Album Reviews

Mudhoney “Mudhoney” (Sub Pop, 1989)

Seeing Mudhoney tear it up at SPF30, the free outdoor festival held August 11 at Alki Beach celebrating Sub Pop’s 30th anniversary, reminded me again why y’all need to listen to their explosive debut album with fresh ears. This thunderous slab tends to get overlooked by its predecessor, Superfuzz Bigmuff (which we reviewed in this space in 2010) and Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge—both of which are crucial, of course. But clear some space in your busy life for Mudhoney, too. It really holds up. You can verify that due to Mudhoney’s insistence on playing a lot of material off this one in live sets 29 years after its release.

The sinister and seething “This Gift” boots the album into life with an oblique homage to the Stooges’ “No Fun”—a fantastic way to open your first LP. As a bonus, the phased guitar shivers recall Butthole Surfers’ “Cherub.” In the liner notes to the March To Fuzz best-of comp, Steve Turner quipped, “I’ve always figured Mark was talking about his dick here.” Songs like“Flat Out Fucked,” “Here Comes Sickness,” and “The Farther I Go” are anthems of rage, highly torqued hard rockers that writhe with youthful truculence and ill wah-wah destruction. I remember dudes with bald heads and graying ponytails slamdancing to this at the Tractor Tavern a mere six years ago.

The explicit Blue Cheer tribute “Magnolia Caboose Babyshit” is 65 seconds of ozone-depleting, speed-gobbling biker-rock—hell-raising elevated to a debased art form. “Come To Mind” is the “ballad” of the album, sort of like “Ann” was the “ballad” of The Stooges. Meaning, it still has violence in its heart and steel in its phallus. “When Tomorrow Hits” represents yet more Stooges love, as it’s sorta Mudhoney’s “We Will Fall.” This badass glowering tune was covered by Spacemen 3 on their Recurring LP, and it almost seems as if Mudhoney wrote it for those opiated British blokes. Album-finale “Dead Love” encapsulates Mudhoney’s nearly unmatched ability to summon unstoppable rivers of magmatic rock.

While Mudhoney captures the Seattle grunge pioneers (sorry, guys, but you’re stuck with that tag) at an early peak, they have barely slipped from that lofty level of high-energy, powerful rock action three decades later. Freaks of nature, for sure… -Buckley Mayfield

Gershon Kingsley “Music To Moog By” (Audio Fidelity, 1969)

It’s 91 degrees outside as I write this. Ain’t no way I’m going to tackle something heavy in these conditions. So, with a sigh of relief, let’s turn to Music To Moog By, one of the gems of the Moogsploitation subgenre, by one of its masters, the German-American composer Gershon Kingsley (who is now 95, fact fans).

Famous for his collabs with French Moog master Jean-Jacques Perrey (The In Sound From Way Out! and Kaleidoscope Vibrations; the former a big influence on the Beastie Boys), Kingsley here shows he could succeed on his own. “Hey Hey” is one of the most fantastic album-openers ever. It was sampled by producer RJD2 for “The Horror,” and you can hear why: That opening drum break is serious hip-hop fire, and the rest of the track explodes in space-opera/sci-fi drama, like an alternate-reality theme for Star Trek. Holy shit, is this track exciting. If you’re a DJ who wants to grab the crowd’s attention from the jump, “Hey Hey” is a stellar choice.

Kingsley then takes things way down into contemplative, melancholy pastorality with the traditional English folk ballad “Scarborough Fair,” and it’s deeply affecting. He follows that with “For Alisse Beethoven,” a pastiche of the German composer’s “Für Elise,” but done with more modern urgency and skittering beats that almost foreshadow drum & bass and some of Luke Vibert’s ’90s output.

There are a few pieces on Music To Moog By that seem a bit too geared for TV movie scenes where the protagonist’s life suddenly takes a turn for the positive. “Sheila,” “Sunset Sound,” and “Trumansburgh Whistle” all traffic in pretty and precious, MOR melodicism—albeit too heavy on cutesiness to merit deep listening. And then there’s “Twinkle Twinkle,” the children’s song, but embellished with rococo, lush Moog flourishes. Don’t let your friends catch you listening to this trifle.

