Rock

A.C. Marias “One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing)” (Mute, 1989)

A.C. is Angela Conway, the mysterious chanteuse who cowrote the 10 songs on One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing) with Wire/Dome guitarist Bruce Gilbert. She’s also appeared on Wire bassist Graham Lewis’ He Said records and Gilbert’s The Shivering Man LP, as well as these Wire dudes’ Dome and P’o projects. Clearly, Conway was a key figure in the Wire diaspora throughout the ’80s, so it makes sense that she would cut her own full-length with those in their orbit. And what a quiet little treasure One Of Our Girls is.

With a voice pitched somewhere between the Dream Syndicate/Opal’s Kendra Smith and Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, Conway radiated an ethereal gravity with A.C. Marias. The group included Paul Kendall (studio wiz who’s worked with Gilbert and Loop and Main’s Robert Hampson), John Fryer (producer of This Mortal Coil, Cocteau Twins, Nine Inch Nails, etc.), and Gareth Jones (producer of Depeche Mode, Wire, Diamanda Galás, Einstürzende Neubauten, etc.). Conway’s singing may not be technically extraordinary, but she optimizes her narrow range with an intriguing delivery and glazed timbre. She keeps her emotions close to the vest, forcing you to lean in to try to discern the details.

Case in point is the opener, “Trilby’s Couch.” It begins with a melancholy woodwind melody redolent of seaside desolation. Then a stealthy walking bass line and finger snaps/woodblock taps appear as Conway sings about a hypnosis session. When the avian synth twitters surface, you can’t help getting chills. “Just Talk” furthers the hypnotic quotient with a simply yet transporting guitar riff that cycles over a high-pitched, majestic drone. Conway croons in hushed tones about an enigmatic scenario featuring two lovers and a gun, while meditating on the nature of language and time.

“There’s A Scent Of Rain In The Air” might be the album’s oddest highlight, a mix of pneumatic beats, gaseous gusts, faraway airplane-engine drones, and spidery, glinting guitar accents, like if the Edge had shown more restraint on The Joshua Tree. Another highlight and an outlier is “Give Me,” a serious stab at dance-floor domination, similar to the propulsive yet cool-browed cover of Lou Reed’s “Vicious” from a previous A.C. Marias single. The warped, spiraling guitar filigrees and punchy drum-machine beats form a foxy foundation for Conway to request a “stolen kiss” and a “little bliss.” Hell, she’s earned it.

One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing) climaxes on the title track, one of the greatest songs of the ’80s. Powered by a valiantly galloping rhythm and buoyed by softly stroked guitar and sighing synth undulations, the song bears a melody as sublime as that of Wire’s “Map Ref. 41ºN 93ºW.” After playing “One Of Our Girls” hundreds of times, I can attest that it’s one of the most satisfying syntheses of happiness and sadness in songform.

Following Conway’s sole album as a songwriter, she went on to direct several music videos, including those by Wire, Nick Cave, and Bryan Ferry. We’re fortunate that she dropped One Of Our Girls before finding her more lucrative calling in film. This album is one of those cult artifacts that make aficionados feel as if they’re in on a special secret. Unlike you and me, it never gets old. -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

Heart “Dreamboat Annie” (Mushroom, 1975)

Recorded 45 years ago in Vancouver, B.C., Heart’s debut LP came out on the small Canadian label Mushroom, with which the band’s creative core (the Seattle-based Ann and Nancy Wilson) subsequently had problems regarding royalties and a tasteless full-page ad in Rolling Stone. Nevertheless, Dreamboat Annie proved that Heart were a phenomenal force right from the start—a rare outlier of women-fronted hard rock in the testosteronic sea of the classic-rock era. “Magic Man” and “Crazy On You” became ubiquitous on American radio from the mid ’70s onward, but despite the over-saturation, they still smack of freshness. If you’re tired of these stone classics, you’re probably tired of life.

Dreamboat Annie begins, of course, with “Magic Man,” whose ice-cold estrogenic rock is energized by a superfine elastic riff. Instantly, Ann Wilson proves that her voice is one of the most wondrous in rock, a vibrant, supple instrument that belts or coos with equal radiance. The acoustic- and electric-guitar parts encompass a ridiculously wide range of idioms, moods, and textures, augmented by Howard Leese’s wicked synthesizer accents. After millions of exposures over the last 44 years, “Magic Man” still enchants like a motherfucker. It’s the miracle song that keeps on giving.

