Album Reviews

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

James Brown “Live At The Apollo Vol. II” (King Records, 1968)

3775411By the time this double album hit shops, people were pretty well aware of James Brown the entertainer. But this live album reveals the emergence of James Brown the innovator; his tight work ethic wrung his Famous Flames into one smooth-running combustive engine capable not only of groove but also of vibe.

James Brown and his Famous Flames run through some pretty standard r&b and soul fare on side one with versions of “Think” and “That’s Life” which only hints at what’s to come with chicken scratching guitar lines and Brown’s lockstep vocal commands. Too many changes run the gamut in these numbers to really give the groove for which Brown would become known for with the Flames and later, his J.B.s backing band.

Side two is where the funk becomes prevalent and shows the future course Brown and Co. would be taking. A medley takes up most of this side comprising tracks “Let Yourself Go” “There Was a Time” and “I Feel All Right,” which is presented as one seamless, repetitive groove-maker feeding off of audience participation. Meanwhile, the Famous Flames act as one autonomous unit set to Brown’s strict preferences throughout these performances. Classic cut “Cold Sweat” comes in on command from their funky fuehrer and closes out side two.

The funk continues on side three, but not quite in the same lose-yourself-to-dance futurist vein as the previous side. Classic “I Got You (I Feel Good)” arrives in an incredibly abbreviated 30 second form and opens into the splendid and eventually entrancing “Prisoner of Love.” Side four closes with old familiar numbers leading up to the finale of “Please, Please, Please…”

James Brown really was one of the hardest working and most forward-looking men in show business, and also one of the hardest taskmasters, as evidenced by the near-peerless playing you’ll hear from this document. -Wade

UFO “UFO 2: Flying” (Beacon Records, 1971)

UFO_2-_FlyingTaking a break from all your Free Jazz and Krautrock to dig up some old cheap Hard Rock can often be rewarding. Especially when you pick up an album like UFO’s “Flying”, because the term Hard Rock can be a bit misleading when it comes to finding mind-bending material like this.

The ground these guys cover is just amazing, and that’s not a pun on just how spacey their brand of rock can be. What starts off as a straightforward assault on “Silver Bird” later gives to the nearly twenty minute “Star Storm”, which features some flexible rocking that will make you think Thirteenth Floor Elevators one moment, Ash Ra Temple the next and at one point even Land of 1000 Dances! UFO also used the studio as an instrument to create some serious panning, which makes this record ready for a nice stereo or a good pair of headphones.

If side one doesn’t make you consider that these Brits did just as well as their more hep Avant counterparts in Germany just yet, then keep going. Muted guitar plucks anticipate a proto-punk rhythm section that absolutely sears once they fall in on “Prince Kajuku” and then it’s time to flip to side two.

Strangely, side two starts with “The Coming of Prince Kajuku” which seems a bit backwards, but the rocking here is solid and it’s probably the most direct track on the album… To counterpoint that, you reach the crown jewel of this LP, “Flying”. The track is one long space-blues downer that goes hard and seems set on staying that way… until you hear the cowbell. Studio use with panning is once again prevalent, as well as delay and reverb, but it never handicaps the tune. Quite the opposite. The production throughout this whole record is great as a matter of fact, from the warm full bass tone and crisp cymbals to the often desired incendiary guitar sound that avoids cheese.

Early UFO albums could fall somewhere between Hawkwind and Iron Butterfly, but “Flying” in particular punches in a lot of styles that will definitely surprise. -Wade

Hella “Hold Your Horse Is” (5 Rue Christine, 2002)

a2970431076_10Modern Rock’s possible reality as natural progression post-Hip Hop/Drum and Bass? A product of over-saturated media youth?

Hella fall short of being a traditional rock group by only having two members, but tradition isn’t a relevant factor when the stuff these guys push feels so immediate. Debut album “Hold Your Horse Is” would be as good a place as any to start with their brand of hyper-fast prog rush. An electronic doodle kicks off the album that brings to mind 90′s gaming console sound chips, before the live element crashes through with “Biblical Violence” and from that point never lets up.

