Spin Cycle

A gifted, prodigiously talented soul/funk recluse, Shuggie Otis’s music certainly deserves to be canonized; all the accepted pieces of pop-culture folklore are there, from the Rolling Stones sideman offer to the eventual artistic blackout, and so it stands to reason that when Otis’s music finally reaches the masses, it will be transcendent.

Which, as it turns out, is a bit of a foolish way to think; there’s no easier way to shatter transcendence than to expect it. In 2013, we’ve received a proper reissue of Shuggie’s forgotten soul classic, Inspiration Information, and as a bonus it’s packaged with a second album-length disc of unheard material entitled Wings Of Love. Would Inspiration Information have reinvented its genre, if only more people had heard it? Probably not, but it is very good. And as we sift through a package that, essentially, works as a Shuggie Otis highlights reel, we’re afforded a unique picture of an under-appreciated artist finally spilling over into big-picture critical pop music discussion.

With good reason, of course: one listen to Inspiration Information and the mind kicks into overdrive, name-checking influences and influencees. The more vital soul/funk of the ’70s is a natural touchstone, although Otis possesses neither Sly Stone’s fire or Stevie Wonder’s reckless creativity; Prince is almost certainly indebted to Otis, particularly in his marriage of timely dance rhythms with anachronistic rock guitars. (Pick a DNA strand, follow it down; you’re likely to come to Lenny Kravitz and Van Hunt in due time.) Inspiration is wonderful, of course, but it bears noting that it’s not wonderful in the same way Innervisions is. (Counterpoint: Few things are, but people run with Stevie Wonder comparisons when writing about Shuggie, so who am I to break the chain?) Otis’s funk doesn’t blister as much as it does simmer; Inspiration is, really, a mood record, albeit one with a melange of styles at its disposal to mold, shape, and eventually fuse. The title track (and opener) is gently funky — the drums are snappy, pocketed, finessed — but it’s interesting to note that to strip down the instrumental acuity and play it acoustically might just render it a particularly spunky James Taylor number. This isn’t a bad thing; this simply serves to illustrate that Otis is as indebted to pop as he is to any other genre.

Which is really what separates him from the pack. Oh, don’t get me wrong — dipping a toe into the water of Miles Davis’s jazz-funk fusion is fun, and “Aht Uh Mi Hed” is every bit as tantalizing as everyone says it is, and the drum machines and disco rhythms of deeper album cuts lend an intriguing diversity of sound to the proceedings — but those pop melodies hint at a deeper appeal. To fuse r&b or rock with funk was nothing new; to smooth the edges with pop tunes makes for an interesting listen indeed. Which is what makes Inspiration Inspiration truly universal, instead of a black-music chestnut with no long-term durability; as Shuggie draws from strands of jazz, funk, and Laurel Canyon folk-pop, we witness the full scope of an artist uniquely able to craft a song easily appreciated by anyone.

Wings Of Love, on the other hand, is hardly a mood record; on the contrary, it’s quite excitingly wild, if not as consistent as Inspiration. These tracks were concocted individually, instead of part of a larger album, so it stands to reason that there’s little connecting one track to the next. It makes for pretty thrilling listening; where Inspiration locks into the pocket and grooves you nicely, Wings treats you right off to things like “Special”, a rubbery funk number possessed by what sounds like disembodied sitars and thick slap bass (it’s glorious), and the title track, an 11-minute behemoth shot through with shocks of Jimi Hendrix distorted guitar. Shuggie gives us gravelly Delta blues here, and country rock, and funk and soul and r&b, but it doesn’t synthesize these influences to sustain an album-length mood; it allows us to ping-pong unpredictably from one track to the next. In this way, it’s completely antithetical to the laser-focused artistic sensibility of Inspiration Information, and yet no less vital. On Wings, the funk is more brash, the stylistic departures more shocking.

Point being, you need this set. Otis’s melodic and instrumental gifts are unparalleled; if, as some have suggested, his singing leaves something to be desired, we’re left with some truly vital funk and soul compositions, sung the appealing, plainspoken voice of the musical everyman. If you’ve heard Inspiration Information, don’t worry, you still need Wings Of Love; if you’ve heard nothing of Shuggie Otis’s output, you’ve got an eye-opening two hours coming your way. Essential.

Grade: A

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