Rock

Osmonds “The Plan” (MGM, 1973)

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Write off the Osmonds at your own peril. Sure, they’re easy laughingstocks: a family of squeaky-clean Mormons trying to come off as the Caucasian Jackson 5. But these clean-cut brothers had oodles of talent and big budgets boosting their blatantly commercial vision. Throughout the ’70s, they excelled at bubblegum pop, glam, soul, funk, disco, and even a glossy strain of metal on “Crazy Horses.” Stop snickering and spring for a few of their early-’70s LPs for proof… while they’re still cheap.

Where were we? Oh, yes, The Plan. It’s universally considered the Osmonds’ most ambitious work: a concept album about the Mormon faith (Google it), written by Merrill and Wayne, and produced by Alan. Now, nobody’s more leery of overblown songs devoted to imaginary deities than your reviewer. But I’m gonna try to set aside my agnostic biases and judge this opus on a purely sonic basis. And on that level, The Plan mostly succeeds.

(Will it convert you into a Mormon? I sure hope not, but you’ve been known to do stupider things. Oh yes you have.)

Let’s get the stinkers out of the way first. “Before The Beginning” is a Vegas-y, oh-so-earnest ballad with that most annoying of balladic tropes: a crying baby. The tender as fuck orchestral ballad “Darlin’” liberally ladles on the syrup while “Are You Up There?” comes off as bombastic as anything on Aphrodite’s Child’s 666, but it’s not nearly as sublime. Slightly better is “Let Me In,” a dashing slice of ELO-ish orchestral pop that the Avalanches sampled on Since I Left You. It’s very accomplished schmaltz that reached #36 on the Billboard chart.

A couple of tunes reveal that Osmonds can do heavy rock better than most Mormons you may know. On “Traffic In My Mind,” they take a quasi-freaky stab at Deep Purple or Grand Funk Railroad gnarliness. “The Last Days” finds the Osmonds trying to sound ominous but not really convincing you that they can summon aural Armageddon. Still, it’s a valiant attempt, and the main riff would make Iron Butterfly nod in respect.

The two best cuts—“Mirror, Mirror” and “One Way Ticket To Anywhere”—are very good, indeed. The former’s an oddly metered romp animated by jittery skeins of harmonica and jaw harp while the latter’s as super-charged as Sweet’s “The Ballroom Blitz” and the Beatles’ “Back In The U.S.S.R.” “One Way Ticket” soars and dazzles like a motherfucker, bolstered by funky drumming, manic cowbell thunking, and a wicked fuzz-guitar solo.

The chart-dwelling “Goin’ Home” closes The Plan with a bellbottomed stomp augmented by alpha-male horn charts; this is climaximum rock and roll that is perhaps the Church Of The Latter-day Saints version of the Rolling Stones’ “Rocks Off.” Talk about ending an album on a god-damn high… Still, my agnosticism remains steadfast. -Buckley Mayfield

War “The World Is A Ghetto” (United Artists, 1972)

 

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I’m not in the habit of reviewing records that have dwelled on the charts (it went to #1 and was Billboard magazine’s album of the year, selling more copies than anything else in 1973), but War’s The World Is A Ghetto ain’t your typical platinum LP. Sure, smash single “The Cisco Kid” greatly helped its ascension, but when you get beyond that feel-good, heavy-lidded funk shuffle, things get dark, psychedelic, and real as shit.

On this, their fifth full-length, War were really hitting their stride. The large LA ensemble had proved they excelled at funk, rock, Latin, R&B, calypso, and fusions thereof—with and without ex-Animals vocalist Eric Burdon. Their music was geared for outdoor parties and radiated a bonhomie that you sensed aspired to unite racial and social groups—even on ostensibly ominous cuts like surprise radio staple “Slippin’ Into Darkness.”

Still, some critics have lamented the extended length of songs like “City, Country, City,” “Four Cornered Room,” and the title track, but fug these short-attention-spanned busters. If concise songs are more your speed, though, you’ll love the aforementioned “Cisco Kid” and “Where Was You At.” The latter’s a brisk, clipped funk number with gospel call-and-response vocals, with its irresistible groove toggling between tough and breezy. The sub-4-minute “Beetles In The Bog” is one of those let’s-end-the-album-on-a-rousing-note songs, powered by massed “la la la”s, a nimble, strutting bass line, and a martial rhythm.

