Album Reviews

Land Of The Loops “Bundle Of Joy” (Up, 1996)

Seattle-based indie label Up Records put out some overlooked gems during its 1994-2008 run. One of the finest and quirkiest is Bundle Of Joy by Land Of The Loops (aka East Coast musician/producer Alan Sutherland). Deploying beats, bass lines, and synthy FX as well as guest singers and an array of samples, Land Of The Loops created a wonderful hybrid of bedroom indie-pop and hip-hop. Bundle Of Joy is probably Sutherland’s peak.

The aptly titled “Welcome” starts as a kooky collage, before some of the fattest, funkiest beats ever to appear on an Up release (is that Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat”?) enter the fray. These beats engage the delayed, dulcet vocals of Simone Ashby in a cagey duel in a cut as minimal as early Run-D.M.C. Ashby resurfaces on the phantasmal, disorienting “Burning Clutch (five-speed dub),” her vocals recalling the dreamy tenor of Dorothy Moskowitz of the United States Of America. What a heady trip.

Speaking of guest vocalists, Beat Happening’s Heather Lewis appears on “Growing Concern,” delivering her trademark child-like vocals over an easygoing funk charmer, bestowing a distinctly PNW innocence to the album. She also adds darling singing to the sparkling, stuttering funk of “My Head (leaks)” and to “Cruisin’ For Sentient Beings,” which is powered by a classic, urgent break (close to Skull Snaps’ “It’s A New Day,” but not it) that you’ve heard on at least a dozen hip-hop tracks. Nevertheless, the results are fresh.

More evidence of Sutherland’s kaleidoscopic vocal sampling trickery occurs on “Mass Ave. And Beyond,” on which he sprinkles enchanting bleeps and bloops over a starkly funky foundation, and “I Dream Of Ghosts,” which evokes the eerie, spacey dub of early Seefeel, thanks to the sampled angelic sighs. Perhaps LOTL’s best-known track, “Multi-Family Garage Sale (bargain-bin mix),” presents ludicrously bubbly and loping suburban funk with a staccato female vocal sample, snippets of children talking (“Don’t leave me”; Where are we anyway?” etc.), and beats not unlike those in George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog.” No wonder Miller licensed the track for a beer commercial. I bet Sutherland significantly upgraded his studio after this transaction.

Other highlights include “Help For Your Aching Back,” a swirling, psychedelic workout that might should be playing in hipper chiropractors’ offices, and “Day Late & A Dollar Short,” a fantastic sampladelic agglomeration of Buddhist monk chants, children jauntily singing, twangy guitar from the James Bond theme, archetypal sci-fi analog synth emissions, and very rugged, funky beats. Play this in a DJ set and watch people lose their shit—while looking befuddled.

Discogs prices for Bundle Of Joy have jumped up in recent years. It seems odd that no label’s reissued this wonky wonder since its first issue 23 years ago, but perhaps this review will nudge somebody into doing that. (Gotta dream big!) -Buckley Mayfield

Marva Whitney “It’s My Thing” (King, 1969)

It’s My Thing is the closest thing we’re ever going to get to a female-fronted James Brown album. The fact that it was cut in 1969 when the Godfather Of Soul and his crack band the JBs were absolutely on fire during one of their creative peaks means that It’s My Thing is an essential document of hard-hitting soul and funk and the occasional bravura ballad.

The album kicks off with a cover of the Isley Brothers’ über-funky and precise “It’s Your Thing,” buttressed by Whitney’s brazen vocal sass and the JBs’ ultra-tight funk churn and roaring horn surges. There’s a good reason this song’s been sampled over 70 times, including by Public Enemy, N.W.A., Ice Cube, and EPMD. “It’s My Thing” is so good, it needed a second part on this record. Speaking of oft-sampled tracks, “Unwind Yourself” has had its opening break sampled by the 45 King for the club smash “The 900 Number” and by Aphex Twin for “Taking Control,” among many others. This dance-floor heater struts with a massive swagger.

