Folk

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

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

Fleetwood Mac “Mystery To Me” (Reprise, 1973)

Mystery To Me is one of those sort-of-overlooked Fleetwood Mac albums that came between the Peter Green and Stevie Nicks-Lindsey Buckingham phases. Keyboardist Christine McVie and guitarist Bob Welch dominate the songwriting here; while it’s not the best pre-Rumours Fleetwood Mac album, it does contain a few serious highlights. Your enjoyment of Mystery To Me will be predicated on how much you dig Welch’s Valium’d vox, McVie’s plummy singing, and medium-cool blues rock. The strange thing about this record is that its peak, “Hypnotized,” is an anomaly in the Fleetwood Mac catalog. More about that later.

Side one stands out for a couple of McVie compositions. The peppy, catchy “Believe Me,” the most uptempo tune here, comes across very much like “Homeward Bound” off Bare Trees. “Just Crazy Love” is mildly ebullient pop that hints at Christine’s vibrant songwriting on Rumours. “Forever” shambles in on an odd reggae-rock rhythm that’s endearing almost despite itself. The rambling orchestral, quasi-flamenco rock of “Keep On Going” is unusual for bearing a McVie vocal in a Welch-written song.

Side two’s standout is “For Your Love,” as Fleetwood Mac deploy a a subtly different and dreamier rearrangement of the Yardbirds classic, bolstered by lots of dual-guitar fireworks. In “The City,” Welch explains how he can’t handle New York’s darkness, which is all around—even in Central Park, apparently—as his wah-wah guitar squawk propels a swaggeringly funky blues-rock workout. “Miles Away” is breezy, kinetic rock that makes you want to floor it as you zip down the freeway on a journey to the periphery of your mind, while Welch grinds out some seductive, highly torqued blues rock on “Somebody.”

But the real reason to cop Mystery To Me, is “Hypnotized”—which was a minor US radio hit and covered by the Pointer Sisters on their 1978 album, Energy. Urged along by a coolly detached yet insistent, rolling rhythm and colored by the chillest of spangly guitar embroidery, this song is pure proto-Balearic-beach enchantment. Welch’s mellow-bronze vocals perfectly cap this aptly titled jam. “Hypnotized” is my go-to Fleetwood Mac tune when I’m DJing in a bar and as the night’s winding down and I’m trying to lay the foundation for its boozing patrons to get laid.

Overall, Mystery To Me is a slow-grower that boasts a few cuts that belong on any Fleetwood Mac best-of mixtape. You should still be able to find a used vinyl copy for under $10. -Buckley Mayfield

Nico “The Marble Index” (Elektra, 1968)

When you think about records that could be considered the antithesis of a party album (and who doesn’t, at least weekly?), you have to place Nico’s The Marble Index near the top of the heap. Recorded with fellow former Velvet Underground band mate John Cale, this record stood in stark relief against 1968’s kaleidoscopic array of vibrantly hued psychedelia and rabble-rousing soul like an ice castle in the desert. Anyone expecting another lissome folk-pop gem like Nico’s 1967 debut LP, Chelsea Girl, would have to have been shocked upon hearing The Marble Index. According to interviews, Nico is on record as saying the latter is a more true expression of her art and soul than the former, which abounded with songs written by men. Angst for the memories, Ms. Päffgen.

After the brief “Prelude,” a relatively sprightly glockenspiel and piano reverie that doesn’t prepare you for what’s to follow, things snap into proper foreboding with “Lawns Of Dawns.” The song seems to rise out of a murk, not unlike some of the tracks on Tim Buckley’s Starsailor. Harmonium drones, glockenspiel tintinnabulations, Nico’s stentorian intonations of oblique, personal poetry mark Marble Index‘s dominant mode, and it’s icy, mate. Trivia: “Lawns Of Dawns” reportedly was inspired by peyote visions Nico experienced with paramour Jim Morrison.

No One Is There” is minimalist, Northern European art-folk lieder, as Nico trills morosely over Cale’s saturninely beauteous viola. Written for her son, “Ari’s Song” is a lullaby that probably offered cold comfort, given its frigid atmosphere and piercing bosun’s pipe tonalities. Over a slightly woozy and fragile cacophony, Nico sings, “Sail away, sail away, my little boy/Let the wind fill your heart with light and joy/Sail away, my little boy.” Sweet dreams, child, ha ha. “Facing The Wind” is haunted desolation incarnate. Nico’s waxing and waning harmonium drones slur around banging piano dissonance and random, disconcerting percussion. Our heroine sings through a Leslie speaker for added eeriness about an existential crisis exacerbated by the elements in nature.

