Say “Meco” to a fan of mid-1970’s dis­co and it will raise a smile.  Pop triv­ia obses­sives remem­ber him main­ly for his hit sin­gle “Star Wars/Cantina Band,” an orches­tral-dis­co reimag­in­ing of cues from the Star Wars sound­track.  However, that only scratch­es the sur­face of what Meco Monardo con­tribut­ed to 1970’s pop and dis­co.  As an arranger, he worked with every­one from Tommy James to Neil Diamond and played a vital role in invent­ing the clas­sic dis­co style with his lush yet propul­sive arrange­ments on ear­ly Gloria Gaynor hits like “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “Casanova Brown.”

Meco quick­ly moved into pro­duc­tion, helm­ing his famous sound­track-dis­co albums and a host of pro­duc­tions for oth­er dis­co up-and-com­ers.  He even briefly had a label, Honey Bee Records, that he ran with man­ager Jay Ellis and stu­dio own­er Tony Bongiovi… which brings us to Meco Presents Camouflage & Showdown.  This CD con­tains the full con­tents of the two albums released by this label dur­ing its short his­to­ry — A Disco Symphony by Camouflage and Showdown Featuring Sampson by Showdown.  Taken togeth­er, the two albums offer an inter­est­ing glimpse into the dis­co era before its pro­duc­tion for­mu­las became set in stone.

The title track of A Disco Symphony is a side-length affair that uses the clas­sic dis­co-song the­me of a fan­ta­siz­ing about a vis­it to the ulti­mate dis­cothèque as the spring­board for a grandiose epic that quotes every­thing from “Rhapsody In Blue” to “I Hear A Symphony.”  As Stephen L. Freeman’s lin­er notes astute­ly point out, it also breaks dis­co b.p.m. rules by segue­ing into a down­tem­po cov­er of “MacArthur Park” near the end.  Harold Wheeler’s arrange­ment is daz­zling, hit­ting the ide­al blend of churn­ing rhythms and lav­ish orches­tra­tions (instru­men­tal and choral).  The way he weaves the title track’s main the­me into the finale of “MacArthur Park” is noth­ing short of breath­tak­ing.  Sondra Simon anchors the track with sweet yet author­i­ta­tive vocals.

The sec­ond side’s no slouch, either.  “Take A Ride” is a midtem­po gem: a fem­me cho­rus coos a two-bar snip­pet of vocal melody over an ever-shift­ing musi­cal bed that weds grace­ful­ly glid­ing strings and per­cus­sive horns to a slinky rhythm sec­tion groove.  Meco also con­tributes a stun­ning trum­pet solo that jazzes up the pro­ceed­ings.  “Bee Sting” clos­es out things on an endear­ing­ly kitschy note by pair­ing up “love-as-sting” lyrics with a deliri­ous arrange­ment that goes heavy on the swirling strings and bur­bling syn­th effects.  The pro­duc­tion, han­dled by Meco with Wheeler, Bongiovi and Ellis, lends clar­i­ty and punch to the song’s rich arrange­ments.

Showdown Featuring Sampson is more of a mixed bag.  The over­all approach is less focused, uti­liz­ing a num­ber of short­er tracks that aren’t as lav­ish or dis­tinct­ly dis­co-ori­ent­ed.  There are no epics are obvi­ous sin­gle-type mate­ri­al, leav­ing the lis­ten­er feel­ing like it is a batch of sec­ond-tier mate­ri­al assem­bled to cre­ate a quick album.  It also fea­tures one notable dud in an ear­ly ver­sion of “What’s Your Name,” bet­ter known to dis­co fans in its supe­ri­or lat­er ver­sion “What’s Your Name, What’s Your Number” by the Andrea True Connection.  The Showdown ver­sion suf­fers from a slug­gish tem­po and kitschy instru­men­tal hook at cho­rus time that gets run into the ground.

That said, the rest of the album mer­its a lis­ten thanks to the solid crafts­man­ship of Meco and crew at the pro­duc­tion con­sole.  “Walkin’ In Music” makes great use of hard-hit­ting vocals by Eugene Pitt (the “Sampson” of the title) and the Jive Five while the “Gotta Get Into You/Lay, Lady, Lay” med­ley blends a catchy soul-dis­co orig­i­nal with an infec­tious vocal hook into an effec­tive reclaim­ing of the Isley Brothers’ arrange­ment for the Dylan clas­sic.  Also wor­thy of note is “Keep Doin’ It,” which boasts a light, engag­ing Meco arrange­ment built on stac­ca­to piano fills and “Come Down In Time,” which rearranges an obscure Elton John tune into an effec­tive midtem­po soul bal­lad.

The disc also adds a pair of sin­gle-only tracks: “Take A Ride” is pre­sent­ed in a dif­fer­ent, short­er mix pre­pared for sin­gle release and “The Impulse” is a non-album Showdown b-side instru­men­tal with a down-home soul sound rem­i­nis­cent of a Willie Mitchell pro­duc­tion(!).  Everything on the disc includ­ed boasts nice son­ics free of arti­fi­cial vol­ume-boost­ing and Stephen L. Freeman’s lin­er notes do a great job of plac­ing the two album in the con­text of Meco’s career.  All in all, a great lit­tle pack­age from Funky Town Grooves and a nice, val­ue-con­scious way for dis­co fans to enhance their lesser-known 70’s dis­co reper­toire.