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Tony Cook - Back to Reality

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Artist: Tony Cook

Album: Back to Reality

Label: Stones Throw

Review date: Jan. 24, 2011

It’s kinda crazy how many reissues there are these days. Where once they served the invaluable role of filling in missing links (Arthur Russell, Fela Kuti) and offering eye-opening, mind-expanding revisionist histories (Disco Not Disco, Soul Jazz’s Dynamite comps), now it’s more like Operation Maximum Access -- a full-on cultural campaign to leave no jam behind. Have you looked at the Honest Jon’s website recently? They’re hawking shit like "East African Calypso Groove, 1954-1961" or something. That’s cool for when friends come by for brunch, but overall, it’s getting pretty specialized.

While (obviously) every reissue is not top shelf, the overall pool of music seems to be of a higher caliber. After all, why reissue crap? Tony Cook’s Back to Reality is (yet) another lost classic brimming with energy presented to the world at a time of plenty for such scores.

Whispered about in DJ circles for years and mostly unreleased until now, it emerges from the treacherous no-man’s-land of disco-fied 1980s boogie funk. Ever flipped though a dollar bin filled with copies of The Jackson’s Legacy, Mtume and Pointer Sisters? Trying to pick out the good from the bad of that world is a veritable chore, riddled with awesome covers concealing only dreck, bearded dudes at the DJ night who vibe at every turn, and a lot of soul searching. Most wisely stick to their Michael Jackson and, now, Dam Funk records and call it a day.

Back to Reality, then, is a godsend for those who seek the funk but remain unwilling to drop $50 on some rare groove. It also should hold appeal for fans of Ariel Pink’s new direction, party animals who secretly enjoy the "quiet storm" piped through the speakers at Goodwill and most anyone who likes to get a little loose. Jazzy chords get cut up with robo-funk breakdowns, "tasteful" bass work and grown-‘n’-sexy choruses. The cover depicts a big goofy party and that’s pretty much what you get.

Or at least this was my first impression. Other than its instant-fun appeal, Back to Reality overflows with specific charms. Although the recording is clear and full, it maintains a definite tinge of the DIY: songs weirdly peter out, the vocals are sometimes way too loud or too quiet, and the instruments can sound rough around the edges. It’s awesome, missing only the overdubbed party sound that awkwardly compliments so many disco unclassics. In keeping with the live-in-the-room vibe, Cook’s arrangements are gloriously busy, the choruses crowded by synths, pianos, bass, drums, guitar solos and that South American cowbell that can change pitch. Everybody was invited, it seems, and they all came. Maybe if Cook was tapped by a major label, he’d clean it up a touch and play it a little more safe, but Back to Life forgoes such foolishness in favor of some seriously off-the-cuff fun.

Equally fun are the lyrics. "Heartbreaker" features an hammy "Ha ha ha ha…" as the protagonist explains that he’s just a "heartbreaker, love taker, dream maker." (Sound familiar?) "Video Rock" drives its TV symbolism into the ground as it examines the perils of love in the ’80s. And "Weekend Life," one of the best tracks by far, asks "foxy lady / what you smoking tonight?" amidst some choice digi-calypso synth programing. Yes.

This earnest, silly, dated quality is really what sticks out after numerous listens. Some of these tracks are on the weaker side, but a couple are truly great. Yet across the board, they all seem to outline a reality that is sadly missing from so much pop music today. Back to Reality’s themes are pretty simple: having fun, getting laid and falling in love, all on the dance floor. It has just the right mix of crassness and manners, in a proportion that seems more than a bit quaint by today’s standards.

Take "Later For Dancing," one of the best cuts: Cook is paired up with an uncredited female vocalist, and they trade off in a bit of his-n-hers, deciding to skip dancing and get straight to the sex. Instead of nasty r’n’b-isms (birthday sex) the lingo is touchingly polite. "I did not think that you were here to party / I asked you for a dance / You wanted to romance." When was the last time you heard the word "romance" in a song, especially as in "to romance" i.e. go to bed with each other? All this to a bouncing electro beat, sturdy saw-tooth bassline, lots of handclaps and eventually a "hot" guitar solo. Cook walks the lines between lip-smacking creep and earnest lover, as well as pop songsmith and weirdo basement producer in such a way as to bring a tear or nostalgia to the eye while still encouraging sunglasses at night and lampshades on heads. "Let’s not waste time / at home, there’s a cold bottle of wine" gets it in a nutshell, right in time for a brief rap breakdown, some spicy shaker work and that wild cowbell.

By Daniel Martin-McCormick

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