Reggae and Dub

Cristina “Sleep It Off” (Mercury, 1984)

Cristina Monet-Palaci tragically passed away in early April from COVID-19 at the age of 61. She didn’t have a large discography, but what little she did release contained a high percentage of enchanting winners. Perhaps her peak was Sleep It Off, which most fully displays her flamboyant personality.

Cristina’s marriage to Michael Zilkha, co-owner of the excellent funk/No Wave label ZE Records, led to her collaborating with ZE artists August Darnell of Kid Creole & The Coconuts’, James Chance of Contortions, and Don Was of Was (Not Was). Heavy company! The latter produced Sleep It Off at his Detroit studio, and co-wrote three songs—including two of its best. Let’s talk about those first.

“What’s A Girl To Do” starts with some of the best opening lines of the ’80s: “my life is in a turmoil/my thighs are black and blue/ my sheets are stained and so is my brain/oh what’s a girl to do?” And there you have Cristina’s persona summed up from the get-go—an aristocratic hot mess who’s self-aware but making the best of a bad situation by singing over great music. “What’s A Girl To Do” barges into life with a wonderfully warped keyboard riff that telegraphs new-wave oddity and booming beats that translate to club gold. The ultra-jaunty tenor of the music contrasts with the sordid subject matter.

The album’s dramatic and rockiest peak occurs on “Don’t Mutilate My Mink,” bolstered by heroic, beefy guitar riffs by Bruce Nazarian and Barry Reynolds. Cristina’s intonations in the verses recall Johnny Rotten’s on the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The UK.” “My nightdress is expensive/I don’t want to see it soiled/My heart is pretty tender/Don’t want to see it broiled/Don’t want to start my morning/With your traces on my sink/You’ll do just fine without me/Don’t mutilate my mink.” Was’ third co-written song is “Quicksand Lovers,” a femme-fatale portrait framed in a breezy, faux-tropical-electro vehicle.

Another highlight comes on “Ticket To The Tropics,” courtesy of another Detroit character: the Knack’s Doug Feiger. He and Cristina create a brash, danceable new wave with suave key changes and a synth motif worthy of the Time or Prince. Jazz magus Marcus Belgrave—another Detroiter—plays trumpet. The anomalous “Rage And Fascination” bears an ominous quasi-dub groove and stern vocal delivery; it’s the closest Cristina gets to Grace Jones.

The weakest moments on Sleep It Off are the covers. The Sonny Throckmorton composition “She Can’t Say That Anymore”—originally recorded in 1980 by country singer John Conlee—is lackluster. Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Ballad Of Immoral Earnings” is a duet with an annoying male singer and its quasi-reggae treatment doesn’t suit anyone well. The louche version of Van Morrison’s “Blue Money” is the best cover here. It features Chance on sax and allows Cristina to perfect her disaffected, disdainful voice while adding a sheen of sleaze to Van’s tipsy, throwback R&B.

If you want the perfect summation of Sleep It Off‘s lyrical thrust, “The Lie Of Love,” is it. In this ballad about a problematic romance, Cristina conveys regret and acceptance of hypocrisy with subdued poignancy. It’s not her best mode, but she convinces you that she’s lived through this and emerged with an alluring shred of dignity.

(Note: A fidgety cover of Prince’s classic “When You Were Mine” appears as a bonus track on the CD release.) -Buckley Mayfi

Land Of The Loops “Bundle Of Joy” (Up, 1996)

Seattle-based indie label Up Records put out some overlooked gems during its 1994-2008 run. One of the finest and quirkiest is Bundle Of Joy by Land Of The Loops (aka East Coast musician/producer Alan Sutherland). Deploying beats, bass lines, and synthy FX as well as guest singers and an array of samples, Land Of The Loops created a wonderful hybrid of bedroom indie-pop and hip-hop. Bundle Of Joy is probably Sutherland’s peak.

The aptly titled “Welcome” starts as a kooky collage, before some of the fattest, funkiest beats ever to appear on an Up release (is that Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat”?) enter the fray. These beats engage the delayed, dulcet vocals of Simone Ashby in a cagey duel in a cut as minimal as early Run-D.M.C. Ashby resurfaces on the phantasmal, disorienting “Burning Clutch (five-speed dub),” her vocals recalling the dreamy tenor of Dorothy Moskowitz of the United States Of America. What a heady trip.

