Album Reviews

A.C. Marias “One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing)” (Mute, 1989)

A.C. is Angela Conway, the mysterious chanteuse who cowrote the 10 songs on One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing) with Wire/Dome guitarist Bruce Gilbert. She’s also appeared on Wire bassist Graham Lewis’ He Said records and Gilbert’s The Shivering Man LP, as well as these Wire dudes’ Dome and P’o projects. Clearly, Conway was a key figure in the Wire diaspora throughout the ’80s, so it makes sense that she would cut her own full-length with those in their orbit. And what a quiet little treasure One Of Our Girls is.

With a voice pitched somewhere between the Dream Syndicate/Opal’s Kendra Smith and Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, Conway radiated an ethereal gravity with A.C. Marias. The group included Paul Kendall (studio wiz who’s worked with Gilbert and Loop and Main’s Robert Hampson), John Fryer (producer of This Mortal Coil, Cocteau Twins, Nine Inch Nails, etc.), and Gareth Jones (producer of Depeche Mode, Wire, Diamanda Galás, Einstürzende Neubauten, etc.). Conway’s singing may not be technically extraordinary, but she optimizes her narrow range with an intriguing delivery and glazed timbre. She keeps her emotions close to the vest, forcing you to lean in to try to discern the details.

Case in point is the opener, “Trilby’s Couch.” It begins with a melancholy woodwind melody redolent of seaside desolation. Then a stealthy walking bass line and woodblock taps appear as Conway sings about a hypnosis session. When the avian synth twitters surface, you can’t help getting chills. “Just Talk” furthers the hypnotic quotient with a simple yet transporting guitar riff that cycles over a high-pitched, majestic drone. Conway croons in hushed tones about an enigmatic scenario featuring two lovers and a gun, while meditating on the nature of language and time.

“There’s A Scent Of Rain In The Air” might be the album’s oddest highlight, a mix of pneumatic beats, gaseous gusts, faraway airplane-engine drones, and spidery, glinting guitar accents, like if the Edge had shown more restraint on The Joshua Tree. Another highlight and an outlier is “Give Me,” a serious stab at dance-floor domination, similar to the propulsive yet cool-browed cover of Lou Reed’s “Vicious” from a previous A.C. Marias single. The warped, spiraling guitar filigrees and punchy drum-machine beats form a foxy foundation for Conway to request a “stolen kiss” and a “little bliss.” Hell, she’s earned it.

One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing) climaxes on the title track, one of the greatest songs of the ’80s. Powered by a valiantly galloping rhythm and buoyed by softly stroked guitar and sighing synth undulations, the song bears a melody as sublime as that of Wire’s “Map Ref. 41ºN 93ºW.” After playing “One Of Our Girls” hundreds of times, I can attest that it’s one of the most satisfying syntheses of happiness and sadness in songform.

Following Conway’s sole album as a songwriter, she went on to direct several music videos, including those by Wire, Nick Cave, and Bryan Ferry. We’re fortunate that she dropped One Of Our Girls before finding her more lucrative calling in film. This album is one of those cult artifacts that make aficionados feel as if they’re in on a special secret. Unlike you and me, it never gets old. -Buckley Mayfield

Lothar And The Hand People “Presenting…” (Capitol, 1968)

Look at that cover. The five members of Lothar And The People seem like the high-school students most likely to join a benign cult based on the plot of a ridiculous fantasy novel. Yet after they moved from Denver to New York City, the quirky quintet signed to Capitol Records… and the rest is cult-rock history.

LATHP cut two surprisingly good albums and then adios’d. But they had the distinction of being the first rock group to tour with synthesizers and one of the few to manipulate Theremins. These nerds had an air of gimmickry about them, but they also had talent. Their 1968 debut album, Presenting…, abounds with high-quality, Moog-enhanced novelty rock.

Produced by Robert Marguleff of the excellent synth duo Tonto’s Expanding Head Band (who later worked studio magic on Stevie Wonder’s best albums), Presenting… begins auspiciously with “Machines.” A Mort Shuman composition originally cut by Manfred Mann in 1966, the track rides a ludicrously chunky, mechanical rhythm while the singer belts a cautionary tale about said machines transforming from things that serve humans to becoming our enslavers. The grim message almost gets lost in the robotically bouncy joy the music induces.

