Crack of Dawn – Spotlight (2017)

Originally formed in Jamaica, the Crack of Dawn band began its recording career after moving to Toronto in the mid-1970s. The bottom photo was taken about 40 years after the top one.

Formed in Kingston, Jamaica, by natives Grant Gabriel, Trevor Daley, Rupert Harvey, Mark Smith and Alvin Jones, Crack of Dawn (COD) relocated to Toronto in the mid-1970s and became the first black Canadian band to sign with a major label (Columbia Records). Drawing on funk and R&B influences that included the O’Jays, Average White Band and Earth, Wind and Fire, COD notched modest success with its self-titled 1976 debut and Horizons five years later. Who knew funk, eh, could be so funkay?

Yet that was it for new studio material as members splintered and branched out to work with acts like Al Green, Toots & the Maytals and Third World. However, after a 36-year hiatus the sun has risen to shine once again on COD.

The 10-song Spotlight runs the gamut of dance tracks, melodic mid-tempo numbers and romantic ballads, such that fans of funk, soul and pop are all likely to find material that hits home. Old-school aficionados will rejoice in COD’s organic sound and facility with real instruments, including a full and bright horn section.

The record immediately leaps to life with the opening song carrying the band’s name, “Crack of Dawn.” With a groove reminiscent of Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff,” the song is punctuated by a wiggly synth line and is easily one of the album’s top highlights.

The next four songs are remakes from the group’s 1976 LP. “Somebody’s Watching You” brings the Four Tops vibe and adds a sweet Santana-like guitar; “Boobie Ruby” is one of the record’s funkiest and familiar-sounding cuts; “Keep the Faith” is a bouncy, swinging track that brings to mind genre leaders like Frankie Beverly and Maze, the Isley Brothers, and Earth, Wind and Fire, while the lead vocal conjures memories of the Spinners’ late great singer Philippe Wynne; and the gospel-inflected “It’s Alright” takes listeners to church.

Returning to new material, “Ol’ Skool” makes the old new again. It’s gets rolling with a Chic-like riff and chimes in with a “That’s the Way of the World”-style guitar strum to set the tone for a 1970s and 1980s soul tribute, replete with shout-outs to the O’Jays, Marvin Gaye, EWF and Aretha. COD shows the depth of its group vocals to winning effect here. Then it’s time for another Isleys-esque offering (ain’t nothing wrong with that) with “Seasons Change” before delivering the title song, “Spotlight.” That one is a very nice classic soul-style ballad, perfect for cozying up to that special someone be it on the dance floor or in front of the fireplace.

“Your Love” flows forth with enticing melodic soul that’s ideal for a Sunday afternoon jaunt in the convertible down the open highway. The album closes like it began, on a high note. “Changes” is arguably the strongest track, certainly from a funk perspective. The song harkens back to EWF’s rip-roaring All ‘n All tune from 1977, “Jupiter.” It achieves liftoff courtesy of soaring lead and background vocals, along with punchy horns and Al McKay (EWF)-inspired guitar play.

While Crack of Dawn is not the most original-sounding outfit, their touch points are sincere and their approach is sure to be appreciated by those hungry for real R&B music played by real R&B musicians. The band’s particular strengths include its vocals, keyboards and rhythm guitar. At its best, Spotlight is a bright and cheery delight, at its worst bland and innocuous, adding up to an overall pleasant aural experience.