Soul, Funk and Disco

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larry Young’s Fuel “Larry Young’s Fuel” (Arista, 1975)

By 1975, jazz keyboardist Larry Young was straying far from his modal, Coltrane-esque dates for Blue Note, his contributions to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, and his fiery fusion experiments with Tony Williams Lifetime and Love Cry Want—and even his 1973 oddity, Lawrence Of Newark [a review of which you can find on this blog]. Signing to a major label like Arista may have had something to do with this change in direction, as it represents some of Young’s most accessible work. Yet for all its leanings toward R&B libidinousness and funk decadence, Larry Young’s Fuel remains an interesting and very DJ-friendly anomaly in the avant-gardist’s catalog.

“Fuel For The Fire” immediately lets you know that though the songwriting’s more overtly commercial, Young is still going to fire off some bizarre flourishes on his Moog, Hammond, and Rhodes. The funk here is complex, with bassist Fernando Saunders (Lou Reed, John McLaughlin, Jeff Beck, etc.) and drummer Rob Gottfried engaging in twitchy interplay that’s as groovily coiled and coked up as anything on Miles’ On The Corner. Laura “Tequila” Logan’s scat vocals aren’t as off-the-wall as Linda Sharrock’s or Urszula Dudziak’s, but they’re still odd for a funk/R&B context. “I Ching (Book Of Changes)” sounds like ELP going off on a torrid funk bender, with Young channeling Keith Emerson’s manic, rococo filigrees. “Turn Off The Lights” could easily be a Betty Davis sex-scene-setter thanks to Logan’s lusty vocal pyrotechnics and a bass line that’s rated XXX. Young gets off some amazing Moog ejaculations, to boot. An exciting side one, to be sure.

Side two begins with the instant dance-floor-filler/mood-elevator, “Floating.” The lithe buoyancy of Saunders’ bass and Gottfried’s hi-hat-enhanced 4/4s coupled with Young’s radiant Hammond whorls gives the track an almost cosmic-disco atmospheric strut. “H+J=B (Hustle+Jam=Bread)” is another proggy funk workout in which Saunders and Young appear to be dueling each other to see who can most peel off the most outré notes and chords (Young wins). The hyperkinetic, intricate “New York Electric Street Music” replicates the furious bump and grind of On The Corner (that record again), with Santiago Torano’s guitar finally breaking through Young’s extravagant solos to snarl and wail with authority. The only thing keeping this track from classic status is Young’s goofy vocalizing about the the titular city and ad libs like “Humor is better than a tumor” and “Charisma is better than a caramba.” Oy.

Oh, well, that’s a rare misstep on an album that will surely rankle Young’s more purist jazz fans, but should please those open to a world-class musician trying to weird up a mid-’70s mainstream genre on a big corporation’s dime. -Buckley Mayfield

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles “Make It Happen” (Tamla, 1967)

There’s something slightly quaint about even the greatest Tamla/Motown releases from 1967 and earlier, as heard with 21st-century ears. The psychedelic movement hadn’t yet hit Berry Gordy’s radar in a meaningful way, and funk had yet to gather serious momentum, so the legendary label was still pushing the straightforward, orchestral-soul formula that had made it world-famous and widely loved. Even a sophisticated composer and sublime vocalist like Smokey Robinson seems a bit trad more than 50 years on from the release date of this solid LP, Make It Happen. But there is one tune on this record that eludes the era’s trappings and represents a pinnacle of songwriting that transcends all. More about that later.

Loaded with endearing, romantic ballads (five songs have the word “Love” in the title, the best of them being swoon-inducing yet heartbreaking “The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage”—“sweetness was only heartache’s camouflage/the love I saw in you was just a mirage”), Make It Happen showcases Smokey’s gorgeous, honeyed vocals—perhaps the epitome of androgynous R&B expressiveness. And then there are the Northern soul dancers like “My Love Is Your Love (Forever),” “You Must Be Love,” “Dancing’s Alright,” and “The Soulful Shack,” all of which glide with that patented Motown effortless grace, putting a ridiculously sprightly spring in your step.

