demo and a lengthier, horn-laden mix of “Pusherman.” It’s rare that such material doesn’t feel extraneous, but in this case what could have been mere padding is positively engrossing.
Jackie Brown’s stash of vintage LPs no doubt includes some Millie Jackson. Loud, proud, and forthright in her concerns, Jackson upped the ante in the black concept-album game with 1974’s Caught Up, a song cycle excerpted at length on Rhino’s two-CD collection Totally Unrestricted!. Picking up where proto-rapper (and later duet partner) Isaac Hayes left off, she made clear the connections between sexual and economic tension while also acknowledging that cheating could be just plain good dirty fun.
Jackson’s messages were often moral as well as raw, however, even on her first single. “A Child of God (It’s Hard to Believe)” questioned some of soul’s basic assumptions about the nature of righteousness, shrugging off the kindly tone that Joe Tex brought to his own bluesy sermonsthe better to wonder what kind of deity might claim hypocrites and adulterers.
Jackson’s open-mindedness led her not only to praise cunnilingus and damn soap operas (both in another epic, “All the Way Lover”), but to range far and wide over the field of potential covers; Totally Unrestricted! features redefinitions of Bad Company’s “Feel Like Making Love,” Kenny Loggins’ “This Is It,” and the country hit “If You’re Not Back in Love by Monday,” not to mention a Hayes-assisted demolition of the sensitive-guy anthem “Do You Wanna Make Love.” One of the few R&B retrospectives to command a Parental Advisory sticker, this set shows that Millie Jackson wasn’t just fooling around.
Joe Simon’s best-of boasts a stack of hits that far outclasses its silly title, Music in My Bones. This largely uncelebrated baritone’s career was artistically shaky at first, thanks to the hokey 1966 “Teenager’s Prayer,” but soon the Louisiana native was applying his rich baritone to classic midtempo ballads like Nashville writer Harlan Howard’s “The Chokin’ Kind” and the Gamble-Huff “Drowning in the Sea of Love.” That cross of down-home and uptown sensibilities carried Simon through most of the ’70sand his own soundtrack single, “Theme From Cleopatra Jones”before the chart action finally dried up and he went back to church for good.
Simon’s best tracks were as dramatic as anything the early ’70s had to offer, with “Drowning” at the top of the stack. Pushing against the backing singers, the sheets of jazzy guitar licks, and subtly driving orchestration, he conveys the sense of a man in love, in trouble, and not sure how to separate the two. That combination of need and worry helps Simon put over a line like “I’ve got a broken heart/That’s a very serious injury” from the “Drowning” follow-up “Pool of Bad Luck,” a seemingly ideal pick for the next time Tarantino needs a period semi-obscurity.
There’s uptempo, funkier stuff in Simon’s bag, too; he even invokes the double bump in “Get Down, Get Down (Get on the Floor).” Though that early disco nugget was ultimately his biggest pop breakthrough, it’s the troubled stuff that makes Music in My Bones such a strong testament. Although the brocade jackets Simon sports in the CD’s archival photos don’t hurt, either. CP