Album Reviews

Chrome “Alien Soundtracks” (Siren, 1977)

Alien Soundtracks was where Chrome became the Chrome over which freaks worldwide have been flipping their lids for over four decades. Following the solid yet fairly trad 1976 debut LP The Visitation with founder Damon Edge at the controls, Alien Soundtracks is the San Francisco industrial-psychedelic-rock band’s first record with the uniquely blasted guitarist Helios Creed in the lineup. And what a difference he made.

Though recorded during punk’s first rude bloom, Alien Soundtracks aptly sounds as if it’s beaming in from a more grotesque and bizarre planet, one on which Johnny Rotten and Joey Ramone—gawd love ’em—would seem like innocuous cartoon figures. Allegedly recorded to accompany a live sex show, Alien Soundtracks indeed generates erotic charges, but in a form that Pornhub likely would regard as too twisted.

Album-opener “Chromosome Damage” fades in as if rising from a pit, then clicks into an accelerated, warped rock attack that reeks of rocket fuel and amphetamines. Edge croaks, “I wanna fly, I wanna fly away” before the song just fades out and morphs into a nightmarish, backward-sucking inversion of French psychonauts Heldon. Creed’s guitar sounds like if Jimi Hendrix were irradiated with Strontium-90; Helios forges some of the sickest tones ever to be associated with the mundane term “rock.” The lysergic intro of “All Data Lost” leads into a skittering, Jaki Liebezeit ca. Tago Mago ratatat and Edge’s voice downshifts into a Syd Barrett-like murmur that ripples into infinity. “SS Cygni” finds Chrome at their funkiest, but this is the hypnotic machine chug of This Heat more than it’s the bon vivant strutting of James Brown or the Meters. ‘Tis a pity it doesn’t last at least three times longer. By contrast, “Nova Feedback” is eerie, menacing, and woozy, as Creed peels off proggy, contemplative riffs that contrast with the doom-laden business roiling below. It’s a masterpiece of chiaroscuro.

The strangeness does not let up on side 2. “Pigmies In Zee Park” unloads helter-skelter guitar, percussion, synths, and mysterious vocal consternation before a gong hit produces a segue into a Floydian head trip. Edge dares a grotesque mockery of a Johnny Mathis croon about “pigmies [sic] in the park by the zoo waiting for you.” It’s damned creepy. Finally, things shift again into a manic, automaton shuffle, like a threshing machine operating in triple time. The move epitomizes Chrome’s masterly madness. “Slip It To The Android” almost comes across as a novelty-dance track, with its bustling bongo-like beats and insectoid Moog buzzes, but Creed’s needly guitar solos and Gary Spain’s Jean-Luc Ponty-esque electric-violin riffs reveal Chrome’s rarely noted Frank Zappa influence.

The methodical funk of “Pharoah Chromium” could be early Black Sabbath covering Funkadelic’s “You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks,” with an articulate, anguished Creed solo glazing this strange trudge. It sounds as if Helios let second guitarist John Lambdin take lead on “ST 37,” a Residents boogie cross-hatched with all sorts of wonky synth tones and percussion timbres. It was distinctive enough to inspire a ’90s Texas band to name themselves after it. “Magnetic Dwarf Reptile” is as bizarre as its title, and it enables Creed to flaunt that muted, radiated tone that hovers in the region of Richard Pinhas’ axe work for French sci-fi-obsessed psych juggernaut Heldon. Here and elsewhere, Creed proves he can finesse exceedingly precise arabesques or unleash massively distorted riffs that dwarf Tony Iommi’s.

That sound would dominate the essential 1979 follow-up, Half Machine Lip Moves and other otherworldly classics such as 3rd From The Sun, but all of Chrome’s ostentatious mutations cohered most rewardingly on Alien Soundtracks.

(Alien Soundtracks has been reissued on vinyl four times. A word to the wise, though: Avoid the Cleopatra editions—which is good advice in general for any release.) -Buckley Mayfield

Ned Lagin “Seastones” (Round, 1975)

Seastones might be the strangest document to emerge out of the vast Grateful Dead diaspora. From 1970-1976, Ned Lagin was the psych-rock figureheads’ modular-synth guru, a computer-savvy maverick who generated bizarre subliminal electronics onstage and in the studio. Outside of those actions, Lagin composed Seastones from 1971-1974 with help from a lot of the same crew who contributed to David Crosby’s 1971 cult classic, If I Could Only Remember My Name: Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Grace Slick, David Freiberg, and Croz himself. But aside from Garcia and Slick’s distorted voices, it’s nearly impossible to detect these prominent musicians’ personalities amid the microcosmic mysteriousness of Seastones.