On the tight, punchy, and greasy R&B of “Things Got To Get Better (Get Together),” Whitney proves she’s an overwhelmingly passionate diva to whom you’d better bring your A+ game if you want a chance of getting together with her. In a similar vein, “What Kind Of Man” flexes classic, boisterous soul on which Whitney shows she’s the epitome of the assertive soul diva. “You Got To Have A Job (If You Don’t Work, You Can’t Eat)” is a paean to productivity and industriousness, with numerous extravagant shout-outs to Maceo Parker and it foreshadows the killer groove from Brown’s “Talkin’ Loud And Sayin’ Nothing.”

Some anomalies include “In The Middle,” an extremely cool funk instrumental written by saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and Bud Hobgood that you wish were at least twice as long as it’s 2:45 and the heart-on-sleeve ballad “If You Love Me,” which is the only time I’ve heard a sitar on a James Brown production. The fleet and nimble “I’m Tired, I’m Tired, I’m Tired” is one of Brown’s most moving and eloquent compositions, a soulful condemnation of racism and a plea for racial justice. On the sentimental, strings-enhanced ballad “I’ll Work It Out,” Marva sings her huge heart out. She just lays it all out there, demonstrating that she’s damn near the equal of her mentor.

(It’s My Thing has been reissued several times over the decades, with the last legit-looking one coming from the UK label Soul Brother in 2015.) -Buckley Mayfield

Joe Walsh “The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get” (ABC-Dunhill, 1973)

After he left James Gang (great band!) and before he joined the Eagles (hugely popular band who are not my bag, though I like a few of their songs!), Joe Walsh cut a few albums with Barnstorm, including The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get, perhaps the guitarist/vocalist/keyboardist’s peak with that band—and the title that most resembles a line from a Firesign Theater routine.

The LP is distinguished by its opening track, “Rocky Mountain Way,” which reached #23 on the US singles chart in 1973. One of the most iconic guitar riffs of the ’70s—nay, of all time—kicks off this spaced-out, blues-rockin’ party tune. Yes, you’ve heard it 9 billion times, but its widescreen grandeur, crystalline crunch, and wonky, wah-wah-heavy solo refuse to pall, even after all that exposure. It’s a tough act to follow, but the rest of The Smoker… bears some low-key treasures.

“Wolf” is a spare, bleak ballad in the vein of Aerosmith’s “Season Of Wither” and some of Robin Trower’s ’70s output, generating some chilly melancholy. Written by keyboardist Rocke Grace, “Midnight Moodies” surprises with its elegant jazz-rock vibe, bolstered with piano, cowbell, and flute by drummer Joe Vitale. Another shockingly pleasant tangent comes courtesy of bassist Kenny Passarelli’s Caribbean-spiced rock cut “Happy Ways,” with its sprung rhythm and killer bass line. The song really blossoms into a rousing rocker during the choruses, bursting with “la la la”s and “na na na”s. It’s the feel-good non-hit of the record.

The second side of The Smoker… is more subdued and less interesting than the first side, but it has its moments. “Meadows” is tender, melodious rock with beefy-riffed power surges, while “Days Go By” (another Vitale composition) brings the sort of flute-augmented baroque rock that, oddly enough, sounds more like the Left Banke than anything else.

The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get is the sort of wildly popular major-label album that litters nearly every bargain bin in the country, but don’t underestimate it. It reveals Walsh and company’s instrumental depth and aptitude for emotionally resonant songwriting beyond of the radio staples for which they were known and loved by classic-rock radio programmers and the people mesmerized by them. -Buckley Mayfield

Klark Kent “Klark Kent” (I.R.S., 1980)

For a few years in the ’70s and ’80s, Stewart Copeland moonlighted from his main gig as drummer for new-wave/reggae mega stars the Police to cut some records under the alias Klark Kent. Some of them were super, man. The most substantial of them is this nine-track, 10-inch mini-album. An accomplished film composer (Rumble Fish, Wall Street, etc.), Copeland/Kent plays all of the instruments—drums, guitar, bass, piano, typewriter, kazoo—with bravura facility.

