Rock

Chicago “Chicago VI” (Columbia, 1973)

If you were conscious during the ’70s, you couldn’t help being aware of the music made by the unimaginatively named band Chicago. It was in the air like perfume and cigarette smoke and summer breezes, dominating the airwaves with soulful, jazz-inflected rock and heart-melting ballads. Some of those ubiquitous hits were damned good, some tilted the schmaltz meter into the red. But it was all impeccably played and produced and usually housed in gatefold sleeves, and it somehow appealed to hip folks and squares.

By the time the seven dudes in Chicago had reached their fifth album, VI (odd, I know, but they were called Chicago Transit Authority on their first LP), they were surefire chart-dwellers who had their shit down pat. But they weren’t averse to bringing in some outside help for this one, tapping Brazilian percussionist Laudir De Oliveira (Sérgio Mendes, Marcos Valle) to accentuate the rhythms. The results on VI, though, are a mixed bag, which you can expect when you have four songwriters angling to get ideas expressed.

The album begins unpromisingly with “Critics’ Choice,” an acerbic, Elton John/10cc-like ballad that dissects said critics’ negative traits. But that meh start quickly gets whisked down the memory hole as “Just You ‘N’ Me” enters earshot. Yes, it’s a warm power ballad you’ve heard 18 million times, so it’s curdled into an innocuous bauble that reminds you more of shopping for deodorant in a chain drugstore rather than as one of the classiest, slinkiest, and most earnest love songs ever to top a chart. It helps that composer/trombonist James Pankow pulls a “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” sucker punch that elevates the track to a much higher level.

Keyboardist Robert Lamm’s “Darlin’ Dear” is horn-heavy funk-rock with a festive, Dr. John-like air, enlivened by Terry Kath’s sizzling, snarling guitar solo. Kath’s lone writing credit, “Jenny,” sounds like the Band’s earthy roots rock, but with more rhythmic complexity. The album’s best deep cut is Pankow’s “What’s This World Comin’ To,” whose boisterous, busy funk rock bumps somewhere between Funkadelic and Grand Funk Railroad. I wish Chicago explored this vein more often. Similarly deep and not oversaturated by radio, “Rediscovery” is a midtempo funk jam with low-key jazz chordings, as Kath channels Eddie Hazel’s fluid, wah-wah squawk.

Like a lot of smart groups, Chicago saved the best for last. No exaggeration: Peter Cetera and Pankow’s “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” stands as one of the greatest pieces of music ever. This magnum opus has about five or six distinct parts, and each one is dazzling. The song begins like a fairly typical inspirational, casually strolling rocker, but you can sense it’s going to build to something much more majestic. Sure enough, about halfway in, “Feelin’ Stronger” accelerates into a magnificent chug and then things just get insanely sublime from there on out. The massed, swaggering horns, the crazed, galloping drums and mad tom-tom fills, the “YEAH YEAH YEEEEAAAAH,” the soaring backing-vocal vortex, Cetera’s aerated “We get stronger today” refrain that rides till the fadeout… Put the coda on in a loop in your brain while running and you’ll never fail to break your personal record. Trust me… I’ve tried it. -Buckley Mayfield

The The “Uncertain Smile” (Some Bizzare, 1982)

As someone who’s only listened to The The up through 1986’s Infected, I can’t claim to be an authority on leader Matt Johnson’s musical career. However, I can confidently state that I am an expert on The The’s 1982 EP, Uncertain Smile. I bought it soon after it came out on British import during the grim Reagan/Thatcher era and proceeded to listen to its three sui generis songs obsessively, while putting the title track on many a mixtape. Uncertain Smile may not be the most popular or revered release in Johnson’s catalog, but I maintain that it deserves repeat plays and a lofty place in your musical pantheon.

“Uncertain Smile” itself begins with some of the most urgent, warped marimba you’ve ever heard, before suavely shifting into a midtempo dance-rock groove augmented by a plangent guitar and mournful flute motifs of utmost poignancy. The flute solo is mellifluously melancholy enough to earn a spot on a Moody Blues LP. Johnson sings like an introverted, less narcissistic Morrissey here, relating a fraught internal emo-drama with intimate equanimity. You will feel Matt’s pain.

