Psych and Prog

Bee Gees “Bee Gees 1st” (Polydor/ATCO, 1967)

Rock bands that emulated the Beatles were 10 a penny in the mid/late ’60s. But among the legions of Fab Four disciples from that era, few sounded as sublime as Bee Gees. They decisively proved this point with Bee Gees’ 1st (actually their third LP, but first to be released worldwide). It’s a cornucopia of baroque psychedelic pop that out-John-Paul-Georged nearly everybody in the field. (Klaus Voorman, the brilliant artist who designed the cover for Revolver, also did a fantastic job with 1st.)

1st came out about six weeks after Sgt. Pepper’s in the UK, and peaked at #7 on the Billboard album chart. That’s how sophisticated pop-music consumers were in 1967. At this point, the Gibb brothers—Barry, Robin, and Maurice—were working with Australian musicians Vince Melouney on guitar and drummer Colin Petersen on drums. Bill Shepherd and Phil Dennys handled the orchestral arrangements with panache. These musicians made for a formidable team.

Right off the bat, “Turn Of The Century” and “Holiday,” show Bee Gees’ vast emotional range. The former’s ebullient baroque pop with echt Beatlesque vocal harmonies, which contrasts with the latter’s lachrymose ballad of precious intimacy, although Shepherd’s orchestrations nudge “Holiday” into Moody Blues/Left Banke territory.

The album really takes off with “Red Chair Fade Away,” an eerie efflorescence of psychedelic pop in the “Strawberry Fields Forever” vein. It pushes a profound nostalgic button for people who love songs in which instruments such as flute and violin seem to be melting in the studio—a number larger than you’d think. Out of sheer quirkiness, Robin brays like a sheep after Barry repeatedly sings “red chair fade away” near song’s end, and “I can feel the speaking sky” is brilliant and terrifying synesthesia. Another towering high point is “In My Own Time,” whose strutting garage-psych recalls “Taxman,” a style I wish the Gibb bros attempted more often. (By the way, the Three O’Clock did a nice cover of this tune on 1983’s Sixteen Tambourines.)

New York Mining Disaster” uh, mines the old-timey vibe of the Beatles’ “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite.” However, it is the Gibbs’ perverse genius to turn a tragic story about a worker being trapped in a mine into a soaring, feel-good hit. The bittersweet vocal harmonies and phrasing come off as a combo of “Good Day Sunshine” and “Eleanor Rigby.” The delightful psych lite of “Please Read Me” is as shaggily wonderful as your favorite Help! or Rubber Soul tune. “I Close My Eyes” is a very special song, bristling with strange beauty, staunch drumming, bravura fragile vocalizing à la 1966-era John Lennon, and a bizarre ee-ew sound that seems like a mistake that producer Robert Stigwood decided to keep for sheer WTF? value.

Beatles panto is fine and all, but do Bee Gees have soul? Oh, they certainly do. Dig “One Minute Woman,” a blue-eyed-soul charmer with sophisticated swagger and elevated by sumptuous strings and horn charts akin to a Lee Hazlewood production. “To Love Somebody” was originally written for Otis Redding, and it shows. One of the greatest love songs ever, it bursts with soul as it swims in a profound orchestral pathos and Barry sings his ass off. No wonder it’s been covered by Nina Simone, Rod Stewart, Roberta Flack, Gram Parson, Janis Joplin, and many others.

Saving the best for last, we come to “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You.” Featuring anguished mellotron played by Maurice and Gregorian-like chants (“o solo dominique”), Bee Gees set a Moody Blues tone before shifting into a stoned bliss psych-rock gem that stands up to the best of Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour. Amazing that this song, with its odd dynamics and strange atmospheres, appeared on the B-side of the “Holiday” 45. I can’t be the only one who freaked upon hearing “Every Christian” on the radio for the first time. In the context of commercial airwaves, it’s hard not to gasp, “What is this?”

It’s that mad combo of sonic adventurousness and indelible catchiness that makes Bee Gees 1st the group’s zenith and a stone-cold classic. -Buckley Mayfield

Larry Coryell “Barefoot Boy” (Flying Dutchman, 1971)

From 1969 to 1975, guitar virtuoso Larry Coryell had a phenomenal run of solo albums for prestigious labels such as Vanguard, Flying Dutchman, and Arista. (His date with German avant-jazz keyboardist Wolfgang Dauner on Et Cetera’s Knirsch LP is essential, too.) During this time, Coryell was challenging hotshots such as John McLaughlin, Sonny Sharrock, Pete Cosey, Ray Russell, and John Abercrombie for jazz-rock-guitar supremacy.

