Album Reviews

Les McCann “Invitation To Openness” (Atlantic, 1972)

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You probably know keyboardist Les McCann for his uproarious hit with Eddie Harris, “Compared To What,” but with Invitation To Openness, he occupies a much more chill zone, as exemplified by the 26-minute lead-off track, “The Lovers.” The opening keyboard movement foreshadows a blissful peace, not unlike Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, with Corky Hale’s harp trills adding more timbral tranquility to proceedings. A few minutes in, drums and percussion slide into earshot and a laid-back groove akin to Julian Priester’s sublime “Love, Love” commences, aided by Bill Salter’s stealthy bass. Five minutes in, Yusef Lateef takes the piece to a higher level with snake-charming oboe melismas. Five minutes later, Cornell Dupree and David Spinozza (who’s worked with Paul McCartney and John Lennon) peel off some wah-wah-tinged blaxploitation riffs that seriously enliven the song, inspiring Bernard Purdie (or it Alphonse Mouzon?) to funk up the rhythm to the max. 

“The Lovers” waxes and wanes (but mostly waxes) over its long duration, sounding remarkably composed for an improv jam featuring more than a dozen players. It’s one of the most magical spontaneous-epic recordings in the post-Coltrane world, a cool outpouring of loving spirit by musicians working at the loftiest level of groupmind telepathy. Love, love it. 

By contrast, side two can’t help seeming somewhat less momentous. Nevertheless, the two long cuts on it are worth playing in your next hip lounge DJ set. The 13-minute “Beaux J. Poo Boo” is subtle soul-jazz that, while it’s playing, makes you feel about nine times cooler than you actually are. Its gentle propulsion and Lateef’s fluid, mellow flute arabesques lull you into a state of contentment until close to the end, when nearly all hell breaks loose. But these cats are too cool to ever really go nuclear with the freakouts. 

On the 12-minute “Poo Pye McGoochie (And His Friends),” we hear another pensive beginning before the band heats up with advanced, velvety groove science. McCann’s crispy, spacey Moog motif rears its head periodically to break up the intricate, cerebral passages. Once you hear that Moog brashly flexing, you’ll want to call it up in your mental jukebox every time you need a jolt of adrenaline. Bonus: a badass drum solo near the end by Mouzon (I think). As with the other two pieces, it sounds like all the players amassed in the studio under producer Joel Dorn were simply enjoying Read more›

The Soft Boys “Underwater Moonlight” (Armageddon, 1980)

 

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The Soft Boys opened their 1979 debut album, A Can Of Bees, with “Give It To The Soft Boys.” That’s what I’m about to do with this here review… praise, that is. For Underwater Moonlight is a stone-cold classic of neo-retro-psychedelic jangle pop, ablaze with memorable tunes and brilliant lyrics. According to some smart folks, it represents the peak of singer-songwriter-guitarist Robyn Hitchcock’s long, fruitful career. On certain days, I agree with that observation.

The album kicks off with one of the greatest one-two punches in rock history. “I Wanna Destroy You” might be the ultimate righteous-revenge anthem. Musically, this is one of the most effusive and potent power-pop songs ever, but lyrically it’s utterly sulphuric in its vengefulness—against the media, apparently. And man does it feel good when Hitchcock euphoniously yelps into the chorus; the “I”s here just explode. “The Kingdom Of Love” veers almost 180º in the opposite direction. It’s a cool, cruising rocker that expresses an exalted yet surreal desire, as Hitchcock equates extreme infatuation with insects crawling under his skin. When the song reaches the part where he sings, “You grow out of me like a FLOWER!” it sounds like his heart’s literally bursting in ecstasy and the song ascends to its most heavenly level. If these two cuts were released on a 45, it would represent an all-time Top 20 single.

The jittery, jangly, sitar-spiced power pop of “Positive Vibrations” makes you feel as good as the title would suggest. You’d best believe R.E.M. were taking notes while listening to this song. If you ever wondered what would happen if the Cramps were British absurdists, well, the leering, sleazy “I Got The Hots” would be your answer. “Insanely Jealous” gradually builds into an amphetamine’d blowout redolent of obsessiveness; the music’s a perfect analogue of the titular emotion.