But as lovely as all those songs are, they cannot compare to “The Tears Of A Clown.” Hundreds of listens to it have convinced me that it is perhaps the greatest song ever written. I know, huge claim. But I’m utterly serious. With music by Stevie Wonder and Hank Cosby and words by Mr. Robinson, “Tears” has been riveting me ever since I heard it on the radio when I was 8. We often blithely say certain things “never get old,” but I can assert with every fiber of my being that this is the case with “Tears.”

Lofted skyward by that helium-powered, circus-friendly calliope motif, “Tears” is the ultimate ebullient music/sad lyrics song (take that, Morrissey/Marr). The pell-mell rhythmic propulsion, that one flat tuba chord, spine-tingling keyboards, and the champagne-supernova backing vocals seem to assure you that everything’s groovy to the max, but Smokey’s genius words paint a picture that’s 180º opposed to the sonic levity. Every verse is a masterpiece that reinforces the theme of the singer not letting “glad expression” give you “the wrong impression.” I look forward to another 5,000 listens.

(In 1970, Tamla reissued Make It Happen under the title The Tears Of A Clown to capitalize on the title track’s stunning radio success. Somehow, those savvy marketing cats at one of history’s most lucrative record companies didn’t think “Tears Of A Clown” had hit potential upon its initial release. We should never stop shaking our damn heads over this music-biz fail.) -Buckley Mayfield

Rotary Connection “Aladdin” (Cadet Concept, 1968)

Sprawling multiracial/multi-gendered Chicago-based ensemble Rotary Connection were the Sly & The Family Stone of the Midwest. Over the course of six albums from 1967 to 1971, Rotary Connection achieved a zenith-y fusion of loose, hippie-rock dynamics and orchestral-soul flamboyance—as well as a knack for bizarre, enchanting reconfigurations of other artists’ songs. Arranged by the studio genius Charles Stepney, this music should’ve been topping charts and entering critical canons and selling out arenas. But, alas, heads weren’t quite ready. And while some 21st-century sticks in the mud might grumble about Rotary Connection sounding “dated,” I would counter that observation with “What a time stamp for a band to carry for eternity!”

Rotary Connection’s second album, Aladdin more effectively flaunts the group’s songwriting chops than does their cover-heavy 1967 debut full-length—which, I hasten to add, is fantastic in its own way, too. “Life Could” sets the tone with a flourish; it’s like if Blood, Sweat & Tears had more finesse, more soul, and better vocalists. Rotary Connection’s not-so-secret weapon, Minnie Riperton, establishes her dominance right away, her solar-powered range and emotional depth propelling the song to heights most rock groups cannot dream of reaching. “Life Could” is a paragon of horn-rock bombast and grandstanding psychedelic soul. Holy shit, what an opening salvo… And it’s followed by the aptly soaring “Teach Me How To Fly,” a tune nearly hysterical with hope and inspirational brio. Two tracks in, and the listener may already be overwhelmed.

“Let Them Talk” downshifts the tempo a bit, as its intro of Lothar And The Hand People-like quirkiness blossoms into a rambling slice of Free Design-esque sunshine pop, before it deviates into a withering critique of squares who can’t handle “hippies, yippies, and freaks.” This song may make you think of the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band at their most cynical. Written by Japanese psych-pop phenom Harumi Ando, “I Took A Ride (Caravan)” finds Stepney and company blowing out the original to a phenomenal psychedelic swirl of sitar, harp, strings, and horns, with Riperton shining at her most dulcet. The title cut is a mellow, Motown-like stormer with strings, flute, and cloud-busting chorus. It’s an absurd sunburst of optimism, especially when heard with a set of 2018 ears.

While “Magical World” broods with a lush 5th Dimension/Supremes glow, “I Must Be There” comes off like a more ornate and sophisticated take on what the Beatles were attempting on “The Inner Light” or what It’s A Beautiful Day tried to achieve on their symphonic-psych debut LP. “I Feel Sorry” puts similar efforts by late-’60s Moody Blues into the shade, bolstered by a serpentine guitar solo worthy of SRC’s Gary Quackenbush. But “Paper Castle”—an ostentatious anthem about the fragility of civilization—steals the show. It’s an ultimate album-closer, radiating an ecstasy that borders on the apocalyptic. The ambition here is off the scales, the bombast as baroque as heaven.