Speaking of guest vocalists, Beat Happening’s Heather Lewis appears on “Growing Concern,” delivering her trademark child-like vocals over an easygoing funk charmer, bestowing a distinctly PNW innocence to the album. She also adds darling singing to the sparkling, stuttering funk of “My Head (leaks)” and to “Cruisin’ For Sentient Beings,” which is powered by a classic, urgent break (close to Skull Snaps’ “It’s A New Day,” but not it) that you’ve heard on at least a dozen hip-hop tracks. Nevertheless, the results are fresh.

More evidence of Sutherland’s kaleidoscopic vocal sampling trickery occurs on “Mass Ave. And Beyond,” on which he sprinkles enchanting bleeps and bloops over a starkly funky foundation, and “I Dream Of Ghosts,” which evokes the eerie, spacey dub of early Seefeel, thanks to the sampled angelic sighs. Perhaps LOTL’s best-known track, “Multi-Family Garage Sale (bargain-bin mix),” presents ludicrously bubbly and loping suburban funk with a staccato female vocal sample, snippets of children talking (“Don’t leave me”; Where are we anyway?” etc.), and beats not unlike those in George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog.” No wonder Miller licensed the track for a beer commercial. I bet Sutherland significantly upgraded his studio after this transaction.

Other highlights include “Help For Your Aching Back,” a swirling, psychedelic workout that might should be playing in hipper chiropractors’ offices, and “Day Late & A Dollar Short,” a fantastic sampladelic agglomeration of Buddhist monk chants, children jauntily singing, twangy guitar from the James Bond theme, archetypal sci-fi analog synth emissions, and very rugged, funky beats. Play this in a DJ set and watch people lose their shit—while looking befuddled.

Discogs prices for Bundle Of Joy have jumped up in recent years. It seems odd that no label’s reissued this wonky wonder since its first issue 23 years ago, but perhaps this review will nudge somebody into doing that. (Gotta dream big!) -Buckley Mayfield

Klark Kent “Klark Kent” (I.R.S., 1980)

For a few years in the ’70s and ’80s, Stewart Copeland moonlighted from his main gig as drummer for new-wave/reggae mega stars the Police to cut some records under the alias Klark Kent. Some of them were super, man. The most substantial of them is this nine-track, 10-inch mini-album. An accomplished film composer (Rumble Fish, Wall Street, etc.), Copeland/Kent plays all of the instruments—drums, guitar, bass, piano, typewriter, kazoo—with bravura facility.

Opener “Don’t Care”—which was a top 50 single in the UK in 1978—originally was intended for the Police, but Sting reputedly couldn’t relate to the sneering, bratty lyrics. But the song triumphs with its insanely catchy, speedy new wave heat, its smooth propulsion, unpredictable dynamics, and sneering lyrics. It sounds as if it’s going to fly right off the grooves and smack your face. The yobbish reggae rock of “Away From Home” reveals Copeland’s voice as the album’s weak link; it’s a bit too proud of its gawky geekiness. As a singer, he makes a great drummer. But the track does boast a wonderful, curt, corkscrewed guitar solo.

“Ritch In A Ditch” [sic] is tensile, slightly quirky rock in the vein of early Police. The line “I wanna be rich/I don’t wanna work in a ditch” is funny because Copeland was likely well on his way to having a fat bank balance by this time. “Grandelinquent” is a slashing, skewed instrumental with a manic piano solo and wicked Snakefinger-/Fred Frith-esque guitar solo.

Things get really interesting on “Guerilla,” whose brilliant, proggy new wave moves are not too far away from what Robert Fripp was doing in the late ’70s/early ’80s. “My Old School” toggles between breakneck new wave and well-meaning Causcasoid reggae and is laced with revenge-fantasy lyrics. The song proves that Copeland is better at the former than the latter. The lean, swerving, Police-like rock of “Excess” comes replete with sizzling guitar solo and crucial cowbell accents as Copeland laments, “my excesses are getting the better of me/I’m ready to go home.”

