This Philadelphia quintet made James Chance and the Contortions sound like laid-back Eagles fans. To say that the Stick Men’s funk is frantic and urgent is a grandiose understatement. This five-track EP should come with blood-pressure medication. To be sure, Get On Board is highly obscure, but it somehow gained a blip of recognition in my Midwestern city in the early ’80s. I recall hearing some tracks from this record on the local NPR station’s alternative-music program on a Sunday night and having my mind properly blown. Three decades later I found a copy in a Detroit-area shop for $3. You should’ve seen my god-damn expression of surprise. It’s so good to be reunited with this wild and wired 12-inch.
The EP kicks off with “Funky Hayride,” which emerges out of a babble of chicken squawks before blooming into an absurdly fonky hoedown powered by a rubbernecking, strutting bass line that would make Larry Graham raise two thumbs. The song establishes the Stick Men’s ricocheting vocal interplay, jagged dynamics, and predilection for kinetic cowbell thwocking. It also reflects their ability to create weird tension even as they inspire you to get on down—à la the Contortions. “Bone Shadow” is an amphetamine blurt of staccato no-wave rock that could start a whirling-dervish moshpit under the right circumstances. “Action Man” sounds like the Pop Group and Clock DVA splinter group the Box in a pressure cooker. “Crash My Dome” is almost as hectic as its predecessor and studded with unpredictable moves, a sort of fleet funk that’s tied up in strange knots, like a Type-A Minutemen. “Jampire” could be an accelerated, Cubist interpretation of Sly & The Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”; it’s an aptly chaotic conclusion to a record that believes, like Sonic Youth, confusion is sex.
Get On Board is super brief, but with its whirlwind energy and flagrant tension, that’s sort of a blessing. You will feel wrung out and exhilaratingly stunned by the end of its 11-minute running time. -Buckley Mayfield
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What happens when a black man covers songs on The White Album? Magic, as it turns out. Releasing an LP of 10 interpretations from a record that came out earlier in that year by the blessed Beatles might seem like a crass cash-in, but keyboardist Ramsey Lewis is a helluva classy, exceptionally talented interpreter, and Mother Nature’s Son is mostly fantastic—no matter if it was meant to capitalize on the world’s most popular rock band’s latest opus.
Cadet’s in-house studio wizard Charles Stepney (I highly recommend you especially check out his work with the Rotary Connection) convinced Lewis to record Mother Nature’s Son even though Ramsey was not the biggest Beatles fan. Lewis had covered “And I Love Her,” “Hard Day’s Night,” and “Day Tripper,” but hadn’t been converted into a hardcore Fab Four aficionado. In late 1968, Stepney insisted Lewis listen more deeply to The White Album, and the latter eventually came around—luckily for us.
Bolstered by Lewis’ Moog synthesizer treatments and an orchestra, the soul-jazzed-up instrumental versions on Mother Nature’s Son sound expansive and festooned with baroque ornamentation. Lewis and company blow out Paul McCartney’s spare “Mother Nature’s Son” into a dazzling symphonic tapestry and the unbearable “Rocky Raccoon” is made bearable—see, miracles do happen. John Lennon’s “Julia” is whipped into a creamy, drifting sigh of a piece that soars much higher than his original intimate ballad. “Back In The U.S.S.R.” oozes sophisticated swagger and the drums really bump with what sounds like Bernard Purdie’s funky slaps. Also receiving hot funk injections are “Dear Prudence,” “Cry Baby Cry,” and “Sexy Sadie,” which billow into compositions as grandiose as Isaac Hayes circa Hot Buttered Soul or David Axelrod circa Songs Of Innocence/Experience.
The orchestral confection “Good Night” is a bit too rich for my blood, but “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And Monkey” absolutely scorches; it’s the LP’s most exciting rendition. “Monkey” is among the Beatles’ hardest-rocking tunes, and Lewis transforms it into one of the wildest peak-time party jams the ’60s—a decade famous for its peak-time party jams—has ever witnessed. This version tops the Feelies’, if you can believe it. Album-closer “Blackbird” really elevates and elongates, its melodic contours perfect for jazz virtuosi like Lewis and his mates to extrapolate upon.