Opener “Don’t Care”—which was a top 50 single in the UK in 1978—originally was intended for the Police, but Sting reputedly couldn’t relate to the sneering, bratty lyrics. But the song triumphs with its insanely catchy, speedy new wave heat, its smooth propulsion, unpredictable dynamics, and sneering lyrics. It sounds as if it’s going to fly right off the grooves and smack your face. The yobbish reggae rock of “Away From Home” reveals Copeland’s voice as the album’s weak link; it’s a bit too proud of its gawky geekiness. As a singer, he makes a great drummer. But the track does boast a wonderful, curt, corkscrewed guitar solo.

“Ritch In A Ditch” [sic] is tensile, slightly quirky rock in the vein of early Police. The line “I wanna be rich/I don’t wanna work in a ditch” is funny because Copeland was likely well on his way to having a fat bank balance by this time. “Grandelinquent” is a slashing, skewed instrumental with a manic piano solo and wicked Snakefinger-/Fred Frith-esque guitar solo.

Things get really interesting on “Guerilla,” whose brilliant, proggy new wave moves are not too far away from what Robert Fripp was doing in the late ’70s/early ’80s. “My Old School” toggles between breakneck new wave and well-meaning Causcasoid reggae and is laced with revenge-fantasy lyrics. The song proves that Copeland is better at the former than the latter. The lean, swerving, Police-like rock of “Excess” comes replete with sizzling guitar solo and crucial cowbell accents as Copeland laments, “my excesses are getting the better of me/I’m ready to go home.”

Klark Kent peaks on the closer, “Theme For Kinetic Ritual.” Rhythmically brash and melodically heroic, this instrumental sounds like a score for the best sports TV show that’s never been aired. Seattle radio station KEXP used to use this track as a bed for its concert announcements, and it was perfect for stoking anticipation. I love to drop this one in DJ sets and then see the baffled look on people’s faces when they ask what it is. -Buckley Mayfield

Minoru Muraoka “Bamboo” (United Artists, 1970)

Recent years have seen several labels—Light In The Attic, Palto Flats, Jazzman, We Release Whatever The Fuck We Want, et al.—reissuing obscure gems from Japan. England’s great Mr Bongo imprint also has gotten into the act, most recently with jazz shakuhachi player Minoru Muraoka’s Bamboo coming out this summer. That’s a relief, as original copies of this idiosyncratic 1970 crate-digger’s classic go for hundreds of dollars.

Six of Bamboo‘s nine tracks are covers, and the quality varies among them. Jazz musicians covering Beatles songs was practically law in the ’60s and ’70s, but few artists have attempted to interpret the sentimental 1964 ballad “And I Love Her.” Minoru exoticizes the somewhat sappy melody and takes this middling cut from A Hard Day’s Night to a higher level. Similarly, Minoru does interesting things with the oft-covered folk ballad “The House Of The Rising Sun.” His is probably my favorite rendition—partially because there are no overbearing vocals, just four or five instruments burnishing a poignant melody that, it turns out, is ideal for the shakuhachi’s timbre.

Minoru also excels at archetypal lightweight mid-’60s pop such as Bacharach/David’s “Do You Know The Way To San Jose” and Tony Hatch’s “Call Me,” an EZ-listening standard made famous by Chris Montez and Petula Clark. Minoru transforms these overfamiliar melodies into something more touching through his serene blowing. The latter is the epitome of suave coolness in Minoru’s hands and mouth. These covers display Minoru’s instinct for tackling songs that have been frequently interpreted and injecting them with elements of distinctiveness. You can also hear this when he bathes Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” in a holy penumbra; it’s unbearably touching and somehow more powerful for not having a singer, even one as gifted as Art Garfunkel.