While every Rotary Connection album has much to offer—even the holiday-themed PeaceAladdin is the work that best demonstrates their compositional brilliance and whip-smart dynamics. Fifty years after its release, this cult classic can still be found for relatively low prices in used bins… at least for now. -Buckley Mayfield

Secos E Molhados “Secos E Molhados” (Continental, 1973)

Secos E Molhados recorded six albums, but I’ve only heard this one, their 1973 debut. Because Secos E Molahdos is so great, maybe I don’t need to her anything else by this Brazilian group. Oftentimes, bands peak with their first full-length and their discography becomes a case of diminishing returns. I suppose curiosity will get the better of me and I’ll eventually check out later releases. But for now, Secos E Molhados will keep me sated until further notice.

From the first seconds of the opening tune, “Sangue Latino,” you’re struck by the excellent production values here. Willi Verdaguer’s bass tones have the richness of Dave Richmond’s playing on Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire De Melody Nelson (pretty much the gold standard, along with anything massaged or thumbed out by Herbie Flowers and Larry Graham), and it contrasts extremely well with Ney Matogrosso’s countertenor, which initially fooled me into thinking he was a woman. Now that I know his gender, Ney comes across as a Freddie Mercury-esque presence on the mic—and one of the best goddamned singers I’ve ever heard.

More proof comes from Matogrosso’s unbelievably gorgeous lead vocal and from João Ricardo and Gerson Conrad’s dulcet backing vox on the acoustic guitar ballad “O Patrão Nosso De Cada Dia.” Even better is the heartbreakingly pulchritudinous “Rosa De Hiroshima,” a sparse folk-rock ballad whose emotional resonance could make a dictator cry. For variation, there are the strutting, rollicking glam-rock of “O Vira” and “Mulher Barriguda” the latter of which boasts strafing harmonica and manic piano, summoning the over-the-top energy of Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz.”

Secos E Molhados peaks on “Amor” and “Assim Assado.” The former is my go-to Secos E Molhados jam in DJ sets, as it possesses an ascending, sidewinding bass line and vocal harmonies that caress your frontal lobes like the tenderest lover does your nether regions, all while being festively funky. Yes, the erotic imagery is necessary for this almost unbearably sensual song, which stands up to anything by peak-era Os Mutantes. Another DJ favorite, “Assim Assado” is spiced by quirky ocarina motifs (by Zé Rodrix of Som Imaginário), fuzzed-out, Blue Cheer-like guitar soloing, and a melody that arches and curves like a swan’s neck.

Fala” provides an ideal note on which to close the album—a ballad that gathers momentum and orchestral sweep as it goes, soaring to the vanishing point with the grace and grandeur of a bald eagle. That Dick Hyman-esque synth solo that squiggles into earshot, though, steers the piece toward a surprisingly charming and absurd tangent.

Secos E Molhados isn’t as well known as other classic Brazilian albums by Mutantes, Caetano Veloso, Gilbert Gil, Gal Costa, and Tom Zé, but it deserves to be worshipped just as fervently as those essential documents of South American music. -Buckley Mayfield

Commodores “Machine Gun” (Motown, 1974)

Commodores’ debut album is a stone funk classic. Devoid of the sappy ballads that made them beloved with suburban, mainstream folks and companies that pipe music into retail establishments and medical offices, Machine Gun bursts with lubricious groove science.

Right from the off, the title track glides into one of the smoothest clavinet-powered, pimp-roll rhythms ever cut, then gets festooned with flamboyant analog-synth oscillations, chikka-wakka guitar, and minimalist, grunting bass. An instrumental that the Beastie Boys (and their producers, the Dust Brothers) had the good sense to sample for “Hey Ladies,” “Machine Gun” is practically glam in its flashy gestures, its extravagant strut. The track reached #22 on the charts; not bad for a funk instrumental. That it appeared in the porntastic 1997 film Boogie Nights should not surprise anybody with a libido.