But the real nitty-gritty of The World Is A Ghetto occurs on its longest tracks. “City, Country, City” is a 13-minute instrumental that vacillates between passages resembling Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” and bustling, urban jazz-funk that nearly beats Kool & The Gang at their own game. War seriously stretch out and build up a humid head of steam here. A midnight-blue ballad, “The World Is A Ghetto” is suffused with a sublime malaise over its 10-minute duration, but it possesses enough gumption to keep its chin up in the struggle to survive, despite the pervasive gloom of the song’s sentiment.

With “Four Cornered Room,” Ghetto hits a shocking peak. It starts with one of the starkest, most menacing blues-rock riffs to which you’ve ever trembled (oddly, you can hear its influence in the later work of Seattle drone-metal deities Earth). The massed “ooh”s and “zoom zoom zoom”s add layers of chillingness to the song, while the phased and panned guitar and percussion disperse things into a psychedelic zone of extreme zonkedness. It sounds like War wrote and recorded this tune after smoking some extremely strong ganja, playing as if in a paranoid daze. “Four Cornered Room” puts most stoner rock to shame. Low-key, it’s a career highlight in a catalog loaded with diverse zeniths. -Buckley Mayfield

 

The Soft Boys “Underwater Moonlight” (Armageddon, 1980)

 

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The Soft Boys opened their 1979 debut album, A Can Of Bees, with “Give It To The Soft Boys.” That’s what I’m about to do with this here review… praise, that is. For Underwater Moonlight is a stone-cold classic of neo-retro-psychedelic jangle pop, ablaze with memorable tunes and brilliant lyrics. According to some smart folks, it represents the peak of singer-songwriter-guitarist Robyn Hitchcock’s long, fruitful career. On certain days, I agree with that observation.

The album kicks off with one of the greatest one-two punches in rock history. “I Wanna Destroy You” might be the ultimate righteous-revenge anthem. Musically, this is one of the most effusive and potent power-pop songs ever, but lyrically it’s utterly sulphuric in its vengefulness—against the media, apparently. And man does it feel good when Hitchcock euphoniously yelps into the chorus; the “I”s here just explode. “The Kingdom Of Love” veers almost 180º in the opposite direction. It’s a cool, cruising rocker that expresses an exalted yet surreal desire, as Hitchcock equates extreme infatuation with insects crawling under his skin. When the song reaches the part where he sings, “You grow out of me like a FLOWER!” it sounds like his heart’s literally bursting in ecstasy and the song ascends to its most heavenly level. If these two cuts were released on a 45, it would represent an all-time Top 20 single.

The jittery, jangly, sitar-spiced power pop of “Positive Vibrations” makes you feel as good as the title would suggest. You’d best believe R.E.M. were taking notes while listening to this song. If you ever wondered what would happen if the Cramps were British absurdists, well, the leering, sleazy “I Got The Hots” would be your answer. “Insanely Jealous” gradually builds into an amphetamine’d blowout redolent of obsessiveness; the music’s a perfect analogue of the titular emotion.

Hitchcock fans may hate me for saying this, but “Tonight” verges on cheesy, sounding like a middling, long-lost radio hit or TV movie theme. It’s really Underwater Moonlight‘s only weak link. But the LP rebounds with two of its toughest pieces: the intriguing and torqued instrumental “You’ll Have To Go Sideways” and “Old Pervert,” the most jagged, vicious, oddly metered song here—almost No Wave-y in its angularity and abrasiveness. Then there’s a weird segue into “Queen Of Eyes,” an amiable, Byrdsy jangle rock bauble, before the title track closes things with an ideal combo of the rousing and the slightly rueful. Hitchcock’s and Kimberly Rew’s guitars shimmer in a vaguely Eastern manner while also slashing and clanging with fervent rock gusto. So much gusto! Roll credits, exit theater feeling exhilarated. Then repeat… over and over.

(In this century, Underwater Moonlight has been reissued on vinyl by Matador in 3XLP form and by Yep Roc. Rykodisc did a CD reissue in 1992 with eight bonus tracks.) -Buckley Mayfield

 

Jody Harris/Robert Quine “Escape” (Infidelity, 1981)

 

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Talk about an unheralded masterpiece… Escape is a ludicrously under-acknowledged gem from New York City’s fertile early-’80s sonic crucible. Masterly guitarists Jody Harris and Robert Quine had their tentacles in some of the Big Apple’s most important groups of the ’70s and ’80s, including Contortions, James White & The Blacks, Implog, the Raybeats, and Golden Palominos for the former and Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Material, and Lou Reed for the latter. For Escape, Harris and Quine use guitars, bass, and electronic percussion to create a uniquely otherworldly work of rock that has few peers.