Because every record released in the late ’60s and early ’70s by law had to have Beatles covers, Music To Moog By contains a couple: “Nowhere Man” and “Paperback Writer.” The former version really brings the maudlin nature of the Beatles song into clearer relief. Frankly, I don’t ever need to hear it again. However, Kingsley’s “Paperback Writer” builds serious drama through augmenting the main riff with resonant bass and accelerating the tempo at unexpected moments… and then adding a guitar solo that sounds as if it were beamed in from a Moby Grape or Fever Tree record. Saving the freakout for the fadeout lends the album that coveted “leave ’em wanting more” feeling. Thus, Music To Moog By ends as powerfully as it started.

(Note: The Wah Wah, Dagored, and Tam-Tam labels have reissued this album over the last two decades. It shouldn’t be too hard to find.) -Buckley Mayfield

The Human League “The Dignity Of Labour” (Fast Product, 1979)

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I think the Human League peaked with this EP. At this early juncture in their career, the band consisted of primary composers Ian Craig Marsh and Phil Oakey and keyboardist Philip Adrian Wright. Oakey didn’t sing a note on these four tracks, and that’s fine with me. Without his stentorian, romantic emoting, the Human League had more room to flaunt their excellent ear for strange textures and alienating atmospheres—you know, the stuff that makes life worth living.

Divided into four parts, The Dignity Of Labour begins with a slice of dark, quasi-industrial electronic music that’s not quite in Throbbing Gristle’s diabolical domain, but it’s certainly more morbid than what would follow in the Human League’s catalog. Marsh and Oakey work up a slightly upbeat death-disco lather, but it doesn’t match the club-friendliness of other late-’70s League releases such as “Being Boiled” or “Empire State Human.”

Parts 2 and 3 enter some deep Teutonic territory. The former is the EP’s peak, its stark, foreboding maschine musik recalling the innovations of German geniuses such as Conrad Schnitzler and Seesselberg. The crystalline timbres the League summon on this track are just incredible. “Pt. 3” is a dizzying whirl of high-pitched, Theremin-like synth and vibrant arpeggios reminiscent of some of Harald Grosskopf’s and Tangerine Dream member Peter Baumann’s work. “Pt. 4” ends things on an eerie note of BBC Radiophonic Workshop-like atmospheres, a sound miles away from what the League would be doing on 1981’s Dare or even 1980’s Travelogue.

As with a lot of things reviewed in this space, The Dignity Of Labour could use a reissue, as it hasn’t seen a repress since the year of its initial release. Seems like a no-brainer for a label like Minimal Wave, Dark Entries, or Medical to re-release it—although there could be thorny legal hurdles. Anyway, I’m just putting that idea out there… -Buckley Mayfield

Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band “Bluejeans & Moonbeams” (Mercury, 1974)

For decades I avoided Bluejeans & Moonbeams, because conventional wisdom and consensus opinion deemed it one of his worst works and an embarrassing stab at commercial success. (Spoiler alert: The album flopped with the public and critics.) Perhaps the former assertion is true, but when you’re dealing with an artist on the exalted level of Don Van Vliet, that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. As for the second assertion, yes, B&M sounds relatively accessible when compared to Beefheart’s other releases—save for the equally reviled Unconditionally Guaranteed. However, this is still Beefheart, a musician incapable of making a record without something sounding interesting. And therefore I am going out on a withered limb and championing B&M… albeit with reservations.

One thing that makes this album different from most of Beefheart’s others is a new lineup that lacked a musical director who could translate the untrained band leader’s ideas into chords, notes, etc. Consequently, B&M‘s songs are much less complicated than usual for a Beefheart work. Nevertheless, side one is filled with good-to-great songs that may not tilt the music world off its axis like Safe As MilkTrout Mask Replica, or Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), but still go to some fascinating places and hit some familiar sweet spots.

B&M kicks off in grand style with “Party Of Special Things To Do,” a funky blues number that appealed enough to that learned rock scholar Jack White for the White Stripes to cover it on a 2001 Sub Pop 45. There are some serious Dr. John-like swamp vibes here, and Van Vliet’s in his trademark gruff Howlin’ Wolf vocal mode. The cover of JJ Cale’s “Same Old Blues” could never equal the original’s archetypal laid-back blues funk, but kudos to Van Vliet and company for attempting to do so.

