Reviewed on this page:
Mandrill - Mandrill Is -
Composite Truth - Just Outside Of Town - Mandrilland - Solid -
- Beast From The East - We Are One -
Lou Wilson passed away on January 7, 2013. Details on a remembrance service are here.
Brooklyn-based Mandrill was a psychedelic funk band with a side of rice and beans, led by the three Wilson brothers
(not these three Wilson brothers, or those other ones). After releasing their debut in 1970, it took them a while
to forge a coherent sound out of their jam-heavy melange of musical styles, and while they had a succession of hit R&B
singles, their LPs are prone to vague mysticism and failed experiments.
At their best, though, they had the cosmic perspective and omnivorous musical approach of Earth, Wind & Fire
with more Caribbean influences.
Some version of the band is still together; you can get the details at the official
Carlos Wilson, trombone, flute, sax; Lou Wilson, trumpet; Ric Wilson, sax; Claude "Coffee"
Cave, keyboards; Omar Mesa, guitar; Fudgie Kae, bass; Neftali Santiago, drums. Mesa left 1974,
replaced by Doug Rodrigues. Kae and Santiago left 1975, replaced by Brian Allsop and Andre Locke.
By 1977, Rodrigues, Allsop and Locke were gone, replaced by Juaquin Jessup,
Wilfred Wilson and the returning Santiago.
The group's debt to Santana is evident from the opening moments of "Mandrill": swelling organ,
busy percussion, distorted lead guitar. But at this point they have no sense of drama or structure, so the track just
peters out instead of building to a climax. "Rollin' On" is similar but more successful: it has a memorable chorus, shifts
to salsa in the middle, and ends with a gospelly rave-up. But then they go way over the edge with a fourteen-minute,
five-part suite that leads nowhere ("Peace And Love (Amani Na Mapenzi)"), before closing with the mellow, slight flute fantasy "Chutney."
"Warning Blues" is the low point, a rote electric blues like Big Brother & The Holding
Company at the end of a long night.
Produced by Mandrill and their manager, Beau Ray Fleming.
Mandrill Is (1972)
Produced by Alfred V. Brown and Mandrill, as were the next few albums, and suddenly everything is more tightly arranged and
melodic ("Children Of The Sun," with a tasteful acoustic guitar opening and a not-so-tasteful spoken incantation).
Powerful stuff at its best: "Git It All" is swaggering, brass-led funk-rock; "Lord Of The Golden Baboon" gets good mileage
out of the Santana schtick.
The downside is, sometimes the sound is so smooth - group vocals, sedate horn charts - it's uncomfortably close to
Chicago ("I Refuse To Smile," "Central Park").
And "Universal Rhythms" is an insufferable spoken piece with a band member teaching a child some sort of hippie
catechism - not unlike Kool & The Gang's later "Heaven At Once."
Composite Truth (1973)
The same mix of styles as the previous LP: "Polk Street Polka" is another nod to West Indian rhythms;
"Hágalo" is straight salsa; "Moroccan Nights" is an atmospheric flute showcase.
"Fencewalk" was a hit, though the horn-led groove isn't particularly fiery -
better is the funky, guitar-doubling-bass "Don't Mess With People."
Unfortunately, the band still can't seem to tell the difference between a hot jam and a tepid vamp ("Golden Stone"),
and Fudgie Kae's poorly sung, meandering ballad "Out With The Boys" - the band's "Beth,"
as it were - is a complete disaster.
Just Outside Of Town (1973)
An incremental but important step forward.
The single "Mango Meat" was the group's best marriage of funk and Latin music thus far.
"Two Sisters Of Mystery" - later sampled on Public Enemy's "By The Time I Get To Arizona"
- is a ferocious funk-rocker.
Mesa's instrumental "Aspiration Flame" builds from a simple piano chord progression to a sweeping, rapturous finale.
And they finally pulled off a slow number with "Love Song" - so gorgeously arranged and crooned I thought I'd
accidentally slipped on a Spinners record.
