Legendary bassist Larry Graham is back with, Raise Up, his first album since 1998’s GCS 2000. That album was produced by Prince, an artist with whom Graham has shared a longstanding personal and professional relationship. In fact, five of Raise Up’s 13 tracks were recorded at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios. Of those five, three feature guest appearances by the artist.
Graham was, of course, the deep-voiced bassist for the pioneering funksters Sly and the Family Stone in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. After that he formed Graham Central Station, releasing a string of successful albums throughout the remainder of the ‘70s. He continued to “add some bottom” to a smoother-sounding string of hits in the ‘80s as a solo artist (including the R&B chart-topper “One in a Million You”).
With Raise Up, Graham is back to bringing the funk in a major way. After the brief, purely percussive prelude, “GCS Drumline,” Graham Central Station makes their mission clear with the horn-driven “Throw-N-Down the Funk.” The tune features ample slap bass from Graham while introducing the various members of this incarnation of GCS, including vocalist Ashling Cole, guitarist Wilton Rabb, and keyboardist David Council.
A few tracks are “new masters” of older GCS songs, including a fairly faithful take on “It’s Alright,” originally on Ain’t No ‘Bout-a-Doubt It. “Now Do U Wanta Dance” was the title track of the 1977 GCS album. The new version dials back the disco of the original and thickens the funk, with Graham recreating his robotic-sounding bass talk box vocal. Graham also revisits his 1974 Al Green cover, “It Ain’t No Fun to Me,” offering up a very similarly take.
Two of the three tracks featuring Prince are not band tracks. The topical title song finds Graham and his bass backed only by Prince, who handles guitar, keyboards, and drums. It’s a pretty tight groove, but the lyrics leave something to be desired. In fact, Prince himself has tackled this sort of “ills of society” list of modern clichés in songs such as “Dear Mr. Man.” Graham complains about perceived governmental interference (“Funny noises on the phone/Makes you think, ‘what’s up’?”), airport security (“All that lotion in your bag/You better not let ‘em see”), and gas prices (“Filling up cost mucho money”). His catch-all call to action is “Raise up your head/We’re living in ‘Code Red!’”
Leaving shallow social commentary aside is a good thing, as “Shoulda Coulda Woulda” pairs Graham and Prince to much better effect. This ballad sounds suspiciously like a Prince track from start to finish, with some great Santana-esque guitar playing. Prince’s prominent backing vocals are a very nice touch. “Movin’” features Prince on guitar only, with the vocals tossed around between Graham and the rest of the band. Among the vocalists are former Prince protégé Tamar Davis as well as former member of the touring version of Morris Day’s The Time, Chance Howard. It’s basically a jam, with lyrics about bringing danceable funk to people everywhere.
Elsewhere on the album, Raphael Saadiq cameos on the mawkish “One Day.” This naïve utopian vision is cut from the same cloth as “Imagine” or “We Are the World.” The difference is that this one is, I think, about the afterlife, rather than all the earthly troubles described in “Raise Up.” Much better to stick with the slammin’ cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” featuring a great Ashling Cole vocal that glides over Brian Braziel’s thundering drums. Also stellar is the elegant, heartfelt ballad “Hold You Close,” with a supple lead vocal by Graham.
Try to stomach the cringe-inducing lyrics that accompany a couple of tune, because Raise Up is an otherwise solid party album.