To produce the sort of manic nowness of your active day, Hella’s self taught drummer Zach Hill actually uses (in a relative sense) slow punctuated beats… but fills the space between by hitting the skins and cymbals as fast as superhumanly possible, creating a striking sound that’s not start/stop but rather start/gogogogogogo/start et al. While Hill flogs his kit, guitarist Spencer Seim plays spastic melodies, creates strange drones and chips away at you with repetition. And whenever necessary, they make neck-breaking changes. It happens a lot.

As crazed as all this may sound, the overall tone here is not violent or oppressive but rather triumphant, it can be used sonic pick-me-up; like chugging a pot of coffee to get through a heavily scheduled day. Does that help you? “Hold Your Horse Is” is about as focused and concise as their albums get and a solid debut… After this, the duo felt free enough to experiment in more electronic territory and at one point expanded their roster.

This album is near-live instrumental music synced to modern times, man made jams informed by all sorts of media blitzkriegs, and a document that is as good a tool to your life as amphetamine might be, if that’s your drug of choice. -Wade

Scritti Politti “Early” (Rough Trade, 2004)

51WGS4T6D0LBefore becoming an equally interesting pop group, Scritti Politti were actually a band brought up like Amon Duul… As a commune collective. But the performing three-piece core were more than a political message in a musical vehicle; they had one of the tightest rhythm sections of the post-punk vanguard in their native UK.

This collection of singles on “Early” begins with Scritti finding their footing on rigid tracks like “Skank Bloc Bologna” and “Messthetics” which utilize odd rhythms that are very un-rock like. It’s hard to really grasp what their sound is, but the production here makes everything seem dank and bass lines are always high in the mix, bubbling to the surface next to itchy guitar lines, drums and chimes.

But the real gems in this collection are from their single “4 A-Sides” which kicks off the second vinyl of this double LP. Not quite rock, punk or pop, disparate styles are fashioned together in such a way that seems so natural, you may miss all the great lyrics vocalist/guitarist Green Gartside brings to the mix. Part of Scritti’s appeal is that vocals accompany the music here and not the other way around; listen closely and Green’s ideas of breaking down language blends perfectly with their sharp and wound up style.

And closing out, you get to hear the beginnings of their second stage as a sort of soul group infused with socialist theory and even more interesting linguistic axioms… Smooth, smooth music for language nerds. “Early” is a great assemblage of instrumental workouts and word play like very little else! -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

 

The Pop Group “Y” (1979, Radar Records)

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After the punk fallout of the late 70′s in the UK, many groups that didn’t go the route of repetition instead went down more interesting avenues, leaving the “rock” part of punk behind to amass dub, free jazz or funk and disco stylings into their rep. Most acts didn’t try as hard as The Pop Group.

Their first album “Y” is a stew of ideas that may not sit well for everyone, but is definitely worth investigating if you have a tough pair of ears. Early on you get the track “Thief of Fire”  which is actually about as conventional as this adventure gets, and it’s pretty kooky. Almost jangly, almost disco-esque guitar glistens against rough and tough funk basslines and metronomic beats. Until the track turns itself inside out with feedback, tribal drums and atonal sax… All the while vocalist Mark Stewart (who stands about seven feet tall) yelps and screams as anarcho-politico. For how much everything seems to fall apart, the Group remain in control and bring it all home.

Other tracks with tight playing include “Snowgirl,” side one closer “We Are Time” and “The Boys From Brazil” on the flip… All this angular playing may bring up thoughts of Beefheart’s Magic Band with more ill will. Most of their other audio adventures are woven together through free playing, sound collage, and dub editing. The almost pretty “Savage Sea” rests just below unsettling, nearly ambient, while closing cut “Don’t Sell Your Dreams” hardly abrades, ending with a plea and sparse arrangements.

Impressive as both a live and studio act, The Pop Group still manages to amaze after more than thirty years, and their recent reformation cues renewed interest in this disc. Fans of early genre bending music by the likes of PiL, The Minutemen, The Fall or The Birthday Party should take note. -Wade

 

Fun Boy Three “Waiting” (Chrysalis, 1983)

Fun_Boy_Three_Waiting Springing out of the black and white world of The Specials, Fun Boy Three arrived in the early 80′s alongside shiny 2.0 versions of Scritti Politti, The Associates and The Human League.