The 12-minute “Flagpole Jitters” must’ve boggled freaks’ minds aplenty when it first came out, even among those who traveled in the headiest of No Wave and post-punk circles. Oddly funky electronic percussion pistons nonchalantly while Harris and Quine engage in a frenzied guitar duel that sounds like Television—if Verlaine and Lloyd’s axes were retuned by Harry Partch. The shrill tonalities and frazzling intensity of the playing shove this epic song into a WTF plane of its own, a communiqué from an advanced species recreating rock according to its own utterly bizarre instincts. Seriously, it’s damn near impossible to hear rock the same way after you’ve been exposed to “Flagpole Jitters.”

By comparison, “Don’t Throw That Knife” can’t help seeming a tad anticlimactic; it tones down the extreme timbres and settles into an intoxicating, low-slung cha-cha groove as Quine and Harris brandis pointillist, crystalline six-string origami. The effect is not unlike some of the more tropical cuts on Can’s Ege Bamyasi and, perhaps coincidentally, some of Robert Fripp’s extended and exotic sonorities on King Crimson’s Discipline. Be very excited. On “Up In Daisy’s Penthouse,” relaxed drum-machine rhythms percolate under slanting, clangorous guitar murmurs and enigmatic sighs. It makes me think of Muzak™ that might be heard on Pluto, which is a high compliment.

Escape‘s most urgent, driving rocker, “Termites Of 1938” zips with persistent hi-hat tsss and guitars that bite with the alien causticity of Chrome’s Helios Creed; eventually, said guitars pile up into huge parabolas of barbed wire; voilà, a new kind of raveup. “Pardon My Clutch” ends the album with what sounds like a 11-minute rockabilly pastiche from a couple of futuristic dudes who genuinely respect the style, but can’t help subverting it with slurred slivers of Harvey Mandel-esque guitar ectoplasm that are humorously at odds with the jaunty, canned beats.

I would say seek out Escape ASAP, before mugs read this review and start jacking up the price beyond its current reasonable $10-$15 range. -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

 

Rare Earth “Ma” (Rare Earth, 1973)

 

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One of the first white bands signed to Motown, Detroit’s Rare Earth had a damn good run in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Those were peak times for psychedelic soul and R&B in general, and Rare Earth seriously benefited from Motown’s largesse (they even got their own imprint, also called Rare Earth). Oddly, though, Motown boss Berry Gordy often ordered Rare Earth to perform the same Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong compositions that the Temptations and/or Undisputed Truth recorded. The reasoning being, if one of them didn’t hit, well, maybe the other act would, as if each had their own distinct fan bases. As a fan of all three groups, I can’t discern great differences from their respective versions of those stone classic Whitfield/Strong numbers, but I’m of the persuasion to hear ‘em all. That’s how strong my love is for that writing team.

Anyway, Rare Earth’s sixth album, Ma, consists of all Whitfield material, with Strong earning co-writing credits on “Smiling Faces Sometimes” and “Hum Along And Dance” (the Jackson 5 also covered the latter). Both are incredible jams that you have to go out of your way to mess up, and Rare Earth execute them like the slick professionals they are. Singing drummer Peter Hoorelbeke (aka Rivera) might be the funkiest, most soulful Caucasian dude to hold down those two tasks simultaneously. (I’m willing to be proved wrong, if you have counter examples.)

Talk about balls, though: “Ma” starts the LP with a 17-minute tour de force of stoic, stolid funk and an inspirational tale about a strong, generous mother who raised 13 children, against the odds, and was “stronger than any two men.” Ray Monette lets off some strafing guitar solos and Mark Olson adds percussive, striding piano that ratchets up the drama. As with other Whitfield epics, “Ma” accrues momentum and momentousness as it goes. The man was a songwriting god, and this is yet another masterpiece in his canon.

“Big John Is My Name” is your basic marauding, boastful party-funk anthem, with drum breaks ripe for the sampling, although whosampled.com shockingly reveals that nobody’s done so. That’s just crazy. The Rare Earth rendition of “Smiling Faces Sometimes” differs from Undisputed Truth’s and the Temptations’ in that it’s more rock-oriented and laced with flamboyant keyboard embellishments. It’s probably my least favorite of the three, but it still bears some wicked wah-wah guitar punctuation, and it’s by no means a dud.