Klark Kent peaks on the closer, “Theme For Kinetic Ritual.” Rhythmically brash and melodically heroic, this instrumental sounds like a score for the best sports TV show that’s never been aired. Seattle radio station KEXP used to use this track as a bed for its concert announcements, and it was perfect for stoking anticipation. I love to drop this one in DJ sets and then see the baffled look on people’s faces when they ask what it is. -Buckley Mayfield

Fleetwood Mac “Mystery To Me” (Reprise, 1973)

Mystery To Me is one of those sort-of-overlooked Fleetwood Mac albums that came between the Peter Green and Stevie Nicks-Lindsey Buckingham phases. Keyboardist Christine McVie and guitarist Bob Welch dominate the songwriting here; while it’s not the best pre-Rumours Fleetwood Mac album, it does contain a few serious highlights. Your enjoyment of Mystery To Me will be predicated on how much you dig Welch’s Valium’d vox, McVie’s plummy singing, and medium-cool blues rock. The strange thing about this record is that its peak, “Hypnotized,” is an anomaly in the Fleetwood Mac catalog. More about that later.

Side one stands out for a couple of McVie compositions. The peppy, catchy “Believe Me,” the most uptempo tune here, comes across very much like “Homeward Bound” off Bare Trees. “Just Crazy Love” is mildly ebullient pop that hints at Christine’s vibrant songwriting on Rumours. “Forever” shambles in on an odd reggae-rock rhythm that’s endearing almost despite itself. The rambling orchestral, quasi-flamenco rock of “Keep On Going” is unusual for bearing a McVie vocal in a Welch-written song.

Side two’s standout is “For Your Love,” as Fleetwood Mac deploy a a subtly different and dreamier rearrangement of the Yardbirds classic, bolstered by lots of dual-guitar fireworks. In “The City,” Welch explains how he can’t handle New York’s darkness, which is all around—even in Central Park, apparently—as his wah-wah guitar squawk propels a swaggeringly funky blues-rock workout. “Miles Away” is breezy, kinetic rock that makes you want to floor it as you zip down the freeway on a journey to the periphery of your mind, while Welch grinds out some seductive, highly torqued blues rock on “Somebody.”

But the real reason to cop Mystery To Me, is “Hypnotized”—which was a minor US radio hit and covered by the Pointer Sisters on their 1978 album, Energy. Urged along by a coolly detached yet insistent, rolling rhythm and colored by the chillest of spangly guitar embroidery, this song is pure proto-Balearic-beach enchantment. Welch’s mellow-bronze vocals perfectly cap this aptly titled jam. “Hypnotized” is my go-to Fleetwood Mac tune when I’m DJing in a bar and as the night’s winding down and I’m trying to lay the foundation for its boozing patrons to get laid.

Overall, Mystery To Me is a slow-grower that boasts a few cuts that belong on any Fleetwood Mac best-of mixtape. You should still be able to find a used vinyl copy for under $10. -Buckley Mayfield

Sonic Youth “Sonic Youth” (Neutral, 1982)


Often overlooked and underrated, Sonic Youth’s debut mini-album is a fascinating snapshot of the New York City avant-rock icons’ nascent greatness. It would be hard to find anybody who’d claim the five-track Sonic Youth is the band’s finest moment (though no doubt they’re out there), but it does merit respect as an auspicious hint of what was to come—even though it was the only record on which SY played in standard tuning.

What Sonic Youth makes clear from the beginning of lead-off track “The Burning Spear” is that they were eager to bust out of rock-song conventions and invent their own approach. Part of that impulse included guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s desire to make their instruments sound unlike other rockers’. You can hear them already generating the urgent alarm-bell clangor for which they’d be famous later in the decade. They don’t riff so much as erect environments—metallic, droning vistas redolent of post-industrial devastation and fraying nerves. Kim Gordon’s tensile, marauding bass straddles the line between dub and post-punk, not unlike how many other early ’80s groups were doing then. Ranaldo ran a mic’d electric drill through a wah-wah pedal for extra WTF? texture while Moore wailed like the No Wave disciple he was. What a way to blow out of the gate.

By contrast, “I Dream I Dreamed” is aptly oneiric, a mesmerizing lope animated by loitering guitars spangling with menace. The song swells in intensity and then subsides to allow Gordon and Ranaldo to sing some baffling lyrics in counterpoint (sample line: “A lot of people suffer from impotence/All the money’s gone”). Overall, SY effectively and nonchalantly create a detached sense of desolation. “She Is Not Alone” is one of the oddest entries in Sonic Youth’s discography; it’s jaunty and miniaturist, almost like a dubby Young Marble Giants or General Strike, as the guitars are tuned to sound like a warped xylophone and Richard Edson tattoos the tightly wound tom-toms with some rudimentary Native American patterns. (Yes, Richard Edson the actor in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan; he left SY for Konk after performing on this record.)