Toward Marble Index‘s end, things really get dark. The polar viola drones in “Frozen Warnings” shiver with unbearably poignant forlornness, shrouded by Nico’s pitiless yet dulcet vocals. It’s up there with Buckley’s “Song To The Siren” for tender, heart-shredding sonic beauty. Listen and feel your blood slowly freeze with sympathy. Album-finale “Evening Of Light” features gradually intensifying bell tolling, grim bass groans, and viola drones that overwhelm Nico’s doomed crooning. Nico and Cale are not even trying to make the music and singing sync up, which adds to the sense of menace. The refrain “Midnight winds are landing at the end of time” sums up The Marble Index‘s pervasive mood of crushing bleakness and captures the song’s artfully apocalyptic tenor.

In the liner notes to the deluxe CD reissue of The Marble Index and Desertshore titled The Frozen Borderline: 1968-1970, the LP’s producer, Frazier Mohawk said: “After it was finished, we genuinely thought people might kill themselves. The Marble Index isn’t a record you listen to. It’s a hole you fall into.” The man speaks the truth. Nevertheless, you need to hear it. -Buckley Mayfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Woo “Awaawaa” (Palto Flats, 2016)

All it takes is about 10 seconds of a Woo song to understand that you’re in the presence of utterly distinctive artists who appear to operate in cloistered, idyllic settings, far from the usual circumstances of music-making. British brothers Clive and Mark Ives use electronics and percussion and guitars, clarinet, and bass, respectively, to create music that eludes easy categorization. They touch on many styles, including chamber jazz, ambient, dub, prog-folk, exotica, twisted yacht rock, Young Marble Giants-like post-punk, and winsome miniatures not a million miles from Eno’s instrumentals on Another Green World.

Listening to their releases, you sense that the Iveses are totally unconcerned about music-biz trapping; neither fame nor fortune seems to enter their minds. They simply want to lay down these genuinely idiosyncratic tunes that work best in your headphones/earbuds while you’re alone in nature. That’s an all-too-rare phenomenon.

Recorded from 1975 to 1982 in London, Awaawaa only recently gained wider recognition, thanks to a 2016 reissue by the Palto Flats label. Its 16 instrumentals rarely puncture their way to the forefront of your consciousness. Rather, they enter earshot with low-key charm, do their thing for a few minutes, then unceremoniously bow out. “Green Blob” is the closest Woo get to “rocking out,” coming across like CAN circa Ege Bamyasi (sans vox) burrowing deeply into inner space, with Mark Ives’ guitar recalling Michael Karoli’s yearning, clarion tone. Similarly, “The Goodies” sounds like the Residents interpreting CAN, casting the krautrock legends’ irrepressible groove science in a more insular context.

The pieces on Awaawaa exude an unobtrusive beauty, a congenial mellowness; the cumulative effect is a subtle, holistic well-being. It’s a sprig of joy that will keep you enraptured and hearing new delights with each successive listen. -Buckley Mayfield

Parliament “Osmium” (Invictus, 1970)

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Osmium captures Parliament (aka Funkadelic) at a time before their trademark stylistic traits had firmly solidified. Consequently, it’s a wildly diverse record, full of songs both expected (if you’re familiar with the P-Funk catalog) and very surprising—like, “check the record to make sure this is still the band from Detroit led by George Clinton” surprising. Yes, Osmium is at core a soul album, but it’s a helluva lot more, too. Because any George Clinton production—especially from the ’60s and ’70s—can never be typical.

Osmium—alternately titled Rhenium and First Thangs in subsequent releases; a 2016 reissue of it is floating around, too—begins with a prime slice of horndog funk, “I Call My Baby Pussycat,” with Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross’ guitars and Billy Bass Nelson’s bass really setting fire under asses. Things grind to a solemn halt with “Put Love In Your Life,” a soul-gospel-tinged ballad sung with baritone gravity by Ray Davis… but then it unexpectedly shifts into a florid psych-pop anthem. Wow, my ears just got whiplash. If that weren’t strange enough, the Ruth Copeland-penned “Little Ole Country Boy” swerves into mock-country territory, replete with jaw harp, tabletop guitar embellishments, and Fuzzy Haskins’ Southern-honky vocal affectations; think the Rolling Stones, but with tongues more firmly jammed in cheek. More ear whiplash. Ouch! (Yes, De La Soul producer Prince Paul sampled the yodeling part for “Potholes In My Lawn.”)