The rest of Machine Gun finds myriad ways to exploit said libido through funk’s manifold, malleable rhythmic tricks. The lascivious, loitering, and not a little creepy “Young Girls Are My Weakness” foreshadows Commodores’ smash 1977 hit “Brick House,” while “I Feel Sanctified” and “The Bump” stimulate party muscles in a very effective manner. The lyrics won’t win any Nobel or Pulitzer prizes, but they get the job done, allowing future solo star Lionel Richie to get his dirty-young-man ya-yas out. Another fantastic, clavinet- and synth-enhanced instrumental joint, “Rapid Fire,” closes the LP’s first side.

Side two opens with “The Assembly Line,” an oft-sampled, slow-blooming explosion of soulful euphoria written by Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer that recalls Anglo-Caribbean greats Cymande [see my review of their 1972 debut album in Jive Time’s archives]. Though it starts with a parody of circus music, “The Zoo (The Human Zoo)” is Machine Gun‘s most socially conscious song, and it went on to become a favorite on the Northern soul circuit, but with “Gonna Blow Your Mind,” we’re back to decadence in excelsis, with an intimate boudoir-funk jam. “There’s A Song In My Heart” harks back to “The Assembly Line”’s easygoing sunniness, while LP-closer “ Superman” is an urgent bustle of extroverted funk, blown out to aptly superheroic dimensions to match the titular subject.

Without a doubt, Machine Gun is essential for funk aficionados, and, low-key, it’s one of the highlights of Motown’s 1970s discography. To quote one of their best-known tunes, it’s “mighty mighty, just lettin’ it all hang out.” -Buckley Mayfield

Sun Ra “Disco 3000” (El Saturn, 1978)

In the last half of the ’70s, music-biz law mandated that every artist had to cut a disco record. James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, the Meters, esteemed jazz veterans like Yusef Lateef and Miroslav Vitous—it didn’t matter how established and respected you were; the industry-wide disco diktat had to be obeyed.

In 1978 while in Italy, Sun Ra and his tight quartet, the Myth Science Arkestra, paid lip service to disco (see the LP title), but as you’d expect from Herman Sonny Blount, the results here don’t at all conform to the genre’s major traits; nor are they exactly music to snort coke to, nor do they serve as preludes to getting laid. Rather, Disco 3000 is yet another anomaly in Sun Ra’s vast, strange discography. And that’s quite enough for me—and for you, too, I would wager.

On the astonishing 26-minute title track, over a chintzy rhythm-machine’s quasi-cha-cha beat, saxophonist John Gilmore and trumpeter Michael Ray blow mad, exclamatory arabesques, while Mr. Ra busts out some of his most severely warped tones on multiple keyboards and Moog synthesizer, raising plumes of alien glitter gas. All pretenses of regular meter quickly fly out the window. Throughout, Ra engineers passages of brilliant chaos, letting his insane menagerie of feral fibrillations and disorienting drones lift the piece into freeform, uncharted territory. If this is disco (it isn’t, let’s be honest), it’s a particularly Saturnine interpretation of the genre. I don’t think even renowned Italo-disco DJ Daniele Baldelli could smoothly segue “Disco 3000” into a KC & The Sunshine Band or Tantra track.

On “Third Planet” and “Friendly Galaxy,” piano, sax, drums, trumpet, and drums (played by Luqman Ali) cohere into rather conventional, bustling bop compositions. They offer respite before Ra and company head outward-bound again on “Dance Of The Cosmo-Aliens,” whose splenetic, galloping rhythm-box beats get wreathed with the sort of eerie, fairground organ motifs that haunted the Eraserhead soundtrack. The piece throbs with a manic intensity not unlike that of Killing Joke’s “Change,” oddly enough. Again, this ain’t disco as your lewd uncle Tony knows it.