Lagin classified this record as “Electronic Cybernetic biomusic,” and superficially it resembles the ambient excursions that Brian Eno purveyed in the ’70s and ’80s, Morton Subotnick’s disorienting Buchla synth parabolas, and Gil Mellé’s unsettling Moog miasmas in The Andromeda Strain soundtrack. But parts of Seastones also point ahead to the mercurial glitchtronics of ’90s IDM. Whether artists such as Markus Popp or Alva Noto ever heard Lagin’s arcane opus remains unknown, but the similarities are remarkable.

Seastones is divided into 10 tracks, but the album seems like one organism—or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it flows like a lysergic dream, with subtly changing episodes. Lagin keeps the sonic activity submerged near the ocean’s floor, with most of the vocals appearing to ripple from underwater. While the credits list Garcia’s guitar, Lesh’s bass, Hart’s gong and Spencer Dryden’s cymbals, they’re hard to discern among the synths (ARP, E-mu, Buchla), prepared piano, clavichord, and Interdata 7/16 processor that Lagin deployed to manifest these microbial movements. But you don’t need to know how this sausage was made to enjoy its peculiar flavors.

If you’re the type of Dead fan who thinks American Beauty represents the pinnacle of their career, you’ll likely find Seastones impenetrable, and you can keep on “Truckin’” without it. But if you dig, say, “What’s Become Of The Baby” and adventurous electronic music that nudges your mind to strange, subaquatic realms, you’ll find Seastones an engrossing enigma. Just be prepared to give it many listens—preferably on quality headphones—in order to grasp its crab-like maneuvers.

Important Records reissued a remastered version of Seastones on LP and CD in 2020. -Buckley Mayfield

Miguel De Deus “Black Soul Brothers” (Underground, 1977)

Miguel De Deus played guitar and sang for the outstanding Brazilian psych-rock groups Assim Assado and Os Brazões—the latter of whom were the fantastic Gal Costa’s backing band during the heady years of 1969 and 1970 and who should at least be as well known and regarded as Os Mutantes. Alas, De Deus—who died in 2007—and his bands still lack the high profile of Mutantes, but obrigado anyway to the Portuguese label Groovie for reissuing Black Soul Brothers and that hot Assim Assado LP in 2016 and 2017, respectively. These records provide a vivid picture of a musician with a brazen wild streak and keen instincts for the funk.

Right from jump of opening cut “Cinco Años,” MDD lets us know that the funk’s gonna be strong, bulbous, and bubbly on Black Soul Brothers. The female backing vocalist—who is maddeningly uncredited—soars in radiant counterpoint to MDD’s alpha-lech grunting. (His voice is an acquired taste that you may never embrace, but the music’s too good to reject the band outright.) You can practically smell the sexual friction in the elastic keyboard riffs twanging between the busy rhythmic hustle and bustle. “Pedaços” peddles a festive funkiness that would segue nicely in a set of tunes by War, Jimmy Castor Bunch, AWB, and Cymande (particularly, “Bra”). I don’t pass out compliments like that every day.

“Mister Funk”—which written by De Deus and Nelsão Triunfo—may be titled with heavy-handedness, but it’s a greasy, brassy groove bacchanal that will surely make your gang feel kool. The salacious summertime soul of “Flaca Louca” may test your patience due to MDD’s goofy growling, but the woman on the mic compensates for his shortcomings. At least you can’t say Miguel lacks enthusiasm…

The album peaks on “Black Soul Brother,” which was co-written by Paulo Rocco and the album’s producer, Santiago “Sam” Malnati. It’s extravagant funk that makes Sly Stone and Tina Turner seem like wallflowers. Whoever the woman singing with Sarolta Zalatnay-esque zest is, she convinces me that she needed her own album. Maybe she got it, but we’ll likely never know. The rowdy funk of “Lua Cheia” gets splattered with MDD’s gruff yelling, but the mellifluous sax parts and a bass line that coils like a gymnast working out on the uneven bars tilt the song into the W column. Bafflingly, MDD closes the record with the ballad “Fábrica De Papéis,” even though his voice isn’t in the least suited for this style. But the music’s nicely lush and seductive, the keyboard and guitar sparkling and caressing with tenderness, and the female backing vox is requisitely dulcet.

Forty-four years after its initial release, Black Soul Brothers still sounds like an explosive party platter that would make James Brown get up offa that thing, pronto. Its potency more than overcomes its creator’s grating vocal flaws. -Buckley Mayfield

Meat Puppets “Up On The Sun” (SST, 1985)

Kurt Cobain’s favorite Meat Puppets album was II. Obviously. And it’s not hard to understand why Nirvana covered three songs off of it (“Plateau,” “Lake Of Fire,” and “Oh, Me”). Its combo of poignant, desert-fried mysticism and virtuoso, Tasmanian Devil punk packed a distinctive punch—especially for 1984. As great as II is, though, I like Meat Puppets’ follow-up even more.