Perhaps Bamboo’s finest cover is that of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.” It’s a fantastic version that illuminates and slightly accelerates Dave Brubeck’s famous, sprightly rendition. Like every song here, “Take Five” gains a sheen of freshness thanks to the airy coolness of the shakuhachi, a flute-like instrument popular in Japan. The unexpected robust and rapid drum solo three-fifths of the way in is a nice homage to Brubeck drummer Joe Morello.

Minoru’s originals rule, too. “Nogamigawa Funauta” is a gorgeous, courtly piece in which Minoru’s shakuhachi wafts and spirals into sacred space, twining around some phenomenal koto ornamentation. (The koto sounds like some magnificent compromise between a banjo and a harp.) “The Positive And The Negative” bears incredibly funky drum and bass breaks, which have made this track a holy grail for hip-hop producers. Lord have mercy, the beats are rotund on this one. Above the irrepressible grooves, shakuhachi and koto engage in a celestial dance, a mellifluous dream soundtrack. The other original, “Soul Bamboo,” sounds like one of the inspirations for DJ Shadow’s mystical-funk masterpiece, “What Does Your Soul Look Like?”

It’s so great to have Bamboo back in circulation at a reasonable price. Don’t sleep. -Buckley Mayfield

Pell Mell “Flow” (SST, 1991)

Before such a thing was facilitated by digital files, Pell Mell wrote songs by sending ideas on cassettes to members via snail mail. Once everyone in the scattered group—Robert Beerman (drums, guitar), Bill Owen (guitar), Steve Fisk (keyboards), Greg Freeman (bass, guitar), David Spalding (guitars) for Flow—had contributed to the track, they convened to finish it in a studio; in Flow‘s case Lowdown in San Francisco. Not that you need to know this method to appreciate Pell Mell’s sonic sorcery, but it does increase one’s admiration for the final product.

While their major-label debut, Interstate, is Pell Mell’s best-known full-length, Flow is their peak. There’s something poker-faced and quietly intense about Pell Mell’s music, even when they’re in swaggering, heroic, quasi-surf-rock mode, as on album-opener “American Eagle.” Sounding a bit like Contortions spin-off group the Raybeats, the song is a fitting tribute to the regal bird—or the clothing company, as the case may be. “Breach Of Promise” downshifts into a pensive brooder, revealing guitar tones of deep warmth and expressiveness, the melody so moving yet so minimal. “Bring On The China” boasts a chunky chugger, suggestive of industriousness and purposeful motion while “The Devil Bush” purveys wickedly torqued surf-rock, again evoking the Raybeats.

Smoke” is Flow‘s highlight, featuring the most psychedelic guitar tones, the most resonant bass line, the most sublime chord progressions, and the most dramatic dynamics. I don’t say this lightly: It’s one of the greatest songs of the ’90s… or maybe ever. Pretty bizarre that it’s never been licensed for a film. It’s followed by the LP’s second-most exciting track, “Aero.” This is ultimate driving music, a West Coast American motorik road-burner with crashing metallic percussion accents. “Flood” is the funkiest track here, flaunting an almost Madchester/baggy rhythm with crystalline guitar interplay, subtly menacing atmospheres, and a Tuvan throat singing sample.

Things become a bit less thrilling toward the end of Flow, but “Little Blue Dance” is a poignant meditation recalling some of Tom Verlaine’s solo work from the ’80s and ’90s while the valedictorian “Mopping Up” closes the record with a tune that oozes gorgeous resignation.