For “Hum Along And Dance,” Rare Earth again bring more rock energy—think the Rolling Stones circa “Can You Hear Me Knocking”—to this intense dance cut than do the J5 or the Tempts. Michael Urso kills it on bass, and there’s clenched-fist excitement from start to finish. “Come With Me” bears an acoustic guitar part that paraphrases the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” which Rare Earth covered on 1970′s Ecology. It also boast plenty of female groans, a Santana-esque shuffle, and an expressive guitar solo. It’s a mellow denouement to a record that mostly funks festively or furrows brows with earnest platitudes about guarding against deceptiveness and honoring single mothers.

Ma might be the last great Rare Earth album, and I recommend it to anyone who worships Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong—which means all right-thinking people, to be completely honest. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Pavement “Perfect Sound Forever” (Drag City, 1990)

 

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For a long time, I was a Slanted & Enchanted guy. I thought that had to be Pavement’s pinnacle… because that was the one that sounded most like the Fall. Impeccable logic, right? When Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain came out, I thought Pavement had gone a bit corny, a bit too R.E.M.ish. Pavement’s difficult third album, Wowee Zowee, restored my faith in Stephen Malkmus and company’s ability to get weird and unpredictable while still keeping things pretty structured. And then, for reasons I can’t really pinpoint, I stopped following Pavement. I just plain ignored Brighten The Corners and Terror Twilight. Maybe it was because I got intensely into IDM and drum & bass. One of these years I’ll go back and explore the last two Pavement full-lengths, but right now I have more important matters at hand.

Anyway, this preamble is just a roundabout way to say I’m reassessing my internal Pavement ranking system. I would like to argue that Pavement peaked on Perfect Sound Forever. (It originally came out on 10-inch, the fourth ever release on the esteemed Drag City Records; you can also find it on the compilation Westing [By Musket And Sextant].) Perfect Sound Forever‘s only 12 minutes long, but it epitomizes Pavement’s early phase, and it’s an exemplary bridge between their first couple of scrappy singles and the accomplished indie-rock obscurantism of Slanted & Enchanted.

“Heckler Spray” is one of the most brilliant opening salvos ever, a bravura noise-rock intro that separates the wheat from the boys and the men from the cream. These are the most heroic and needling guitar tones Malkmus and Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg ever wrangled from their axes. Bow down to their majesty. If you want to hear how best to create a subdued rock anthem, study “From Now On.” On “Angel Carver Blues/Mellow Jazz Docent,” heavy and jagged guitars menacingly lurch, punctuated by staunch, hard beats. Then cooler heads prevail with the “Mellow Jazz Docent” section, which is still a deceptively scathing yet laid-back rejoinder to the first segment. Malkmus and his cohorts sound so effortlessly assured, blending melodic chops with an exhilaratingly caustic guitar attack.

“Drive-By-Fader” and “Krell Vid-user” form very strange and distorted bookend interludes on the second side. These brief, bizarre noise experiments represent Pavement’s most unhinged moments. By contrast, “Home” is some kind of slacker rock apotheosis. But then comes “Debris Slide,” Pavement’s zenith. It’s the catchiest, most raucous, and coolest song in their canon—like a bubblegum Sonic Youth tune, and perfectly titled.

Speaking of titles, Perfect Sound Forever cleverly deflated the music industry’s laughably overblown compact disc hype while also marking Pavement as world-class wise guys who could pen indelible hooks and blowtorch your ears at the same time. Best. Pavement. Record. -Buckley Mayfield

 

William S. Fischer “Circles” (Embryo, 1970)

