Issue #102: Come Softly by Brenton Wood
February 26, 2018
Released In 1977
Released By Cream Records
I am not here for people dragging millennials that they don’t know the music of Nirvana by heart. They were likely not born yet and there are also so many reasons why Kurt Cobain passed them by. As I kid, I didn’t listen to older music except the records my parents had — it was way cooler in 1987 to like Bon Jovi than The Kinks, that’s for sure. I didn’t even start buying non-current records until college, when I got into Pet Sounds and Getz Au-Go-Go like everyone else does at that age.
I was born at the end of the disco era. My parents never listened to dance music because they were folkies. I grew up believing disco was just music that people in polyester danced to in New York City. This belief was reinforced by movies like The Last Days Of Disco and countless Studio 54 documentaries I watched after seeing the aforementioned LDD. I surmised that Donna Summer had a career before “She Works Hard For The Money” (whose video had led me to believe when I was five that the song was about women in food service and not sex work), but I didn’t understand how famous and important she was.
The bar where my husband and I DJ requested a funk night a few months ago, so we went on a few record-buying sprees, including one in Pittsburgh to improve our collection of ’70s soul/R&B/funk. I am a huge fan of Brenton Wood’s 1967 record, Oogum Boogum, so when I saw Come Softly at record mecca Jerry’s, I picked it up without even listening to it, even though it was released ten years later and probably didn’t sound like “Gimme Little Sign.”
When I put it on the first time, I winced a little. Disco? Yeeeeeeesh. My opinion of disco changed a lot after listening to the episode of Undone about Disco Demolition Night and seeing the influence of disco on hip-hop on The Get Down. But still…
Is Come Softly corny? Holy shit, yes. Here is the chorus to “Rock You To Your Socks,” which I did end up DJing: “I wanna rock you to your socks / from your bottoms to your tops / Until your love it snaps and pops / Let me rock you, rock you to your socks.”
But you know what? This record is also really fucking delightful. “You’re Everything I Need” is straight up an amazing song, disco or not (though I could probably do without the chimes). “Number One” is pure joy in three and a half minutes. “In For The Night” has a killer, gorgeous chorus. These songs stand for themselves and they are great.
I find it fascinating how weird some of these songs are, like the title track. The voice doesn’t exactly sync up with the music and the keyboards sound like they’re from a video game. The background vocals are very “dream angel.” But it’s so good. Wood’s falsetto near the end, where I can’t understand a damn word he’s singing — it just gives me chills. The horns and piano, in addition to those cheesy backup singers, make me smile ear to ear! Who the hell am I?!?
Wood never lets singing dance music dampen his warm, sweet voice — it’s beautiful the whole way through, which is what initially charmed me about the record. There are so many places with these little lilting melodies that I replay again and again. Every record I’ve loved — really, truly, soul-crushingly loved — has those melodies, and I could point to them in each and every selection I’ve made for Off Your Radar in the past two years.
So, this is my last post for this wonderful publication — I’m going to spend some time with my other hobbies, my new job, and also my lovely husband, who has not experienced a Sunday Funday in years. Thank you so much to Doug for asking me to join him on this journey and being so supportive, even though he always texted me when he wanted a feminist opinion on music (just kidding, keep doing it). Also, thanks to my current and former fellow writers, who always challenged me to find the good in things I would not have always chosen myself. Josh, I will never forgive you for making me listen to Britney Spears, even though I kind of liked it.
I will see you on the internet!
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
A late career garnish that nimbly places Wood’s glossy voice amongst ornate arrangements & alluring groves.
