Album Reviews

Zapp “Zapp” (Warner Bros., 1980)



Zapp is a landmark of funk, one of the gleaming peaks of future-fucking ’80s R&B. Led by Ohio brothers Roger and Larry Troutman (with two other Troutman bros also contributing), Zapp were a family affair who weren’t as stoned as Sly. Bolstered by their association with P-Funk’s George Clinton and Bootsy Collins—the latter of whom co-produced Zapp with Roger—the Troutmans displayed a genius for minimalist funk jams that often centered Roger’s distinctive and virtuosic use of talk-box, which gave his voice a supernaturally mellow soulfulness.

Recorded at Detroit’s United Sound Studios, Zapp went Gold and reached #19 on the US pop chart and #1 on the R&B chart. If you’re a fan of the ’90s West Coast rap style known as G-Funk, you’ll notice tons of samples originating from the LP’s standout lead-off track “More Bounce To The Ounce” and the slick, midtempo funk ballad “Be Alright.” Yeah, Zapp is foundational in more ways than one.

Let us quickly focus our attention on “More Bounce To The Ounce.” It is, quite simply, the funkiest song of the ’80s—yes, even funkier than George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” Prince’s “Head,” or 23 Skidoo’s “Kundalini.” It’s no shocker that “More Bounce” wound up powering many a G-Funk rap track. It’s a masterpiece of minimalism, as the Troutmans et al. conduct a PhD seminar in dynamics; the way the bass chicken struts while the guitar chimes with percussive terseness and the massed claps snap where the kick drum should be, plus Roger’s unparalleled use of talk-box… well, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime coalescence of elements that you never want to end. I’m serious. It’s one of the hottest and coolest grooves humanity has ever conceived. This one song makes Zapp worth whatever price you’ll pay for it (likely around $10-$12, but don’t be surprised to see that rise).

The rest of Zapp doesn’t really approach the towering heights of “More Bounce,” but it’s solid nearly all the way through, in a way that few ’80s funk LPs are. “Freedom” is sly jazz funk with an indelible, thunder-thumbs poppin’ bass motif. “Brand New PPlayer” is a prime example of funk on the prowl, a slinky seducer with jazzy sax and guitar solos, subliminal congas, and clever male/female vocal interplay. It’s probably the most Parliamentarian cut on the album. The low-key trance-funk of “Funky Bounce” features an odd contrapuntal passage between slap bass punctuation and a fluid, bluesy guitar solo. Make no mistake: Zapp consist of musicians with serious chops. Sure, they’re fond of repetition, but they can flex virtuosity, too. An example is the crystalline, Wes Montgomery-like guitar accentuation that threads “Be Alright,” a slick, funky, summery ballad hobbled by boilerplate romantic lyrics—always a Zapp liability. Unfortunately, the album ends on its weakest note; “Coming Home”’s a peppy and schmaltzy R&B ditty that sounds like it should be scoring the end credits of a mediocre made-for-TV movie.

But pay that no never mind. Zapp‘s mostly golden, which in ’80s funk circles means it’s hella exceptional. Ask Dr. Dre and EPMD, among many others. -Buckley Mayfield


M|A|R|R|S “Pump Up The Volume” (4AD/4th & B’way, 1987)



Pump Up The Volume” stands as one of the strangest songs ever to chart in America (peaked at #13). The handiwork of British musicians Martyn and Steve Young of Colourbox and A.R. Kane [see our Sept. 5 review of their Up Home! EP], this seven-minute sampladelic collage both entranced and discombobulated dance floors in the late ’80s—as did its four-minute edit to radio listeners. M|A|R|R|S loaded the track with an absurd abundance of sonic information; it’s as overwhelming a listening experience as anything concocted by the Bomb Squad for Public Enemy or the what the Dust Brothers stitched together for the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. “Pump Up The Volume” is one of those surreal, action-packed jams that can jolt you out of your doldrums while shopping for cereal at QFC (true story).