Obviously, the raw material of The White Album is mostly superb, but in almost every instance, Lewis and his musicians find … Read more›
Imagine the Sun Ra Arkestra condensed into a duo of one adroit percussionist/synthesizer player (Gallivan) and one versatile saxophonist/flautist/English horn player (Austin). That’s Expression To The Winds, in a nutshell. The twosome immerse you immediately into their unusual, idiosyncratic sound world with an array of rarely heard percussion and keyboard timbres and forlorn yet spiritual wind-instrument arabesques that vaguely recall those on Paul Horn’s proto-New Age Inside LPs. Gallivan and Austin allow lots of space in their fairly brief compositions (the longest is 5:34), creating a sense of intimate immensity, a Saturnian desolation. Gallivan had at his disposal a Moog drum (he was the first recipient of said instrument, along with ELP’s Carl Palmer), and its oddly percolating report ripples throughout Expression To The Winds, lending it alien pulsations.
Listening to the album’s 12 tracks makes you feel as if gravity’s gone AWOL and you’re floating in a mysterious ether, far from earthly concerns. Similar atmospheric qualities to Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch surface in Expression To The Winds, but this is a mid-’70s production, so the delay is thickly applied and the electronics are super-tactile. The musicians are playing tricks with time and with your mind, in a most delicate and austere manner. They overwhelm with understatement.
Both Gallivan and Austin have impressive pedigrees. Austin’s played with Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, and others; Gallivan anchored the world-beating Love Cry Want with Larry Young, and drummed in groups featuring Soft Machine members Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean, Evan Parker, Keith Tippett, Gil Evans, and formed Powerfield with Gary Smith and Pat Thomas. You could classify Expression To The Winds as jazz, but its enigmatic allure makes it as much of a natural draw for heads into experimental improv and even ambient electronic music. Forget categories, though: Gallivan and Austin have created a sound that inventively refracts soulful emotion into the most beguiling abstract shapes. No wonder the music industry didn’t know what to do with these mavericks. –Buckley Mayfield… Read more›
Let’s be blunt: X-Dreams is all about “My Mama Never Taught Me How To Cook” and “Real & Defined Androgens.” The rest of the seven-track LP by singular American singer-songwriter-producer Annette Peacock is fine, but its aforementioned first two cuts tower over everything like the most dominant dominatrix.
“My Mama” is a tour de force of Peacock’s offbeat storytelling and innuendo prowess and surprising vocal shifts, from arena-ready belting to pillow-talk whispers. She relates how her upbringing didn’t predispose her for domesticity but rather for independence and sexuality. The backdrop is subdued funk rock in a tricky meter. “Daddy never taught me how to suck-seed, that’s why I’m so crazy crazy crazy,” she intones. “My destiny’s not to serve/I’m a woman/My destiny is to create.” Here’s your unsung ’70s feminist anthem.
But wait—it gets better. “Real & Defined Androgens” stands (or lies) as one of the sexiest songs ever written. This is low-slung, dangerous funk that would just as soon knife you as fuck you; maybe it’ll do both simultaneously. Peacock again flaunts her vast range, mostly reciting detachedly erotic lyrics in slow, seductive Sprechstimme, but occasionally blossoming into full-on testifying-Aretha Franklin mode. The music gradually intensifies into a madly thrusting yet controlled freakout haloed by a wild sax solo and laced with insanely cascading keyboards. “Real & Defined Androgens” is a perfect fusion of male and female energies and unlike anything I’ve ever heard… and I’ve heard a lot, because I’m old and obsessive.
Side two simmers with sophisticated, romantic jazz-pop ballads that feature Peacock using her most conventional crooning voice, with intermittent sensuous spoken-word passages to heighten the intimacy. There’s also a cover of the Otis Blackwell-penned Elvis Presley hit “Don’t Be Cruel” that Peacock smooths and accelerates into a Steely Dan-like, limousine-funk glide. The musicianship throughout X-Dreams is impeccable, featuring King Crimson/Yes drummer Bill Bruford, guitarists such as Mick Ronson, Chris Spedding, and Brian Godding (Blossom Toes), plus many other studs. It’s all very… nice, but the real thrills come hot and heavy on that opening diptych.