When Up On The Sun tumbled off the SST Records conveyor belt of awesomeness in 1985, it hit fans like a solar flare. Curt Kirkwood (guitar), Cris Kirkwood (bass), and Derrick Bostrom (drums) had taken another great leap forward, leaving behind their punk roots for a bizarre agglomeration of psychedelia, country/bluegrass, and prog rock. I’m happy to report that Up On The Sun still blazes as hot as it did over 35 years ago. Either that or I’m stuck in my 23-year-old mindset. Anyway

The opening title track finds Curt in mellow stoner sage vocal mode (think Jerry Garcia crossed with Steve Miller) as the group slouch into a Grateful Dead-like, implied-funk amble. Then the buoyant chorus shocks you into a body-wide alertness, as if you’ve actually found yourself on the titular star. Helluva way to begin your best album. The intro to “Maiden’s Milk” barges in with a Zappa-esque motif of absurdly frilly prog-jazzitude, then the song shifts to a swift, Leo Kottke-esque bluegrass romp, with bonus chipper whistles. Here, we become aware that Curt switches into different styles and tones with an unparalleled, speedy nonchalance that would make Frank’s mustache curl with envy.

The album’s greatest achievement, “Away” recalls both the Police’s “When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What’s Still Around” and the Feelies’ “Away” (what are the odds?). There’s a faint undercurrent of swerving, Möbius-strip insistence in Curt’s guitar riff that speaks of Afrobeat knowledge, and the track feels as if it’s going to fly right out of the grooves into that fiery orb in the sky. The mercurial country funk of “Animal Kingdom” is awash with wonder about said domain, and the bridge features Cris’ bass mimicking noises of imaginary creatures. Nice!

Another highlight is “Swimming Ground,” which combines head-spinning country-rock euphoria and touching nostalgia for a childhood idyll. It’s as if the Puppets spiked the concept of “Americana” with the strongest amphetamines and LSD—both of which it wouldn’t be far-fetched to imagine the band consuming in those heady days. “Buckethead” is not a tribute to the Guns N’ Roses guitarist, as he didn’t hit public consciousness till the early ’90s, but the fleet, fluttering filigrees Curt peels off here would surely make him doff his KFC container in respect. The song sounds as if Fear Of Music-era Talking Heads had lost their uptightness and put pedal to the metal. It gives quirkiness a good name.

Up On The Sun‘s remaining five songs offer nonstop excitement. “Enchanted Porkfist” is a clunky pun, but this fast and furious instrumental zooms and curlicues like an American Southwestern Gentle Giant. It’s a new breed of prog rock in which unpredictable tempo changes and virtuosity sound as natural as getting a sunburn in Arizona, Meat Puppets’ home base. Throughout, Curt flaunts superhuman reflexes yet an unbelievably gentle touch that enables him to generate riffs that zip by at an astonishing clip while also sounding velvety, twinkly, and pliable—it really is miraculous, like the Dead’s “Dark Star” at 78rpm. “Creator” abounds with Curt’s faux-wise gobbledygook about deities—which is just as valid as any “good book”’s gobbledygook, and it boasts the advantage of rocking way harder than the Bible or Koran.

Every Meat Puppets release after Up On The Sun receded farther away from its unprecedented incandescence, and that’s okay. Cobain and company knew that trying cover anything on it would be a fool’s errand, because the songs here are too dauntingly sui generis. You have to know your limitations. -Buckley Mayfield

Brute Force “Brute Force” (Embryo, 1970)

People of dubious maturity levels like to ridicule Herbie Mann for posing shirtless and exposing his man pelt on the cover of his very good bargain-bin LP Push Push. But listen up: Besides being a savvy musician with a keen ear for prevailing trends, Mr. Mann flaunted sharp A&R acumen for the Atlantic Records subsidiary Embryo in the early ’70s. (Oh, by the way, the flautist also released at least six great albums as a bandleader—which is six more than the mooks who mock him have made.)

Anyway, one case in point for Herbie’s acute scouting skills are Yellow Springs, Ohio’s finest, Brute Force, a sextet whose best-known member was Sonny Sharrock… who guested on some of Mann’s own records. Now that I have your attention, let’s discuss why you need this overlooked album by this obscure group.

Produced by the Herbster himself, Brute Force immediately busts out of the gate like a thoroughbred with its ass on fire. “Do It Right Now” is a rock-and-soul “seize the day” anthem with bandleader Richard Daniel’s vocals swathing heads in warmth in the mellow-vibrant vein of Terry Collier and Lou Bond. Sharrock’s fiery guitar filigree really launches this song skyward. The anti-conformity song “Some Kind Of Approval” bubbles somewhere between early-’70s Curtis Mayfield and Stark Reality. Daniel gets off a sublime keyboard solo and Sharrock adds zonked guitar roughage for this soul-jazz gem that’ll raise your spirits and heart rate.