On Disco 3000 in Sun Ra’s eloquent hands, space continues to be the place. And that’s quite enough for me. (Art Yard beneficently reissued Disco 3000 on vinyl in 2009.) -Buckley Mayfield

The Meters “The Meters” (Josie, 1969)

Here it is—the muthafuckin’ blueprint for a style of funk that seemingly has infinite staying power. The Meters’ debut LP is an ideal specimen of precision-tooled, just-the-brass-tacks-ma’am of New Orleans dance music, which has influenced generations of funk musicians and turned on millions of aficionados—while also providing a banquet of sampleworthy passages for hip-hop producers. Eternal thanks to Leo Nocentelli (guitar), Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste (drums) George Porter Jr. (bass), and Art Neville (keyboards) for their evergreen innovations.

On The Meters, these cool-headed gentlemen concocted a spare geometry of rhythm that always equals satisfaction where it counts: in the hips and the ears. Their concise compositions get to the point—which is a very important, rewarding point—and then efficiently move on to the next fundamental equation, which they elegantly solve, over and over again. That may sound a bit dry, but trust me, what the Meters do here is very lubricious.

The opening track, “Cissy Strut,” actually was a hit in 1969, selling 200,000 copies in two weeks, according to Wikipedia. It’s staggering to think that we once lived in a world where a stark instrumental funk cut could chart; my, how far we’ve fallen. Anyway, “Cissy Strut”—which has been sampled at least 60 times— is a seminar conducted by badass musicians casually placing every element in a song to maximize its innate funkiness. Special mention to drummer Modeliste, whose embellishments are tricky as hell while never losing the funk. Amazing four-limb dexterity!

Elsewhere, “Here Comes The Meter Man” comes off as both Southern-fried and as cool as sweet tea, with Neville’s organ a churchy swirl of carefree joy and Nocentelli’s guitar a quicksilver wonder of economy and liquid bliss. “Cardova” the epitome of the Meters’ special brand of methodical funk. You’d think something this orderly wouldn’t be interesting, but you’d be quite wrong. “Sophisticated Cissy” is more laid-back than its kissing cousin, “Cissy Strut,” and perhaps a tad funkier as a result. In my considered opinion, “Sophisticated Cissy” is summer-porch-sitting jammage par excellence. The cover of Sly & The Family Stone’s “Simple Song” slams just as hard as the original, but with fewer frills (like horns and vocals); it’s tighter than a military drum corps and infinitely more exciting.

The Meters is the purest distillation of the band’s utterly democratic, telepathic chemistry, before they kinda sorta ruined things with vocals and some ill-advised covers (Neil Young’s “Birds,” Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With,” etc.). Make no mistake: This album should be studied in universities as a paragon of bare-bones funk. It’s also a fantastic party platter, if you’re one of those freaks who enjoy feeling really good. -Buckley Mayfield

Mustafa Özkent Ve Orkestrasi “Gençlik İle Elele” (Evren, 1973)

After much listening and thought, I have to conclude that Mustafa Özkewnt VE Orkestrasi’s Gençlik İle Elele is a perfect record, a paragon of Turkish funk. Its 10 instrumental tracks average a little over three minutes in length, but they’re so rhythmically tight and tonally and texturally fascinating, that they feel like teases. Every element here—swarming, swirling John Medeski-esque soul-jazz organ, trebly, frilly-tendrilled guitar, in-the-pocket drums, furious bongo- and conga-slapping and other hand-percussion accents—is laser-focused to get your head bobbing, your hips swiveling, and your loins flooded with do-it fluid. So, yeah… a perfect record.

This LP, as you may surmise, contains loads of chunky funk that’s ripe for sampling by enterprising hip-hop producers; it’s a veritable breakbeat orgy. But according to online authority whosampled.com, only four Mustafa Özkent tracks have been sampled. That seems low for an album of such bumpin’ bounty. Not surprisingly, Madlib’s brother Oh No used two songs from Gençlik in his own work; surprisingly, Madlib himself hasn’t plundered it… not yet, anyway.