Thom Jurek summed up the record well on allmusic.com: “[X-Dreams] still sounds a bit ahead of its time. Peacock may have been wringing her own personal exorcism from these tracks, but for the rest of us, she offered a guidebook of complex emotional terrain, a treatise on the messy state of love, and a … Read more›
There’s an original copy of Relatively Clean Rivers’ first and only LP on the wall at a Portland record store that’ll cost you $800 (not a typo). It’s been sitting there for at least four or five years… although after this review goes live, probably for not much longer. Why the absurdly high price? I mean, Relatively Clean Rivers is a great record, but is it $800 great? Is any record worth that much? Maybe I’m not the best person to ask, as the most I’ve paid for a single album is $60. But enough about record-collector economics…
The brainchild of Orange County guitarist/vocalist/bassist Phil Pearlman (he also plays flute, “sahz,” harmonica, and synthesizer and is responsible for those crucial psych-rock opuses by Electronic Hole and Beat Of The Earth; his son was also a member of Al Qaeda, but don’t let that distract you from the sonic beauty at hand), Relatively Clean Rivers is a perfect combination of the Grateful Dead at their most concise and mellowest and Popol Vuh at their most accessible, e.g., Letzte Tage – Letzte Nächt. And if you love the Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” it’s pretty certain you’ll dig Relatively Clean Rivers.
This music sounds like the archetypal output of stoned-to-the-bone American hippies in the summer of 1969: bathed in a golden glow of gentle acoustic and electric guitar ramble and choogle, bursting with yearning melodies that twang your heart strings with utmost delicacy, and topped with Pearlman’s peace-mongering lyrics (“Hoping we an all get together, the Arabs and the Jews/And melt down weapons into water sprinklers”) and just-soulful-enough, Garcia-soft vocals. Every song’s a blessed wallow in laid-back melodiousness, with just enough rhythmic oomph to get your hips swaying and your upper lip sweating. Front to back, RCR keeps your manageable high at a sensible hum. It sounds best at sundown by the water with your tightest homies (especially “Hello Sunshine”), but these songs can elevate your mood wherever and whenever you happen to be.
In actuality, Relatively Clean Rivers is so great, I can’t fully trust anyone who doesn’t love it like Donald Trump loves attention. But I still wouldn’t pay 800 freakin’ US dollars for it. So thank you, Phoenix Records, for the reasonably priced reissue. -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›
This was my introduction to the Residents and let me tell you, its impact was immediate and powerful. Divided into two sidelong collages of viciously irreverent covers of popular rock songs of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s—“Swastikas On Parade” and “Hitler Was A Vegetarian”—The Third Reich ‘N Roll exposed the machinations of radio fodder as banal and manipulative in the extreme. Yet, even if you’re a fan of the songs the Residents mock here, as I am, you may still find yourself reveling in the clever, ludicrously distorted otherness of these versions. What they do with America’s “A Horse With No Name” is haunting as hell, and more poignant than the original. On the other hand, the Resident’s eviscerate the Box Tops’ “The Letter,” with a tip of the top hat to Joe Cocker’s guttural gargle, to boot. Having a very proper-sounding woman operatically sing James Brown’s “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” in German is wrongheaded genius, and those famous horn stabs sound absolutely hilarious in this context. Lulu’s “To Sir, With Love,” though, is smeared beyond all recognition. Similarly, “Heroes And Villains” sounds nothing at all like the Beach Boys, but rather like a squelched-out warping of a Gershon Kingsley/Jean-Jacques Perrey Moog ditty.