r-1921619-1275313594-jpeg Herbie Mann’s Embryo label may not have had the greatest track record, but it was never less than interesting during its eight-year run, as LPs by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Brute Force, Miroslav Vitous, and others, attest. Ol’ Herbie seemingly gave his artists free rein, and most of them took full advantage. One of the Atlantic Records subsidiary’s standout releases is Circles by composer/keyboardist William S. Fischer. Fischer—who doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page—plays Moog synthesizer on this very curious record, which boasts Billy Cobham on drums, Ron Carter on bass, vocalist Bill Robinson, no fewer than five cellists, and superstar session guitarists Hugh McCracken (Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Van Morrison et al.) and Eric Weissberg, who played the banjo theme to Deliverance. That’s a helluva lot of firepower for a musician of such (unjust) obscurity. The album’s first track doesn’t really betray how strange Circles will get. “Patience Is A Virtue” is a slow-burning psychedelic-soul number in the vein of Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong’s “Message From A Black Man,” and given gravity by Fischer’s cello army. But then, catching you unawares, “Saigon”’s acid rock surges somewhere in the vicinity of Jefferson Airplane, Phil Upchurch, and It’s A Beautiful Day’s “Time Is.” If that weren’t enough of a radical juxtaposition, the abstract Moog exploration of “Electrix” sounds as peculiar and disturbing as anything off a Nik Raicevic LP or George Harrison’s Paul Beaver-assisted Electronic Sound. Another 90-degree twist happens with “Chains,” which almost prefigures the nocturnal slowcore rock of bands like Codeine or Low. Nothing on side 1 makes any goddamn sense, and that’s a wonderful thing. Turn the record over for another shocking transition, “There’s A Light That Shines,” a poker-faced pop-gospel ditty sung with utmost sincerity and sweetness by Robinson, but laced with Fischer’s crispy Moog embellishments. It’s the LP’s low point, but its cloyingness is nullified by “Circle.” With its unusual dynamics and dark orchestrations, this song’s excellent funk rock sounds like Chambers Brothers attempting their own Forever Changes. “Green Forever” delivers orchestral funk of David Axelrod-esque complexity, powered by Cobham’s ridiculously mercurial drumming and fiery guitar interplay redolent of Miles Davis’ ’70s-era hired guns like John McLaughlin and Pete Cosey. You have to admire someone who ends a debut album with a track like “Capsule”—a cavalcade of chittering and purring Moog blurts. You have to remember, this synth was rather new in 1970 and musicians were eager to explore its outermost capabilities, sometimes for the sheer novelty effect. Fischer does that here, and if you’re of a psychedelic mindset, you’ll gleefully go along for the whole seven-minute tour de force. Like Fischer’s other albums—Akelarre Sorta and Omen, both from 1972—Circles is long out of print on vinyl although in 2003 Water Records re-released it on CD. It’s one of those true oddball records that need to hit more ears ASAP, regardless of format. -Buckley Mayfield

Opal “Happy Nightmare Baby” (SST, 1987)

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Like many releases from SST’s incredible run in the ’80s, Happy Nightmare Baby languishes out of print. Opal’s only studio LP proper is a fabulous, valuable record, and in a just world, it would not be as scarce as it is. In a just world, SST—which is run by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn—or a label specializing in reissues would have kept the lovely masterpiece in print perpetually. But no. Ginn seems not interested in keeping his label’s greatest titles available to the general public. Only tenacious bands with top-flight lawyers have managed to get the rights to their SST output for legit reissues. Sorry to bog you down with this minutiae, but if you want a vinyl copy of Happy Nightmare Baby, you’ll likely have to shell out major coin; I paid $40 for an original last year. Even the used CD I bought eight years ago cost $12, which is kind of scandalous.

Anyway, to the music, which was created by Rain Parade guitarist/vocalist David Roback and Dream Syndicate vocalist/bassist Kendra Smith. Their combined discographies reveal them to be songwriters whose work is built to last. And so it goes here. “Rocket Machine” launches Happy Nightmare Baby into T.Rextacy from the get-go, its slowed-down Bolan-esque boogie an instant initiation into Opal’s psychedelicized recontextualization of ’60s and ’70s classic rock moves. “Magick Power” uncoils like a serpentine Doors epic, but it’s infused with Smith’s sly feminine charms instead of Jim Morrison’s macho bravado. And that makes all the difference. (I’m a Doors fan, by the way, so hold your hate mail.)

On “She’s A Diamond,” Opal blow out a bluesy shuffle with fuzzed-out wah-wah guitar and glaze it with glorious, icy female backing vocals behind Smith’s wonderfully opiated drawl. You can hear why Roback picked Hope Sandoval for his next band, Mazzy Star, as she followed in Kendra’s compellingly lackadaisical steps. “Supernova” sounds what I imagine heroin feels like; it’s a languid strut, accentuated by guitars that spray gold glitter, and there’s also what sounds like an electric cello swirling in the background. Seductively stalking keyboard and bass riffs power “Siamese Trap,” augmented by Roback’s articulate guitar love cries. If you haven’t gathered by now, Happy Nightmare Baby possesses some of the most immersive and alluring sex music you’ll ever hear.

