Album Reviews

Moebius & Plank “Rastakraut Pasta” (Sky, 1980)

The late Dieter Moebius could do no wrong. A crucial member of Cluster, Harmonia, and Liliental, and a collaborator with Brian Eno, Max Beerbohm, Mani Neumeier, Asmus Tietchnes, Red Krayola’s Mayo Thompson, and many other mavericks, Moebius always brought a peculiar tonal vocabulary to any studio situation He never stopped trying new things and maintained high quality control to the very end of this life—a true rarity.

One of his key conspirators was the renowned krautrock producer/engineer Conny Plank. Along with Guru Guru drummer Neumeier, both German geniuses recorded the mind-boggling Zero Set, which was way ahead of its time (and which I hope to review eventually). In the meantime, let’s examine Moebius and Plank’s first full-length, Rastakraut Pasta, which thankfully isn’t quite as goofy as its title.

Moebius met Plank when the latter served as engineer for Cluster 1971. They hit it off and meshed their peculiar sensibilities on Rastakraut, which reveals the more whimsical side of the two musicians’ talents. (CAN’s Holger Czukay plays bass on three tracks here.) The LP title reveals the underlying sonic theme: a bizarre melding of Jamaican and Teutonic musical elements. “News,” the title track, and “Miss Cacadou” dabble with drunken dub and reggae structures, their woozy skank always threatening to capsize into a Caribbean Sea filled with molasses rather than water.

On “Two Oldtimers,” which features Czukay, Dieter and Conny finesse a lollygagging electro-pop that’s as dreamy as these sagacious Germans ever got—until it unexpectedly turns all solemnly neo-classical. “Solar Plexus” is the album’s strangest piece; it seemingly consists of a tuning fork and synth murmurs Doppler effected into a weird splaying of tones and warped mumbles. The main motivation behind it appears to be to fuck with your reality while you’re tripping. Face it: We all could use some tracks like this in our lives.

The album’s anomaly and peak occurs on “Feedback 66” (which also includes Czukay). This is surf-rock submerged in tar, its rhythm seemingly clipped from that monotonously funky kickdrum from Sly & The Family Stone’s “Dance To The Music,” and then slowed way down. Again, it’s produced to mess with your mind in an insidious manner, which is why I love to drop it in DJ sets. “Feedback 66” is one of Moebius and Plank’s greatest achievements of their storied careers—and it’s worth the price of admission alone.

Praise Jah that that price of admission won’t be exorbitant, as the excellent Bureau B label reissued Rastakraut Pasta on vinyl in 2010 and again in 2017. -Buckley Mayfield

This Heat “Health And Efficiency” (Piano, 1980)

Slotting between the twin towers of This Heat’s 1979 self-titled debut LP and 1981’s Deceit, Health And Efficiency is no mere stop-gap release. Rather, it’s a peculiar peak in this short-lived yet crucial experimental/post-punk group’s discography.

Health And Efficiency” itself is simply one of the greatest songs ever, an art-rock tune so grand and uplifting, it deludes us into thinking that humanity is going to continue to evolve into a peaceful, super-intelligent species that values equality and yes, health, over all else. Seriously, its melody and ecstatic vocal arrangements are that powerful. Then, two minutes in, This Heat say, “Fuck it, y’all don’t deserve this much euphoria,” as they slam into one of the nastiest (lock) grooves to which you’ve ever had the good fortune to lose your mind and spastically jack your body. It’s a real bucking mechanical bull of a rhythm, cantilevered to the max and laced with an array of rolling bottles, children’s screams, and enough noisy distortion to start a wildfire in your brain. The freakout near the end will tear your ever-loving head off and punt it into the sun (the star to which “Health And Efficiency” is dedicated).

