Album Reviews

Merl Saunders “Fire Up” (Fantasy, 1973)

Merl Saunders (1934-2008) was a Hammond B-3 demon and all-around keyboard badass who is best known for his recordings with the Grateful Dead legend Jerry Garcia. In 1973, Saunders, Garcia, Creedence Clearwater Revival guitarist Tom Fogerty, bassist John Kahn, drummers Bill Vitt and Bill Kreutzmann, and others cut a hot LP aptly titled Fire Up. If you’re familiar with Hooterroll?, the record Garcia made with keyboardist Howard Wales in 1971, you may hear similarities between that and Fire Up. Both are great, if under-acknowledged, gems in the constellation of Grateful Dead satellite releases.

Fire Up starts strongly with “After Midnight,” which Merl and company render in the laid-back style of the song’s composer, JJ Cale, but they make it even funkier, with Jerry Garcia exuding his patented mellow bonhomie on vocals and embellishing the heaven out of the main chugging guitar riff. For even more savory flavor,Saunders gets off some mad, rococo flourishes on organ and electric piano. This might be the best version of this oft-covered song, outside of the original. The low-key party atmosphere continues with a suave, soul-jazz treatment of Huff-Gamble’s “Expressway (To Your Heart).” “Soul Roach” is a greasy af boogaloo-inflected jam that sounds like the best shindig you’ve ever had south of the Mason-Dixon line. Saunders brings in an Arp synth and Kahn helps out on extra organ, because that’s how dang generous ol’ Merl was in 1973.

Fire Up peaks on “Chock-Lite Puddin’,” a cruising funk rambler with Saunders on Arp and flute. This has become my go-to cut from this LP for DJing, along with “After Midnight.” Drummer Gaylord Birch and bassist Chuck Rainey really fatten up the groove here, with bonus mercurial hand percussion making “Chock-Lite Puddin’” dance-floor dynamite. The record closes with a nearly nine-minute version of “Lonely Avenue,” as Saunders and crew turn Doc Pomus’ classic, frequently covered 1956 song into a slinky exercise in melancholy R&B, with Walter Hawkins singing and Garcia soloing with soulful dexterity.

Fire Up is a front-to-back solid collection of keyboard-powered songs that surely illuminated many parties throughout the ’70s, and could do so now among folks of a certain age. Plus, if you’re a fan of Jerry Garcia’s spidery virtuosity, you definitely need this in your collection. -Buckley Mayfield

Cecil Leuter “Pop Electronique” (Neuilly, 1969)

Pop Electronique represents some kind of zenith of effusive, beat-heavy, Moogsploitation-leaning library music. The mad handiwork of French musician Roger Roger (1911-1995; that apparently was his real name), this record is a playground for Moog fanatics and electronic-music and hip-hop producers looking for outrageous samples. The 14 tracks here, each titled “Pop Electronique,” all running in the 1:30-2:40 range, have no vocals to get in the way of your Akai MPC pilferings. Leuter’s concision and precision pay huge dividends. There’s not one dull second on Pop Electronique.

The album begins with some a quirky, lopsided funk nugget that could be a ’90s track by Beck, Cibo Matto, or Money Mark. The next track spits out a spasmodic, rippling panoply of what sound like robot bird belches over hypnotically strummed guitars—groovy in a most peculiar way. A triumvirate of mod, go-go dance tracks that sound like they could score the most decadent, dexedrined orgy in cinematic history ensues. Leuter was getting into 101 Strings territory here, embellishing things with splenetic Morse code Moog cheeps and squeaks.