The “Hitler Was A Vegetarian” side takes a while to hit its stride, but when it does, oof. The off-key, out-of-time nightmare of “Yummy Yummy Yummy” might ruin bubblegum pop for you forever. (Nah.) The Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard” comes off as a brilliant robotic march that foreshadows Cabaret Voltaire’s cover of the Seeds’ “No Escape.” The mangling of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin” is a bloody travesty that inspires deep belly laughs. Elsewhere, Them’s “Gloria” gets desexualized beyond belief while the absurd machismo of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” receives a merciless depantsing. By contrast, the stretch starting with Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” and seguing quickly into the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” sounds fucking amazing, as the Residents work wonders out a cheap, out-of-tune synthesizer and shockingly emotive guitar solo, with requisite backing moans. When the “woo woo”s of the Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil” encroach on “Hey Jude”’s churchy vibes, the album’s relentless deflation unexpectedly turns into inflation. Perverse! Does anyone know Dick Clark’s opinion of this album?
Residents fans probably already know this, but Don Hardy’s documentary Theory Of Obscurity is screening soon in Seattle and elsewhere, and it’s highly recommended. -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›
By this point in Soft Machine’s history, drummer/vocalist Robert Wyatt was long gone and the Dadaist art pop of the first two LPs had vanished in a thick cloud of jazz-fusion smoke. But it would be a mistake to ignore Soft Machine’s post-Wyatt output. While many praise Third as the group’s peak after sweet Bobby W. left, I’m partial to Six—and it’s mainly because of two epic tracks: “The Soft Weed Factor” (John Barth allusion noted) and “Chloe And The Pirates.” I’ll explain why shortly. But first, it’s important to say that Six consists of one live LP and one studio record. The latter is where the best tracks lie.
Don’t get me wrong—the 11 live songs here are quite good. Whenever you have musicians the caliber of Hugh Hopper (bass), Mike Ratledge (keyboards, celeste), John Marshall (drums, percussion), and former Nucleus member Karl Jenkins (oboe, saxes, pianos), you’re going to get smart, complex, timbrally interesting compositions. Ratledge and Jenkins dominate the songwriting, and their PhD-level prog and jazz chops keep your neurons on their proverbial toes (clunky metaphor alert), as you try to figure out their crazy time signatures. The highlight of the concert recordings may be “Lefty,” which sounds like Miles Davis in At Filmore/Live-Evil/Big Fun mode—surprising and explosive.
Now about those two standouts mentioned in the first paragraph. Jenkins’ 11-minute “Soft Weed Factor” is a patiently unspooling piece featuring Jenkins and Ratledge’s intertwining keyboards, a helix of slow-motion, Terry Riley-esque hypnosis. When the methodical funk beats, sinuous bass line, and sax come in, it sounds like Miles and his In A Silent Way band have infiltrated the studio. Chills ensue. It would be okay if this were three times longer. Ratledge’s “Chloe And The Pirates” begins with a spacey electric-piano-dominated fantasia not unlike the intro to Deodato’s “Thus Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” before gradually shifting into a showcase for Jenkins’ beautiful oboe arabesques. He kind of puts Andy Mackay’s part in Roxy Music’s “Ladytron” to shame. Six ends on a very weird note, with Hopper’s “1983” evoking a spinal-fluid-chilling horror-soundtrack vibe with chthonic piano and percussion whose spooked-wind-chime timbres I’ve never heard anywhere else. (If they haven’t already, Demdike Stare really should sample this.) Here’s to world-class studio trickery… -Buckley Mayfield … Read more›
You’ve probably heard Lafayette Afro Rock Band without even realizing it. Their song “Darkest Light” has been sampled by Public Enemy (“Show ‘Em Watcha Got”), Wreckx-N-Effect (“Rump Shaker”), and Jay Z (“Show Me What You Got”). Other snippets of LARB tracks also have appeared in cuts by LL Cool J, Biz Markie, De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan, Gorillaz, and Pizzicato Five. And it’s easy to hear why: LARB brought the funk with pizzazz. Through these stealth methods, they’ve become integral to club culture. But they created plenty of riveting music that’s worthy on its own merits, not merely as fodder for other artists’ output.