The main rhythm of “Pump Up The Volume” is a rolling, punchy house-music amble, spookily accentuated with heavily FX’d vibraphone tintinnabulation (I think). The excitement level seriously spikes when they bring in the monstrously funky, Moog-/timbale-enhanced break from the Bar-Kays’ “Holy Ghost.” Other elements producer John Fryer zooms in and out of the mix include the oddly riveting chorus from George Kranz’s “Din Daa Daa,” Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav shouting “You’re gonna get yours!” Washington DC go-go group Trouble Funk chanting “pump pump pump me up!” rapper Rakim intoning “Pump up the volume” (of course), a Last Poets member’s rapid-fire rant from “Mean Machine” (“rhythmatic systematic remote control/magnetic genetic commands your soul”), drums and cowbell from Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Jazz,” and Dunya Yusin’s striking melisma from “Abu Zeluf.” Throw in some scratching by C.J. Mackintosh and you have a recipe for confusion, but the whole thing hangs together splendidly, returning to the original undulating rhythm just when you think it’s going to split at the seams. The US edition of the EP gives you two alternate mixes with slight variations, but both pale before the original epic.

The 12-inch’s other highlight is “Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance).” Written by A.R. Kane, “Anitina” is a corrosive slice of the group’s patented, solarized shoegaze, buttressed with a sexily strutting bass line and some pneumatic ’80s drum-machine beats. Rudy Tambala sings to his “little dollies,” “I’ll feed you sugarkane” and “touch me where it’s forbidden,” and the effect is charming rather than creepy due to his vulnerably soulful voice. While “Pump Up The Volume” hogged the lion’s share of the spotlight, “Anitina” is a stunning gem in its own right, one of the most compelling compositions A.R. Kane ever conceived.

Vinyl copies of Pump Up The Volume commonly appear in used sections for prices much lower than the quality of its contents would lead you to expect. It’s bargain-bin gold, and you should cop one the next time you see it. -Buckley Mayfield


Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band “Bongo Rock” (Pride, 1973)



Incredible Bongo Band sure had incredible bongos, but they weren’t really a band, per se. Rather, Pride Records executive Michael Viner coaxed various musicians to record percussion-heavy instrumentals, including covers of many popular songs of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and pieces for films in order to, uh… make some easy money. Thankfully for posterity (and your posterior), these players ranked among the greatest session studs ever: drummer Jim Gordon, percussionist King Errisson, guitarist Mike Deasy, pianist Joe Sample, bassist Wilton Felder, and many others—possibly even Ringo Starr. The sessions may have had a loose, mercenary intention to them, but they ultimately yielded some truly enduring cuts.

You surely know the popular tune “Apache,” which the Shadows originally issued in 1960. Well, IBB blew it out and funked it up like nobody’s business. The result is one of the most action-packed jams ever waxed and perhaps the ultimate B-boy anthem, its bongos-and-drums breakbeats forming the perfect bustling soundtrack to busting acrobatic moves. In addition, “Apache” has become one the most sampled tracks in music history, especially appealing to hip-hop and drum & bass producers. If you can’t hear why, you may need therapy.

The rest of Bongo Rock is similarly a treasure trove of breakbeats aching to be sampled and instantly catchy, quasi-kitsch instrumentals that want to enliven every party everywhere till the end of time. I mean, check out “Bongolia,” a swerving monster of a tune with flamboyant horn charts, swift bongo patter, and 10 pounds of funk in a 5-pound bag. It’s a veritable godsend for DJs; its only fault that is that it las barely over two minutes. “Last Bongo In Belgium” slurs out some lascivious blues rock with a funky swagger and what sounds like Mike Deasy going off on a third-ear-tickling, psychedelic guitar solo. Yes, the Beastie Boys sampled the drum/bongos break for “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun.” Good catch.