B&M peaks with “Observatory Crest,” probably the most beautiful melody Beefheart’s written (with help from Mothers Of Invention/Fraternity Of Man guitarist Elliot Ingber). This dreamy, spacey tune was covered by Mercury Rev and the Swedish band Whipped Cream, and if you can’t luxuriate in the spectral shimmer of this tune, you need to make some major aesthetic adjustments. Side one closes with the funky blues-rock of “Pompadour Swamp,” which harks back to Beefheart’s The Spotlight Kid, but sounds not as menacing or off-kilter. “Captains Holiday” is a laggard, Stones-y blues-funk jam without any input from Beefheart—hence, the title.

The quality drops substantially on side two, unfortunately. “Rock ‘N’ Roll’s Evil Doll” has all the charm of a post-Jim Morrison Doors song, a C-plus blues-rock bump and grind of which Van Vliet and company seem to be going through the motions, while “Further Than We’ve Gone” comes off as a blundering yet snoozy “soul” ballad in which Van Vliet sounds unconvincing and everyone else sounds bored. “Twist Ah Luck” emulates a mid-level Rolling Stones chugger with a straight face, a move that should be beneath Beefheart. But dude was in a slump, as “Bluejeans & Moonbeams” conclusively proves; it’s Beefheart at his sappiest. Try not to cringe at this attempt at tender balladeering, corny orchestrations, and slide-guitar soloing—I dare you. This might the second lowest point in the Beefheart canon, after “This Is The Day.”

Still and all, Bluejeans And Moonbeams has two bona-fide classics (“Observatory Crest” and “Party Of Special Things To Do”) and enough flashes of deceptively dirty funk to be worth your time, if you can find it on the cheap. And at least it’s better than Unconditionally Guaranteed. -Buckley Mayfield

Can “Can” (Harvest, 1979)

Can’s 11th studio album, Can (aka Inner Space), generally receives less attention and praise than their earlier, better-known full-lengths, but it’s actually a pretty strong record. There are some duds here, to be sure, but when they’re good, they’re very good. Even at this late, these krautrock legends still had mad creative juice.

By 1979, Can were in a weird place. Original bassist Holger Czukay was relegated to editing tape in the studio; Traffic and Stomu Yamash’ta bassist Rosko Gee replaced him, while fellow Traffic member Rebop Kwaku Baah joined the group as a percussionist. Wonderfully idiosyncratic singers Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki were long gone, so guitarist Michael Karoli assumed vocal duties with a workmanlike blandness. Yet despite this inauspicious situation, Can still delivered five excellent tracks (out of eight), which is quite respectable for a band 11 years into their career.

Can opens with one of the unit’s greatest tracks of any period, “All Gates Open.” (Note: The new Can biography by Rob Young and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt uses this phrase as its title.) Jaki Liebezeit kicks out a busted-metronome beat that sort of mocks disco while Czukay ladles in mysterious, menacing noises and Karoli jams out a riff that the Fall stole for “Shoulder Pads 1 & 2.” Eventually and without warning, Schmidt generates a radiant swell of tones that overwhelms you like an orgasmic epiphany. And then there are the bluesy harmonica parts—about the last thing you’d expect in a Can composition. This is an eight-minute epic worth every odd second. Another eight-plus minutes of weirdness, “Safe” finds Karoli channeling Carlos Santana’s rococo, piercing runs and Czukay creating a bizarre, cavernous soundworld as Liebezeit keeps lopsided martial time. “Sunday Jam” offers more Latin-rock lushness with a rhythm that gushes forth with an abundance of “Black Magic Woman” intrigue. Side 1 slays all in its path.

Side 2 starts extremely well, with “Sodom” and “A Spectacle.” The former is a very ominous rock song that bears the gravitas of Goblin or post-Syd Pink Floyd, as Karoli wrenches serpentine, liquid silver from his guitar. The latter is an elegantly spluttering specimen of disco (not disco) that starts startlingly in mid-stride. As Gee’s bass line sends your ears on a thrilling roller-coaster ride, Liebezeit concocts a miracle of stutter-funk footwork and sticksmanship. You need at least three legs to dance to this track properly.