“I Don’t Want To Push It” reputedly was inspired by Can’s “Sing Swan Song,” but this is way more manic, with Edson’s kinetic beats buttressing a flaming wall of radiated guitars. “The Good And The Bad” finds Moore plucking out a brilliantly see-sawing bass line and Gordon and Ranaldo stroking out articulate guitar klang as the group forge an ebbing and flowing aural organism that seemingly wants to destroy passersby. This shit is ominous, and at nearly eight minutes, it foreshadows Sonic Youth’s future forays into tumultuous, multi-movement epics.

Sonic Youth would go on to make much better records, of course, but this initial offering stands the test of time and is a riveting curio in this important group’s renowned, sprawling canon.

(The 2006 Goofin’ Records vinyl reissue includes a bonus LP of a live show from 1981, plus an early studio cut, “Where The Red Fern Grows.”) -Buckley Mayfield

Tom Tom Club “Tom Tom Club” (Sire, 1981)

Tom Tom Club’s debut LP is proof you can judge an album by its cover. Artist James Rizzi depicts the band members—led by Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz—playing their instruments in a tropical paradise. It’s a busy illustration exploding with cartoonish glee, and it captures the carefree, buoyant spirit of Tom Tom Club’s music—a fantastical vacation from the Heads’ angsty, cerebral art-rock. (Not that Talking Heads couldn’t have fun; but their sound always has possessed a more prominent veneer of intellectualism and Eno-fied studio magic.)

Recorded in Barbados with Weymouth’s sisters Loric, Lani, and Laura on vocals, Adrian Belew on guitar, Steven Stanley on percussion and co-production, Tyrone Downie on keyboards, Uziah “Sticky” Thompson on percussion, and Monte Brown on guitar, Tom Tom Club reached #23 on the US album charts. That success was largely due to the two hit singles that lead off the record.

“Wordy Rappinghood” is one of the best songs ever with typewriter sounds in it, and it’s also one of the first tracks to feature rapping by a white woman, though it has to be said: Tina Weymouth is no Debbie Harry. Overall, “Wordy Rappinghood” is elite novelty electro-funk with a fantastic conga solo and insanely adorable Japanese-language (or is it nonsense?) chants by Tina’s siblings. “Genius Of Love” is the album’s peak, and one of the definitive tracks of the ’80s—and it’s been sampled a staggering 147 times, according to whosampled.com. This worldwide club smash is an über-sexy, supremely funky dub jam with nearly the same clapper beats as George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” and an absurdly elastic keyboard riff that bears the DNA of Bernie Worrell (who worked on Remain In Light). Tina’s fathoms-deep bass line is worthy of Robbie Shakespeare (one of many musicians extolled in the song’s lyrics, along with Bohannon, Smokey Robinson, and other funk-soul legends). It never gets old—and I’ve heard it about 200 times.

While the rest of this lovely full-length can’t match that opening 1-2 punch, there are lots of other mood-elevating moments. “Tom Tom Theme” is a rolling, minimalist tom-heavy percussion workout of low-key dopeness that leads right into another highlight, “L’Éléphant,” which features Belew’s guitar emulating the strident wail of the titular animal over a martial yet tropical dance rhythm, while “As Above, So Below” is an eerie, festively ominous funk number that could almost slot onto side 1 of Remain In Light. The album closes with the breezy banger “Lorelei” and the kitsch sci-fi funk of “Booming And Zooming.” (The 1982 reissue contains remixed versions of “Lorelei” and “On, On, On, On,” plus a bubble-funk/reggae-fied version of the Drifters’ “Under The Boardwalk,” which supplants “Booming And Zooming.”)

On their enchanting debut, Tina and Chris let the rhythm hit ’em, and the world’s been swerving and swooning to it ever since. -Buckley Mayfield

Moebius & Plank “Rastakraut Pasta” (Sky, 1980)

The late Dieter Moebius could do no wrong. A crucial member of Cluster, Harmonia, and Liliental, and a collaborator with Brian Eno, Max Beerbohm, Mani Neumeier, Asmus Tietchnes, Red Krayola’s Mayo Thompson, and many other mavericks, Moebius always brought a peculiar tonal vocabulary to any studio situation He never stopped trying new things and maintained high quality control to the very end of this life—a true rarity.