Of course IBB do a truncated but funked-to-heaven and horn-heavy cover of Iron Butterfly’s gothadelic 1968 hit, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” And of course it possesses a very sample-worthy bongo/drum break, replete with flange on the latter. They’re generous like that. The last two tracks—“Raunchy ’73” and “Bongo Rock ’73”—sound like sexed-up, hot-rodding themes to TV game shows that are more risqué than The Dating Game (ask your mom or dad). Once again, there’s a surfeit of funkitude and more fun than should be legal on a 35-minute album. All praises to the visionary Michael Viner and his funky instincts! -Buckley Mayfield




William S. Fischer “Circles” (Embryo, 1970)

r-1921619-1275313594-jpeg Herbie Mann’s Embryo label may not have had the greatest track record, but it was never less than interesting during its eight-year run, as LPs by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Brute Force, Miroslav Vitous, and others, attest. Ol’ Herbie seemingly gave his artists free rein, and most of them took full advantage. One of the Atlantic Records subsidiary’s standout releases is Circles by composer/keyboardist William S. Fischer. Fischer—who doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page—plays Moog synthesizer on this very curious record, which boasts Billy Cobham on drums, Ron Carter on bass, vocalist Bill Robinson, no fewer than five cellists, and superstar session guitarists Hugh McCracken (Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Van Morrison et al.) and Eric Weissberg, who played the banjo theme to Deliverance. That’s a helluva lot of firepower for a musician of such (unjust) obscurity. The album’s first track doesn’t really betray how strange Circles will get. “Patience Is A Virtue” is a slow-burning psychedelic-soul number in the vein of Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong’s “Message From A Black Man,” and given gravity by Fischer’s cello army. But then, catching you unawares, “Saigon”’s acid rock surges somewhere in the vicinity of Jefferson Airplane, Phil Upchurch, and It’s A Beautiful Day’s “Time Is.” If that weren’t enough of a radical juxtaposition, the abstract Moog exploration of “Electrix” sounds as peculiar and disturbing as anything off a Nik Raicevic LP or George Harrison’s Paul Beaver-assisted Electronic Sound. Another 90-degree twist happens with “Chains,” which almost prefigures the nocturnal slowcore rock of bands like Codeine or Low. Nothing on side 1 makes any goddamn sense, and that’s a wonderful thing. Turn the record over for another shocking transition, “There’s A Light That Shines,” a poker-faced pop-gospel ditty sung with utmost sincerity and sweetness by Robinson, but laced with Fischer’s crispy Moog embellishments. It’s the LP’s low point, but its cloyingness is nullified by “Circle.” With its unusual dynamics and dark orchestrations, this song’s excellent funk rock sounds like Chambers Brothers attempting their own Forever Changes. “Green Forever” delivers orchestral funk of David Axelrod-esque complexity, powered by Cobham’s ridiculously mercurial drumming and fiery guitar interplay redolent of Miles Davis’ ’70s-era hired guns like John McLaughlin and Pete Cosey. You have to admire someone who ends a debut album with a track like “Capsule”—a cavalcade of chittering and purring Moog blurts. You have to remember, this synth was rather new in 1970 and musicians were eager to explore its outermost capabilities, sometimes for the sheer novelty effect. Fischer does that here, and if you’re of a psychedelic mindset, you’ll gleefully go along for the whole seven-minute tour de force. Like Fischer’s other albums—Akelarre Sorta and Omen, both from 1972—Circles is long out of print on vinyl although in 2003 Water Records re-released it on CD. It’s one of those true oddball records that need to hit more ears ASAP, regardless of format. -Buckley Mayfield

Fripp & Eno “Evening Star” (Island, 1975)



Evening Star‘s cover art—by Oblique Strategies co-creator Peter Schmidt—looks like fairly typical New Age LP fare, but the music therein is far from typical in that genre. This meeting of the prog-rock deities—King Crimson leader/guitarist Robert Fripp and former Roxy Music synth wizard Brian Eno—resulted in some of the most sublime ambient music this side of Discreet Music For Airports [sic]. Of course, the duo had cut the tape-delay masterpiece No Pussyfooting in 1973, its two sidelong tracks dilating listeners’ sense of time and ensnaring their minds in seemingly infinite loops. So fans were somewhat primed for another deep dose of head music. While not quite as lapel-grabbing as No Pussyfooting, the five tracks on Evening Star do possess a subtly alluring quality.

