Rock

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

My Bloody Valentine “Tremolo” (Creation/Sire, 1991)

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This four-track EP was like a coming attraction for the monumental, instant-classic LP that came out a bit later in 1991, Loveless. Although it’s generally overlooked in comparison to its successor, Tremolo actually contains some of My Bloody Valentine’s greatest compositions.

“To Here Knows When,” of course, appeared on Loveless, but it’s a bizarre choice for a single. Then again, that’s how crazy-like-a-fox Alan McGee operated Creation back in those halcyon daze. The man did not subscribe to conventional wisdom—at all. “To Here Knows When” blooms like a flower on Pluto, or plumes like an exploded New Age composition whose hazy amorphousness is shot through with Bilinda Butcher’s luscious coos. This could be the theme song for every baby in every womb—all atremble with wonder, but burbling with an undercurrent of foreboding at the horrors to come once the umbilical’s snipped. “Swallow” may be the most beatific song in MBV’s blessed canon—which is saying a helluva lot. But seriously… I dare you to find a more opiated, erotic piece of exotica than this Butcher-sung tune. MBV mastermind Kevin Shields really hit on a sensual, peaceful groove here. I could use at least 30 minutes of it, to be honest.

By contrast, “Honey Power” is about as straight-ahead of an uptempo rocker as MBV wrote in this era. Still, it contains plenty of those urgent, tremolo-laden guitar torrents, as Shields and Butcher unleash lavender flames of quasi-kazoo-like timbres. As with the preceding two tracks, “Honey Power” features a coda that adds a wonderfully disorienting aura to the record. (If I were more of a contrarian, I’d say these concluding tangents were the best parts of Tremolo.) The closing “Moon Song” swirls in an almost old-fashioned mode of romantic balladry, although the honeyed drones and muted bongos beneath Shields’ sincere singing nudge the song away from sentimentality.

In 1991, MBV could do no wrong. Tremolo‘s phantasmagorical whirl of astral ambient rock found them pulling way ahead of the pack… and it wasn’t even their peak release from that year. (By the way, we really could use a vinyl reissue of this EP.) -Buckley Mayfield

Pussy Galore “Sugarshit Sharp” (Product Inc./Caroline, 1988)

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If you can only own one Pussy Galore record, make it Sugarshit Sharp*. This six-track EP represents the most potent distillation of the New York City group’s raunchy, rambunctious rock moves. It also contains the greatest Einstürzende Neubauten cover ever; “Yü-Gung.” (Some versions of Sugarshit Sharp contain a bonus track, “Penetration In The Centerfold,” originally by Devo and rendered by Pussy Galore with teeth-gnashing ferocity.)

The entire A-side of my Caroline Records copy of Sugarshit Sharp is consumed by “Yü-Gung,” which in Neubauten’s Teutonic hands was a stark, industrial nail-biter that wanted to scare the shit out of you. In Pussy Galore’s grimy mitts, the song becomes a fiery noise-rock/quasi-disco fusion, with samples from Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe The Hype” and Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two” humorously surfacing amid the chaos. Jon Spencer is at the end of his tether, screaming “Feed my ego!” as he, Julia Cafritz, and Kurt Wolf crank out rusty-toned, power-chord avalanches and Bob Bert gets wicked on the drums. This was some of the wildest party music of that great year of 1988, and it still sounds rowdier than anything current indie rock’s producing.

“Handshake” is a hell-raising soundtrack for violating the speed limit and flipping off cops on freeways. Again, Pussy Galore remind us how timid and tentative most current rock sounds by comparison. “Sweet Little Hi-Fi” is so menacing and sexy, it should receive a restraining order. The part where Spencer barks in muffled tones, “Indivisible! Outstanding! Eternal! One riff!” is aptly meta and descriptive. “Brick” gives trash rock a fistful of amphetamines and a hot foot, to boot, cohering into a perfect merger of Hasil Adkins and Motörhead. “Renegade!” is another raw grunt of primal rock, in case the preceding five tracks haven’t sated you. Mercifully, this EP’s only about 18 minutes long; anything more and you’d be a mere husk of a human afterward. -Buckley Mayfield

*Honestly, you really should own more than one Pussy Galore record. Also crucial: Right Now!, Dial ‘M’ For Motherfucker, Groovy Hate Fuck.

Blurt “Blurt” (Red Flame, 1982)

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Blurt don’t get enough respect. Led by poet/saxophonist/blurter Ted Milton, they were one of the oddest and most galvanizing bands from Great Britain’s post-punk movement. Surfacing a year after 1981’s live full-length In Berlin, their self-titled debut studio LP consists of seven tracks that strip funk and jazz-inflected no wave down to insanely logical essentials. These lean vehicles operated by Milton, his brother Jake (drums), and Pete Creese (guitar) get your hips twitching and your brain itching. The songs are both tight and spacey—a rare combo of elements that coheres into trance-funk jams punctuated by Milton’s rude, shredded sax jags and spluttering, megaphoned rants. If you saw Ted Milton doing his thing on the street corner, you’d give him a wide berth. See him onstage or hear him on record and you’re transfixed and repulsed in equal measure.

“Dog Save My Sole” instantly sets the template for Blurt: solid-as-hell, tom-tom-heavy funk beats that hit you in your root chakra; geometrically precise, lightly discordant guitar figures that cycle like ∞; and Milton’s raucous sax squawks and mad shouts. The weirdly galloping “Trees” might appeal to fans of Ornette Coleman’s Of Human Feelings, which also came out in 1982. Milton’s sax is at its most mellifluous and Creese’s guitar takes on a percussive, Afrobeat tenor. “Physical Fitness” crunches your abs with rolling and tumbling tom-tom and kick-drum beats while Ted lays down some knuckle-biting, spy-jazz motifs and Creese scratches out a guitar riff that sounds like a strangled tiger snarl.

