ASHFORD AND SIMPSON-HIGH RISE.

ASHFORD AND SIMPSON-HIGH RISE.

By 1983, Ashford and Simpson were about to release their eleventh album, High Rise. It was their second album for their new record label Capitol Records. High Rise was also the followup to their 1982 concept album Street Opera, which dealt with the problems couples face in economically tough times.

Street Opera dealt with the problem a couple face keeping their love alive when money’s tight. Ashford and Simpson examined the problems an ordinary working man encountered whilst trying to support his wife and family during an economic downturn. The result was a concept album full of social comment, emotion  and soul searching. Released to widespread critical acclaim in 1982,  Street Opera was a huge commercial success. It reached number forty-five in the US Billboard 200 and number five in the US R&B Charts. Since then, High Rise is considered one of Ashford and Simpson’s best albums. A year later, in August 1983, Ashford and Simpson decided to move away from the social comment and urban drama of Street Opera to something quite different, High Rise, an album where four of the eight tracks were designed for the dance-floor.

For High Rise, Ashford and Simpson penned eight tracks. They were a mixture of ballads and dance-tracks. This was very different from Street Opera, but showed that Ashford and Simpson weren’t willing to stand still. Instead, High Rise was  the next chapter in Ashford and Simpson’s long and successful career.

When the recording of High Rise began at  Penny Lane Studios, Ashford and Simpson enlisted the help of a crack team of musicians to help record the eight songs on the album. This included guitarist Sidney McGinnis, bassist Francisco Centeno, drummer Yogi Horton and Ray Chew on electric piano. Together with the rest of the band, they cut eight tracks, four of which were written specifically for the dance-floor, where the music of Ashford and Simpson had always been well received. On High Rise was a combination of soul and R&B music, with slower songs sitting comfortably next to faster dance-floor friendly tracks. Once High Rise which was rereleased by BBR Records on 2nd June 2014, was recorded, it was mixed at  Sigma Sound Studios, in New York.  High Rise was then released in August 1983.

High Rise was Ashford and Simpson’s eleventh album, and was released in August 1983. Before it was released, the first single from High Rise, an instrumental version of the title track High Rise was released. It reached number seventeen in the US R&B Charts and number forty-one in the US Dance Charts. A month later, the album High Rise was released, reaching number fourteen in the US R&B Charts and number eighty-four in the US Billboard 200. October 1983 saw the release of the second single from the album It’s Much Deeper. It reached number forty-five in the US R&B Charts. In January 1984 the third and final single was released from High Rise. This was It’s Not That Tough, which reached number seventy-eight in the US R&B Charts. Although neither the album High Rise, nor the three singles taken from it, had replicated the success of Street Opera, High Rise was still a great album, full of quality music, which I’ll now tell you about.

The opening track on High Rise is the title track, High Rise a song cloaked in drama and suspense, from the opening bars. A combination of piano, rhythm section and guitars give way to Nick’s vocal, before Valerie makes her entrance. Nick tell the story of a woman he loved, who wanting the finer things in life him, in pursuit of them. Like Nick, Valerie plays her character well, the quick tempo like her hasty departure in pursuit of a better life. The sound is punctuated by bursts of darkness and suspense from the piano. Meanwhile, a bass reverberates, while a constant drumbeat provides the song’s heartbeat. Later, vibes played by Ray Chew provides a musical contrast, while the chords played on the piano sympathetically echos Valerie’s desire for better things. Similarly to the music on their previous album Street Opera, Ashford and Simpson tell a story that reflects real life perfectly, using not just their vocals, but the instruments to get across the sadness, drama and desire of the scenario, and the pursuit of the best things in life.

SIde Effect opens with a funk drenched sound from the rhythm section and guitars, while a wailing saxophone floats above the arrangement. It’s a dance-floor oriented track, with crisp beats, a funk laden bass and piano being joined by blazing horns. Key to track’s success is Sidney McGinnis guitar playing is used to reflect the side effect suffered by the character in the song. This side effect is how either a lack of love, or a love affair that’s gone wrong can have on a person, and its affect on their life in other ways. As the song progresses, a combination of funky driving rhythm section, chiming guitars and piano accompany Nick and Valerie’s looser, joyous, powerful vocals. The result is a great song, one that’s not just dance-floor friendly, but has a joyful, uptempo sound.

Experience (Love Had No Face) is a slower song, one that explores the nature of casual relationships and their lack of commitment and emotion. Against a backdrop of pianos, rhythm section and shimmering guitar Nick thoughtfully sings the lead vocal. Brief bursts of horns signal Valerie’s entrance, while lush strings sweep in the background. By now, the arrangement has grown, with acoustic and electric piano combining well, while strings and horns add a sad, emotive sound, reflecting the emptiness of these fleeting, casual relationships. Later, Nick and Valerie’s vocals soar emotionally, while behind them, the best arrangement unfolds. Not only has it a beautiful, slow, lush sound, that gradually reveals itself, but when combined with the vocals is by far, one of the album’s highlights.