Health And Efficiency” is a definitive example of what radical explosions can be realized with (mostly) typical rock instruments when the musicians disregard orthodoxy. In the liner notes to the most recent reissue, This Heat drummer Charles Hayward says that the track was “improvised pretty much fully-formed, an 8 minute stretch.” He notes that Charles Bullen plays an electric/upright piano that the Rock In Opposition band Henry Cow left at the Cold Storage Studio through some distortion pedals. Now you know.

On “Graphic/Varispeed,” This Heat revamp “24 Track Loop” from the self-titled 1979 debut album into a supremely resonant, ASMR-inducing drone that the band manipulates ever-so-subtly, so it changes pitch and intensity in minuscule gradations. An early example of remixing and sonic deconstruction, “Graphic/Varispeed” puts a particularly industrial, northern English spin on ambient/drone music.

Originally released on Flying Lizards/General Strike member David Cunningham’s Piano label, Health And Efficiency received a deluxe reissue in 2016 via Light In The Attic subsidiary Modern Classics, with liner notes by Mr. Hayward, thereby earning the eternal gratitude of all right-thinking music fans. -Buckley Mayfield

Taj Mahal Travellers “August 1974” (Columbia Japan, 1975)


When talk turns to ultimate space-out albums, as it inevitably must if you’re living life to the fullest, you have to include this sprawling double album by Japan’s Taj Mahal Travellers in the conversation. Recorded live almost 44 years ago, the four sidelong tracks on August 1974 will test most people’s patience, as the album’s 88 minutes dilate time and alter space with no conventional vocals, beats, bass, or even structure, really. Instead, violinist Takehisa Kosugi and his stoic ensemble improvise drones that meander through the cosmos in a state of rigorous wonder. These Travellers sacralize your mind with an array of string instruments, mystical chants, bell-tree shakes, and Doppler-effected electronics that are as disorienting as they are transcendent.

The variations that occur in each of August 1974‘s four untitled tracks are subtle. The pieces toggle between tranquility and chaos with gradual and unpredictable shifts in intensity. The second one for, example, features what seems like some unidentifiable beast’s growl synthesized into an unsettling lament while a mandolin fibrillates with emergency-room adrenaline, before things slide into a bleak vista of woebegone moans, metallic percussion, sporadic timpani hits, and bizarre, electronically treated vocals. The organic and the synthetic elements blend indistinguishably—probably because everything seems as if it’s running through processors that leave an otherworldly sheen on all the elements.

The final cut is an amazing agglomeration of ominous synth pulsations, strafing electric-violin motifs, and a menagerie of strange percussive timbres. It’s here where August 1974 achieves its psychedelic zenith. If you suffer from ADHD and can only handle about a third of an hour of music at a time, go straight for track 4, which packs the most excitement per minute.

Let’s be clear about Taj Mahal Travellers: They’re not for everybody; this may be the biggest understatement I’ve ever made. They may only be for a few thousand people in the entire world. (The YouTube video of August 1974 stands at 1,501 views as I type.) Nevertheless, the impact that their enigmatic sonic streams of consciousness have made on those folks who do get it is profound. And under the right circumstances—out in nature, in a darkened room while under the influence of your favorite hallucinogen, in a vehicle moving through a mountain range, etc.—this record will put your mind through some uniquely rewarding contortions.

(Good news: Belgium’s Aguirre Records reissued August 1974 on vinyl in 2018.) -Buckley Mayfield

Larry Young’s Fuel “Larry Young’s Fuel” (Arista, 1975)

By 1975, jazz keyboardist Larry Young was straying far from his modal, Coltrane-esque dates for Blue Note, his contributions to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, and his fiery fusion experiments with Tony Williams Lifetime and Love Cry Want—and even his 1973 oddity, Lawrence Of Newark [a review of which you can find on this blog]. Signing to a major label like Arista may have had something to do with this change in direction, as it represents some of Young’s most accessible work. Yet for all its leanings toward R&B libidinousness and funk decadence, Larry Young’s Fuel remains an interesting and very DJ-friendly anomaly in the avant-gardist’s catalog.

