Album Reviews

Black Flag “Damaged” (SST, 1981)

Black_Flag_-_Damaged_coverHow many members burned through Black Flag’s stay on earth? The answer is seventeen in their initial run, which lasted about a decade. Primary songwriter and guitar hero Greg Ginn was the sole lynchpin holding it all together, and as tough a band leader as he was, he wouldn’t outright fire people if they couldn’t meet his vision. Instead they would fall off from exhaustion.

By the time Henry Rollins got on board, they had the hardened vocalist they needed. “Damaged” had been attempted in small stages before, and finally came together in ’81 to change the face of rock and punk forever. The production is a bit muddy but the songs blast through efficiently… And what “punk” songs these are with their tight interplay, tempo changes made on a dime and heavy, Sabbath-heritable interludes with expressive and new noise-to-blues guitar flaying.

Side one has the most recognizable favorites; the opening anthem of “Rise Above,” “Six Pack,” “TV Party…” most of the tracks are narrated by damaged characters through Rollins, whether they are abusive macho types, alcoholics, or those pained by them, cops, or existence itself. Though Rollins is channeling these stories written mostly by Ginn and bassist Chuck Dukowski, he does let loose on side two’s grinding closer “Damaged I,” which he was known to improvise in performance.

But the whole disc is a document that spells the beginning of the end for Rock-as-Field Recording. It’s real, raw as in legitimately raw, and they didn’t take years in a studio assembling it together. Neither would their contemporaries. They kept slugging it out for another half-decade, got heavier, and you about know where Rock picks up from there, Seattleites. -Wade

James “Blood” Ulmer “Free Lancing” (Columbia, 1981)

303362After releasing his solo work “Are You Glad To Be In America?” through Rough Trade instead of say, ECM, the direction of his work grew more technical but remained engaging after his jump to Columbia. And he didn’t lose what he had going on with the post-punk label: innovation and a feeling of warmth throughout despite his unique brand of guitar flaying.

If you see live clips of Chick Corea in 1986 with his “Elektric” band, or other fusion bands of that time headed by Miles, and your only major turn off is the electric keyboards sounding like the audio equivalent of stale cheese, then “Free Lancing” will work for you. Ulmer’s band is electric, but it operates how a crack jazz/funk/rock outfit should. The heavy bass pops and acts as the main rhythmic component, James sings over his precise scratching and scrambling, and the drums embellish when they don’t drive the most memorable track, “High Time,” to the conclusion of the first side.

Loved by Ornette, post-punk art schoolers, rock enthusiasts and fans of Hendrix’s cross-town traffic music in general… well let’s put it this way, the material you hear on “Free Lancing” was the same stuff they would flaunt in front of Captain Beefheart and PiL. You can consider it a treasure of the era that occupies it’s own space. -Wade

Minnie Riperton “Adventures in Paradise” (Epic, 1975)

220px-Adventures_In_ParadiseA modest album after some initial direct hits, Minnie was one of those up and coming R&B divas set to rival Aretha Franklin. After losing Stevie Wonder as super-producer however, this ’75 release instead opted for an even softer and smoother production, bringing it into the fold of Quiet Storm, the pristine music reflecting the promise of Black middle-class quality of life that was expected to stick around.

The entirety of the album isn’t made up of slow-jams, however… “When It Comes Down To It” has some popping bass lines and sharp instrumental work, while “Minnie’s Lament” showcases real signs of life vocally on top of, what seems to me, like a Xenakis “Rebonds A” sort of drum loop. Really! It’s no wonder Quiet Storm and sophisticated R&B are the next forms up for assimilation by our current musical underground. On one level, the hippest kids are more empathic than ever before and are less likely to dismiss it for classy connotations, and on another, the form is still ripe for mining outside of Hip Hop. It seems only natural that people like Sade and Minnie are new points of reference for genre-appropriating youth. This stuff is reactionary socially and at times, it’s otherworldly sounding.