Opening track “Wind On Water” enters earshot on supremely gentle guitar ululations in the upper register, swathed in ambrosial drones that evaporate all cares and induce a preternatural calm. This makes  “The Heavenly Music Corporation” off No Pussyfooting sound like heavy metal. “Evening Star” deepens the pervasive sense of tranquility. A gorgeous, crystalline three-note keyboard motif that should be your phone’s ringtone forever chimes in the foreground while Fripp launches foghorn-y wails in the background. An acoustic guitar jangles in the slim lacunae between those elements. The whole thing’s ecstatically lugubrious.

“Evensong” is a slight lullaby that pales in comparison to the two classics before it. However, the Eno solo composition “Wind On Wind” sounds like a benevolent god murmuring “there there” to you as she caresses your forehead. It’s a one-way ticket to Cloud 9, the key to absolute mental peace. Thus side one ends.

For side two, Fripp & Eno have something completely different in mind. Where side one floated in utmost placidity, the 28-minute “An Index Of Metals” tolls like an Emergency Alert System alarm. The tension is palpable from the start, and it only gets more ominous as it goes. The plot thickens with each passing minute, as Fripp’s guitar starts rolling in ever-larger waves, crashing on the shore of your ears with greater intensity and inhabiting more foreboding atmospheres. By the end of “An Index Of Metals,” you’re convinced it belongs in the pantheon of darkest music you’ve ever cowered to.

I’d wager it was Fripp who steered the ship into possibly the creepiest waters either musician had ever plunged. I keep thinking about the hilariously shocking transition that occurs on King Crimson’s debut LP, where the diabolical climax of “21st Century Schizoid Man” smacks abruptly against the utterly pacific “I Talk The Wind.” Fripp loves to subvert expectations. Your puffy-cloud fantasia’s been subsumed by a sinister undertow. Who is Eno to get in the way of that? -Buckley Mayfield


Opal “Happy Nightmare Baby” (SST, 1987)


Like many releases from SST’s incredible run in the ’80s, Happy Nightmare Baby languishes out of print. Opal’s only studio LP proper is a fabulous, valuable record, and in a just world, it would not be as scarce as it is. In a just world, SST—which is run by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn—or a label specializing in reissues would have kept the lovely masterpiece in print perpetually. But no. Ginn seems not interested in keeping his label’s greatest titles available to the general public. Only tenacious bands with top-flight lawyers have managed to get the rights to their SST output for legit reissues. Sorry to bog you down with this minutiae, but if you want a vinyl copy of Happy Nightmare Baby, you’ll likely have to shell out major coin; I paid $40 for an original last year. Even the used CD I bought eight years ago cost $12, which is kind of scandalous.

Anyway, to the music, which was created by Rain Parade guitarist/vocalist David Roback and Dream Syndicate vocalist/bassist Kendra Smith. Their combined discographies reveal them to be songwriters whose work is built to last. And so it goes here. “Rocket Machine” launches Happy Nightmare Baby into T.Rextacy from the get-go, its slowed-down Bolan-esque boogie an instant initiation into Opal’s psychedelicized recontextualization of ’60s and ’70s classic rock moves. “Magick Power” uncoils like a serpentine Doors epic, but it’s infused with Smith’s sly feminine charms instead of Jim Morrison’s macho bravado. And that makes all the difference. (I’m a Doors fan, by the way, so hold your hate mail.)

On “She’s A Diamond,” Opal blow out a bluesy shuffle with fuzzed-out wah-wah guitar and glaze it with glorious, icy female backing vocals behind Smith’s wonderfully opiated drawl. You can hear why Roback picked Hope Sandoval for his next band, Mazzy Star, as she followed in Kendra’s compellingly lackadaisical steps. “Supernova” sounds what I imagine heroin feels like; it’s a languid strut, accentuated by guitars that spray gold glitter, and there’s also what sounds like an electric cello swirling in the background. Seductively stalking keyboard and bass riffs power “Siamese Trap,” augmented by Roback’s articulate guitar love cries. If you haven’t gathered by now, Happy Nightmare Baby possesses some of the most immersive and alluring sex music you’ll ever hear.