One of his key conspirators was the renowned krautrock producer/engineer Conny Plank. Along with Guru Guru drummer Neumeier, both German geniuses recorded the mind-boggling Zero Set, which was way ahead of its time (and which I hope to review eventually). In the meantime, let’s examine Moebius and Plank’s first full-length, Rastakraut Pasta, which thankfully isn’t quite as goofy as its title.

Moebius met Plank when the latter served as engineer for Cluster 1971. They hit it off and meshed their peculiar sensibilities on Rastakraut, which reveals the more whimsical side of the two musicians’ talents. (CAN’s Holger Czukay plays bass on three tracks here.) The LP title reveals the underlying sonic theme: a bizarre melding of Jamaican and Teutonic musical elements. “News,” the title track, and “Miss Cacadou” dabble with drunken dub and reggae structures, their woozy skank always threatening to capsize into a Caribbean Sea filled with molasses rather than water.

On “Two Oldtimers,” which features Czukay, Dieter and Conny finesse a lollygagging electro-pop that’s as dreamy as these sagacious Germans ever got—until it unexpectedly turns all solemnly neo-classical. “Solar Plexus” is the album’s strangest piece; it seemingly consists of a tuning fork and synth murmurs Doppler effected into a weird splaying of tones and warped mumbles. The main motivation behind it appears to be to fuck with your reality while you’re tripping. Face it: We all could use some tracks like this in our lives.

The album’s anomaly and peak occurs on “Feedback 66” (which also includes Czukay). This is surf-rock submerged in tar, its rhythm seemingly clipped from that monotonously funky kickdrum from Sly & The Family Stone’s “Dance To The Music,” and then slowed way down. Again, it’s produced to mess with your mind in an insidious manner, which is why I love to drop it in DJ sets. “Feedback 66” is one of Moebius and Plank’s greatest achievements of their storied careers—and it’s worth the price of admission alone.

Praise Jah that that price of admission won’t be exorbitant, as the excellent Bureau B label reissued Rastakraut Pasta on vinyl in 2010 and again in 2017. -Buckley Mayfield

The Slits “Cut” (Island, 1979)

Over a decade before riot grrrl was a term or a movement, the Slits embodied its spirit on their uniquely radical debut album, Cut. Consisting of British musicians Ari Up, Viv Albertine, Tessa Pollitt, and Palmolive (the band’s drummer, who left before Cut was finished, opening the door for Budgie, a dude who’s also played with Siouxsie & The Banshees, the Creatures, and others), the Slits bust out of the gate with their busts bared on the LP cover, while caked in mud. (Yep, they gave zero fucks.)

Now that they’d snagged your attention, the Slits went for the jugular with their crazy rhythms, dubbed-up punk, left-field funk, raw reggae bastardizations, and ramshackle feminist anthems. Credit should also go to producer Dennis Bovell, whose aptitude at the console made these unlikely elements cohere into a vivid collection of sonic sucker punches that makes you feel wonderfully woozy.

Cut‘s first two songs—“Instant Hit” and “So Tough”—fail the Bechdel Test, in that they reportedly are about drug-addled PiL guitarist Keith Levene and the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, respectively. No fear, though, feminists: The oddly buoyant reggae and clattering new-wave/dub eccentricity of them compensate for their focus on men. The proto-riot-grrrl content will come soon enough.

The charmingly askew “Spend, Spend, Spend” critiques the emptiness of consumerism to a zombified reggae lurch while its conceptual counterpart, “Shoplifting,” captures the churning anxiety and accelerating pulse rates of the titular subject. As a bonus, it possesses one of the most marrow-curdling shouts in music history, courtesy of Ari Up, and a killer descending dubwise bass line by Pollitt.

FM” equates radio’s frequency modulation with “frequent mutilation,” set to music that’s too radically oblong for most stations, although the sporadic, tom-heavy beats bang hard. Later in the album, a couple of soured-love tunes follow: “Ping Pong Affair” pairs slack, slanted reggae with lamenting lyrics over a familiar story of botched romance. Even better is “Love Und Romance,” a ferociously torqued piece of dubbed-out rock laced with sarcastic observations about relationships, skewering their tendency toward triteness and possessiveness.