Hitchcock fans may hate me for saying this, but “Tonight” verges on cheesy, sounding like a middling, long-lost radio hit or TV movie theme. It’s really Underwater Moonlight‘s only weak link. But the LP rebounds with two of its toughest pieces: the intriguing and torqued instrumental “You’ll Have To Go Sideways” and “Old Pervert,” the most jagged, vicious, oddly metered song here—almost No Wave-y in its angularity and abrasiveness. Then there’s a weird segue into “Queen Of Eyes,” an amiable, Byrdsy jangle rock bauble, before the title track closes things with an ideal Read more›

Tom Dissevelt & Kid Baltan “Song Of The Second Moon” (1968, Limelight)

 

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Imagine hearing this music when it was created, in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Imagine how far-fucking-out it must’ve sounded to people who hadn’t yet experienced the great psychedelic cultural upheaval of 1966, who probably had only the faintest idea of musique concrète and Bebe and Louis Barron’s 1956 soundtrack to Forbidden Planet. Dutch composers Tom Dissevelt and Kid Baltan (aka Dick Raaijmakers) cracked open a Pandora’s Box of bizarre and breath-taking electronic tones and textures that some of today’s producers are still trying to emulate almost six decades later. Song Of The Second Moon captures the duo at a creative peak, generating compositions that embrace menace and whimsy, as well as order and chaos, with a poise that elevates them to the level of other electronic innovators like the aforementioned Barrons and Raymond Scott.

Baltan’s “Song Of The Second Moon” is the kind of synthesizer opus full of off-kilter jauntiness and mercurial insectoid bleeps that made ’90s IDM stars like Mike “µ-Ziq” Paradinas extol it as a paragon of pioneering electronic music. The beautifully desolate atmospheres and shattered metallic timbres of Tom Dissevelt’s “Moon Maid” evoke a sense of awestruck wonder, of planets tilting off their axes. Baltan’s “The Ray Makers” foreshadows Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’s malfunctioning rocket noises on “Jetsex” [see my review of TEHB’s Zero Time from December 18, 2016] and Gil Mellé’s sinister, microbial ambience in The Andromeda Strain soundtrack. Dissevelt and Baltan were magicking science-fiction sonics that were way ahead of their time.

Song Of The Second Moon ends with a couple of deviations from the rest of the LP and reveal the duo’s facility for jazz maneuvers. On “Twilight Ozone,” Dissevelt offers a witty homage to Bernard Herrmann’s Twilight Zone theme, full of frightful horn fanfares and hurtling, white-knuckle rhythms. On “Pianoforte,” Baltan serves up nerve-jangling, disjunctive spy jazz that predates Ennio Morricone’s work in this vein by a half decade or so. Lordy, how did the squares of the early ’60s deal with this madness? Some heads still ain’t ready for this kind of structural and tonal discombobulation.

(Kudos to Fifth Dimension for reissuing this groundbreaking electronic LP. You should also pick up Sonitron’s archival releases of Dissevelt’s Fantasy In Orbit and Dissevelt and Baltan’s El Fascinante Mundo De La Musica Electronica.) -Buckley Mayfield

 

 … Read more›

Snapper “Snapper” (Flying Nun, 1988)

 

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Snapper came to my attention with their 1988 debut EP; it was awed love at first hear. This was at a time when anything from New Zealand—Snapper hailed from Dunedin—carried a wonderful mystique, but here was a band that didn’t really sound like the other Flying Nun groups whose records somehow made it to the US. They radiated much more sinister vibes than did bands like the Chills, the the Clean, and the Bats.

The four songs on the Snapper EP are Möbius strips of mantric Kiwi surf rock wreathed in barbed-wire guitars and ornery organs. If you care about meticulous, traditional rock songwriting as blueprinted by the Beatles et al., Snapper will frustrate you. However, if you think the idea of British Stooges acolytes Loop jamming with synth-punk innovators Suicide is smashing, you’ll love Snapper to death.

