September 2009 saw the first-ever release of Betty Davis’ 4th album, “Is It Love Or Desire”, released on cd (beautifully annotated but with no extra tracks) by Light in the Attic and on lp by Sundazed. Recorded in 1976, it’s no mindblower. Pitched as a cult classic, it’s more ‘fans & freaks only’, frankly. Ms. Davis’ third lp “Nasty Gal” (Island ’75) had already moved away from elastic funk (check those swooping Larry Graham bass lines on the first two lp’s) to funk rock (and hoarsely sung at that, as Betty’s voice was breaking down from partying too hard, allegedly). Indeed, this fourth album reminds more of Mother’s Finest, sadly, than of the sassy nastayness that made “[Betty Davis]” (Just Sunshine ’73) and “They Say I’m Different” (Just Sunshine ’74) the funk classics they still are today. Do check the liner notes to the Light in the Attic reissues for more details, whydontcha, and do note, too, that LitA’s reissues mark the first time that Ms. Davis (née Mabry, she was married to Miles Davis’ for an important while that also defined his career) will receive proper royalties for her music! (Earlier reissues on Ufo and MPC were pirate pressings.)
Remarkably, the release ènds Light in the Attic’s mighty run of deluxe digipack reissues. From a brief e-mail correspondence with both LitA and Sundazed, we learned that neither company has the intention of giving her final album “Hangin’ Out In Hollywood” aka “Crashin’ From Passion” the same class A reissue treatment. Luckily, that’s no drama, as we learned from the album’s first release from the vaults around 1995 / 1996 by Charly records (Groove Masters series, cat. no. CPCD-8148). Sadly, the release looks cheap, and often sounds as bad too. Recorded in ’78 and ’79 with her band Funkhouse, presumably, plus an all star cast including Herbie Hancock, Carlos Morales, Alphonse Mouzon, Chuck Rainey and – on backing vox – Martha Reeves and the Pointer Sisters, the album is a disappointing close to la Davis’ career. The title track(s) and “Quintessence of hip” do try to emulate funkiness but hardly stand out amidst the kind of contemporary “cocaine decisions” music that also ruined Funkadelic / Parliament and so many other acts at the time. (See also: “Boogie nights”, the second half of ~.) To me, only one track stands out, viz. this here “She’s a woman”. At first listen it sounds like an unexceptional album closer, but repeated listenings start to give it some shine … the kind of Bavarians-and-Italians-do-it-better glitz that Giorgio Moroder excelled at in exactly the same era – producing his “Cat people”, “Foxes”, “Midnight express” and “Scarface” soundtrack classics. As Ms. Davis’ last album closes, we’re left with a song in which she hardly sounds as herself anymore, but much rather like a session singer in a producer’s neon dream of the perfect “space disco ballad”. The eerie synth and the epic sax parts are utterly formulaic, but somehow they stick – and we’re left with the image of Bowie escorting Betty into a wasted haze, off to meet the cast of “Liquid Sky” beyond the pale.