During its mid-‘70s rise to promi­nence, dis­co fea­tured a lot of orches­tral touch­es.  It made sense at the time as dis­co derived its ini­tial sense of ele­gance from orches­trat­ed soul record­ings, par­tic­u­lar­ly Philly soul.  However, tastes change with the times and the rise of elec­tron­ics with­in dance music meant that disco’s orches­tras would ulti­mate­ly be phased out.

The THP Orchestra was one of the dis­co stu­dio projects that had to deal with this styl­is­tic shift.  Their final two albums, Tender Is The Night and Good To Me, show how the group’s writers/producers Willi Morrison and Ian Guenther nav­i­gat­ed their way through the chang­ing tides of dance music – and the­se two albums have been col­lect­ed in a new two-CD set from the Disco Recharge reis­sue series.

TENDER IS THE NIGHT:

This was the third album for THP Orchestra.  Like its pre­de­ces­sor Two Hot For Love, it fea­tures one extend­ed epic plus a num­ber of short­er but no less sub­stan­tial exer­cis­es in orches­tral dis­co.  “Weekend Two Step” is the album’s anchor, a 13 min­ute-plus suite that builds from a cou­ple of piano notes and some hand­claps into a full-blown pro­duc­tion num­ber with strings and horns.  The lyrics harken back to ‘20s-era dance crazes but the soul­ful, sleek vocals of the Duncan Sisters pull the lis­ten­er back into the ‘70s, not to men­tion talk-box gui­tar effects.  An inven­tive arrange­ment con­stant­ly shifts sec­tions and tweaks lay­ers of instru­men­ta­tion to ensure it nev­er gets tired.

The rest of the album main­tains the­se lev­els of vari­ety and ambi­tion.  The album’s title track seems to be a midtem­po bal­lad, com­plete with a pil­lowy string sec­tion, but the cho­rus­es sur­prise with their Latin lilt and boun­cy rhythms.  “Half As Nice” takes an old Italian pop tune and off­sets its sug­ary-sweet melody with a dense­ly rhyth­mic arrange­ment dot­ted with dra­mat­ic string crescen­dos and a sur­pris­ing use of syn­co­pa­tion dur­ing the vers­es for dra­mat­ic effect.

Album finale “Music Is All You Need” is a killer, replac­ing the kind of soft/loud arrange­ment con­trasts you’d see in a rock or pop song with orchestral/minimal con­trasts that pit dra­mat­i­cal­ly arranged string and horn heavy melod­ic sec­tions with arid, min­i­mal­ist breaks of bass or gui­tar.  It’s a real feat of arrang­ing, one that shows off the inven­tive­ness and musi­cal­i­ty typ­i­cal of THP Orchestra.

GOOD TO ME:

By 1979, dis­co was head­ed in an elec­tron­ic direc­tion that would deter­mine its future – thus ensur­ing orches­tral acts would soon look quaint.  Good To Me rep­re­sents Morrison and Guenther’s attempt to move with the time, pre­sent­ing a stripped down ver­sion of the group (now sim­ply dubbed THP).  The horns remain but strings are either min­i­mized or thrown out alto­geth­er in favor of syn­the­siz­ers.  The com­po­si­tion­al style also changes here, with the album favor­ing a grit­tier though no less musi­cal­ly ambi­tious take on dis­co.

The first side is book­end­ed by two pieces with dance-themed lyrics: “Dancin’ Is Alright” is a relent­less­ly rhyth­mic piece where every ele­ment, even the piano lines and horns, is used to give the song an unstop­pable up-down beat while “Dancin’ Forever” boasts a killer cho­rus where group vocals are used for a hyp­not­i­cal­ly rhyth­mic effect and a great sec­tion near the end where lead vocal­ist Joyce Cobb scat-sings a duet with the horns.  Between those two tow­ers of dance is “Two Hearts, One Love,” a dis­co track that feels like an old Northern Soul num­ber updat­ed to dis­co, right down to its girl-group back­ing vocals and the brassy, diva-esque lead from Cobb.

The album looks toward dance music’s future on side two.  The title track is the gem of the album, a kind of pro­to-Hi-NRG num­ber that lay­ers its taut groove with lots of atmos­pher­ic synths and some soul­ful gui­tar licks.  Cobb’s lead vocal dri­ves the song with an author­i­ta­tive, almost Millie Jackson-esque lev­el of world­li­ness about romance.  “Who Do You Love” clos­es the album on a boo­gie note with a syn­th-lay­ered bass line, del­i­cate key­board frills and a killer instru­men­tal break where the band weaves a vari­ety of vari­ety of syn­co­pat­ed instru­men­tal lines around a Moroder-esque pro­grammed syn­th line.

Overall, Good To Me is much lean­er and more musi­cal­ly straight­for­ward than its pre­de­ces­sors but it has a high lev­el of musi­cal­i­ty that ensures it engages the seri­ous dis­co fan.

BONUS MATERIAL:

As is often the case with a Disco Recharge release, this dou­ble fea­ture of Tender Is The Night and Good To Me throws in plen­ty of bonus edits and remix­es for both albums.  Tender Is The Night fea­tures two 12-inch mix­es and three sin­gle edits.  The Guenther/Morrison team was very care­ful about the melod­ic con­tent of their work so the edits work well, with “Weekend Two Step” com­ing off as an effec­tive bit of dance-pop in its sin­gle ver­sion.

It’s also worth not­ing that the 12-inch mix­es of “Music Is All You Need” and “Weekend Two Step” are short­er than their album coun­ter­parts and thus ful­fill a sim­i­lar func­tion to the sin­gle edits.  The edit­ing is good on each remix and both songs are strong enough to work at any of the lengths includ­ed on this disc.

The Good To Me disc includes edits and 7-inch mix­es for four of its five songs.  They all pare down the album-length ver­sions skill­ful­ly, with the 7-inch mix of “Dancin’ Forever” being par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive in how it nar­rows the song down to a straight­for­ward pop-song struc­ture.

The set is round­ed out by good lin­er notes from Alan Jones that incor­po­rate an inter­view with Willi Morrison.  The vet­er­an pro­duc­er has some inter­est­ing things to say here, reveal­ing how the nature of record label finances kept him from col­lect­ing his just rewards for his work.

All in all, the Disco Recharge col­lec­tion Tender Is The Night and Good To Me is an excel­lent exam­ple of dance-floor archae­ol­o­gy for the dis­co set, col­lect­ing two over­looked but deserv­ing cult albums and giv­ing them a deluxe treat­ment that edu­cates the buy­er about how dis­co worked dur­ing the end of its boom time.  If you’re a seri­ous gen­re enthu­si­ast, this is well worth pick­ing up.