The EP—which Captured Tracks reissued in 2013—kicks off with its best-known track, “Buddy,” which Wooden Shjips have covered live and on record. The number’s all razor-sharp organ ostinato, cut with stinging shoegaze-rock guitar and metronomic drumming, topped with subliminal female/male vocals by Christine Voice and the late Peter Gutteridge. The chorus goes, “No more buddy buddy/No more messsin’ around/I’m not gonna be your, be your fucking clown.” You’d best believe they mean it. “Cause Of You” is a full-on speed-freak rush down death’s highway. You can totally hear how this paved the way for bands like Stereolab, Moon Duo, and Thee Oh Sees.

“Death And Weirdness In The Surfing Zone” offers relentless waves of organ and guitars riding one lethal chord for the song’s duration while drummer Alan Haig does his best Klaus Dinger impression. Like everything here, it induces a kind of adrenalized hypnosis. The grinding throb of “Hang On” sounds like Suicide transposed to Loop’s psychedelic-rock grandeur, then fed a fistful of leapers. If these descriptions are becoming repetitive, well, it’s because repetition is Snapper’s lifeblood. In order to pull off this sort of monomania, you have to zero in on the most compelling chords and timbres; Snapper do that over and over. If your eyes don’t become two kaleidoscopic pinwheels by the end of “Hang On,” I feel bad for you. Gutteridge’s mantra of “You gotta feel good about doing wrong” could be his band’s motto.

Snapper’s brand of minimalist, one-chord jams that have no beginnings, endings, or many variations would sound dull in most other bands’ hands. Read more›

Jody Harris/Robert Quine “Escape” (Infidelity, 1981)

 

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Talk about an unheralded masterpiece… Escape is a ludicrously under-acknowledged gem from New York City’s fertile early-’80s sonic crucible. Masterly guitarists Jody Harris and Robert Quine had their tentacles in some of the Big Apple’s most important groups of the ’70s and ’80s, including Contortions, James White & The Blacks, Implog, the Raybeats, and Golden Palominos for the former and Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Material, and Lou Reed for the latter. For Escape, Harris and Quine use guitars, bass, and electronic percussion to create a uniquely otherworldly work of rock that has few peers.

The 12-minute “Flagpole Jitters” must’ve boggled freaks’ minds aplenty when it first came out, even among those who traveled in the headiest of No Wave and post-punk circles. Oddly funky electronic percussion pistons nonchalantly while Harris and Quine engage in a frenzied guitar duel that sounds like Television—if Verlaine and Lloyd’s axes were retuned by Harry Partch. The shrill tonalities and frazzling intensity of the playing shove this epic song into a WTF plane of its own, a communiqué from an advanced species recreating rock according to its own utterly bizarre instincts. Seriously, it’s damn near impossible to hear rock the same way after you’ve been exposed to “Flagpole Jitters.”

By comparison, “Don’t Throw That Knife” can’t help seeming a tad anticlimactic; it tones down the extreme timbres and settles into an intoxicating, low-slung cha-cha groove as Quine and Harris brandis pointillist, crystalline six-string origami. The effect is not unlike some of the more tropical cuts on Can’s Ege Bamyasi and, perhaps coincidentally, some of Robert Fripp’s extended and exotic sonorities on King Crimson’s Discipline. Be very excited. On “Up In Daisy’s Penthouse,” relaxed drum-machine rhythms percolate under slanting, clangorous guitar murmurs and enigmatic sighs. It makes me think of Muzak™ that might be heard on Pluto, which is a high compliment.

Escape‘s most urgent, driving rocker, “Termites Of 1938” zips with persistent hi-hat tsss and guitars that bite with the alien causticity of Chrome’s Helios Creed; eventually, said guitars pile up into huge parabolas of barbed wire; voilà, a new kind of raveup. “Pardon My Clutch” ends the album with what sounds like a 11-minute rockabilly pastiche from a couple of futuristic dudes who genuinely respect the style, but can’t help subverting it with slurred slivers of Harvey Mandel-esque guitar ectoplasm that are humorously at odds with the jaunty, canned Read more›

Tonto’s Expanding Head Band “Zero Time” (Embryo, 1971)

 

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This fucking album. You’ve probably seen it in a one of your finer music emporia sometime over the last decade, looking all intriguing and phantasmagorical, whether with its original cover art or the reissue with the man-frogs and tadpoles.