“Fuel For The Fire” immediately lets you know that though the songwriting’s more overtly commercial, Young is still going to fire off some bizarre flourishes on his Moog, Hammond, and Rhodes. The funk here is complex, with bassist Fernando Saunders (Lou Reed, John McLaughlin, Jeff Beck, etc.) and drummer Rob Gottfried engaging in twitchy interplay that’s as groovily coiled and coked up as anything on Miles’ On The Corner. Laura “Tequila” Logan’s scat vocals aren’t as off-the-wall as Linda Sharrock’s or Urszula Dudziak’s, but they’re still odd for a funk/R&B context. “I Ching (Book Of Changes)” sounds like ELP going off on a torrid funk bender, with Young channeling Keith Emerson’s manic, rococo filigrees. “Turn Off The Lights” could easily be a Betty Davis sex-scene-setter thanks to Logan’s lusty vocal pyrotechnics and a bass line that’s rated XXX. Young gets off some amazing Moog ejaculations, to boot. An exciting side one, to be sure.

Side two begins with the instant dance-floor-filler/mood-elevator, “Floating.” The lithe buoyancy of Saunders’ bass and Gottfried’s hi-hat-enhanced 4/4s coupled with Young’s radiant Hammond whorls gives the track an almost cosmic-disco atmospheric strut. “H+J=B (Hustle+Jam=Bread)” is another proggy funk workout in which Saunders and Young appear to be dueling each other to see who can most peel off the most outré notes and chords (Young wins). The hyperkinetic, intricate “New York Electric Street Music” replicates the furious bump and grind of On The Corner (that record again), with Santiago Torano’s guitar finally breaking through Young’s extravagant solos to snarl and wail with authority. The only thing keeping this track from classic status is Young’s goofy vocalizing about the the titular city and ad libs like “Humor is better than a tumor” and “Charisma is better than a caramba.” Oy.

Oh, well, that’s a rare misstep on an album that will surely rankle Young’s more purist jazz fans, but should please those open to a world-class musician trying to weird up a mid-’70s mainstream genre on a big corporation’s dime. -Buckley Mayfield

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles “Make It Happen” (Tamla, 1967)

There’s something slightly quaint about even the greatest Tamla/Motown releases from 1967 and earlier, as heard with 21st-century ears. The psychedelic movement hadn’t yet hit Berry Gordy’s radar in a meaningful way, and funk had yet to gather serious momentum, so the legendary label was still pushing the straightforward, orchestral-soul formula that had made it world-famous and widely loved. Even a sophisticated composer and sublime vocalist like Smokey Robinson seems a bit trad more than 50 years on from the release date of this solid LP, Make It Happen. But there is one tune on this record that eludes the era’s trappings and represents a pinnacle of songwriting that transcends all. More about that later.

Loaded with endearing, romantic ballads (five songs have the word “Love” in the title, the best of them being swoon-inducing yet heartbreaking “The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage”—“sweetness was only heartache’s camouflage/the love I saw in you was just a mirage”), Make It Happen showcases Smokey’s gorgeous, honeyed vocals—perhaps the epitome of androgynous R&B expressiveness. And then there are the Northern soul dancers like “My Love Is Your Love (Forever),” “You Must Be Love,” “Dancing’s Alright,” and “The Soulful Shack,” all of which glide with that patented Motown effortless grace, putting a ridiculously sprightly spring in your step.

But as lovely as all those songs are, they cannot compare to “The Tears Of A Clown.” Hundreds of listens to it have convinced me that it is perhaps the greatest song ever written. I know, huge claim. But I’m utterly serious. With music by Stevie Wonder and Hank Cosby and words by Mr. Robinson, “Tears” has been riveting me ever since I heard it on the radio when I was 8. We often blithely say certain things “never get old,” but I can assert with every fiber of my being that this is the case with “Tears.”

