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Review: James Bell, 'Sweet Candy Man'

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James Bell
Sweet Candy Man
Three Diamonds
3 stars

Crate-diggers will recognize the name and label on this 2009 CD by local soul singer James Bell, though they may not quite recognize the sound. Yes, this is the same James Bell who sang with Indy-area funk bands in the late '60s and early '70s. And yes, this new CD is on Bell's still-active Three Diamond label, as were the funk 45s he recorded in the late '60s — in-the-pocket dance numbers like "The Funky 16 Corners" (the most corners to find their way to a record at the time) and "The Funky Buzzard." And, to be fair, even those without huge vinyl collections might recognize the name: two 45s by Bell, along with a track by another Indianapolis funk great, Billy Ball, were collected on a compilation album, The Funky 16 Corners, devoted to lost-to-history regional funk bands.

His most recent solo effort landed on my desk a few weeks ago, a couple years after its release. To be sure, it's not in the tradition of the James Brown-inspired funk heard on The Funky 16 Corners comp, though it's certainly not lacking in soul. Sweet Candy Man is largely a collection of slow jams and upbeat R&B numbers, recorded with a competent band, but dragged down by a drum machine, synthesized horns and distorted vocals.

The album kicks off with its most risqué number, "'G'Strang," which sees Bell trying out an awfully clever plan: "I bought my woman a G-string; had a pole put in my room. / That way I can go to the strip club without ever leaving home." It's that easy, right? But things get a little more realistic as things go on: "One in a Million Lady" is a straight-up slow jam, with smooth group vocals about that special woman; "Dark Cloud," a bright, funkier number about a woman in whom the devil has "found a hiding place," features some great licks by Gregg Bacon on sax; and both "Taxi Driver" and "Sweet Candy Man" see Bell as flawed and put-upon, calling for a taxi to pick him up at 3:35 (when "he won't be able to drive") and, in the latter, fooled by a "sweet Mississippi country girl" who turns out to be anything but. The surprise of the record — aside from its lack of raunchiness, given the opening track — is the closing number "Pretty Thang," an acoustic-leaning country blues that convincingly departs from the record's slow-burning R&B template.

Sweet Candy Man, three other solo albums and re-pressings of 45s from the Funky 16 Corners era are all available from Bell's site, threediamondrecords.com.

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