Of all the great recordings Coryell cut in that golden period, Barefoot Boy may be the strongest. At points, it predates the fury and finesse of Miles Davis’ On The Corner by about a year. In 1969, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau called Coryell “the greatest thing to happen to the guitar since stretched gut,” and for a change, I agree with him.

Recorded at New York’s Electric Lady Studios and produced by Flying Dutchman label owner Bob Thiele, Barefoot Boy charges out of the gate as if ablaze. Coryell and company radically intensify Gábor Szabó’s “Gypsy Queen” to nearly 12 minutes, forging thrumming, seething jazz rock over which saxophonist Steve Marcus breathes rococo fire while Coryell unleashes a Hendrixian vernacular on guitar: scultped feedback, fleet wah-wah riffs, divebombs. The rhythm’s monomaniacally repetitive and robust, thanks to Roy Haynes’ drumming and Lawrence Killian’s conga. Surely, Mr. Szabó was impressed.

It may take a while to catch your breath after that, but hurry, because “The Great Escape” is gonna make you move some more. It’s a brazen funk cut redolent of the torqued tension of Axis: Bold As Love and On The Corner, with Haynes’ clanging cymbal work accentuating the roiling rhythm. Coryell goes into hyperdrive with thick, corrugated riffs and mercurial, pointillistic runs while Mervin Bronson’s bass line churns lubriciously. Icing this groovy cake, Marcus gets off a Wayne Shorter-esque solo of concise brilliance. Was Miles taking notes?

The 20-minute “Call To The Higher Consciousness” begins with an uplifting fanfare not unlike the one in Pharoah Sanders’ “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” with Mike Mandel’s piano emulating the rolling bliss of Lonnie Liston Smith’s. Marcus takes the lead in the early stages, blowing golden arabesques over a lovely, loping rhythm. Eventually, Coryell emits a flurry of crystalline notes that ripple with mind-boggling fluency. There’s room for everyone to take a solo in this sidelong journey, including Mandel’s gorgeous shower of high-pitched chords and Haynes’ nimble and rugged drum workout. When the group barge back in, they spew a geyser of spiritual-jazz euphoria akin to that heard on Alice Coltrane and Carlos Santana’s Illuminations. After several bursts of febrile joy, the song downshifts into subdued mode in the last few minutes.

Although rarely touted as such, Barefoot Boy belongs in the fusion pantheon, with your Spectrums, your Emergency!s, your Birds Of Fires, etc. -Buckley Mayfield

Harvey Mandel “The Snake” (Janus, 1972)

The fact that you often see Harvey Mandel’s albums in the used bins is yet more proof that the world’s full of fools. The Detroit-born blues-rock musician is a guitarist’s guitarist who played with some of the best blues-rock musicians of the ’60s (Canned Heat, John Mayall, Charlie Musselwhite) and was thisclose to joining the Rolling Stones. You can hear Mandel auditioning for the slot given to Ron Wood on 1976’s Black And Blue, on which Harv knocked it out of the park on “Hot Stuff” and “Memory Motel.” I can’t be the only one who thought Mick and Keef blundered with their pick (pun intended).

Anyway, Mandel’s string of albums from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s is strong, with The Snake being its peak. Right from go, “The Divining Rod” alerts you to Mandel’s six-string mastery, with its dynamic, swerving rock powered by righteous cowbell. He wrings serpentine, silvery lines of dazzling intricacy and elasticity, and you can tell Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood was listening intently. The zig-zagging, Gábor Szabó-esque jazzadelia of “Pegasus” assumes a Romani tinge thanks to Don “Sugarcane” Harris’ spirited violin coloration. As for “Peruvian Flake,” I learned from the Urban Dictionary that the title’s a slang term for cocaine, so it’s apropos that this song’s quicksilver rock of mind-boggling technical proficiency. It’s kind of shocking that Steely Dan didn’t hire Mandel after this came out.

