5/20/17 – Syl Johnson “Is It Because I’m Black” (1970)

Like the Skull Snaps review from yesterday, this was a recommendation from a co-worker who loves Soul and Funk music. Syl Johnson was also a name that I was unfamiliar with, mainly because I don’t know those genres that well. He is a Soul singer and musician who did his most commercially and critically successful work in the 70s, though he is still active in the music scene today. Is It Because I’m Black is a provocative question, and it remains relevant today, 47 years after it’s release.

It Is Because I’m Black is the answer to the album’s title; it’s a heart-breaking cry of sorrow, contempt, and indignation. Syl Johnson’s voice is just incredible, and it’s obvious that he pours his soul into this song. The guitar here is the perfect shadow for his blues, it echoes his sentiment so well, especially during the solo. The whole package is just spell-binding, and it’s a message of unity in the face of discrimination, but he still has a lot of anger in his heart. Even as the song fades out as he repeats “it makes me so mad”.

Right after that colossal song comes Come Together, the soul cover of the Beatles hit. Only problem is that I hate the Beatles, and the Soul inflection doesn’t do it any good. Unfortunately this just takes the wind out of the sails of this album, and it never reaches the high watermark of the eponymous first track. The rest of the songs are pleasant enough, but they don’t really grab me like it did. I’m Talkin’ Bout Freedom does have a fantastic psychedelic guitar on it, and does make up for the simplistic Pop songs preceding it. Although I would’ve loved more songs like It Is Because I’m Black, I would’ve also taken an album full of songs like I’m Talkin’ Bout Freedom.

Despite that amazing song, right after it is Right On, and that’s when the album completely loses me. It feels like a 7 minute compilation of Soul cliches: repetitive ‘funky’ guitar, fake crowd in the background, “right on right on”, “we got a thang goin on”, etc. This should be the last 10 seconds of a powerful ballad, not a 7 minutes long filler. With only 8 songs on this album, maybe this was just a single or EP that got stretched out to an LP. My reaction to this could also simply be because I’m not in love with Funk, but a lot of this album just feels generic to the genre. I’m not completely off Syl Johnson though, I’ll keep digging to see if he made more substantial songs like It Is Because I’m Black, because that was just pure art.

 

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