A jarring transition occurs with “This Is It,” an easy-going, jazzy charmer that carries the air of a sly Mose Allison tune. The melody is sophisticated yet attention-grabbing, immediately burrowing itself into your memory bank and wiggling adorably there forever more. More catchiness ensues on “This May Be Goodbye,” a psych-pop tune toggling between endearing and annoying, thanks to John Emelin’s nasal, forceful vocals, and “That’s Another Story,” which feels at once old-timey and as hip as Pentangle-esque folkadelia, thanks to its wonderful see-sawing melody.

LATHP could go hard, too. “Sex And Violence” is a groovy, heavy jam featuring the title chanted and sung menacingly. Rusty Ford’s bass line is sick and the guitar solo anticipates Butthole Surfers freak Paul Leary. The tough yet baroque garage rock of “You Won’t Be Lonely” evokes Detroit’s SRC. “It Comes On Anyhow” is the most psychedelic and disjointed moment on the record, full of “OM”s, warped harpsichord motifs, Paul Conly’s synth drones, Tom Flye’s huge beats, and mutterings of “It doesn’t matter.” Imagine a more concise “Revolution 9.”

For Moog-lovers, Conly shines on “Milkweed Love,” an ominous ballad in the vein of Mort Garson and Jean-Jacques Perrey, and “Paul, In Love,” a beautiful reverie à la Garson’s Plantasia. Plus, nearly every song here is capped by little Moog filigrees.

A cloying wackiness occasionally mars Presenting… “Kids Are Little People”’s goofy children’s-television rock and “Woody Woodpecker” (yes, the cartoon theme) especially annoy. But the loony-bin-bound pop of “Ha (Ho)” at least has the decency to end with an enticing electronic coda that foreshadows Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. Thankfully, most of this LP hits the sweet spot between sublime and silly. These songs may carry an indelible late-’60s timestamp, but that only adds to their charm when heard in 2020. -Buckley Mayfield

The Undisputed Truth “Cosmic Truth” (Gordy, 1975)

The plaything of producer/composer/arranger Norman Whitfield, the Undisputed Truth were Motown’s great black freak-soul hopes—basically, the Temptations’ younger, wilder siblings. UT even recorded several songs cut by the Tempts (and Rare Earth, for that matter), a ploy that demonstrated Motown boss Berry Gordy’s practice of recycling the catalog in order to milk hits for all they’re worth. Because Whitfield and his songwriting partner Barrett Strong were on a scorching creative roll in the ’70s, the Undisputed Truth reaped the artistic rewards of their genius, if not the commercial successes of Motown’s more palatable acts.

Cosmic Truth is UT’s sixth album and their second of 1975, following the flamboyantly soulful and funky Higher Than High. For me, Cosmic Truth is the group’s peak. It should be discussed with the same reverence people reserve for classics such as Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Axis: Bold As Love, Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, and Love’s Four Sail.

The LP’s gatefold spread features UT’s five core members wearing garish silver makeup and sporting huge white afros, a visual analogue to what you’ll hear in the grooves. Opener “Earthquake Shake” immediately tips you off that Cosmic Truth isn’t going to be your father’s typical Motown release. This brassy, tumultuous psych funk is the sonic embodiment of the title. A bit beyond the halfway point, a massive drum break enters and the whole song gets about 77 percent funkier and stranger. The coda of birdsong, distant backwards strings, oboe (?), more earthquake rumble unexpectedly takes the song into prog territory (Moody Blues or early King Crimson). So far, so surprising.

But you ain’t heard nothing yet. How about an oozing-molasses cover of “Down By The River”? Undisputed Truth soul up Neil Young’s 1969 epic to the max, elevated by an absolutely heavenly keyboard performance by Mark Davis. The guitar solo here—it sounds like Motown session badass Dennis Coffey—is a shimmering helix of spun gold. Neil had to have been gobsmacked by how godly this version was.

However, “UFO’s” [sic] is not a surprise; it’s spacey, psychedelic funk with guitars that sound like gnarly, alien engines. It’s also the LP’s most explicit Parliament-Funkadelic homage, with vocals evoking Bootsy Collins’. Similarly, “Lil’ Red Ridin’ Hood”’s sleazy funk could’ve easily slotted on Free Your Ass And Your Mind Will Follow. “Spaced Out” is my go-to track on Cosmic Truth for DJing purposes. Its strutting and rutting funkadelia with exceptional dynamics, caustic guitar pyrotechnics, and the echoed unison backing vocals send this interstellar lust song over the edge.