Because Flow came out on SST, its chances of getting reissued legitimately are slim, due to label boss Greg Ginn having some weird kink that involves not wanting to make money or please fans of great music. Let’s hope that one day Pell Mell can find the legal wherewithal to wrest their music from Ginn’s obstinate hands. -Buckley Mayfield

Norma Tanega “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog” (New Voice, 1966)

Though she had a single that reached #22 on the charts in 1966 and wrote songs for British pop-soul diva Dusty Springfield (with whom she also had a long-term romantic relationship), Norma Tanega has remained an obscure cult figure. Call me an optimist, but I think that situation might be remedied by Real Gone Music’s recent green-vinyl reissue of Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog, a delightfully quirky folk-rock record that quickly charms its way into your heart—especially that chart-dwelling title track alluded to earlier. I mean, RGM only produced 1,000 copies, but maybe this review will tip the scales in Tanega’s favor. (HAHAHAHA.)

All kidding aside, you gotta love the moxie of opening your debut album with a song title “You’re Dead.” Tanega grabs you from the get-go with a matter-of-fact voice that’s somewhat flat yet alluring, like Bobbie Gentry (or indeed Springfield), with a lower timbre and less breathy flamboyancy… or like Buffy Sainte-Marie without the stentorian vibrato. Tanega’s music is urgent, stripped-down folk-rock that gives Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs’ songcraft a run for its trenchancy. “Treat Me Right” is upbeat folk with gospel-vocal call-and-response uplift. “Waves” and “Jubilation” form a diptych of feel-good, intimate anthems that celebrate coupledom, in waltz time.

The dramatic orchestral pop of “Don’t Touch” features a chorus paraphrasing that of Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” It should’ve been a hit! What did become a hit, “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog,” is simply one of the greatest songs of the ’60s, a lolloping melody that makes you want to tear off all of your clothes, wad ’em up, and throw ’em in the air. Mutedly euphoric, the song sounds like Martha & The Vandellas gone folk, and it reflects Tanega’s genius for surprising song structures and idiosyncratic harmonica tones. “A Street That Rhymes At Six A.M.” offers another Motown simulacrum, but in off-kilter folk mode. So damn fresh.

For variation, there’s “What Are We Craving?” (a stomping, martial tune with Nico-like vocals), “No Stranger Am I,” (an Astrud Gilberto-esque saudade folk tune in an odd time signature), and “Hey Girl” (a cover of the 1870s Appalachian folk standard “In The Pines,” which was made famous by Lead Belly… and then more famous by Nirvana and Mark Lanegan). Oddly, the album closes with its most conventional track, “I’m The Sky,” whose jaunty poppiness recalls the 5th Dimension.

Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog is one of the most welcome reissues of the year. The fact that the latest edition of it already has sold out bodes well for its rehabilitation. Now get to repressin’, Real Gone Music. -Buckley Mayfield

High Speed And The Afflicted Man “Get Stoned Ezy” (Bonk, 1982)

A self-described “hippie punk,” British guitarist/vocalist Steve Hall cut this cult classic during the waning days of post-punk’s zenith. It must’ve sounded extremely out of time in that milieu of severely angular and often funky rock that frequently agitated for leftist/progressive political causes. Here was an unabashed, heavy-as-fuck psych-rock beast built for reckless—if not wreckless—speed that practically made listeners grow mutton chops while it was playing. Its three long songs hit you with Hell’s Angels-on-a-tequila-bender brutality.

Get Stoned Ezy sounded nothing like, say, post-punk touchstones such as Joy Division, the Pop Group, or Raincoats. Unsurprisingly, High Speed And The Afflicted Man pretty much vanished without much fanfare… until the reissues started materializing in the 2010s. (Thanks, Guerssen!)

The six-minute title track sets the tone; it’s dominated by primitive, ram-rodding riff, fuzzed and metallicized and run right into the ground, till it hits the earth’s core. Hall boozily bellows about getting blunted with not much difficulty, his guitar sounding like Ron Asheton trying to blend Jimi Hendrix and Tony Iommi at their brashest.

Zip Ead” offers 14 minutes of slightly slower Neanderthal rock in which Hall’s guitar bleeds way outside the lines of decorum, like early Blue Cheer jamming with Japanese speed freaks High Rise. It’s another exercise in repetition as redemption, the road of excess leading to the chalice of (six-string) jizzdom [sic].