The song’s long instrumental bridge coasts into mysterioso jazz territory, with brooding sax and sly bass laying a foundation for another madly undulating marimba solo. As the song progresses, more elements enter (sumptuous synth swells, heavily FX’d harmonica, an intriguing sound I can’t pinpoint), adding to the sensation that this is a once-in-a-lifetime epic that transcends its early-’80s British milieu. Make no mistake: “Uncertain Smile” is The The’s peak and one of the greatest songs ever. The truncated version on the 1983 LP Soul Mining pales beside this one.

By contrast, “Three Orange Kisses From Kazan” is a weirdly ominous yet enigmatically beautiful piece of art pop, like some amalgam of Tuxedomoon, early Clock DVA, and Tin Drum-era Japan. “Why do people never say what they mean? / Why do people just repeat what they read?” Johnson gripes, and that sentiment still resonates 37 years later. Another example of Johnson’s unique way with songcraft and vocal modulation, “Three Orange Kisses” presents a perfect balance between melodiousness and cacophony. It’s some of the most gorgeous chaos that appeared on record in the ’80s. “Waitin’ For The Upturn” can’t help sounding somewhat anticlimactic after the preceeding two classics, but it’s still a gem of low-key, chilling balladry, like a master class of muted Sturm und Drang. The production on Uncertain Smile by Mike Thorne (Wire, John Cale, Laurie Anderson, Soft Cell) is spacious and dynamic, abetting Johnson’s idiosyncratic ideas about timbre and atmosphere. -Buckley Mayfield

Grand Funk Railroad “E Pluribus Funk” (Capitol, 1971)

E Pluribus Funk is probably the greatest album ever to be packaged to look like a silver coin. Admittedly, there’s not a lot of competition for that honor, but still… respect is due. Speaking of which, Flint, Michigan’s finest never have received much of that stuff from critics, but Grand Funk Railroad’s extravagant commercial success (multi-platinum records, hit singles, selling out Shea Stadium in 72 hours, etc.) shouldn’t detract from you enjoying their genuine strengths.

Produced by Terry Knight, E Pluribus Funk is an unabashed par-tay record. Being as it’s made by dudes from the central part of a centrally located Rust Belt state, the album pummels with a ferocity that comes from folks who have to endure six months of shitty weather per year. (As a native Detroiter, I speak from bitter experience.) Whatever was fueling drummer/vocalist Don Brewer, guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Mark Farner, and bassist Mel Schacher in 1971, it was pretty potent.

Opening tracks don’t get much better than “Footstompin’ Music.” This uptempo boogie bomb does what it says on the tin, pretty much running head-to-head with the Bohannon funk burner of the same title. Put this on at a party and watch rivalry turn into revelry. “People, Let’s Stop The War” is tough-as-hell funk-rock that wouldn’t sound out of place on the crucial Chains And Black Exhaust compilation of black psychedelia. The sentiment—see the title—may be simple-minded, but it was righteously on point during the Vietnam conflict. “Upsetter” is burly, uproarious party rock that’s very clever with maracas (no, it doesn’t sound like Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire”), while “I Come Tumblin’” peddles rugged, churning rock that’ll whip you into a sweaty frenzy, if you’re open to its rude, thrusting nature.

That’s a hell of a side 1, so side 2 can’t help seeming a bit lacking in comparison. The best thing I can say about the middling hard rock of “Save The Land” is that it must’ve burned a lot of calories during the recording of it. For better for worse, the bombastic hard rock of “No Lies” sounds like a blueprint for Guns N’ Roses circa Appetite For Destruction. The LP ends with “Loneliness,” a pensive, strings-augmented ballad that sometimes tilts into bloated melodrama as it strives for a momentous climax. Nevertheless, it’s a bold tangent in this context and is pretty ambitious for GFR.