Dreamboat Annie (Fantasy Child)” provides a 70-second bridge of waves- and acoustic-guitar-enhanced shivery folk to the next hit, “Crazy On You.” This is tumultuous rock at its most dramatic, a master class in dynamics and bravura vocalizing. “My love is the evening breeze touching your skin/The gentle, sweet singing of leaves in the wind/The whisper that calls after you in the night/And kisses your ear in the early moonlight” is sweet poetry in a rock context, especially when bolstered by Roger Fisher’s Brian May-like guitar flamboyancy. As with “Magic Man,” “Crazy On You” still has the power to tingle your senses despite being as familiar as your own neuroses.

More waves accentuate “Soul Of The Sea,” a sensitivo prog-folk opus with a delicate acoustic-guitar intro leading into an intricate, Joni-esque ballad. Rob Deans and Leese’s orchestral arrangements are subtle and beautiful. More Joni vibes—plus echoes of the Byrds’ “Draft Morning”—ramble into the feathery, midtempo reverie that is “Dreamboat Annie.” “White Lightning & Wine” is the album’s most special deep cut. It’s a nastily funky, cowbell-heavy song about a debauched night that could pass as a more XX-chromosomed ZZ Top, and wow, does the rockin’ intensify near the end.

(Love Me Like Music) I’ll Be Your Song” radically downshifts to a lighter-waving power ballad, flaunting one of Heart’s most beautiful melodies. “But if you love me like music/I’ll be your song” is some clever romantic lyricism. “Sing Child” delivers staccato funk rock in the vein of Physical Graffiti‘s grittier tracks. Oozing diabolically libidinous vibes, the song’s distinguished by Ann’s galvanizing flute solo and Fisher’s Janne Schaffer-like guitar solo. A lush ballad augmented by Leese’s orchestral arrangements, “How Deep It Goes” is a wonderfully wistful and lightly proggy tune à la the Moody Blues.

Come to Dreamboat Annie for the deathless hits, stay for the ravishing non-radio-glutting gems. -Buckley Mayfield

The Fluid “Roadmouth” (Sub Pop, 1989)


Forever known as the first non-Seattle band to sign to Sub Pop, Denver’s the Fluid smashed it out of the park for this city’s best-known label with the 1989 full-length Roadmouth and its 1990 sister EP, Glue. Both records—which were release together on CD—flaunted the Fluid’s savvy blend of grunge-y girth and power-pop melodiousness. They are perfect mergers of the MC5 and Cheap Trick.

Given how great these songs are, the Fluid should have been at least one-fourth as popular as Nirvana and one-third as popular as Soundgarden. Instead, they’ve ended up more of a grunge footnote, mostly beloved by a small hardcore fan base and Sub Pop obsessives. It’s yet another music-biz miscarriage of justice, but Roadmouth deserves your undivided attention, even in the terrible year of 2020.

“Twisted & Pissed” famously begins with the lines, “he was the oldest son of a drag-queen dope dealer/he woke up this morning with a headful of nightmare” and it might be Roadmouth‘s greatest example of an indelible earworm, thanks to the rowdy choruses sung with unison vocals. Most of the album consists of supremely catchy, hell-raising rock, such as “Cop A Plea,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on Mudhoney’s self-titled album. The Fluid really nailed this rugged-rock songsmithing thing; it didn’t hurt that Jack Endino was producing.

Some sly homages appear, too. “Fools Rule” is a relatively slow and heavy bulldozer of a tune that explodes into a Billion Dollar Babies-like lighter-lifter during the choruses. “What Man” cops the strutting riff of Them’s “I Can Only Give You Everything” while “Ode To Miss Lodge” sounds like a hit single in a world in which the Troggs’ “Our Love Will Still Be Here” was as big as “You Really Got Me.” And in perhaps the most surprising move here, the Fluid cover Rare Earth’s party-starting stadium-funk bomb “Big Brother,” and acquit themselves very well.

Roadmouth is one of those LPs in which you hear a different fave song every time you listen to it. It’s much more special than its relative lack of recognition suggests. -Buckley Mayfield

Swell Maps “Jane From Occupied Europe” (Rather/Rough Trade, 1980)

I’m not sure enough people are realizing how great and distinctive Birmingham, England’s Swell Maps were. Their ramshackle, exploratory post-punk songs have influenced hundreds of musicians since their dissolution in 1980, yet they still seem under-recognized in the grand scheme of things.