1990” features mad guitar heroics in a dank, midtempo, War-like vein, harmonica and all. Finally, the fantastic, heartbreaking “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” which the Temptations made a hit in 1966, receives a supremely soulful treatment with a sweet piano solo, subtly effective congas, and masterly vocal arrangements. It’s up there with the commanding renditions by Rod Stewart and the Faces and Rare Earth.

The aptly titled Cosmic Truth is one of Motown’s most fascinating, undersung magnum opuses. -Buckley Mayfield

Gong “You” (Virgin, 1973)

Led by guitarist/vocalist Daevid Allen and singer Gilli Smyth, Gong perfectly threaded the needle between prog rock and psychedelia during their early-/mid-’70s peak. The group’s ability to blend the whimsical, the absurd, and the cosmic culminated in their Radio Gnome Invisible Trilogy: Flying Teapot (1973), Angel’s Egg (1973), and You (1974). Composed of British and French musicians, Gong combined some of the most interesting traits of both countries’ progressive scenes, creating fetching melodies, funky and jazzy grooves, and deep space excursions. One can hear these elements and more coalesce into a stunning zenith on You.

The album flows like a brilliant DJ set on purest LSD. After two short, inconsequential pieces of goofy space-out and zany prog shenanigans, You really kicks into gear with “Magick Mother Invocation.” With its gong hit, calming “om”s, Smyth’s beatific sighs, and Tim Blake’s arcing, lysergic synth ripples, the song creates the sensation of flipping end over end in space. And how often does that happen?

This heavenly drift sets the scene for “Master Builder”; everything’s been, uh, building to this masterpiece. It’s a tom-tom-heavy astral-jazz-funk mega jam of monumental dimensions, with Allen’s Leslie-speakered vocals adding tasty frosting. Drummer Pierre Moerlen, bassist Mike Howlett, guitarist Steve Hillage, synthesist Blake, and saxophonist Didier Malherbe are all on peak form. A flaming wig-out for the ages, “Master Builder” makes you feel as if you’re on all of the drugs at once. The beneficent comedown after that mindfuck is “A Sprinkling Of Clouds,” a methodical, burbling-synth explosion. This one merely makes you feel as if you’re on most of the drugs and foreshadows chillout-room ambient music by about 16 years, before the beats and bass lines start punching out the stars and the music starts to emulate early Pink Floyd in their most aggressively extraterrestrial zones. An abrupt mood shift occurs on “Perfect Mystery,” which twirls into jaunty, Zappa-esque prog territory, as Allen and Smyth natter on about “cops at the door” and “octave doctors” and “middle eyes.” The xylophone work here is bonkers.

Side 2 goes deep, y’all. One of Gong’s most adventurous tracks, the 10-plus-minute “The Isle Of Everywhere” is totally devoid of the wackiness that occasionally mars their music. Smyth’s opiated chants and murmurs intertwine with Blake’s synths while Howlett’s and Moerlen’s suavely funky groove never stops ascending. Malherbe’s sax solo is one of the most flavorful and sophisticated in rock annals; Hillage’s guitar solo is a serpentine wonder that would make Larry Coryell and Peter Green jealous. I’m high as fuck just listening to this on my headphones on a Tuesday night in the middle of a pandemic.

You Never Blow Your Trip Forever” is a jolly continuation of “Isle”’s interstellar trek. Allen jibber-jabbers as if he’s auditioning for Monty Python’s Flying Circus before settling into more conventional space-rock vocal mode. The band locks into a centrifugal groove that morphs into a zonked waltz, then downshifts into a “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” creep, filigreed with poignant, trilling flute. Contrary to the title, I think I did blow my trip forever.

In the end, Gong are You, and you are Gong. -Buckley Mayfield

Heart “Dreamboat Annie” (Mushroom, 1975)

Recorded 45 years ago in Vancouver, B.C., Heart’s debut LP came out on the small Canadian label Mushroom, with which the band’s creative core (the Seattle-based Ann and Nancy Wilson) subsequently had problems regarding royalties and a tasteless full-page ad in Rolling Stone. Nevertheless, Dreamboat Annie proved that Heart were a phenomenal force right from the start—a rare outlier of women-fronted hard rock in the testosteronic sea of the classic-rock era. “Magic Man” and “Crazy On You” became ubiquitous on American radio from the mid ’70s onward, but despite the over-saturation, they still smack of freshness. If you’re tired of these stone classics, you’re probably tired of life.