Given its fantastic, circular packaging and dynamite first side, E Pluribus Funk merits space on your shelf. File it next to Small Faces’ Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. -Buckley Mayfield

Dick Hyman “The Age Of Electronicus” (Command, 1969)

Even some of the best Moog albums have a fair amount of cheesy camp elements littering them, and Dick Hyman’s The Age Of Electronicus is no different. While Robert Moog’s invention tends to time-stamp music with as much finality as Auto-Tune has done in this century’s first two decades, some of the former material has endured beyond cheap nostalgia thrills. And that includes this cover-heavy opus.

Now a spry 92, Hyman was 42 when Electronicus came out, and he’d established himself as a jazz pianist who once played with Charlie Parker. Dick also was the in-studio organist for the stunt game show Beat The Clock, which sounds like a very fun gig. So, dude has chops. He applied his dexterity and ingenuity to the then-novel Moog synthesizer with both virtuosity and opportunistic glee.

Electronicus boasts the obligatory Beatles covers (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Blackbird”), two Booker T. & The M.G.’s cuts (“Time Is Tight” and “Green Onions”), Hair show-stopper “Aquarius,” an interpretation of James Brown’s “Give It Up Or Turn It Loose,” a rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” and merely one original. Sure, Electronicus smacks of Moog-hysteria cash-in, but Hyman’s inventiveness with this familiar and relatively eclectic material raises the record high above most of its counterparts now moldering in bargain bins.

The album starts with one of the Beatles’ most insufferable tunes, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and Hyman squirts chintzy Moog sauce all over the gratingly ingratiating dud. Thankfully, this poor start’s obliterated by the über-funky “Give It Up Or Turn It Loose,” which has more freaky libidinousness than you’d expect from suit-and-tie-wearing, middle-aged white guy who likes to twiddle nobs. Yeah, I’ll still drop this heater into DJ sets. “Blackbird”’s solemn beauty survives Hyman’s wonky timbres and insistent, synthetic pulsations—barely. I bet McCartney dug it.

“Aquarius” is “Aquarius”; it’s hard not to smirk when any version of it is playing. Hair-raising it isn’t. However, “Time Is Tight” and “Green Onions” strut with alpha-male bravado while flaunting extremely flute-y tonalities. Hyman finds a quite annoying setting on the Moog for the folk standard “Both Sides Now,” so I usually skip over it. The sentimental Bacharach-David movie theme “Alfie” fares a bit better, but is still inconsequential. However, the lone Hyman composition, “Kolumbo,” is an epic excursion into complex, swarming oscillations and delayed percussion. It’s by far Electronicus‘ most serious and psychedelic effort. I wish Hyman would’ve unknotted his tie and frolicked in this direction more often.

One good thing about Electronicus: It hasn’t become a hipster totem nor received a fashionable deluxe reissue, so you can still find used vinyl copies for under $10… for now. -Buckley Mayfield

Patti Smith Group “Wave” (Arista, 1979)

The final entry in Patti Smith Group’s tetralogy, Wave is not as highly rated as their first three full-lengths. Much of it’s pretty bombastic, melodically turgid rock that sounds stodgy, particularly after PSG’s mercurial, poetic burners Horses, Radio Ethiopia, and Easter. Produced by Todd Rundgren, Wave preceded a seven-year hiatus during which Patti married MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and started a family. It’s not a total dud, though—otherwise I wouldn’t be spending precious time reviewing it.

Basically, you need Wave for its first three songs. Talk about a front-loaded LP… “Frederick”—which retreads Smith’s biggest hit, the Bruce Springsteen collab “Because The Night”—is a tribute to Patti’s soon-to-be husband, Mr. Sonic. It’s a sweepingly romantic rocker that sounds nothing like her beau’s band. Co-written with guitarist Ivan Kral, “Dancing Barefoot” is a low-slung rock mantra in which Smith sings as if she’s in a trance. The easy-going, undulant ramble foreshadows R.E.M. and certain Feelies tracks. No wonder the latter covered it, as did Simple Minds, the Celibate Rifles, Pearl Jam, U2, and others.

Wave crests on Roger McGuinn/Chris Hillman’s “So You Want To Be (A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star).” PSG’s is my favorite version of this much-covered song—I like it even better than the Byrds’ original. Smith and company execute an irrepressible interpretation whose main riff is a masterpiece of minimalism that hints at the transcendental, tidal rock of late-’90s Boredoms. (Highest compliment!) Patti surely could relate to McGuinn and Hillman’s cautionary tale and their lyrics’ overarching cynicism—even as she’s singing the hell out of the song in a display of sheer bravado that’s very rock-star-like. The guitar solo is also striving for the sort of glory against which the words are warning. Irony!