The Deacon” rambles soulfully like peak Booker T. & The MGs, with its rapid conga slaps and peppy horns making me want to watch NFL highlights from the ’70s. “Right Direction” moves in said place, and you’ll want to shoot its euphoric Latin rock into your veins—percolating congas, sweeping horns, and Daniel’s vocal flights of unstoppable positivity and all. On “Monster,” an incredibly cool bass and conga intro leads into an uptempo horn-rock jam with guitar fibrillations stroked from the instrument’s nut. It sure sounds like Sharrock’s diabolical handiwork, although he’s not credited. Still, I’d bet your stimulus check that it is indeed Sonny shredding. The playing recalls his outré work on his and wife Linda’s Paradise LP. The song builds to an intensity and wildness that bear the Sharrockian stamp, so it can’t help being a highlight.

Speaking of which, “Ye-Le-Wa” is another one. 14.5 minutes of balletic free jazz that waxes and wanes with brassy verve, this track’s not unlike Pharoah Sanders‘ output of that same era, but with more of a grounding in out-rock protocols. Daniel’s soulful vocals may not match Leon Thomas’ high-flying yodelics from “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” but they’re certainly moving, even if they simply repeat the title. The record closes with “Doubt,” a tranquil, flute-enhanced comedown after the previous blowout. Strangely, it recalls the beautifully placid “Love Sketch” by Paul Revere & The Raiders side project Friendsound. Will wonders never cease?

So, whether you’re a Sonny Sharrock completist or someone who simply enjoys soul jazz that rocks with finesse and fiery interplay, you need Brute Force. Herbie Mann would never steer you wrong, shirt or no shirt. -Buckley Mayfield

Ben Sidran “Puttin’ In Time On Planet Earth” (Blue Thumb, 1973)

One wonders how a nerdy-looking, non-famous white keyboardist/singer convinced legends such as Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams, James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield, and session bassist Phil Upchurch of Rotary Connection and Chess/Cadet Records fame to back him on his third album, Puttin’ In Time On Planet Earth. Granted, Ben Sidran had co-written Steve Miller Band’s 1969 “Lady Madonna”-biting hit “Space Cowboy,” but still. You wouldn’t think a guy like this would have that kind of clout. Maybe Sidran simply charmed them into the fold, and coaxed Blue Thumb Records to compensate them handsomely? Whatever the case, praise your deity of choice that these cats somehow gathered to lay down this understated gem.

I’ve heard five Ben Sidran albums, and Puttin’ In Time On Planet Earth is the best. Now, the opener, “Full Compass” (which Upchurch wrote), a 39-second burst of flamboyant, Mahavishnu Orchestra-like fusion, is a red herring. But on the next track, “Play The Piano,” Sidran’s true nature emerges. It flaunts Sidran’s hip, Mose Allison-esque vocals that express how doing the thing that the title says is salvation. Sidran tickles out wonderful cascades of chords on the far right side of a grand piano while Upchurch and Stubblefield lift the rhythm from Prime Mates’ “Hot Tamales,” one of the greatest Latin/New Orleans funk songs ever. Your ears will do somersaults of joy. The striding blues jazz of “Have You Heard The News” exudes that irresistible Mose bonhomie and is boosted by the deft Mr. Williams on drums.

Face Your Fears” features old Sidran buddy Steve Miller on acoustic guitar. It’s an inspirational jazz-pop song with Frank Rosolino on trombone and Sidran on Mellotron bringing new tones to the record, and it really soars in the second half thanks to Miller’s wonderfully warped electric-guitar solo and Tim Davis’ blissful backing vocals. “Walking With The Blues” is actually more dulcet smooth jazz than anything that sounds like Howlin’ Wolf. Here, Sidran sings in his most comforting, confidential tones as Bill Perkins exhales sultry, sinuous tenor sax solos. It’s quite precious.

As fine as all of this has been, Planet Earth really peaks on the last two tracks. I’ll be damned if the title track doesn’t share the same rhythm as that B-boy favorite, Can’s “Vitamin C.” Coincidence? I hope not. I love the idea of Clyde Stubblefield paying homage to Jaki Liebezeit. Upchurch lends crucial wah-wah guitar to this very classy approximation of blaxploitation-flick funk, while Sidran peels off keyboard runs that evoke Deodato circa “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)”.

Even better is “Now I Live (And Now My Life Is Done).” An ultra-slinky groove snakes with guile as Sidran vamps with enough verve to make Donald Fagen green with envy while guitarist Curley Cooke is on crystalline form, somewhere between George Benson and Pat Martino. Sidran’s use of bells and boinger percussion toy really add spine-tingles to this surreptitiously funky song. Throughout, Sidran recites an existentialist poem written by doomed 16th-century prisoner Chidiock Tichborne, who was executed for plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. Crazy backstory, right? This is simply one of the most sublime tracks I’ve ever heard, regardless of genre, and alone worth the price of admission, and then some. -Buckley Mayfield

David Crosby “If I Could Only Remember My Name” (Atlantic, 1971)

This major-label album has emerged through nearly five decades of fluctuating interest and apathy to become at once a bargain-bin staple and a cult favorite. You don’t see that happen very often. My used copy’s cover is torn and frayed as much as David Crosby’s life has been, and that ugly exterior somehow makes the music within the grooves seem that much more special.

