The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Friday, September 06, 2002

"Strawberry Letter 23" by The Brothers Johnson (1977)

I know you all want me to talk about "Work It" in this column but the latter has been so widely exalted elsewhere that there is no need for me to repeat the obvious here. So instead, a hagiography of the usage of space and echo in the productions of Quincy Jones. It's always been there in his work, right from things like "Soul Bossa Nova" (sampled by the Dream Warriors for "My Definition...") through Off The Wall and The Dude, but perhaps best exemplified on this unplaceable and therefore indispensable pop record.

I know the Shuggie Otis original is back in circulation and that every schoolboy should be familiar with it, but for me the Brothers Johnson's rendering takes the song away from an obvious "psychedelic" realm to something closer to the listener (because more populist) and yet much more strange and fantastic. From the maternal outpourings of the harpsichord at the intro we dive into a free blue world of suggested beats, fragments of guitar lines, meaningful bass, all united by a distant vocal which does not overly strive to convey feelings but makes them profounder simply by their very suggestion. The absence of any "soul" in the male lead or female backing vocals forces us to construct our own mental landscape and respond only in accordance with our own perspectives.

Watch how the entire record converges on the eddying/edifying whirlpool of the central middle-eight guitar riff which multiplies in its own mirrors and disappears within its own reflection (it is COME). The record is perfectly symmetrical. The suggested minor lift underneath the major fall of the languid and unhurried fade-out, back into the circuitous carnival calliope which began the record. It arrives, kisses you and departs.

It was the summer of 1977. In that "depersonalised" year for pop - and outside of punk, and perhaps Bowie's abrupt vocal entry on "Sound and Vision" which sounds as though it's emanating from the inside of your head - few records came closer to the listener than this. The echoes are its very justification.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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