Unfortunately, the stretch from “Hymn” through “Broken Flag” is hard going. “Revenge” is lumbering, slow-blooming, dramatic rock about a dying relationship, as Smith sings, “All the gold and silver couldn’t measure up my love for you/It’s so immaterial.” “Citizen Ship” and “Seven Ways Of Going” are hugely bombastic tunes that make Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds seem like shrinking violets. The former’s a Sturm und Drang political song while the latter is so over the top, it qualifies as PSG’s “L.A. Blues.” “Broken Flag” is a swaying, lighters-aloft anthem that sounds like music for a political rally—but ironically rendered.

Yeah, Wave is kind of a disappointment, because we have such high expectations from Patti Smith and her crack band. But that opening triumvirate of classics is sufficient to make it worth your while. -Buckley Mayfield

Steve Miller Band “Circle Of Love” (Capitol, 1981)

You’ve probably seen this album 593 times while rifling through bargain bins without thinking much about it; no way it could be as wonderful as Fly Like An Eagle, amirite? Well, I certainly zipped right by it for many years. Until one day I didn’t. I finally let my curiosity about the sidelong track on side two get the best of me and… sometimes your instincts lead to positive outcomes. Such was the case with me investigating the 18-plus-minute “Macho City.”

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves here. First we have to dispense with side one, which is pretty disposable. “Heart Like A Wheel” is happy-go-lucky rock harking back to ’50s innocence and sincerity. This sort of regression just sounds depressing to me. Miller gives the traditional song “Get On Home” the synth-sheen treatment that commonly afflicted early ’80s records. It’s an inconsequential bauble. So is “Baby Wanna Dance,” a doo-wop-inflected, early-Beach Boys ditty that suffers from the same insipid cuteness as “Heart Like A Wheel.” “Circle Of Love” is an innocuous love song that bears a slight resemblance to Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac (non-Lindsey division). So far, so uninspired.

But all of that tedium is worth it for “Macho City,” which begins as if it were “Fly Like An Eagle” on amphetamines, working up a frothy head of disco steam. Miller’s stilted spoken-word “rap” disparaging various forms of military machismo lands awkwardly, but that eventually subsides and the band locks into a jam that’s as far out as anything the hugely popular guitarist/vocalist has ever done.

While Miller limits his contributions to some sparse e-bow sighs and a few psychedelic, flanged riffs, bassist Gerald Johnson and keyboardist Byron Allred are the track’s real standouts. The former fingers out a staunch, Holger Czukay-esque funk foundation with drummer Gary Mallaber (including an homage to the famous riff from David Byrne-Brian Eno’s “Regiment”) while the latter produces a series of whooshes and drones that wouldn’t sound out of place on your favorite kosmische krautrock record from the ’70s.

“Macho City” closes with a few minutes of rain and thunder sounds. I bet Capitol execs were not happy with that, but this decision does make it easy for DJs to segue out of and offers a respite for listeners to wonder what the hell they just heard: classic-rock fixture Steve Miller creating an epic club classic that went on to be spun by underground disc jockeys such as David Mancuso. Nobody saw that coming. -Buckley Mayfield

Neu! “Neu! ’75” (Brain, 1975)

Of their indomitable holy trinity of albums, Neu! ’75 tends to be these krautrock legends’ most overlooked full-length. (The less said of their mid-’80s dud, Neu! 4, the better.) Neu! ’75 lacks the first one’s groundbreaking motorik epicness of “Hallogallo” and the grand industrial-rock grind of “Negativland” and the second one’s crazy experiments (out of necessity) and the monster jam “Lila Engel.” But Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger’s third LP has plenty of reasons to stake a claim in the canon—and in your record collection.