Herbie Mann’s excellent Embryo imprint released Zero Time in 1971, and somehow Stevie Wonder heard it and became enamored of the dazzling constellation of analog-synth sounds created by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’s members Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff. Shortly thereafter, the duo got behind the console for the Motown legend’s strongest run of albums. In a brief period of time, TEHB went from obscure synth geeks to super-rich studio wizards. Boy, did they deserve it.

One listen to Cecil and Margouleff’s debut LP and you can understand why an innovative, intuitive musician like Steveland Hardaway Morris would want to siphon some of that aural magic. Created largely on a massive synth invented by Cecil called TONTO (The Original and New Timbral Orchestra), Zero Time purveys a genuinely futuristic soundworld, albeit one that still carries traces of symphonic richness and grandiose melodies.

Case in point is the opening song, “Cybernaut,” a gorgeously desolate brooder with a momentous bass line. There’s almost a Hollywood lavishness to this track, and it’s a mystery why it’s never appeared in a sci-fi film. Speaking of which, “Jetsex” always causes severe disorientation and creepiness with its metallic termite chittering, Doppler-effected whooshes, ominous bass growls, and proto-industrial-techno timbres. It’s an intensely visceral simulation of mechanical dysfunction and impending doom, and a perennial favorite for my weirder DJ sets. Play it at a party and watch everyone in the room grow extremely uneasy.

Things lighten up a bit with “Timewhys,” which is pretty much the polar opposite of its predecessor. It begins with a fade in of enigmatic whistling ululations before a spacey, awe-struck motif manifests out of the desolation, followed soon by a modified cha-cha beat and a libidinously thrusting bass line. Thence, it morphs into a bizarre species of dance music. This piece just sparkles and throbs with cosmic bonhomie. It’s no surprise why Future Sound Of London would sample it for their track “Her Tongue Is Like A Jellyfish.” Keeping things spacey, “Aurora” coaxes lunar wind storms into a forlorn and anguished symphony.

One of Zero Time‘s highlights, “Riversong” could be a forerunner of New Age—you know, the kind that sounds like it took Read more›

Devadip Carlos Santana & Turiya Alice Coltrane “Illuminations” (Columbia, 1974)

 

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This may rankle some of his fans, but I’m going to say it anyway: Two of the best albums guitarist Carlos Santana ever played on didn’t come out under the aegis of his most famous band. For certain heads, the LPs the psych-rock deity cut with jazz legends John McLaughlin (1973’s Love Devotion Surrender) and Alice Coltrane (1974’s Illuminations) stand as his creative peaks. That these were released on a major label—good ol’ Columbia—and up until recently have been bargain-bin staples boggles the mind. However, one senses that the general public—and some critics who should know better—still aren’t giving these Eastern-leaning, mystical fusion works their due. I’m here to redress that injustice for the latter overlooked classic; maybe I’ll tackle the former some day.

As the title implies, Illuminations is all about transmitting blazing beams of enlightenment into listeners’ minds. It’s always a great idea to start your album with deep, extended “OOOOOHHHHHMMMMM” chants, especially if you’re a Platinum-selling artist. So listening to “Guru Sri Chinmoy Aphorism,” we gather that this music is going to be about god’s love, which is peachy if you’re into that sort of thing. Honestly, an agnostic like me just cares about the music, but whichever religious route it takes to get to the glory of Illuminations, all should tolerate it.