“Moonshine Leather” peddles the sort of sublimely sluggish bluesy funk that occupied some of Funkadelic’s earliest releases, while “Oh Lord, Why Lord/Prayer” is a baroque-classical/gospel hybrid, sung with utmost passion and soul by Calvin Simon and Copeland. It’s definitely the frilliest and most churchy P-Funk track I’ve heard. As an agnostic, it sort of gives me hives, but there’s no denying the sincerity and skill behind the song.

Side two begins with “My Automobile,” yet more Stonesy faux country, but with sitar (?!) accompaniment, quickly followed by the revved-up, libidinous “Nothing Before Me But Thang,” which is the wildest, most Funkadelicized cut on Osmium. The struttin’, ruttin’ “Funky Woman” is indeed funky and ready to make any party you’re attending lit, as the kids say. The hippie-fied gospel rock of “Livin’ The Life” sounds like something off of Godspell or Hair, but it’s not bad at all.

Parliament saved the best for last with “The Silent Boatman.” Another Ruth Copeland composition (she also co-produced the LP, by the way), “The Silent Boatman” is one of the most beautiful and moving songs in all creation. A slowly building, majestic ballad aswirl in Bernie Worrell’s organ and glockenspiel, it’s a poignant tale lamenting inequality and strife on Earth and redemption in the afterlife. When the bagpipes come in, you feel as if you’re being swept up in a highly improbable dream in which Parliament become the most persuasive religious sect ever to enter a studio. Going way against type, “The Silent Boatman” might be the closest Clinton & company ever got to godliness. Ruth Copeland was their secret weapon, although she never again recorded another proper album with the group. But what a legacy she left. -Buckley Mayfield

Milton Nascimento- Minas (EMI, 1975)

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Some albums just ooze a singular atmosphere and vibe that transcend language or rational thought. Milton Nascimento’s Minas is one of those albums. A Brazilian singer-songwriter who boasts a commanding, supple vocal style, Nascimento has collaborated with many prominent American and English musicians (Wayne Shorter, Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Peter Gabriel, Jon Anderson, Cat Stevens, and, uh, Duran Duran), yet his own records aren’t that well known here. But among the record-collector cognoscenti, he’s revered as something of a prog-folk-soul genius. You could think of Nascimento as something of a South American Tim Buckley, but even that doesn’t quite nail his special talent.

My Brazilian import copy of Minas contains scant info about the recording, but maybe not knowing every detail of it somehow enhances the listening experience. Savor the mystery! Milton sings in Portuguese, a wonderfully musical language that has a warm, tranquilizing effect on me. He enlists a children’s choir on a couple of tracks, which is one of my least favorite ploys, but for some reason it’s not as cloying as usual in Nascimento’s hands. Much of Minas is deceptively beautiful; most of the songs here don’t immediately stun you, but rather over repeat listens their oddly alluring contours begin to make sense and trigger your pleasure centers. By the fifth listen, you’re convinced Minas is a classic song cycle as devastatingly moving as Buckley’s Starsailor, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, or any of Scott Walker’s first four solo joints.

Minas‘ highlight is “Fé Cega, Faca Amolada” (which Royal Trux, of all people, reverently and authoritatively covered; look for it on their box set Singles, Live, Unreleased). Co-written with Ronaldo Bastos, this song finds Milton trading unbelievably expressive vocals with Beto Guedes as the music flares and lopes with balletic grace and soulful buoyancy, like some superhuman strain of tropical pop whose rewards will never cease. I’ve no idea what they’re singing, but the vocalists convey powerful uplift, and that lump in my throat is real. Someone at the usually trustworthy Dusty Groove site noted about Minas that “the backings have a positive, triumphant quality that’s extremely upbeat and bright, yet without sounding commercial at all.” This is accurate. Nascimento and his cohorts gently unleash a new kind of beauty on us here and we should all devote a good chunk of the rest of our lives to luxuriating in it—language barrier be damned. -Buckley Mayfield

Julie Tippetts “Sunset Glow” (Utopia, 1975)

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Sunset Glow came to my attention in the ’90s when underground-rock musician Bob Bannister of Tono Bungay mentioned in some zine that it was his favorite album of all time. That recommendation spurred me to search for the British soul vocalist’s debut LP, which I’ve only been able to find on CD. (Tip: A label could make a nice chunk of change with a vinyl repress of Sunset Glow.)

