When the Superior Viaduct label reissued Liquid Liquid’s most famous EP last year (along with their other 12-inches), I and many other heads rejoiced. It finally made the New York post-punk funk group’s vastly influential “Cavern” accessible to vinyl lovers who don’t have deep pockets (unlike the track itself—*rimshot*) or who have reservations about purchasing bootlegs. As you probably know, “Cavern” inspired Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It),” one of the hugest hip-hop-party jams ever. “Cavern” boasts one of history’s most infectious, buoyant bass lines—thanks, Richard McGuire—and its tensile rhythm makes you want to jump through the ceiling of a basketball arena. You can understand why a popular hip-hop group would want to use it as the foundation for club banger; you can also understand why Liquid Liquid were miffed when Melle Mel & co. lifted the bass part of their song without giving them credit (Sugar Hill Records house bassist Doug Wimbish duplicated it). No doubt 21st-century bands like LCD Soundsystem and Tussle were taking notes to this stripped-down warehouse-funk bomb.
As for the rest of the four-track EP, “Optimo” places Sal Principato’s staccato, nervy New York vocals over a polyglot percussion attack, with some of the most manic cowbell hits you’ve ever had the pleasure to hear. This is a slippery, shuffling funk cut not too dissimilar to what A Certain Ratio were up to in Manchester a few years before with the dazzling “The Fox.” It should be noted that all four Liquid Liquid members played percussion, which helped to make their music the rhythm banquet it is.
Optimo‘s flipside tends to get overlooked, but it too features greatness. “Scraper” flaunts a bulbous bass line and all manner of piquant percussion touches, as well as Dennis Young’s beautifully supple marimba motif. “Out” is the record’s most dubby piece and strides in a pretty strange meter. Good luck dancing to it!
Also, good luck finding even Superior Viaduct’s Optimo reissue, let alone an original copy; it’s already sold out! Time for a repress, perhaps. Optimo should never be oop. -Buckley Mayfield
Some albums just ooze a singular atmosphere and vibe that transcend language or rational thought. Milton Nascimento’s Minas is one of those albums. A Brazilian singer-songwriter who boasts a commanding, supple vocal style, Nascimento has collaborated with many prominent American and English musicians (Wayne Shorter, Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Peter Gabriel, Jon Anderson, Cat Stevens, and, uh, Duran Duran), yet his own records aren’t that well known here. But among the record-collector cognoscenti, he’s revered as something of a prog-folk-soul genius. You could think of Nascimento as something of a South American Tim Buckley, but even that doesn’t quite nail his special talent.
My Brazilian import copy of Minas contains scant info about the recording, but maybe not knowing every detail of it somehow enhances the listening experience. Savor the mystery! Milton sings in Portuguese, a wonderfully musical language that has a warm, tranquilizing effect on me. He enlists a children’s choir on a couple of tracks, which is one of my least favorite ploys, but for some reason it’s not as cloying as usual in Nascimento’s hands. Much of Minas is deceptively beautiful; most of the songs here don’t immediately stun you, but rather over repeat listens their oddly alluring contours begin to make sense and trigger your pleasure centers. By the fifth listen, you’re convinced Minas is a classic song cycle as devastatingly moving as Buckley’s Starsailor, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, or any of Scott Walker’s first four solo joints.
Minas‘ highlight is “Fé Cega, Faca Amolada” (which Royal Trux, of all people, reverently and authoritatively covered; look for it on their box set Singles, Live, Unreleased). Co-written with Ronaldo Bastos, this song finds Milton trading unbelievably expressive vocals with Beto Guedes as the music flares and lopes with balletic grace and soulful buoyancy, like some superhuman strain of tropical pop whose rewards will never cease. I’ve no idea what they’re singing, but the vocalists convey powerful uplift, and that lump in my throat is real. Someone at the usually trustworthy Dusty Groove site noted about Minas that “the backings have a positive, triumphant quality that’s extremely upbeat and bright, yet without sounding commercial at all.” This is accurate. Nascimento and his cohorts gently unleash a new kind of beauty on us here and we should all devote a good chunk of the rest of our lives to luxuriating in it—language barrier be damned. -Buckley Mayfield
This fantastic album’s going to surprise all but the most clued-in Gary Wilson fans. For those only familiar with the Endicott, New York cult musician’s mildly obsessive new-wave lounge funk, they’ll be taken aback—in a good way!—with the avant-garde jazz moves Gary and company bust on this long-unheard 1974 date. Seeing as Wilson is literally a John Cage disciple (at age 14, he visited the great man at his home to discuss music), Gary’s quest for far-out concepts and sounds should come as no surprise, and that spirit pervades Another Galaxy.