The one-two feathery punch of “Angel Of Air”/“Angel Of Water” is a profound unfolding of wonderment that preps you for the delights to come. In the former, Turiya and Devadip bestow upon us flute, bass, heavenly strings, pointillistic, crystalline guitar stalagmites, and cymbal splashes. The latter is a glistening pool of almost New Age-y bliss (not a diss, by any means), as these world-class musicians—including Santana electric pianist Tom Coster, and Miles Davis comrades Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland—summon some of the most delicate, celestial aural tapestries in their blessed careers. You know how Kris Kristofferson had a song called “Sunday Morning Coming Down”? Well, this is Sunday morning going up music. You feel like you need more than one heart to appreciate the loving feeling emanating from this song. Side 1 closes with “Bliss: The Eternal Now,” which sounds like something that could’ve appeared on Coltrane’s Lord Of Lords. This is a heroic fanfare of orchestral ambience that portends glimmers of a brilliant new dawn for humankind… but we all know how that turned out.

The album’s peak Read more›

Richard Pinhas “Chronolyse” (Cobra, 1978)

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Throughout the ’70s, the French group Heldon forged one of one of progressive music’s most fascinating discographies. Their seven albums never wavered from greatness. The first few largely featured somber takes on languid, Robert Fripp-ian guitar meditativeness and drone tapestries while the last four found the music morphing into a more percussive, infernally throbbing brand of electronic space-rock that sounds like the ultimate score for a harrowing acid trip. (Hear Interface‘s title track for the peak of the latter style.) Heldon were led by Richard Pinhas, a guitarist and synth player enamored of dystopian science fiction and French philosophers. These interests fed into compositions that radiate an intense existential dread, albeit sometimes tempered by passages of eerie serenity and even pastoral bliss.

In Pinhas’ solo career, he muted some of the more horrific elements of Heldon’s output, but in his first LP under his own name (recorded in 1976), Chronolyse, you can still hear the mad scientist in thrall to Frank Herbert’s Dune in its nine tracks, which were done in one take, with Pinhas using Moog 55 modular synth in addition to his trademark guitar and Mellotron. The first seven pieces are relatively short and bear the title “Variations I Sur Le Thème Des Bene Gesserit.” (Wikipedia informs me that Bene Gesserit are “an exclusive sisterhood [in Dune] whose members train their bodies and minds through years of phyiscal and mental conditioning to obtain superhuman powers and abilities that can seem magical to outsiders.”) They consist of insistent, repetitive pulsations that build a sense of great expectation. Think a more primitive and darker-hued version of Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack for an idea of the mantric zones explored here.

The 98-second “III” is particularly manic, threatening to spiral out of control, but never doing so. The bedazzled “IV” is a mere 1:45 long, but its momentous, interstellar theme—which many ’90s techno producers replicated, consciously or not—makes you wish it were 10 times longer. “V” also sounds like an embryonic attempt at techno; if its tempo were increased by 30 bpm, it could’ve thrilled the masses at raves worldwide. “VII” would make an ideal score for a sci-fi thriller flick directed by a Stanley Kubrick disciple.

“Duncan Idaho” combines the compressed-air ominousness of “Interface” with the Autobahn-jaunty synths of Kraftwerk and Cluster ca. Sowiesoso—which makes it godly. Last but certainly not least, the 30-minute “Paul Atreïdes” Read more›

Gábor Szabó “Mizrab” (CTI, 1973)

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Good lord, did Hungarian guitarist Gábor Szabó have a distinctive and utterly sweet tone, albeit one imbued with deep sadness when the occasion called for it. After issuing some great records for Impulse!, Skye, and Blue Thumb in the ’60s and ’70s, he moved to Creed Taylor’s CTI label and smoothed out a bit, as per that company’s overriding aesthetic. But with Mizrab, Szabó cut the definitive version of the title track. You need this LP for that dazzling cut alone, but there are other delights here, too, even though this isn’t the man’s best full-length. (Still trying to decide if it’s SpellbinderBacchanal, or Sorcerer.)

Recorded in the Van Gelder Studio with CTI all-stars like Bob James (electric organ), Ron Carter (bass), Hubert Laws (flute), plus fusion drummers Billy Cobham and Jack DeJohnette (playing in a much mellower style than they did with Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis, to say the least), Mizrab boasts an odd mélange of material. It starts with “Mizrab,” which is quite simply one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Szabó and company find the sweet spot among free-flowing raga rock, Central European folk, and pop jazz. Cobham’s drumming is agile and busy, touching on Latin shuffle and funk, while Szabó’s tone is crystalline and loaded with pathos. This tune never fails to trigger watery eyes and throat lumps.

