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Shuggie Otis / Inspiration Information / Epic (1974; Luaka Bop reissue, 2001)


AUDIO: Aht Uh Mi Hed
Countless are the artists whose work has entered into the realm of musical legend after years spent laboring in relative obscurity. From Nick Drake to Can to Captain Beefheart, popular culture has its way of granting a peculiar credence of genius, often shrouded in mythology, to artistic figures (both dead and alive) whose work somehow avoided the glare of the cultural radar during its heyday. In a sense, Shuggie Otis's 1974 opus Inspiration Information is one more addition to this postmodern pantheon. In another sense, it's a work of art that seems to anticipate and even propagate the artistic climate in which it might stand a chance of being re-evaluated. In still other senses, it's the birth and death of a vitally unique and wholly new style of music, a benchmark of musical auteurism, and the fetal stage of a prophetically new method of music-making. Regardless, nearly thirty years after its genesis, Shuggie Otis's swan song exudes a more powerful fascination than ever.

A musical prodigy, Shuggie Otis cut his recording debut with his father, rhythm and blues bandleader Johnny Otis, at the tender age of thirteen. Later rising to national attention via sessions with Al Kooper and Frank Zappa, to which he contributed some extraordinary guitar playing, Shuggie eventually set out to make music of his own. Aside from his prodigal grasp of guitar, Otis was an extraordinary drummer and vibraphone player, pianist, organist and bassist, even excelling as an arranger of horns and strings. At the age of 19, he started work on Inspiration Information, which was assembled over an exhaustive three-year period. By this time, Otis had not only immersed himself in drum-machine technology (then in its infancy), but had taken the bold step of assuming total creative and artistic control over the record, handling almost all of the performance, production and arrangements himself. In the early 1970s, this sort of DIY record-making was virtually unheard of, while the record itself -- one side vocal material, the other primarily instrumental -- was subsequently met with tragic indifference by the listening public. Dropped by Epic Records after the album's release, Otis has since existed on the fringes of the margins. He pops up for the odd gig or session now and then, but his deteriorating health, combined with an unwillingness to retread the ventures of the past, allowed the man and his record to drift into the murky undergrowth of cult obscurity.

It's to the credit of David Byrne's Luaka Bop label that Inspiration Information's reissue is not solely a labor of love, but something of a rescue mission, as well as an exploration of the unflinching fascination that surrounds this warm, daringly experimental music. Bolstered with four additional tracks from the more band-oriented 1971 release Freedom Flight, and lovingly annotated with sleevenotes from James Sullivan and Patrick Forge (Da Lata), this reissue acts not only as something of a soliloquy to the innumerable talents of its author, but expands into a kind of retrospective anthology, tainted by the mournful acknowledgement that this is as artistically mature as Otis has allowed himself to get.

As the title track kicks the album into being, it's almost impossible to listen within the context of its one-man studio setup. An astonishing, colorfully layered, subtly complex, and undeniably beautiful song, in which Otis works up a smoothly languid, Family Stone-style template of jaw-dropping psychedelic funk, "Inspiration Information" sounds for all the world like the jam of a ludicrously disciplined, harmoniously impassioned ensemble. Augmented by a loose-knit funk pulse, subtle organ stabs, and guitar-wah wig-outs, taking in choral vocal harmonies, and nifty time changes on its way, it's a frankly stunning achievement. Still, it's as far from a coldly calculated exercise in musical proficiency as could possibly be imagined, Otis's heartbreaking tenor vocals (vaguely reminiscent of Sly Stone or Allen Touissant) throwing all manner of sweetly soulful shapes. The result is a ghostly, smoothly seductive piece of kaleidoscopic soul, on to which the much-misused terms "visionary" and "genius" could very reasonably be applied.

Next, "Island Letter", the album's first glimmer of Otis's fascination with the potential of the emergent drum machine technology. A drowsily funky ambient chug that gradually evolves into a psychedelic California soul revue, it's at once minimal and mind-bendingly ethereal. For all its winning innovation (given the layered expanse of instrumentation, the spacious lack of clutter is frankly astonishing), Otis conveys a soulful fragility that's almost numb with heartbreak: "Did you think about me at all? Or just happen to hear my call? Cause I didn't get the chance to tell you that I would want to see you again...". Ripe with all manner of quirky textures and sounds, a soaring melody nestling at its heart, and yet as far from popular "song" territory as could be imagined, this is the work of an unrivalled sonic architect -- one whose complex blueprint of tiny details always enriches, and never obscures the song's majesty of intent.

Of the remaining vocal pieces, the gorgeous "Aht Uh Mi Hed" gallops along on a Sly Stone-esque chug of rolling funk; its irregular real-brushed drum-machine pulses seem to pre-suppose everything from organic electronica to off-kilter machine rhythms. Here, Otis sings with such ringing clarity, such soulful joie-de-vivre, such stirring conviction that you can't help but fall under his music's spell. Everything becomes totally right with the world, passing cars take on profound new shapes, the sun becomes a butterball of joy and the entire left half of the brain begins whistling, by which point you're off into dreamy, Love Unlimited-style string territory and your foot taps itself a new sole. Next, "Happy House" -- 75 seconds of oddball schizo-funk that alternates between psychedelic jazz-rap and a lurching soul groove. It's a bizarre yet fitting intro to the album's decidedly experimental (and primarily instrumental) second side, a herky-jerky ditty that -- like much of this album -- is unparalleled in its combination of the disjointed and tricksy with the smooth and soulful.

"Rainy Day", the first of the album's instrumentals, is a languid, jazzy affair, a slow and stunningly seductive preface to electro-tinged post-rock, with nods to space-age lounge, infused with that most essential ingredient -- soul. Patrick Forge's sleevenotes detail this as "some of the most revolutionary instrumental music it is possible to imagine being made back in 1974", and given the off-kilter electro of "XL-30", the disjointed, lopsided reggae-funk of "Not Available" and the slow-burning melancholy of "Not Available", it's almost impossible to argue. The worthiness of these wonderful instrumentals lies in their penchant for understatement, pushing a "less-is-more" ethos to its logical conclusion, resulting in untranslatable and often transcendent splendor.

Musically, sonically, harmonically, technically and texturally, Inspiration Information adopts a musical template all its own, defying tidy description and achieving extraordinary creative highs like nothing else before or since, its psychedelic soul reverie foretelling everything from ambient soundscapery and homemade electronic music to the jazz-tinged tendencies of post-rock and the DIY auteurism of Prince, Beck et al. Even its title is oddly prophetic of the age in which it has been relaunched; the calculated and codable qualities of information meld with the elusive, ingenious intangibility of inspiration. For all its premeditated complexity ane relentless innovation, Inspiration Information is some of the most warmly human, irrefutably soulful, achingly intimate and groovily accessible music to have been committed to tape.

-- Allan Harrison

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