Absent Wilson’s regular-guy romantic vocals and featuring Wilson on standup bass and piano and Garry Iacovelli on drums and percussion, Another Galaxy strives to reach said far-flung galaxy with a sound that’s in the vicinity of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, Alice Coltrane’s piano/organ-centric Warner Bros. phase, and Sun Ra’s intergalactic strangeness. The opening title track leads you into febrile, funky jazz territory, bolstered by Wilson’s tensile flights of fancy on the bass and Natale (Chris) Putrino’s flaring wah-wah guitar, which will please Larry Coryell fans. The askew, oblong “Study For Three” triggers those John Cage and Sun Ra comparison reflexes… and, hell, even Wolfgang Dauner’s Et Cetera; it’s a baffling amalgam of frenetic drum splutters, extended bass groans, and atonal piano runs—guaranteed to make any gathering extremely uncomfortable. And that’s one reason why I love it.
“Softly The Water Flows” tones down the hyperkinetic sonic puzzles and eases into a lovely 90-second piano-led meditation. The 14-minute “Hate And Depression” blasts off with Iacovelli’s frantic, subtly powerful drum solo and then Wilson solos methodically and stoically on bass. Four minutes in, tenor saxophonist Tyrone Parks III and Iacovelli join in and the group explodes into a swerving free-jazz cauldron. Artful chaos ensues… and keeps shooting off sparks into all directions in a serious endurance test of nerves. But you’re tough—you can handle it.
This reissue is limited to 500 copies. It would be a strategic error to hesitate grabbing one before they’re gone again. -Buckley Mayfield
Talk about love at first listen… Luscious Jackson’s debut EP on the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label busts out of the gate with one of the coolest tracks in ’90s hiphop. “Let Yourself Get Down” is not so much trad rap as it is an action-packed hybrid of heaviest pimp funk, freakiest psychedelic rock, and come-hither R&B—plus, that sample from Dr. John’s “Right Place Wrong Time” just elevates it over the top. It’s an auspicious omen for the rest of the seven-track, 25-minute record, which has no weak moments and, Natural Ingredients notwithstanding, represents Luscious Jackson’s peak. Curiously, I thought these four NYC women were going to be superstars, but they ended up becoming more like cult heroines whose career sputtered sooner than expected.
But let’s accentuate the positive, of which there’s plenty on In Search Of Manny. “Life of Leisure” sashays on a shuffling funk beat and louche, jazzy coronet and oboe riffs, showing LJ can excel at down tempos and melancholy moods, too. “Daughters Of The Kaos” unexpectedly starts with a flamenco-guitar sample and then explodes into a maniacally chaotic funk jam, lifting Mitch Mitchell’s beat from the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Little Miss Lover” to stunning effect. The rapping is seductively sotto voce, a brilliant decision for such a busy, kinetic track. “Keep On Rockin’ It” and “She Be Wantin’ It More” let in some sweet folk-rock guitar amid complex rhythms and beautiful singing and on-point rapping by Jill Cunniff and Gabrielle Glaser.
“Bam-Bam” brings yet more slashing funk that’s fit for a blaxploitation flick, with badass drummer Kate Schellenbach flashing serious Bernard Purdie-esque chops. “Satellite” closes the EP with a speedy, almost R.E.M.-like gallop into lush, dreamy melodicism. It’s a denouement nobody really saw coming, but it typifies Luscious Jackson’s brilliance, right out of the gate. –Buckley Mayfield
Here’s a stone-classic album that’s still not widely known enough—even with its uplifting funk track “Bra” being sampled by De La Soul on “Change In Speak” from 3 Feet High & Rising and appearing in Spike Lee’s 1994 film Crooklyn. (Hip-hop and electronic-music producers have sampled Cymande at least 77 times, according to who-sampled.com.) Cymande put out three strong albums (I’ve not heard their fourth, Arrival), but their debut is the best, if only judging by how often I play tracks from it in DJ sets. It’s one of those rare funk full-lengths that you can play from start to finish without lifting the needle off a tepid ballad.