“E.F.S. Nr. 99 (Can Can)” is where things get dicey. This admittedly spirited cover of a piece by the 19th-century composer Jacques Offenbach was seemingly done for its wordplay potential alone. Let us never speak of it again. “Ping Pong” captures 25 seconds of a ping-pong ball bouncing. Why?! Dunno. Because they could? Finally, the flamboyant biker-rock blowout of “Can Be” recalls “Full Moon On The Highway” from Landed, but it’s not as badass.

So, yeah, Can ends bafflingly badly, but its high points are so stratospheric, they’re cancelled out. Don’t pay attention to the fans who say Can didn’t make any great records after Future Days or Soon Over Babaluma. This one’s a stunning sleeper. -Buckley Mayfield

The Rolling Stones “Goats Head Soup” (Rolling Stones, 1973)

For decades, Goats Head Soup endured many critics’ and fans’ slights and even dismissals for not being as earth-shaking as its canonical predecessor, Exile On Main St. But in recent years, a re-evaluation of Goats Head Soup‘s merits has gained traction, and its reputation has burgeoned among people with better-than-average taste in rock music (if I may be so bold). The turning point for me was when I found myself on New York psych-rockers Mercury Rev’s tour bus in Ohio on one of their mid-’90s tours, and they were listening to Goats Head Soup. If these musicians whom I admired like hell were into this album, maybe I needed to give it a closer listen. I’m very glad I did.

GHS boasts some of the Stones’ most popular and overexposed tunes (“Angie,” “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo [Heartbreaker]”), some of their greatest deep cuts (“Coming Down Again,” “Winter,” “Can You Hear The Music”), and a couple of country-rock burners (“100 Years Ago,” “Silver Train”; that these London blokes are so adept at country stylings has always puzzled and pleased me). There’s only one real dud: the rarely spoken-of, standard-issue blues-rocker “Hide Your Love.” Everything else deservers heavy rotation in your annual Rolling Stones diet.

Dancing With Mr. D” is such a great sleazy opener, so potent and sinister, although it kind of verges on self-parody by 1973. No matter. It’s the sound of a band whose members know they’re the baddest in the world, and that bravado manifests itself to the fullest in this grinding, midtempo rocker. “100 Years Ago” toggles between country-rock and R&B, with a slick raveup at the end in which guitarist Mick Taylor reels off a mercurial, wah-wah-intensive solo which reinforces the idea that losing him seriously weakened the Stones.

On “Coming Down Again,” Keith Richards sings in his most sincere, vulnerable, and poignant voice in a song that ranks among the Stones’ greatest ballads, up there with “Wild Horses” and “Sway.” This Gram Parsons-esque country-rock weeper exudes a junkie fragility that’s tragically beautiful. “Coming down again/Where are all my friends?” (with Jagger following in sotto voce “Sky fall down again”) is a concise summary of a drug addict’s situation. You can have “Happy” and “Before They Make Me Run”; I’m sticking with “Coming Down Again.”

Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” is a harrowing tale of drug addiction and violence set to menacing, flinty rock, augmented by horns of magnificently triumphal robustness, as if they’re trying to lift your spirits from the morbid NYC tale Jagger’s relating. You’ve heard “Angie,” a gorgeous, tender ballad about a dissolving romance with bravura piano performance by Nicky Hopkins, about a hundred times too many. No getting around it: The heart-string-plucking allure of the Stones’ most Elton John-like moment has been eroded by thousands of listens over the decades, but still, respect is due.

The three songs that close out GHS are phenomenal. The Van Morrison-esque ballad “Winter” has beaucoup soul and enough wistfulness to melt the coldest heart. Richards sat out this one, while Mick Taylor contributed much to the sublime music, but the Glimmer Twins shafted him on the credits. Not cool.

