It's amazing how easily even the best intentions can become mistakes in the seemingly simple shift from idea to execution. Witness what appears to have been Labelle's decision to sue the rhythm section from Maxayn, an edgy Bay Area R&B unit, for the sake of having a consistent core band throughout their new album. Labelle usually marshalled personnel by the tune on their first two recordings, producing with selected sidemen an even, clean sizzle at once light and powerful. What was lost in studio efficiency in the past has now been sacrificed in musicianship and arranging. The group's taste is somewhat redeemed, though, by the occasional presence of guitarist Buzzy Feiten, along with a mysterious 'friend' (according to the liner) who might well be - dare we even whisper the name? - Stevie Wonder.
Patti Labelle sings with the same soulful grace as ever. Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash's lush backing harmonies weave a silky medium between Patti's soaring voice and the band, a medium that, on previous records, simply heightened the sense of texture already suggested instrumentally. Here, though, the singers must combat unduly tense rhythms, not to mention bear the entire burden of creating dimension and tonal depth, to produce the supple textures integral to their music.
Hendryx Labelle's songwriter, is responsible for all but two of the tunes (each of the three albums, incidentally, has featured more and more original material). Though relatively undistinguished if judged in the highest terms (and who these days would dare such a thing?), all the songs are rich enough to serve as effective springboards for harmonic embellishment and vocal improvisation. At least two tunes stand out as respectable writing achievements on their own: "Sunshine," a moody ballad, and "Goin' On a Holiday," which is cool, dipping funk. The title cut, "Pressure Cookin," like "Mr. Music Man," is a curiosity in the context of Labelle's usually pure style of rhythm and blues. Both are nerve-rockers akin to the brand of so-called boogie practiced by, say, Joplin's Full-Tilt Boogie Band or - unbelievably enough - J. Geils.
Drummer Emry Thomas is hardly the leading culprit in the rhythm section, though he makes his share of outright mistakes in spite of his basic strength. The real villains in this allegory of how not to play are the bassists, Maxayn's Andre Lewis and Carmine Rojas. Though Rojas replaces Lewis for only two songs, the result is infinitely more disastrous than even Lewis himself could have managed. Rojas's swampy tone is outdone only by his inability to restrain advertisements for a purely fabled virtuosity. Lewis's bass at least has the pretensions of a tone acceptable in musical circles, though his lines are impossibly sloppy. He unfortunately plays piano and organ on most of the cuts, too; drenching with dense and unyielding sustains what, by simple standards of taste and judgment, should be a spare rhythmic counterpoint between guitar and keyboards.
Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, October 23, 1973