“Empty Vessels” is streamlined funk with an undulating groove that you never want to end—trust me on this. Creese executes a minimalist, “King Sunny Adé on a short leash” guitar mantra, while Ted spits leery squiggles of sax over everything. The rudimentarily funky “Play The Game” sounds like it’s repeatedly falling down the stairs into a Manhattan jazz club circa 1961, as TM shreds his larynx with some babble. Without warning, the song speeds up… because Dada. “The Ruminant Plinth” is the closest Blurt comes to a single (which it was): It’s the sort of jittery yet maniacally disciplined jazz funk that could make Fela Kuti’s Africa ’70 sweat their asses off. With contrarian bullheadedness, Blurt closes with “Arthur,” the LP’s slowest cut; Ted and the guys sound relatively narcotized, but the melismatic jazz funk will surely put you in a strange reverie.

There’s nothing on Blurt that’s as rabble-rousing and catchy as their early-’80s singles “The Fish Needs A Bike” and “Get,” but this remains Blurt’s most consistent full-length effort and an essential, bizarrely shaped piece of the original post-punk puzzle. -Buckley Mayfield

The Stick Men “Get On Board” (Red Records, 1983)

 

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This Philadelphia quintet made James Chance and the Contortions sound like laid-back Eagles fans. To say that the Stick Men’s funk is frantic and urgent is a grandiose understatement. This five-track EP should come with blood-pressure medication. To be sure, Get On Board is highly obscure, but it somehow gained a blip of recognition in my Midwestern city in the early ’80s. I recall hearing some tracks from this record on the local NPR station’s alternative-music program on a Sunday night and having my mind properly blown. Three decades later I found a copy in a Detroit-area shop for $3. You should’ve seen my god-damn expression of surprise. It’s so good to be reunited with this wild and wired 12-inch.

The EP kicks off with “Funky Hayride,” which emerges out of a babble of chicken squawks before blooming into an absurdly fonky hoedown powered by a rubbernecking, strutting bass line that would make Larry Graham raise two thumbs. The song establishes the Stick Men’s ricocheting vocal interplay, jagged dynamics, and predilection for kinetic cowbell thwocking. It also reflects their ability to create weird tension even as they inspire you to get on down—à la the Contortions. “Bone Shadow” is an amphetamine blurt of staccato no-wave rock that could start a whirling-dervish moshpit under the right circumstances. “Action Man” sounds like the Pop Group and Clock DVA splinter group the Box in a pressure cooker. “Crash My Dome” is almost as hectic as its predecessor and studded with unpredictable moves, a sort of fleet funk that’s tied up in strange knots, like a Type-A Minutemen. “Jampire” could be an accelerated, Cubist interpretation of Sly & The Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”; it’s an aptly chaotic conclusion to a record that believes, like Sonic Youth, confusion is sex.

Get On Board is super brief, but with its whirlwind energy and flagrant tension, that’s sort of a blessing. You will feel wrung out and exhilaratingly stunned by the end of its 11-minute running time. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Ramsey Lewis “Mother Nature’s Son” (Cadet, 1968)

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What happens when a black man covers songs on The White Album? Magic, as it turns out. Releasing an LP of 10 interpretations from a record that came out earlier in that year by the blessed Beatles might seem like a crass cash-in, but keyboardist Ramsey Lewis is a helluva classy, exceptionally talented interpreter, and Mother Nature’s Son is mostly fantastic—no matter if it was meant to capitalize on the world’s most popular rock band’s latest opus.

Cadet’s in-house studio wizard Charles Stepney (I highly recommend you especially check out his work with the Rotary Connection) convinced Lewis to record Mother Nature’s Son even though Ramsey was not the biggest Beatles fan. Lewis had covered “And I Love Her,” “Hard Day’s Night,” and “Day Tripper,” but hadn’t been converted into a hardcore Fab Four aficionado. In late 1968, Stepney insisted Lewis listen more deeply to The White Album, and the latter eventually came around—luckily for us.

Bolstered by Lewis’ Moog synthesizer treatments and an orchestra, the soul-jazzed-up instrumental versions on Mother Nature’s Son sound expansive and festooned with baroque ornamentation. Lewis and company blow out Paul McCartney’s spare “Mother Nature’s Son” into a dazzling symphonic tapestry and the unbearable “Rocky Raccoon” is made bearable—see, miracles do happen. John Lennon’s “Julia” is whipped into a creamy, drifting sigh of a piece that soars much higher than his original intimate ballad. “Back In The U.S.S.R.” oozes sophisticated swagger and the drums really bump with what sounds like Bernard Purdie’s funky slaps. Also receiving hot funk injections are “Dear Prudence,” “Cry Baby Cry,” and “Sexy Sadie,” which billow into compositions as grandiose as Isaac Hayes circa Hot Buttered Soul or David Axelrod circa Songs Of Innocence/Experience.

The orchestral confection “Good Night” is a bit too rich for my blood, but “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And Monkey” absolutely scorches; it’s the LP’s most exciting rendition. “Monkey” is among the Beatles’ hardest-rocking tunes, and Lewis transforms it into one of the wildest peak-time party jams the ’60s—a decade famous for its peak-time party jams—has ever witnessed. This version tops the Feelies’, if you can believe it. Album-closer “Blackbird” really elevates and elongates, its melodic contours perfect for jazz virtuosi like Lewis and his mates to extrapolate upon.

Obviously, the raw material of The White Album is mostly superb, but in almost every instance, Lewis and his musicians find ingenious ways to make them even more spectacular—and without a lick of singing. Shame about the absence of “Revolution 9,” though. -Buckley Mayfield