The concision and airtight beat science displayed by Mustafa Özkent and company recall the Meters’ disciplined approach to funk. Of course, being Turkish, Mustaf Özkent sound a tad more non-Western in their melodies and timbres. (According to Andy Votel’s liner notes in the 2006 B-Music reissue, Özkent modified his guitars with extra frets to make it sound more like a saz or a lute.) And that makes a big difference with regard to the stunning impact this album makes on the Western listener. All that being said, the phenomenal bass solo on “Dolana Dolana” would make Larry Graham give two thwapping thumbs up.

Reissued again by Portland label Jackpot in 2016, Gençlik İle Elele—which means Hand In Hand With Youthshould never fall out of print, nor stray far from your DJ bag, if indeed you DJ. Hell, this record just may inspire to start working the 1s and 2s yourself… -Buckley Mayfield

Phil Upchurch “The Way I Feel” (Cadet, 1970)

ORCHESTRA ARRANGED AND CONDUCTED BY CHARLES STEPNEY” it reads under the title of The Way I Feel, and if that doesn’t sell you on this album, then I don’t know what to tell you. Because Stepney, as you should know, was a studio wizard who conjured certified magic for Rotary Connection, Minnie Riperton, Marlena Shaw, Ramsey Lewis, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and other talented musicians in Chicago during the ’60s and ’70s. But, of course, there’s more to The Way I Feel than Stepney’s exceptional ideas. Phil Upchurch—who also played with Rotary Connection and several other Stepney-associated artists—is a wonderfully expressive, virtuosic guitarist and bassist who issued a grip of very good LPs in the era mentioned above, including this one. (I don’t waste my time with mediocrity, dig?)

It must be said that this album contains its share of fluff—albeit sophisticated, extremely well-played and arranged fluff. Two Gordon Lightfoot covers? Not sure that’s totally necessary. Those E-Z listenin’, airy fantasias plus Quincy Jones/Cynthia Weil’s “Time For Love (Is Any Time)” find Upchurch in restrained, contemplative mode, offering classy dinner music. Similarly, the effervescent soul pop of “Wild Wood,” buoyed by a bevy of female backing vocalists singing “Hey baby, sha la la sha la la la,” is rather lightweight compared to Upchurch’s best material.

Much better is “Peter, Peter,” an Irwin Rosman composition that Upchurch turns into serpentine psychedelia while flaunting his mercurial jamming skills and facility for shifting between phenomenal fuzz and crystalline tones. Other highlights include “I Don’t Know,” a “Willie The Pimp”-style slab of nasty blues rock, and “Pretty Blue,” a laid-back, lascivious instrumental.

But with “Electrik Head,” Upchurch perversely saves the best for last. And, whoa, holy shit! It’s a career-peak song, an effusion of translucent guitar pyrotechnics, a cascade of icy, pointillist, tonal eloquence. I’ve played this psychedelic mind-blower in many a DJ set, and will continue to do so for as long as I can. Because I like to make a room full of people stop their chatter, put down their drinks, and gawk in amazement at the Hendrix-level sorcery going on here. Because it’s one of the greatest pieces of music the 20th century has yielded. Because I’m a sonic philanthropist who wants to take you to (Up)church. -Buckley Mayfield

Urszula Dudziak “Urszula” (Arista, 1975)

Yoko Ono, Linda Sharrock, and Urszula Dudziak—behold the holy trinity of extreme female vocalists, gentle reader. The latter is the undisputed queen of Polish jazz singers, using her electronically treated five-octave range to embroider compositions that encompass a cappella fantasias, rococo fusion workouts, and spacey funk. Dudziak’s gift for improvising enchanting and unpredictable patterns with her quirky and delicate delivery turn her records into minefields of flighty frissons.

