The early 1980s were a time of heavy transition for contemporary R&B. Euro-disco influences, which had held stake at the end of the ’70s, were no longer in vogue this side of the Atlantic. Consequently, a steady stream of danceable new sounds emerged, ranging from synth-forward funk (think Evelyn King’s “I’m in Love”) to jazzy grooves (Tom Browne’s “Funkin’ 4 Jamaica”) and rawer strains of get-down (“Controversy” by Prince).
One of the acts to effectively blend these worlds together was a Los Angeles-based vocal trio named Plush. The talented collective—consisting of Siedah Garrett, Tony Phillips, and Ambrose Price—released a musically striking, but commercially quiet, self-titled album in 1982 on RCA Records. Benefiting from the equally adept production trinity of Angela Winbush, Rene Moore, and Bobby Watson, the barely-promoted set gave a nod to tradition, whilst remaining firmly focused on the future.
Fast-forward to 2012. Independent reissue label FunkyTownGrooves has given the in demand recording new life via a limited vinyl reissue on its U.K.-based Funky Times Records division. Three decades after first hitting shelves, the LP—frequently fetching upwards of $50 on Ebay for its original pressing—still stands strong as an exemplar of funk-infused R&B. From the opening strains of the riveting “Burnin’ Love” (the first single release), passion is the key ingredient. Heavy synth washes, gritty guitar picks, and a dark bass line pave the way for Siedah Garrett’s deep vocal inflections, which are highlighted in the verses while the bass drops out momentarily.
It’s delightful to witness here the developing style of Garrett, who would go on to establish herself as an in demand songwriter and Michael Jackson’s duet partner on “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” On this early effort, her jazzy tones evoke a sassy restrain which would evolve into a more dynamic tone by the time of her 1985 solo debut, “Do You Want It Right Now.” On “Burnin’ Love,” however, her alternating push-and-pull phrasing carries an intensity that is both sleek and sexy.
Garrett also showcases a panache for laid-back slow-jam finesse on the calm and inviting “We’ve Got the Love.” But the male counterparts of Plush also get their turn to shine. On the driving “Livin’ for Your Love,” written by Tony Phillips with Herman Chainey, the vocals emit a naturally yearning quality that can only come from a hearty combination of life experience and innate gifts. Backed by a groovin’ arrangement that is sparse in the most fulfilling of ways, it’s a performance for the ages.
Conversely, the guys give a more straight-ahead punch to the simple melodic structure of “Free and Easy,” the group’s second single. It’s one of three songs here which were originally recorded by producers Rene & Angela for their self-titled 1980 LP. As a bonus, Funky Times has included a 12″ mix of the track at the close of Side A.
Of the tunes first put on wax by Rene & Angela, the standout on Plush is the emotive midtempo entry, “I Don’t Know (Where Love Comes From).” The reflective original was plausible in its pared-down approach, but Garrett injects a profound energy into her interpretation, making the recharged arrangement all the more accessible. At the time of the album’s release, “I Don’t Know” perhaps embodied the most sanctioned R&B song structure of all its selections. In contrast, the group’s self-penned “Gonna Get Ya” represented a more in-the-moment twist, coupling rhythmically oriented melody lines with an electronically savvy rhythm section.
Ultimately, Plush remains a merited collection of songs brought to life with funky prowess and engaging vocal charisma. Its unique juxtaposition of fiery, female-led tunes with smooth male-driven cuts gives way to a pleasing variety of the fast and the slow, the old school and the new school.