Not all R&B is created equal. Crate-digging reissue companies like the Numero Group consistently put out great packages of thoroughly researched obscurities, and you want to forgive such a hard-working reissue label for hoping to unearth a forgotten masterpiece now and then. But sometimes the sheen of neglect can raise an artist to levels they do not inherently deserve. Numero Group has released great collections of little-known R&B, power pop and folk music. But an Eccentric Soul collection dedicated to Kansas City’s Forte label highlights the strengths and flaws of Numero Group’s approach.
Eccentric Soul: The Forte Label’s 28 LP tracks (21 on CD) span from the label’s late 1960s heyday to 1980. There are small pleasures here, but the execution can be frustrating. “Don’t Let Your Love Fade Away” has a horn chart that’s better than its players; Lee Harris’ “I’m Gonna Get Your Thing” is propulsive but maybe just a beat too slow to pull it off. I can’t help but imagine what the James Brown rhythm section circa 1968 could have done with this material. Titles like “The Hen, Part 1” and (vinyl-only) “Skate Boogaloo and Karate Too” sound promising, but the competent musicians sound uninspired, derivative without the passion or personality that would make these tracks live up to their evocative titles.
One exception is a mistake. Lee Harris’ “Lookin’ Good.” is an acetate not meant for release. A beep from the master tape interrupts the song at regular intervals. This gives it the impression of beats working against an ill-timed marker, of a song sung on borrowed time, a background vocalist’s onomatopoeic grunts sounding like a kind of Frankenstein threatening to pass out on the dance floor.
Numero Group’s typically excellent liner notes paint a rich history of a regional label and the varied adventures and stalled careers of its roster, but in the middle of these notes is a hint as to why the music doesn’t reach the heights you want it to: “Kansas City, as [an] idea, was a powerful metaphor; Kansas City, the place, it turned out, was merely a halfway point between the American east and west, a station in stasis between those coastal cultures.”
I believe in the Numero Group’s mission. I’ve joined their subscription program in the past, and would be happy to listen to anything they deem worthy of release, even the new age electronic curiosity Celestial Soul Portrait. The Eccentric Soul series is one of Numero Group’s most ambitious projects, and it’s an important window into often forgotten music. I just wish I wanted to listen to it more.