Produced by husband and renowned fusion violinist Michał Urbaniak, Urszula kicks off with “Papaya,” a ridiculously effusive disco-jazz number featuring Dudziak nimbly scatting in her upper register, which is very high, indeed. It’s almost impossible not to dance and laugh yourself silly simultaneously. “Mosquito” follows with methodical, elastically funky soul, over which Dudziak babbles like a European Sharrock on a track reminiscent of Larry Young’s Fuel. An extra boost comes from Miles Davis sideman Reggie Lucas’ guitar solo, which flares in the same extravagant zones as Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin’s. “Mosquito Dream” is a sparse, a cappella chantfest somewhere between Joan La Barbara and Diamanda Galás; it’s geared to freak you the fuck out. “Mosquito Bite” closes the insect quadrology with UD going HAM at imitating an analog synthesizer, à la Annette Peacock. Joe Caro’s scorched-earth guitar riffs propel this song into the fusion/porn-flick-score hall of fame (admittedly a narrow niche).

The second side can’t quite equal the first’s bizarre iconoclasm, but it’s still full of loopy joie de vivre, circuitous songwriting, and frou-frou fusion frolics. Special mention goes to “Funk Rings,” which belongs in the pantheon for weirdest funk tracks of all time, as Dudziak splutters rhythmically over what sounds like one of the stranger cuts off Herbie Hancock’s Man-Child (another 1975 LP reviewed recently on this blog).

Make no mistake: Urszula Dudziak is a unique talent. If you seek otherworldly beauty and unconventional vocal timbres and tricks, she’s your woman. (Check out other titles like Newborn Light and Future Talk, as well as her contributions to Urbaniak’s Inactin, for further enlightenment.) -Buckley Mayfield

ESG “ESG” (99 Records, 1981)

 

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The impact this EP had when I first heard it in 1981 was immediate and ecstatic. Made in the Bronx by the four Scroggins sisters and a conga-playing friend named Tito Libran, ESG’s eponymous debut release shot vital energy and joy into the veins of anyone with a mind attuned to fundamental, funky groove science. Music this elemental, earthy, and efficacious should be sold in health-food stores. ESG is a family affair, and it is so righteous.

The music of ESG (stands for Emerald Sapphire & Gold) succeeds through its ruthlessly stripped-down attack that privileges drums, congas, bass and vocals that seduce and sass you with equal measure. The six songs on ESG offer the purest distillation of this influential band’s sound, in which nearly every element strives to get you moving as sexily as possible. You’ve surely heard “UFO” sampled in hundreds of hip-hop and dance-pop tracks, but the funny thing about that is it’s ESG’s least conventionally danceable cut. But producers honed in on that eerie, distorted guitar whorl, surely because it’s redolent of pop culture’s idea of an alien presence. Unsurprisingly, it became the default trope for “woo woo” creepiness in clubland throughout the ’80s.

If you wanna instantly draw in a listener, you could do much worse than “You’re No Good,” a song about conflicted lust whose hip-swiveling beats seem to be tumbling down the stairs, louchely and elegantly. “Moody” conjures hyper, dubbed-out rhythmic legerdemain, with speedy congas contrasting with the trap kit’s stoic funk foundation. Singer Renee Scroggins is in peak coquettish form here. With “UFO,” ESG again forge another downward-sloping rhythm that slaloms with Renee’s guitar feedback sculpted into Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho shock-tactic strings. Deborah Scroggins’ bass line is superbly economical in its lugubrious descent, while all around it coheres into an atmosphere of piercing menace. (Note: Factory Records’ studio savant Martin Hannett produced this enchanting trio of songs, as he did Basement 5’s In Dub, which I reviewed last week—coincidence!)

The EP’s B-side consists of three live recordings that prove ESG could slay onstage, too. “Earn It” pushes a staunch work ethic lyrically while purveying the leanest, meanest Liquid Liquid-like rhythm matrix heard outside of a Liquid Liquid record, thanks in part to excellent use of claves. “ESG” boasts yet more manic claves, chants of the title, a snaky bass line, and a full-tilt beat orgy that’ll get your heart bursting. Same goes for “Hey!”—sans the claves. After hearing these skeletal wonders, you’ll likely find all other music needlessly ornate and fussy.

ESG went on to cut some other great records, of course, but they came right out of the gate fully formed as one of history’s most efficient and fun funk units on this initial effort. ESG is proving to be one of life’s simple, eternal pleasures. -Buckley Mayfield