If I Could Only Remember My Name arose in the aftermath of Crosby’s emotional devastation following the death of his girlfriend, Christine. The former Byrd was eight miles low when he entered the studio. Emotionally and artistically buoyed by friends in high places (and high friends in spaces), Croz manifested a record that was like a miraculous mirage of folk-rock jamming and heart-string-tugging lyrics.

Name might have been the greatest pity party ever thrown, and it proved that a dozen or so millionaire musicians can set aside their egos and create an enduring work of healing spirituality, in order to mend a damaged psyche. It’s also the rare LP that has influenced middling indie-rock artists such as Devendra Banhart and Sufjan Stevens as well as delighted lovers of rarefied psychedelia.

It begins with “Music Is Love,” a pinnacle of hippie rock. The song rides an easygoing acoustic-guitar riff and hand percussion/handclap rhythm, bolstered by a simple, indisputable message/mantra: “Everybody’s saying music is love.” Everybody was saying no such thing back then or at any other time, but isn’t it lovely to think so? Through the pure beauty of the tune, though, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Written by Crosby, Graham Nash, and Neil Young, this tune must’ve made Stephen Stills very jealous.

Then comes the “Cowgirl In The Sand”-like “Cowboy Movie,” which sounds like a laid-back James Gang with its subtle, clipped funk undertow. Grateful Dead members dominate here, with Jerry Garcia on guitars, Mickey Hart on drums, Phil Lesh on bass, Bill Kreutzmann on tambourine. Over their Haight-Ashbury groove, Crosby relates a harrowing tall tale about an Indian woman who’s not what she seems. Not sure this track needs to be over eight minutes, but maybe the drugs were kicking in real nice when Croz and company cut it. “Tamalpais High (At About 3)” is a mellow, wee-hours CSN tune with gorgeous wordless vocal harmonies—a motif on Name. With Nash joining Croz on vocals, the song goes airborne thanks to Garcia and Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen unspooling liquid gold filigrees.

For a lot of people (maybe even me), “Laughing” is the LP’s peak. You have the goddess Joni Mitchell and Nash on silken backing vocals, Garcia getting glorious on pedal steel, Phil Lesh on bass, and Kreutzmann on drums. They all lock into synch for this languorous sigh of a song that’s like a more rhythmically easygoing version of “Cowboy Movie.” Think of it as the aural analogue to the LP cover, on which the descending sun glows above the ocean that’s superimposed over Crosby’s pensive stare. The album’s most menacing track, “What Are Their Names” starts with spare, “Dark Star”-esque intrigue, thanks to Garcia’s spindly, stellar picking. With Mitchell, Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, and David Freiberg on backing vocals, Croz and the crew intone lyrics about the evil men who run the country/world. Timeless stuff, unfortunately. Bonus: Seattle resident and Santana star Michael Shrieve’s on drums.

The album’s final four songs are marked by some of the most beautiful and majestic vocal arrangements and performances of the ’70s. The traditional “Orleans” is a showcase for Crosby’s soaring choirboy voice and delicately gorgeous acoustic-guitar strumming. You can hear its profound influence on Fleet Foxes, for what that’s worth. This track bleeds seamlessly into “I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here,” whose vocal origami of ancient-sounding majesty prefigures Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard. Yep.

There are fewer rougher bummers than losing a lover to death, obviously, but Crosby and his posse of West Coast all-stars turned the sourest lemon into the sweetest lemonade on If I Could Only Remember My Name. -Buckley Mayfield

The Supremes “New Ways But Love Stays” (Motown, 1970)

If you abandoned the Supremes after Diana Ross departed the hit-making vocal group, you should reconsider. Start making amends by listening to New Ways But Love Stays, the second studio album with Jean Terrell as their lead singer. Ably assisted by Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong, and the Andantes, the Supremes proved they could thrive without their head diva, scoring their biggest post-Diana hit with “Stoned Love” (#7 on the Billboard singles chart), a slice of irresistible soul that’s at once brassy and blissful—a very difficult feat.

See, another reason not to bail on the Supremes sans Ross is that Motown in 1970 was still producing some of the most ambitious and ingenious soul music in the world. I wish I could tell you who’s responsible for the luxurious backing on New Ways, but Berry Gordy was stingy with credits for some unfathomable reason. Frank Wilson produced every song here except one, though, and he deserves plaudits for the maximalist, orchestral excitement happening here. And whoever selected the songs to cover merits a medal.

The album opens with a version of the Spinners’ “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music.” A love song, uh, supreme, this is sumptuous, busy soul that testifies with intricate vocal arrangements and vaguely psych-rock guitar embellishments. And is that a Minnie Riperton-like wail or synth hijinks at the end? Whatever the case, it’s awesome. A reverent cover of a reverent song, the Supremes’ “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is executed with utmost skill and nuanced feeling. It elegantly explodes when it needs to, although Art Garfunkel still has the ladies beat with that showstopping chorus. I bet Paul Simon was pleased, and not just for the royalty checks.