Well, this album is right in my wheelhouse. It’s got everything I look for when digging in the crates for samples to use for new productions. It’s got the slick string arrangements of “Number One,” utilizing the “Sound Of Philadelphia” which ruled much of R&B during the mid-late seventies. There’s also the silky smooth vocals of Brenton Wood himself. Take “Love Is Free” for example. The way Wood’s voice melts into the track, it becomes an instrument nearly indiscriminate from the rest of the backing music. And finally, it’s got the thing that I miss the most about music from the 1970s — the funky breakdown. Smack dab in the middle of “Just Like The First Time” is a 4-bar break that’s just begging to be looped! Perhaps my favorite moment on the album is the breakdown on “In For The Night” where Wood takes a break to let someone get busy on a well-placed harmonica solo that makes staying in for the night sound like the livest party in town. Sadly, these are all things that we just don’t see in current R&B music for one reason or another. Luckily, I’ve got more records in my collection than I know what to do with, so there’s no shortage of soul on memory lane.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
Wednesday afternoons are quiet working days for me. After morning classes, our students retreat to their units for a myriad of other treatment and housekeeping issues, leaving us with an empty school full of teachers planning, researching, reading, and conversing. Preferring to work with music on, that’s often when I first listen to the album of the week, sometimes in headphones, sometimes echoing out into my classroom. This week I could be found at my desk, a million tabs open as I read about best practices and project assignments while streaming Brenton Wood in the background. And again, as has happened times before, an older teacher walked by my room and doubled back, sticking in a head to interrupt my work with, “Is that Come Softly you’re playing? You’re too young to know about that!” Laughing, turning it up a bit, I abandoned the articles and essays for a bit to be drawn in to the music. Wood’s album is a classic ’70s sound, with a round richness to each song individually. Horns and flute, with a full band behind that raspy high voice, evoke a happiness and joy of being heard that feels characteristic of early R&B. My colleague and I were pulled in, her with a half smile piecing together lyrics buried deep in her past, me nodding and dancing along to melodies just forming into memories. With Come Softly, I found again one of the greatest joys of music: wordless bonding over the pleasure of just being there to listen.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
The fact that right from the title and artist’s name, I don’t know who is in this spotlight this week and, none of the most commonly recalled names in R&B, soul, and Motown are within Wood’s immediate influential vicinity, shows the newsletter is working at its finest here. The 1977 nine track effort carries plenty of the signatures from Wood’s chosen assortment of genre leanings. Cascading unison strings powering a very singable melody, for example, open the record with the seemingly self-referentially titled, “Number One.” (Though as will become very apparent not long after the song starts, the track is more about being someone’s number one than an alternative take on the common “untitled” song having no ideas for a name.) Defined and plucky bass give textural propulsion (“Rock You To Your Socks“) or a deep toned, laid back swing (“Love Is Free“), depending on the emotional intent of the track at hand. There’s a definite “ladies man” vibe built into Come Softly, which is easy to read just from the track list alone and for a classic visit to the era of ’70s love, Brenton Wood will deliver. And even if the obvious narratives of earning back, keeping, or fostering love leave little room for other concepts, the various tempos and instrumental characters that house makes the album wholly more than one-note. The different ratios of bass to bright toned trumpets, to titter-tatters of high hats, and of course, Wood’s own falsetto, leads to either more decidedly blues-driven structure or, even on occasion, music that sounds a tad more classic rock / singer-songwriter in nature (“Rainin’ Love“). The arrangements alone are fun to explore in that kind of see-what-comes-next kind of way but just don’t go in expecting eye-popping individuality. Come Softly plays with some presentation of the typical soul, R&B, and funk ingredients, while staying within the lines of those stylistic objectives. Still, there’s nothing wrong with creating inside the lines. You can go into Come Softly not having heard specifically of Brenton Wood and if the record took a turn in a Spotify or Pandora recommended artist station, chances are, you would be pleasantly surprised by a new voice but have no desire to change the station. Ultimately then, you’d come away having simply enjoyed what you heard and perhaps look into the rest of Wood’s catalog afterward.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
I know what you’re thinking: is Come Softly a double entendre? I was uncertain myself until I made it to track five, “Rock You To Your Socks.” That’s where Brenton makes his intentions all too clear. This album is certainly music to make love to your old lady by if I ever heard it. With the power to make a nun blush, Brenton Wood’s 1977 release is probably responsible for a noticeable baby boom. Although 1970s R&B and soul are genres renowned for being smooth and more often than not seductive in nature, this album in particular adds just a little something more to the genre. The album is diversely orchestrated and mixed to perfection, encompassing a variety of instrumentation and subjects revolving loosely around the themes of love and relationships. Come Softly is an underrated album of it’s time that deserves further examination. So whether you’re looking to add something new to your budding R&B collection, convince your neighbours that someone out there might just find you attractive, or simply looking for something new to set the mood for romance whilst you tediously re-write your tinder bio, this album has limitless applications… Well, limitless might be an overstatement. Please don’t use this album to scar your friends and family members. You heard it here first folks: Off Your Radar encourages you to listen responsibly.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
Wood’s signature approach allowed him to uniformly fit within all of R&B’s fluctuating scenes at the time.