Dreamboat Annie begins, of course, with “Magic Man,” whose ice-cold estrogenic rock is energized by a superfine elastic riff. Instantly, Ann Wilson proves that her voice is one of the most wondrous in rock, a vibrant, supple instrument that belts or coos with equal radiance. The acoustic- and electric-guitar parts encompass a ridiculously wide range of idioms, moods, and textures, augmented by Howard Leese’s wicked synthesizer accents. After millions of exposures over the last 44 years, “Magic Man” still enchants like a motherfucker. It’s the miracle song that keeps on giving.

Dreamboat Annie (Fantasy Child)” provides a 70-second bridge of waves- and acoustic-guitar-enhanced shivery folk to the next hit, “Crazy On You.” This is tumultuous rock at its most dramatic, a master class in dynamics and bravura vocalizing. “My love is the evening breeze touching your skin/The gentle, sweet singing of leaves in the wind/The whisper that calls after you in the night/And kisses your ear in the early moonlight” is sweet poetry in a rock context, especially when bolstered by Roger Fisher’s Brian May-like guitar flamboyancy. As with “Magic Man,” “Crazy On You” still has the power to tingle your senses despite being as familiar as your own neuroses.

More waves accentuate “Soul Of The Sea,” a sensitivo prog-folk opus with a delicate acoustic-guitar intro leading into an intricate, Joni-esque ballad. Rob Deans and Leese’s orchestral arrangements are subtle and beautiful. More Joni vibes—plus echoes of the Byrds’ “Draft Morning”—ramble into the feathery, midtempo reverie that is “Dreamboat Annie.” “White Lightning & Wine” is the album’s most special deep cut. It’s a nastily funky, cowbell-heavy song about a debauched night that could pass as a more XX-chromosomed ZZ Top, and wow, does the rockin’ intensify near the end.

(Love Me Like Music) I’ll Be Your Song” radically downshifts to a lighter-waving power ballad, flaunting one of Heart’s most beautiful melodies. “But if you love me like music/I’ll be your song” is some clever romantic lyricism. “Sing Child” delivers staccato funk rock in the vein of Physical Graffiti‘s grittier tracks. Oozing diabolically libidinous vibes, the song’s distinguished by Ann’s galvanizing flute solo and Fisher’s Janne Schaffer-like guitar solo. A lush ballad augmented by Leese’s orchestral arrangements, “How Deep It Goes” is a wonderfully wistful and lightly proggy tune à la the Moody Blues.

Come to Dreamboat Annie for the deathless hits, stay for the ravishing non-radio-glutting gems. -Buckley Mayfield

Ohio Players “Ecstasy” (Westbound, 1973)

Throughout the ’70s, Ohio Players were the Buckeyes to Westbound label mates Funkadelic’s Wolverines. Both excellent funk bands seemed to be trying to outdo each other in a Beatles/Stones-style competition, but for black Midwestern musicians. Consequently, Ohio Players and Funkadelic had a torrid run of albums in the aforementioned decade. While consensus opinion over the last 40-plus years has given the advantage to the latter, Ohio Players definitely dropped several great platters, including their third LP, Ecstasy.

One way to gauge a group’s worth is how often hip-hop producers have sampled their tracks. By that metric, Ohio Players are hall-of-famers, with 600 samples to their name, as catalogued by Whosampled. “Funky Worm” alone has been used over 260 times in other artists’ works. Ecstasy has its share of sample-worthy moments, too. Beyond that, though, are simply some fantastic songs, exemplified by the title track. It’s one of the ultimate soulful expressions of love in extremis ever to perfume the airways and reach the US singles chart (#31). Marshall “Rock” Jones’ bass line is a tumescent tumble of desire, Walter “Junie” Morrison’s organ a swollen wail of pleasure, and vocalist Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner delivers one of the most extravagant examples of devotion ever waxed.

That peak is followed by “You And Me,” a carefree, summer-romance R&B jam with falsetto vocals that’s almost absurdly euphoric. Why it’s interrupted for a few seconds by martial beats and military march orders is totally inexplicable, but funny. In a similar vein is “Silly Billy,” an endearing, falsetto-laced ballad pitched somewhere between Smokey Robinson and Swamp Dogg, and “Spinning,” which groovily gyrates like Sly & The Family Stone at their most vivacious (e.g., “[You Caught Me] Smilin’”).

