Folk

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… Read more›

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 … Read more›

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 … Read more›

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 … Read more›

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 … Read more›

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 … Read more›

Relatively Clean Rivers “Relatively Clean Rivers (Phoenix repress; orig. rel. 1975/1976)

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There’s an original copy of Relatively Clean Rivers’ first and only LP on the wall at a Portland record store that’ll cost you $800 (not a typo). It’s been sitting there for at least four or five years… although after this review goes live, probably for not much longer. Why the absurdly high price? I mean, Relatively Clean Rivers is a great record, but is it $800 great? Is any record worth that much? Maybe I’m not the best person to ask, as the most I’ve paid for a single album is $60. But enough about record-collector economics…

The brainchild of Orange County guitarist/vocalist/bassist Phil Pearlman (he also plays flute, “sahz,” harmonica, and synthesizer and is responsible for those crucial psych-rock opuses by Electronic Hole and Beat Of The Earth; his son was also a member of Al Qaeda, but don’t let that distract you from the sonic beauty at hand), Relatively Clean Rivers is a perfect combination of the Grateful Dead at their most concise and mellowest and Popol Vuh at their most accessible, e.g., Letzte Tage – Letzte Nächt. And if you love the Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” it’s pretty certain you’ll dig Relatively Clean Rivers.

This music sounds like the archetypal output of stoned-to-the-bone American hippies in the summer of 1969: bathed in a golden glow of gentle acoustic and electric guitar ramble and choogle, bursting with yearning melodies that twang your heart strings with utmost delicacy, and topped with Pearlman’s peace-mongering lyrics (“Hoping we an all get together, the Arabs and the Jews/And melt down weapons into water sprinklers”) and just-soulful-enough, Garcia-soft vocals. Every song’s a blessed wallow in laid-back melodiousness, with just enough rhythmic oomph to get your hips swaying and your upper lip sweating. Front to back, RCR keeps your manageable high at a sensible hum. It sounds best at sundown by the water with your tightest homies (especially “Hello Sunshine”), but these songs can elevate your mood wherever and whenever you happen to be.

In actuality, Relatively Clean Rivers is so great, I can’t fully trust anyone who doesn’t love it like Donald Trump loves attention. But I still wouldn’t pay 800 freakin’ US dollars for it. So thank you, Phoenix Records, for the reasonably priced reissue. -Buckley MayfieldRead more›

The Byrds “Mr. Tambourine Man” (Columbia, 1965)

MI0000506004The debut album by The Byrds charged forward with that jangly guitar sound, tambourines (of course) and woven harmonies that would become the template for many a folk or heartland rock band. Guitars are intricate with vocals complexly joined, bringing roots to rock format without substantial loss of the prior form.

Whether folkies see their rock and folk union as a watering down of tradition is another matter; as a rock exploration it opened doors. Their work of co-opting Dylan songs may have even helped lead Dylan to pick up an electric guitar, to most of his fans chagrin. But that’s just theorizing, since the only real connection is that this album and his infamous amplified set share the same year in history.

The album itself is in fine stereo presentation, and it sounds pretty close to a document as you’ll get from them before psychedelics and acid rock lead to more adventurous work in a studio vein. You can almost hear it coming in retrospect but with this album you have the best performance culminations of the Beatles and Dylan, with care given to the humble forms they lift up into rock celebrity. -Wade… Read more›

The Fugs “Virgin Fugs” (ESP Disc, 1967)

220px-Virgin_FugsGross, confusing, sexy and a good laugh, “Virgin Fugs” comprises outtakes from previous Fugs albums and has a number of new songs to deliver their messages of vulgarity.

They are from the East Side, they hate the war, they love sex, and next thing you know they are awake all night on amphetamines making a racket. Any music produced is square one primitive stuff; maracas and tambourines shake, guitars chug and anything that can act as rhythmic engine is used for brothers Kupferburg and friends to push their righteous smut.

As famous as The Fugs are, they may be most well known for having C.I.A. Man covered by the even more popular Sun City Girls. You may remember that charting hit when you were a kid, you know, the one about how the C.I.A. operates:

“Who has got the secret-est service? The one that makes the other service nervous?
Fucking-a man! (Fucking-A! C-I-A!)”