Doing one of the Beatles’ funkiest and oddest songs, “Come Together,” may seem counterintuitive, but the Motown brain trust and the Supremes made it something special. They made a sitar the lead instrument, surprisingly relegating the bass to the background. It’s pretty funny as well to hear Terrell sing “walrus gumboot” and to ham it up on the “hold him in his armchair, you can feel his disease” line. What goofy fun this is. Speaking of which, the rendition of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” is the album’s peak. I realize you may be skeptical, but hear me out. This accidental jock jam and 1968 chart-topper by one-hit wonders Steam has been transformed by the Funk Brothers into a clap-happy charmer with sitar accouterments, slamming beats, and sax filigrees to fly for. This is DJ gold, and you should see people’s faces when you tell them who’s responsible for it.

Some other highlights on New Ways include the mellow and funky “It’s Time To Break Down,” which hip-hop producer DJ Premier sampled for Gang Starr’s “JFK 2 LAX.” You just can’t deny orchestral soul with that mighty Motown budget behind it. And while “Shine On Me” may be boilerplate Motown upfulness, it bears so much vocal creamy sweetness and is inflated by inspirational horn charts, you may mistake it for a Rotary Connection joint.

New Ways‘ original title and cover caused some controversy within Motown’s offices. Stoned Love was deemed too drug-friendly and the women’s black turtlenecks were considered an endorsement of the Black Panthers, so compromises were made. Weak sauce, Mr. Gordy, but thanks anyway for releasing such a gem.

*The 1991 CD reissue contains a bonus cut of Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With.” -Buckley Mayfield

Eddie Harris “I Need Some Money” (Atlantic, 1975)

The late American saxophonist/vocalist Eddie Harris is king of the jazz bargain bin, now that Billy Cobham’s catalog is rising in stock. Nearly all of Harris’ albums go for under $10; if you see one from the late ’60s or ’70s, grab it.

Over his prolific career, Eddie Harris was an adept balladeer, bluesman, straight-ahead bop melodicist, funky party-starter, turbulent free jazzer, and experimentalist with a keen interest in the mind-bending properties of electronic effects. I Need Some Money arrived toward the end of funk’s reign and near the beginning of disco’s dominance, and you can hear Harris and his skilled group seeking ingenious ways to move bodies.

That approach is obvious from the opening track. More than anything, “I Need Some Money” resembles the soulful, swerving funk of the O’Jays, early Commodores, and Larry Young’s Fuel. Harris’ lyrics lament the high cost of living, a common theme in black music of the ’70s, and one that’s proved to be timeless. Hell, it’s been my anthem in this messed-up year of unemployment and limited opportunities. The refrain of “Everything is so damn high!” will prance through your brain for hours. “Get On Down” starts with unsettling stomach-hunger sounds (probably created with a quica) and Eddie saying “excuse me.” A tentative beat percolates and about 100 seconds in, the song shifts into an unstoppable jazz-funk groove that bubbles and shimmies like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious.” Harris drops in some chuckle-worthy scat singing and Leon Thomas-esque yodeling, adding levity to a track that’s almost too much fun. “Get On Down” is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Shifting into a sparser, lower key, “Time To Do Your Thing” is an Afro-Latin percussion fest and a dancin’/romancin’ soundtrack for the carnally advanced. Above all the timbrally interesting beats, Harris’ robust, snaky sax (alluding to Wonder’s “Maybe Your Baby”), Bradley Bobo’s lubricious bass, and Ronald Muldrow’s clanging guitar engage in a vivacious conversation. Harris goes on another tangent with “Carnival,” a weirdly festive exotica excursion. It’s powered by the sort of drum-machine beats that would animate many ’80s synthwave groups, with Harris’ sax FX’d into timbres more associated with synthesizers the instrument Bird and Trane made legendary. African whistle, talking drum, cabasa, and massed, jokey chants add to the track’s otherness.

I Need Some Money‘s peak might be the nearly 12-minute “I Don’t Want Nobody.” Sounding like Spirit Of Eden-era Talk Talk over a decade before the fact, the musicians conjure a gospel-tinged blues of somber majesty. Harris sings through an electric sax at the beginning to feminize his voice while Muldrow’s guitorgan whirs into the church-y mode of Spiritualized’s “Shine A Light.” Rufus Reid’s six-string bass and the guitorgan entwine in a lofty dialogue, as the broken-hearted singer licks his wounds. (“You’ve always said that you love me/That I’d be the only one/You thought of me every night/Why did you say we have a future”). Absolutely crushing. (Trivia: Oh Sees’ John Dwyer is a huge fan.) The album ends with “That’s It,” an alternate-world version of Quincy Jones’ Sanford And Son theme—slower, but just as inspirational and grimy.