Lofted skyward by that helium-powered, circus-friendly calliope motif, “Tears” is the ultimate ebullient music/sad lyrics song (take that, Morrissey/Marr). The pell-mell rhythmic propulsion, that one flat tuba chord, spine-tingling keyboards, and the champagne-supernova backing vocals seem to assure you that everything’s groovy to the max, but Smokey’s genius words paint a picture that’s 180º opposed to the sonic levity. Every verse is a masterpiece that reinforces the theme of the singer not letting “glad expression” give you “the wrong impression.” I look forward to another 5,000 listens.

(In 1970, Tamla reissued Make It Happen under the title The Tears Of A Clown to capitalize on the title track’s stunning radio success. Somehow, those savvy marketing cats at one of history’s most lucrative record companies didn’t think “Tears Of A Clown” had hit potential upon its initial release. We should never stop shaking our damn heads over this music-biz fail.) -Buckley Mayfield

Rotary Connection “Aladdin” (Cadet Concept, 1968)

Sprawling multiracial/multi-gendered Chicago-based ensemble Rotary Connection were the Sly & The Family Stone of the Midwest. Over the course of six albums from 1967 to 1971, Rotary Connection achieved a zenith-y fusion of loose, hippie-rock dynamics and orchestral-soul flamboyance—as well as a knack for bizarre, enchanting reconfigurations of other artists’ songs. Arranged by the studio genius Charles Stepney, this music should’ve been topping charts and entering critical canons and selling out arenas. But, alas, heads weren’t quite ready. And while some 21st-century sticks in the mud might grumble about Rotary Connection sounding “dated,” I would counter that observation with “What a time stamp for a band to carry for eternity!”

Rotary Connection’s second album, Aladdin more effectively flaunts the group’s songwriting chops than does their cover-heavy 1967 debut full-length—which, I hasten to add, is fantastic in its own way, too. “Life Could” sets the tone with a flourish; it’s like if Blood, Sweat & Tears had more finesse, more soul, and better vocalists. Rotary Connection’s not-so-secret weapon, Minnie Riperton, establishes her dominance right away, her solar-powered range and emotional depth propelling the song to heights most rock groups cannot dream of reaching. “Life Could” is a paragon of horn-rock bombast and grandstanding psychedelic soul. Holy shit, what an opening salvo… And it’s followed by the aptly soaring “Teach Me How To Fly,” a tune nearly hysterical with hope and inspirational brio. Two tracks in, and the listener may already be overwhelmed.

“Let Them Talk” downshifts the tempo a bit, as its intro of Lothar And The Hand People-like quirkiness blossoms into a rambling slice of Free Design-esque sunshine pop, before it deviates into a withering critique of squares who can’t handle “hippies, yippies, and freaks.” This song may make you think of the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band at their most cynical. Written by Japanese psych-pop phenom Harumi Ando, “I Took A Ride (Caravan)” finds Stepney and company blowing out the original to a phenomenal psychedelic swirl of sitar, harp, strings, and horns, with Riperton shining at her most dulcet. The title cut is a mellow, Motown-like stormer with strings, flute, and cloud-busting chorus. It’s an absurd sunburst of optimism, especially when heard with a set of 2018 ears.

While “Magical World” broods with a lush 5th Dimension/Supremes glow, “I Must Be There” comes off like a more ornate and sophisticated take on what the Beatles were attempting on “The Inner Light” or what It’s A Beautiful Day tried to achieve on their symphonic-psych debut LP. “I Feel Sorry” puts similar efforts by late-’60s Moody Blues into the shade, bolstered by a serpentine guitar solo worthy of SRC’s Gary Quackenbush. But “Paper Castle”—an ostentatious anthem about the fragility of civilization—steals the show. It’s an ultimate album-closer, radiating an ecstasy that borders on the apocalyptic. The ambition here is off the scales, the bombast as baroque as heaven.