But let’s not get bogged down in petty administrative decisions. Because “Can You Hear The Music” follows. While few fans rate it highly in the Stones’ canon, I place this paean to the metaphysical power of music near the top. It’s at once one of the band’s funkiest and most psychedelic songs, and its outlier status is solidified by Jim Horn’s serene flute and percussion contributions from the great synth composer Nik “Pascal” Raicevic and CAN/Traffic member Rebop Kwaku Bah. This thing sways and breezes from an exotic place where the Stones rarely ventured, and it features some of their sickest guitar tones. It almost sounds like a tribute to Brian Jones’ Master Musicians Of Jajouka collab in Morocco. “When you hear the music/trouble disappear” is a mantra worth storing in your memory banks forever.

After the lofty, exotic splendor of “Can You Hear The Music,” “Star Star” slams you back down to earth and the bedroom with a raunchy Chuck Berry homage that gained notoriety for its profane chorus and its tumescent tribute to a hall-of-fame groupie who made Ali McGraw angry “for giving head to Steve McQueen.” Leave it to the Stones to follow perhaps their most spiritual composition with possibly their nastiest. If that sequencing was intentional, I tip my hat to Mick and Keef. You gotta love that kind of perversity.

So, yeah, Goats Head Soup has gotten a bad rap by certain establishment critics and wrongheaded fans, but it possesses at least five undeniable classic cuts. The Stones may have been buckling under the stresses of rock-star excess and unrealistic expectations in the early-’70s wake of Exile, but they somehow fought through the haze to create a strong, varied record that’s earned its status as an underdog favorite in their massive catalog. -Buckley Mayfield

Tom Tom Club “Tom Tom Club” (Sire, 1981)

Tom Tom Club’s debut LP is proof you can judge an album by its cover. Artist James Rizzi depicts the band members—led by Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz—playing their instruments in a tropical paradise. It’s a busy illustration exploding with cartoonish glee, and it captures the carefree, buoyant spirit of Tom Tom Club’s music—a fantastical vacation from the Heads’ angsty, cerebral art-rock. (Not that Talking Heads couldn’t have fun; but their sound always has possessed a more prominent veneer of intellectualism and Eno-fied studio magic.)

Recorded in Barbados with Weymouth’s sisters Loric, Lani, and Laura on vocals, Adrian Belew on guitar, Steven Stanley on percussion and co-production, Tyrone Downie on keyboards, Uziah “Sticky” Thompson on percussion, and Monte Brown on guitar, Tom Tom Club reached #23 on the US album charts. That success was largely due to the two hit singles that lead off the record.

“Wordy Rappinghood” is one of the best songs ever with typewriter sounds in it, and it’s also one of the first tracks to feature rapping by a white woman, though it has to be said: Tina Weymouth is no Debbie Harry. Overall, “Wordy Rappinghood” is elite novelty electro-funk with a fantastic conga solo and insanely adorable Japanese-language (or is it nonsense?) chants by Tina’s siblings. “Genius Of Love” is the album’s peak, and one of the definitive tracks of the ’80s—and it’s been sampled a staggering 147 times, according to whosampled.com. This worldwide club smash is an über-sexy, supremely funky dub jam with nearly the same clapper beats as George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” and an absurdly elastic keyboard riff that bears the DNA of Bernie Worrell (who worked on Remain In Light). Tina’s fathoms-deep bass line is worthy of Robbie Shakespeare (one of many musicians extolled in the song’s lyrics, along with Bohannon, Smokey Robinson, and other funk-soul legends). It never gets old—and I’ve heard it about 200 times.

While the rest of this lovely full-length can’t match that opening 1-2 punch, there are lots of other mood-elevating moments. “Tom Tom Theme” is a rolling, minimalist tom-heavy percussion workout of low-key dopeness that leads right into another highlight, “L’Éléphant,” which features Belew’s guitar emulating the strident wail of the titular animal over a martial yet tropical dance rhythm, while “As Above, So Below” is an eerie, festively ominous funk number that could almost slot onto side 1 of Remain In Light. The album closes with the breezy banger “Lorelei” and the kitsch sci-fi funk of “Booming And Zooming.” (The 1982 reissue contains remixed versions of “Lorelei” and “On, On, On, On,” plus a bubble-funk/reggae-fied version of the Drifters’ “Under The Boardwalk,” which supplants “Booming And Zooming.”)