Most of the rest of Ecstasy captures the feeling that leads to the titular state: to paraphrase Prince, it’s a sexy motherfucker. “(I Wanna Know) Do You Feel It” is a stealthy boudoir joint that bursts into aggressive strutting in the last minute. “Black Cat” complements that song with more filthy, sophisticated funk poised between the subliminal and the flamboyant. The greasy funk instrumental “Food Stamps Y’all” will make you want to do the horizontal bop and add your DNA to the gene pool, while the grunting, grinding funk of “Sleep Talk” flaunts window-steaming potency. “Short Change” closes Ecstasy with rugged funk geared for a righteous fight scene in a high-class blaxploitation flick.

Damn, Ohio Players. I’m spent. -Buckley Mayfield

Pharoah Sanders “Karma” (Impulse!, 1969)

Karma is the Sgt. Pepper’s of spiritual jazz, in that it appeals to both the public and critics on a large scale. Dominated by the nearly 33-minute “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” the album has become a totem of transcendental music, at once approachable and challenging in a rare way. Consider it the ambitious offspring of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme—maybe even the student who ends up surpassing his mentor.

“The Creator Has A Master Plan” starts with a glorious two-minute fanfare, putting the listener on tenterhooks. Then Reggie Workman fingers the immortal bass line that emulates Jimmy Garrison’s in Coltrane’s “Acknowledgement”; it’s like a trampoline for your soul. Add in Nathaniel Bettis’ shakers and belltrees, James Spaulding’s flute, and Sanders’ saxophone calligraphy (ranging from gently poignant to catastrophically raspy) and you have the beginnings of a momentous trip. When Leon Thomas brings in his sly “yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah”s, you sense things are going to rise to another level. They do.

With his heartfelt lyrics, Thomas outlines the Creator’s basic yet essential blueprint for peace and happiness through all the land, and then embellishes those salubrious words with a series of acrobatic scats and yodels that articulate the song’s theme even more powerfully. Leon truly has too much soul for one body.

The track attains a chaotic peak a bit before the halfway point and then again near 20 minutes; both passages sound like the painful birth of planets that are superior to Earth—and the cries of a panicking elephant herd. They truly are some of the wildest and most transcendent moments in jazz. The last few minutes return to the opening section’s see-sawing bass line, trilling flute, and shiver-inducing belltree/shaker action. Thomas lets off some of his most sublime ululations and hums. He repeats the chorus to the fadeout. You sit there stunned, your life changed forever for the better. Lord—if you’re there—have mercy.

The cumulative effect of “The Creator” is to convince even the most hardcore atheist that just maybe there’s a shred of a chance that the universe is overseen by some god-like authority who has humanity’s best interests at heart. It’s a potent sonic fantasy, for sure. Sanders, Thomas, and company possess the power to make you believe, against your rational mind.

“Colors” has a hard act to follow, but it’s a beauty, too. Undoubtedly, its air of languorous resolution surely influenced Don Cherry’s “Isla (The Sapphic Sleep)” in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. “Colors” features Thomas’ tender paean to Mother Nature, embroidered by Lonnie Liston Smith’s cascading piano, Leon Thomas’ shower of metallic percussion, and Sanders’ swooning sax motifs. After the momentous ebbs and flows of “The Creator,” “Colors” provides a soothing comedown.

A cornucopia of tantalizing textures and heart-searing melodies, Karma is as essential as the oxygen you breathe and that Pharoah’s blowing through his instrument. -Buckley Mayfield

It’s A Beautiful Day “It’s A Beautiful Day” (Columbia, 1969)


You’ve seen this album in bargain bins a billion times. Maybe the cover intrigues you… or maybe it repels you. Its corny wholesomeness does not exactly promise a wild sonic ride. I shouldn’t have to say this, but don’t judge an album by its cover. It’s A Beautiful Day often soars far above what its packaging suggests.

The story goes that IABD’s manager, Matthew Katz (the notorious jerk who effed Moby Grape, among others), forced the band to move from the Bay Area to Seattle to record their debut album, made them endure penurious conditions during the winter in the attic of a house owned by Katz, and generally engineered a miserable experience.

Yet despite these setbacks, IABD produced an outstanding debut LP that smacks of a certain kind of ambitious hippiedom circa 1969. Orchestral psych-rock, ornate balladry, baroque folk, gritty blues rock—these sorts of things interested major-label bigwigs back then, and the album peaked at #47 in the US. Hence, the ubiquity of It’s A Beautiful Day in 21st-century cheapie bins. Columbia manufactured a ton of it, and the single “White Bird” hit fairly big, but the album just didn’t engender the devotion that some other releases from the era did.