These groups former years were experimental and dour, but their later careers showed a shared ambition of breaking into pop charts while retaining an experimental and subversive edge. Being on the UK’s Top of the Pops was suddenly more important to the underground than ever, whether it was under personal or political motivation, and it would be a battlefield.

With Fun Boy Three’s “Waiting,” their second-wave Ska roots take a backseat to showcase the studio mastery of David Byrne who at that time was on top of the world after “Remain In Light”-era Talking Heads and work with the B-52s. The Fun Boy Three are accompanied by horns and strings to give them a sophisticated sheen that never clashes with Byrne’s love and use of African instrumentation, and the Boys’s bring their political sloganeering and working class statements to the mix.

The big hit on this disc? What might be seen as a cover of the Go-Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed” was actually collaboratively written by Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin and Fun Boy Three’s singer Terry Hall, but the Go-Go’s had put out their version first. In any case, it was a hit heard around the world, especially across the Atlantic and back again. They had their shining moment as chart-infiltrators during an incredibly interesting time in UK pop music. -Wade

The Germs “G.I.” (1979)

album_GERMS-GIBring up L.A. Punk to folks without a map or a schematic showing what scene-did-what, and they are likely to tune out. Plenty of great groups came from L.A. but there is a certain point when and where an element of sameness set in after the initial waves of Hardcore, when the rot took hold cross-country and suddenly the genre niche could really bum people out with predictability.

So to clue you in, The Germs were around during the Punk heyday and grew around a suddenly fertile Hollywood scene. While the Hardcore-era film “The Decline of Western Civilization” shows them being monstrous alongside footage of Huntington and Hermosa Beach surf-jock (-jerk) bands, and their equally monstrous fans, the Hollywood area had a particularly dirty n’ glammy, ambiguously sexual thing going on that was just about as exciting as how different a lot of these Hollywood groups sounded (Bags, Screamers, Vox Pop).

Germs recordings past their Slash single and some bootlegs were scarce, and once “G.I.” hit it showed that during their relatively short life, The Germs had grown into an impressive instrumental unit. Once you get past (accept, appreciate) Darby Crash’s inability to annunciate vocals, you can hear that Pat Smear really had guitar chops and that Lorna Doom was a great bass player. Witness “Land of Treason” or “Strange Notes” to see how versatile these kids can be at such breakneck speeds set by drummer Don Bolles, who still leaves room to breathe in his playing despite such velocity / ferocity.

But then if you do bother to bring up lyrics, Darby does bring food for thought on just about every track once you decipher what he’s mush-mouthing about. And hey, how many dime-a-dozen Hardcore bands could come up with “Manimal” or the nearly ten minute “Shut Down (Annihilation Man)?” -Wade

The Grateful Dead “Anthem of the Sun” (1968, Warner Brothers)

Grateful_Dead_-_Anthem_of_the_Sun My uncle was a Deadhead and his home was filled with iconic Dead-stickers set up like markers or beacons around the house. The Dead was on his garage stereo while he worked on his truck, played right alongside Hank Williams Sr. I visited often growing up and so their sound just became part of my make-up.

“Anthem of the Sun” really grabbed me in a way that the Dead never had reached me before, once I gave the album even slight attention. Apparently this record combines live and studio material but I could hardly tell during my first listen. Changes happen often but are usually slight and subtle, until they aren’t, anyway… “That’s it for the Other One” is a perfect example of this, a piece that morphs often but in a way that seems so natural that you can tell all players involved had reached a well composed and relaxed state with each other. “New Potato Caboose” is more of a happy, plodding affair, and if you haven’t noticed yet, two drummers have been banging away since about midway through their first track. That pre-dates Gary Glitter and Swans right?

The real jaw-dropping material comes on the flip side though, with tracks “Alligator” and “Caution (Do Not Stop On The Tracks).” Kazoos and organ sounds open up among churning rhythms going down-river. Drummers studying this record better know that they are hearing two men behind the sticks once the tribal sounds come in. Garcia guitar finally breaks through it all and defines itself until Bob Weir and Phil Lesh come in to fill “Alligator” out. And as far as “Caution” goes, it’s feedback and odd drumming unconcerned with the past or future, going nowhere, yet transcending…

Uh, maintain! -Wade

Grand Funk “Live Album” (1970, Capitol Records)

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The Grand Funk Railroad song that really caught my attention was their cover of The Animals’ “Inside Looking Out.” The interplay between this power-trio that I caught in a live video showed that this was a hard rock band with their shit together; while the group takes you on a journey, there are no pastoral meanderings. The drums brought on by ex-Question Mark and the Mysterians member Don Brewer keep time in a heavy manner and make themselves heard alongside a fat and heavy bass sound distinct only to Mel Schacher, while Mark Farner’s guitar scratches out a practical noise that at that point was already becoming a form distanced from the blues of which it had derived.