Previously Tippetts had sung with Brian Auger’s dynamite soul-jazz group the Trinity and had some success with their epic cover of Donovan’s “Season Of The Witch.” (Who didn’t back then?) With Auger, Tippetts—then known as Julie Driscoll; she changed her name when she married prog-rock keyboardist Keith Tippett—belted her numbers with flamboyant bravado and soulful throatiness. She has a voice you remember and savor. Its passion and timbre suggests she lives life to the fullest, and then some. So it’s somewhat of a surprise to dip into the aptly titled Sunset Glow and encounter a suite of seven songs that confront you on much more intimate and poised terms—although if you’re familiar with Driscoll’s superb 1969 album from ’71, the shock’s not quite so strong. In fact, they make wonderful companion pieces in her catalog.

Sunset Glow‘s opening song, “Mind Of A Child,” is a slow-blooming flower of summertime soul balladry that stands up with the best of your Joni Mitchells, Margo Guryans, and Linda Perhacses. You say “YES!” to it within a minute, and revel in its pensive bombast, if you have any damn sensitivity in you at all. “Oceans And Sky (And Questions Why?)” approaches a Linda and Sonny Sharrock-ian level of astral-jazz levitation and chaos. The title track carries a wandering, woebegone air that’s tempered with hints of optimism; one hears similarities here to Tim Buckley at his most oceanically amorphous.

“Lilies” and “What Is Living” find Tippetts in sublime mantric mode, singing in her most dulcet timbre and as if in a trance. You feel as if she and the band are slyly luring you into a slow vortex of sensuality and existentialism. The latter’s lyrics—“What is living—if you can’t live to love?/What is living—if you can’t love to give?/What is living—if you can’t give everything?/What is everything—if it’s not living?”—possess a satisfying circularity and humble wisdom. The final track, “Behind The Eyes (For A Friend, R),” is just Tippetts singing and playing piano in a tender, gorgeous tribute to the recently paralyzed Robert Wyatt. What a classy finale.

Tippetts enlisted a crack band of Canterbury prog musicians to help her realize her special vision, including her husband, various Soft Machine and Centipede members, and South African drummer Louis Moholo. They manifested an apotheosis of artful folk jazz that could almost be viewed as the British version of Tim Buckley’s Lorca. Yeah, it’s that sublime. -Buckley Mayfield

Beaver & Krause “Ragnarök (Electronic Funk)” (Limelight, 1969)

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Back in 1997, I spotted a tattered copy of Ragnarök in a New Orleans used-record shop. The sexuagenarian owner had carefully wrapped the entire cover with clear tape, as it was eroded and moldy with water damage. Intrigued, I asked the proprietor to play the record so I could determine if I wanted to drop the $34 he was asking for it. (At the time, that was a very large amount for me to spend on a used LP.) From the first seconds of the title track, I knew I had to have it, astronomical sum be damned. It sounded like the most sinister and strange dystopian-sci-fi-film theme this side of Gil Mellé’s Andromeda Strain score. Years later, I found a clean copy, but I’ve always kept the original to remind myself of that magical moment in NOLA that turned me on to the peculiar genius of synthesizer maestros Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause.

Before they cut Ragnarök, Beaver & Krause had put together the synth-demonstration box set The Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music. It’s good for a listen or two, and then you put it on your shelf to impress collectors. In 1967, Beaver wilded out on a Moog in the Monkees’ “Star Collector.” And Krause played a key role in helping George Harrison record his 1969 Moog-powered LP Electronic Sound; side two was essentially Krause giving Harrison a synth tutorial, which Krause had no idea would be released and with which he wasn’t pleased. Around the same time, Krause and Beaver cut Ragnarök, their masterpiece—and, maddeningly, their hardest release to obtain. On the back cover, Beatles producer George Martin rhapsodizes about B&K’s Moog prowess: “Among the earliest to realize the potential of the instrument, their knowledge and technique of its use are unsurpassed.” The late studio wizard was on point.

