Album Reviews

Public Image Ltd. “Metal Box” (Virgin, 1979)

PILMetalboxHIGH RESOLUTION COVER ARTDigging through the “P” section of a record file and finding a metal canister these days isn’t too uncommon. And if you are just getting into PiL, then it will probably be exciting, since the contents inside this “Metal Box” are some of the strangest, most vehement studio works to ever surface on vinyl.

While their self-titled debut willfully trailed off from the typical punk rock template of the day to show off experiments in dirges, spoken word excerpts and even some studio flirtations on it’s closer “Fodderstompf,” the three plates inside “Metal Box” show just what some open-minded troublemakers could do when they were allowed to goof off with corporate money backing them. The general idea behind PiL’s strange packaging was instead of releasing a bloated double album, they would be producing a bundle of “singles.” And we aren’t talking 7” singles. Which really meant that these “punks” were actually more into contemporary moments of the day that were released on dub-plates and extended disco edits.

Not only was the release a brave idea (or at least an opportune idea agreeably pushed along by Virgin, due to Ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon’s celebrity), but their approach in the studio was also informed by the production of those styles. It’s all just done about… atypically. Lydon, bassist Jah Wobble and former Clash guitarist Keith Levene were joined by a number of drummers to produce exciting, monotonous rock (“Albatross,” “Poptones”) derelict disco (“Memories,” “Socialist,” “Swan Lake”) and some simple sketches made to stretch across your speakers (“The Suit,” “Radio 4”). Taking these records out of their protective tin can be a chore, and the constant shifting of styles slapped together across each track can make make this parcel a bit of a challenge.

But approached one disc at a time, over time, “Metal Box” can be one of those truly rewarding albums that surprises you with every few listens. Luckily, this very strange slab of experimental pop has been reissued by the label 4 Men With Beards, and in it’s proper protective casing at that. -Wade

Sparks “Propaganda” (Island, 1974)

sparks-propaganda-frontSparks can sort of be seen in a similar light to Queen, although they ape their accents to sound quasi-Brit and ditch solos for lyrical cynicism. Maybe that’s why they have a bit of an underdog quality.

On “Propaganda,” Sparks are instrumentally tough and create simple ditties built around pop piano. The fat is cut with minimal solo’s allowed, so propulsive and repetitive tracks rule, from the mile-a-minute “At Home At Work At Play,” to the tempo-shifting “B.C.” They also make great use of the studio on “Achoo” and “Who Don’t Like Kids,” silly tunes which are grandly displayed. Why weren’t these guys signed to Discreet?

Well, despite lyrics appearing distrustful on some tracks, they were actually earnest sounding on “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” and delivered bonafide pop on “Something For The Girl With Everything.” It’s hard to really put a finger on where Sparks might be placed on your shelf, but I bet it’s somewhere near 10CC and Zappa. Especially this album, since they were still operating in top form as a band in 1974 and had not yet transformed into a New Waver two-piece… Enjoyable! -Wade

Mi Ami “Steal Your Face” (Thrill Jockey, 2010)

mi_ami_0420Two DC boys spawned out of some post-hardcore Dischord zone ended up in San Francisco with their strings and a Michigan-bred drummer in tow. Well into the 21st century, this power trio tapped into dissonant music stylings of all sorts and let it rip with rocked-out fury.

Mi Ami seemed set upon bringing the punk/noise axis a bit closer to dance, free jazz and world music, and if that sounds like it’s a repeat of The Pop Group or DNA or some other post-punk unit, then the description doesn’t quite work. See, what we have here on “Steal Your Face” is not as anti-rockist as those new wave forerunners. Daniel Martin-McCormick’s guitar playing can be a banshee in a snowstorm, or a series of direct hits with a serrated edge. Bassist Jacob Long maneuvers as a strained tightrope while Damon Palermo places his beats in a busy and danceable fashion.

And many of these tracks are danceable; “Latin Lover” is the closest thing to dance floor fodder you’ll find on the disc. Rending guitar shreds at all the right moments to lose your head to while the attacking rhythm onslaught keeps things grounded. But all the while, McCormick’s unique style of singing may be a turn off to some listeners; his vocals send up hardcore flags… Not that you’ve heard a hardcore-kid rip a Whitney Houston lyric before. And he makes his vocal delivery count just as much as his exciting guitar flaying.

Then a churner like “Dreamers” will have you seeing another interesting side to this group, one that has many interesting tangents to explore. Many of the numbers here can be expansive, sparse or confusingly full on first listen, and once collected together under an album dubbed “Steal Your Face,” well… Maybe they are more indebted to fleshing out sound in a manner more similar to the Dead rather than PiL?

Later albums of Mi Ami went sans-bass player and opted for a two man dance operation that’s a very different animal, but their energy and work ethic has spawned many prolific dance projects still ongoing. “Steal Your Face” is their last great statement as a modern power trio. – Wade

Sly & The Family Stone “Small Talk” (Epic, 1974)

Sly_and_The_Family_Stone-Small_Talk_bAfter some seriously paranoid and political detours, Sly and company went back to basics on “Small Talk,” and that title may sadly be synonymous with how reviewers of the time saw this album. Something like a throwaway.

While not as immediate as previous albums or singles, “Small Talk” can still be taken in as a major pleasure. Still adventurous in the studio with overdubbing, Sly assembles small talk of all sorts (including that of an infant) to crowd your speakers on the title cut, and grooves continue on in a meandering fashion all the way to the end of side one, finishing up with a hard slab of familiar drum patterns on “Can’t Strain My Brain.”