Whereas the LP’s first side abounds with hyper-kinetic party jams that are almost too fun, the flipside will make you flip in an entirely different manner. Pop Electronique gets stranger and more abstract as it goes, ending in a claustrophobic funhouse automaton nightmare of obsessive-compulsive zaps and spasms and repetitive conga hits. On track 10, the drums drop out and Leuter just lets loose with a wonderfully demented arpeggio splurge. On the 11th cut, he manifests a more abstract bleep and woob infestation similar to the hallucinatory work of Nik Raicevic, whose Head LP I reviewed on this blog last year. Cecil followed that one with a very discombobulated and stripped-down cha cha. It’s crazy to think the man was in his late 50s when he concocted these nutty tunes. I don’t know what Monsieur Leuter was on during the recording of Pop Electronique, but I want whatever it was.

(Dare-Dare reissued Pop Electronique in 2000, while Fifth Dimension unofficially re-released it in 2016. Read more about library music on Jive Time’s blog here.) -Buckley Mayfield

Bobbie Gentry “Fancy” (Capitol, 1970)

Even though she had a massive hit in 1967 with “Ode To Billie Joe” and released a grip of great LPs from in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Bobbie Gentry is not quite the household name she should be. Much like her English counterpart Dusty Springfield, the Mississippi-born Gentry is a soulful, nuanced vocalist who could work wonders with country, funk, rock, and pop material. Aside from singing in her supple, sensuous contralto, Gentry also wrote, produced, and even did the artwork for some of her album covers (including Fancy). She exerted a lot of control over her career for a woman in a male-dominated industry that wasn’t as progressive as it wanted to think it was.

Although she had sporadic chart success in the US and UK, and even hosted her own variety show on BBC TV, Gentry faded from the music biz and the public eye in the early ’80s. But her profile’s received a boost in recent years after being name-checked by young country-music stars like Kacey Musgraves and Nikki Lane, as well as the recent release of the 8-CD box set The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters, should further raise Gentry’s profile… [ahem] as well as this review.

The title track establishes Fancy‘s main mode: slick, orchestral country-funk executed by excellent session musicians from the Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and in Columbia Studios in Nashville. The lone Gentry original, “Fancy” finds the singer recounting the rags-to-riches story of an 18-year-old woman whose mother nudges her into a life of prostitution to lift the family out of poverty. It’s so good, one wonders why Capitol larded the rest of the LP with other people’s compositions. On the two Bacharach-David tunes—“I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”—Gentry’s Southern-belle gravitas doesn’t thrive in the famous songwriting team’s spick-and-span suburban pop, no matter how well-crafted it is. She sounds a bit uncomfortable and out of her soulful element here. Similarly, the cheerful, waltz-time pop of Rudy Clark’s “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody” does not play to her strengths.

Thankfully, Gentry shines on the rest of the album. While Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues” may not be the most copacetic vehicle for Gentry, the melody is so sublime that she can’t help making a gorgeous swoon of yearning heartache out of it. Leon Russell’s “Delta Man” is a song into which Gentry can really sink her incisors. She switches the original song’s genders and lays into Russell’s rousing chorus with less brio than Joe Cocker did, but Bobbie out-finesses the English geezer by far.

“He Made A Woman Out Of Me” (written by Fred Burch and Don Hill and earlier covered by Bettye LaVette) is Southern country-funk that’s as lubricious as Tony Joe White at his most seductive. It’s a momentous coming-of-age tale… so to speak. The album’s highlight is Harry Nilsson’s “Rainmaker”; it’s the funkiest, most sweeping track here, augmented by banjo and violin—not exactly staples of the funk genre, but Gentry, producer Rick Hall and his Muscle Shoals crew, and strings arranger Jimmie Haskell make it work to the max. This is my go-to track on Fancy for DJ sets—so it has that going for it, too.

While I’d prefer to hear Gentry perform her own songs, on Fancy she inhabits other composers’ with sly charisma, imbuing them with a strong wiliness that was rare for its time among female entertainers. -Buckley Mayfield

Takehisa Kosugi “Catch-Wave” (CBS/Sony, 1975)

It was only five months ago when I reviewed Taj Mahal Travellers’ August 1974 in this space, and sadly, on October 12, that group’s leader, Takehisa Kosugi, passed away at age 80. So, this seems like an opportune time to review the violinist/composer’s best-known solo work, Catch-Wave.