Some other highlights include “Ode To The Owl,” a moving blues-rock solo guitar tribute to Canned Heat’s Alan Wilson, who died in 1970 at the tragically young age of 27 and “Levitation,” whose sly jazz rock is elevated by Charles Lloyd’s flute, Freddie Roulette’s sublime, pointillistic steel guitar solo, and Kevin Burton’s flamboyant soul-jazz organ solo. My fave cut is “The Snake” (a slightly less sublime and psychedelic version appeared on Mandel’s 1968 debut LP, Christo Redentor). This might be the coolest, most funkadelic track in Mandel’s canon, and as I’ve discovered as a DJ, it segues very well into Herbie Hancock’s “Hang Up Your Hang Ups.” Mandel saved the fieriest for the last with “Bite The Electric Eel.” This is a fried blues-rock jam that can hold its own with Peter Green’s The End Of The Game. The song’s full of staggering showboating, but there’s nothing at all annoying about it.

I paid $1 for my used copy of The Snake, but as it’s the zenith of one of America’s most virtuosic and tone-smart blues-rock guitarists, the album’s worth at least 30 times that. Hot stuff, indeed. -Buckley Mayfield

Kevin Ayers “Bananamour” (Harvest, 1973)

Is this the second-greatest rock album featuring a banana on its cover? Quite possibly. While Bananamour is not quite as important as The Velvet Underground & Nico, it does boast the best song ever about the German vocalist who appeared on the Velvets’ landmark LP. More on that later.

Kevin Ayers’ last LP for the prog-oriented Harvest label, Bananamour isn’t as far out and cerebral as 1970’s Shooting At The Moon or as wonderfully weird as 1969’s Joy Of A Toy, but it has more hits than misses and it contains perhaps the founding Soft Machine member’s greatest composition. More on that later.

Bananamour—a fruity, bilingual portmanteau word that suggests Ayers is not to be taken totally seriously—starts with the woozily beautiful and ominous “Don’t Let It Get You Down (For Rachel),” a ballad redolent of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” and “Carry That Weight.” Ayers’ feeds his voice through a Leslie speaker while backing vocalists Liza Strike and Doris Troy vibrantly burst to the fore with the title chorus. The carefree lope of “Shouting In A Bucket Blues” is elevated by guest musician Steve Hillage’s honeyed, psych-blues-inflected electric guitar, which contrasts with Ayers’ lusciously lugubrious acoustic-guitar strum. Bassist Archie Legget steps to the mic to sing “When Your Parents Go To Sleep,” a brassy, wobbly legged blues-rock ballad about aching hormones. His voice is like a less pugnacious Joe Cocker while the tune resembles the Stones’ “I Got The Blues.” I’m not complaining.

Another impressive guest, Soft Machine organist Mike Ratledge, illuminates “Interview.” With Legget’s bass line getting to the funky nitty-gritty, this is severe blues rock that cuts as deeply as Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.” Thankfully, this tune gets stranger as it goes, with Ratledge going off into the stratosphere with some mindblowing improv. Another Soft Machine alumnus, the inimitable Robert Wyatt, bestows harmony vocals to the warm, intimate ballad “Hymn.”

Bananamour has a couple of goofy tangents, too. “Oh! Wot A Dream” falls somewhere between Pink Floyd’s “Pow R. Toc H.” and a Bonzo Dog Doodah Band ditty while “Caribbean Moon” comes off as a British take on Nilsson’s “Coconut,” with all the insouciant charm and faux-calypso vibe that that implies. (“Caribbean Moon” appears on the US Sire edition, not the original Harvest release.)

Now for the pièce de résistance (thank you for your patience)—“Decadence,” a chiming, slow-blooming drone-rock epic that portrays the aforementioned Nico as a cold, elusive heartbreaker. A key passage: “Fading flowers in her hair/She’s suffering from wear and tear/She lies in waterfalls of dreams/And never questions what it means/And all along the desert shore/She wanders further evermore/The only thing that’s left to try…/She says to live I have to die.” Harsh, dude. The song’s gradually accelerating and ascending cruise to the stars (Legget’s bass is a spiraling, springy wonder) foreshadows soulful British space-rockers Spiritualized. That is high praise, indeed. You can bet legendary BBC Radio DJ John Peel loved Bananamour. -Buckley Mayfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gong “You” (Virgin, 1973)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pharoah Sanders “Karma” (Impulse!, 1969)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margo Guryan “Take A Picture” (Bell, 1968)

Writing about this classic sunshine-pop album during one of the grimmest periods in world history seems perverse, but what the hell? Maybe listening to Margo Guryan’s sole full-length from 1968 will bring much needed light and joy to your quarantined existence. I’m here to help you get through this.