You can understand why “White Bird” struck a chord in the late ’60s: It’s a paragon of mellifluous hippie folk with male/female vocals. However, IABD should’ve made Pattie Santos’ dulcet tones more prominent in the mix and muted David LaFlamme’s plummy croon. Still, the song takes off wonderfully thanks to LaFlamme’s sonorous, soaring violin solo and Hal Wagenet’s glistening, rococo guitar excursion.

At his best, LaFlamme can approach Scott Walker’s deep, velvety expressiveness, as he proves on “Hot Summer Day,” a laid-back reverie not unlike Jefferson Airplane’s mellower moments. By contrast, the anguished blues rock of “Wasted Union Blues”—with its gnarly guitar and violin interplay—verges on the frayed-nerve intensity James Blood Ulmer/Ornette Coleman. Again, though, Santos’ voice should be to the fore.

The tough, Eastern-leaning orchestral psych-rock of “Bombay Calling” was so enticing that Deep Purple lifted its main motif for “Child In Time.” “Bulgaria” conjures a mood similar to that of the Doors’ “Indian Summer” and the Stooges’ “We Will Fall,” but it’s not as eerie. The lines “when you’re in a dream/the time passes so slowly/open up your heart/go to sleep on the moment love was born” epitomize IABD’s infatuation with the cosmic aspects of romance.

IABD save the best for last. The album’s longest song at nearly 10 minutes, “Time Is” embarks on an adrenalized journey to the center of existentialist-rock nirvana. It’s not quite as out-there as Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” and Val Fuentes’ drum solo isn’t as impressive as Ron Bushy’s in Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” but it’s a splendid spectacle nonetheless.

Don’t let the cover fool you; It’s A Beautiful Day is bargain-bin gold. -Buckley Mayfield

The Fluid “Roadmouth” (Sub Pop, 1989)


Forever known as the first non-Seattle band to sign to Sub Pop, Denver’s the Fluid smashed it out of the park for this city’s best-known label with the 1989 full-length Roadmouth and its 1990 sister EP, Glue. Both records—which were release together on CD—flaunted the Fluid’s savvy blend of grunge-y girth and power-pop melodiousness. They are perfect mergers of the MC5 and Cheap Trick.

Given how great these songs are, the Fluid should have been at least one-fourth as popular as Nirvana and one-third as popular as Soundgarden. Instead, they’ve ended up more of a grunge footnote, mostly beloved by a small hardcore fan base and Sub Pop obsessives. It’s yet another music-biz miscarriage of justice, but Roadmouth deserves your undivided attention, even in the terrible year of 2020.

“Twisted & Pissed” famously begins with the lines, “he was the oldest son of a drag-queen dope dealer/he woke up this morning with a headful of nightmare” and it might be Roadmouth‘s greatest example of an indelible earworm, thanks to the rowdy choruses sung with unison vocals. Most of the album consists of supremely catchy, hell-raising rock, such as “Cop A Plea,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on Mudhoney’s self-titled album. The Fluid really nailed this rugged-rock songsmithing thing; it didn’t hurt that Jack Endino was producing.

Some sly homages appear, too. “Fools Rule” is a relatively slow and heavy bulldozer of a tune that explodes into a Billion Dollar Babies-like lighter-lifter during the choruses. “What Man” cops the strutting riff of Them’s “I Can Only Give You Everything” while “Ode To Miss Lodge” sounds like a hit single in a world in which the Troggs’ “Our Love Will Still Be Here” was as big as “You Really Got Me.” And in perhaps the most surprising move here, the Fluid cover Rare Earth’s party-starting stadium-funk bomb “Big Brother,” and acquit themselves very well.

Roadmouth is one of those LPs in which you hear a different fave song every time you listen to it. It’s much more special than its relative lack of recognition suggests. -Buckley Mayfield

Swell Maps “Jane From Occupied Europe” (Rather/Rough Trade, 1980)

I’m not sure enough people are realizing how great and distinctive Birmingham, England’s Swell Maps were. Their ramshackle, exploratory post-punk songs have influenced hundreds of musicians since their dissolution in 1980, yet they still seem under-recognized in the grand scheme of things.

