Not to get too deep here—after all, depth of groove tends to trump depth of message in funk music—but when is a CD more than a CD? When it's also a history lesson, a photo archive, a journey from South Carolina's lowcountry to North Carolina's Research Triangle Park? Perhaps when it's a monument to persistence and research, an unquestionable labor of love?
Carolina Funk, which Chapel Hill's Jason Perlmutter spent half a decade compiling, is all of those things: From its scene-setting essays and detailed bios of the nearly two dozen artists included to the requisite photographs of the 45s from which these tracks were pulled, this 22-cut, 23-page package travels the same high road as similar triumphs of excavation and passion. Carolina Funk can claim Marshall Wyatt's Old Hat releases, several Smithsonian Folkways compilations and the Numero Group's Eccentric Soul series as kin.
Still, without the accompanying music, it's just a badass library book. That's not really a problem here: Come for the scholarship, but stay for the bass. Carolina Funk swings through a thick collection of instrumentals, party tunes and soul-dipped shakes. Listeners will notice something familiar and unifying, as Perlmutter has said that, while vetting songs for Carolina Funk, he looked for a certain similarity to James Brown's late '60s work. The set, which includes recordings from 1968 to the late '70s, showcases those who gave that proto-funk their own stamp.
The kinetic sounds make it clear that many of these acts did use Brown as rocket fuel. On Henry "Dynamite" Singletary's undeniably derivative "Super Good," for instance, Brown is a step-by-stutter-step blueprint for the entire orbit. Still, it's a fabulous cut. For a change of pace, there's Paul Burton's "So Very Hard to Make It (Without You)," a lovely, gently percussive approximation of What's Going On-period Marvin Gaye as captured at Charlotte's Reflection Sound Studio and perhaps a reminder of Brown's pure-soul days.
But the most welcoming entry point is the collection's midsection: In the No. 8 spot, Sundia's "Stand Up and Be a Man" offers Sly Stone-style family-funk, a "Do Right Woman" lyrical quote, and requests both for a witness and to be taken to the bridge. Then it's "Ease It to Me," a B-side from Shirlean Williams & the Tempos Band that swipes the chug from the Doobie Brothers' "Long Train Runnin'," tweaks it ever so slightly, and puts some saucy talk between bassist Nolia Mainor (who went on to become one of the only female nightclub deejays in Fayetteville) and the drummer overtop.
Next is Raleigh's only contribution, "Bad Woman" from Frankie & the Damons, an all-white group of Broughton High grads fronted by Joseph Lee "Frankie" Faison, a blind student from Shaw University. It's horn-spiked garage-funk, a raw rant that wouldn't be out of place on a Nuggets collection. And on Roy Roberts' "You Ain't Miss It," funk's trademark repetition pays dividends with an indelible guitar line, a siren riff that sounds like it's being played on the biggest, hippest rubber band in the galaxy.
That core foursome is excellent preparation for the surrounding tracks, although a couple instrumentals represent potentially tough sells for funk newcomers. But when in doubt, there are the party-on-record takes like "Good Time" from High Point's George Campbell and the J.D.s' "Funky Party Time." That's an apt, if understated summation.
Carolina Funk gets its own release party at Hell on Friday, Nov. 16, at 9 p.m. Jason Perlmutter will be on hand, along with special guest DJ Marco of Solid Sound System. CD copies of Carolina Funk will be available for $10.