On their two studio albums—1979’s A Trip To Marineville and 1980’s Jane From Occupied Europe—Swell Maps fused unschooled musique-concrète strategies with garage-rock energy, krautrock hypnosis, and the occasional poppy melody. Although they emerged from Great Britain’s fecund post-punk scene, Swell Maps often had more in common with German improvisational geniuses Can and America’s home of willfully weird unrock, Ralph Records.

Jane From Occupied Europe‘s tracks were recorded from 1977-1980 and they display the idiosyncratic aesthetics of members Nikki Sudden, Epic Soundtracks, Jowe Head, Biggles Books, Phones Sportsman, and Golden Cockrill. (Those aliases are as quirky as the music.) The album starts oddly with “Robot Factory,” which features eerie, radiant keyboard drone, wind-up toys, and rudimentary, quasi-funky beats that sometimes slip out of time. It sounds like a post-punk Joe Meek production, endearingly lo-fi and otherworldly. “Let’s Buy A Bridge” is definitive hurly-burly post-punk pop, bolstered by chaotic drum clatter and Jowe’s ultra-wonky sax solo. Sudden’s imploring, whiny vocals full of youthful discontent here became one of post-punk’s most recognizable sounds.

“Border Country”’s tight, torqued rock comes off like a sloppier, less funky Gang Of Four or early Mekons while “Cake Shop Girl”’s weirdly morose pop recalls a less refined version of Ralph acts such as Snakefinger and Renaldo & The Loaf. The mutedly euphoric “The Helicopter Spies” proved Swell Maps could write a catchy melody, even if they festooned it with janky squalls that rival Velvet Underground’s on “I Heard Her Call My Name.” The pell-mell, enigmatic jam “Big Maz In The Desert” aspires to Can’s metronomic mesmerism, but Swell Maps don’t have that German group’s skill level. Still, it’s a weird and wired epic.

On Jane From Occupied Europe, Swell Maps generated such great guitar and keyboard sounds—clangorous, radiant, cyclical—and they spilled over the raw clatter of Epic Soundtracks’ drums, finding new ways to make rock surprise, to make sloppiness a virtue, to scramble the DNA of pop melodiousness. They conclusively proved you didn’t need technical prowess to create great, enduring music—just a surplus of interesting, unconventional ideas.

[The big indie label Secretly Canadian reissued Jane on vinyl in 2012 and on CD in 2015 (with bonus tracks). Those are likely the easiest and most affordable ways to score physical copies of this classic LP.] -Buckley Mayfield

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

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

Nicky Hopkins/Ry Cooder/Mick Jagger/Bill Wyman/Charlie Watts “Jamming With Edward!” (Rolling Stones, 1972)

I’m not gonna pretend this is an essential album. However! As far as Rolling Stones-affiliated curios go, Jamming With Edward! is an interesting side hustle featuring three members of the then-world’s greatest rock band. Even if they were just messing around, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, and Bill Wyman couldn’t help making compelling music—especially with hugely talented session dudes such as Nicky Hopkins (a frequent accomplice on keys/piano for the Stones ca. 1967-1975) and guitarist Ry Cooder (ex-Captain Beefheart, ex-Ceyleib People) in tow.

Jamming is the operative word for this record—which is usually priced just above bargain-bin prices at most shops. (For those wondering, “Edward” was Hopkins’ nickname.) The back story is, the Stones were waiting for Keith Richards to show up in the studio in the momentous year of 1969 (always a dicey proposition back then), and figuring it not prudent to waste valuable time, they jammed their skinny asses off. The results are occasionally phenomenal—certainly more engrossing than side 6 of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass—and Jamming somehow reached #33 on the US album chart.

Jagger dismissed Jamming in the original edition’s liner notes as “a nice piece of bullshit… which we cut one night in London, England while waiting for our guitar player to get out of bed. It was promptly forgotten (which may have been for the better)… I hope you spend longer listening to this record than we did recording it.” Yo, Mick—this is still way better than She’s The Boss.

First track “The Boudoir Stomp” is a blues-rock shit-kicker that rollicks at the same pace as the superior “Midnight Rambler.” It’s a spicy, hypnotic opening salvo, though, and you’d probably win some friends if you put it on at a bar’s jukebox. (They still have those, right?) The reverent version of Elmore James’ “It Hurts Me Too” thwarts the momentum, but it’s always nice to pay tribute to a blues hero and throw him some change, too.