While every Rotary Connection album has much to offer—even the holiday-themed PeaceAladdin is the work that best demonstrates their compositional brilliance and whip-smart dynamics. Fifty years after its release, this cult classic can still be found for relatively low prices in used bins… at least for now. -Buckley Mayfield

Les Vampyrettes, “Les Vampyrettes” (not on label, 1980)

The two tracks that comprise this ultra-obscure EP by Les Vampyrettes (revered krautrock studio wizard Conny Plank and the late, great Holger Czukay of CAN) represent some of the most sinister music ever laid to tape. For decades, however, Les Vampyrettes was strictly the province of the world’s most elite collectors. Thankfully, in 2013 the great Grönland label reissued the record. (You can also find these cuts on Czukay’s just-released 5xLP Cinema box set.)

Pulling off sinister music is more difficult than it may seem, as it’s easy to topple into hokeyness or ham-fisted Hollywood tropes when venturing into hellish sonic miasmas. As you would expect from two masters of sound sorcery such as Plank and Czukay, Les Vampyrettes avoid those pitfalls. Holger proposed to Conny a series of singles with the theme of “horror with comfort,” and Les Vampyrettes resulted. They infuse the music here with a gravity and oppressiveness that are truly remarkable.

“Biomutanten” is a four-minute collage of seemingly random noises, but the way Les Vampyrettes arrange and produce them is chilling. Ominous pulsations and panicky ticking sounds, doom-laden twangs, alarm bells, emergency warning signals, Doppler-effected wails, myriad noises hinting at things going awry, a pitched-down-to-hell (literally, it seems) male voice speaking in German—all of these elements induce a serious dread and a feeling of a tenuous grasp of sanity gradually slipping. Do not listen on hallucinogens… unless you really want to lose your marbles.

“Menetekel” is a slightly shorter minimalist creepscape haunted by insectoid chirps, warped warbles, dripping and splashing water, and those guttural, lower-than-low/slower-than-slow German guy intonations. It’s not quite the mindfuck that “Biomutanten” is, but it’s still the antithesis of party music.

As fantastic and phantasmagorical asConny Plank and Holger Czukay’s discographies are, they may have conjured their most outlandish vibe with this one-off project. At certain times of the night, Les Vampyrettes might be regarded as both geniuses’ peak work. -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

Secos E Molhados “Secos E Molhados” (Continental, 1973)

Secos E Molhados recorded six albums, but I’ve only heard this one, their 1973 debut. Because Secos E Molahdos is so great, maybe I don’t need to her anything else by this Brazilian group. Oftentimes, bands peak with their first full-length and their discography becomes a case of diminishing returns. I suppose curiosity will get the better of me and I’ll eventually check out later releases. But for now, Secos E Molhados will keep me sated until further notice.

From the first seconds of the opening tune, “Sangue Latino,” you’re struck by the excellent production values here. Willi Verdaguer’s bass tones have the richness of Dave Richmond’s playing on Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire De Melody Nelson (pretty much the gold standard, along with anything massaged or thumbed out by Herbie Flowers and Larry Graham), and it contrasts extremely well with Ney Matogrosso’s countertenor, which initially fooled me into thinking he was a woman. Now that I know his gender, Ney comes across as a Freddie Mercury-esque presence on the mic—and one of the best goddamned singers I’ve ever heard.

More proof comes from Matogrosso’s unbelievably gorgeous lead vocal and from João Ricardo and Gerson Conrad’s dulcet backing vox on the acoustic guitar ballad “O Patrão Nosso De Cada Dia.” Even better is the heartbreakingly pulchritudinous “Rosa De Hiroshima,” a sparse folk-rock ballad whose emotional resonance could make a dictator cry. For variation, there are the strutting, rollicking glam-rock of “O Vira” and “Mulher Barriguda” the latter of which boasts strafing harmonica and manic piano, summoning the over-the-top energy of Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz.”