Dropping the needle on Ragnarök, following the spook-out of “Ragnarök,” you get 180º’d by the folky ballad on Moog and 12-string guitar that is “The Fisherman.” It features Krause’s earnest, not-unpleasant vocals that verge on sentimentality and lyrics that derive from an 8th-century poem by Chinese writer Li Po. “Circle X” is an incredibly ominous and anguished piece of imaginary horror-flick musick that could’ve fit in well on David Lynch’s Eraserhead soundtrack. “Dr. Fox”—featuring kooky lyrics by Leonard Lipton, author of “Puff, The Magic Dragon”—is one of the zaniest electro-pop/pseudo-circus-music jams you (n)ever did hear. Heard while tripping on acid, “Dr. Fox” will reduce you to tears of hysterical laughter, especially the part where Krause sings, “Dr. Fox built the freaking brain box that freaks me out/Every time he plugs me in, I spin, I spin, I spin [chuckle], I spin” over bleeping-and-blorping synth spasms.

Similarly, you will not keep a straight face when hearing “Moogy Blues Funk,” an absurdly jaunty old-time ditty that’s gussied up with thickly distorted Moog belches. By contrast, “As I Hear It” boasts such a beautifully wistful melody that you just know it broke the hearts of Boards Of Canada when they (probably) heard it in the early ’90s. “Fountains Of The Dept. Of Water & Power” is a veritable wonderland of Moog-y ostinatos while “33rd Stanza Of A Hymn To Sancho Panza” conjures vertiginous space-synth menace. “Changes” and “Interplay”—which come from a film score called Breakthrough—are alternately stately and whimsical synthesizer studies, with a rare use of drums on the former.

This very odd LP has never been reissued on vinyl or CD. If there’s a good reason for this, music-industry sages, please inform us. Somebody—legitimately or not—needs to bring Ragnarök back into circulation. -Buckley Mayfield

Cat Stevens “Izitso” (A&M, 1977)

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After he became a folk-pop star but before he changed his name to Yusuf Islam and said harsh things about Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie, British singer/songwriter/guitarist Cat Stevens released this odd little LP. It’s best known for the chart-dwelling “(Remember The Days Of The) Old Schoolyard,” a bit of grandiose, schmaltzy synth pop that sounds like Styx crossed with Genesis or something. Most of the rest of Izitso—a keyboard-heavy effort with Chick Corea, the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, and 11 freakin’ engineers on it—is about as insubstantial and forgettable as its title, a mix of mediocre, commercial rock bluster and effete electro pop. Today you can commonly find copies of it in bargain bins nationwide. You’ve probably passed over this one 17,000 times in your life, give or take a thousand. However, I would like to implore you to grab Izitso next time you see it, if only for the ridiculously named instrumental “Was Dog A Doughnut.”

Well before Herbie Hancock’s similar-sounding “Rockit” and even preceding Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express,” “Was Dog A Doughnut” effectively created the electro genre. Listen to the spacey array of synth tones hovering, percolating, and plinking around the stuttering, funky beats and that crazy dog-bark punctuation, which was actually a synthesizer setting and not a real or sampled canine. (Big ups to keyboardist Corea and guitarist Ray Gomez for their invaluable contributions.)
The fool who reviewed Izitso for Rolling Stone said “the electronics on ‘Was Dog A Doughnut’ are a bit too robotlike”—like that’s a bad thing. I wonder what the just right amount of “robotlike”ness would be to this critic. On the plus side, though, Roots drummer Questlove told Christine Kakaire of the redbullmusicacademy.com that Stevens was just fucking around “and created a B-boy classic. What was just him messing around for four minutes in the studio wound up being a staple in the hip hop world,which he was very shocked to discover.” Kakaire went on to note that DJ Jellybean Benitez used to play it out at the New York club the Funhouse in the early ’80s and he cut a remix of “Dog” that also became a club staple. Rave icon Frankie Bones is also a huge fan of Stevens’ most anomalous song.

The track has rightly become a cult classic, and it’s hilarious to think that an urban, club-oriented genre like electro emerged, willy-nilly, from the same brain as the troubadour who penned frilly folk-pop hits like “Lady D’Arbanville,” “Morning Has Broken,” and “Oh Very Young.” This qualifies as one of the music world’s greatest WTF? turn of events. Get thee to a bargain bin, posthaste. -Buckley Mayfield