Take A Picture starts auspiciously with “Sunday Morning”—not a Velvet Underground cover, but rather a diaphanous orchestral-pop tune with a deceptively swaggering funkiness in its undercarriage. Guryan’s voice is sheerest bliss, a meringue-y delight. “Sun” might be the epitome of sunshine pop, right down to its on-the-nose title. Elevated by lashings of FX’d sitars and slashing, swooning strings, it makes “Eight Miles High” seem earthbound. “Sun” blows away your blues with the lightest, lavender-scented breeze. Shout out to guitarist John Hill for the arrangements on these two beauties.

“Pretty love songs always make me cry,” Guryan coos with sangfroid poise on “Love Songs,” and it should irk you with its clichéd sentiment, but the dulcet melody and sumptuous, swaying strings make your curmudgeonly feelings seem ridiculous. The understated McCartney-esque jauntiness of “Thoughts,” undercut with a lightly morose flute and oboe, is fairly slight, but still winsome as hell. “Don’t Go Away”’s waltz time baroque pop verges on breezy prog, while “Take A Picture”’s baroque pop sashays into the exalted realm of the Left Banke.

If you crave more jauntiness, “What Can I Give You?” offers much sugary corniness, but it’s offset by Guryan’s wondrously wispy whisper. The maudlin orchestral pop of “Think Of Rain” is almost too precious, but that’s balanced out by the hushed splendor of “Can You Tell” and the early-Bee Gees bravado and melodic momentousness of “Someone I Know.”

These intimate romantic vignettes are all well and good, but Guryan saves the best for last. By far Take A Picture‘s most adventurous and psychedelic moment, “Love” begins like a drug-induced dream, with drummer Buddy Saltzman busting out outrageously odd beats amid Kirk Hamilton’s gently swirling flute and Hill’s weirdly tuned guitar fibrillations, before a sinuously funky groove enters and the guitars shift into Ceyleib People-like radiation. The flute gets echoplexed to infinity, as the groove gets greasy, and then Paul Griffin’s cosmic keyboards soar into earshot. Margo doesn’t start singing until the three-minute mark, and when she does, you’ll get shivers down your backbone. The change that occurs at 4:30 lifts everything yet again to a head-spinning zenith; the rhythm starts spasming like that in the Doors’ “Peace Frog,” Guryan’s coos spiral heavenward, and Phil Bodner’s oboe foreshadows Roxy Music’s fantasias. “Love” is one of the greatest album-closing tracks ever—hell, one of the greatest tracks ever, period. It’s almost all you need. -Buckley Mayfield

Howard Wales & Jerry Garcia “Hooteroll?” (Douglas, 1971)

If you ask Siri, “What’s the funkiest album with Jerry Garcia on it?” you’ll probably get the wrong answer—if any. But if you ask me, that would be Hooteroll? Sorry, Merl Saunders.

Garcia and Howard Wales cut Hooteroll? during a brief spell when the Grateful Dead guitarist/vocalist was jamming with the brilliant keyboardist, who had previously played with A.B. Skhy and collaborated with German electronic musician and Irmin Schmidt cohort Bruno Spoerri. The result’s one of the more interesting and DJ-friendly GD spinoff projects.

“South Side Strut” bursts out of the gate with bravado, a brassy soul-jazz effusion with a surplus of greasy, chunky funk in its trunk. (Think the Doors’ “Peace Frog” or Deep Purple’s “Hush.”) This is my go-to track from this LP when I’m DJing. Its sports-highlight-reel brashness really grabs the attention.

“A Trip To What Next” opens with John Kahn’s snaky bass line and the triumphant orange-yellow bursts of sax and trumpet by Martin Fierro and Ken Balzall, but the mid section finds Wales and Garcia going off on a Floydian psychedelic excursion before the song returns to a peppy soul-jazz riff and a final Grateful Dead-meets-early-Chicago flame-out.