Consisting of two sidelong tracks, Catch-Wave is not a million kilometers from what Taj Mahal Travellers were doing. To recap: In my review, I wrote, “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.” Here, Kosugi improvises solo on violin and electronics to similar trance-inducing effect.

In the 26-minute “Mano-Dharma ’74,” Kosugi manifests a fantastically desolate and gently fried sound that falls somewhere among rarefied realms of Terry Riley’s “Poppy Nogoods All Night Flight,” Fripp/Eno’s “Swastika Girls,” and Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho soundtrack. The fibrillations and oscillations wax and wane with hallucinogenic force and logic while a steadfast drone woo-whoas in the middle distance. After a while, you begin to think of this track not so much as music as it is the alien babbling of a mysterious organism that’s eluded scientific study. This is very bizarre psychedelic minimalism, and I love it.

“Wave Code #E-1” clocks in at a mere 22 minutes, and features Kosugi’s deep, ominous voicings, in addition to a modulating drone that almost sounds like Tuvan throat-singing. Heard from one angle, it may seem like Kosugi is merely fucking around with the cavern of his thorax, like a child in front of the rotating blades of an air-conditioner. Heard from another angle, though, this piece comes off like the Doppler Effected groans of a woozy and weaving deity hell-bent on scaring the bejesus out of you. Somehow, this cut is even stranger than the very weird A-side… and I love it.

Besides helming Taj Mahal Travellers, Kosugi played in Group Ongaku, was part of the Fluxus movement, and acted as music director for Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1995-2011. He was one out-there cat, and he created some timeless music, of which Catch-Wave is a prime example. Rest easy, master musician.

[Note: The excellent Superior Viaduct label is reissuing Catch-Wave on Nov. 9] -Buckley Mayfield

Ananda Shankar “Ananda Shankar” (Reprise, 1970)

East-West musical fusions proliferated like mad in the ’60s and ’70s—hell, they’re still happening, if not as frequently as they used to when society as a whole was more open-minded and psychedelically inclined. Most of these efforts stem from Western musicians dabbling with Eastern forms. Indian sitarist/composer Ananda Shankar’s self-titled 1970 debut LP is the rare record where an Eastern musician tries his fleet-fingered hands at rock, and the result is fabulous.

For this album, Shankar only used one other Indian musician: tabla specialist Pranish Khan. The rest of the pick-up band included bassists Jerry Scheff (Elvis Presley, the Doors’ L.A. Woman) and Mark Tulin (Electric Prunes); drummer Michael Botts (Bread); guitarists Drake Levin (Paul Revere & The Raiders, Friendsound) and Dick Rosmini (Van Dyke Parks, Phil Ochs); and keyboardist/Moog savant Paul Lewinson. They serve him well.

Ananda (who was Ravi Shankar’s nephew) had the audacity to tackle two sacred cows of classic rock—the Rolling Stones and the Doors—and the skills to breathe vital new life into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Light My Fire.” The former is one of the greatest Rolling Stones covers ever. If you’re going to make a concession to rock conventions, this is the way to do it. The rhythm’s funked up to a humid degree, while Shankar leaves out most of the lyrics, with only the chorus chanted by women vocalists. Shankar’s sitar takes the lead and he really psychedelicizes and embellishes the main riff, while Paul Lewinson’s Moog accents contrast wonderfully with the sitar’s sanctified twangs. Even Mick and Keef would have to concur that this version is a gas gas gas. Meanwhile, Shankar’s “Light My Fire”—which is already very well-suited to Indian scales—fits the Doors’ original like a perfectly tailored Nehru jacket.

