Melvin Van Peebles – 1974 – What The…You Mean I Can’t Sing?!
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Very tripped out work from Melvin Van Peebles – the multi-talented artist who had a huge influence on African American film in the 70s! Melvin’s working here in a a mode that combines soul, folk, funk, and lots of the more messed-up sounds that you’d hear on his own soundtracks for his films. And yes, he can’t sing – but he has this wild way of muttering while singing, one that makes the album a really compelling document of culture and politics in the early 70s! The overall feel is sort of like Eugene McDaniels‘ work for Atlantic from the same time – but more messed up, disorganized, and rootsy!
A1 A Birth Certificate Ain’t Nothing But a Death Warrant Anyway 3:57
A2 So Many Bars 4:11
A3 Save the Watergate 500 3:21
A4 Superstition 5:05
A5 There 3:58
B1 Come On Write Me 3:42
B2 Eyes on the Rabbit 5:09
B3 My Love Belongs to You 10:22
What the…You Mean I Can’t Sing?! is the fourth studio album by Melvin Van Peebles. Released in 1974, this album marks the first traditional music effort by Van Peebles.
Prior to the recording of this album, Van Peebles had released a trio of experimental albums, Brer Soul, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death and As Serious as a Heart-Attack, which were considered to be spoken word, due to their use of sprechgesang. Modern critics have dubbed these albums as precursors to hip hop music.
What the…You Mean I Can’t Sing?! derives from funk and soul music, such as Van Peebles had featured on the soundtrack to his 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Van Peebles wanted to record an album that showed that he could perform in a more traditional form, as opposed to the style he had used on his previous albums, titling it What the….You Mean I Can’t Sing?! because of this.
Melvin Van Peebles wanted to prominently feature harmony and melody, as well as traditional songwriting and singing, on What the….You Mean I Can’t Sing?!, aspects that he felt had “subliminally pushed into the background” on his previous albums. While Van Peebles said that some of the album’s songs could have been written in a spoken word form, he decided to include more musical instrumentation than he had previously. Van Peebles’ vocals were compared to “Louis Armstrong, the comedy albums of Bill Cosby from the ’70s, and the wild antics of cartoon voice artists Mel Blanc and Hans Conreid [sic]”. Van Peebles’ delivery was compared to that of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Van Peebles describes his vocal style as “the old Southern style”, which was influenced by singers he had heard growing up in South Chicago. Van Peebles also said that he was influenced by older forms of African-American music: “… people like Blind Lemon Jefferson and the field hollers. I was also influenced by spoken word song styles from Germany that I encountered when I lived in France.”
The music on What the….You Mean I Can’t Sing?! largely derives from funk and soul music. Van Peebles’ lyrics encompass themes ranging from humorous to socially conscious themes, although it is less politically oriented than Van Peebles’ spoken word albums; the most political song on the album is “Save The Watergate 500“, which refers to the Watergate scandal. Domestic violence is explored on “There“, which Van Peebles described as “a story of how a guy who gets it on the job comes home and kicks his old lady’s ass.” To pay tribute to another singer, he recorded a version of “Superstition“, a song by Stevie Wonder, who he admired.
Other songs such as “Come On Write Me“, express vulnerability, which Van Peebles has said is absent from modern recordings by African American males. Van Peebles wrote “Eyes On The Rabbit” as a joke, he said, “I’m going to write the sappiest song I can.” Van Peebles rehearsed the song at the piano player’s house. He realized that all of them were crying, and the song had a different emotional impact than he had intended.
Initially in 1974, radio stations refused to play any song from the album, demanding an explanation as to what the symbols on the album cover’s word balloon meant. Van Peebles said that it was “a private joke and his secret”.
In the March 2004 issue of Spin recommended “A Birth Certificate Ain’t Nothing but a Death Warrant Anyway” in its “The Mix Club” section as a “hot [track] to impress… this 1974 joint is still one of the darkest R&B numbers ever.”
Allmusic writer Thom Jurek gave the album four out of five stars, calling it “a deeply musical, funky masterpiece of rage, righteous indignation, and soulful killer grooves“.