Album Reviews

Weather Report “Weather Report” (1971)

If you know Weather Report primarily from their latter-day funk-groove thang, this may come as a surprise — perhaps even a pleasant one. For one thing, Joe Zawinul is restricted mostly to organ and piano, with none of the synthesizer excess of later albums. The balance between Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, too, is much more even (and Shorter’s “Eurydice” is my favourite piece on the record). With bassist Miroslav Vitous on acoustic instruments, the album may remind you of Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way, on which, of course, Zawinul and Shorter played crucial parts. There’s a kind of calm and serenity hanging over the music, even when the playing gets furious (which, with these guys involved, it often does). “Orange Lady” was also recorded by Miles Davis as “Great Expectations” (for which he cheekily took the composition credit). –Brad

McCoy Tyner “Sahara” (1972)

Tyner recorded prolifically for Milestone throughout the 1970s, and produced a number of fine recordings. “Sahara” might be the best. It represents the state of the art for the time of its release, 1972.

The greatest strength of this recording lies in its varied aural landscape. If you want Tyner’s signature thunderous chords and lightning right-hand runs, cue up “Ebony Queen” and “Rebirth.” Need some spiritually rich solo piano? Move to “A Prayer for My Family.” Then try the 23-minute title track, which has his reedman, Sonny Fortune, playing flute, his bassist, Calvin Hill, playing reeds, and the group joining drummer Alphonse Mouzon with various percussion effects. As far from a blowing session as you can get, this extended performance is a well-planned trip across a variety of endlessly fascinating terrains. As if all this isn’t enough, on “Valley of Life,” Tyner picks up a kyoto, a Japanese stringed instrument and produces a delicate impressionistic sketch, aided by Fortune, again on flute.

“Sahara” represents the best that jazz had to offer in the early ’70s. The musicians aren’t afraid to display their chops (Fortune adds blazing soprano and alto sax to his delicate work on flute), but Tyner clearly is intent on finding new territory and expanding the definition of jazz, and he succeeds brilliantly. —Tyler

Devo “Hardcore Devo, Vol. 1: 74-77” (1990)

Much as I love to go against the critical consensus, in this particular case I have to agree. Earlier DEVO = better DEVO. I mean, up to a point; like say 1973 DEVO isn’t all that hot, but 1975 DEVO? That’s gold. Count me in among the unwashed masses who prefer the “art terrorist” DEVO era to the “wacky new-wave moppets” era; basically anything and everything up through 1979 is all golden. The only thing that could possibly improve this album is that if they were to start using, say, “Golden Energy” in TV ads. Why not, you know? They use everything else in TV ads. You know once I actually heard Eric Dolphy’s “Hat and Beard” in a TV ad? It was for a wristwatch or something. I guess the message here is turn off your radio, and just watch TV ads nonstop. Anyway I’m not quite sure whether I like this or “Live: The Mongoloid Years” better, but they’re both good in their own way.

Oh, and three minutes of “Ono” pisses all over everything Suicide has done in their entire career. —David

Amon Duul II “Wolf City” (1972)