From what I’ve read, the title of I Need Some Money was the truth. Alas, Harris didn’t score a hit with it, but in his pursuit of lucre, he inadvertently cut his best album of the decade. If it’s a “sell-out” move, it’s akin to Miles Davis’ similar stab at commercial success that resulted in an uncompromising classic: On The Corner. Bonus: Money still commonly dwells in the cheapie bins. -Buckley Mayfield

Nancy Priddy “You’ve Come This Way Before” (Dot, 1968)

Nancy Priddy had a one-and-done solo career in music, but You’ve Come This Way Before stands as one of the best albums by an actor—perhaps a low bar, but still. (Priddy acted in TV shows such as Bewitched, Matlock, and The Waltons, and gave birth to another actor, Christina Applegate.)

Before she retired from music for good, though, Priddy racked up impressive credits with the great, grave folk singer/poet Leonard Cohen and synth master Mort Garson. For Cohen, Priddy sang backup on three tunes from his 1967 debut LP, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, including “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne.” With Garson, she flexed thespian prowess to recite astrological insights over Mort’s abstract Moog emissions for myriad Signs Of The Zodiac records. On the gossip tip, Priddy briefly dated Stephen Stills and inspired the Buffalo Springfield song “Pretty Girl Why.”

It was while working with NYC folk group the Bitter End Singers that Priddy met producer Phil Ramone, as well as arrangers Manny Albam and John Simon, all of whom would contribute considerable skills to You’ve Come This Way Before. The musicians are uncredited, but the internet reveals that Bernard Purdie mans the drumkit, and you can tell that’s true from the subtly funky beats on the album-opening title track. Whoever else is backing Priddy’s dulcet, coquettish singing, they’re a killer crew.

Now, most women making records in the ’60s didn’t have much autonomy with regard to songwriting, but Priddy pens every tune here, and the lyrics bear a poetic depth about the vagaries of romance and existence. They’re closer to Joni Mitchell, Bobbie Gentry, and Nico than to those of the evanescent pop stars of the time, e.g., “A chess game played by gods/In which there are no odds/A Master Plan directing man to something more/Our pathways are magnetic/Our logic is synthetic/Our struggle is so pathetic, and a bore.”

Those lyrics to “You’ve Come This Way Before” add luster to the hip, understatedly funky sunshine pop that spectacularly blossoms, thanks partially to the ever-resourceful Purdie. The arrangers whip up exquisite quiet/loud/quiet dynamics while Priddy expresses kittenish charm with sporadic forays into dulcet belting. She’s not quite Dusty Springfield or Bobbie Gentry, but Priddy’s a capable conveyor of subtle emotions.

If you dig orchestral pop à la Serge Gainsbourg and Jean-Claude Vannier, you’ll love “Ebony Glass,” which achieves a majestic moroseness through harpsichord, violins, harps, and glockenspiel. “Mystic Lady”is an arty ballad with lush melodies, surprising, intricate vocal arrangements, and prog-like dynamics—a tour de force with soul. Named after the famous Andrew Wyeth painting, “Christina’s World” is as ornate and sweeping as the Left Banke, thanks to the arranging and conducting of Everett Gordon. The album’s most uptempo song, “My Friend Frank,” is almost as quirky as Lothar And The Hand People and as swinging as the United States Of America’s “Hard Coming Love.” Respect to whoever plays the madly swirling, spiritual organ solo.

Two of the LP’s highlights remind me of another late-’60s woman singer-songwriter who should’ve been much bigger: Margo Guryan (see my review of her Take A Picture album on this blog). “We Could Have It All”’s towering feel-good pop also recalls the 5th Dimension and it makes you feel as if you’re soaring to your final reward. Another should’ve been hit, “On The Other Side Of The River,” offers nonstop excitement, hip-swiveling rhythms, and melodic sweetness, much like Guryan’s “Love,” which is highest praise.

Modern Harmonic reissued You’ve Come This Way Before on vinyl in 2020 and the UK label Rev-Ola re-released it on CD in 2005. Grip this jewel before it slips out of print again. -Buckley Mayfield

Terry Riley “Shri Camel” (CBS, 1980)

As we round into the most stressful week of the most stressful year in recent memory, we need frequent immersions into the transcendent sonic world of Terry Riley, the greatest living American composer/improviser… if I may be so bold (and I may).

Now, the great thing about this master of minimalism and mesmerism is that you can dip into almost any record in his discography and find succor. I’m partial to anything Riley’s done from the ’60s to the ’80s. And that’s where Shri Camel falls. Commissioned by West Germany’s Radio Bremen in 1975, Riley started composing it that year and performed an early version of Shri Camel in Bremen the following year. In 1977, Riley cut a different iteration of the work, dividing it into four suites at a San Francisco studio. For some reason, CBS didn’t issue the recording until 1980. Better late than never, he understated.