“Isi” zippily starts ’75 with one of Rother’s most uplifting guitar and keyboard figures while Dinger smacks out Autobahn-cruising beats that metronomically turn over with engineering-major elegance. While this song’s playing, you will sense that all is right with the world, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. “Seeland” has the distinction of being culture-jamming group Negativland’s label name and of evoking an absolutely aching strain of melodic gorgeousness, a sundown resignation of existential gravitas. Dig how Rother’s guitar eloquently wails with a Robert Fripp-in-Düsseldorf grandeur. However, “Leb’Wohl” might be Neu!’s dullest moment. It’s the aural equivalent of sleepy-time tea; the musicians seem to be nodding off in the studio while waves lap in the background.

But don’t fret. “Hero” comes barging in with some of Neu!’s most conventionally hard-rocking bravado, as Dinger snarls proto-punk vocals about a hero riding through the city after his honey went to Norway, new drummer Hans Lampe chops out a staunch “Apache” beat, and Rother kerrangs heroically, as it were. In a better world, “Hero” would’ve been a hit on rock radio. “E-Musik” continues the band’s irresistible, ascending chug to the heavens, coming off like a more conflicted, less streamlined version of “Hallogallo.” It’s a 10-minute tribute to relentless forward motion, with Rother sending arcs of golden six-string light over the choppy rhythm. The coda is baffling, though: a grotesquely slowed voice literally evincing a snore, followed by Rother’s guitar part from “Seeland” entering, backward. “After Eight” closes the album with an anthemic gush of mercurial motorik pummeling. I’ve never in my life more wanted to floor it down the highway on a Harley-Davidson… okay, except for Can’s “Full Moon On The Highway.”

’75 should’ve been the record that broke Neu! Into mass consciousness, but alas, they remained a cult act—albeit one of the most influential ever in underground rock. -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

The Ceyleib People “Tanyet” (Vault, 1968)

Here it is, the greatest raga-rock record that was ever jammed out by a bunch of session players in LA. Ry Cooder is the Ceyleib People’s best-known member, but the ad-hoc group also included guitarist/sitarist Mike Deasy (aka Lybuk Hyd), bassist/keyboardist Larry Knechtel, and drummer Jim Gordon, all of whose long lists of credits include plenty of Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame inductees, even if they themselves largely have toiled in obscurity.

This is a short concept album with copious liner notes by Deasy. These notes drift into some prime late-’60s hippie mythos about peace and love and gods and goddesses, all of which coalesces into a sort of cosmic cautionary tale. Thankfully, the 12 brief songs are all instrumental, so you can simply immerse yourself in the music, if you so desire. But if you want to get a sense of the sensibility here, the title, Tanyet, is described as “Mother of all things. Natural essence of love and beauty. Captured in the meadows through the trees of life’s forest, like a ray of sunlight, giving life to the inner breath of all creatures.” I remember my first acid trip too…

The first side exudes paradisiacal vibes, almost like a white-male-rocker take on Alice Coltrane’s Journey In Satchidananda. Blissed-out sitar mellifluity and tamboura drones give way to some gnarled guitar riffing that sounds like Cooder repurposing some of the Safe As Milk ideas he spooled out for Captain Beefheart. Jim Horn’s lilting woodwinds lend things some warped Peter And The Wolf melodic motifs.

But the second side is where shit gets really deep. You can hear Gordon’s funky drumming coming to the fore while over the top the sitar and the guitars start to spangle and jangle to the heavens, eastward. There’s one passage in particular—during the tracks “Tygstl” and “Pendyl”—where the Ceyleib People lock in on a groove so funky and hypnotic it could almost be a foreshadowing of Miles Davis’ On The Corner—but sounding as if powered by ayahuasca rather than coke. It might be my favorite single moment in all of music, the quintessence of psychedelic rock in its full-blooming 1968ness. The band’s record company had the good sense to isolate this part of Tanyet for a 7-inch single, which you can currently find on Discogs for hundreds of dollars. Hurry while supplies last…

Thankfully, you can obtain Tanyet for far less than that sum, as it’s been reissued a handful of times in the 50 years since it blew open minds even farther open. -Buckley Mayfield

Merl Saunders “Fire Up” (Fantasy, 1973)

Merl Saunders (1934-2008) was a Hammond B-3 demon and all-around keyboard badass who is best known for his recordings with the Grateful Dead legend Jerry Garcia. In 1973, Saunders, Garcia, Creedence Clearwater Revival guitarist Tom Fogerty, bassist John Kahn, drummers Bill Vitt and Bill Kreutzmann, and others cut a hot LP aptly titled Fire Up. If you’re familiar with Hooterroll?, the record Garcia made with keyboardist Howard Wales in 1971, you may hear similarities between that and Fire Up. Both are great, if under-acknowledged, gems in the constellation of Grateful Dead satellite releases.