But how about at the time of release? Of course this was an important album to those whose young lives were being enriched by hopes of a better home and life, an opportunity to raise a family, more cosmopolitan integration. That’s what makes this release so beautiful. It’s an album about love on deeper levels. The most recognizable track drifting through Adult Contemporary stations could be “Inside My Love,” which should be noted, isn’t about sex…“will you come inside me / do you wanna ride inside my love?” But to get back to Black upward mobility, Minnie’s popular album track for radio play, “Love and it’s Glory,” was never released as a single. Yet it had massive air play and it’s message bounded out:

It’s a lonely world my children
You’ve got to do the best you can
If you’ve found a chance to love
You’d better grab it any way you can -Wade

Spirit “Clear” (Ode, 1969)

220px-Spirit_-_Clear-2The original Spirit lineup was the sleeper band of its era, maybe the top LA band from the ’68-’72 span. Their first and fourth albums are acclaimed classics by just about everybody, but this disc is IMHO as good as them. While the roots of jazz rock taken further by Steely Dan’s “Bodhisatva” could be heard on their third album’s “All the Same” this disc has three jazz explorations, with “Ice” and “Caught” being superb instrumental, improvisational tracks.

The Hendrix vibe of the earlier discs is just as evident in “Dark Eyed Woman”, and “So Little Time to Fly” and “Ground Hog” show early signs of the evolving sound that stuck to many on “Dr Sardonicus.” The only stiff on this disc is “Give a Life, Take a Life,” but the bonus tracks on this release more than make up for it: both sides of the “1984″ single and several jazzy instrumentals, including a great track called “Eventide” that recalls “Caught.”

Top it all off with maybe the best non-single track on any Spirit disc, “New Dope in Town,” and this is the record that doesn’t get respect it should as a classic disc from a classic band. -Frank

Manuel Göttsching “E2-E4” (Racket, 1984)

gottschingkansiA lot of compelling story arcs claim that the big-time minimalist composers and Krautrock participants had stake in the creation of House or Techno. Maybe, MAYBE these eggheads stumbled onto the formula, just by nature of building music up from scratch in such small parameters, but these instances were generally closed off from actual American dance participants. Folks who saw Disco fall from charts after the Demolition saw dance music go underground, as the rise of DJ culture became more prevalent, and the Chicago/Detroit/Paradise Garage history unfolded in front of them. Lotsa moving parts involved.

But hey, the general modus’ of DJing in those days was far from the stifling mixes of today’s more massive EDM festivals. The rules weren’t set, actually, in those lofts in warehouses. Frankie Knuckles made smooth, silky and seamless mixes from a variety of records (a VARIETY of records) and machines, while Ron Hardy made jarring, physical mixes rendering songs almost unrecognizable from their source material. A few of those early House and Techno pioneers had a copy of “E2-E4” laying around, to be sure, maybe next to some Phillip Glass, or that guy who came up with “Drumming”… Steve Reich.

Manuel Göttsching was a member of Ash Ra Temple and was known to immerse himself in electronic work ala Schulze. “E2-E4” has the stark feel of a Chicago record, maybe, but it’s not dance floor optimal. But then again, if Larry Levan could play it in the Garage, and he could make anything work, then it doesn’t matter. If this COULD be a template for dance music, then the propulsive rework of “Sueno Latino” COULD assert it into dance history proper. Sampling creates that backdoor to history. -Wade

Lizzy Mercier Descloux “Press Color” (ZE, 1979)

LizzyMercierDesclouxPressColorFunny how the “Press Color” album changes with each new pressing… Whenever New York’s infinitely hip ZE label put out a fresh one it seemed to have a rearranged track list and changes in song lengths. With a new Light In The Attic reissue on the way, this tradition continues, and they even expand the LP into a double gatefold that includes Lizzy’s early material from the art-group Rosa Yemen, so keep an eye peeled.

