To anyone already familiar with The Meters from their three seminal Josie albums - "The Meters" (May 1969), "Look-Ka Py Py" (December 1969), and "Struttin'" (June 1970) - "Cabbage Alley," (May 1972), the band's debut for the the Reprise label, must have felt like a radical departure. More than half of its ten tracks feature vocals, and the exploratory mood and stylistic range display a band evolving creatively and unafraid to take risks. During the Josie era (which began with the first of nearly a dozen hit singles, 'Sophisticated Cissy', in the Fall of 1968), and closed with Josie's bankruptcy less than three years later), The Meters' effortless telepathy and dazzling rhythmic inventiveness helped shape 'funk' and revitalized the New Orleans r & b scene, producing 50 or so tracks, nearly every one a marvel of concision and creativity within a tight formal framework. Clearly, "Cabbage Alley" was deliberately intended to be heard as a unified album, and unlike the Josie classics, features no obvious hit singles ('Do The Dirt', a funky near-sendup of dance records, bombed). Sundazed, which has reissued the entire Meters catalog, includes two bonus tracks from a killer single issued early in 1973, a few months after this album, "Chug Chug Chug-A-Lug (Push N' Shove) Parts 1 & 2." They are a highlight of this expanded edition.
In retrospect, and after hearing The Meters' late period Josie singles only recently collected on the "Zony Mash" CD, these changes seem less surprising. When the Meters had national hits with their early classics "Sophisticated Cissy" (November 1968), its even more successful followup "Cissy Strut" (March '69), "Look Ka Py Py" (October '69) and the rest, black music was still primarily marketed to a singles market. Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Sly & The Family Stone, and Marvin Gaye were all instrumental in a shift towards using the album as unified artistic statement. Also, the Sundazed reissue campaign has made it clear that the Meters' integration of lyrics, vocals, additional percussion, and influences ranging from rock (Hendrix, the Stones), Caribbean, Kenny Burrell, and beyond are already evident in those later Josie recordings. "Struttin'" offered several tracks with group vocals ("Handclapping Song") or solo leads by Art Neville ("Darling Darling Darling"). And the revelatory collection "Zony Mash," a previously unissued fourth Josie album of sorts, collects both a- and b-sides of four Josie singles issued after "Struttin'," between September 1970 and September 1971, and these non-album sides include killer instrumentals like the wah-wah driven funk of "Zony Mash" and "Sassy Lady" as well as vocal tracks such as "Message From The Meters" and the structurally complex "I Need More Time" clearly predict directions the band was exploring before they signed with Reprise. What is perhaps most distinctive about "Cabbage Alley" is the sound - Ziggy Modeliste's drums on those Josie albums is bone dry, hard, with a visceral presence that enhances his astonishing, always shifting rhythm patterns, atop deep bass grooves by George Porter and the direct presentation of Leo Nocentelli's arsenal of effects - chicken scratch funk rhythm, jazzy Wes Montgomery-inspired soloing, stinging yet dry lead statements. And always, the churning, rhythmic organ of Art Neville. On "Cabbage Alley" the mix is cleaner (even when the music is grungey), Modeliste's kit sound less resonant. This approach makes it the perfect transitional work before the group's Reprise-era masterpiece, "Rejuvenation" (1974). Once one gets used to the differences however, "Cabbage Alley," though slightly uneven (how could so eclectic a work not be?) proves highly rewarding.
Even when the material is slight, the performances as welll as the musical textures offer fascinating listening. "Cabbage Alley" opens with a pair of hard rockers written by Nocentelli - each running over five minutes. "You Got To Change" suggests hard rock influenced by Led Zeppelin and Band Of Gypsys, but the dense interplay of guitars, various percussion instruments (and yes, Cyril Neville, who appears here, was already adding congas to the later Josie singles), keyboards, and the never-static rhythm section stamp this as an invigorating, listenable funk gem with a long, improvisational instumental section (think of the Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" meets "Voodoo Chile") that fades too soon. "Stay Away" despite a pedestrian lyric, simply amazes - Leo Nocentelli had likely heard early Funkadelic, but the virtuosity and imagination - instrumental and production - on display here create a powerful soundscape with hallucinatory, dub-like effects. After these two heavy hitters Art's interpretation of Neil Young's gorgeous "Birds" is a dramatic shift, and Leo follows this this with the jazzy, mellow (but splendid) instrumental "Flower Song." "Do The Dirt" is a return to simpler themes, musically and lyrically, but it works as a funky, tongue-in-cheek dance number, at 2:35 the shortest track on the set. Art's "Smiling" is another solid instrumental that shows off the band's cohesive interplay. "Lonesome and Unwanted People" is Nocentelli's latest excercise in social commentary, musically stately and elegant. The lyrics are heartfelt,if not very subtle. My favorite track on the set is "Gettin' Funkier All The Time," and like many Meters songs it fades too soon for my taste; this deep groove stunner evokes Sly's "Riot" (and in a reigned-in way, Miles Davis circa '72), George Porter popping his bass while the whole band simply does what it does best, turning in an irresistable and virtuosic performance around a simple vamp. The original album closes with a splendid version of Professor Longhair's "Hey Now Baby" that doubles as title track. The two sided bonus single, "Chug Chug Chug-A Lug" (issued early in 1973), written by Modeliste and Nocentelli, elevates this set with an infectious groove that portends the more integrated funk of 1974's classic "Rejuvenation" while evoking the group's classic Josie hits, and both parts feature some terrific dirty soloing from Nocentelli.
All in all, this set may be off-putting at first to those familiar with the Meters' Josie classics, but deeper listening reveals marvelous telepathic interplay, and "Cabbage Alley" has given me much pleasure. Fortunately, the Meters still had more great music in them before they ended their career a few years later in bitterness and frustration.