The 12-minute “Sun Sun” is a burly, fuzzed-out mantra that pummels its way into the delirious jam-band zone where Hapshash And The Coloured Coat, Ya Ho Wa 13, and Magic Hour dwell. Let us take a moment to praise bassist Paul Mason and drummer Billy Frater, who get the motherfuckin’ job done with minimal fuss. They’re the rock-solid foundation beneath Hall’s flagrant guitar wankery. And no, that is not a diss in my book, if the person musically masturbating has talent and cunning. Hall has just enough of those things to make his caveman rock punch above its weight. -Buckley Mayfield

Golem “Orion Awakes” (Psi-Fi, 1996)

This album is draped in mystery and has been suspected of being a hoax. It allegedly was recorded in 1972-73, but some production touches make it sound more like it was done in the ’90s. In an interview reproduced in the liner notes of the 2016 vinyl reissue on Mental Experience, producer Toby Robinson can’t remember any of the details—and the same edition’s credits bear a “℗ 1976.” They can’t keep their stories straight… All the musicians recorded under pseudonyms, but are reputedly well-known krautrock figures. Alan Freeman, author of The Crack In The Cosmic Egg krautrock encyclopedia, speculates that members of Dzyan, Birth Control, Baba Yaga, and Sixty Nine may have been involved. All the rest of the CD reissues from the ’90s on the Pyramid imprint (Nazgul, Galactic Explorers, Cozmic Corridors, etc.) have similar murky origins.

Someone on Discogs wrote, “I have sources from a musician that he confirms played on this record wich [sic] was recorded back in 1995 in Croydon near London.” I can believe that! But ultimately, the music on Orion Awakes is so good, its back story is beside the point.

Whatever the case, if you dig freaky, vocal-free krautrock, you’re gonna want Orion Awakes. The title track approaches tentatively and ominously with delayed guitar shivers, then slowly blooms into a glimmering, methodical psych-rock stomp, replete with thick organ swirls. I can’t help thinking of the ’90s band Sundial and their awesome Other Way Out album when I hear this song. Similarly, “Stellar Launch” is a contemplative space-out that meanders with menace, marked by subtle wah-wah guitar and wispy Mellotron sighs. Gradually, though, it achieves a semi-funky midtempo groove and ascends to sublime heights of cosmic chaos. The shortest track at 6:32, the aptly titled “Godhead Dance” will get you spazzing and throwing ridiculous shapes. It features an unstoppable groove powered by over-the-top Hendrixian wah snarl. If you hear “Godhead Dance” under the influence of hallucinogens, all bets are off. No wonder it’s my go-to Golem track in DJ sets.

The three-part, 14-minute suite “ Jupiter & Beyond” is powerful, surging psychedelic rock music geared for large venues. The album’s finale, “The Returning,” probably should’ve been left off of Orion Awakes. The fat drum sound and trademark indie-rock guitar tones really give away the ’90s provenance of Golem. This song sounds like something on Drag City, Matador, or Merge more than any subterranean German label. It’s also the least interesting work here. It’s not a good way to persuade anyone who suspects this LP is (mostly) a well-executed prank. -Buckley Mayfield

Charles Lloyd “Waves” (A&M, 1972)

One sees a lot of Charles Lloyd LPs in used bins—especially Forest Flower, Love-In, and Journey Within. That ubiquity suggests that the American jazz saxophonist/flautist had a spasm of commercial success, followed by a substantial disenchantment with his popular releases. It’s a common phenomenon, and it often pays dividends for crate-diggers decades later. While Waves isn’t quite as easy to find as the aforementioned records, it does pop up with some frequency for fairly low prices. I’m here to suggest that you should snap it up when you see it, as it punches way above its price point.

