Mass Production - The Definitive Collection: Welcome to Our World of Merry Music (2020)

Mass Production
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Mass Production - The Definitive Collection: Welcome to Our World of Merry Music

The concept might be foreign to many millennials, but baby boomers and even Gen Xers likely remember a bygone era when major labels invested long-term in artists even in the face of elusive commercial success. Of course, major soul artists of the 1970s and ‘80s such as Evelyn “Champagne” King and The Pointer Sisters unleashed an album per year over decade-long stretches when the hits kept coming. But then there were acts like Norfolk, Virginia-based Mass Production, signed to Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion. Despite landing only one top-ten single (1979’s oft-sampled “Firecracker”) and two further top-40 entries on the R&B charts, the collective released a mighty batch of eight full-length LP’s—and no less than 20 singles—from 1976 to 1983.

Mass Production - The Definitive Collection: Welcome to Our World of Merry Music

The concept might be foreign to many millennials, but baby boomers and even Gen Xers likely remember a bygone era when major labels invested long-term in artists even in the face of elusive commercial success. Of course, major soul artists of the 1970s and ‘80s such as Evelyn “Champagne” King and The Pointer Sisters unleashed an album per year over decade-long stretches when the hits kept coming. But then there were acts like Norfolk, Virginia-based Mass Production, signed to Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion. Despite landing only one top-ten single (1979’s oft-sampled “Firecracker”) and two further top-40 entries on the R&B charts, the collective released a mighty batch of eight full-length LP’s—and no less than 20 singles—from 1976 to 1983.

Although the group members appeared on most of its album covers (unlike contemporaries The S.O.S. Band), Mass Production didn’t have the same exposure through music videos and TV appearances; thus, unfairly, their works have largely been relegated to the depths of used record store racks, waiting to be newly discovered by the occasionally knowledgeable or adventurous vinyl collector. Robinsongs’ new three-CD set, The Definitive Collection: Welcome to Our World of Merry Music, aims to remedy that problem with a generous 45-track selection ably demonstrating the outfit’s well-rounded, consistently evolving body of funky and sometimes jazzy dancers and eclectic slow jams.

The aforementioned “Firecracker” served as the musical foundation for 2 Live Crew’s controversial 1989 smash, “Me So Horny,” giving it a second life a full decade after serving as Mass Production’s biggest hit (#4 in 1979). Penned by drummer Ricardo Williams, who also took the lead mic on the track, “Firecracker” was, yes, pure fire ahead of its time. There are many interesting flavors to be found throughout the group’s catalog as represented in this box set; but it’s clear why “Firecracker” blew up in the biggest way. The blazing funk of the guitars, keyboards, drums, and horns converged in a hard-hitting way that was edgier than what Earth, Wind & Fire (one of the group’s influences) was doing at the time and was a precursor to the kind of funkified take on disco that The Gap Band and The Bar-Kays would employ to great avail throughout the ‘80s. On top of that, Williams’ delivery had a definite swagg without being overreaching.

The group’s 1976 debut single, “Welcome to Our World (of Merry Music),” opens the set. Clocking in at 7:35, the chugging arrangement establishes a firm footing of their sound, utilizing expert drumming techniques, spaciously distributed, impactful horn jabs, and snaky guitar work to complement a fusion of cutting-edge keyboard stylings and piano fills with understated yet celebratory group vocals. The similarly festive “Wine-Flow Disco” keeps that momentum going, as do further jams on disc one such as the Latin-fused, Kool & The Gang-esque “I Like to Dance” (featuring Mass Production’s sole female member, Tiny Kelly on co-leads) and the ethereal jazz-disco groover “Magic.”

Disc two of The Definitive Collection showcases a slightly subtler side of Mass Production’s discography, with the grooves just a tad toned down in arrangement dynamics and tempo. Highlights include “Can’t You See I’m Fired Up,” the single predecessor to “Firecracker.” Relying on a lighter drum line and more integrated guitar work, the track is notable for its interplay of male and female leads accenting different aspects of the rhythm section. Injecting a summery vigor into the proceedings, 1980’s “Gonna Make You Love Me” demonstrates Kelly’s sweet tone and firmly enticing phrasing atop a summery groove with smooth male vocal harmonies. A similar essence permeates the joyful “Forever,” which just missed the R&B top 40 in ’80.

Disc three focuses on a more exploratory period of Mass Production’s tenure with Cotillion, when the group tried to adapt to emerging trends of synth-heavier funk. Thankfully, they managed to maintain their sense of spirited musicianship throughout this process, although the end results aren’t as fulfilling in certain respects. One of the most exemplary selections from this time lies in the 1981 instrumental, “Bopp,” meshing enthralling keyboard experimentation with striking electric guitar lines, gracefully executed horn jabs, and hard-to-resist rhythm guitar lacing. Another vocal-free tune, 1983’s “Sun Dancer,” also delights with saucy piano lines and synth-bass—and flute flourishes from none other than Herbie Mann. During the same year, renowned jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock would enjoy a smash instrumental crossover hit with the electro-laden “Rockit”; when Mass Production were churning out dynamic instrumental singles, they likely weren’t backed by the kind of promotional muscle needed to achieve a fraction of the same commercial impact.

On the ballad front, a handful of impressive entries are scattered throughout The Definitive Collection. Shining most brightly, 1977’s “Keep My Heart Together” is lyrically striking in its two-sided story line and musically poignant in its alighment of atmospheric keys and rock-etched guitar with lightly jazzy horns. Kelly and Larry Marshall’s vocal take on the uncertain fate of a long-term relationship is on point. Meanwhile, 1978’s sexy “Slow Bump” is seductive lyrically, vocally, and rhythmically.

From the more massive, yet authentic, jazz-funk sounds of their earliest albums, to the somewhat pared-down electro-funk of their latter-day efforts, Mass Production imbued each of their offerings with innately energetic musicianship and contagious spirit. The Definitive Collection is a well-deserved retrospective which will hopefully serve as belated evidence to the masses of this multi-faceted collective’s distinguished talent and creativity. Highly recommended.

By Justin Kantor

 
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