On their enchanting debut, Tina and Chris let the rhythm hit ’em, and the world’s been swerving and swooning to it ever since. -Buckley Mayfield

Moebius & Plank “Rastakraut Pasta” (Sky, 1980)

The late Dieter Moebius could do no wrong. A crucial member of Cluster, Harmonia, and Liliental, and a collaborator with Brian Eno, Max Beerbohm, Mani Neumeier, Asmus Tietchnes, Red Krayola’s Mayo Thompson, and many other mavericks, Moebius always brought a peculiar tonal vocabulary to any studio situation He never stopped trying new things and maintained high quality control to the very end of this life—a true rarity.

One of his key conspirators was the renowned krautrock producer/engineer Conny Plank. Along with Guru Guru drummer Neumeier, both German geniuses recorded the mind-boggling Zero Set, which was way ahead of its time (and which I hope to review eventually). In the meantime, let’s examine Moebius and Plank’s first full-length, Rastakraut Pasta, which thankfully isn’t quite as goofy as its title.

Moebius met Plank when the latter served as engineer for Cluster 1971. They hit it off and meshed their peculiar sensibilities on Rastakraut, which reveals the more whimsical side of the two musicians’ talents. (CAN’s Holger Czukay plays bass on three tracks here.) The LP title reveals the underlying sonic theme: a bizarre melding of Jamaican and Teutonic musical elements. “News,” the title track, and “Miss Cacadou” dabble with drunken dub and reggae structures, their woozy skank always threatening to capsize into a Caribbean Sea filled with molasses rather than water.

On “Two Oldtimers,” which features Czukay, Dieter and Conny finesse a lollygagging electro-pop that’s as dreamy as these sagacious Germans ever got—until it unexpectedly turns all solemnly neo-classical. “Solar Plexus” is the album’s strangest piece; it seemingly consists of a tuning fork and synth murmurs Doppler effected into a weird splaying of tones and warped mumbles. The main motivation behind it appears to be to fuck with your reality while you’re tripping. Face it: We all could use some tracks like this in our lives.

The album’s anomaly and peak occurs on “Feedback 66” (which also includes Czukay). This is surf-rock submerged in tar, its rhythm seemingly clipped from that monotonously funky kickdrum from Sly & The Family Stone’s “Dance To The Music,” and then slowed way down. Again, it’s produced to mess with your mind in an insidious manner, which is why I love to drop it in DJ sets. “Feedback 66” is one of Moebius and Plank’s greatest achievements of their storied careers—and it’s worth the price of admission alone.

Praise Jah that that price of admission won’t be exorbitant, as the excellent Bureau B label reissued Rastakraut Pasta on vinyl in 2010 and again in 2017. -Buckley Mayfield

This Heat “Health And Efficiency” (Piano, 1980)

Slotting between the twin towers of This Heat’s 1979 self-titled debut LP and 1981’s Deceit, Health And Efficiency is no mere stop-gap release. Rather, it’s a peculiar peak in this short-lived yet crucial experimental/post-punk group’s discography.

Health And Efficiency” itself is simply one of the greatest songs ever, an art-rock tune so grand and uplifting, it deludes us into thinking that humanity is going to continue to evolve into a peaceful, super-intelligent species that values equality and yes, health, over all else. Seriously, its melody and ecstatic vocal arrangements are that powerful. Then, two minutes in, This Heat say, “Fuck it, y’all don’t deserve this much euphoria,” as they slam into one of the nastiest (lock) grooves to which you’ve ever had the good fortune to lose your mind and spastically jack your body. It’s a real bucking mechanical bull of a rhythm, cantilevered to the max and laced with an array of rolling bottles, children’s screams, and enough noisy distortion to start a wildfire in your brain. The freakout near the end will tear your ever-loving head off and punt it into the sun (the star to which “Health And Efficiency” is dedicated).

Health And Efficiency” is a definitive example of what radical explosions can be realized with (mostly) typical rock instruments when the musicians disregard orthodoxy. In the liner notes to the most recent reissue, This Heat drummer Charles Hayward says that the track was “improvised pretty much fully-formed, an 8 minute stretch.” He notes that Charles Bullen plays an electric/upright piano that the Rock In Opposition band Henry Cow left at the Cold Storage Studio through some distortion pedals. Now you know.