Using a modified Yamaha YC-45D combo organ tuned in just intonation and augmented with digital delay, Riley applied lessons learned from Indian raga guru Pandit Pran Nath, especially regarding “singing in search of swara, or ‘the knowledge of profound pitch relationships which reigns supreme,’” as Hugh Gardner put it in the liner notes. Suffice it to say, Riley synthesized Nath’s ancient wisdom with modern technology and his own spontaneous creativity to summon a zoner for the (s)ages.

Seemingly sputtering out of a golden spigot in the holiest temple, album-opener “Anthem Of The Trinity” is a fanfare for a benevolent god who only wants you to feel buoyant, warm, and loved for eternity. Throughout most of Shri Camel, Riley dazzles up a momentous motif—a bass-y three-chord figure (da da DAAA)—that sounds as if it could be a sperm whale’s mating call. The track ebbs and flows from elation to sternness, with moments of warped turbulence. “Celestial Valley” unspools more introverted fractals of organ drones, spiraling inward to massage all of your chakras. At times, Riley’s organ swells to revelatory dimensions (no double entendre, sorry), generating flurries of vamps geared to excite and exalt your every atom. You wonder how much pleasure your head can endure under such an onslaught of heavenliness.

Obviously, there’s no way to maintain that level of highness, so Riley downshifts on “Across The Lake Of The Ancient Word” into a more somber feel, like the entrance music for the funeral of a benevolent cult leader. Riley embroiders that aforementioned bass-y three-chord motif with frantic bubbles of keyboard spume. It feels like you’re floating in an ocean of champagne. “Desert Of Ice” starts where “Ancient Word” left off, and then intensifies and embellishes it. Riley appears to be playing a vibraphone made out of said ice with an elegant swiftness that seems supra-human, à la Conlon Nancarrow’s player-piano works. The bass-y three-chord pattern’s urgency keeps surging into the increasingly ebullient organ carbonation, and Riley begins to improvise variations on the spacey theme, with every tonality contoured to levitate you light years from earthbound reality. This is how you close an album. Bow down to the master of aural transcendence. -Buckley Mayfield

Björn J:son Lindh “Sissel” (Metronome/CTI, 1973)

One of my goals in life is to bring Björn J:son Lindh’s outstanding music to more people’s attention. It’s hard work, but somebody has to do it. I’m by no means an expert on this Swedish fusion flautist/keyboardist, but I do think he has at least four albums that deserve precious shelf space in your home. These records—Ramadan, Cous Cous, Second Carneval, and Sissel—flaunt Lindh’s idiosyncratic way with melody and dynamic, funky rhythmic finesse. I’d like to explore in more depth Sissel, as that’s the LP I find myself playing out most in DJ sets.

When you hear lead cut “Bull Dog,” you’ll understand why I and other fusion-friendly disc jockeys rely on Sissel for rocking parties. The opening break stands out from your run-of-the-mill funk with its nimble metallic and woody percussion accenting a deep, methodical bass/drum groove, all slashed by Lindh’s staccato flute striations. Midway in, Jan Schaffer’s fluid, pointillistic guitar solo launches “Bull Dog” into John Abecrombie/Gábor Szabó heights. Shout out to Stefan Brolund’s staunch bass line, as well. “Storpolska” represents one of the great red herrings in music. It starts like an ancient folk song in an odd time signature, until Schaffer’s blaxploitation-funk, wah-wah’d guitar riff and Mike Watson’s churning bass materialize and shift things to Shaft-land. A wonderful cognitive dissonance arises when Lindh starts to blow pastoral-prog flute airs over the urban-turmoil soundtrack, which boils to Miles Davis/On The Corner levels, as Schaffer’s pyrotechnics soar into Sonny Sharrock/Pete Cosey dimensions of sculpted chaos.

Similar to “Bull Dog” in its sparseness and percussive vocabulary, “Your Own House” is even funkier and more laid-back. No wonder it’s been sampled in nine songs, including those by Aceyalone, Black Milk, Meat Beat Manifesto, and Attica Blues. The chorus recalls Herbie Mann at his most beautifully melancholy. Written by Jan Schaffer, it’s a perfect track with which to end a DJ set; it feels as if the music’s poignantly waving goodbye. The title track’s hard-hitting, action-packed fusion à la Deodato’s Prelude; Lennart Aberg’s soprano sax solo baroquely rips. Sissel closes with a cover of Joe South’s 1968 anti-hypocrisy country-rock classic, “Games People Play,” on which Schaffer’s guitar sounds a bit like a sitar. South’s melody is so well-suited for Lindh’s delicate euphony, and it’s amazing how the song sounds at once cheerful and downhearted, especially in this version.

Lindh’s ’70s albums are neither very common nor ultra-rare, but when they do turn up, they’re usually reasonably priced. Grab one next time you see it, and validate my thesis, if you’d be so kind. -Buckley Mayfield