I knew there was something special about this Brenton Wood album from the very first song. When, in “Number One,” he sang “Numero Uno” like the coolest person to ever casually, yet cheesily, slip another language into a song — I knew I was in for a treat. And I think that is the exact quality that draws me to this album. He is so smooth, but also everything he’s bringing shouldn’t work. I’m listening to what sounds to my untrained ears very much like a flute solo in that same first song and it’s amazing. So the thrill of this album, for me, was the “what’s next?” factor. Would the next track be another high energy dance track? A contemplative love song? A full-speed-ahead pick-up song about rocking someone to their socks? Any wishes I had for those examples to appear on this album were completely filled as if Mr. Wood was one of those rare genies that isn’t playing games with the wording of your wishes and instead just grants the damn thing! It should be perfectly clear at this point that I love this album. I love everything about it and I’m excited to put it on for many impromptu dance parties in my kitchen while my wife and children sit there at the dinner table, aghast.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
“It’s too slow, it’s not in my range, I don’t like the song,” soul icon Johnnie Taylor is reported to have said when he heard the demo of “Disco Lady.” He was literally singing a different tune after he was convinced to record the song and it went on to sell over 2.5 million copies, but the anecdote illustrates some of the difficulties soul singers who had started in the ’60s had in adjusting to the new landscape of the mid-’70s. Brenton Wood was in a bit of a bind when he made Come Softly in 1977, having had two top 40 songs in rapid succession in the late ’60s (“The Oogum Boogum Song” and “Gimme Little Sign“), and then struggled to follow them up ever since. One bright spot came in 1972, when he put out “Sticky Boom Boom Too Cold,” a tough slice of underground funk that’s ripe for sampling. In terms of seeking commercial success, Wood made a smart move on this album, taking a hit of the past and updating it for a contemporary audience, in this case “Come Softly To Me,” which had hit #1 for The Fleetwoods back in 1959. Wood’s version lays it on thick, with some Isaac Hayes hi-hat to kick it off, breathy backing vocals, strings and horns, wah-wah guitar, and a pulsing bass line. It’s mirror ball-ready for sure — even if Wood himself seems a little lost in the mix. He’s a bit more present in “Love Is Free,” a stripped-down ballad with some sparkle, which was co-written by Frederick Knight. Knight also wrote “Number One” and “You’re Everything I Need,” two of the stronger songs here. In fact, Knight is worthy of investigation on his own, having had a hit with “I’ve Been Lonely For So Long,” when he was a colleague of Johnnie Taylor’s at Stax Records, and also known for writing “Ring My Bell” for Anita Ward (a disco classic and #1 in 1979) and “Be For Real,” later covered by Leonard Cohen. So it’s easy to see why Wood hooked up with Knight, though I don’t quite think this is Wood at his absolute best. In the end, the whole album comes off as somewhat calculated, with Wood a follower of the culture rather than moving it along. That said, if I found this in a crate of mouldering records somewhere, I might have picked it up and been pleasantly surprised by some of the grooves and Wood’s sweet high tenor.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
The groundswell of teenager-led activism that’s followed the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida has been inspiring — and it’s made me rethink the role of idealism in my life. Am I glad the Republican governor of Florida is voicing support for raising the minimum age for gun purchases from 18 to 21? Absolutely. Did I think that was possible? Absolutely not. The line between realism and cynicism is razor thin, and we’d all do well to fill that space with art that pushes us back toward believing a more perfect world is possible. Enter Brenton Wood, who projects an idealism that, if I’m being honest, first registered as unrealistic. Lyrics like “love is free for the asking” and “it’s going to be like the first time” initially seemed outlandish, but by my second trip through Come Softly, Brenton Wood’s voice — as deserving of the descriptor “honeyed” as any singing I’ve heard — had won me over, and I’d started to think things like, “Hey, maybe people who left broken relationships really do have a chance of starting over” and “Hey Davy, when did your romanticism turn into a lump of coal?” My second listen also gave me an opportunity to hear the lyrics to “Rock You To Your Socks” more clearly, and lordy is it ever an amusement park for double-entendre. Shouts to Wood for all the delightful double meanings (including some that I’d guess are unintentional), shouts to the guitarist for maybe inspiring Jerry Garcia’s tone on “Fire On The Mountain” (or the other way around — either seems possible given the timing), and shouts to the horn section, which is so jauntily enthusiastic I almost laughed out loud imagining those horns being present for the very private moments the song describes. Most importantly, shouts to Melissa on her last OYR. Recharging people’s capacity for idealism strikes me as a pretty fantastic way to go bid the newsletter farewell.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
While outside his chart peak, this record does freely flaunt Wood’s talented vocal charm & adventurous musical spirit.