On “Graphic/Varispeed,” This Heat revamp “24 Track Loop” from the self-titled 1979 debut album into a supremely resonant, ASMR-inducing drone that the band manipulates ever-so-subtly, so it changes pitch and intensity in minuscule gradations. An early example of remixing and sonic deconstruction, “Graphic/Varispeed” puts a particularly industrial, northern English spin on ambient/drone music.

Originally released on Flying Lizards/General Strike member David Cunningham’s Piano label, Health And Efficiency received a deluxe reissue in 2016 via Light In The Attic subsidiary Modern Classics, with liner notes by Mr. Hayward, thereby earning the eternal gratitude of all right-thinking music fans. -Buckley Mayfield

Taj Mahal Travellers “August 1974” (Columbia Japan, 1975)


When talk turns to ultimate space-out albums, as it inevitably must if you’re living life to the fullest, you have to include this sprawling double album by Japan’s Taj Mahal Travellers in the conversation. Recorded live almost 44 years ago, the four sidelong tracks on August 1974 will test most people’s patience, as the album’s 88 minutes dilate time and alter space with no conventional vocals, beats, bass, or even structure, really. Instead, violinist Takehisa Kosugi and his stoic ensemble improvise drones that meander through the cosmos in a state of rigorous wonder. These Travellers sacralize your mind with an array of string instruments, mystical chants, bell-tree shakes, and Doppler-effected electronics that are as disorienting as they are transcendent.

The variations that occur in each of August 1974‘s four untitled tracks are subtle. The pieces toggle between tranquility and chaos with gradual and unpredictable shifts in intensity. The second one for, example, features what seems like some unidentifiable beast’s growl synthesized into an unsettling lament while a mandolin fibrillates with emergency-room adrenaline, before things slide into a bleak vista of woebegone moans, metallic percussion, sporadic timpani hits, and bizarre, electronically treated vocals. The organic and the synthetic elements blend indistinguishably—probably because everything seems as if it’s running through processors that leave an otherworldly sheen on all the elements.

The final cut is an amazing agglomeration of ominous synth pulsations, strafing electric-violin motifs, and a menagerie of strange percussive timbres. It’s here where August 1974 achieves its psychedelic zenith. If you suffer from ADHD and can only handle about a third of an hour of music at a time, go straight for track 4, which packs the most excitement per minute.

Let’s be clear about Taj Mahal Travellers: They’re not for everybody; this may be the biggest understatement I’ve ever made. They may only be for a few thousand people in the entire world. (The YouTube video of August 1974 stands at 1,501 views as I type.) Nevertheless, the impact that their enigmatic sonic streams of consciousness have made on those folks who do get it is profound. And under the right circumstances—out in nature, in a darkened room while under the influence of your favorite hallucinogen, in a vehicle moving through a mountain range, etc.—this record will put your mind through some uniquely rewarding contortions.

(Good news: Belgium’s Aguirre Records reissued August 1974 on vinyl in 2018.) -Buckley Mayfield

Larry Young’s Fuel “Larry Young’s Fuel” (Arista, 1975)

By 1975, jazz keyboardist Larry Young was straying far from his modal, Coltrane-esque dates for Blue Note, his contributions to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, and his fiery fusion experiments with Tony Williams Lifetime and Love Cry Want—and even his 1973 oddity, Lawrence Of Newark [a review of which you can find on this blog]. Signing to a major label like Arista may have had something to do with this change in direction, as it represents some of Young’s most accessible work. Yet for all its leanings toward R&B libidinousness and funk decadence, Larry Young’s Fuel remains an interesting and very DJ-friendly anomaly in the avant-gardist’s catalog.

“Fuel For The Fire” immediately lets you know that though the songwriting’s more overtly commercial, Young is still going to fire off some bizarre flourishes on his Moog, Hammond, and Rhodes. The funk here is complex, with bassist Fernando Saunders (Lou Reed, John McLaughlin, Jeff Beck, etc.) and drummer Rob Gottfried engaging in twitchy interplay that’s as groovily coiled and coked up as anything on Miles’ On The Corner. Laura “Tequila” Logan’s scat vocals aren’t as off-the-wall as Linda Sharrock’s or Urszula Dudziak’s, but they’re still odd for a funk/R&B context. “I Ching (Book Of Changes)” sounds like ELP going off on a torrid funk bender, with Young channeling Keith Emerson’s manic, rococo filigrees. “Turn Off The Lights” could easily be a Betty Davis sex-scene-setter thanks to Logan’s lusty vocal pyrotechnics and a bass line that’s rated XXX. Young gets off some amazing Moog ejaculations, to boot. An exciting side one, to be sure.

