Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butthole Surfers “Cream Corn From The Socket Of Davis” (Touch And Go, 1985)

For a stopgap EP released between two mind-boggling LPs, Cream Corn From The Socket Of Davis sure has had legs. Three of its four songs became staples in Butthole Surfers’ live sets and lead track “Moving To Florida” has become the pinnacle of blues mockery/homage among white rock groups. And the title Cream Corn From The Socket Of Davis exists on a whole other level of sacrilegious brilliance, to boot.

Slotted between Psychic…Powerless…Another Man’s Sac and Rembrandt Pussyhorse in the Surfers discography, Cream Corn finds these Texas psychonauts flexing blues, psych-rock, industrial, and country-rock muscles with rude intensity. I’ve heard “Moving To Florida,” a ludicrous send-up of blues-singer machismo, over a hundred times, and it still cracks me up. No, I can’t believe it, either. Most songs that lean heavily on humor begin to pall after a few listens, but “Moving To Florida” has retained its absurdist potency for over three decades. Every line out of Gibby Haynes’ mashed-potatoes-filled mouth—uttered between bursts of spasmodic blues-rock demolition—is a comedic gem. I’m tempted to cut and paste the whole lyric sheet here, but a few examples should suffice. “I’m going to move down to Florida/And you know I’m gonna have to potty-train the Chairman Mao/…I’m gonna grind me a White Castle Slider out of India’s sacred cow/…They be making tadpoles the size of Mercurys down in Florida/That be telling Julio Iglesias what to sing.” Fuck me running, Gibby’s a walking advertisement for the rewards of daily hallucinogen-gobbling.

“Comb” sounds like a Big Black song being played at 16 rpm. It’s a sluggish, brutish slab of disorienting industrial-music waste that you should play for your worst enemy; I mean this as a compliment. “To Parter” begins with the Surfers’—and indeed any band’s—most ominous riff (thanks to mad-genius guitarist Paul Leary), building to a tumultuous, sinister, psychedelic ordeal that makes you feel as if you’re being sucked into a vortex of bilge water. “And all the teachers who were flunkies/They all taught you and me,” Haynes bellows, before he approximates the gibbering and wailing of a dementia patient. “Tornadoes” ends the EP with scathing, speedy punk-rock as played by maniacs, becoming ever more unhinged as the song progresses. You could probably see this sort of finale coming, but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling.

Cream Corn From The Socket Of Davis (did showbiz legend Sammy, the subject of the title, ever hear it, one wonders?) is an essential piece of the crazy puzzle that is Butthole Surfers’ catalog. -Buckley Mayfield

Yoko Ono “Fly” (Apple, 1971)

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This is one of the triptych of records you need to pull out to shoot down the Yoko haters—of whom there are many, because we live in a deeply flawed world. The other two? 1970’s Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and 1973’s Approximately Infinite Universe. Of course, there are other solid Ono releases, but these three make the most persuasive case for Yoko as an important artist.

Let’s be honest: Ono used her connection to husband John Lennon to gain access to the phenomenal musicians who play on Fly (Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Klaus Voorman, Jim Keltner, Jim Gordon, Joe Jones, and, you bet your ass, Lennon himself) Don’t front: You would, too, if you were in her position. But it’s what she does with the assemblage of massive talent that makes this double LP so righteous.

Ono wrote all 13 tracks on Fly, and if she’d only conceived the 17-minute “Mind Train,” this full-length would still be worth your precious time. “Mind Train” is like Tago Mago/Ege Bamyasi-era Can, with all the loose-limbed, trance-inducing funk and id-mad vocal improv tics that that implies. Lennon seems to be having a ball, unspooling a bunch of weird guitar arabesques and eruptions while Voorman and Keltner do their best Czukay/Liebezeit impressions. All I can say is, “¡Hallelujah!”

As for the other highlights, “Mind Holes” starts almost like a Popol Vuh-/Dzyan-like kosmsiche reverie before shifting into disjointed blues-rock vamping. On “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow),” Clapton, Starr, and Voorman grind out a sick, funky blues-rock groove that would make John Lee Hooker say, “DAMN!” More filthy, stripped-down funk comes with “Hirake,” over which Ono commands listeners to open their box, trousers, legs, thighs, flies, ears, nose, mouth, city, world, etc. with unhinged urgency. Yes, ma’am, whatever you say!

Weirdnesses abound on side 3, as you might expect when Fluxus mischief-maker Joe Jones enters the studio. “Airmale” is enhanced by eight of Jones’ “automatic instruments,” which play themselves with only the turn of a switch, as Ono wails in tongues. If you thought the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” was strange, well, “Airmale” says, “Hold my beer.” With “Don’t Count The Waves,” Ono’s voice gets electronically treated into an eerie, delay-laden shriek as she intones the title, accompanied by a grotesquerie of percussive accents. “You,” the last of the Jones experiments, features lease-breaking metallic percussion splatter and shrill whinnies that will make 98.3 percent of Beatles fans shit twice and die. And let’s not overlook “O’Wind (Body Is The Scar Of Your Mind),” on which Keltner and Gordon slap out rapid beats on tablas while Ono moans with ceremonial gravitas and ululates with anguished ecstasy. It’s a weird standout on an album full of oddities.