So many reissues and it still warrants a listen again; Lizzy Mercier Descloux was a definite talent from the post-punk / No Wave axis and “Press Color,” with tracks in any arrangement, still impresses. Lizzy was a Lower East Side scenester with ties to Patti Smith and Richard Hell. The cutely impish French gal was also a self-taught guitarist with unique chops that worked in a noise or dance context. Catfish Collins or Arto Lindsay? Somewhere in between that spindly rhythm matrix…

Whatever side of whatever version you get of “Press Color,” the discofied Arthur Brown cover of “Fire” still remains it’s most exciting ride. The convergence of New York styles at the time of this recording places this track at ground zero in dance-punk fun. More confrontational numbers include the lurching “Torso Corso” and the dizzying “Wawa.” With No Wave and post-punk revivals come and gone, “Press Color” still stands as an excitingly fresh mess of styles. -Wade

Suicide “Second Album” (ZE, 1980)

R-117096-1359998051-9312.jpegNothing really could match their debut’s savage “Frankie Teardrop” in terms of extremes, or be as sumptuous as oh say, “Girl” or “Che” – But Suicide’s “Second Album” did manage to flesh out their sound in a way that perfectly balanced their trashy/classy aesthetic and glam synth noise…

Alan Vega and Martin Rev open up with sophistication on the beautiful “Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne” and immediately go back to grit and grime with “Mr. Ray,” a Velvets cover devolved and left to fester on dirty NYC streets. It’s a constantly changing song for them live, but the recording here is definitive low-life unease from the Apple. Side one also has more tunes for off-the-street, or more like having-wine-in-the-loft… “Sweetheart” is like saccharine sugar and “Fast Money Music” is morally bankrupt ladder-climbing.

Suicide knew how to arrange startling tracks like “Harlem” and “Dance” next to the more beautiful numbers… “Las Vegas Man” and “Shadazz…” That’s what makes them so interesting to this day, really. They didn’t push for extremity, rather, their debut was just limited in how lush they could be  on record (though they managed). By this point Suicide were versatile enough to pull back and show some beauty. – Wade

Nation of Ulysses “13-Point Program to Destroy America” (Dischord, 1991)

nationof.13point.hiSelf-aware and theatrically coming off as far-left wing nutcases, Nation of Ulysses was a short lived band that burned brightly for the Dischord label into the 90s. Ian Svenonius, as ringleader and intense frontman, comes across as just that on recordings set to match their legendary and ecstatic live performances.

“13-Point Program To Destroy America” is, at it’s core, made up of a belief system stemming from juvenile delinquent behavior and leftist radicalism, but the mashing of these views is comedic and not overly serious, except maybe in their instrumentation. Their roots are in D.C. Hardcore, but at the turn of the decade most groups in the area had become more harmonic… Nation did this, but listening to a heap of free jazz records might have also led them down more interesting avenues. Svenonius even picked up a trumpet on some tracks. Whether he plays like a jazz man is up for, uh, debate. I’d say not, but he’s a great noisemaker.

The album is really two minute blasts most of the way through (“Spectra Sonic Sound,” Ulythium”), with some slower numbers including the mocking “Diphtheria.” It’s a song against, of all things, eating sweets, which really shows straightedge ethics held up to ridiculously high standards. This was when kids in the scene were going so far as refraining from caffeine consumption… It was time for a laugh. -Wade

Bad Company “Straight Shooter” (Island, 1974)

Straight_shooterBad Company! Their second album from 1975 must have been one of last few kicks of hard rock worth hearing before Punk prompted a reboot on the unending rock culture most record companies contributed to. Bad Company were one of those groups that signed to play stadiums, but luckily they could deliver arena rock goodness with a gifted rhythm section and the emerging “supergroup” status.

Make that a rhythm section with members of Free and King Crimson, plus the management backing and brawn of Led Zep. So there really was no way they could miss during the age of mid-70′s rock. And once “Straight Shooter” arrived, they had their hits fleshed out too; especially on rock radio staples “Shooting Star” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” Side two also has that coveted “incendiary” guitar work on “Deal With The Preacher.”