The Strange Days-era Doors-y title track casts a spell at once beatific and sinister, which is incredibly hard to do. “Soul Giver” offers the perfect ending to the album, with its methodical, tidal undertow and hypnotic, majestic sweep. Suki Ewers’ snaky, Manzarek-like organ arabesques really elevate the song to the highest echelon of extended psych jams. I used to put this on mixtapes next to Loop’s “Burning World,” and it was a helluva stoned 1-2 punch.

I realize it won’t be easy (thanks, Greg), but you should do whatever it takes to get Happy Nightmare Baby into your life—and, yes, you deserve better than a YouTube rip. -Buckley Mayfield

Bohannon “Dance Your Ass Off” (Dakar, 1975)


Though he was immortalized in Tom Tom Club’s 1981 hit “Genius Of Love,” Hamilton Bohannon remains somewhat under-recognized as a suave scientist of funk and disco. This despite releasing about a dozen great records throughout the ’70s and ’80s that contained some of the most exciting and irresistible rhythms ever waxed—as well as, it must be admitted, some of the tritest lyrics and most cloying ballads ever conceived. But Bohannon more than made up for these flaws through his ability to lay down chugging dance tracks that you wish lasted for hours rather than minutes.

Maybe Bohannon didn’t earn greater recognition because on his LP covers he usually looked overly formal and a bit geeky, and his speaking voice on record is shockingly square. Further squareness ensues on the Dance Your Ass Off‘s cover, which blurs a profile of an actual woman’s ass and has the admonition, “PLAY THIS RECORD LOUD P.S. Dance Your Ass Off is not used in the sense of profanity.” [Italics mine.] Above this, Bohannon thanks God and Jesus Christ “for giving [him] strength and inspiration to write, arrange, direct, produce and record this Album.” Points deducted for all of this, but I still recommend Dance Your Ass Off as an ultimate party platter, blessedly free of his usual momentum-killing balladry.

Right from the opening title track, drummer/arranger/composer/producer Bohannon and his crack band lock into a crisp, swift disco kick and cymbal-tap rhythm, buttressed by a nasty bass line, handclaps, bongos, and swampy guitar snarls—and surprisingly dark strings. You can safely ignore nearly all Bohannon lyrics, as they’re always boilerplate party exhortations and meta descriptions about the actual music, albeit sung with utmost sincerity. For example: “Wiggle when you dance/Now wiggle when you walk/Let’s dance, let’s dance, let’s dance all night/We’re gonna rock your soul and set your feet on fire.” Not exactly Marvin Gaye- or Eugene McDaniels-caliber verbiage, eh?

The rest of Dance Your Ass Off alternates between freewheeling disco with flamboyant string accompaniment and slightly slower and greasy-as-fuck funk that nods to the Meters (see “The Groove I Feel” and “Zulu”). If you dig chicken-squawk guitar and militaristically precise drumming, then you’ll love these two cuts. The guitar on the former is particularly wicked. For my money, “Trying To Be Slick” is the LP’s highlight. It’s like Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” on speed, but with more mad flute embellishments and much less socially conscious lyrics, of course. Think of it as music to set sprinting world records to. The paradoxical thing about music that inspires hedonism—like Bohannon’s—is that it usually requires incredible discipline and control to create.

Super hypnotic, minimal, and repetitious, Dance Your Ass Off in places could be a blueprint for house music, almost a decade before the fact. Verily, these songs are DJ tools of the highest order. -Buckley Mayfield

A.R. Kane “Up Home!” (Rough Trade, 1988)


Heads still ain’t ready for A.R. Kane. The British duo emerged in 1986 on One Little Indian, sounding like the black Jesus And Mary Chain on their debut single, “When You’re Sad.” Maybe too much. It was a nice homage, but it reflected little of A.R. Kane’s unique personality. That would soon come with 1987′s Lollita EP on 4AD and the Up Home! EP in 1988, followed closely by their debut full-length, 69 and the Love-Sick EP. These records revealed a group commingling dream pop, soul, ambient dub, and electric-era Miles Davis in a wholly distinctive manner. (Major footnote: A.R. Kane also contributed to M/A/R/R/S’s 1987 smash hit “Pump Up The Volume,” which you can still find in bargain bins with some regularity.)