On the flip, single “Loose Booty” (sampled to kingdom come) will be instantly recognizable to first time listeners whether you catch the vocal or drum samples. The greatest example of this popular rip would go to the Beastie Boys on “Shadrach.” Infectious and danceable, this would be one of the last bits of Sly’s output to reach high on the charts. As for the rest of side two, the grooves here are more upfront and are ready-made to be spun at a house party until you hit some slow jams… and strings accompany the final track “This Is Love,” and while it’s not exactly as sumptuous as some Philly-soul record counterparts it gets the job done just fine.

While not as heavy as a riot, this later period Sly release is still something worth bringing up in conversation. And hey, you’ve already heard it, whether you know it or not! -Wade

Nina Simone “Nina Simone and Piano” (RCA Victor, 1969)

f01d45705f1de5c9d8bfb7d72e7f7339In Sartre’s “Nausea” there is a moment when the protagonist, disgusted by the emptiness of life, snaps back to reality while hearing a beautiful voice on a jazz record; it grounded him and he felt flush with relief to live back in the moment, where life and love still exist.

That existentialist paperback was published about thirty years or so before Nina Simone put out “Nina Simone and Piano,” but I’ve always synced the two together, since this disc has some of the most touching arrangements I’ve heard pressed under her name, or ever really. She chooses to play skeletal arrangements of Randy Newman and Johnathan King… It’s the stark instrumental work she shows and the sureness of her voice that makes these pieces work so well.

And while on the topic of existentialism, “Who Am I” and “Another Spring” will make even the most devout unbeliever sit on the edge of their seat. This is not an album to play in the background; more like something you take, like a pill, to ensure a more healthy life. “Another Spring” in particular is a roundabout of emotion, brought on by an elder faced with winter and possible death, feeling for the moment she will emerge to the warmth of the new season. It ends joyously.

The album itself comes to a close with a rare bit of overdubbing on “The Desperate Ones,” all whispers, talk of moths near flames, sunsets and the dreams that fall behind with them. A real treat for those looking to reconfirm their purpose or validate their lives, “Nina Simone and Piano” may give more affection than you have ever allowed yourself to receive… -Wade

The Replacements “Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash” (Twin/Tone, 1981)

The_Replacements_-_Sorry_Ma,_Forgot_to_Take_Out_the_Trash_coverSort of akin to The Minutemen by the way that they shove Americana and classic rock staples into one or two minute bursts early on, The Replacements show hints of what would follow this hardcore-scoped LP. Except instead of using Creedence or Blue Öyster Cult for snatches they channel Johnny Thunders in a way, plus Big Star… but you know that already! What you may not know is that “Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash” holds up well on its own and if they had chosen to stick to this rough-edged (but NOT straight-edge) sorta hardcore aesthetic, they still would have done just fine.

Most of the album sounds like a mess of days gone by full of tedium; boredom leading to speeding, cigarettes and a need for kicks. Case in point: tracks “Takin’ a Ride” and “More Cigarettes” describe those moments of ennui and relief while “I Bought a Headache” shows that the answer isn’t the same each time, not when it comes to instant gratification… You can’t be pleased all the time, folks.

So is this The Replacements wearing hardcore clothes? Nah, it’s more like the core components of what you would hear from them later, stripped down to its bare essentials. Like their crosstown rivals Hüsker Dü, they had to crawl before they could walk and rub shoulders with the hardened punks of the day. This disc is a speedy and satisfying ride that usually gets skipped on the way to “Let It Be” or “Tim.” So turn around and grab this one. You’ll recognize these guys when you put it on and read the liner notes. -Wade

Nick Lowe “Jesus of Cool” (Radar, 1978)

nick loweAfter Nick Lowe broke up with his country-rock/pub band, Brinsley Schwarz, in 1975, he spent a couple of years mainly producing other artists’ work, most notably Elvis Costello’s debut album (he’d go on to produce Costello’s first five albums).

In 1978, Lowe returned to performing with his debut record, also the first album released on the new Radar label. Apparently the title was too much for American audiences, so on this side of the pond, the album was called Pure Pop for Now People. Although that title is pretty lame, it IS somewhat of an apt description for this album. Marking a sharp departure from his work with Brinsley Schwarz, this actually does sound like a missing Costello record.

This is what pop music should sound like. Songs like “Shake and Pop” should be played in every dance club in America. The sound is fresh and could be released today to equal acclaim. Very highly recommended. —Joe

Brian Eno & John Cale “Wrong Way Up” (All Saints Records, 1990)

tumblr_map24qj6nn1qdwm6bo1_500When one pushes synthetic sounds to the realm of unreal and back again, what else is left to do? Brian Eno’s work behind an engineering board had taken him far and far out by 1990… The exciting world music he had envisioned did not match the world music found in the New Age marketing-niche of the previous decade, and albums bearing his name seemed to carry his signature thumbprint, even when thoughts of strong structure more or less faded away with each LP.

On “Wrong Way Up” the studio still acts as the lead instrument, but song structures make a return. And who better to help Eno return to strange but impactful songwriting than musical-foil John Cale? All sorts of beats and chirps assembled throughout these tracks are meshed through Cale viola, not to mention any sort of instrument the duo could get their hands on. What they come up with most of the time are musical figments riding chopped and screwed grooves.

Lyrics are not esoteric but definitely familiar to fans of either Eno or Cale; impressionistic views presented in a pop context. The results can be surprisingly affecting like on “Cordoba” when repetitious mentions of buses and stations highlight an obvious separation, or on choice single “Spinning Away” with it’s constant citing of colors and shades.

Eno and Cale are to pop what they were to Rock… That is, artsy. And like Duchamp’s urinal, placed the wrong way up. -Wade

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