Like a handful of serious jazz artists, Lloyd intermingled with rock royalty at a time when jazzers and hippies often shared similar worldviews and aesthetics. That’s how Lloyd ended up corralling Beach Boys members Mike Love, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, and Billy Hinsche and the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn to make Waves. You can hear these West Coast rock gods in full flower on album opener “TM” (yes, it’s a blissful paean to transcendental meditation, and it sure sounds like it). Add the fantastic Hungarian guitarist Gábor Szabó to the mix and you have a gilded gem of a tune that you can imagine appearing on Friends, 20/20, or Surf’s Up, what with its patented honeyed, intricate vocal interplay by those Beach Boys cats. Plus, Pamela Polland is no slouch on lead vox.

“Pyramid,” cowritten by guitarist Tom Trujillo, is an epic psych-jazz ramble with plenty of Lloyd’s flute dazzlement and a guitar/bass duel that makes me think of Wolfgang Dauner’s astounding Et Cetera album from 1970. “Majorca” is pretty much a continuation of “Pyramid,” but with Szabó unspooling rococo guitar filigree all over the shop. These two songs will make you feel about 67 percent more sophisticated than you actually are. Let it be known that this is one helluva side one.

Side two kicks off with the nine-minute “Harvest,” another Szabó extravaganza; it’s jaunty, fleet hippie jazz spiced by Gábor’s pointillistically pretty guitar origami. On the gorgeous psych-jazz meditation “Waves,” McGuinn exudes restrained lustrousness on his 12-string guitar while the melody recalls Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw The Light”—which also came out in 1972; weird. The triptych “Rishikesha” concludes Waves with a gentle psychedelic reverie that strives for a peace beyond understanding. Whether you think it attains that exalted state depends on your own tolerance for long-haired utopian soundtracks and Mike Love’s quasi-mystical lyrics. Luckily for me, I at least have a healthy appetite for the former.

Waves is a testament to Lloyd’s aptitude for adaptability. He proved that a respected jazz musician could smoothly transition into the precarious freak zone of fusion and hippie rock and create a lasting work—even though too few people realize it. -Buckley Mayfield

Chicago “Chicago VI” (Columbia, 1973)

If you were conscious during the ’70s, you couldn’t help being aware of the music made by the unimaginatively named band Chicago. It was in the air like perfume and cigarette smoke and summer breezes, dominating the airwaves with soulful, jazz-inflected rock and heart-melting ballads. Some of those ubiquitous hits were damned good, some tilted the schmaltz meter into the red. But it was all impeccably played and produced and usually housed in gatefold sleeves, and it somehow appealed to hip folks and squares.

By the time the seven dudes in Chicago had reached their fifth album, VI (odd, I know, but they were called Chicago Transit Authority on their first LP), they were surefire chart-dwellers who had their shit down pat. But they weren’t averse to bringing in some outside help for this one, tapping Brazilian percussionist Laudir De Oliveira (Sérgio Mendes, Marcos Valle) to accentuate the rhythms. The results on VI, though, are a mixed bag, which you can expect when you have four songwriters angling to get ideas expressed.

The album begins unpromisingly with “Critics’ Choice,” an acerbic, Elton John/10cc-like ballad that dissects said critics’ negative traits. But that meh start quickly gets whisked down the memory hole as “Just You ‘N’ Me” enters earshot. Yes, it’s a warm power ballad you’ve heard 18 million times, so it’s curdled into an innocuous bauble that reminds you more of shopping for deodorant in a chain drugstore rather than as one of the classiest, slinkiest, and most earnest love songs ever to top a chart. It helps that composer/trombonist James Pankow pulls a “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” sucker punch that elevates the track to a much higher level.