Released by ESP early on, these guys are the best parts, comedically anyway, of hippiedom around them and punk rockers ahead. But mostly they are just The Fugs. -Wade… Read more›

Bert Jansch “Rosemary Lane” (1971)

I don’t understand why this record is so overlooked. Perhaps it’s because at the time of its release, when every other 1960s folkie was busy going electric in the wake of Liege and Lief, Bert — ever the nonconformist — chose to go the other direction. This is nearly all-acoustic, and it might be his most gentle and heartbreakingly sad record ever. There’s a dreamy, hazy vibe to much of the music — one of the tracks is even titled “A Dream, A Dream, A Dream” — that creates a timeless feel; by which I mean not that the music hasn’t dated (although it hasn’t), but that it actually seems to stop time. I don’t think Jansch ever topped his vocal on “Tell Me What is True Love”, and it goes without saying that his guitar playing is superb. Seek it out. Fun Fact: Psych-folk supergroup Espers did the title track on their covers album The Weed Tree. –BradRead more›

Lindisfarne “Fog On the Tyne” (1971)

This album came along in the States at a time when groups like Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention, Strawbs, Nick Drake and a bunch of others were plying the waters of Celtic folk rock. But Alan Hull & Company were different; these guys were as ragged as Fairport in their loosest moments — but they could be as polished and sharp as the Strawbs in their best moments. These guys were tight, multi-instrumentalists that played in the best of the tradition of English folk bands of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Steeleye Span, Jethro Tull and Gryphon were also contemporaries of Lindisfarne and had nothing on these guys. If you like any of the bands mentioned here and you’ve never added any Lindisfarne to your collection, you are missing a real treat here. Fog On the Tyne is Lindisfarne’s best effort overall (though many of their albums are very good) and their combination of rich, instrumental passages is backed by thick and bawdy harmonies in a very British and rollicking sensibility. The band’s guitar, mandolin and a seeming hundred other stringed instrument attack — along with a great rythym section on the bass and drums — gives them a sound that holds up well even today, thirty years later. Sadly, I heard somewhere that Alan Hull passed away recently, so there will be no nostalgia tours or “here we are again” releases from Lindisfarne. Get this one. It’s simply great. —R. LindeboomRead more›

Incredible String Band “The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion” (1967)

The second ISB album, regarded by many as a peak moment in the evolution of the British psychedelic underground. Following the release of the band’s trio debut in the summer of 1966, Clive Palmer had split for Afghanistan, Robin Williamson had taken his girlfriend, Licorice McKechnie, to Morocco for an open-ended stay, and Mike Heron had opted to stay in Edinburgh. Heron returned to playing rock music, but in late 1966, Williamson came back from Marrakesh, bearing a wealth of strange North African musical instruments, and an equal number of compositional ideas.

Before long, the two had reformed the ISB as a duo, and they soon began woodshedding in a rural Scottish cottage. Joe Boyd, who had produced the first LP, had started a new club in London called the UFO, in partnership with John “Hoppy” Hopkins (the founder of The International Times). Boyd felt the scene was boiling over and was convinced the ISB had their part to play. He visited the pair, suggesting he become their manager and that they record a second album. The sessions for The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion happened at John Wood’s London studio in late spring 1967, and featured the lovely bass work of Danny Thompson (who had joined Pentangle two months earlier), the vocals of Licorice, and guest spots for “Hoppy”’s piano and Nazir Jairazbhoy’s sitar.

The album was released to great fanfare in July, 1967, just as the ISB was returning from an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. With its uber-psych cover art by Dutch design firm The Fool (then being envied for their work with The Beatles), and classic songs (traditional folk, swathed in kaftans, incense and finger cymbals), 5000 Layers was truly a record for its time. Hailed by everyone from John Peel to Paul McCartney, the album went to Number One on the UK folk charts, and was an omnipresent accessory in every student garret. Four-plus decades on, it remains one of the all-time readymade classics of the ‘60s. —Forced ExposureRead more›