The Strange Days-era Doors-y title track casts a spell at once beatific and sinister, which is incredibly hard to do. “Soul Giver” offers the perfect ending to the album, with its methodical, tidal undertow and hypnotic, majestic sweep. Suki Ewers’ snaky, Manzarek-like organ arabesques really elevate the song to the highest echelon of extended psych jams. I used to put this on mixtapes next to Loop’s “Burning World,” and it was a helluva stoned 1-2 punch.

I realize it won’t be easy (thanks, Greg), but you should do whatever it takes to get Happy Nightmare Baby into your life—and, yes, you deserve better than a YouTube rip. -Buckley Mayfield

Rain Parade “Explosions In The Glass Palace” (Enigma, 1984)

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Following Rain Parade’s extraordinary 1983 debut LP Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, Explosions In The Glass Palace couldn’t help sounding like a tiny bit of an anticlimax. But the five-song mini album by the standard-bearers of Los Angeles’ short-lived Paisley Underground scene (a term none of the participants probably ever want to hear or see again; sorry!) stands as a superb little collection of West Coast psychedelia.

Key Rain Parade singer-songwriter David Roback was mostly gone and working on Opal (and then later, the Clay Allison Band and Mazzy Star) by the time the group cut Explosions; he’s only credited on the EP’s last track, “No Easy Way Down.” But Roback’s brother Steven, Matt Piucci, and Will Glenn ably picked up the compositional slack. “You Are My Friend” is a bejangled, tender-hearted slice of mellifluous raga rock that could’ve come from the pen of Roger McGuinn or Lennon-McCartney circa “Rain.” As a homage to psych-rock’s first vital steps, it’s a goddamn beaut. By contrast, eerie waltz-time zoner “Prisoners” creeps in with stealth, bolstered by majestically arcing guitar sighs and moans, evoking those comfortably numb, sublimely ponderous Pink Floyd space-outs.

The blissful, gently rippling midtempo rock of “Blue”—which contains the poignant line “All our tears couldn’t bring her home”—strikes me as ideal for driving the idyllic back roads around Big Sur, California. (You haven’t been to Big Sur? You should try to remedy that soon.) If there’s a lull in Explosions, it occurs on “Broken Horse,” a Steven Roback-penned acoustic-guitar ballad whose slightly melodramatic, melancholic Neil Young vibe breaks the EP’s lysergic spell. But things elevate dramatically on Explosions‘ peak “No Easy Way Down.” It’s one of the deepest, most seductive psychedelic excursions Rain Parade ever made, echoing the Door’s “The End” via the main riff’s spellbinding Eastern lilt and Will Glenn’s rich, sacred Hammond B-3 whorls.

The year after Explosions, Rain Parade created one more very good album on Island, Crashing Dream, before folding, but they still occasionally play out. In fact, in 2014 they headlined Seattle’s Hypnotikon Festival, and revealed flashes of their old selves. Rain Parade’s catalog may be small, but it’s all wonderful, including the exquisite Explosions In The Glass Palace. -Buckley Mayfield

Parliament “Osmium” (Invictus, 1970)

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Osmium captures Parliament (aka Funkadelic) at a time before their trademark stylistic traits had firmly solidified. Consequently, it’s a wildly diverse record, full of songs both expected (if you’re familiar with the P-Funk catalog) and very surprising—like, “check the record to make sure this is still the band from Detroit led by George Clinton” surprising. Yes, Osmium is at core a soul album, but it’s a helluva lot more, too. Because any George Clinton production—especially from the ’60s and ’70s—can never be typical.

Osmium—alternately titled Rhenium and First Thangs in subsequent releases; a 2016 reissue of it is floating around, too—begins with a prime slice of horndog funk, “I Call My Baby Pussycat,” with Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross’ guitars and Billy Bass Nelson’s bass really setting fire under asses. Things grind to a solemn halt with “Put Love In Your Life,” a soul-gospel-tinged ballad sung with baritone gravity by Ray Davis… but then it unexpectedly shifts into a florid psych-pop anthem. Wow, my ears just got whiplash. If that weren’t strange enough, the Ruth Copeland-penned “Little Ole Country Boy” swerves into mock-country territory, replete with jaw harp, tabletop guitar embellishments, and Fuzzy Haskins’ Southern-honky vocal affectations; think the Rolling Stones, but with tongues more firmly jammed in cheek. More ear whiplash. Ouch! (Yes, De La Soul producer Prince Paul sampled the yodeling part for “Potholes In My Lawn.”)