So I saw this live video of “Surrounded By The Stars” about a month or so back and I was inspired to pull this one out. My God, what an absolute monster. When I think of Amon Duul II, I absolutely do not think of the more straightforward, prog-rock-inclined band on display here. I think of a bunch of dudes who felt they were ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED to put a side-long freakout on each of the first three records they did (and in the case of “Yeti”, it ran well over a side). I think of the incredible power conveyed by their particular brand of screaming anarchy. While this record is adventurous in its own way, and there is certainly no shortage of screaming, “anarchy” doesn’t describe this record at all; it’s very structured, very song-oriented. Nothing even cracks the eight minute mark. So I can certainly see why someone whose primary interest in the band is “Yeti” would be disappointed by this record. But having said that, I’m someone whose primary interest in the band is “Yeti” and “Phallus Dei”, yet this is my favorite record of theirs. There’s a sometimes-unspoken assumption among most music nerds, particularly the ones who listen to so-called “Krautrock”, that the more commercial something is, the worse it is. For me this record is a serious challenge to that hypothesis. Making a record better than “Phallus Dei” is a formidable enough achievement in its own right. Capturing the raw, atavistic power of that record while condensing the songs to a much shorter length and still managing to bring more shades of meaning and musical/emotional depth to the table, well, that’s damn near unprecedented. (I realize the preceding sentence is painful rock-critic-ese, but this is a difficult album to speak about. Perhaps I should just say “IT’S FREAKING AWESOME” and leave it at that.) In particular there’s a definite “bad trip” vibe to the whole proceedings, as evidenced by the fact that I personally have had a bad trip while listening to it, which is a pretty significant feat when you don’t do drugs. It’s much darker than the typical music of the time, in a way I can’t readily define but which nonetheless becomes nearly palpable when it’s blasting through your speakers. No doubt everybody in the band was pretty familiar with bad trips through personal experience by this point in their career, which does a pretty good job of explaining the really upbeat, “everything’s going to be ok” vibe of the last two minutes of the record. I applaud their sense of social responsibility in this; most bands today are content to draw you into a relentless nightmare hellscape without taking the time to pull you back out. Maybe that’s why the world is so screwed up today. Probably not, but wouldn’t it be great if that was really the only problem we had, and all that needed to be done to fix it was for more people to make records like Wolf City?

I guess what I’m saying about this record is, IT’S FREAKING AWESOME. —David

Lindisfarne “Fog On the Tyne” (1971)

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

Todd Rundgren “A Wizard, A True Star” (1973)

Nothing could have prepared audiences in ’73 for the brain scrambler that is A Wizard, A True Star, a double-album’s worth of ideas crammed horizontally (in the brevity of the songs) and vertically (in the impenetrable layers of sound) onto one album, albeit a long one. Was this the same guy who released Something/Anything a year before? But start peeling A Wizard back, and that pop-rocker is still there, most notably on the impassioned “Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel,” space age soarer “International Feel,” oddly beautiful cabaret of “Zen Archer,” hard rock/lush pop hybrid “When The Shit Hits The Fan/Sunset Blvd.,” and the first of a new recurring theme for Todd, the uplifting anthemic “Just One Victory.” But the distinguishing characteristic of A Wizard is the 1 to 2 minute slices of “real” songs and outright weirdness that disorient the listener, to the point that a few tracks into this one you’ve either been totally seduced or completely given up, placing it as one of those polarizing efforts of either genius or bullshit, depending on your view. An easy five stars, of course. –Ben

The Damned “Machine Gun Etiquette” (1979)

Up to a point, there is no faulting the genius of the Damned, and Machine Gun Etiquette is the culmination of their (r)evolution. A debatable point, of course, as their Damned Damned Damned album could be considered their first, last AND greatest… BUT, Machine Gun finds the band expanding their cheeky short-loud-fast into something… well, grander! They expanded their song writing beyond what, at the time, had already become cliché 1-2-3-4 punk rock. Perhaps it was Captain Sensible’s (melodic) move to guitar? Maybe they were just getting (ahem) older? I don’t know for sure, but tracks like Plan 9 Channel 7, Love Song…even the faultless cover of MC5′s Looking At You, were some of the first punk songs I could call…(don’t laugh) beautiful! And the songs still hold up, I can put this on anytime and it makes me really happy. –Nipper

Thelonious Monk “Brilliant Corners” (1957)

With four of the five selections here being originals, Brilliant Corners displays the pianist’s obsession with knotty, jagged melodies that leap around in unpredictable ways, be it on the segmented, abrasive title track, the obviously bluesy “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are,” the ragged ballad “Pannonica,” which features Monk simultaneously playing a bell-like celeste and piano, and the bold bounce of “Bemsha Swing.” The sidemen, including Sonny Rollins, settle in to the compositions admirably, taking inspiration from Monk’s idiosyncratic approach, and there’s a sense of freedom in their solos despite the songs’ atypical nature. A great example of one of the most original voices in classic jazz. –Ben