Shankar’s original compositions peak with “Metamorphosis,” a gorgeous, gradually unfolding, cinematic song that should have classed up a movie in the early ’70s in a montage where a couple grow deeper in love and/or attain a sexual climax. (Whoa, that frenzied ending!) “Sagar (The Ocean)”—the only track here played in the Indian classical style—consists of 13 minutes of glinting sitar spangles and brooding Moog fugues. It’s a totally hypnotic tone poem in Sanskrit and analog circuitry and a soundtrack for your most profound and chillest hallucinogen experience. “Dance Indra” is what you might hear in the hippest Indian restaurant in the Western world: a composition of ceremonial grandeur celebrating humanity’s highest emotions and most harmonious sentiments. The album closes with “Raghupati,” an exultant piece powered by celebratory Hindi chants, allegedly from 10 of Shankar’s friends, in praise of the deity Rama. It induces a glorious sense of well-being, and as a bonus, it’s powered by a funky rhythm.

Ananda Shankar is the rare East-West fusion record that works in the discotheque and in the temple. Bow down to its hedonistic holiness. -Buckley Mayfield

Lydia Lunch “Queen Of Siam” (ZE, 1980)

Lydia Lunch has a reputation as a provocative, profane No Wave icon and as a spoken-word badass who would just as soon kick you in the ‘nads (with her words) as look at you. Her band Teenage Jesus And The Jerks tore it up on Brian Eno’s No New York comp, and she’s loaned her caustic wit and withering sneer to several other groups (8-Eyed Spy, Harry Crews) and collabs, including a memorable cameo on Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley 69” and a fruitful link-up with Birthday Party’s Rowland S. Howard that included a gothy stab at Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s “Some Velvet Morning.”

But Lunch’s debut full-length under her own name shocks by being accessible—relatively speaking. It contains two covers that suggest the range and vibe of Queen Of Siam: “Gloomy Sunday”—made famous by Billie Holiday and Associates (joking about the latter) and “Spooky,” the chill lounge-pop gem from 1967 that Classics IV took to the charts. Lunch imbues the latter with kittenish charm as her band jazzes it up with boozy gusto. The former is a paragon of insular moroseness—so beautifully hopeless.

Opener “Mechanical Flattery” captures the weird balance of song-oriented approach and arty knottiness that appears throughout the album. Lunch’s numbed deadpan somehow approximates the effect of a coquettish diva, but the stilted beats, oblique piano, and melancholy horn thwart any easy commercial pay-off. This sort of tension makes Queen Of Siam a riveting experience that just improves with each listen. The sleepwalking ballad “Tied And Twist” lumbers lithely, a No Wave plaint in slow-motion. Lunch’s sparse, laggard guitar solo is fantastically wonky; Robert Quine would be proud.

“Atomic Bongos” is the closest thing on Queen Of Siam to a hard-rocker, with its maddeningly repetitive and rugged bass riff and scathing, Contortions-esque guitar tang. “Lady Scarface,” by contrast, exudes a cabaret/big-band-jazz aura—shades of Quincy Jones—as Lunch recounts a lurid scenario about seducing a 16-year-old boy. In fact, most of the record bristles with a strange strain of carnality, at once sleazy and classy, edgy and retro. “I’m split and unbled and I’m ripped to the sore/Every man’s madness and I’m hurdling ripped to the core/There’s knives in my drain/Empty splints in my brain” Lunch leers in “Knives In My Drain” as a David Lynchian nightmare jazz tune slinks behind her. It conjures a pleasingly queasy feeling. (It should be noted that multi-instrumentalist Pat Irwin [the Raybeats and 8-Eyed Spy] and the Billy Ver Planck Orchestra are the low-key stars here.)