Fly‘s not all good, though. “Mrs. Lennon” is a maudlin ballad that’s almost as insufferable as “Imagine.” On “Fly,” the soundtrack to Yoko’s 23-minute film of the same name, Ono shatters preconceptions about the female voice and any attendant decorum associated with it (a good thing); but the piece is worth perhaps one listen in a lifetime, just to revel in the sheer absurdity of millionaires sanctioning such tomfoolery. Even Lennon’s backward-sucking guitar slurs can’t redeem it.

Most humans now lack the attention span and tolerance for strangeness that Fly demands of its listeners. But you, Jive Time blog reader, you’re made of sterner stuff. I think you’re gonna dig a lot of this messterpiece. -Buckley Mayfield

Blue Cheer “Vincebus Eruptum” (Philips, 1968)

BlueCheerVincebusEruptumMade up of blues covers half this album may be, but what a new way they had to warp and distort such standards! Key words there, as Blue Cheer were pioneers of the Metal genre we all have come to associate with the monoliths… Zeppelin and Sabbath, somewhere, they stand in between.

A little ways into opener “Summertime Blues” you get a confirmation that yes, things will be forever different, as a break becomes filled with masochistic riffs unheard prior. On “Rock Me Baby” the use of guitar distortion reaches new heights, and the interplay on “Doctor Please” hits you like scorched earth, molten lava running and tumbling downhill.

More blues covers and an original number follow, but the reinvention heard here is absolutely notable. When you hear some metallers discussing roots, this will probably be one album cited in conversation. -Wade

Buster Smith “The Legendary Buster Smith” (Atlantic, 1959)

Legendary_Buster_SmithPlaying with the great Count Basie and hailing from the same Southern locale as sax-savant Ornette Coleman (Fort Worth, TX), Buster Smith was one of those jazzmen who kept blues and jazz traditions together as tight and coarse as jute rope.

Unlike Coleman who ventured further out nationally while exploring free territory, and later amplified acts like Prime Time, Buster remained a Southern treat and and had his own way of delivering standards alongside great conventional numbers; a purist. His barebones “September Song” variant, a glum pop standard, goes well before original “King Alcohol,” featuring tumbling drums acting hardly more than brash timekeepers with Buster’s grainy blues-sax spillage upped on top. Get me a drink…

On side two “Kansas City Riffs” has some of the best interplay on the disc, and everybody makes a modest solo, even the seldom heard piano that only appears on half of the cuts. “Late Late” sounds like what could reasonably aftermath of “King Alcohol” and is as expected, a downer. Buster even switches from sax to blues guitar and shows he has chops on a six-string. For fans of Basie, Charlie Christian and even Charlie Parker with whom he affiliated, Buster Smith’s only official release is of definite interest. -Wade

Cat Power “What Would The Community Think?” (Matador, 1996)

WhatwouldthecommunitythinkMammal music was how Richard Meltzer described Chan Marshall’s music. Probably one of the last positive statements he said about anyone musical (that wasn’t playing jazz, blues or country maybe), since he called the decade of the 90’s an “empty room” and had long before pulled the plug on rock in most any form.

After the double barrel shots of “Dear Sir” and “Myra Lee,” Marshall went for something a bit prettier and more ornate than her stripped-down debuts. Not that Chan’s themes have changed much; it’s all nervous woman-breakdown content, but each song doesn’t sound so morbidly hopeless this time around. Steve Shelly of Sonic Youth is still drumming and some SY feedback rubs on the production in places, but for the most part this is Chan’s vision, and while the songs are brighter with chimes and steel pedal all is not well in this Southern girl’s world.

Originals “Good Clean Fun” and “Nude As The News” can leave a slab in the back of your throat with their honesty and moments like “They Tell Me” are very country-derived and sound just as true. Gearing up for Moon Pix, Chan shows that she can work people into her own personal foil and come up with something more elegant. But her own reinterpretation of “Enough” near the closer is still anxious and skittering, like what the inside of her head must’ve been like. -Wade

Charles Mingus “Blues & Roots” (Atlantic Records, 1960)

115405940What might be seen as a regressive move from the current post-bop experiments of the time to doing extended takes on blues and church songs was actually a great percolation of styles in Charles Mingus’ hands. What we have here are six tracks that play off of blues sensibilities quite well, makes you want to dance more often than not and comes across as quite modern.

