Rock critics often cite the failed disco experiment as one of a litany of reasons why “disco sucks.” The point is unfair, considering that concessions to any popular trend rarely inspire great art — Pat Boone’s “Tutti Frutti,” anyone? — and disco hardly deserves to be made an exception. Although it seems impossible (and possibly sacrilegious) to suggest that James Brown, Paul McCartney, and the Rolling Stones were at their heights with “Bodyheat,” “Goodnight Tonight,” and “Miss You,” it conversely seems irrational to dismiss these experiments by older artists with younger means. If accident, incidence, and coincidence can fuel creativity, shouldn’t there be the possibility of good art in these cases? Shout! Factory’s reissue of Herb Alpert’s Rise offers a chance to examine one such example of a seemingly bad idea gone not too shabby.
In 1979 the veteran musician, composer, producer, and record executive joined two twentysomething producers to re-record his earlier hits, including “The Lonely Bull” and “A Taste of Honey,” in a more period manner. Though Alpert had decades of success in the industry, from being a bandleader of the Tijuana Brass to helming A&M Records, the forty-four-year-old admitted he had little sense of contemporary dance-floor mores. And after one listen to the transformation of his pussycat vamps into disco thumps, his instincts told him to ditch the effort. Fortunately, his accomplices, nephew Randy “Badazz” Alpert and Andy Armer, came to the studio with a slick number they had penned. The elder Alpert took a shine to the melody, but insisted on slowing the song to a “let’s hold each other and dance” tempo. The song alternated between a sinister bass groove and Alpert’s sweeping take on the melody. The resulting “Rise” became Herb Alpert’s biggest hit to date and inspired an entire album of the same name.
On one hand, the full-length Rise commits every sin in the Johnny-come-lately book. It is awash in ’80s production anachronisms, such as the excessive use of echo on seemingly every principle instrument. Its least compelling moments, namely the covers in the record’s second half, sound like muzak versions of catchy source material. However, as Eric Weisbard writes in the reissue’s liner notes, “Rise gives a listener a taste of what one world under a groove sounded like in 1979.” The album is an atypically lucid summation of pop ideals during the transition from the ’70s to the ’80s.
Alpert succeeds on Rise by adopting his talent and style to Badazz and Armer’s sense of aesthetics. Though an accomplished musician, Alpert infuses each song with more personality than technique. Thus, he brings an appropriate drama to the stately “1980,” which was originally written for the Mexico City Olympics, and a refined presence to the Moroder-esque “Behind the Rain.” With little pretense or ego, Alpert takes the lead when necessary but allows room for his accomplished accompanists (including studio staples like bassist Abe Laboriel, keyboardists Joe Sample and Michel Colombier, and drummer Harvey Mason).
The reissue is accompanied by a pair of remixes that are available both on the full-length as bonus tracks and as a separate limited edition twelve-inch single. The first is a recent update of “Aranjuez” that ironically commits the sin Rise narrowly escaped. With seemingly little input or oversight from Alpert himself, the song receives an overwhelming techno makeover and little else. Fortunately, the second track is a throwback: a rare twelve-inch version of the album’s second single, “Rotation.” Just as “Rise” found room for both the aging Alpert and the then-current soundscape, this mix of “Rotation” balances elements of Alpert’s Miles-lite leanings, proto-Peter Gabriel world pop, and progressive dance beats. Appropriately, the track concludes a rare occurrence in pop music of intergenerational synergy rising to the top.