On their two studio albums—1979’s A Trip To Marineville and 1980’s Jane From Occupied Europe—Swell Maps fused unschooled musique-concrète strategies with garage-rock energy, krautrock hypnosis, and the occasional poppy melody. Although they emerged from Great Britain’s fecund post-punk scene, Swell Maps often had more in common with German improvisational geniuses Can and America’s home of willfully weird unrock, Ralph Records.

Jane From Occupied Europe‘s tracks were recorded from 1977-1980 and they display the idiosyncratic aesthetics of members Nikki Sudden, Epic Soundtracks, Jowe Head, Biggles Books, Phones Sportsman, and Golden Cockrill. (Those aliases are as quirky as the music.) The album starts oddly with “Robot Factory,” which features eerie, radiant keyboard drone, wind-up toys, and rudimentary, quasi-funky beats that sometimes slip out of time. It sounds like a post-punk Joe Meek production, endearingly lo-fi and otherworldly. “Let’s Buy A Bridge” is definitive hurly-burly post-punk pop, bolstered by chaotic drum clatter and Jowe’s ultra-wonky sax solo. Sudden’s imploring, whiny vocals full of youthful discontent here became one of post-punk’s most recognizable sounds.

“Border Country”’s tight, torqued rock comes off like a sloppier, less funky Gang Of Four or early Mekons while “Cake Shop Girl”’s weirdly morose pop recalls a less refined version of Ralph acts such as Snakefinger and Renaldo & The Loaf. The mutedly euphoric “The Helicopter Spies” proved Swell Maps could write a catchy melody, even if they festooned it with janky squalls that rival Velvet Underground’s on “I Heard Her Call My Name.” The pell-mell, enigmatic jam “Big Maz In The Desert” aspires to Can’s metronomic mesmerism, but Swell Maps don’t have that German group’s skill level. Still, it’s a weird and wired epic.

On Jane From Occupied Europe, Swell Maps generated such great guitar and keyboard sounds—clangorous, radiant, cyclical—and they spilled over the raw clatter of Epic Soundtracks’ drums, finding new ways to make rock surprise, to make sloppiness a virtue, to scramble the DNA of pop melodiousness. They conclusively proved you didn’t need technical prowess to create great, enduring music—just a surplus of interesting, unconventional ideas.

[The big indie label Secretly Canadian reissued Jane on vinyl in 2012 and on CD in 2015 (with bonus tracks). Those are likely the easiest and most affordable ways to score physical copies of this classic LP.] -Buckley Mayfield

The Headhunters “Survival Of The Fittest” (Arista, 1975)

It’s baffling how certain albums of unimpeachable greatness don’t enter the canon—and even more puzzling, how they remain available for reasonable prices in used bins. One such record is Survival Of The Fittest by Herbie Hancock’s early-’70s group. Free of their leader (who co-produces the LP), the Headhunters let their funk freak flag fly ridiculously high, and the results are stunning.

You know you’re in for a scorching ride as soon opener “God Make Me Funky” starts. It boasts one of the most famous, stripped-down funky breaks ever; no wonder it’s been sampled about 300 times. When DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight’s sly, warped guitar and Paul Jackson’s unstinting bass creep their way in, your libido skyrockets. After this, vocalist Bill Summers’ line, “God can give you anything want and you can do anything you want. God make me funky!” seems totally plausible. Later, Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet solo is a wonder of economical ecstasy. Then near the end, things get hectic and chaotic, with the Pointers Sisters’ chorus of “anything you want!” culminating in a soul-jazz bacchanal. Jesus, how do you follow up such a burner?

It ain’t easy, but the Headhunters do keep the greatness flowing, if not at quite as lofty a level. With “Mugic,” they embark on an Afrocentric spiritual-jazz trip with looped flute, deeply earthy hand drums, and sonorous chants. It builds in intensity, with a monomaniacal, minimalist bass line and slamming congas igniting serious rhythmic heat. “Here And Now” offers a meditative reverie, featuring Joyce Jackson’s blissful flute sighs, but the track gradually shifts into a fleet jazz-funk charge akin to Julian Priester’s Love, Love, but in double time. Our man Maupin gets off an absolutely strafing sax solo.