“Thirteen,” another Szabó composition, is a lovely minor-key lament, as pensive and melancholy as a walk home after being fired from your job. You can hear some of Szabó’s mellifluous picking and piquant tone here in the oeuvre of former Sun City Girls guitarist Sir Richard Bishop; a high compliment. Unfortunately, that’s it for Szabó material on Mizrab. Next comes Carole King’s “It’s Going To Take Some Time,” a lightweight and syrupy orchestral jazz pop confection. You can feel the heavy hand of Taylor’s commercial directives at work here, although Cobham is always worth hearing, no matter what the context. That fluff is balanced out by a hip, Deodato-esque rendition of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Concerto #2.” It’s a dynamic study in structure and mood, carried aloft by those rich CTI strings and Bob James’ deft arrangement.

The album closes with Seals & Croft “Summer Breeze.” This played-to-death, oft-covered 1972 hit single gets a fairly straightforward treatment, although DeJohnette adds all sorts of tasty accents and fills amid his martial-funk master rhythm Read more›

Pere Ubu “Datapanik In The Year Zero” (Radar, 1978)

 

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This five-track EP is a neat, efficient way to experience epochal Cleveland rock band Pere Ubu’s early material, derived from four singles released before the classic debut LP The Modern Dance exploded in the underground scene. Datapanik In The Year Zero contains some of the group’s greatest songs, plus “Heaven,” a rare descent into mawkish sentimentality. I know some of you dig it, but it strikes me as a misguided attempt at radio airplay, albeit through the unconventional backdoor of American white-boy reggae (that Tim Wright bass line is no joke, Jah bless). Anyway, let’s get to the all-time classics, which appear here in slightly altered form.

Heart Of Darkness” and “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” of course, stand as canonical slabs of rock existentialism rarely matched in the four decades since their release. The former’s lines “I don’t see anything that I want” and “Maybe I’m nothing but a shadow on the wall” compose some of the most shattering lyrics in rock. They remind me of Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” in their poignant estrangement from societal norms. The whole song’s so fucking ominous and full of unimaginable portent; too bad Joseph Conrad never had the chance to hear this. “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” is one of the most chilling pieces of music of the last 41 years. It recalls early Black Sabbath’s churning doom, but ruptured by an instrumental section full of noisy urgency and chaos, depicting the nervous system of a World War II pilot carrying the atomic bomb. By the end, the song appears to be splintering and tearing apart at the seams, which is an ideal way to finish such a harrowing composition. It’s a perfect convergence of the heaviest of subject matter with utterly gut-wrenching sonic abstract expressionism.

Relief comes from “Cloud 149,” one of Ubu’s most frantic and debauched pieces; it’s like a splenetic, sped-up version of ska, albeit sidetracked by a strain of garage-rock rave-up à la the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction.” Yet another peak in Ubu’s bulging catalog. “Untitled” is a rougher, earlier version of “The Modern Dance,” which, of course, appeared on the 1978 LP of the same name. Undulating and angular, the song moves with implacable, subliminal swiftness, until it pauses for a combustible jazz-fusion interlude. Tom Herman’s needling guitar origami nudges this track into a higher echelon of post-punk. And while I badmouthed “Heaven” above, it actually Read more›

Rare Earth “Ma” (Rare Earth, 1973)

 

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One of the first white bands signed to Motown, Detroit’s Rare Earth had a damn good run in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Those were peak times for psychedelic soul and R&B in general, and Rare Earth seriously benefited from Motown’s largesse (they even got their own imprint, also called Rare Earth). Oddly, though, Motown boss Berry Gordy often ordered Rare Earth to perform the same Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong compositions that the Temptations and/or Undisputed Truth recorded. The reasoning being, if one of them didn’t hit, well, maybe the other act would, as if each had their own distinct fan bases. As a fan of all three groups, I can’t discern great differences from their respective versions of those stone classic Whitfield/Strong numbers, but I’m of the persuasion to hear ’em all. That’s how strong my love is for that writing team.