Even the songs that don't quite work - "Fat City Strut," an uneasy union of a heavy keyboard lick and a Latin flute
fantasy; Kae's Southern fried "She Ain't Looking Too Tough" - are worth hearing.
A sprawling double album, with plenty of high and low points in variety of styles: a moving retro-soul number ("House Of Wood"); a ho-hum Kae ballad ("The Reason I Sing"; a shapeless tribute to Duke Ellington ("Mini-Suite For Duke"). The instrumental "Khidja" is a confused but interesting genre survey, while "Drill In The Bush" is just a dull percussion-led instrumental.
And of course there's plenty of the band's usual improv-heavy Latin groove ("El Funko"):
Side 1 is made up of three versions of the same spirited jam ("Positive Thing (Part One)" is the best), and Side 3 winds up with a terrific uptempo opus de funk, "Folks On A Hill."
Most songs written by the band, though "Cal-Ipso" is Santiago's and new guitarist Dougie Rodrigues wrote the spacy meditation "After The Race."
Kaye and Santiago (and possibly Rodrigues) were gone, and their replacements aren't listed on the LP. But the Wilson brothers and Cave stuck to their formula, for the most part: the jams are as loose as ever ("Yucca Jump").
In fact, the departure of the rhythm sections seems to have resulted in less song structure: even the more carefully arranged material is mostly built on simple vamps ("Wind On Horseback" and "Silk," both backed with sumptuous strings).
Not so much a transition toward the band's late approach as the last gasp of their early approach.
There's one wonderful rocker, though: "Tee Vee" ranks with "I Am The Slime" as a visceral critique of that entertainment delivery system.
Beast From The East (1976)
The Wilson brothers started to make peace with prevailing trends by now, incorporating Caribbean sounds into contemporary-sounding dance tunes ("Disco Lypso").
With the smoother sound, though, Mandrill often sounds like a less original Ohio Players: "Livin' It Up" cops the main riff of "Fire"; "Honey-Butt" is a tongue-in-cheek love song owing a considerable debt to "Sweet Sticky Thing." New rhythm section Brian Allsop and Andre Locke may be more precise than Kae and Santiago, but they sure don't capture your attention; Mesa's screaming guitar is also missed.
Still, the instrumental jam "Aqua-Magic" is a blast, and the marvelously syncopated "Dirty Ole Man" is vocoderiffic.
We Are One (1977)
Produced by Jeff Lane, and he strips their sound to bare percussion, chants, disco strings and occasional horn blasts ("Funky Monkey"). As a result, the album sounds much like Lane's main band, Brass Construction, and the uptempo tunes are similarly slim ("Happy Beat"), lacking Mandrill's distinctive stew of influences. The notable exception is "Love One Another," a reggae grind with harmonica recalling War.
It's hard to tell, but I think the songwriting wasn't particularly sharp to start with (the sluggish, banal "Gilly Hines"; the Earth Wind & Fire/Santana ripoff "Holiday").
The Greatest (1978)
Mandrill contributed to the soundtrack of this Muhammad Ali picture. (DBW)
New Worlds (1979)
As with We Are One, there's almost no trace of what made Mandrill special (apart from the drab salsa "Third World Girl"). "Stay Tonite" is a trite uptempo love song
with mechanical disco bass, while the frantic "Having A Love Attack" is inutterably worse.
As anonymous funk-disco goes, "Don't Stop" and "Mean Streets" are okay, but if you've gone this long without hearing it, keep going.
Getting In The Mood (1980)
I think "Dance Of Love" was the single. Also this year, Santiago released a single ("Land Of The Drums") as Neftali's Beast. (DBW)
Guys, you got my initials in the wrong order.
Apparently an EP, containing the single "D.W.B.B. (Driving While Black And Brown)," a remix of "Fencewalk," and some other
stuff, written and produced by the Wilson brothers. (DBW)
In 2002, Mandrill scored the film Civil Brand.
Wilson, don't mess with people.