[Note: Amphetamine Reptile Records reissued Queen Of Siam on vinyl and CD in 2017.] -Buckley Mayfield

Shoes “Tongue Twister” (Elektra, 1981)

Straight outta Zion, Illinois, Shoes created some of the most ebullient and memorable power-pop that ever put starch in your skinny tie. Their first proper LP, 1977’s Black Vinyl Shoes, established the quartet’s classic approach: a wonderstruck, adrenalized sound in which melodies whoosh and soar with the freewheeling euphoria of teenage love. They’re such romantics (and better than contemporaries the Romantics, I hasten to add). While Shoes’ songs are too clean to overtly signify lust, there’s undoubtedly a strong libido propelling the group’s output. They just want eternal devotion, but their longings always keep getting thwarted. That sucks for the songs’ protagonists, but it makes for unbelievably memorable tunes.

While many fans peg Black Vinyl as Shoes’ peak, and I do think it’s a stunner, I believe Tongue Twister might edge it out as the band’s zenith. The front line of Jeff Murphy, John Murphy (the brother with the amazing cheekbones), and Gary Klebe form a fantastic songwriting team, but they also thrive individually, with Klebe especially distinguishing himself with album highlights “Burned Out Love,” “She Satisfies,” and “Yes Or No.” In a true display of democracy, they all sing lead and backing vocals, play acoustic and electric guitars, and percussion. (Drummer Skip Meyer doesn’t write, but he’s a damned solid timekeeper.)

On Tongue Twister, Shoes convince you over and over that there’s a lot at stake with matters of the heart while working within well-worn parameters. The lyrics won’t win awards for originality, but they’re delivered with utmost sincerity and a winning earnestness. Make no mistake: guys’ frustrations with women in song is such an overplayed conceit—it was even so in 1981—that these tropes can make you roll your eyes right out of your head. But Shoes’ trio of composers and singers imbue this tradition with an almost naïve, unstinting belief in its potency.

Your Imagination” is one of the greatest opening songs ever, springing out the gate with amphetamine-gazelle speed and an undulating synthesized-guitar motif that epitomizes an emotional roller coaster. “Burned Out Love” is a glam/power-pop blaster that thrusts with “Ballroom Blitz”-era Sweet- and Electric Warrior-era T. Rex-like lewdness. In a similar glammy vein, “She Satisfies” might be Shoes’ toughest rocker, somewhere between Sweet and Slade, but with passages of psych-y delicacy.

If you like meringue-light love songs, you’ll swoon to “Karen,” “Found A Girl,” and “Only In My Sleep.” “Girls Of Today” percolates with the suavity of prime-time Cars, and it should’ve been as popular as anything off that Boston band’s first album; it’s just what I needed. And according to a scientific study I conducted with myself, I’ve determined that “Yes Or No” possesses perhaps the most ecstatic and catchiest chorus ever. I’ve gone whole days with it looping in my brain, with no complaints.

The refrain from the winsome “When It Hits” goes, “It’s gonna hit hard (when it hits),” and it could be Tongue Twister‘s manifesto. This is a power-pop paragon. -Buckley Mayfield

Shocking Blue “At Home” (Pink Elephant, 1969)

In America, Shocking Blue were archetypal one-hit wonders. And that one hit, “Venus,” is a definitive slab of sexy, late-’60s psych-pop that still gets the juices flowing. But you’d best believe these Dutch party-starters had much more to recommend them than that one global smash/ promiscuous chart-topper.

At Home offers a motherlode of instant charmers that encompass the familiar tropes of the era’s accessible end of the trippy-rock spectrum. Robbie van Leeuwen was an expert craftsman of indelible hooks, which he embroidered with acoustic and electric guitars, sitar, bass, and drums that unerringly hit the sweet spot between radiofriendliness and opium-den seductiveness. Vocalist Mariska Veres imbued his catchy-ass compositions with a domineering sensuality that made every listener feel like a lust object.