Opener “Baby Milk Snatcher,” the track that became the highlight of 69, slowly arises from slumber into recumbent, refracted dub bliss. It revolves around irradiated guitar grind, cyclical bass pressure, and Rudy Tambala’s tranquilized soul croon. The chorus of “baby, so serene/slow slow slow slow/baby, suck my seed” summarizes the mood of casual, lush eroticism pervading the song. “W.O.G.S.” features lyrics about being sold down and floating down the river, which aptly mirrors the music’s aquatic, solemn dubgaze haze.

“One Way Mirror” is the EP’s zenith, a fractured, shimmering specimen of radiant psychedelic-rock/dub fusion that reifies your disorientation. Tambala sings in surrealistic puzzles, but the line “I’m going up till I lose my skin” sums up the general feeling of self-abnegating transcendence. The record concludes with “Up,” which is some kind of peak of weightless, amorphous rock. It’s about ascending a stairway to heaven on the Black Star Liner (the shipping line that Jamaican politician Marcus Garvey instituted in 1919 to transport goods and people to Africa), and it’s unbearably poignant.

A.R. Kane would go on to record the housier, astral-jazzier, and more accessible “i” double LP and the not-so-great New Clear Child, but Up Home! remains their most concentrated blast of brothers-from-another-planet rock sorcery. You can also find these tracks on the 2012 double-CD compilation Complete Singles Collection. -Buckley Mayfield

Rain Parade “Explosions In The Glass Palace” (Enigma, 1984)


Following Rain Parade’s extraordinary 1983 debut LP Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, Explosions In The Glass Palace couldn’t help sounding like a tiny bit of an anticlimax. But the five-song mini album by the standard-bearers of Los Angeles’ short-lived Paisley Underground scene (a term none of the participants probably ever want to hear or see again; sorry!) stands as a superb little collection of West Coast psychedelia.

Key Rain Parade singer-songwriter David Roback was mostly gone and working on Opal (and then later, the Clay Allison Band and Mazzy Star) by the time the group cut Explosions; he’s only credited on the EP’s last track, “No Easy Way Down.” But Roback’s brother Steven, Matt Piucci, and Will Glenn ably picked up the compositional slack. “You Are My Friend” is a bejangled, tender-hearted slice of mellifluous raga rock that could’ve come from the pen of Roger McGuinn or Lennon-McCartney circa “Rain.” As a homage to psych-rock’s first vital steps, it’s a goddamn beaut. By contrast, eerie waltz-time zoner “Prisoners” creeps in with stealth, bolstered by majestically arcing guitar sighs and moans, evoking those comfortably numb, sublimely ponderous Pink Floyd space-outs.

The blissful, gently rippling midtempo rock of “Blue”—which contains the poignant line “All our tears couldn’t bring her home”—strikes me as ideal for driving the idyllic back roads around Big Sur, California. (You haven’t been to Big Sur? You should try to remedy that soon.) If there’s a lull in Explosions, it occurs on “Broken Horse,” a Steven Roback-penned acoustic-guitar ballad whose slightly melodramatic, melancholic Neil Young vibe breaks the EP’s lysergic spell. But things elevate dramatically on Explosions‘ peak “No Easy Way Down.” It’s one of the deepest, most seductive psychedelic excursions Rain Parade ever made, echoing the Door’s “The End” via the main riff’s spellbinding Eastern lilt and Will Glenn’s rich, sacred Hammond B-3 whorls.

The year after Explosions, Rain Parade created one more very good album on Island, Crashing Dream, before folding, but they still occasionally play out. In fact, in 2014 they headlined Seattle’s Hypnotikon Festival, and revealed flashes of their old selves. Rain Parade’s catalog may be small, but it’s all wonderful, including the exquisite Explosions In The Glass Palace. -Buckley Mayfield

Thomas Leer “4 Movements” (Cherry Red, 1981)


Scottish musician/vocalist Thomas Leer made some of the most interesting song-based electronic music of the original post-punk era, but he’s never achieved much more than cult status. In all honesty, though, he should be as well known as Soft Cell, if not as widely loved as New Order, to name only two contemporaneous UK acts. 4 Movements was the first Leer release I heard, and it remains my favorite to this day, although Private Plane EP and the Contradictions LP are also highly recommended. As another British group, Hot Chocolate put it, every 1′s a winner.