“Up From The Desert” is a beautiful sundown-shimmer of a song, a piece of meditative rock that hints at the grandeur of the Electric Prunes’ Release Of An Oath. Garcia is in prime form, sounding like Wrecking Crew badass Howard Roberts. Another great cut to drop into DJ sets, “DC-502” brings frenetic, funky soul jazz that flaunts Incredible Jimmy Smith/Richard “Groove” Holmes vibes.

The spangling, ECM-ish meditation “One A.M. Approach” offers an exquisite respite while “Uncle Martin’s” foreshadows Medeski, Martin + Wood with its swaggering organ swells while Garcia coaxes articulate wah-wah punches and feints. “Da Birg Song” (sometimes rendered “Da Bird Song”) closes Hooteroll? on a lackadaisical blues note, borne aloft by Fierro’s gorgeous, tranquil flute and Wales’ florid piano. (The 2010 CD reissue contains four bonus tracks, including “Morning In Marin,” which bear a resemblance to Miles Davis’ landmark fusion album, Bitches Brew, and “Evening In Marin,” which exudes a pastoral-cosmic peacefulness akin to Popol Vuh or Ashra.)

Even if you don’t dig the music (you philistine), the cover by Abdul Mati Klarwein—who’s also done work for Santana, Miles Davis, Last Poets, and Jon Hassell—is worth the price of admission alone. -Buckley Mayfield

The Chambers Brothers “The Time Has Come” (Columbia, 1967)

The Chambers Brothers—who included four actual African-American brothers and, oddly, a white drummer named Brian Keenan who lived in England and Ireland as a child—are best known for their hit single “Time Has Come Today.” And rightly so. Recorded in 1966, released a year later, and covered many times since by artists as diverse as Joan Jett, Me’shell Ndegoecello, Smashing Pumpkins, Bootsy Collins, Pearl Jam, and Ramones, “Time Has Come Today” is a landmark in psychedelic rock—especially the full 11-minute version. But more about that later. The Time Has Come has many other great songs on it besides that monster tune.

The Chambers Brothers’ debut LP busts out of the gate fantastically with “All Strung Out Over You.” With its bobbing bass line worthy of Motown session immortal Bob Babbitt, a barrage of cowbell, handclaps, and rough soul belting, this is a full-tilt expression of romantic expression—certified dance-floor dynamite. It’s followed by “People Get Ready,” a faithful cover of the Impressions’ Curtis Mayfield’s gospelized ballad of political resistance, which was deemed by Martin Luther King as the unofficial anthem of Civil Rights movement. But coming right after “All Strung Out Over You” makes it a momentum-killer. Because it’s more moving than a mover, it would’ve fit better at side’s end.

With “I Can’t Stand It,” the Chambers Brothers fling us back into uptempo heart-/groin-throb action, a potent slice of Northern soul slathered with of harmonica and elevated by possessed backing vocals. Dozens of acts have covered Steve Cropper and Wilson Pickett’s Stax soul classic, “In The Midnight Hour,” and unfortunately the Chambers Brothers’ attempt is merely functional. Another cover that doesn’t play to the Chambers Brothers’ strengths is “What The World Needs Now Is Love,” Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s popular 1965 sanguine ditty. I could easily live without this stodgy rendition. The album’s best cover is “Uptown,” which was written by Betty Mabry (aka funk goddess Betty Davis). This is a sleek, slithering soul gem full of diamond-hard guitar jabs and boisterous vocal interplay. It’s one of Betty’s greatest compositions.

The Chambers Brothers definitely saved the best for last: the aforementioned “Time Has Come Today.” Joseph and Willie Chambers wrote this masterpiece, which must have made Lester and George mad jealous. Everything about this track is fire: the tick-tocking cowbell, the rambling main guitar riff, the massed shouts of “TIME,” the lead vocal’s righteous sagacity, the bizarre bridge during which time slows and dilates to nightmarish dimensions, the delayed “TIME”s, the serpentine guitar solo, the build up to the first climax, the most audacious “OOOHHHH” in rock history, the line “my soul’s been psychedelicized,” the conclusive warped-guitar explosion. I could go on, but your eyes are already glazing over.

This song has special personal meaning, as it opened my ears to psychedelic music when I heard it on the radio as a 6 year old. I’ve been chasing that dragon ever since. Eternal gratitude to whichever radio programmer decided the country was ready for such an outré specimen of rock—and to the Chambers Brothers, too, of course. -Buckley Mayfield