We’re back to the libidinous funk on “Daffy’s Dance,” with McKnight’s lean, chikka-wah guitar, Jackson’s pimp-struttin’ bass, and Clark’s shuffling, hip-swiveling beats contrasting wonderfully with Maupin’s soaring sax and belafon tinkles. A bizarrely tuned wind instrument’s melody periodically arises from the funky turbulence like an alien mating call before the song inevitably cascades into a controlled frenzy, which is this album’s trademark. “Rima” is the most intriguing work here—a low-key fever dream of Joyce Jackson’s alto flute wisps, Paul Jackson’s suspenseful bass plunges, McKnight’s Pete Cosey-esque guitar squalls, and Maupin’s woozy bass clarinet.

Album-closer “If You’ve Got It, You’ll Get It” is a relentless avalanche of complex funk. The intro with berimbau and other exotic percussion toys builds anticipation and then WHOMP. In come the wonky bass clarinet and flanged guitar chatter, as Jackson and Clark find a pocket that’s both tight and expansive. McKnight gets off a searing, snaking guitar solo worthy of early-’70s Funkadelic (he would join Parliament-Funkadelic in 1978). “If You’ve Got It” is easily the equal of anything on Herbie Hancock’s Thrust, Man-Child, or Head Hunters. It’s a monumental conclusion to a canonical funk document. Most people just don’t realize it yet. -Buckley Mayfield

Cristina “Sleep It Off” (Mercury, 1984)

Cristina Monet-Palaci tragically passed away in early April from COVID-19 at the age of 61. She didn’t have a large discography, but what little she did release contained a high percentage of enchanting winners. Perhaps her peak was Sleep It Off, which most fully displays her flamboyant personality.

Cristina’s marriage to Michael Zilkha, co-owner of the excellent funk/No Wave label ZE Records, led to her collaborating with ZE artists August Darnell of Kid Creole & The Coconuts’, James Chance of Contortions, and Don Was of Was (Not Was). Heavy company! The latter produced Sleep It Off at his Detroit studio, and co-wrote three songs—including two of its best. Let’s talk about those first.

“What’s A Girl To Do” starts with some of the best opening lines of the ’80s: “my life is in a turmoil/my thighs are black and blue/ my sheets are stained and so is my brain/oh what’s a girl to do?” And there you have Cristina’s persona summed up from the get-go—an aristocratic hot mess who’s self-aware but making the best of a bad situation by singing over great music. “What’s A Girl To Do” barges into life with a wonderfully warped keyboard riff that telegraphs new-wave oddity and booming beats that translate to club gold. The ultra-jaunty tenor of the music contrasts with the sordid subject matter.

The album’s dramatic and rockiest peak occurs on “Don’t Mutilate My Mink,” bolstered by heroic, beefy guitar riffs by Bruce Nazarian and Barry Reynolds. Cristina’s intonations in the verses recall Johnny Rotten’s on the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The UK.” “My nightdress is expensive/I don’t want to see it soiled/My heart is pretty tender/Don’t want to see it broiled/Don’t want to start my morning/With your traces on my sink/You’ll do just fine without me/Don’t mutilate my mink.” Was’ third co-written song is “Quicksand Lovers,” a femme-fatale portrait framed in a breezy, faux-tropical-electro vehicle.

Another highlight comes on “Ticket To The Tropics,” courtesy of another Detroit character: the Knack’s Doug Feiger. He and Cristina create a brash, danceable new wave with suave key changes and a synth motif worthy of the Time or Prince. Jazz magus Marcus Belgrave—another Detroiter—plays trumpet. The anomalous “Rage And Fascination” bears an ominous quasi-dub groove and stern vocal delivery; it’s the closest Cristina gets to Grace Jones.

The weakest moments on Sleep It Off are the covers. The Sonny Throckmorton composition “She Can’t Say That Anymore”—originally recorded in 1980 by country singer John Conlee—is lackluster. Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Ballad Of Immoral Earnings” is a duet with an annoying male singer and its quasi-reggae treatment doesn’t suit anyone well. The louche version of Van Morrison’s “Blue Money” is the best cover here. It features Chance on sax and allows Cristina to perfect her disaffected, disdainful voice while adding a sheen of sleaze to Van’s tipsy, throwback R&B.

If you want the perfect summation of Sleep It Off‘s lyrical thrust, “The Lie Of Love,” is it. In this ballad about a problematic romance, Cristina conveys regret and acceptance of hypocrisy with subdued poignancy. It’s not her best mode, but she convinces you that she’s lived through this and emerged with an alluring shred of dignity.

(Note: A fidgety cover of Prince’s classic “When You Were Mine” appears as a bonus track on the CD release.) -Buckley Mayfi