Fire Up starts strongly with “After Midnight,” which Merl and company render in the laid-back style of the song’s composer, JJ Cale, but they make it even funkier, with Jerry Garcia exuding his patented mellow bonhomie on vocals and embellishing the heaven out of the main chugging guitar riff. For even more savory flavor,Saunders gets off some mad, rococo flourishes on organ and electric piano. This might be the best version of this oft-covered song, outside of the original. The low-key party atmosphere continues with a suave, soul-jazz treatment of Huff-Gamble’s “Expressway (To Your Heart).” “Soul Roach” is a greasy af boogaloo-inflected jam that sounds like the best shindig you’ve ever had south of the Mason-Dixon line. Saunders brings in an Arp synth and Kahn helps out on extra organ, because that’s how dang generous ol’ Merl was in 1973.

Fire Up peaks on “Chock-Lite Puddin’,” a cruising funk rambler with Saunders on Arp and flute. This has become my go-to cut from this LP for DJing, along with “After Midnight.” Drummer Gaylord Birch and bassist Chuck Rainey really fatten up the groove here, with bonus mercurial hand percussion making “Chock-Lite Puddin’” dance-floor dynamite. The record closes with a nearly nine-minute version of “Lonely Avenue,” as Saunders and crew turn Doc Pomus’ classic, frequently covered 1956 song into a slinky exercise in melancholy R&B, with Walter Hawkins singing and Garcia soloing with soulful dexterity.

Fire Up is a front-to-back solid collection of keyboard-powered songs that surely illuminated many parties throughout the ’70s, and could do so now among folks of a certain age. Plus, if you’re a fan of Jerry Garcia’s spidery virtuosity, you definitely need this in your collection. -Buckley Mayfield

Bobbie Gentry “Fancy” (Capitol, 1970)

Even though she had a massive hit in 1967 with “Ode To Billie Joe” and released a grip of great LPs from in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Bobbie Gentry is not quite the household name she should be. Much like her English counterpart Dusty Springfield, the Mississippi-born Gentry is a soulful, nuanced vocalist who could work wonders with country, funk, rock, and pop material. Aside from singing in her supple, sensuous contralto, Gentry also wrote, produced, and even did the artwork for some of her album covers (including Fancy). She exerted a lot of control over her career for a woman in a male-dominated industry that wasn’t as progressive as it wanted to think it was.

Although she had sporadic chart success in the US and UK, and even hosted her own variety show on BBC TV, Gentry faded from the music biz and the public eye in the early ’80s. But her profile’s received a boost in recent years after being name-checked by young country-music stars like Kacey Musgraves and Nikki Lane, as well as the recent release of the 8-CD box set The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters, should further raise Gentry’s profile… [ahem] as well as this review.

The title track establishes Fancy‘s main mode: slick, orchestral country-funk executed by excellent session musicians from the Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and in Columbia Studios in Nashville. The lone Gentry original, “Fancy” finds the singer recounting the rags-to-riches story of an 18-year-old woman whose mother nudges her into a life of prostitution to lift the family out of poverty. It’s so good, one wonders why Capitol larded the rest of the LP with other people’s compositions. On the two Bacharach-David tunes—“I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”—Gentry’s Southern-belle gravitas doesn’t thrive in the famous songwriting team’s spick-and-span suburban pop, no matter how well-crafted it is. She sounds a bit uncomfortable and out of her soulful element here. Similarly, the cheerful, waltz-time pop of Rudy Clark’s “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody” does not play to her strengths.