Cut peaks on “Typical Girls,” the Slits’ greatest song, musically and lyrically. A masterpiece of sarcasm, its disdain for restrictive expectations toward women makes the patriarchal status quo seem horribly banal, thereby spurring women to lead more interesting, fulfilling, and progressive lives. Musically, the song epitomizes the Slits’ penchant for surprising dynamics and hairpin-turn rhythmic shifts, as it looms and sprints in a bizarre, exhilarating ska-rock fusion.

The 2000 CD reissue contains two bonus tracks, including a cover of Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” The Slits’ brutal, gut-wrenching version ranks among the best among very stiff competition (e.g., Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight & The Pips, CCR; note also that 4 Men With Beards reissued Cut on vinyl in 2005.).

I’ve played Cut nearly 100 times in my life, and it never fails to send shockwaves of delight through my body and mind. It’s a classic of femme-powered subversion that, for all its inspirational moments, is nearly impossible to replicate—almost in the way that nobody can really follow in the footsteps of the Shaggs’ Philosophy Of The World. This stuff is just too distinctive for the imitators.

(Bellingham, Washington-based director William Badgley completed a documentary about the Slits last year; keep your antennae up for local screenings of Here To Be Heard: The Story Of The Slits.) -Buckley Mayfield

Grace Jones “Warm Leatherette” (Island, 1980)

I’ll never forget the first time I heard Grace Jones’ cover of the Normal’s “Warm Leatherette.” It must’ve been on a specialized program via Detroit public radio in the early ’80s. I was familiar with the original, by future Mute Records boss Daniel Miller. I loved—and still love—its relentless minimalism and abrasive synth tones going off like a haywire car alarm—apt for a song about the unexpected eroticism of a vehicular accident. (Thanks, J.G. Ballard.) Miller sings the macabre song with all the emotion of an automaton, which was somehow perfect for its lyrical circumstances. Jones, a black Jamaican woman, made “Warm Leatherette” sound even colder and more menacing than the nerdy white Englishman mustered.

How could this happen? The short answer is, Grace Jones is a freak of nature, an enigmatic woman who’s more man than most men will ever be, while also being a legit goddess. Why did this happen? Because, if I may conjecture, Grace Jones loves to take risks and subvert unlikely songs until she overshadows the original versions. The result with the title track of her fourth album is supremely unnerving and riveting.

Jones’ decision to cover “Warm Leatherette” must’ve seemed like a total WTF?! to Island Records’ execs, but in hindsight, it was a genius move. With a band full of session badasses like Sly Dunbar (drums), Robbie Shakespeare (bass), Wally Badarou (keyboards), Barry “White” Reynolds (guitar), Michael “Mao” Chung, and Uziah (Sticky) Thompson (percussion), Jones’ “Warm Leatherette” is bound to sound vastly different from the Normal’s synth ditty. She and the band use a crescendoing power chord to sub for the original’s synthesizer wheeze, while Badarou quotes James Brown’s “Sex Machine” riff. The rhythm is a juggernaut of funky skank, helping to transform this “Warm Leatherette” into a vastly different vehicle, as guitars and keys emulate siren sounds near the end. You could almost party to this rendition, if you were perverse enough.

Whew, it’s exhausting just trying to do justice to that Normal cover. Warm Leatherette has seven other tracks, most of them covers that deviate with almost as much idiosyncratic panache. The Pretenders’ “Private Life” sounds like a Sade tune, but with much more dubwise gravitas. Jones & co. inhabit Roxy Music’s “Love Is The Drug” as if it’s a skintight blue-velvet jumpsuit, slightly skanking up the disco-funk rhythmic chassis and adding staccato guitar-clang punctuation.

The silky Motown soul of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” gets an uptempo revamp with much more robust drums and bass and an extended percussion breakdown. Tom Petty’s “Breakdown” lends itself easily to slouching into a laid-back Jamaican groove, and Jones stretches her usual taut delivery as far as it can go. It can’t surpass the late Mr. Petty’s yowl, but she gives it a valiant try.