It would be overstatement to call Shocking Blue an “important” band, but they remain a remarkably durable font of pleasure-inducing songs. “Love Machine” is a deceptively funky, frilly Doors-like ditty that contains the immortal line, “the love machine makes the world turn around.” Truth bomb. “Poor Boy” is the closest SB got to a legit psychedelic freakout, while “Love Buzz” laid the foundation for Nirvana to do a bang-up job with this slinky, lubricious come-on of sike-pop on Bleach, making van Leeuwen an even richer man. Shit, dude deserves all the lucre he can get with tunes as mesmerizingly musky as this.

“Acka Raga” is the album’s peak and my favorite SB song. It’s a sitar-laced instrumental that epitomizes a certain strain of East-West intermingling that was flourishing at the end of the psychedelic ’60s. Shocking Blue pack so much erotic exotica into a little more than three minutes here. You could loop “Acka Raga” for a couple of hours and soundtrack a spectacular orgy with it. (Please invite me to that.)

At Home is a great place to start your Shocking Blue adventure. It’s fairly light entertainment, but damn, does it have staying power. (Trivia: Seattle boasted a Shocking Blue tribute band for many years called the Daemon Lovers. They were fantastic.) -Buckley Mayfield

Hapshash And The Coloured Coat “Featuring The Human Host And The Heavy Metal Kids” (Minit, 1967)

This album seemingly just materialized from the vapors of that heady year of 1967. It’s a freakish one-off, a slapdash, communal psychedelic happening magicked into existence by British graphic designers Michael English and Nigel Waymouth, with help from producer Guy Stevens and many other ringers and hangers-on (Groundhogs’ Tony McPhee, Tyrannosaurus Rex’s Mickey Finn, and some bloke named Brian Jones are in the mix). If the music lived up to its spectacular cover, it would be one of the greatest records of all time. It’s not quite in that echelon, but it is mighty great—especially for visual artists dabbling with music.

H-O-P-P-WHY” launches the album with a deep, primal chug that’s bolstered by barrelhouse piano—an approach that foreshadowed the Rolling Stones side project Jamming With Edward! It also sounds not too far off from what the Mothers Of Invention were doing on “Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet” from 1966’s Freak Out! LP. The spirited, chanting vocals and harmonica here recur throughout Featuring The Human Host And The Heavy Metal Kids, and I’m not complaining.

The awesomely titled “A Mind Blown Is A Mind Shown” is a tambourine-, harmonica-, and bongo-heavy hippie hoedown that nicely sets the scene for the LP’s zenith, “The New Messiah Coming 1985.” This cut is perhaps the biggest influence on krautrock demigods Amon Düül I; it’s a hypnotic mantra riding a basic, folkadelic, acoustic-guitar riff, unison chants (“WE ARE!”… “I AM!”), bells, finger cymbals, awesome gong splashes, and a clodhopping caveman beat. Honestly, if the whole album had been just 40 minutes of this, it would be a stone classic and everyone who heard “Messiah” would have a hard time not basing a religion around it. As it is, the song fades out right when it should be intensifying. Oh, well… maybe next lifetime. “Aoum” is more a kundalini-yoga chanting exercise than a song, but what do you expect from a track named after the sacred sound that signifies the essence of ultimate reality?

Empires Of The Sun” is a relentless, joyous romp that fills all of side 2. Hapshash throw in everything they’ve got in this maximalist über-jam, which appears to be tumbling down a mountainside in an avalanche while all of the group’s friends whoop, holler, intone “hari krishna” and “om,” and fake orgasms to the tumultuous freakout. There are also some of the wildest flute or ocarina trills you’ll ever hear. It’s a peak-time burner, for sure, and a helluva way to end a debut album.

Hapshash’s second full-length, Western Flier (1969), sounds little like this dazzling gem, going off in a corny, song-oriented direction that doesn’t play to their strengths. It’s shockingly bad, one of the biggest sophomore slumps in rock history. Little wonder Hapshash split after this, but wow, what an initial splash they made. -Buckley Mayfield

Spacemen 3 “Dreamweapon” (Fierce, 1990)

This anomaly in the sublime British space-rock group Spacemen 3’s catalog might be their headiest release, judging by how highly the true heads I know rank it. Inspired by minimalist composer La Monte Young, Dreamweapon is where Pete Kember, Jason Pierce, and company abandon rock and simply space the fuck out—at great length.