Pink Floyd “Ummagumma” (1969)

A double album of sustained unsettling bizarreness that manages to outdo most psychedelia by building it up in a live setting and tearing it down in the studio, this is arguably Pink Floyd at their rawest: one part live freak-out, one part studio freak-out. It prefigures much of what we’ve come to know and love by way of so-called krautrock: the incorporation of avant-garde forms into the rock format. Somebody had to do this sort of thing, no? And they get points for sheer nerve. Still, I’m not sure how many normal people can actually sit through this from start to finish. Listeners who appreciate avant-garde music will likely find this crude and boring, while people who cling to song-form and melody will likely find this alienating and boring. Let’s try to straddle the fence and hear this as a far-reaching rock record, which it is.

The live album is primo psychedelic freak-out stuff, with a rendition of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” that surpasses the studio version by eight miles, and three other tracks from their first two albums: “Astronomy Domine” is more abstract than its Barrett incarnation and a refreshing variation that exposes its eerier side; while the two from A Saucerful of Secrets make up for the lack of intricate production flourishes by forging a new frontier in spaced-out noise. All four renditions are exceptional, and this is a classic live album, never mind the minor quibbles about sound quality.

The studio album is a little tougher to take, with four “suites,” each one contributed by one band member. It’s an impressive studio achievement and certainly a left-field rock experiment: psychedelic freak-out stuff with a more intellectual bent—meaning it’s not as interesting as the live album—though I’m sure it blew minds at the time of release. Richard Wright’s portion includes prepared piano and faux-free jazz and some moody mellotron parts complemented by chirping birds. It’s not bad. Roger Waters’ two contributions include a lengthy psych-folk ditty (with touches of Donovan) complemented by chirping birds and a babbling brook … and secondly a lengthy psych-folk rave-up that, as its title quite explicitly denotes, consists of nothing but human-simulated/studio-manipulated faux-rodent noises and an imitation of a drunken Scotsman. These are also not bad. David Gilmour’s piece is the most accessible, a suite that anticipates Meddle’s drifting atmosphere and even becomes songlike towards the end, with hints of King Crimson’s contemporaneous output. It’s probably the closest thing to the classic Floyd sound, and might appeal most to their rabid fans. Nick Mason’s percussion experiment is a kind of musique concrete for beginners, a mildly interesting tape-manipulated mood piece that wouldn’t be out of place as the soundtrack to some late-60s high school documentary about physics; it opens with a flute theme and slowly builds to a drum solo and then a multi-tracked drum duet before devolving back to its flute theme … it seems a little quaint nowadays but fits this lengthy record’s creepy vibe. And it’s not really bad, either.

All told, a much better album than it should be: a mindfuck for people who aren’t predisposed to having their minds frequently fucked, and definitely not among Floyd’s weakest releases…. Make of that what thou wilt. —Will

Public Enemy “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” (1988)

There’s a reason why this album is consistently listed near the top of any list of great albums, hip-hop or otherwise. The layered production and album’s thematic cohesion represented a quantum leap over anything that had been released in hip-hop to that point. Yet, it doesn’t sound the slightest bit dated (like, for example The Chronic) because no one was able to emulate the Bomb Squad’s sound the way that G-Funk or RZA-style production were constantly bitten years later. The result is an album that was monumentally important at the time of its release, and still just as fresh and jaw-dropping nearly 20 years later.

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is the definitive group statement from one of hip-hop’s greatest acts. Chuck D is a true force on the mic, but PE doesn’t get by on his skills alone, though they certainly could. Despite rhymes that convey his considerable intelligence, he has a presence on the microphone that has rarely been matched. Even if he wasted his flows on cookie-cutter battle raps, he could do so convincingly. Fortunately for us, that isn’t the case. Flava Flav, far from the caricature he is now, provides the perfect foil for Chuck. Abrasive and wild, he underscores all of Chuck D’s statements like an exclamation point. Meanwhile, Terminator X and the Bomb Squad propel the backing tracks into the stratosphere with a constant barrage of samples, scratches and funky beats. Constantly self-referencing, the music here is dense and complex, adding to the epic feel of the album (though it runs just under an hour). Not to mention, they have the best song titles in all of music: “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, “Terminator X on the Edge of Panic”, etc.