Side two begins with the instant dance-floor-filler/mood-elevator, “Floating.” The lithe buoyancy of Saunders’ bass and Gottfried’s hi-hat-enhanced 4/4s coupled with Young’s radiant Hammond whorls gives the track an almost cosmic-disco atmospheric strut. “H+J=B (Hustle+Jam=Bread)” is another proggy funk workout in which Saunders and Young appear to be dueling each other to see who can most peel off the most outré notes and chords (Young wins). The hyperkinetic, intricate “New York Electric Street Music” replicates the furious bump and grind of On The Corner (that record again), with Santiago Torano’s guitar finally breaking through Young’s extravagant solos to snarl and wail with authority. The only thing keeping this track from classic status is Young’s goofy vocalizing about the the titular city and ad libs like “Humor is better than a tumor” and “Charisma is better than a caramba.” Oy.

Oh, well, that’s a rare misstep on an album that will surely rankle Young’s more purist jazz fans, but should please those open to a world-class musician trying to weird up a mid-’70s mainstream genre on a big corporation’s dime. -Buckley Mayfield

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles “Make It Happen” (Tamla, 1967)

There’s something slightly quaint about even the greatest Tamla/Motown releases from 1967 and earlier, as heard with 21st-century ears. The psychedelic movement hadn’t yet hit Berry Gordy’s radar in a meaningful way, and funk had yet to gather serious momentum, so the legendary label was still pushing the straightforward, orchestral-soul formula that had made it world-famous and widely loved. Even a sophisticated composer and sublime vocalist like Smokey Robinson seems a bit trad more than 50 years on from the release date of this solid LP, Make It Happen. But there is one tune on this record that eludes the era’s trappings and represents a pinnacle of songwriting that transcends all. More about that later.

Loaded with endearing, romantic ballads (five songs have the word “Love” in the title, the best of them being swoon-inducing yet heartbreaking “The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage”—“sweetness was only heartache’s camouflage/the love I saw in you was just a mirage”), Make It Happen showcases Smokey’s gorgeous, honeyed vocals—perhaps the epitome of androgynous R&B expressiveness. And then there are the Northern soul dancers like “My Love Is Your Love (Forever),” “You Must Be Love,” “Dancing’s Alright,” and “The Soulful Shack,” all of which glide with that patented Motown effortless grace, putting a ridiculously sprightly spring in your step.

But as lovely as all those songs are, they cannot compare to “The Tears Of A Clown.” Hundreds of listens to it have convinced me that it is perhaps the greatest song ever written. I know, huge claim. But I’m utterly serious. With music by Stevie Wonder and Hank Cosby and words by Mr. Robinson, “Tears” has been riveting me ever since I heard it on the radio when I was 8. We often blithely say certain things “never get old,” but I can assert with every fiber of my being that this is the case with “Tears.”

Lofted skyward by that helium-powered, circus-friendly calliope motif, “Tears” is the ultimate ebullient music/sad lyrics song (take that, Morrissey/Marr). The pell-mell rhythmic propulsion, that one flat tuba chord, spine-tingling keyboards, and the champagne-supernova backing vocals seem to assure you that everything’s groovy to the max, but Smokey’s genius words paint a picture that’s 180º opposed to the sonic levity. Every verse is a masterpiece that reinforces the theme of the singer not letting “glad expression” give you “the wrong impression.” I look forward to another 5,000 listens.

(In 1970, Tamla reissued Make It Happen under the title The Tears Of A Clown to capitalize on the title track’s stunning radio success. Somehow, those savvy marketing cats at one of history’s most lucrative record companies didn’t think “Tears Of A Clown” had hit potential upon its initial release. We should never stop shaking our damn heads over this music-biz fail.) -Buckley Mayfield