Rediscovery: The hypnotic appeal of Jeff Phelps' Magnetic Eyes

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"That album is something I've known about for a long time," Dâm Funk says of Magnetic Eyes, which was written, recorded and produced by Jeff Phelps in 1985. Thanks to the German label Tomlab, more people are finding out about Magnetic Eyes today. Along with the Tony Cook compilation produced by Dâm's cohort Peanut Butter Wolf and released on Stones Throw, Magnetic Eyes is a rediscovered jewel of '80s funk. But whereas the Cook album has roots in classic soul, Phelps' album is a cool, synth-powered collection that brings techno figurehead the Electrifying Mojo to mind. It's also blessed with peerless cover art and -- as you'll find out after the jump -- it inspired a fantastic music video.

If the Pointer Sisters danced with neutrons, then Phelps -- to paraphrase Magnetic Eyes'  "K-Shell" -- danced with electrons, making bedroom recordings with a Tascam Portastudio 244. Sleek and minimalist, his compositions are on point. Electronic elements mingle with delicate jazz touches. The most powerful and pop example is "Hear My Heart," where a Yusef Lateef-like woodwind briefly duets with a beguiling, raw (no studio enhancement trickery whatsoever) vocal by teenager Antoinette Marie Pugh. Beginning with a basketball game and moving on to closeups of red fingernails and tearful eyes (not to mention scenes of champagne fireside romance), the video for "Hear My Heart" is, like the best Jan Terri videos, a no-budget delight. The song itself is lovely and hit-worthy.

Jeff Phelps, "Hear My Heart," from Magnetic Eyes:

While Phelps lived in Houston, TX at the time, the sound he crafts on Magnetic Eyes' title instrumental track is a precursor to Detroit techno (the plaintively moving "Don't Fall Apart On Me" could be an Inner City demo), not to mention the retro-informed future funk that Dâm Funk creates today; Dâm's collaborator Ramona Gonzalez of Nite Jewel is also a fan of the album. Knowing this, I had to ask Dâm about the Electrifying Mojo, whose late-night radio sets -- bringing together Kraftwerk and Parliament -- helped forge the Detroit techno sound.

A sample of the Electrifying Mojo on late-night radio:

"I have some old tapes of his," Dâm said, "His concepts were great, and he played great music. It's all about the delivery and the passion. That's what I try to do with my selector sets [as a DJ]. I want them to be special, more to the left angle and the dark side."

The dark angle and the left side are both abundantly present in the cover art of Magnetic Eyes, which was created by an artist named Garry Hollie that Phelps knew at the time. While introverted instrumentals frame the album, it has a round-the-way creative and collaborative essence, with one lyric ("On the Corner") penned by Phelps' wife, and another ("Wrong Place, Wrong Time") by one of his co-workers. Phelps still makes music today, and in a recent interview, he says he listens to a lot of Steely Dan (a likely influence on Magnetic Eyes), as well as Gil Scott-Heron, Tupac, and...Nite Jewel.

   

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