4 Movements‘ opener, “Don’t,” is a gleaming jewel of continental dance music overlaid with Leer’s elegantly pained vocals. It strikes you as accessible and danceable synth pop on one level, but there’s something deceptively complex happening under the surface: a sneakily wiggly bass line, frosty and fibrillating synth whorls, spectral backing vocals… or are they yet more synths? Whatever the case, you’re paying close attention and working up a sweat. “Letter From America” shimmies into earshot with a quasi-cha-cha rhythm and an exotic array of synth tones, which elevate this song into the vicinity of Haruomi Hosono’s all-time stunner, Cochin Moon. Perhaps the EP’s most poppy cut, “Letter From America” finds Leer singing with a seething, Howard Devoto-like suavity.

“Tight As A Drum”—which bears a vague resemblance to David Byrne and Brian Eno’s “The Carrier” from My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts—is staunch, five-dimensional dub in a hall of illusory synth mirrors—very disorienting. I love to play this track at DJ gigs and watch people try to make sense of it. The final track, “West End,” slithers with a silvery, slick rhythm and bursts with tightly controlled, ecstatic synthetic horns. Again, there’s a lot of subliminal sonic sorcery going on: contrapuntal synth lines, bizarre burbles and ripples. It’s like a new kind of snake-charmer music, and it’s incredibly sensuous.

Thomas Leer was on fire creatively during this period, and you should seek out anything with his name on it from then—especially 4 Movements. (Oh, by the way: Someone should reissue this… perhaps Superior Viaduct or Dark Entries?) -Buckley Mayfield

Parliament “Osmium” (Invictus, 1970)


Osmium captures Parliament (aka Funkadelic) at a time before their trademark stylistic traits had firmly solidified. Consequently, it’s a wildly diverse record, full of songs both expected (if you’re familiar with the P-Funk catalog) and very surprising—like, “check the record to make sure this is still the band from Detroit led by George Clinton” surprising. Yes, Osmium is at core a soul album, but it’s a helluva lot more, too. Because any George Clinton production—especially from the ’60s and ’70s—can never be typical.

Osmium—alternately titled Rhenium and First Thangs in subsequent releases; a 2016 reissue of it is floating around, too—begins with a prime slice of horndog funk, “I Call My Baby Pussycat,” with Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross’ guitars and Billy Bass Nelson’s bass really setting fire under asses. Things grind to a solemn halt with “Put Love In Your Life,” a soul-gospel-tinged ballad sung with baritone gravity by Ray Davis… but then it unexpectedly shifts into a florid psych-pop anthem. Wow, my ears just got whiplash. If that weren’t strange enough, the Ruth Copeland-penned “Little Ole Country Boy” swerves into mock-country territory, replete with jaw harp, tabletop guitar embellishments, and Fuzzy Haskins’ Southern-honky vocal affectations; think the Rolling Stones, but with tongues more firmly jammed in cheek. More ear whiplash. Ouch! (Yes, De La Soul producer Prince Paul sampled the yodeling part for “Potholes In My Lawn.”)

“Moonshine Leather” peddles the sort of sublimely sluggish bluesy funk that occupied some of Funkadelic’s earliest releases, while “Oh Lord, Why Lord/Prayer” is a baroque-classical/gospel hybrid, sung with utmost passion and soul by Calvin Simon and Copeland. It’s definitely the frilliest and most churchy P-Funk track I’ve heard. As an agnostic, it sort of gives me hives, but there’s no denying the sincerity and skill behind the song.

Side two begins with “My Automobile,” yet more Stonesy faux country, but with sitar (?!) accompaniment, quickly followed by the revved-up, libidinous “Nothing Before Me But Thang,” which is the wildest, most Funkadelicized cut on Osmium. The struttin’, ruttin’ “Funky Woman” is indeed funky and ready to make any party you’re attending lit, as the kids say. The hippie-fied gospel rock of “Livin’ The Life” sounds like something off of Godspell or Hair, but it’s not bad at all.