Nine players appear on this record (with one swapped for piano on the final track) and what’s presented are layers of the same parts played just about at once, making rather simple, swinging music with plenty of room for subtle shifts and surprises. Opener “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” is a case in point, with joyous horns and a galloping rhythm charge set by Mingus. Most of the tracks presented herein are fairly loose (though not disorganized) and give a snap shot of ground-breaking performers taking a break and having a good time recording an album more suitable for a party rather than something set up for your rapt attention.

Not that there are tracks you can’t be pulled into, however; killers like “Moanin’” and “Tensions” have so much going on that repeated listens will be inevitable to take in all the action presented to you. For tracks that are so rich, the swing is also pretty undeniable. Mingus seems to be at a crossroads here, between the blues of his past and the modern tug of his jazz progressions. The result is a record you can’t help but wear a smile to. -Wade

Savoy Brown “Looking In” (Parrot Records, 1971)

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A British Blues group who were quite good at grooving, “Looking In” would be the last album Savoy Brown would create before half the members jumped ship to join Foghat. That would be their bass player and drummer, essential crew here. So, this album arguably represents Savoy at their best before a major lineup change.

Delivering solid slabs of amplified blues and ascending percussion, Savoy Brown create a pretty uplifting world here. Tracks “Poor Girl” and “Take it Easy” are grooving and easy going affairs that let you remember rock as a more optimistic music before it’s many permutations down the long road of the 70’s.

This idea is reinforced by driving numbers like “Sunday Night” and “Sitting An’ Thinking” which go down smooth, while penultimate rocker “Leavin’ Again” delivers the blues the best way Brits of the time could, and it’s great, full of changes with a nice bass tone throughout. Warm. Strangely, album opener “Gypsy” and closer “Romanoff” are nearly identical, one minute instrumentals that seem to take this hard piece of blues-rock full circle.

This is a nice piece of work, an album full of joyous grooves covered by a light sense of melancholy through some great electric guitar work. Definitely ready for some reassessment. -Wade

 

John Lee Hooker & Canned Heat “Hooker ’n Heat” (1971)

There have been a number of albums produced over the years which match a legendary figure from blues music with some his admirers in well known contemporary rock or blues bands. Blues and other music critics often lambast these efforts and hold them in utmost contempt. Some of these sessions are truly awful but some come off well, such as “Fathers and Sons” with Muddy Waters and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. “Hooker ‘N’ Heat,” released on Liberty Records in 1970, stands as possibly the best example of generational meeting of the minds. Canned Heat was at the top of their popularity and Hooker was fading from the public eye somewhat. This record helped to revitalize interest in Hooker’s music. Most of Hooker’s best work, out of hundreds of recordings, many under assumed names, is solo, just “The Hook,” his left foot and his guitar. On albums where he recorded with full bands or other accompaniment his rough, often uneven style, with a measure count that often varied, didn’t mesh well with musicians accustomed to playing arrangements or standard blues classics. Sometimes the clash detracted from the product. The band Canned Heat had no such problems. It was obvious that he loved the band and they loved him! Bob “The Bear” Hite, the band leader, who usually provided the gruff vocals on much of the band’s material, was a blues collector and historian and was well acquainted with Hooker’s music and the band itself was rough hewn and unpolished but played with feeling and a respect for the music. Hite is not heard on the album. He wisely stood aside and gave the spotlight to Hooker. No band ever backed the Hook better. This was the last album for ‘Heat member Alan Wilson, who plays harmonica and piano. Wilson would soon after be dead from poisoning and choking on barbituates while on a camping trip. Wilson plays inspired harp on this album and gets special recognition from Hooker for it. Wilson is one of the under rated harmonica players of our time and this stands as his memorial. With the recent passing of John Lee Hooker this album could be considered among his best work as well. —Dick

Chicken Shack “40 Blue Fingers, Freshly Packed and Ready to Serve” (1968)

Formed in 1967, Chicken Shack consisted of Stan Webb on guitar and vocals, Andy Sylvester on bass, Christine Perfect (later known as Christine McVie, as a part of the great Fleetwood Mac), on vocals and keyboards, and Alan Morley on drums.

“40 Blue Fingers” is an excellent example of the booming late 60’s blues scene in & around London. With John Mayall & Alexis Korner creating benchmarks for the British blues scene, Chicken Shack were absolutely in the right place at the right time. Stan Webb is another under-rated guitarist of the late 60’s British Blues Scene along the lines of Paul Kossoff (Free). Christine McVie is a Goddess featuring a very powerful, soul-driven voice that’s very clearly influenced by the great John Mayall.

Chicken Shack made their public debut at the Great Britain’s National Blues & Jazz Festival at Windsor along with Fleetwood Mac on August 13, 1967. “There were two stages at Windsor, the main one an open-air ramshackle structure, the other inside a marquee. Fleetwood Mac had their initiation on the main stage but much was made of Chicken Shack’s tented debut.” All said and done, Christine McVie’s performance and Stan Webb’s charismatic guitar playing make this album a worthy buy. —Warchild786