Edwards Thrump Up” (written by Hopkins, Cooder, and Watts) works up a swift head of steam and mesmerizes like some Delta blues mutation of krautrock. Seriously, Cooder’s guitar sometimes sounds like Neu!’s Michael Rother on the motorik klassik “Hallogallo.” Jagger drops in some spare harmonica and yells here and there while Wyman is the low-key, low-frequency hero with his thrusting thrums. Another ripper is the 11-minute “Blow With Ry,” the LP’s funkiest nugget. Got damn, Charlie is in the pocket here, almost like the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste, and Cooder is in lethal, slashing blues-rock mode. Mick convincingly declaims like the bluesman he sometimes pretends to be, albeit sounding as if he’s in the next room and wearing a balaclava.

Following those peaks, though, Jamming descends into inconsequential messing about with “Interlude à la El Hopo” before resuming to burn with the lean, fleet blues-rock of “Highland Fling.” Hopkins’ piano runs are truly stunning.

So, yeah, while the three Stones involved with Jamming probably forgot they even made this sporadically brilliant lark, you would do well to ignore Jagger’s belittling of it and cop a copy for some above-average cheap thrills. -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

Joe Walsh “The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get” (ABC-Dunhill, 1973)

After he left James Gang (great band!) and before he joined the Eagles (hugely popular band who are not my bag, though I like a few of their songs!), Joe Walsh cut a few albums with Barnstorm, including The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get, perhaps the guitarist/vocalist/keyboardist’s peak with that band—and the title that most resembles a line from a Firesign Theater routine.

The LP is distinguished by its opening track, “Rocky Mountain Way,” which reached #23 on the US singles chart in 1973. One of the most iconic guitar riffs of the ’70s—nay, of all time—kicks off this spaced-out, blues-rockin’ party tune. Yes, you’ve heard it 9 billion times, but its widescreen grandeur, crystalline crunch, and wonky, wah-wah-heavy solo refuse to pall, even after all that exposure. It’s a tough act to follow, but the rest of The Smoker… bears some low-key treasures.

“Wolf” is a spare, bleak ballad in the vein of Aerosmith’s “Season Of Wither” and some of Robin Trower’s ’70s output, generating some chilly melancholy. Written by keyboardist Rocke Grace, “Midnight Moodies” surprises with its elegant jazz-rock vibe, bolstered with piano, cowbell, and flute by drummer Joe Vitale. Another shockingly pleasant tangent comes courtesy of bassist Kenny Passarelli’s Caribbean-spiced rock cut “Happy Ways,” with its sprung rhythm and killer bass line. The song really blossoms into a rousing rocker during the choruses, bursting with “la la la”s and “na na na”s. It’s the feel-good non-hit of the record.

The second side of The Smoker… is more subdued and less interesting than the first side, but it has its moments. “Meadows” is tender, melodious rock with beefy-riffed power surges, while “Days Go By” (another Vitale composition) brings the sort of flute-augmented baroque rock that, oddly enough, sounds more like the Left Banke than anything else.

The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get is the sort of wildly popular major-label album that litters nearly every bargain bin in the country, but don’t underestimate it. It reveals Walsh and company’s instrumental depth and aptitude for emotionally resonant songwriting beyond of the radio staples for which they were known and loved by classic-rock radio programmers and the people mesmerized by them. -Buckley Mayfield

Minoru Muraoka “Bamboo” (United Artists, 1970)

Recent years have seen several labels—Light In The Attic, Palto Flats, Jazzman, We Release Whatever The Fuck We Want, et al.—reissuing obscure gems from Japan. England’s great Mr Bongo imprint also has gotten into the act, most recently with jazz shakuhachi player Minoru Muraoka’s Bamboo coming out this summer. That’s a relief, as original copies of this idiosyncratic 1970 crate-digger’s classic go for hundreds of dollars.

Six of Bamboo‘s nine tracks are covers, and the quality varies among them. Jazz musicians covering Beatles songs was practically law in the ’60s and ’70s, but few artists have attempted to interpret the sentimental 1964 ballad “And I Love Her.” Minoru exoticizes the somewhat sappy melody and takes this middling cut from A Hard Day’s Night to a higher level. Similarly, Minoru does interesting things with the oft-covered folk ballad “The House Of The Rising Sun.” His is probably my favorite rendition—partially because there are no overbearing vocals, just four or five instruments burnishing a poignant melody that, it turns out, is ideal for the shakuhachi’s timbre.

