Revisiting The O'Jays' legacy of serious art 

Now That We've Found Love

Now That We've Found Love

For those who may have forgotten, there was a time when vinyl was the least cool music format around. During the ascendency of the compact disc — with its "superior sound," its "indestructibility," its long cardboard boxes — nothing was lamer, uglier or less relevant than a vinyl record. Households everywhere were dumping their records, clearing out basements, attics and storage sheds and replacing the clunky, space-hogging format with shiny little beer coasters.

It was a wonderful time to be alive, especially if you were an adolescent with a reputation for embracing obsolescence and a mom willing to accept container after container filled with musty, decomposing discs. Because within those crates of weathered cardboard and scratchy vinyl there were bound to be a couple of O'Jays records — and it doesn't get much better than The O'Jays.

While The O'Jays were active during the purported death of vinyl — they were still landing cuts on the R&B charts and their Home for Christmas was omnipresent for a couple of holidays — they were not the same O'Jays. The O'Jays of the Bush 41 era were smooth, accomplished artists who embodied the very idea of mature adulthood, but The O'Jays in those crates — the classic, Philadelphia International Records-era O'Jays — were brooding, angry and full of righteous and justified indignation. The Nixon-era O'Jays were tough as nails, even when laying down the smoothest of soul. Their music was liberally dosed with psychedelic fringes, gutbucket horns and fuzz-guitar attack — a perfect recipe for connecting a young alterna-teen with the music his boomer parents' friends cast off.

But more than anything, there were the strings. They were the signature of O'Jays producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, but they never sounded more serious, urgent and intense than when they were laying down the foundation for the impassioned vocals of The O'Jays. Those strings lent an air of gravitas that underscored deeply profound tracks like "Shiftless, Shady, Jealous Kind of People" from 1972's Back Stabbers or "Ship Ahoy" from 1973's album of the same name (a tale of slavery that is still terrifying, even after a billion listens).

It was always clear that these were serious songs — despite its often-misinterpreted presence in pop culture, "For the Love Money" is as serious an indictment of American capitalism as any to come out of punk rock — but the strings made them into serious art. So when The O'Jays roll into the Schermerhorn, think of them not as just another pop group of elder statesmen sneaking into the symphony's home based solely on age and durability. Rather, think of The O'Jays as peers of the symphony, masters who made grandiose art music that just happened to be popular as well.

And while you're at it, go out and score yourself a copy of one of their classic albums on vinyl — it'll sound better, look better and probably last a lifetime longer than a CD. There are plenty of copies to be had — there's probably one in a crate in your basement right now.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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