Thankfully, Gentry shines on the rest of the album. While Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues” may not be the most copacetic vehicle for Gentry, the melody is so sublime that she can’t help making a gorgeous swoon of yearning heartache out of it. Leon Russell’s “Delta Man” is a song into which Gentry can really sink her incisors. She switches the original song’s genders and lays into Russell’s rousing chorus with less brio than Joe Cocker did, but Bobbie out-finesses the English geezer by far.

“He Made A Woman Out Of Me” (written by Fred Burch and Don Hill and earlier covered by Bettye LaVette) is Southern country-funk that’s as lubricious as Tony Joe White at his most seductive. It’s a momentous coming-of-age tale… so to speak. The album’s highlight is Harry Nilsson’s “Rainmaker”; it’s the funkiest, most sweeping track here, augmented by banjo and violin—not exactly staples of the funk genre, but Gentry, producer Rick Hall and his Muscle Shoals crew, and strings arranger Jimmie Haskell make it work to the max. This is my go-to track on Fancy for DJ sets—so it has that going for it, too.

While I’d prefer to hear Gentry perform her own songs, on Fancy she inhabits other composers’ with sly charisma, imbuing them with a strong wiliness that was rare for its time among female entertainers. -Buckley Mayfield

Ananda Shankar “Ananda Shankar” (Reprise, 1970)

East-West musical fusions proliferated like mad in the ’60s and ’70s—hell, they’re still happening, if not as frequently as they used to when society as a whole was more open-minded and psychedelically inclined. Most of these efforts stem from Western musicians dabbling with Eastern forms. Indian sitarist/composer Ananda Shankar’s self-titled 1970 debut LP is the rare record where an Eastern musician tries his fleet-fingered hands at rock, and the result is fabulous.

For this album, Shankar only used one other Indian musician: tabla specialist Pranish Khan. The rest of the pick-up band included bassists Jerry Scheff (Elvis Presley, the Doors’ L.A. Woman) and Mark Tulin (Electric Prunes); drummer Michael Botts (Bread); guitarists Drake Levin (Paul Revere & The Raiders, Friendsound) and Dick Rosmini (Van Dyke Parks, Phil Ochs); and keyboardist/Moog savant Paul Lewinson. They serve him well.

Ananda (who was Ravi Shankar’s nephew) had the audacity to tackle two sacred cows of classic rock—the Rolling Stones and the Doors—and the skills to breathe vital new life into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Light My Fire.” The former is one of the greatest Rolling Stones covers ever. If you’re going to make a concession to rock conventions, this is the way to do it. The rhythm’s funked up to a humid degree, while Shankar leaves out most of the lyrics, with only the chorus chanted by women vocalists. Shankar’s sitar takes the lead and he really psychedelicizes and embellishes the main riff, while Paul Lewinson’s Moog accents contrast wonderfully with the sitar’s sanctified twangs. Even Mick and Keef would have to concur that this version is a gas gas gas. Meanwhile, Shankar’s “Light My Fire”—which is already very well-suited to Indian scales—fits the Doors’ original like a perfectly tailored Nehru jacket.

Shankar’s original compositions peak with “Metamorphosis,” a gorgeous, gradually unfolding, cinematic song that should have classed up a movie in the early ’70s in a montage where a couple grow deeper in love and/or attain a sexual climax. (Whoa, that frenzied ending!) “Sagar (The Ocean)”—the only track here played in the Indian classical style—consists of 13 minutes of glinting sitar spangles and brooding Moog fugues. It’s a totally hypnotic tone poem in Sanskrit and analog circuitry and a soundtrack for your most profound and chillest hallucinogen experience. “Dance Indra” is what you might hear in the hippest Indian restaurant in the Western world: a composition of ceremonial grandeur celebrating humanity’s highest emotions and most harmonious sentiments. The album closes with “Raghupati,” an exultant piece powered by celebratory Hindi chants, allegedly from 10 of Shankar’s friends, in praise of the deity Rama. It induces a glorious sense of well-being, and as a bonus, it’s powered by a funky rhythm.

Ananda Shankar is the rare East-West fusion record that works in the discotheque and in the temple. Bow down to its hedonistic holiness. -Buckley Mayfield