Minoru also excels at archetypal lightweight mid-’60s pop such as Bacharach/David’s “Do You Know The Way To San Jose” and Tony Hatch’s “Call Me,” an EZ-listening standard made famous by Chris Montez and Petula Clark. Minoru transforms these overfamiliar melodies into something more touching through his serene blowing. The latter is the epitome of suave coolness in Minoru’s hands and mouth. These covers display Minoru’s instinct for tackling songs that have been frequently interpreted and injecting them with elements of distinctiveness. You can also hear this when he bathes Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” in a holy penumbra; it’s unbearably touching and somehow more powerful for not having a singer, even one as gifted as Art Garfunkel.

Perhaps Bamboo’s finest cover is that of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.” It’s a fantastic version that illuminates and slightly accelerates Dave Brubeck’s famous, sprightly rendition. Like every song here, “Take Five” gains a sheen of freshness thanks to the airy coolness of the shakuhachi, a flute-like instrument popular in Japan. The unexpected robust and rapid drum solo three-fifths of the way in is a nice homage to Brubeck drummer Joe Morello.

Minoru’s originals rule, too. “Nogamigawa Funauta” is a gorgeous, courtly piece in which Minoru’s shakuhachi wafts and spirals into sacred space, twining around some phenomenal koto ornamentation. (The koto sounds like some magnificent compromise between a banjo and a harp.) “The Positive And The Negative” bears incredibly funky drum and bass breaks, which have made this track a holy grail for hip-hop producers. Lord have mercy, the beats are rotund on this one. Above the irrepressible grooves, shakuhachi and koto engage in a celestial dance, a mellifluous dream soundtrack. The other original, “Soul Bamboo,” sounds like one of the inspirations for DJ Shadow’s mystical-funk masterpiece, “What Does Your Soul Look Like?”

It’s so great to have Bamboo back in circulation at a reasonable price. Don’t sleep. -Buckley Mayfield

Pell Mell “Flow” (SST, 1991)

Before such a thing was facilitated by digital files, Pell Mell wrote songs by sending ideas on cassettes to members via snail mail. Once everyone in the scattered group—Robert Beerman (drums, guitar), Bill Owen (guitar), Steve Fisk (keyboards), Greg Freeman (bass, guitar), David Spalding (guitars) for Flow—had contributed to the track, they convened to finish it in a studio; in Flow‘s case Lowdown in San Francisco. Not that you need to know this method to appreciate Pell Mell’s sonic sorcery, but it does increase one’s admiration for the final product.

While their major-label debut, Interstate, is Pell Mell’s best-known full-length, Flow is their peak. There’s something poker-faced and quietly intense about Pell Mell’s music, even when they’re in swaggering, heroic, quasi-surf-rock mode, as on album-opener “American Eagle.” Sounding a bit like Contortions spin-off group the Raybeats, the song is a fitting tribute to the regal bird—or the clothing company, as the case may be. “Breach Of Promise” downshifts into a pensive brooder, revealing guitar tones of deep warmth and expressiveness, the melody so moving yet so minimal. “Bring On The China” boasts a chunky chugger, suggestive of industriousness and purposeful motion while “The Devil Bush” purveys wickedly torqued surf-rock, again evoking the Raybeats.

Smoke” is Flow‘s highlight, featuring the most psychedelic guitar tones, the most resonant bass line, the most sublime chord progressions, and the most dramatic dynamics. I don’t say this lightly: It’s one of the greatest songs of the ’90s… or maybe ever. Pretty bizarre that it’s never been licensed for a film. It’s followed by the LP’s second-most exciting track, “Aero.” This is ultimate driving music, a West Coast American motorik road-burner with crashing metallic percussion accents. “Flood” is the funkiest track here, flaunting an almost Madchester/baggy rhythm with crystalline guitar interplay, subtly menacing atmospheres, and a Tuvan throat singing sample.

Things become a bit less thrilling toward the end of Flow, but “Little Blue Dance” is a poignant meditation recalling some of Tom Verlaine’s solo work from the ’80s and ’90s while the valedictorian “Mopping Up” closes the record with a tune that oozes gorgeous resignation.

Because Flow came out on SST, its chances of getting reissued legitimately are slim, due to label boss Greg Ginn having some weird kink that involves not wanting to make money or please fans of great music. Let’s hope that one day Pell Mell can find the legal wherewithal to wrest their music from Ginn’s obstinate hands. -Buckley Mayfield