I am usually a little wary of artists that are this overtly political, and I always thought that Ice Cube traveled too far down that road, for example. With PE, however, the politics only add to the urgency of the album. It doesn’t hurt that Chuck D is typically right on with his lyrics. It also doesn’t hurt that all of the themes touched on (drugs, war, police, the justice system, etc.) are always relevant.

To say that It Takes a Nation… is a good rap album with a couple of classic tracks would be a gross understatement of this album’s value. This is a masterwork, and nearly every other track has become a standard (“Rebel w/out a Pause”, “Bring the Noise”, “Night of the Living Baseheads”, “Don’t Believe the Hype”, “She Watch Channel Zero?!”…). No filler. The consistency is staggering. In fact, at first listen, the record can be a little intimidating, since there aren’t any concessions made in the effort to vary their output or spawn a hit single. Chuck D even anticipates that they won’t have commercial success in his line: “Radio stations/I question their blackness/They call themselves black/But we’ll see if they’ll play this.” Multiple listens reveal more and more of what Public Enemy has embedded into this startling effort. Any fan of hip-hop who doesn’t own this album needs to. As does any fan of music who has dismissed hip-hop as anything less than a vibrant art form. —Lucus

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

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

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

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

New Riders of the Purple Sage (1971)

New Riders of the Purple Sage is a strong debut, notable not only for the involvement of the legendary Jerry Garcia as pedal steel guitarist, but also for the great singing from John Dawson, the strong harmonies, David Nelson’s pickin’, and, perhaps most importantly, the catchy strong writing — there isn’t a weak song in the bunch.

Solidly in the county rock vein, this album is a whole different animal from Garcia’s work as a guitarist with the Grateful Dead or as a banjo player with Old and in the Way, so direct comparisons are difficult. Sure, the Dead played plenty of country material on American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, but this does not sound like either of those albums, nor does it evoke the Byrds’ brand of country rock; it’s more akin to the Stones’ “Dead Flowers” (with which, appropriately enough, the current lineup of NRPS has opened many shows since their debut in 2006). I have heard their style called cosmic country, which would seem to fit in reference to the “far out” pedal steel style of both of the band’s prominent pedal steel guitarists, so it seems as good of a label as any.

Those who enjoy the mournful qualities of Jerry Garcia’s voice probably will enjoy John “Marmaduke” Dawson’s lead vocals here, and a listener’s reaction to the lead-off track, “I Don’t Know You”, will probably serve as a pretty good indicator as to whether or not they will like the rest of the album. “I Don’t Know You” features some fun interaction between Garcia and Nelson, and any fears that these tunes will be stretched beyond the boundaries of good taste are allayed by its radio-friendly brevity of two-and-a-half minutes.

Those of us who happen to enjoy the Grateful Dead’s explorations only get one song substantially longer than five minutes on the entire album, so, again, although listeners may find some vocal, tonal, and instrumental common ground, this album does not sound like anything that the Grateful Dead have ever done. The one song where they do stretch out is the laid back “Dirty Business”, and we get to hear some raunchy pedal steel from Garcia there, just enough to satisfy my appetite for it. Other tunes, in particular “Henry”, “Louisiana Lady”, and “Glendale Train”, are such tight, fun singalongs that stretching them out with long jams would have seemed superfluous in this studio setting.

It’s great that Jerry hooked up with his longtime buddy David Nelson and the rest of the band to get this thing rolling with such a fine album, because, even after Jerry left this band to be replaced by the amazing Buddy Cage, the group played many great shows and recorded some strong tunes. I love this band, and, even with a slew of country rock and alt country bands cropping up over the years, to my awareness, none of them have ever really mined this same vein. —Len