Parliament saved the best for last with “The Silent Boatman.” Another Ruth Copeland composition (she also co-produced the LP, by the way), “The Silent Boatman” is one of the most beautiful and moving songs in all creation. A slowly building, majestic ballad aswirl in Bernie Worrell’s organ and glockenspiel, it’s a poignant tale lamenting inequality and strife on Earth and redemption in the afterlife. When the bagpipes come in, you feel as if you’re being swept up in a highly improbable dream in which Parliament become the most persuasive religious sect ever to enter a studio. Going way against type, “The Silent Boatman” might be the closest Clinton & company ever got to godliness. Ruth Copeland was their secret weapon, although she never again recorded another proper album with the group. But what a legacy she left. -Buckley Mayfield

Don Cherry “Brown Rice” (EMI [Italy], 1975)


Nearly all my friends and acquaintances who are into psychedelic music tap Brown Rice* as their favorite Don Cherry album, and one listen reveals why. It’s at once the grooviest, spaciest, and most cosmic-sounding record in the legendary jazz trumpeter’s catalog. Cherry’s hunger for new, adventurous sounds spurred him to travel around Africa, Europe, and the Far East and absorb influences from those regions. For Brown Rice, he called on some trusted comrades to help him realize his ambitious visions, including drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Charlie Haden (both of whom played with Ornette Coleman and Cherry on seminal LPs The Shape Of Jazz To Come and Change Of The Century), and saxophonist Frank Lowe. They and other key contributors combine to create perhaps the most rewarding introduction into Cherry’s large canon.

Leading off, of course, is the title track, the leftfield rare-groove monster jam that launched a million chills on a million cool underground-hip-hop producers and other sussed cats. Verna Gillis’ distinctively eerie “ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh”s continuously undulate under Bunchie Fox’s electric bongos (Bunchie Fox’s electric bongos!), two electric pianos made to sound like a weirdly tuned marimba, Haden’s wah-wah bass eructations, and Cherry’s confidential whispers. Here and there, Lowe unleashes some ravishing rasps on his sax. There’s nothing else really like “Brown Rice”’s alien funk, and it’s worth the price of admission alone. The 14-minute “Malkauns” finds Cherry and company delving into Holy Mountain soundtrack territory. Moki’s tamboura drones in timeless, chakra-aligning tones and Haden’s contemplative acoustic bass sojourns dominate the first 4.5 minutes, then Cherry’s triumphant trumpet fanfares and Higgins’ cymbal-intensive rhythms kick up the energy to a spritely gallop. The track then becomes a virtuoso duel between Cherry and Higgins, as the tamboura/bass players maintain a staunch foundation. The last couple of minutes return to the tamboura/bass interplay, to which you can imagine Alejandro Jodorowsky zoning out.

Another epic piece, “Chenrezig” features Cherry’s guttural, spiritual chants (in a language I can’t discern) foghorn over Hakim Jamil’s tense, rumbling bass and Ricky Cherry’s sparse piano. When Don’s trumpet enters a few minutes in, things tranquilly lift to a more exalted plane. All the while, a surreptitiously coiled rhythm shuffles below. Until it accelerates near the end, “Chenrezig” comes off as a less turbulent, more introspective take on Bitches Brew‘s outward bound fusion. “Degi-Degi” closes the LP with Cherry urgently whispering about the goddess of music over a bustling rhythm—Haden’s bass is especially buoyant—and Don’s spiraling trumpet motifs that make you feel as if you’re conquering a new planet.

In The Penguin Guide To Jazz, Brian Morton and Richard Cook called Brown Rice “a lost classic of the era and probably the best place to sample the trumpeter as both soloist—he blows some stunningly beautiful solos here—and as the shamanic creator of a unique, unearthly sound that makes dull nonsense of most ‘fusion’ work of the period.” Listen to these learned Brits; they know what they’re talking about. -Buckley Mayfield

*Brown Rice was originally titled Don Cherry in the US and its first pressing here came via Horizon/A&M in 1977.