Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Manhattan Transfer - Nothin' You Can Do About It (Extensions, 1979)

The Manhattan Transfer was never my cup of tea. I've usually found their attempts to mix vocalese with a contemporary sound to be a bit contrived. They're incredibly talented singers, no doubt about it, and I've tried to like them for years. I'm sympathetic to their projects. I like what they're trying to do. But whenever I sit down to listen to one of their albums, I just get this uneasy feeling - I can't put my finger on what it is exactly, but it's something - and I eventually turn it off.

As a result, I own several of their albums, but I don't think I've listened all the way through a single one. There is however one significant exception to my initial statement, "Nothin' You Can Do About It", from their 1979 release Extensions.

That is one brilliant pop tune. I never lose control. I'm the most mild-mannered, controlled person you can imagine, a model of polite restraint. But whenever that piano intro starts rolling, I'm right up there on the table going completely crazy, wildly (over-) playing air piano and singing along in falsetto. I'm horrible at remembering lyrics, I don't even remember the lyrics to songs I've written myself. But this one I know by heart - it's probably the only song I can sing all the way through.

Again, David Foster is involved. He co-wrote the song with Steve Kipner and Jay Graydon. Graydon also produced the album. Foster plays the dominant piano riff (with those brilliant off-the-beat dissonances), as he did on "Heart to Heart" by Kenny Loggins. I'll probably return to David Foster a lot - growing up, he was one of my musical heroes, and I still have a genuine affection for a lot of his earlier work as a session musician.

There are so many brilliant turns and twists on this track. It's energetic and upbeat. There are jazz references, complex chord structures, modulations, syncopations: All the things I cherish in a really good pop song. There's a wonderful synth solo by Greg Mathieson - love every note of it. The Manhattan Transfer's vocal harmonies are, for once, perfect in a contemporary pop setting: oh, the "ba-ba-do-aah's" prior to the chorus, they make my heart skip a beat, if not two!

David Hungate, at that point a member of Toto, provides bass guitar, Ralph Humphrey's on drums - they're not the stars of the track, but they're providing perfect support. Jay Graydon is credited on guitar (again, where is that guitar??) and additional synths. Ian Underwood's also credited on synth - a lot of synths, but it's all in good taste.

Also, I'd swear that's Jerry Hey's flugelhorn in there, but there's no sign of him in the liner notes. Are my ears fooled by a synth? A synth from 1979? I somehow find that hard to believe! Anyone with additional information here?

Foster and Graydon re-recorded "Nothin' You Can Do About It" for their Airplay project in 1980 with Tommy Funderburk on vocals. It's good. I'm also in possession of a most horrible version of the song recorded for a Norwegian television show in 1982 with a local female singer who goes by the name of Alex. David Foster was a special guest on the show and provides the piano part. Alex's voice restlessly wanders up and down octaves in constant search of the melody line, she's frequently out of tune and has this incredibly heavy Scandinavian accent. Foster's piano sounds as if it's recorded through a poor telephone line from L.A. (maybe it was?) Surely not one of Foster's fondest memories. He's not to blame, though, he's as flawless as he ever was on the piano.

As performed by The Manhattan Transfer, though, "Nothin' You Can Do About It" is pop virtuosity at its finest. Wonderful stuff. Extensions peaked at #55 on the Billboard Top LP's chart. It seems that "Nothin' You Can Do About It" was never released as a single. In that case, what a complete shame!

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