Larry Graham and Graham Central Station's RAISE UP
Larry Graham and Co. had been rehearsing this album for a long time in their stage-shows, and it finally seemed as if the moment was exactly right to lay down the tracks in the studio. With the exception of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" and Al Green's "Ain't No Fun To Me", all tracks were composed by Graham, which shows the man is truly not ready to call it a day. You can tell just by listening to this album that the arrangements are all based on the feel of a live show; this is why I continue to love GCS - every song is a party, and I'm always invited. Even the more introverted songs are stories made to be told to a live audience.
The songs have all been beefed up for the new age, yet continue to maintain all the grooves that make (and have always made) Larry Graham such a powerhouse in funk. In every song lay the roots of 70s funk; Graham re-invented bass for the 70s, and brings that feeling with him every time he picks up the white earthquake-maker. All the new recording and sound technology is well incorporated into the production, but you never forget the true meaning of GCS: to make the listener happy.
Ten-HUT! The album opens with the infectious, foot-stomping GCS DRUMLINE. No bass, but all the rhythm you can handle! The snares are played by Graham, Brian Braziel, Wilton Rabb, and David Council. James McKinney handles the cymbals, and when Ashling Cole hits the whistle, you know you're marching into the funkiest thunder ride you'll ever take!
The drumline leads into THROW N DOWN THE FUNK, a raunchy, horn laden (The Millfield Horns) slap-bass groove that's become a staple at GCS live performances. Plus, it features the "each musician introduces him/herself and shows off the chops" thing that originally hooked me in Sly & The Family Stone's DANCE TO THE MUSIC. Back then, when I heard Graham say "I'm gonna add some bottom, so that the dancers just won't hide" I almost jumped out of my chair when that bassline hit the air! Larry Graham officially became my hero that day, and I was only eight or nine years old!
On THROW N DOWN THE FUNK, when he says "They call me Graham as in 'Graham Central Station'. Let's spread the love to all peoples, tribes, and nations", it doesn't have quite the same effect as "I'm gonna add some bottom", but his voice is still powerful, and his bass still gets my can out of the chair... y'all.
IT'S ALRIGHT is as great as it's always been. I picture the band members doing that unified four-left and four-right step across the stage as they play. The bass groove in the middle of the song is thunderous and heavy, and is (in my usual opinion) the highlight of the track.
Prince joins the party (guitar, drums, keyboard, vocals) on RAISE UP, a monstrous, spiritual testimonial that doesn't need the likes of me to describe its emotional power. The words are significant and current to today's world, but it's the music that tells the message. Graham's baritone thunders beneath Prince's high falsetto, and it works so big and bad. Wow.
SHOULDA WOULDA COULDA is Graham and Prince again, all mellowed out for the first slow-dance of the party. Though Graham's bass drives the song from underneath, his voice drives from the surface. This is the sweaty, up-close and personal kind of song we all danced to in high school.
WELCOME 2 OUR WORLD is an infectious acapella minute (actually, a minute and two seconds). There's a lot of flavour in those voices. Learn the parts one by one and sing them all as you play the song over and over. Or get four other friends together and make it a challenge.
Taking another one from the vaults, IT AIN'T NO FUN TO ME is the old Al Green tune that GCS did up in the 70s as part of their debut album. Better than ever, newly mastered, and just as funky... maybe even a bit more. I love the horns. I don't know if others will feel it, but I get kind of a James Brown vibe off this one.
Get ready for GCS' version of Stevie Wonder's HIGHER GROUND. It's not just a cover; GCS brings a whole 'nother feel altogether to this one. Wonder's version is the king, and rightly so, with its straight forward driving delivery, but this version features more levels and directions. It's more involved and three-dimensional. Ashling Cole on lead vocals has complete control of herself; she's no weakling. She can't be to sing this one.
NO WAY is a moody, sensual, but slightly angry tune. He sings of promise that he will never hurt her, never do her wrong or make her cry, but to these ears, it almost sounds like an apology after these things have already been done.
I love HOLD YOU CLOSE, the second ballad of this funk opera, more than the intense SHOULDA WOULDA COULDA. This is just a beautiful love song. You can slow-dance or sit this one out and just watch the couples on the dance floor. Just stand off to the side and enjoy. Remember Johnny Mathis singing TWELFTH OF NEVER? This one's in the same vein. Graham plays both the bass and keyboard on this one, with Mario Dawson on drums.
MOVIN features Prince again and also more of those tasty "featured instrument" sections. Let me hear your organ. Can I hear your guitar? Can you make the keyboard move me on? (great boogie woogie, by the way) and I'ma make the bassman move you on. (tech enhanced). Too cool.
By now, we're ready for another remastered GCS tune from "back then." DO YOU WANTA DANCE puts Graham on both bass and the "talk-box". The beat of this song is grinding and slow, just the way I like all my funk.
The album ends with ONE DAY, a final message of hope (with guest guitarist/vocalist Raphael Saadiq) . It's a real "resolution" song. If an album is well-staged, it starts with a promise and ends with a resolution. Whether a happy or sad one, the closing song must wrap things up. This is a perfect resolution song.
All in all, I think that - even though it's classified as funk - RAISE UP is a concept album. Each song is a funky gem unto itself, and can be enjoyed solely for beats and grooves, but the whole concept of overcoming adversity is the theme. Here's what Larry Graham says about it:
“The music on this album is like a live performance. I wanted to tell a complete story, with a great beginning, a powerful body and a dynamic conclusion. I want that story to be uplifting and encouraging, something to help people rise above whatever challenges they’re facing in life - whether it be personal issues or family issues or work issues. Everybody’s dealing with something. I want this music to help raise people up and enable them to overcome adversity.”
© 2012 CL Seamus for Thunder Row