[vinylsighting] The Kid is Alright

 Cristina Press Photos

The contradictions reconciled so expertly by audio auteur AUGUST DARNELL (aka KID CREOLE) ensure that his stuff has weathered the years supremely well: skeletal (bass and drums to the fore) yet strangely lush, melodramatic yet blasé, drenched in a sort of bygone sophistication yet edgy and clearly up-to-the-minute – regardless of whatever minute it is at this moment. His vision somehow made harmonious neighbors out of tangible shards of r&b, calypso, reggae, golden-era showtunes, salsa, disco, and disposably urbane pop.

While best know as the svengali behind Kid Creole and the Coconuts – who dipped their pedicured pieds into chart waters throughout the '80s without ever really becoming superstars stateside – Darnell presided over a an astonishing range of projects as the '70s became the '80s, mostly for the mutant dance outfit ZE Records, that encompassed everything from pretty straight disco to skittering no wave. Amazingly, the various projects below, largely written and produced by Darnell, are almost all from 1979-1981.   



Of all of these records, MACHINE’s 1979 debut probably hews most closely to disco/funk conventions. Despite the band being a self-contained outfit with plenty of songwriting muscle, Darnell still imparts his perspective via the urgent, percussion- and bass-heavy sound and by contributing lyrics to several tunes – including the cult disco hit “There But for the Grace of God Go I,” which he later recut as the first Kid Creole and the Coconuts single (see below).

Don Armando

More of a satellite project, the sole LP from DON ARMANDO'S 2ND AVENUE RHUMBA BAND was arranged and produced by Darnell’s right-hand man, “Sugar-Coated” Andy Hernandez (aka Coati Mundi), with songwriting contributions from fellow Darnell associate Ron Rogers and original “Mama Coconut” Adriana Kaegi. It draws from the Great White Way as well: what other NYC dance (I hesitate to say “disco”) albums feature versions of Lerner and Lowe’s “How to Handle a Woman” or, even more audaciously, Irving Berlin’s politically-incorrect-even-then “I’m an Indian, Too,” complete with a disorienting, dissonant string chart by Hernandez. Speaking of, if anyone has a spare copy of the sole solo disks by either Rogers or Coati Mundi, e-mail me. 



Smoldering chanteuse CRISTINA Monet-Palaci may have had a limited range, but she had the look and the attitude. And the husband: Michael Zilkha owned ZE Records and coaxed her into stepping behind the mic. Her debut was written and produced by Darnell, with typical minimalist flair, accenting her languid, detached delivery. This copy had the original press kit stuffed inside it, complete with an odd trio of photos that run the gamut from innocent to sultry. That’s a gamut, right?

Kid Creole and the Coconuts

Darnell introduced his KID CREOLE character to wild enthusiasm in the New York underground, perfectly balancing genuine musical innovation with a sense of kitsch, camp, and fun that punk had largely lost touch with. Their debut 45 – which did not make it into their fine first LP Off the Coast of Me – is a version of the Machine hit, with their disco thump replaced with a lilting island feel, enlivened by a tremulous organ and the Coconuts’ fetchingly nasal background vocals.

The Coconuts

I will confess that, for me, as the Kid started to turn to drum machines – presumably keep his sound in step with the era – his music seemed to lose the charmingly, slightly askew funkiness that made records like
Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places into such classics. That said, this wittily constructed 1983 showcase for THE COCONUTS' harmonies (which does feature a Kid Creole lead or two, as well) transcends some of the stiff electronics. The album is set up as an audio souvenir of a non-existent nightclub review, with a new version of Darnell staple “Maladie d’Amour” and a surprise take on “If I Only Had a Brain.”


Gichy Dan

Still the holy grail of early Kid Creole productions, although it’s not as rare as some would have you think. Again, this dates from the productive year of 1979. The late GICHY DAN’s smooth vocals clearly influenced Darnell’s own singing as he began to step into the spotlight. Entirely written by Darnell, who also plays bass throughout, the songs are his most harmonically sophisticated, superimposing ‘40s glamour sheen onto the disco era. Bass and drums set up Dan’s confident crooning, as steel drums, singing children, and subtle orchestrations come into and out of the picture. Adriana Kaegi, then Darnell’s wife, said of the Staton Island vocalist (born Frank Passalacqua), “Gichy Dan would have been a new Johnny Mathis – if he hadn’t prematurely died of AIDS.”

Brad San Martin is a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter in the Boston-based indie-pop trio One Happy Island, who perform with Athens, GA outfit Tunabunny at the Precinct in Union Square on September 26. His recently minted VinylSighting blog is a welcome addition to On The Download, despite the shotcomings of not being able to download a vinyl record.  

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