Who Needs Love
The balance between the hot and the cool, the funk and the jazz is in constant flux on the best tracks on Who Needs Love. In songs like "People at the Top," "Cada Dia (Day by Day)" and "Byrd Plays," Incognito is alternately reminiscent of George Benson and George Clinton. If my choice of these two influences suggests that a distinctly 1970s sound is in evidence on this album, I'd also like to suggest that this is both a good and a bad thing.
It's a good thing: one of my favorite albums of the 1990s is Drive Through Booty by the sorely overlooked combo Freak Power. Freak Power's updated '70s sound was crafted in part by a musician/composer/producer named Norman Cook. Cook, a former member of the Housemartins, who has since gone on to greater fame as Fatboy Slim, understood how to mine the strengths of the '70s. And at its best, Incognito's Who Needs Love manages a similar feat; reinventing the '70s groove for a 21st-century audience. "People at the Top" has the winning combination of dance floor appeal and social commentary that propelled Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" to the upper reaches of the charts. The song is smart, funky and blends nostalgia with a freshness that too many bands fail to achieve when they simply cover a decades old hit.
But it's also a bad thing: the '70s produced some of the worst, most self-indulgent music imaginable and unfortunately those influences also turn up on Who Needs Love. There is a bunch of material here that's best described as tepid. Neither hot nor cool, songs like "Don't Be a Fool" and "If You Want My Love" reside in that exceptionally bland realm of R&B-meets-jazz that is seemingly written directly for the elevator market. One of my biggest problems with these weaker songs has to do with their over-dependence on "ear candy" studio production, an attempt to disguise the fact that there's nothing much to these shiny trinkets.
So who gets the credit, and the blame?
At the core of Incognito is guitarist/composer/producer Jean-Paul "Bluey" Maunick. He's the linchpin that holds it all together. In fact, there aren't any other musicians or composers who show up on every track. Sharing the album cover with Bluey are his three female vocalists Kelli Sae, Joy Malcolm and Joy Rose, all of whom contribute to the album's songwriting. But these three are really only the tip of Bluey's musical iceberg. Julian Crampton's bass work and Matt Cooper's keyboards are particularly key to many of the better cuts. And if you hear occasional moments of Style Council style it could be Paul Weller's guitar that you've tuned in to.
There are also some very nice horn and flute arrangements augmenting various tracks on Who Needs Love. But in the end there simply aren't enough quality moments to balance the album's weak points. I think I'll pop Drive Through Booty on the CD player instead.
Bring on the noise, bring on the funk, bring on Al Jarreau, George Benson and any lovely voices that divine the magic of soul. Sound the choir of cherubim and seraphim for tones that lighten the heart and fire the spirit. A wonderful group of titanic voices, Incognito need no longer disguise its sizzling sounds. Icebergs beware!
Its founder, Jean-Paul "Bluey" Maunick, conceived the group when he was 5. Back in 1979, Incognito recorded its first of nine albums and has managed to thrive throughout its various permutations and personnel changes. This versatility may mean that its group name is not so far from its reality. One of the more interesting facets of this group is that credit is given to whom it is due -- if you sang, wrote, contributed to its past, present or future, Bluey gives the credit, and that may be why this group is as well-respected as it is.
There are any number of groups of musicians who spend their careers performing freelance pickup work, giving sounds and support to either their own little gang or to a Broadway star on tour. These musicians are unsung heroes and are often waiting for an opportunity to shine. They're committed to making the music happen, even if they are not household names.
We all have our favorite candidates for musicians that deserve to thrive, and often don't. Thus, the musicians on this CD are members of a group of people that makes music because they must. One of the more interesting aspects of this group is that its members do not stay the same. This diversity, and freshness allow for the group to stay powerful, and popular, without becoming stagnant or mired in the old tunes, old hair and boredom inherent to groups that have sung together way too long. As the band creates this CD, one is reminded of music from their previous work from the 1970s, '80s and '90s. The mix of music, as well as the return of former member, Joy Malcolm, joyfully combines in a melange of songs that follow a yellow brick road to the Emerald City.
Musicians on this album are part of a group that has evolved throughout time and place. Some of the people responsible for its soulful sound, and its jazzy, funkadelic rhythms are Paul Weller, a UK artist; Ed Motta, from Brazil; Kelli Sae, of NY/USA; Joy Rose and Joy Malcolm. In keeping with its founder's vision, these are people who create music because it is who they are. Although the group tours internationally, and has a huge following among those who may not have access to its CDs, somehow Incognito continues to sing a joyful song, and we are all the richer for it.