That video has since got plenty of repeat viewings. It also led me to their “Live Album” before checking out their debut or any other output, and I’m glad thats how I went about it. Grand Funk’s first three albums, which are fine, have the majority of the cuts you’ll hear on “Live,” but those albums have a democratic mixing that I find never really captured what made them stadium-toppling performers.

The “Live” album on the other hand doesn’t hold back. Here, the drums punch, the bass is REALLY high up there, and Mark’s guitar has more of that practical noise I was talking about, and it’s put to great use. The track “Paranoid” has one of the best bass-lines to ever reach these ears in a rock context, and the guitar here just rips all over it in a way their studio re-creation just couldn’t allow. It’s a rocker! On the flip side (still disc one of this double LP), the Animals’ cover makes its appearance, and it’s long, thirteen minutes or so, but it never lets up or comes across as self indulgent. I actually prefer the nine minute or so live video that turned me on to them in the first place, it’s a bit more compact just because it lacks the repetition of this version, but since you can hear the ecstatic cheers from the audience during this exercise, it comes across as, well, grand.

On side three, after the ballad of “Mean Mistreater,” the drums get a real showcase, heading off the great track “Mark Say’s Alright” and getting a very long solo session workout on “T.N.U.C.” Things are looking pretty self indulgent on this side, but once again it’s the audience reaction that saves them during these extended live renditions (not jams).

Side four is taken up completely by the triumphant “Into The Sun.” Can you make it this far? In our YouTube/Blogger/Spotify addled universe you probably can’t realistically sit through a live double LP in one sitting and give it the proper attention you believe it might deserve, but the audience here seems like they didn’t mind standing in whatever stadium this was recorded in (it’s under dispute as to where exactly this recording came from, despite what it says on the back cover) for more than an hour of pretty solid rockin’. So they did all the work for you!

The best part about coming across a Grand Funk “Live” album is that while they were one of the largest bands of the Seventies, hardly anyone needs to go spelunking for this hard rock stuff anymore on vinyl, so you can find it pretty cheap! Also, in the space between songs, Mark Farner says some pretty funny stuff. So save that cash, brothers and sisters, avoid the latest obscure world music reissue and pick this puppy up! -Wade

 

 

Hawkwind “Hall of the Mountain Grill” (1974, United Artists)

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In rock music there are roots, but when space is the place you have to evolve. By the time Hawkwind had reached this here fourth album, their lineup and equipment had gone through the changes necessary for interstellar travel.

“Hall of the Mountain Grill” follows the live album “Space Ritual,” and it’s around the time between that Hawkwind are usually considered to be at their prime. Essentially creators of the psychedelic niche known as space rock, these guys put together not-so-ambient pieces that do indeed appear as vast as space and placed them alongside some well-grounded-but-mind-bending rockers. Guitars drive forward in choppy rhythms and turn into sheets of plane engine rumble a few innovative steps post-Dick Dale (out with distortion, set phaser pedals from stun to kill).

Openers “The Psychedelic Warlords” and “Winds of Change” let you know that Hawkwind are all about having one boot grounded on Earth and another among the stars. They aren’t afraid to rock in a way that sounds recognizable, then leave you in a fog. On the flip side of this album you get similar treatment with “You’d Better Believe It” and title track “Hall of the Mountain Grill.” One of the best tracks “Lost Johnny” gives bass player Lemmy (of later Motörhead fame) some vocal duties and the magnificent closer “Paradox” eschews strings for future-forward synthesizers.

Vocals aren’t quite buried, but rather accompany the rock. Looking up the opening track lyrics show that Hawkwind were all about escaping from their environs, relating to their audience of the day whilst giving an awesome instrumental high. And we can still use that right about now!

Space is a big place. This is a great album to start exploring it with. -Wade