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Various – Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-84

In truth, it’s rare that a soul compilation will genuinely surprise you musically. Usually, compilations of obscure soul concentrate on unearthing hissing, crackly relics from the ‘60s and early ‘70s, dancefloor records that tickle the fancy of Northern Soul fanboys or crate digging hip-hop heads hell bent on finding the four breaks that have yet to be sampled by top Japanese or American producers.

Personal Space, then, is a breath of fresh air. From start to finish, it’s thrillingly odd, showcasing records that almost disappeared into obscurity the moment they were pressed. Unlike most soul compilations, it goes for a different musical approach. Put together by Chicago digger and occasional Wax Poetics contributor Dante Carfagna (recently described by one magazine as “the Indiana Jones of record collecting”), Personal Space focuses on heavily electronic experimental soul, blues and funk released between 1974 and ’84.

To a large degree, it focuses on records that either saw the light of day on tiny labels around the US, or were pressed up by the artists themselves – long-forgotten names who quickly gave up their dreams of stardom – on private press releases. This, coupled with the heavy reliance on early synthesizers and drum machines, gives the album a distinct freshness. Musically, it’s pretty strange, but in an appealing way. From the moment it opens with Jeff Phelps’ “Extracts From Autumn” – a curious combination of cheap synths, warm Rhodes and stuttering drum machine rhythms – you know you’re in for a treat. There’s a dash of kaleidoscopic, acid-fuelled instrumental oddnesss (Guitar Red’s brilliantly titled “Disco From A Space Show”), some hissing , off-beat lo-fi soul from Key & Cleary, and a fantastically upbeat attempt at getting a big sound out of crap equipment from T Dyson & Company (the synth strings and twinkling keys of “It’s All Over”).

Elsewhere, the music can be divided into neat categories. There’s fuzzy synth blues, best exemplified by the skittering drum machines, gravelly guitars and badly recorded vocals of Jerry Green’s “I Finally Found The Love I Need”. Then there’s the sparse, far-sighted electronic groovery employed by the likes of Spontaneous Overflow (whose ode to skintness “Money” includes the brilliant line “Can’t make this record…without money”) and Makers (check the defiantly dubbed-out soul spookiness of “Don’t Challenge Me”).

Fittingly, Personal Space also includes some weird forays into space funk territory. Chief among these is the self-titled strangeness from Space Commander Woo Woo, who uses his six minutes of fame to layer NASA-obsessed synthesizers onto many other synthesizers. If the Cantina Band from Star Wars had been expanded into an orchestra, it would sound like this. There are, of course, some more bog standard trips into jazz-funk and wine bar soul. Check out Johnnie Walker’s risqué “Love Vibrator” or Steve Elliot’s flute-laden erection section jam “One More Time”. But for every vaguely earnest cut or try-hard trad soul attempt, there’s a thrilling oddity like Deborah Washington and the Astros’ “Shortest Lady”, a sparse, dubbed-out soul jam propelled forward by the wobbliest and loosest of synth basslines.

It could be argued that some of the material is more interesting than brilliant, but that’s just the nature of the beast. More importantly, Personal Space is entertaining, enlightening and genuinely enjoyable. It’s like the best charity shop soul collection ever, with added oddness. That’s got to be worth a listen.

Matt Anniss


1. Jeff Phelps – Excerpts From Autumn
2. Guitar Red – Disco From A Space Show
3. Jerry Green – I Finally Found The Love I Need
4. Key & Cleary – I’m A Man
5. Spontaneous Overthrow – Money
6. Cotillion – If You Give A Dance
7. U.S. Aries – Are You Ready To Come?
8. The Makers – Don’t Challenge Me
9. T. Dyson – It’s All Over
10. Starship Commander Woo Woo – Master Ship (Excerpt)
11. Johnny Walker – Love Vibrator
12. Jeff Phelps – Super Lady
13. Deborah Washington – Shortest Lady
14. Steve Elliot – One More Time
15. U.S. Aries – Are You Ready To Come?
16. The New Year – My Bleeding Wound
17 Otis G Johnson: “Time To Go Home”