Disco, like soul, is all about the groove. That Brenton Wood’s Come Softly has lush production, including satin strings, is basically a given. It’s just part of the deal. The real key to disco has, and always will be, the rhythm section. Disco’s underappreciated status, at least in some critical circles, stems from its danceable (read: disposable) nature as a genre. But you can’t dance to a bad groove. Enter bassist Wilton Felder and drummer Ken Park, the real draw of Come Softly for me. That isn’t to discount the songwriting here—indeed, “Number One” and “Rock You To Your Socks” are superb pop songs — but the serpentine interlocking between Felder and Park is what drives the record (e.g., “You’re Everything I Need“). Felder’s melodic bass playing on “Just Like The First Time” is splendid, and Park’s accenting beat on “I Couldn’t Stop Loving You” is a treat. Even when they get out of the way of the song, as on “Rock You To Your Socks,” it’s a joy to listen to. The band doesn’t color outside the lines much — the tidy solos in “Love Is Free,” “I Couldn’t Stop,” and “In For The Night” are notable exceptions — and they don’t have to. The compositions themselves are expertly constructed vehicles for Wood’s soulful vocals to play with. Indeed, sometimes a backing band doing exactly what it’s supposed to is all you need.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
One of my favourite things about this album is the groovy, disco feel that just transports me back in time. The opening track “Number One” was definitely the right choice in setting the tone for the album. Such a fun and upbeat song and I can just picture people dancing along in their disco attire, like a Saturday Night Fever type dance almost. The album is really easy to listen to as well — it just has a really smooth sound, and in keeping with the tone set by the opening track, it has a very upbeat and positive vibe. You can just hear the happiness in his voice and in the music, which left me listening with a smile. It’s nice to listen to something that radiates such positive energy, something that is just joyful for the sake of it. Sometimes you really just need some easy going, uplifting music to soften the harsh negativity that seems to be just about everywhere at the moment, and my spirits have been lifted thanks to this one.
Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast
I’m not a big fan of disco, but I’ve always enjoyed the smooth soul sound that seems to have had a big influence on disco. It’s easy to recognize Brenton Wood’s Come Softly as an album that lands very close to the border between those two sounds, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s safely on the good side. The instrumentation on this album, as well as the lush vibe the album shoots for, both have a lot in common with disco stars like Donna Summer and the Bee Gees — or at least, so it sounds to my ears. However, it’s the firm commitment to soul as a priority above all others that keeps Wood from steering against the rocks with this album. The tempos are slowed-down enough to keep them properly seductive even at their peppier moments. The instrumentation and musical performances fall right in line with the sort of sound that was coming out of Memphis in the mid-’70s, regardless of the fact that he actually hails from California. The title track-ish ballad and popular single, “Come Softly To Me” — a recreation of an early rock n’ roll hit originally taken to the charts by the Fleetwoods in 1959 — is the album’s best moment; it sounds like Marvin Gaye taking a guest vocal on a prime Isaac Hayes single. Nothing wrong with that at all, if you ask me. Like even my most beloved soul records from this era, Come Softly can’t help but sound a bit disco-ish at times. It was in the air, after all. But if you can manage not to let those tinges distract you too much, you’ll get a lot out of this excellent example of the best the mid-’70s soul sound had to offer.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
No matter how much praise we lay upon the Bee Gees’ feet, no matter how many musicians line up to pay homage to Nile Rodgers, and no matter how many people will instantly start to move when “That’s the Way (I Like It)” comes on — we always end up looking down on disco. I fall into this habit too. My first inclination upon looking over the track list was to groan at the inclusion of “Come Softly To Me,” a great doo-wop gem from the ’50s that just hasn’t entered the canon like other songs from that era have. It’s far from my favorite doo-wop song, though it does hold a special place in my heart for its tender innocence and sparse arrangement, two things that fly strongly against the extravagance and aplomb of disco and late ’70s soul. That’s not to say there isn’t a way to modernize the song for its time. The Roches, a group I championed back in Issue #51, included a cover of “Come Softly To Me” on their fourth record back in 1985 that wonderfully stayed true to the core of the song while also rejuvenated it with dreamy production. It’s a great version and something you should definitely listen to, but honestly, it doesn’t even come close to the enormity of Brenton Wood’s interpretation. All my fears about this cover are quickly allayed when Brenton Wood’s delicate, forceful voice lightly slides in, ushering in a raw vulnerability that perfectly surpasses the tender innocence that made the original so appealing. Wood’s interpretation here is rather stunning and you can just feel his voice come alive among all the hi-hat taps and wah-wah strokes that follow, letting you know that this is a voice that could never, should never exist in the sparse arrangement of Gretchen Christopher. I hate spending my time here talking about just one song here when the whole record is full of rewarding finds from the tongue-in-cheek fun of “Rock You To Your Socks” down to the esoteric grooving of “You’re Everything I Need.” But this story might show you that you just need to wash your preconceived notions of disco away when coming across something new. It might be stereotypical at times and it might even warrant an eye-roll here and there, but it’s clear that the genre has gold to find within, something that Brenton Wood profoundly proves here on this late career triumph that cements his thrilling musical flair.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Mortal Mirror by Quix*o*tic
Chosen By Laura Burroughs