Athens of the North
There’s so much music from the 1980s – there’s so much music everywhere, from all over and all the time, it floods in and feels impossible to get through. But the music from the 1980s is almost always the most obvious to spot – certain technical, erm, innovations and production-styles will out. And because it’s the era I grew up in and grew to love music in – and from – I’ll always have an ear half-cocked, ready, waiting.
All of which is to say that I have no idea where Billy Bruner’s new collection of old takes and extras and the singles he once released as a solo artist came from – in terms of me finding out about it. But I sure know that it came from the 1980s. And you will too when you hear it. And I recommend that you do.
Bruner is from Tulsa. And he proudly sings of the joy of that place in this compilation’s opening cut, Tulsa Song. He spells out the name of the second largest city from the state of Oklahoma (“T-U-L-S-A”) in the song’s opening, before matter of factly singing the word (“Tulsa”) just in case you are not good at listening to spelling on the fly and putting it all together. It’s like an ad-brochure folded up and into some sort of outsider boogie jam and as the sightseeing joy of this place concertinas out from the song you’re hooked. I reckon. Well, I was.
If I’m fascinated enough by 80s pop songs I’m also always curious about outsider-types making music. This guy had some jams on his own and was in a couple of bands in Tulsa in the late 80s too (Darwin’s Theory, J.O.B. Band, T-Spoon) and there’s some pre-Prince (94 East) funk-lite feel to some of these tunes (School Dance) and you could probably play Cats Meow and tell anyone in your squad that it’s a Thundercat rarity and they’d be down to clown big time. So this is outsider 80s pop mixed with R’n’B feels; again that just-pre-90s type of R’n’B where the funk was flowing but the hooks were big and obvious, never sly, not overtly jazzy or hip-hop oriented.
But it’s probably the ballads I love best here. Sweetness kicks off with a version of that intro The Band propelled The Weight with – and Ryan Adams borrowed it for seemingly half of his second album. And the voice is treacle man. Liquid-gold. A goo of delight. Billy Bruner runs some good melodies right through you even though he has nothing much to say – he just says it so well. “You’re nothing but sweetness” he keeps saying and it could be one of the detours Sly Stone went down. “I have something to say”, he reckons. And he’s totally wrong. There’s nothing. But everything about the way it sounds is right and cool and good.
The funk and pop jam of The Dream is like those songs you heard in so many montages in so many 80s rom-coms – in fact it almost sounds like sitcom intro music. Ray Parker Jr and Lionel Richie and Bobby Brown tapes all swirling and mingling together in my mind. Even some of MC Hammer’s best balladry feels like material that was in some way inspired by this. I’ll be wrong of course – but to hear it seems so right.
I can’t stop playing this. I love the time-warp of listening to this over and over. Music that is both so utterly self-conscious and not at all self-aware – or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way – it works for me. Apparently Bruner is still alive and kicking and making music. So I look forward to hearing anything new from him one day. And I’ll be likely disappointed if it doesn’t sound exactly like this.
You can support Off The Tracks via PressPatron