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V/A - Eccentric Soul: Smart’s Palace

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Artist: V/A

Album: Eccentric Soul: Smart’s Palace

Label: The Numero Group

Review date: Apr. 21, 2009

Twenty-seven volumes in and the Numero Group’s Eccentric Soul series sustains a hit-to-miss ratio higher than most of its compilation brethren. That exemplary number slips a bit with this latest entry. Smart’s Palace trains the label’s turntable microscope on the Witchita club of the same name, home base for a handful of regional acts that recorded for Dick Smart’s ill-fated Solo imprint straddling the 1960s and 1970s. As usual, the back-story and notes are colorful and copious: Keeping track of the various Smart siblings and their musical and extra-musical adventures ends up almost requiring a schema. In common with many of his counterparts in other locales across the nation, Dick Smart wore a haberdashery’s worth of hats: DJ, club and record store owner, promoter, bassist, etc. His brothers were similarly enthusiastic in their creative pursuits, hopping between bands and generally going where gigs took them, when not serving as the de facto rhythm section for the Palace.

The set’s compilers are quick to note that the Palace never sired anything even close to the magnitude of a JB or an Aretha, but followers of this series aren’t commonly hungering for that sort of star power anyway. Better to dive into the hard scuffle stories of grass roots outfits like L.T. & the Soul Dynamics or the wah-wah heavy Hard Road featuring cut-rate crooner C.C. Neal. Most of the groups get more spotlight than just the obligatory single track. Theron & Darrell play it close to the chest with a fairly rote reading of “I Was Made to Love Her,” despite florid falsetto exaggerations, and fare slightly better on the still generically-scripted “It’s Your Love.” Fred Williams, assisted by the Jewels Band, suggests the heavy Windy City influence of Syl Johnson, both in terms of vocal style and boogaloo blues beat on “Tell Her” and “The Dance Got Old.” The Smart Brothers hold court as a nuclear unit on “Barefoot Philly,” benefiting greatly from a booting sax solo and aquatic-reverb guitar. Lifted from dusty 45s, the tracks fluctuate in fidelity, but are never less than listenable. What’s often missing is the manic acrobatic energy and antics of the brothers’ stage show, as described in detail in the liners and depicted visually in the “suitable-for-framing” cover shot.

Chocolate Snow, arguably the most memorable in the Solo menagerie, had something of a kitchen-sink approach to their sound, folding in pop, psych and even Latin trappings along with the requisite soul and funk. An interracial roster and hippie-holdover philosophy led to trouble on the road and their loose-laced, hodgepodge sound was pretty much a deal breaker when selling the majors. Their biggest hit, a barely recognizable and narcotized lounge rundown of Lennon & McCartney’s “A Day in the Life,” saw earlier reissue life on Jazzman’s Midwest Funk comp from a few years back. There’s some killer Rhodes work and a bass line that snakes beneath a smoothly-arcing horn riff. Numero does that better by including the band’s entire discography here. “Inflation” recycles the same chart and tacks on a politicized rap that sounds collaged from a handful of higher profile songs. The novelty misfire “Let Me Be Your Christmas Toy” and milquetoast soul-lite “It’s Like Heaven” that round out the program were bellwethers of the band’s inevitable dissolution.

In like fashion the Palace fell on hard times in the 1980s, eventually shuttering shop completely at the end of the decade. These 19 cuts work as a timely love letter to the deceased scene’s memory, warts and all.

By Derek Taylor

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