The two songs originating from Jones and her band—“A Rolling Stone” and “Bullshit”—are, respectively, rollicking R&B that bubbles with erotic promise and strutting R&B that bumps and throbs with S&M promise. To be honest, though, everything here pales besides “Warm Leatherette.” It is simply one of the greatest covers ever, a radical transformation of such unlikely provenance that it feels and sounds like a cosmic joke. But as a later Grace song put it: cry now, laugh later. -Buckley Mayfield

Woo “Awaawaa” (Palto Flats, 2016)

All it takes is about 10 seconds of a Woo song to understand that you’re in the presence of utterly distinctive artists who appear to operate in cloistered, idyllic settings, far from the usual circumstances of music-making. British brothers Clive and Mark Ives use electronics and percussion and guitars, clarinet, and bass, respectively, to create music that eludes easy categorization. They touch on many styles, including chamber jazz, ambient, dub, prog-folk, exotica, twisted yacht rock, Young Marble Giants-like post-punk, and winsome miniatures not a million miles from Eno’s instrumentals on Another Green World.

Listening to their releases, you sense that the Iveses are totally unconcerned about music-biz trapping; neither fame nor fortune seems to enter their minds. They simply want to lay down these genuinely idiosyncratic tunes that work best in your headphones/earbuds while you’re alone in nature. That’s an all-too-rare phenomenon.

Recorded from 1975 to 1982 in London, Awaawaa only recently gained wider recognition, thanks to a 2016 reissue by the Palto Flats label. Its 16 instrumentals rarely puncture their way to the forefront of your consciousness. Rather, they enter earshot with low-key charm, do their thing for a few minutes, then unceremoniously bow out. “Green Blob” is the closest Woo get to “rocking out,” coming across like CAN circa Ege Bamyasi (sans vox) burrowing deeply into inner space, with Mark Ives’ guitar recalling Michael Karoli’s yearning, clarion tone. Similarly, “The Goodies” sounds like the Residents interpreting CAN, casting the krautrock legends’ irrepressible groove science in a more insular context.

The pieces on Awaawaa exude an unobtrusive beauty, a congenial mellowness; the cumulative effect is a subtle, holistic well-being. It’s a sprig of joy that will keep you enraptured and hearing new delights with each successive listen. -Buckley Mayfield

Basement 5 “In Dub” (Island, 1980)

 

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I’ve been frequenting record stores a few times a week for decades, and I’ve noticed that after the early ’80s, records by the British avant-dub group Basement 5 have become super-scarce. Which is a pity. (It’s also a pity that I didn’t have the foresight to grab those B5 releases when I had the chance.) Their idiosyncratic fusion of post-punk, dub, and strident political commentary still sounds vital 37 years after the fact. The only Basement 5 vinyl I’ve found in the wild, In Dub, offers a concise slice of the multi-racial band’s idiosyncratic take on a sound that falls somewhere between African Head Charge and PiL (B5 drummer Richard Dudanski played with the latter).

Produced by the band and Factory Records studio wizard Martin Hannett, In Dub includes studio reconstructions of five B5 tracks from their 1965-1980 LP and various singles. The A1 track, “Paranoiaclaustrophobia: Dub,” represents the EP’s peak. It stands out thanks to its psychedelic-as-hell dispersion of the original version of “No Ball Games”’s woozy, hypnotic skank. On top of that,  “Paranoiaclaustrophobia Dub” is threaded with a radiantly crunchy guitar riff that’s mirrored by one of those irrepressible, rubbernecking bass lines. I’ve spun this one out in many a DJ gig, and it always makes heads look pleasantly disoriented. Plus, it sounds killer at 33 or 45. “Work Dub” converts the boisterous ska bruiser “Hard Work” into a peppy stepper with a pneumatic bass figure that’ll get you hoppin’ gleefully.

The jagged, oblongly danceable post-punk of “Games Dub” weirdly evokes a wonkier Liquid Liquid, while “Immigrant Dub” (a reworking of “Immigration”) is a fairly traditional dub, albeit scarred with caustic, Sonny Sharrockian guitar radiation. The EP ends not with a bang, but a winner. There’s nothing horror-streaked about this “Holocaust Dub”; rather, it’s a cyclical wonder that wouldn’t sound out of place on PiL’s Metal Box—right after “Bad Baby,” perhaps.

Given our era’s love of most things post-punk and dub, it’s mystifying why no label’s done a reissue of Basement 5’s small but perfectly proportioned catalog. Let’s hope this review spurs some action on that front. (Hey, a humble blogger can dream…) -Buckley Mayfield

 

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 has too much understated weirdness—especially from Allen Ravenstine’s ill synth emissions—to attain hit status. It’s just that compared to everything else on Datapanik, it sounds rather conventional. -Buckley Mayfield