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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Betty Davis: Nasty Gal


1) Nasty Gal; 2) Talkin' Trash; 3) Dedicated To The Press; 4) You And I; 5) Feelins; 6) F.U.N.K.; 7) Gettin' Kicked Off, Havin' Fun; 8) Shut Off The Light; 9) This Is It!; 10) The Lone Ranger.

Maybe Betty herself felt that the second album was a bit softer and a tad more compromising than the first — in any case, something must have stimulated her to pull herself together and make damn sure that the third one would blow the lid off the kettle. The band was wound up tighter, the record label was changed to Island for better production and distribution, and look at that album sleeve: too hot to handle or what?..

Other than, perhaps, again lacking the same consistency of crunchy riffage as Betty Davis (none of Betty's guitar players simply had as much flashy arrogance as Neal Schon), Nasty Gal is in every other respect a funk monster. First and foremost, this is because Betty is simply unleashed: obviously, her vocal range has not improved one bit, but for sheer nastiness / bitchiness, look no further — if the singing circa 1973 might still sound a little repressed and stiff at times, in 1975 there are no inhibitions whatsoever. Usually, it takes a very well-developed artistic persona to make a slogan like "I ain't nothing but a nasty gal!" sound like the real thing — in this particular occasion, I do not even wish to consider this «artistry», it seems to be the real thing. I'm sure Tina Turner could do this if she wanted to (in fact, being a much better technical singer, she could have done this even better), but the truth is that she just didn't do it, and neither did anybody else. And when everybody else started doing it, it was too late anyway, because the accompanying music had turned to shit long ago.

Every single song on here is great in its own way. The music, heavily dependent on clavinet and funky bass parts, takes active cues from Stevie Wonder (you can almost tell how many times each of these musicians had spun Innervisions before walking into the studio), but exchanges Stevie's socially charged spirit with a sexually charged one. The nagging «nasal» riff of ʽTalkin' Trashʼ agrees with the «talking trash» message of the song to perfection; the speedy mix of keyboard and guitar notes on ʽFeelinsʼ reflects the physiological message of ʽFeelinsʼ ("pinch her, squeeze her, help her live again!", and the whole song is nothing but a rapid succession of «pinches» and «squeezes», like an aggressive-erotic musical massage); and few funk tunes have the catchiness of ʽShut Off The Lightʼ, whose clavinet backbone could almost rival ʽSuperstitionʼ, except that it intentionally goes in a «nasty fun» rather than «danceable seriousness» direction.

Somehow, even every kind of approach that did not work earlier on now does work. ʽF.U.N.Kʼ continues the line of ʽThey Say I'm Differentʼ, with Betty once again resorting to the «list prin­ciple», counting off her idols — this time, they are R&B and funk people rather than old blues­men, though, culminating in a brief reminiscence of the good times Betty had with Jimi (nobody really knows if they had an actual affair, but Miles sure thought so), and this whole stuff is much more up her alley, not to mention the music, which is darker, thicker, and, well, funkier. Even the obligatory ballad (ʽYou And Iʼ), recorded in big band jazz style, is good, as she finally learns to bypass her limitations and, instead of trying to cope with a complexly modulated vocal hook, just turns it into a hot sexual dream ("I'm just a child, trying to be a woman...") that, goddammit, is almost believable (as much as the old «nasty bitch got soul» trick is a cliché, every once in a while somebody comes along and executes it to perfection one more time).

However, the lady seems to be sitting firmest of all in the saddle when she's got someone, or something, to play off — in ʽDedicated To The Pressʼ, she addresses those critical naysayers that dared to condemn her style for extreme wildness, and for about four minutes turns her vocal tract into a veritable cat-o'-nine-tails: "Well I really don't know what they're talking about / I just can't seem to keep my tongue in my mouth / That's all folks". True enough, but it's not the tongue that matters so much, actually, as it is the throat — and not the actual words she speaks, but the way that they are spoken. The press happens to be lucky that the message was delivered by vinyl transfer — anybody who got that personally, face-to-face, would have probably melted away on the spot.

Throw in a couple of slower, steamier, subtler sexual provocations (ʽGettin' Kicked Offʼ; a new­ly re-recorded, and much sharper, version of ʽI Will Take That Rideʼ, now retitled ʽLone Rangerʼ), and Nasty Gal wins out even in terms of diversity — the message may be the same throughout, but there are several routes of delivery, thoroughfares, shortcuts, and space warping included. It is amazing that an album of this level of verve ultimately failed to chart, even despite heavy pub­licity from Island Records, but, apparently, the «black market» at the time was even more con­servative than the «white market», with people opting for Earth, Wind & Fire, Al Green, Kool & The Gang, and The Pointer Sisters instead; all of them worthy contenders, but in terms of sheer bravado, not even close to the level of fury that Nasty Gal has to offer.

But make no mistake — the reasons behind my enthusiastic thumbs up here are not at all limi­ted to the «unleashing» of the sex demon in Betty's persona, because much, if not most, of Nasty Gal is fine, top-level funk stuff as well. Even without the vocals, it would still be an impressive ins­trumental feat — one might think, though, that it probably couldn't have existed that way without the vocals, because, no doubt about it, it was nothing but the lady's fiery personality that managed to rev the musicians up to these ecstatic heights. A coin toss between Betty Davis and Nasty Gal as the finest she had to offer, but then, why choose at all when her recording career was so unfor­tunately short anyway?

Check "Nasty Gal" (CD) on Amazon

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