Anyway, Rare Earth’s sixth album, Ma, consists of all Whitfield material, with Strong earning co-writing credits on “Smiling Faces Sometimes” and “Hum Along And Dance” (the Jackson 5 also covered the latter). Both are incredible jams that you have to go out of your way to mess up, and Rare Earth execute them like the slick professionals they are. Singing drummer Peter Hoorelbeke (aka Rivera) might be the funkiest, most soulful Caucasian dude to hold down those two tasks simultaneously. (I’m willing to be proved wrong, if you have counter examples.)

Talk about balls, though: “Ma” starts the LP with a 17-minute tour de force of stoic, stolid funk and an inspirational tale about a strong, generous mother who raised 13 children, against the odds, and was “stronger than any two men.” Ray Monette lets off some strafing guitar solos and Mark Olson adds percussive, striding piano that ratchets up the drama. As with other Whitfield epics, “Ma” accrues momentum and momentousness as it goes. The man was a songwriting god, and this is yet another masterpiece in his canon.

“Big John Is My Name” is your basic marauding, boastful party-funk anthem, with drum breaks ripe for the sampling, although whosampled.com shockingly reveals that nobody’s done so. That’s just crazy. The Rare Earth rendition of “Smiling Faces Sometimes” differs from Undisputed Truth’s and the Temptations’ in that it’s more rock-oriented and laced with flamboyant keyboard embellishments. It’s probably my least favorite of the three, but it still bears some wicked wah-wah guitar punctuation, and it’s Read more›

Pavement “Perfect Sound Forever” (Drag City, 1990)

 

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For a long time, I was a Slanted & Enchanted guy. I thought that had to be Pavement’s pinnacle… because that was the one that sounded most like the Fall. Impeccable logic, right? When Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain came out, I thought Pavement had gone a bit corny, a bit too R.E.M.ish. Pavement’s difficult third album, Wowee Zowee, restored my faith in Stephen Malkmus and company’s ability to get weird and unpredictable while still keeping things pretty structured. And then, for reasons I can’t really pinpoint, I stopped following Pavement. I just plain ignored Brighten The Corners and Terror Twilight. Maybe it was because I got intensely into IDM and drum & bass. One of these years I’ll go back and explore the last two Pavement full-lengths, but right now I have more important matters at hand.

Anyway, this preamble is just a roundabout way to say I’m reassessing my internal Pavement ranking system. I would like to argue that Pavement peaked on Perfect Sound Forever. (It originally came out on 10-inch, the fourth ever release on the esteemed Drag City Records; you can also find it on the compilation Westing [By Musket And Sextant].) Perfect Sound Forever‘s only 12 minutes long, but it epitomizes Pavement’s early phase, and it’s an exemplary bridge between their first couple of scrappy singles and the accomplished indie-rock obscurantism of Slanted & Enchanted.

“Heckler Spray” is one of the most brilliant opening salvos ever, a bravura noise-rock intro that separates the wheat from the boys and the men from the cream. These are the most heroic and needling guitar tones Malkmus and Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg ever wrangled from their axes. Bow down to their majesty. If you want to hear how best to create a subdued rock anthem, study “From Now On.” On “Angel Carver Blues/Mellow Jazz Docent,” heavy and jagged guitars menacingly lurch, punctuated by staunch, hard beats. Then cooler heads prevail with the “Mellow Jazz Docent” section, which is still a deceptively scathing yet laid-back rejoinder to the first segment. Malkmus and his cohorts sound so effortlessly assured, blending melodic chops with an exhilaratingly caustic guitar attack.

“Drive-By-Fader” and “Krell Vid-user” form very strange and distorted bookend interludes on the second side. These brief, bizarre noise experiments represent Pavement’s most unhinged moments. By contrast, “Home” is some kind of slacker rock apotheosis. But then Read more›