First Choice ‘Hold Your Horses’ (BBR) 5/5

Disco is a much maligned and misunderstood term, yet for those who appreciate the history of dance music and its roots in the classic disco era of the 1970, one group stand out for their soulful harmonies and infectious beats and their name is First Choice. They recorded with the cream of studio musicians on the Gold Mine label affiliated to Salsoul, principally from MFSB aka the Salsoul Orchestra, and, in addition, had the notable production/remixing skills of one Tom Moulton who is a crucial figure in understanding the history of disco. This was the fifth album the trio of ladies recorded for Gold Mine and it is generally regarded as their best and with good reason. Clubland has continually gone back to sample the delights of First Choice and those not already familiar are in for a real treat. Side one of the original vinyl is the more varied with a distinctive piano hook and lush orchestrations characterising the uptempo ‘Let me down easy’ and this was simply the classiest from of disco music. Spanish flamenco guitar greets the listener on the opening of ‘Good morning midnight’ while there is a Euro disco feel to the tension building number ‘Great expectations’. However, it is on side two that the fun truly begins. The title track has a thumping bassline with percussion to match and it has long been a dance-floor favourite while ‘Love thang’ has all the feel of a boogie tune (the natural progression from classic disco) before the term was even coined. Best of all, though, is reserved for the final track on the album, ‘Double cross’ which is one of the subtlest dance-floor numbers ever recorded and features the Salsoul Orchestra in top form on combined brass and strings. For those in possession of either the original album, or even the first CD rendition, this superb edition wins hands down because it includes no less than seven bonus tracks of which no less than five are full-length 12″ versions in one way or another and feature some of the disco’s greatest remixers such as Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan and of course Tom Moulton. Little short of eighty minutes, this is fantastic value for money and in it’s own way a mini greatest hits album of sorts. A spaced out and pared down instrumentation version of ‘Let no man put asunder’ is the icing on the cake. Tim Stenhouse

Omar ‘The Man’ (Freestyle) 4/5

This, the seventh album recorded by UK soul singer-songwriter Omar, is definitely one of his strongest and arguably the most diverse of all in terms of the different musical influences that have been soaked up by the musician along the way. Latin, jazz, reggae and of course classic 1970s influences are all weaved into a cohesive whole and this makes for some essential summer listening grooves. Possibly most convincing of all is the more left-field song on the album, namely ‘I love being with you’, which incorporates Caribbean steel drums, lush 1970s style strings and the catchiest of bassline and keyboard riffs. This is a song that will penetrate into the subconscious and remain there for some time to come. One of the most instant and strongest of grooves is the provocatively titled ‘Fuck war, make love’ and it is a pity that the the title itself may prevent some airplay since, on musical criteria alone, it is a particularly strong number. For other flavours, look no further than the jazzy hammond organ-led ‘High heels’ which features the Hidden Quartet. While this is by no means straight ahead jazz, it does nonetheless fit comfortably within a clearly identifiable Omar sound. A reworked version of the singer’s most popular song ‘There’s nothing like this’ is given the jazzy treatment and at a slower pace than the original works surprisingly well. Omar’s songs have the capacity to develop between varying tempos and this is the case of one that he wrote for his daughters, ‘Ordinary day’, which starts off as a gentle ballad, but then progresses into a heavy bassline mid-tempo piece. For fans of reggae, the duet ‘Treat you’ with Soul to Soul singer Caron Wheeler is likely to appeal and has an appropriately pared down instrumentation. Only the mis-guided attempt at trying to keep in touch with current dance music, ‘When you touch, we touch’ is something of a disappointment and sounds out of kilter with the rest. Better to stick to the timeless production feel which has served Omar so well thus far. Otherwise this is a very much back on form Omar.

Tim Stenhouse

Olivia Chaney ‘Olivia Chaney’ EP 4/5

(http://www.oliviachaney.net/)
The British folk scene is exceptionally vibrant at present and here is one of the reasons why. Singer-songwriter and guitarist Olivia Chaney belongs very much to the old school tradition of English folk which is no bad thing at all and sounds as though the work of Shirley Collins has been influential on her. Whatever the case, this is a delightful set of five songs which serves as a fine introduction to Chaney’s voice and songwriting talents and we look forward to hearing a whole album of material. This EP works extremely well because of the sparse accompaniment with just cello/violin to embellish the basic instrumentation of either guitar, piano and occasional harmonium. As a result the music has a genuine and lasting intimacy to it. All bar one song are originals with ‘The King’s horses’ a lovely, reflective song with the most delicate of melodies. On ‘Imperfections’ there are shades of early Joni Mitchell while for some welcome variation ‘Swimming in the longest river’ reverts part-way through to assorted vocals a capella and then returns to piano. A real bonus is the inclusion of a French song ‘Ballade’, originally written by poet François Villon, and which the great Georges Brassens (the most influential of post WWII singers in France and a seminal influence on the early Serge Gainsbourg) adapted. At some stage someone really ought to devote an entire album to recording Brassens’ extensive repertoire in this country and Olivia Chaney may well just be the ideal person. In France Maxime Le Forestier has done precisely that with two superb CD box sets and a fine late 1990s album which followed on from an earlier live recording. All in all an ideal way to become more conversant with the music of one of folk music’s newest and most interesting talents.

Tim Stenhouse