The two-part “An Evening Of Contemporary Sitar Music”—recorded live in London in 1988 by a full band—is a 44-minute study in patient, spangly guitar’d minimalism… with (spoiler alert) no sitar. Very little happens, but what does occur takes on a monumental importance. Over a foundation of murmuring oscillations (is it the sound of some god[dess] repeatedly guffawing? At least one acid trip suggested it was.), Pierce or Kember picks out a spidery, raga-like figure on electric guitar with laid-back insistence. As the piece progresses, the motif gains in intensity, and there’s a quote of “Just To See You Smile” from the Recurring LP. Does all this six-string foreplay build to a revelatory climax? No, it does not. However, you have to give “Dreamweapon” credit for this: It’s one helluva way to come down easy from a hallucinogen trip. I have first brain-cell experience with this scenario.

As for “Ecstasy In Slow Motion,” it’s doubtful there’s ever been more truth packed into one song title. This may be hard to believe, but there seems to be a harmonium drone humming underneath a shivering guitar that’s wailing a prayer to the electricity gods and then swirling skyward into a celestial orb of blinding light. This music is the elixir of eternal sonic truth, your most powerful, extended orgasm transferred into sine waves. Whenever I listen to this track, I always feel as if I’m dissolving into some sort of divine essential oil. It really is the best shit ever. “Spacemen Jam,” by contrast, is a desolate, bare-bones blues meditation that comes as something of an anticlimax after unprecedented heights of “Ecstasy In Slow Motion”—but what wouldn’t?

Dreamweapon has had many iterations, most of them on CD. Earlier this year, though, the great Superior Viaduct label reissued Dreamweapon on 2xLP with the two bonus tracks originally found on Space Age Recordings’ 2004 CD re-release and liner notes by Spacemen 3/Spiritualized bassist Will Carruthers. I highly recommend you get the Superior Viaduct version. -Buckley Mayfield

Sonic Youth “Sonic Youth” (Neutral, 1982)


Often overlooked and underrated, Sonic Youth’s debut mini-album is a fascinating snapshot of the New York City avant-rock icons’ nascent greatness. It would be hard to find anybody who’d claim the five-track Sonic Youth is the band’s finest moment (though no doubt they’re out there), but it does merit respect as an auspicious hint of what was to come—even though it was the only record on which SY played in standard tuning.

What Sonic Youth makes clear from the beginning of lead-off track “The Burning Spear” is that they were eager to bust out of rock-song conventions and invent their own approach. Part of that impulse included guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s desire to make their instruments sound unlike other rockers’. You can hear them already generating the urgent alarm-bell clangor for which they’d be famous later in the decade. They don’t riff so much as erect environments—metallic, droning vistas redolent of post-industrial devastation and fraying nerves. Kim Gordon’s tensile, marauding bass straddles the line between dub and post-punk, not unlike how many other early ’80s groups were doing then. Ranaldo ran a mic’d electric drill through a wah-wah pedal for extra WTF? texture while Moore wailed like the No Wave disciple he was. What a way to blow out of the gate.

By contrast, “I Dream I Dreamed” is aptly oneiric, a mesmerizing lope animated by loitering guitars spangling with menace. The song swells in intensity and then subsides to allow Gordon and Ranaldo to sing some baffling lyrics in counterpoint (sample line: “A lot of people suffer from impotence/All the money’s gone”). Overall, SY effectively and nonchalantly create a detached sense of desolation. “She Is Not Alone” is one of the oddest entries in Sonic Youth’s discography; it’s jaunty and miniaturist, almost like a dubby Young Marble Giants or General Strike, as the guitars are tuned to sound like a warped xylophone and Richard Edson tattoos the tightly wound tom-toms with some rudimentary Native American patterns. (Yes, Richard Edson the actor in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan; he left SY for Konk after performing on this record.)