Secos E Molhados peaks on “Amor” and “Assim Assado.” The former is my go-to Secos E Molhados jam in DJ sets, as it possesses an ascending, sidewinding bass line and vocal harmonies that caress your frontal lobes like the tenderest lover does your nether regions, all while being festively funky. Yes, the erotic imagery is necessary for this almost unbearably sensual song, which stands up to anything by peak-era Os Mutantes. Another DJ favorite, “Assim Assado” is spiced by quirky ocarina motifs (by Zé Rodrix of Som Imaginário), fuzzed-out, Blue Cheer-like guitar soloing, and a melody that arches and curves like a swan’s neck.

Fala” provides an ideal note on which to close the album—a ballad that gathers momentum and orchestral sweep as it goes, soaring to the vanishing point with the grace and grandeur of a bald eagle. That Dick Hyman-esque synth solo that squiggles into earshot, though, steers the piece toward a surprisingly charming and absurd tangent.

Secos E Molhados isn’t as well known as other classic Brazilian albums by Mutantes, Caetano Veloso, Gilbert Gil, Gal Costa, and Tom Zé, but it deserves to be worshipped just as fervently as those essential documents of South American music. -Buckley Mayfield

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark “Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark” (Dindisc, 1980)


The first four OMD LPs represent some of the most affecting and influential electro-pop creations ever to ruffle a synthesizer manual. Their first one has always been my favorite of the bunch… and not just because of the rad Peter Saville die-cut cover design. Beyond the brilliant packaging, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark set an incredibly high bar for swoonworthy melodies, efficient, heart-pumping beats, and clean-blooded male vocals. Mofos are still biting their style in 2018.

Even better than Soft Cell and Depeche Mode, OMD songwriters Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys struck upon an approach that fused instantly hummable tunes with unusual textures. Of their debut album’s 10 songs, a mind-boggling nine could logically be singles. The only exception is “Dancing” (irony!), an amazing anomaly that’s almost Residents-like in its subterranean otherness and strange array of FX’d voices; shockingly, its rhythm is closer to that of Throbbing Gristle’s “20 Jazz Funk Greats” than to anything on Top Of The Pops.

But, as I said, the majority of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark bursts with a striking accessibility that is anything but LCD. The cleverly titled “Mystereality” boasts a sax part that lends the morosely peppy song a Roxy Music-like air, and the singing even resembles that of Brian Eno’s early solo efforts. “Electricity” is a fairly blatant homage to Kraftwerk circa Radioactivity, but it’s done with so much poised panache and sugar-rush urgency, slack is cut. The synth arpeggio in the heartbreak anthem “Messages” signifies an almost unbearable wistfulness, and the keyboard solo in the song’s middle section bears the grandeur of Kraftwerk at their Trans-Europe Express haughtiest.

My favorite OMD track of all time, “Julia’s Song,” contains the group’s most seductive bass line, which anchors some of their richest drones and a gorgeously sinuous melody that I wouldn’t mind being the last thing I heard on this mortal coil. “Red Frame/White Light” is an instant classic of frantic, spine-tingling effusiveness that would be a career highlight for most acts, but on this record it’s about the fifth-best cut.

You really can’t go wrong with any of the first four OMD full-lengths, but if you can only spring for one, go for this zenith of emotional synth-pop. -Buckley Mayfield

[You may also want to read our 2014 review of OMD’s Architecture & Morality.]

Commodores “Machine Gun” (Motown, 1974)

Commodores’ debut album is a stone funk classic. Devoid of the sappy ballads that made them beloved with suburban, mainstream folks and companies that pipe music into retail establishments and medical offices, Machine Gun bursts with lubricious groove science.

Right from the off, the title track glides into one of the smoothest clavinet-powered, pimp-roll rhythms ever cut, then gets festooned with flamboyant analog-synth oscillations, chikka-wakka guitar, and minimalist, grunting bass. An instrumental that the Beastie Boys (and their producers, the Dust Brothers) had the good sense to sample for “Hey Ladies,” “Machine Gun” is practically glam in its flashy gestures, its extravagant strut. The track reached #22 on the charts; not bad for a funk instrumental. That it appeared in the porntastic 1997 film Boogie Nights should not surprise anybody with a libido.