“Moonshine Leather” peddles the sort of sublimely sluggish bluesy funk that occupied some of Funkadelic’s earliest releases, while “Oh Lord, Why Lord/Prayer” is a baroque-classical/gospel hybrid, sung with utmost passion and soul by Calvin Simon and Copeland. It’s definitely the frilliest and most churchy P-Funk track I’ve heard. As an agnostic, it sort of gives me hives, but there’s no denying the sincerity and skill behind the song.

Side two begins with “My Automobile,” yet more Stonesy faux country, but with sitar (?!) accompaniment, quickly followed by the revved-up, libidinous “Nothing Before Me But Thang,” which is the wildest, most Funkadelicized cut on Osmium. The struttin’, ruttin’ “Funky Woman” is indeed funky and ready to make any party you’re attending lit, as the kids say. The hippie-fied gospel rock of “Livin’ The Life” sounds like something off of Godspell or Hair, but it’s not bad at all.

Parliament saved the best for last with “The Silent Boatman.” Another Ruth Copeland composition (she also co-produced the LP, by the way), “The Silent Boatman” is one of the most beautiful and moving songs in all creation. A slowly building, majestic ballad aswirl in Bernie Worrell’s organ and glockenspiel, it’s a poignant tale lamenting inequality and strife on Earth and redemption in the afterlife. When the bagpipes come in, you feel as if you’re being swept up in a highly improbable dream in which Parliament become the most persuasive religious sect ever to enter a studio. Going way against type, “The Silent Boatman” might be the closest Clinton & company ever got to godliness. Ruth Copeland was their secret weapon, although she never again recorded another proper album with the group. But what a legacy she left. -Buckley Mayfield

Felt “Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty” (Cherry Red, 1982)

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While it’s foolhardy to generalize about Felt fans, one thing seems certain: Most consider Ignite The Seven Cannons (i.e., the one with “Primitive Painters” on it) or Forever Breathes The Lonely Word as their best album. I beg to differ. For me, this British band—who issued 10 albums and 10 singles in 10 years throughout the ’80s—peaked with The Strange Idols Pattern And Other Stories and this perfectly formed mini LP. I know—shocking, right?

There’s nothing really crumbling on Felt’s debut, but there’s plenty of antiseptic beauty. And while that may seem like damning with faint praise, I mean this in the strongest terms: Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty is utterly sublime, lack of grit be damned.

“Evergreen Dazed” instantly sets a tone of spangly grandeur, courtesy of the rococo guitar leads by the classically trained Maurice Deebank. An instrumental that plucks heartstrings in the key of gee whiz, “Evergreen Dazed” exudes a most brilliant crystalline poignancy. On “Fortune,” frontman Lawrence’s voice sounds like a perfect merger of Bob Dylan’s sneer and Lou Reed’s sardonic deadpan, while the music saunters and glints with casual elegance. This isn’t rock as most know it, but rather some English back-garden reverie or a drawing-room samba. One imagines Lawrence, at this early stage of Felt, wrinkling his nose at the vulgarity of most rock. The swooning continues on “Birdmen,” whose languid psychedelia gyres around a glacially chiming, hypnotic guitar pattern.

“Cathedral,” which has been one of my favorite songs for over 30 years, is absolutely worthy of the title. The intro’s a majestic brandishing of silvery guitars, and then Lawrence and co. swoosh in with those intimate-yet-distant vocals and a gently undulating unrock attack, marked by Deebank’s jangly guitar shimmer. The last half of the song contains some of the greatest spidery guitar calligraphy this side of a Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd duel. The Deebank-written “I Worship The Sun” is Crumbling‘s most propulsive tune; it actually builds up a rocking head of steam. As with all of the other tracks, though, drummer Gary Ainge only seems to use the toms, because as Lou Reed sagely noted, cymbals eat guitars. Still, it’s odd not to hear any kicks or snares over an entire album.

“Templeroy, another Deebank piece, ends the record on a somewhat anticlimactic note. This one meanders a bit too close to the Earth compared to the preceding five songs. Plus, Lawrence sounds like he’s suffering a panic attack, and not in a good way. If I were sequencing Crumbling, “Cathedral” would conclude the disc, so we could all exit the theater with tears in our eyes and our souls inflated to bursting point. Nevertheless, Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty maintains a porcelain gorgeousness that, if current trends hold, will never fade. -Buckley Mayfield