 It’s A Rush is quite different from its predecessor. Straight away, it’s immediately noticeable that the track has a quite dated, electronic sound. This is caused by various synths used, including a synthesizer bass line. Although they sounded okay back in 1983, the sound has dated. Thankfully, after the joyous vocals enter, the sound improves, with the arrangement starting to lose its earlier artificial sound. Maybe this is because of the inclusion of more traditional instruments, including guitars, pianos, percussion and rhythm section. Together, they drive the track along quickly, providing a dance-floor friendly track, made all the better by Nick and Valerie’s joyful, soaring and energetic vocals. However, it’s just a pity that parts of the track haven’t aged well, a common problem among synth-heavy, early-eighties tracks.

My Kinda Pick Me Up, a much better sounding track than its predecessor. It has a jazz influence throughout the track, especially with the addition of George Young’s saxophone playing. It wails and howls above the punchy, arrangement, as piano, rhythm section and chiming, quivering guitars accompany it. Valerie’s gentle tender vocal enters, as she sings about how her lover is her pick me up. Nick’s vocal has a similar tenderness, while the rhythm section, piano and saxophone are key to this fantastic, jazz tinged arrangement. When you add Nick and Valerie’s vocal to it, the result is a timeless, track, unlike its predecessor.

It’s Not That Tough is another slow song, with gentle harmonies sitting atop the arrangement, while strings slowly, sweep and a piano and the rhythm section combine. Both Nick and Valerie’s vocals begin tenderly, growing in strength, before quickly, returning to the previous gentle style. It’s a song about a man with a tough facade, but behind that facade, is a man waiting and wanting to melt into his lover’s arms. Behind them, lush strings, piano and the rhythm section combine with bursts of rasping horns to create a beautiful, slow meandering arrangement, which is perfect for the gentle, beauty and tenderness of the vocal. The result of this combination is a stunning track, one of the best on High Rise.

It’s Much Deeper is a much quicker track, with rock style guitars throughout the track. Ashford and Simpson have built the song around a repeated groove, one that’s used throughout the track. Onto that groove, they get Sidney McGinnis to add a very eighties sounding rock guitar solo. Like the synths used in It’s A Rush, this detracts from the track, giving it a predictable, somewhat dated sound. It just doesn’t work, and sounds like too many similar eighties’ tracks. From the start, a funky, driving rhythm section, chiming guitars and piano accompany the powerful, energetic vocals from Nick and Valerie. Even until Sidney McGinnis adds his rock influenced guitar solo, the track wasn’t as good as the rest of the album. Like the guitar solo, the track has an eighties sound throughout. Like It’s A Rush, it hasn’t dated well, and is a disappointing track. 

High Rise closes with Still Such A Thing, a track that Ashford and Simpson had produced for Gladys Knight and The Pips About Love album. This is a stunning track, one that more that makes up for the disappointment of It’s Much Deeper. It’s a track that pays homage to how love transcends race or religion and class or creed, and truly is a universal thing. Against a gentle piano lead arrangement Nick and Valerie gently and tenderly deliver the lyrics. Lush sweeping strings enter, while the rhythm section, guitar and percussion combine. They provide a beautiful backdrop for the vocals, and when subtle, horns enter, combining with the strings, things get even better. As the song progresses, Nick and Valerie sing with emotion and passion, against an arrangement that’s both lush and sometimes dramatic, matching their delivery. By the end of this stunning track, it seems Ashford and Simpson have kept one of the album’s best tracks until last. It was well worth the wait, to hear such a beautiful and brilliant song.

It’s been a while since I last listened to High Rise. So, I’ve had to familiarise myself with High Rise again. Having spent time doing this, I’ve come to the conclusion that although it’s not quite as good as Street Opera, it’s still a good album. Of the eight songs on High Rise, only two disappoint. These are It’s A Rush and It’s Much Deeper, two tracks with a slightly dated sound that sadly, haven’t stood the test of time well. Apart from these two tracks, Ashford and Simpson work their Magic on High Rise.

Some of the tracks are on a par with the critically acclaimed Street Opera. This includes Experience (Love Had No Face) and It’s Not That Tough. They’re two slow tracks which feature great arrangements and some tender, emotive and heartfelt vocals from Nick and Valerie. The jazz tinged My Kinda Pick Me Up, demonstrates Ashford and Simpson’s versatility and features some virtuoso playing by George Young which helps lift the song to the next level. However, Ashford and Simpson kept the best to last with Still Such A Thing, which had originally been on Gladys Knight and The Pips, About Love album. On that track, they pay homage to the universality of love, and produce a stunning vocal performance. That was the perfect way to end the album. Leave the listener on a high, wanting more. That’s the case on High Rise, an an album that deserved to do better, reaching number fourteen in the US R&B Charts and number eighty-four in the US Billboard 200. 

ASHFORD AND SIMPSON-HIGH RISE.

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