The Lafayette Afro Rock Band consisted of seven musicians from Long Island, New York who cut two albums in Paris after deciding they’d have a better chance of breaking out in Europe instead of in the funk-saturated United States. Things didn’t quite pan out for LARB commercially, but 1974’s Soul Makossa and 1975’s Malik have emerged as underground funk classics. Aided by French producer Pierre Joubert, LARB created a flamboyant brand of funk that soared with buoyant horn charts and grooved with intricate bass/drum interplay. Ultimate party jam “Conga” predates the stark, percussion-heavy Latino funk of ESG and Konk by about six years. The title track is a laid-back, summertime-cruise joint whose loping rhythms, organ swells, and Kool & The Gang-like soul-jazz horn swoops evaporate your worries and LARB dabble compellingly with Afrobeat on “Raff.” The notorious “Darkest Light” is a paradoxical classic: It rolls sublimely on an utterly seductive rhythmic undercarriage, but above it there ululates a deeply melancholic sax motif, all of it filigreed with rococo guitar and some weirdly distorted organ (or electronically muted trumpet?). Whatever the case, the song endures as a moving (in all senses of the word) tribute to LARB’s phenomenal chemistry and arranging skills. They conclusively proved that a funk band didn’t need vocals to keep you interested. Every instrument on Malik sings with great eloquence and vibrant litheness.
(In 2007, As The Record Turns reissued Malik on vinyl. That may be the easiest way to score it on wax right now.) -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›
Remember that one time the flamboyant guitarist for prog-rock juggernauts like Gong, Khan, Arzachel, Clearlight, etc. cut a New Age album around the time the Pop Group’s Y, Wire’s 154, PiL’s Metal Box, and Gang Of Four’s Entertainment! were coming out? Oh, you forgot? Well, here’s a handy reminder. Steve Hillage’s Rainbow Dome Musick is the proto-chillout record of your mildest dreams (compliment!). It’s no surprise that Hillage later went on to collaborate with the Orb in the ’90s. It’s a bit of a surprise that he went full-on techno with his System 7 project, along with Miquette Giraudy. But I digress.
Rainbow Dome Musick—on which Giraudy also appears—consists of two sidelong tracks: the 23-minute “Garden Of Paradise” and the 20-minute “Four Ever Rainbow.” Right away, with its sample of gently running water and tranquilly tintinnabulating and twittering synth emissions, “Garden Of Paradise” sets you at utmost ease. Every sound on this epic zoner seems purified and heavenly (including the Tibetan bells and lambent guitar trills), intended to induce only the most relaxing and beneficent vibes. And that approach makes some people angry, somehow. More highly evolved beings should luxuriate in the bubbly ethereality and levitational beauty Hillage conjures with the saintly patience of a licensed massage therapist. This track makes Popol Vuh sound like Slayer.
“Four Ever Rainbow” carries a bassier tone from the Moog synthesizer and is somehow even more languid and blissed out than “Garden Of Paradise.” Damn, Hillage was beating Klaus Schulze at his own game. This is the ultimate terminus of the hippie-rock trip, brothers and sisters. What began in complex guitar pyrotechnics and kinetic propulsion gradually downshifted into the flowing stasis and crystalized calm of New Age—an oft-scorned genre, but when done right, it’s an effective conduit to inner peace and profound mindfulness. And Rainbow Dome Musick is New Age done very right. -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›
Curtis Knight (real name: Curtis McNear) has sunk into obscurity, despite cutting a handful of albums with Jimi Hendrix—none of which I’ve heard, sadly. The greatness of Down In The Village, though, makes that fate seem unjust. This Curtis cat could play guitar, sing, and write riveting songs that, while not on Hendrix’s lofty level, still hit with a bracing impact 46 years after their initial release.
The title track is a helluva way to start an album; it features some of the most satisfying cowbell clonks ever, and boasts a filthy groove that rivals CCR’s in “Run Through The Jungle” for in-the-pocket righteousness. “Lena” is a heart-trembling love song with a menacing riff running and stunning through it, and Knight lets off some primo early-Bob Seger vocal screeches near the end of it. “See No Evil” swaggers like Deep Purple’s cover of Joe South’s “Hush.” “Hi-Low” begins with a wicked breakbeat and blooms into a strong, funky blues-rock grind.
