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Lou Ragland - I Travel Alone

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Artist: Lou Ragland

Album: I Travel Alone

Label: The Numero Group

Review date: Mar. 22, 2012

Lou Ragland - "I Travel Alone" (excerpt)

During the heyday of soul in the 1960s and through its sleek and funky transfigurations in the 1970s, Lou Ragland was an underappreciated impresario, instrumentalist, songwriter and singer who ranged across smooth ballads, danceable soul-pop and gritty funk. After an early recording effort with Lou Ragland and The Bandmasters, and a subsequent short-lived stint with the Dominoes, Ragland eventually found a somewhat more stable groove, recording in his hometown of Cleveland from the late 1960s through the 1970s under his own name and as front man for makeshift groups Volcanic Eruption and Hot Chocolate. During that time, Ragland left an impressive legacy of recordings that the Numero Group has done the good service of making available in a new three-disc compilation called I Travel Alone. Named for a Ragland solo single, I Travel Alone contains Hot Chocolate’s self-titled album, Ragland’s Understand Each Other, and assorted other material, including an unreleased live set.

Two of Ragland’s most memorable recordings, “I Travel Alone” and “Since You Said You’d Be Mine,” are gems that belong in any collection of “northern soul” — i.e., soul of the Motown kind that appeared on many an obscure 45 coveted by collectors and dancers in the famed northern England scene. The first single, which gives the Numero Group compilation its name, is also the collection’s steamrolling opener. Released as a 45 b/w “Big Wheel,” “I Travel Alone” begins with a slinky bass line, adds horns, gives way to syncopated guitar, and eventually culminates in a triumphant layered refrain replete with “ooh ooh” backing vocals: “I’m a traveling man / Yes I am / I’m a traveling man.” If “I Travel Alone” is Ragland at his ’60s finest, “Since You Said You’d Be Mine,” is Philly-via-Cleveland soul. With an addictive one-line refrain, a breezy rhythmic sway, and tasteful horns, strings and backing vocals, it rivals the great works of Gamble and Huff.

Fortunately, Ragland’s impressive singles are not merely one-offs. His talents also shine through on Hot Chocolate and Understand Each Other. On the former, Ragland’s nimble electric guitar leads a compact, in-sync trio rounded out by bass and drums. The striking syncopated loops of numbers such as “So Dam Funky” and “Messin’ With Sly” call to mind the “Cissy Strut” of The Meters. Smoother, less jittery ballads, including “Sexy Moods of Your Mind” and “We Had True Love,” balance the set with a visceral power that owes much to their sparse arrangements. On Understand Each Other, by contrast, the funk is not just muted but virtually supplanted by a smoother soul that occasionally verges on Delfonics territory, as on the sultry ballad “It’s Got to Change.” That’s not to say that the sound is homogenous — “The Next World” gives straight-ahead funk another airing, while “What Happened to the Feeling” offers horn and syncopated guitar loops just itching to be reappropriated.

Even the third long player offering here — the Hot Chocolate live album — is rewarding. It offers a punchy, distortion-addled aesthetic that sounds like a radio program funneled through cheap speakers. Hot Chocolate proficiently covers The Spinners’ “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” but it truly shines on its version of “Brother Louie,” a hit from the other Hot Chocolate (the English act that also brought us “You Sexy Thing”). With its waves of lightly psychedelic wah-wahs and slinky electric lead guitar, “Brother Louie” may be some of the funkiest garage rock you’ve never heard.

Ragland was a musical drifter — not just figuratively but also literally, as his later work in Vegas (not chronicled on this Numero Group set) attests. However, thanks to this new collection of his ’60s and ’70s output, his standout 45s no longer travel alone. Rather, they come to us with enriching context in tow — that is to say, tied to three full-length albums of funky soul due for discovery.

By Benjamin Ewing

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