The idea of going on “groove maneuvers” with George Clinton in Uncle Jam’s army certainly sounds good. Phillipe Wynne as the “thrill sergeant” would be more fun to answer to than Sgt Hulka.
Still though, this just isn’t a very good album. The songs aren’t there. Would anybody ever try to do a cover of any of this, other than maybe the first song? There just isn’t much to cover. Specifically, there’s precious little melody, vocal or instrumental. But let’s start with the better end.
“Freak of the Week” gives us a decent actual song with a tune to start this thing. You’ve got the basic, “got to be, got to be freak of the week” hook, and there’s some decent melodic development to make this midtempo disco funk jam a legitimate song. The female chorus fills some things out harmonically. It’s got all the literal whistles and bells (whistles at least) to fill out the freaky fruit flavors. Also, at a relatively modest five and a half minutes, this doesn’t get stretched out past the breaking point like a great many Clinton jams. Overall, this probably rates as one of his half dozen best all-time songs.
I’ve heard precious little of significant lyrical insight in the work of Clinton, but there are some interesting bits. One of his best bets of lyrical insight for my money comes from “Freak of the Week” and turns on a musical idea of great relevance:
Don’t give her that one move groovalistic,
That disco sadistic,
That one beat up and down it just won’t do.
Don’t give her that forever and ever foreplay,
She’s not looking for the short way,
She’s got to reach a point where she gets off
On that level, “Uncle Jam” works out pretty well. Even at over ten minutes, he’s working up enough different ideas, enough changeups in the groove to justify. This is exactly NOT “that disco sadistic, that one beat up and down.”
It’s not a very tightly structured song, but there’s a lot going on. There’s not much in the way of melodic development, but at least there are some decent shreds of melody to hang the jam on.
Also, I dig on the guitar variations on the basic reveille call that start this thing. Uncle Jam has come to whip up some freaky discipline in order to “rescue dance music from the blahs.” It’s perhaps more of an anti-discipline though, as indicated by the telling first line of lyrics, “All right, all you inductees fall out and form some kinda line or something.”
After that though, the pickings get real slim on the rest of the album. “Knee Deep” in particular sounds like a big waste of time. I’ve seen a number of people carry on about this track, but I’m not hearing it. There’s no significant tune, just one or two little shards of lyrical hooks, nothing memorable. Nor is there any interesting melodic development from the instruments. There’s a long bunch of lead guitar, but it’s just generic blues rock playing. Some of the One Nation Under a Groove stuff works up some interesting instrumental development sort of jazz like. This does not.
It’s not even interesting groove wise. There’s minimal in the way of unique flavor, and minimal in the way of rhythmic changeups. This comes pretty close to that dreaded “disco sadistic” he bemoans just one song earlier. This goes nowhere. Far worse, it goes nowhere for over 15 damned minutes. That’s near to half an album wasted on a big pile of nothing.
“Field Maneuvers” doesn’t amount to a lot, but it’s a moderately interesting rock guitar instrumental showcase. Also, at a mercifully brief 2:26, they get in and make their point and get out. Interestingly, this reminds me somehow a bit of Frank Zappa.
“Holly Wants to Go to California” sort of works against my regular reservations about Clinton. It’s a piano gospel song, based on a straightforward vocal melody. Unlike a lot of his stuff, this definitely has a discernible tune. Plus, in the context of his bigger picture, the idea of Clinton doing a simple gospel style song seems really appealing.
It’s just that “Holly” isn’t a very good song. I can halfway remember a line or two of it, so it’s maybe crossing the line of some minimum threshold of being catchy. But it’s just not very memorable melodically or lyrically.
Worst of all, it has no depth of emotion, which is REAL bad when you’re talking about gospel related music. He’s certainly not got any burning feeling here that he’s just GOT to get over to us. It sounds like he thought, hey I should drop in a slow gospel thing.
Just to top off the unfortunate nature of this song, the simple piano accompaniment highlights his voice. Not to put too fine a point on it, but George Clinton was just not a good singer. He’s not a good singer at all, if you’re judging based on this performance. Maybe Mariah Carey could sell this song, but George Clinton doesn’t.
Finally, the “Foot Soldiers” isn’t much, but it plays out the martial themes, and ties things off in a relatively modest three and a half minutes, so I won’t complain.
Overall, this album starts to give me the idea that Clinton was just rushing from album to album, whipping out a lot of half-assed stuff without taking the time to really properly compose or think things through. It sounds like he went in with two actual songs and the general idea of Uncle Jam and the obvious martial beats and references, then whipped up an album in a couple of days time.
Perhaps I’m not judging fairly here, as I’m working my way backwards to listen to Clinton from the point of view of a longtime Prince fan. That dude’s just such a genius that almost anything else looks weak side by side. Give Clinton credit for being the most obvious direct inspiration for Prince. Still, other than “Freak of the Week” there’s nothing here that would have been good enough to be even a non-album b-side for prime time 1980s Prince.