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Singer Mike James Kirkland recorded an impressive pair of albums for MCA during the 1970s but lack of interest on the label’s part led to their eventual obscurity. That is until fans of ultra-rare rare groove caught wind of the sounds of Doin’ It Right and Hang on in There, both of which began to change hands for astronomical prices amongst collectors. The latter drew obvious comparisons to What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye’s classic 1971 meditation on an ailing society. The first side of Kirkland’s Hang on in There reads like an alternate version, exploring many of the same themes. “What Have We Done?” he asks on the album opener over an excellent conga and flute-spiced funk groove, a track followed by the equally pained “Where is the Soul of Man?.” Both are eclipsed however, by the eight-minutes-plus title track. The album’s undeniable centerpiece, “Hang on in There” is a lyrical tour de force over a slow-burning groove. Though arrangement touches are as lush as a film score, the underlying rhythms are rooted in urban funk: bells, backing singers and syrupy strings meshing perfectly with guitar scratch and percolating bass. Unfortunately, Kirkland drops the concept for the album’s second half, turning his attention to the mysteries of love and throwing the album off balance. He would have been better off integrating the two sides or voicing the greater concerns of side one over a full-length album. Regardless, at least half of this material is the product of an underrated artist at the peak of his compositional powers. Making this disc even more desirable are a trio of tracks culled from 45s amongst them “The Prophet”: a scorcher that finds the singer riding a vibrant, horn-seasoned funk rhythm that’s the toughest thing on hand.

Luv N’ Haight, the rare groove branch of San Francisco’s Ubiquity label, followed-up the reissue of Mike James Kirkland’s Hang On in There with Doin’ It Right, another soul/funk treasure previously on the verge of slipping into musical darkness. According to Ubiquity, before their re-release, collectors looking for these albums could encounter price tags as high as 500 dollars. While the unconverted may wonder what the fuss is all about, the strongest material on these sets reveals an artist more than capable of matching the work of his contemporaries. Unfortunately, MCA, Kirkland’s record label at the time, failed to get behind the releases and they faded from view. While the singer divided the A- and B-sides of Hang On in There between sobering reality themes and a batch of love songs, Doin’ It Right focuses exclusively on the pained trials and tribulations of the heart. Once again, Kirkland’s voice is set against a series of sophisticated arrangements that, at their best, avoid dipping into overly sentimental schmaltz. There are a few exceptions. The title track, an unfocused “I want you back” plea that unfolds over eight-plus minutes, begins as an unconvincing, soap-opera style drama. On a version of “O Me, O My (I’m a Fool for You Baby),” Kirkland drifts over a bed of guitar and strings for a series of verses that attempt too forcefully to tug at the heartstrings. More impressive is the singer’s take on Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” a song whose sentiments translate easily into a soul setting. Also of note are the Kirkland originals that open and close the set: Songs like “Got To Do It Right,” “Love Insurance,” and “The Only Change” find the session players falling back on more reliable funk elements for more impressive results.

-Nathan Bush,

Mike James Kirkland-HANG ON IN THERE (1972)
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Mike James Kirkland-DOIN’ IT RIGHT (1972)
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