Keyboardist Robert Lamm’s “Darlin’ Dear” is horn-heavy funk-rock with a festive, Dr. John-like air, enlivened by Terry Kath’s sizzling, snarling guitar solo. Kath’s lone writing credit, “Jenny,” sounds like the Band’s earthy roots rock, but with more rhythmic complexity. The album’s best deep cut is Pankow’s “What’s This World Comin’ To,” whose boisterous, busy funk rock bumps somewhere between Funkadelic and Grand Funk Railroad. I wish Chicago explored this vein more often. Similarly deep and not oversaturated by radio, “Rediscovery” is a midtempo funk jam with low-key jazz chordings, as Kath channels Eddie Hazel’s fluid, wah-wah squawk.

Like a lot of smart groups, Chicago saved the best for last. No exaggeration: Peter Cetera and Pankow’s “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” stands as one of the greatest pieces of music ever. This magnum opus has about five or six distinct parts, and each one is dazzling. The song begins like a fairly typical inspirational, casually strolling rocker, but you can sense it’s going to build to something much more majestic. Sure enough, about halfway in, “Feelin’ Stronger” accelerates into a magnificent chug and then things just get insanely sublime from there on out. The massed, swaggering horns, the crazed, galloping drums and mad tom-tom fills, the “YEAH YEAH YEEEEAAAAH,” the soaring backing-vocal vortex, Cetera’s aerated “We get stronger today” refrain that rides till the fadeout… Put the coda on in a loop in your brain while running and you’ll never fail to break your personal record. Trust me… I’ve tried it. -Buckley Mayfield

The The “Uncertain Smile” (Some Bizzare, 1982)

As someone who’s only listened to The The up through 1986’s Infected, I can’t claim to be an authority on leader Matt Johnson’s musical career. However, I can confidently state that I am an expert on The The’s 1982 EP, Uncertain Smile. I bought it soon after it came out on British import during the grim Reagan/Thatcher era and proceeded to listen to its three sui generis songs obsessively, while putting the title track on many a mixtape. Uncertain Smile may not be the most popular or revered release in Johnson’s catalog, but I maintain that it deserves repeat plays and a lofty place in your musical pantheon.

“Uncertain Smile” itself begins with some of the most urgent, warped marimba you’ve ever heard, before suavely shifting into a midtempo dance-rock groove augmented by a plangent guitar and mournful flute motifs of utmost poignancy. The flute solo is mellifluously melancholy enough to earn a spot on a Moody Blues LP. Johnson sings like an introverted, less narcissistic Morrissey here, relating a fraught internal emo-drama with intimate equanimity. You will feel Matt’s pain.

The song’s long instrumental bridge coasts into mysterioso jazz territory, with brooding sax and sly bass laying a foundation for another madly undulating marimba solo. As the song progresses, more elements enter (sumptuous synth swells, heavily FX’d harmonica, an intriguing sound I can’t pinpoint), adding to the sensation that this is a once-in-a-lifetime epic that transcends its early-’80s British milieu. Make no mistake: “Uncertain Smile” is The The’s peak and one of the greatest songs ever. The truncated version on the 1983 LP Soul Mining pales beside this one.

By contrast, “Three Orange Kisses From Kazan” is a weirdly ominous yet enigmatically beautiful piece of art pop, like some amalgam of Tuxedomoon, early Clock DVA, and Tin Drum-era Japan. “Why do people never say what they mean? / Why do people just repeat what they read?” Johnson gripes, and that sentiment still resonates 37 years later. Another example of Johnson’s unique way with songcraft and vocal modulation, “Three Orange Kisses” presents a perfect balance between melodiousness and cacophony. It’s some of the most gorgeous chaos that appeared on record in the ’80s. “Waitin’ For The Upturn” can’t help sounding somewhat anticlimactic after the preceeding two classics, but it’s still a gem of low-key, chilling balladry, like a master class of muted Sturm und Drang. The production on Uncertain Smile by Mike Thorne (Wire, John Cale, Laurie Anderson, Soft Cell) is spacious and dynamic, abetting Johnson’s idiosyncratic ideas about timbre and atmosphere. -Buckley Mayfield