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V/A - Eccentric Soul: The Young Disciples

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Artist: V/A

Album: Eccentric Soul: The Young Disciples

Label: The Numero Group

Review date: Oct. 14, 2008

Chicago’s Numero Group has rapidly become one of the world’s foremost reissue labels, seeking out soul, funk, disco, folk and pop that’s not just OOP, not just “forgotten,” but was barely there in the first place. It documents careers that never took off, ground down by conflict or megalomania or mysterious public indifference. The label is perhaps best loved for its “Eccentric Soul” series, an ongoing set of ’60s soul comps spotlighting upstart labels and scenes from Columbus, Chicago, Phoenix and elsewhere. These are often as powerful for the bizarre stories they recollect as for the compellingly amateurish, ruggedly inspired music they contain.

Of all of these collections, none comes from a more apocalyptic urban shithole than late-’60s East St. Louis, Missouri, where erstwhile music scenester and ambitious music teacher Allan Merry plied his trade. And none (including the handful produced by out-and-out cults) is as consistently exuberant.

It’s hard to overstate what a wasteland the Lou was then. After years of gang tyranny, disorganized mayhem and economic devastation, the South End Community Center was one of the city’s only lighthouses. So when Allan Merry used it to establish the sprawling Young Disciples collective, he had his pick of the self-respecting, musically inclined youth, and the group had a rich heyday. At its peak, it encompassed solo acts, groups, bands, a glorious brass section and a full African dance troupe. The Disciples recorded under a series of cryptic and ostentatious names (Third Flight, DeDe Turner Happening, Sharon Clark & the Product of Time, Ames Harris Desert Water Bag Company, etc.), but the work is unified by Merry’s buoyant, conflicted-yet-optimistic spirit, which saved its share of souls.

LaVel Moore’s “The World is Changing” sets the tone. Even in the era of Aquarian optimism, it’s one of the most astoundingly positive R&B cuts committed to wax (“I woke up this morning and said ‘Hey World!’ / You’re outta sight / I said thank you Lord for letting me see / Another day alive”), intriguingly offset by Moore’s awkward lead. Confidence isn’t something you have, it’s something you do, and the Young Disciples vocalists are all the more arresting for their lack of polish. A few songs (“Crumbs From the Table” by Young Disciples Co. and the claustrophobic anti-drug ode “Third Flight” by, uh, Third Flight) touch on social ills. More remarkable are the love songs. The kids sound particularly grand taking on worldly regret (DeDe Turner Happening’s wounded duet “Anyone or Anything”) and defensive swagger (Sharon Clark & the Product of Time’s saucy “It’s Not Your Business”) with all of their naïve might. Some subjects are a lot more interesting with people who don’t pretend to understand them.

By Emerson Dameron

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