The rest of Machine Gun finds myriad ways to exploit said libido through funk’s manifold, malleable rhythmic tricks. The lascivious, loitering, and not a little creepy “Young Girls Are My Weakness” foreshadows Commodores’ smash 1977 hit “Brick House,” while “I Feel Sanctified” and “The Bump” stimulate party muscles in a very effective manner. The lyrics won’t win any Nobel or Pulitzer prizes, but they get the job done, allowing future solo star Lionel Richie to get his dirty-young-man ya-yas out. Another fantastic, clavinet- and synth-enhanced instrumental joint, “Rapid Fire,” closes the LP’s first side.

Side two opens with “The Assembly Line,” an oft-sampled, slow-blooming explosion of soulful euphoria written by Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer that recalls Anglo-Caribbean greats Cymande [see my review of their 1972 debut album in Jive Time’s archives]. Though it starts with a parody of circus music, “The Zoo (The Human Zoo)” is Machine Gun‘s most socially conscious song, and it went on to become a favorite on the Northern soul circuit, but with “Gonna Blow Your Mind,” we’re back to decadence in excelsis, with an intimate boudoir-funk jam. “There’s A Song In My Heart” harks back to “The Assembly Line”’s easygoing sunniness, while LP-closer “ Superman” is an urgent bustle of extroverted funk, blown out to aptly superheroic dimensions to match the titular subject.

Without a doubt, Machine Gun is essential for funk aficionados, and, low-key, it’s one of the highlights of Motown’s 1970s discography. To quote one of their best-known tunes, it’s “mighty mighty, just lettin’ it all hang out.” -Buckley Mayfield

Fire Engines “Lubricate Your Living Room” (Pop:Aural, 1981)

A fascinating book could be written about Scotland’s original post-punk scene, and I hope somebody’s on the case. One band who should figure prominently in such a tome is Fire Engines. Led by singer-songwriter-guitarist Davy Henderson, Fire Engines were a pop group, but spiky as fuck, buoyant yet abrasive, and terminally enamored of Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band. You can glean that from one listen to Fire Engines’ breathtaking 1981 single “Candyskin,” which nicks the melody from Beefheart’s “Sweet Sweet Bulbs,” and adds a phenomenal spring to its step.

Coming out slightly before that 45, Lubricate Your Living Room was a revelatory mini-LP that established Fire Engines as one of the UK’s most exciting rock bands. With a lineup filled out by Graham Main (bass), Murray Slade (guitar), and Russell Burn (drums), the Engines used Captain Beefheart’s guitar sound circa Trout Mask Replica and Doc At The Radar Station as their foundation: a nerve-fraying, traumatically trebly tonality. But instead of distorting the blues and translating rock into intimidatingly difficult math equations as the Magic Band did, Fire Engines sped up No Wave to a splenetic, amphetamine shriek, with Henderson yawping about consumerism’s pros and cons and problematic relationship dynamics. He begged listeners to “get up and use me” as if he were just another good on the marketplace.

Like contemporaries the Fall, Fire Engines lived for repetition in their rhythms and riffs. Unlike the Fall, the Engines loved manic cowbell patterns and had a propensity for freaky funk that distinguished them among their Scottish peers. These Edinburgh speed demons plowed so compulsively into their grooves, you expect their instruments to burst into flames, and/or for the needle to fly off the record.

Fire Engines only lasted a couple of years (1980-1981), but they staked a claim to immortality with a catalog consisting of a mere 18 songs. (Acute Records’ 2007 Hungry Beat CD comp might be your best bet—outside of streaming services—to hear what all my fuss is about.)  Lubricate Your Living Room is probably the definitive document of their raw, jagged, Beefheart-on-bennies rock.

Also, as with many records reviewed on this blog, this one could use a reissue. May this critique—however infinitesimally—help to make that a reality. -Buckley Mayfield