“Straight Shooter” is actually pretty light on guitar solo’s and instead weaves six strings through the rhythms on most of the tunes. The mix is clean (not sanitized) and democratic, with guitar heroics set to swing, making this an album to slide next to your ZZ Top collection. But you can probably find this one easier than “Tres Hombres” in a discount bin… Good deal! -Wade

Sun Araw “The Inner Treaty” (Drag City, 2012)

homepage_large.a1efc341Cameron Stallones, the man behind the wonderfully weird vibes of Sun Araw, gave us a more “sanitized” sound on “The Inner Treaty.” But don’t flinch, he hasn’t let his hot and dubby drone-rock go the way of sterilized studio work. Instead, he’s gone to the moon. And if you didn’t know this from Scientist, space is also a place to get dubwise.

If you picked up “On Patrol” or his collaboration with the legendary Congos then you’ll be ready for this one, though it is sparser to start instrumentally. It’s in the space between that he’s allowed his work to breathe and get weird(er). Opener “Out of Town” seems stretched to it’s furthest nth listenable, with reverberated vocals bounding in to keep you hanging on. As the album goes along the space closes in, until you reach the undeniably catchy and squiggly “Like Wine,” ending side one.

Cameron’s enthusiasm for his own decadently interesting tunes are exclaimed in simple statements of “Alriiiight!” and “Yeeeeaah!” throughout the disc. If each Sun Araw album could represent a time or place, they would actually all be considered very now and very near. “The Inner Treaty” is another beautifully contorted act committed to vinyl; Sun Araw brings a fizzing concoction of musical updates to your stereo. Reason to cheer! -Wade

Boards of Canada “Music Has the Right to Children” (Warp, 1998)

poster_shIt’s the work of Eno and Klaus Schultz fleshed out without ego, for the satisfied id’s of post-rave home listeners. Well, Boards of Canada are actually not those guys, but two fellows from Scotland recording for Warp around the second half of the Nineties on…

Along with the likes of Aphex Twin and contemporaries on the Planet Mu label, Boards of Canada made music that seems to work best before and after dancing, or any space between for that matter. Such is modern life. Prompt command line:

C:\Users\prepare-for-abandon-re-load-normalcy-settings.exe

Actually, “Music Has the Right to Children” has a number of sketches as opposed to straight ahead dance tracks like opener “Wildlife Analysis” and “The Color of Fire” that show very different moods using the same equipment. These songs go any direction they please other than directly heavenward.

But don’t get the idea that this is purely ambient swirl working within techno parameters, though. Many of these songs are up front and fully formed, just not quite dance floor optimal. Give “Rue The Whirl” a spin and the downtempo vibe of Boards will be apparent. -Wade

Arto Lindsay “Invoke” (Righteous Babe, 2002)

51MuII-GVFL._SY355_A culmination of noise, Bossa Nova and The Face have wrought the career of “pop musician” Arto Lindsay. He made a big splash as one of New York’s favorite noisemakers in the three-piece of DNA. His Latin roots set in more firmly later on, when he fronted Ambitious Lovers and began work on his solo albums.

Arto became comfortable making sultry Brazilian music and made exception to cover Prince’s “Erotic City” plenty of times in the 90′s. “Invoke” shows Lindsay treading new ground away from his jet-setting idea of soul and into cerebral mood music of sorts… With his newfound confidence in sampling abilities, he plays with these forms as much as he did earlier with Brazilian crooning and detuned guitar. It’s a pretty tall order, but in Lindsay’s hands these styles come together well. Not that he’s some fancy fashioner; Arto remains earnestly self-taught and his stints in North and South America lead to genuine results and a modern, international sound.

The real standouts seem to sound as lush as luxury in NYC. “Ultra Privileged” and “You Decide” are bright tracks of mood music. Arto’s signature guitar work has been subdued from terrible noise to playful chirps, asserting itself into many song rhythms. More a studio effort than a document of his live abilities, “Invoke” is, in short, an Arto album to hear while drinking wine and wearing silk pajamas, particularly with a hip lover. -Wade