The ballads (“Friedman Hill,” for example) aren’t all that great and sometimes the rock and roll gets a bit corny (“Goin Up The Road,” for instance), but the hard rockers more than compensate for that—especially “Give You Plenty Lovin’.” At nearly 10 minutes, the song’s an incredibly adrenalized and obsessive psych rocker whose end-of-tether vocals and spectacular guitar conflagrations hint at Mudhoney’s attack—about 18 years before that Seattle band began releasing records. “Give You Plenty Lovin’” should’ve closed Down In The Village instead of opening side two, but that’s a quibble. This is a great, raucous rock record that’s been slept on for far too long.… Read more›
This album is the dream that keeps on giving. It is mainly the work of trumpeter Jon Hassell, a student of both Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pandit Pran Nath. On this LP, Hassell pioneered a unique brand of ambient, subliminally rhythmic music he dubbed “Fourth World.” Brian Eno added his discreet production touches and conceptual suggestions, but it’s Hassell who stirs the sound into its timeless placelessness. Attentive listeners will notice Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics‘ influence on Eno and David Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, which came out a year later.
Throughout Fourth World Vol. 1, Hassell makes his trumpet utter exotic avian and animalistic cries, sighs, and murmurs; it really is like nothing else I’ve ever heard. The five tracks on the first side—“Chemistry,” “Delta Rain Dream,” “Griot (Over ‘Contagious Magic’),” “Ba Benzélé,” “Rising Thermal”—could be Plutonian jazz or ritual music for a prehistoric race… or for accompanying whatever ceremonies humans will hold in the 31st-century. These tracks are at once unsettling and calming, alien and poignant. They make you feel bizarre emotions that seem outside of human experience. “Delta Rain Dream” is the zenith of the LP’s hazy oneiric drift, with Nana Vasconcelos and Ayibe Dieng’s congas enhancing that feeling by tumbling in an uncannily off-kilter cadence. The sidelong “Charm (Over ‘Burundi Cloud’)”—bear with me here—could’ve soundtracked those slow row-boat rides in Apocalypse Now… if the film had swapped out its hellish milieu for a heavenly one. The trance-inducing “Charm” is the perfect finale to an album that gently launches you out of reality into an imaginary environment that only a genius of Hassell’s caliber can conjure.
In 2014, Glitterbeat Records (run by ex-Seattle musician Chris Eckman of the Walkabouts) reissued Fourth World Vol. 1 with liner notes by Pat Thomas, which include an interview with Hassell. -Buckley Mayfield
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Perhaps you don’t spend much time thinking about gay porn soundtrack music. No worries—it is a fairly niche subgenre. But if you happen to be curious about this stuff, you could hardly do better than to explore the output of Patrick Cowley. Luckily for us, the Dark Entries label has reissued two collections of Cowley’s ’70s and ’80s work, School Daze (2013) and, most recently, the double LP Muscle Up. Whatever clichéd vision you have of gay porn soundtrackage, Cowley will make you readjust your expectations.
Cowley’s music is often eerily atmospheric and, yes, funky, but not in any cheesy, hamfisted way. Some tracks—like “Cat’s Eye,” “The Jungle Dream,” “Uhura,” “Mockingbird Dream 2,” and “Deep Inside You”—sound more like scores for space travel or nature documentaries than they do of cinematic sex. Beatier numbers like “Somebody To Love Tonight” and “Pigfoot” pump with a sexy thrust, but are also adorned with the sort of astral synthesizer dust that will enrapture Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, and Heldon fans. “5 Oz. Of Funk” is the most lubricious/tumescent piece here, and it is sure enough filthy to the core. But then you get something like “Timelink,” which sounds like a didgeridoo hyperventilating in the ozone layer. It’s kind of funny and ludicrous to think that this tune thrummed in the background of some dudes’ orgasmic experiences.
But credit to Cowley for landing this sort of utilitarian job and creating something extraordinary and subversive; what was probably a low-rent gig resulted in high art. [Muscle Up comes with informative liner notes and an XXX-rated poster.] -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›