“I Don’t Want To Push It” reputedly was inspired by Can’s “Sing Swan Song,” but this is way more manic, with Edson’s kinetic beats buttressing a flaming wall of radiated guitars. “The Good And The Bad” finds Moore plucking out a brilliantly see-sawing bass line and Gordon and Ranaldo stroking out articulate guitar klang as the group forge an ebbing and flowing aural organism that seemingly wants to destroy passersby. This shit is ominous, and at nearly eight minutes, it foreshadows Sonic Youth’s future forays into tumultuous, multi-movement epics.

Sonic Youth would go on to make much better records, of course, but this initial offering stands the test of time and is a riveting curio in this important group’s renowned, sprawling canon.

(The 2006 Goofin’ Records vinyl reissue includes a bonus LP of a live show from 1981, plus an early studio cut, “Where The Red Fern Grows.”) -Buckley Mayfield

McDonald And Giles, “McDonald And Giles” (Island, 1970)


McDonald And Giles sounds like the name of a high-level law firm, but it actually was the evanescent project of multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald and drummer Michael Giles, who played on King Crimson’s groundbreaking 1969 LP, In The Court Of The Crimson King. (Michael’s brother Peter plays bass on McDonald And Giles.) They left the band following a US tour that year, although Michael Giles helped out on King Crimson’s second album, In The Wake Of Poseidon. It was one and done for Ian and Michael, but oh what a relic they left behind.

McDonald And Giles begins with the multi-part epic “Suite In C,” which exudes an elegance and pulchritudinous intricacy that were the province of British prog-rock musicians of the late ’60s and early ’70s. What I mean is, there was a post-Sgt. Pepper’s frou-frou quality that mated with the folkadelia of Pentangle, Incredible String Band, and Fairport Convention to form a pastoral, beatific sound that transported you to Elysian Fields—but in a very circuitous manner. This was beyond the ken of Americans. Although there is a point at 7-and-a-half minutes in when the song swerves into a parody of old-timey genres à la the United States Of America’s “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar,” so I contradict myself. Sorry.

“Flight Of The Ibis” is startlingly similar to KC’s lilting, gorgeous ballad “Cadence & Cascade,” but “Ibis” is even more sublime and as fragilely spectacular as peak Left Banke. Somehow, Giles just nudges out Greg Lake for vocal poignancy. Whenever I play this zither-enhanced tune in a DJ set, I’m disappointed when the whole bar or club isn’t in tears and hugging one another. Similarly, “Is She Waiting?” is a melancholy ballad with spindly acoustic guitar and piano that can hold its own with the Zombies, Moody Blues, and White Album-era Beatles.

McDonald And Giles‘ zenith is the Giles-penned “Tomorrow’s People – The Children Of Today,” which contains some of the most robust, funky drums in prog history. No wonder the Beastie Boys sampled it for “Body Movin’”; it’s surprising more hip-hop producers haven’t leveraged its meaty hits. McDonald’s flute takes flight in a display of rococo jauntiness while Michael Blakesley’s trombone and McDonald’s clarinet form soar in an incomparable effusion of optimism. We could all benefit from shooting this horn chart into our veins daily.

The 21-minute suite “Birdman” features former KC lyricist Peter Sinfield scripting another many-tentacled composition, this time about a man who learns how to fly. This is one of those sidelong marathons that flaunt McDonald and Giles’ prog inventiveness and eclecticism (freakbeat, jazz, churchy organ prog, orchestral soundtrack bombast, etc.). It’s not all amazing, but the ambition is breathtaking.

If you dig the first two King Crimson albums, you should check out McDonald And Giles—and maybe sample that killer drum break in “Tomorrow’s People” while you’re at it. -Buckley Mayfield