Each week, The Perfect Chord looks back at albums you may have missed when they dropped, or miss now that they’ve faded from memory. This week’s glimpse into the crates:
Chocolate Genius – Black Music
Post-R&B eccentric Marc Anthony Thompson, part of the neo-bohemian New York City “Downtown” music scene equally inspired by punk rock, folk, reggae, R&B, jazz and funk, dropped two albums under his own name in the 1980’s. The albums were modest critical successes and extremely popular among musicians, but failed to generate sales up to Warner Brothers’ expectations. Thompson subsequently spent the ensuing decade building upon a reputation as both a capable producer and an accomplished songwriter, appearing on albums by, among others, Cibo Matto and Marc Ribot. Nearly ten years after 1989’s Watts and Paris (possibly enough for a record contract to be fully terminated), Thompson had picked up a new label (V2), and a new pseudonym—Chocolate Genius—to release Black Music.
The album’s tongue-in-cheek title suggests the difficulties Thompson may have had in finding a label for it. Black radio in the 90’s had been dominated by various iterations of music spawned by the hip-hop explosion at the beginning of the decade, and Thompson’s arrangements strayed closer to Bob Dylan than Blackstreet; furthermore, unlike Terence Trent D’Arby, whose Isley Brothers-esque vocals at least ran parallel to the style of the time, Thompson’s voice was a gravelly baritone that eschewed acrobatic runs in favor of hushed whispers and delicate croons.
Accordingly, Black Music begins not with a bombastic statement, but rather with a subdued dirge; “Life,” with its brushed drums, upright bass, and clean electric guitar, sounds eerily like an early Tom Waits song, quirky and sad even as it swings and rolls—especially when trumpet and organ come in on the chorus. Thompson’s lyrics tell a story of resignation and defeat, while strings and female backing vocals float in-and-out. The entire song is a beautiful, teasing introduction to the album itself; so, naturally, Thompson follows it up with a curveball-in this case, a straightforward blues-rock number. “Half A Man” keeps the organ whirling beneath the mix, but replaces the quirk and whimsy with jangly electric guitar. From there, the album keeps jumping genres. “Don’t Look Down” finds Thompson waxing soulful, Barry White-style, over a “Quiet Storm”-ready slow jam (a funky touch he reprises later in “Hangover Nine”), while “Clinic” and “Hangover Five” merge folk rock with atmospheric touches a-la Mitchell Froom or Radiohead. “Safe And Sound” and “A Cheap Excuse” continue in the Waits vein, and the album closes with a tender, fragile acoustic version of “Half A Man.”
Two particular tracks find Thompson not only at his finest, but at the finest a songwriter can possibly find themselves. Second to last on the album is “It’s All Good,” a somber, piano-driven piece featuring the singer using a series of bizarre, borderline nonsense imagery (“It’s like having Miss Daisy drive me home/and slowly sucking me off”), perhaps to illustrate the ridiculousness of the titular phrase; regardless of its meaning, the arrangement, with only sparse piano, bass, and drums, strips the atmospherics away and frees Thompson to show off how beautiful his voice actually is. The high water mark, however, is the album’s fifth song, “My Mom,” carried by a slow, waltzing beat and descending organ, featuring Thompson stepping out of his usual abstract lyrical mode to tell a linear, purely autobiographical story. With snapshot descriptions of moments past and present as a framing device, he describes an afternoon spent in his childhood home, reminiscing about his past and describing his mother in the present, until landing a crushing emotional blow with the chorus:
It’s been five years and some change/and this world is getting so strange/but this house smells just the same/and my mom…she don’t remember my name.
What makes the song so emotionally arresting isn’t the subject matter itself—indeed, in the hands of a less-adept songwriter, it could have been needlessly schmaltzy—but rather the fact that Thompson delivers his lyrics (largely free of figurative language and practically conversational) so honestly that his despair—not as a writer or a singer, but as a person, as a son—is almost tangible.
Fortunately, Black Music jump-started Thompson’s solo career; he followed it up with Godmusic in 2001 and Black Yankee Rock in 2005, and made a couple high-profile soundtrack appearances, covering the Beatles’ “Julia” for I Am Sam and a particularly arresting version of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” for American Splendor. 2006 found Thompson joining Bruce Springsteen for the latter’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions album and subsequent tour. The final Chocolate Genius album, Swansongs, appeared in 2010; while he appears to have left the Chocoloate Genius project behind, each of its albums—the first in particular—are fantastic musical artifacts.
A. Darryl Moton is a bus driver, Black Iowan, strip club DJ, and numerous other things that make you doubt his sanity. He currently fakes the funk on nasty dunks in Portland, Oregon.