If dis­co music was the per­fect vehi­cle for the pro­duc­er-as-artist, the ulti­mate medi­um of this expres­sion for such producer/artists was the album for­mat.  This is what sep­a­rat­ed the mae­stros from those who were just chas­ing the pack: the best dis­co pro­duc­ers could either up with a con­cept big enough to fuel an entire album or sim­ply sus­tain an album on a cut-by-cut basis by craft­ing enough strong mate­ri­al to jus­ti­fy the run­ning time.  Producers like Alec Costandinos and Giorgio Moroder are good exam­ples of dis­co pro­duc­ers who had this skill.

A lesser known but equal­ly wor­thy exam­ple is the Canadian team of Willi Morrison and Ian Guenther, bet­ter known as Three Hats Productions.  This duo is best known amongst dis­cophiles for their THP Orchestra albums (read a review of the first two THP Orchestra albums here) but they released a num­ber of oth­er wor­thy dis­co projects that worked well at album length.  Disco Recharge has recent­ly pack­aged togeth­er two such albums, On Such A Winter’s Day by Grand Tour and Headin’ South by Southern Exposure.  As this review will reveal, the first is con­cep­tu­al dis­co at its most ele­gant while the lat­ter is a song col­lec­tion sus­tained by strong, ambi­tious musi­cian­ship.

Grand Tour: On Such A Winter’s Day

Disco is not just for danc­ing.  Some exam­ples of the form work as excel­lent mood music.  On Such A Winter’s Day is a strong exam­ple of this sort of “dis­co lounge” approach, offer­ing a half-instru­men­tal, half-vocal bill of fare that is unit­ed by the con­cept of trav­el (Voyage showed a sim­i­lar fix­a­tion on their first two albums).  Morrison and Guenther bring this con­cept to life with a sound that fus­es con­ti­nen­tal ele­gance with a Los Angeles-influ­enced slick­ness to crafts­man­ship, an aim helped might­i­ly by the use of vet­er­an American arranger Jimmie Haskell to han­dle the arrange­ments.

The vocal half of the album fea­tures an ele­gant the­me song “Grand Tour” that cap­tures the romance and adven­ture of trav­el with a jaun­ty arrange­ment where a female cho­rus glides over a gen­tle but insis­tent beat lay­ered with sub­tle orches­tral col­ors.  The oth­er songs are cov­ers, a jazzy ren­di­tion of the Yardbirds’ “Still I’m Sad” that dis­tills its moody Gregorian chant-meets-Eastern melody fla­vor and a love­ly take on the Mamas and the Papa’s “California Dreamin” that plays its dis­co ele­ments with great sub­tle­ty so as not to detract from the mourn­ful ele­gance of the melody.  The lat­ter could pass for soft rock as eas­i­ly as it could dis­co.

The instru­men­tal half is just as love­ly: “Let’s Go Boating” is a brisk piece that uses Tijuana Brass-style horns to cre­ate a lush bit of easy lis­ten­ing while “Flight From Versailles” plays up the dis­co ele­ment with an irre­sistable high-hat-dri­ven rhythm plus a melod­ic bass line and sub­tle syn­th work to flesh out a play­ful orches­tral melody.  That said, the sleep­er fave in this area is “Late November,” a moody midtem­po item that high­lights some jazz-inflect­ed gui­tar and organ work again­st a plush cush­ion of strings.

All in all, On Such A Winter’s Day is an ace exam­ple of dis­co lounge fare, offer­ing enough musi­cal col­or and vari­ety to sus­tain the trav­el the­me but unit­ing the sound with a con­sis­tent­ly high lev­el of musi­cian­ship and ele­gance.  If lis­ten­ing to dis­co required a fash­ion choice, you’d want to break out the top hat and tails for this album.

Southern Exposure — Headin’ South:

In con­trast to the mood music aes­thet­ic of  On Such A Winter’s DayHeadin’ South is aimed square­ly at the dance floor.  It found Morrison and Guenther work­ing with arranger Pete Pedersen, who worked with the duo on their clas­sic Two Hot For Love album.  Pedersen also cowrote all the songs on this album.  What he and THP pro­duc­tion team came up with is a var­ied menu of big-pro­duc­tion dis­co that allows them to flex both the com­plex­i­ty and ambi­tion of their com­bined musi­cal­i­ty.

Each of the four songs on this album is a plush epic that cov­ers four dis­tinct styles of dis­co.  The title track is a floor-stormer that kicks things off in grand style, back­ing up the song’s dou­ble enten­dre-laden lyrics with a dynam­ic arrange­ment that shifts the tem­po with skill as it weaves in per­cus­sive horns, string swoops, not one but two break­downs and even a fun sing-along chant to close it out.  “On Our Way” is clas­sic “sleaze” dis­co, a sump­tu­ous midtem­po item that slow­ly fades in on a del­i­cate­ly orches­trat­ed instru­men­tal intro before giv­ing way a torch song-ish bal­lad melody.

Love Is” kicks off the sec­ond side and is the length­i­est num­ber, a rich­ly-arranged slice of orches­tral dis­co in the Costandinos/Cerrone vein that allows Pedersen to show off his string arrang­ing skills. “Tight Pants” clos­es the album with a smile and a wink, offer­ing a fun slab of camp dis­co with an almost movie musi­cal melody that sports some rol­lick­ing piano work and exu­ber­ant vocals.

In short, Headin’ South is dis­co at its most pure­ly enter­tain­ing, a show­case of musi­cal skill devot­ed to enchant­i­ng the lis­ten­er with grandiose yet instant­ly acces­si­ble grooves.

Bonus Material:

The Disco Recharge edi­tion of the­se two albums is a lav­ish set that devotes one CD to each album and adds a vari­ety of bonus ver­sions to each disc.  On Such A Winter’s Day adds sin­gle-length mix­es for four of the cuts, all of which work well in the con­fines of a 45-style for­mat.  However, the killer inclu­sion on this disc is a new 19-min­ute med­ley of cuts from the album mixed espe­cial­ly for this set by Steve Matthews.  This med­ley is no mere “megamix”: it is designed like the kind of side-length med­leys that used to be fea­tured on clas­sic dis­co albums, with the cuts grace­ful­ly woven into some­thing that has a sym­phon­ic yet dance­able impact.

Headin’ South adds a sin­gle-length mix for each of the four cuts on the album.  The extrac­tion of big sec­tions of instru­men­tal mate­ri­al often gives the­se ver­sions a slight­ly dif­fer­ent feel but all work well, offer­ing the fan an alter­na­tive lis­ten­ing expe­ri­ence that shows off the appeal of the­se cuts as songs instead of suites.  The pack­age is round­ed out by well-writ­ten lin­er notes from dis­co expert Alan Jones that incor­po­rate an inter­view with Morrison, who looks back on his dis­co days with con­ta­gious fond­ness.

In short, this is anoth­er killer from the Disco Recharge orga­ni­za­tion that high­lights two for­got­ten but deserv­ing albums.  If you are a dance music arche­ol­o­gist with a yen for vin­tage grooves, this set offers a great way to explore the THP sound in all its lux­u­ri­ous vari­ety.