But to call Cymande merely a funk band is inadequate. The English nonet—who featured musicians from London, St. Vincent, Guyana, and Jamaica—also incorporated jazz, reggae, calypso, and progressive rock in their inspirational tracks, and such hybridization resulted in highly flavorful material that is bathed in a spiritual glow that can’t be faked. Cymande call it “nyah-rock,” which they describe in the liners as “the music of the man who finds in life a reason for living.” I’ll say.
Side 1 is largely mellow and meditative and marked by Patrick Patterson’s fluid guitar ruminations, Steve Scipio’s lithe bass lines, Mike Rose’s circuitous flute motifs, and Ray King’s soulful vocals that carry subtle hints of Caribbean patois. LP opener “Zion I” is the exception: a spiritual reggae tune with righteous massed vocals and a bass line on which you can trampoline.
Side 2 is where Cymande really shines. “Dove” (sampled by the Wu-Tang Clan in “Problems” and the Fugees in “The Score,” among many other places) is simply one of the greatest pieces of music ever waxed. It begins in great intrigue, Patrick Patterson’s guitar modulating a Santana-esque wail, setting the scene for Steve Scipio’s world-beating, sidewinder bass line to lift the track onto a higher, more libidinous level. Stealthy, undulant funk beats and blissed-out “la la la la-la”s contribute to making the 11-minute “Dove” one of the ultimate sex jams. The aforementioned “Bra” is simply one of the most joyous pieces of music ever waxed. The next time you’re really down, play it and feel your worries dissolve amid its levitational rhythms, percolating congas and bongos, and triumphant horn charts. “The Message” is more subdued, but no less seductive with its nocturnal funk strut. “Ras Tafarian Folk Song” is definitely the album’s weak link, but that could just be my bias against religious belief systems talking. Thankfully, it’s over in three minutes. Everything else on Cymande, though, deserves to be blazed into your memory banks till your last breath—especially “Dove.” -Buckley Mayfield
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
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
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
Let’s be blunt: X-Dreams is all about “My Mama Never Taught Me How To Cook” and “Real & Defined Androgens.” The rest of the seven-track LP by singular American singer-songwriter-producer Annette Peacock is fine, but its aforementioned first two cuts tower over everything like the most dominant dominatrix.
“My Mama” is a tour de force of Peacock’s offbeat storytelling and innuendo prowess and surprising vocal shifts, from arena-ready belting to pillow-talk whispers. She relates how her upbringing didn’t predispose her for domesticity but rather for independence and sexuality. The backdrop is subdued funk rock in a tricky meter. “Daddy never taught me how to suck-seed, that’s why I’m so crazy crazy crazy,” she intones. “My destiny’s not to serve/I’m a woman/My destiny is to create.” Here’s your unsung ’70s feminist anthem.
But wait—it gets better. “Real & Defined Androgens” stands (or lies) as one of the sexiest songs ever written. This is low-slung, dangerous funk that would just as soon knife you as fuck you; maybe it’ll do both simultaneously. Peacock again flaunts her vast range, mostly reciting detachedly erotic lyrics in slow, seductive Sprechstimme, but occasionally blossoming into full-on testifying-Aretha Franklin mode. The music gradually intensifies into a madly thrusting yet controlled freakout haloed by a wild sax solo and laced with insanely cascading keyboards. “Real & Defined Androgens” is a perfect fusion of male and female energies and unlike anything I’ve ever heard… and I’ve heard a lot, because I’m old and obsessive.
Side two simmers with sophisticated, romantic jazz-pop ballads that feature Peacock using her most conventional crooning voice, with intermittent sensuous spoken-word passages to heighten the intimacy. There’s also a cover of the Otis Blackwell-penned Elvis Presley hit “Don’t Be Cruel” that Peacock smooths and accelerates into a Steely Dan-like, limousine-funk glide. The musicianship throughout X-Dreams is impeccable, featuring King Crimson/Yes drummer Bill Bruford, guitarists such as Mick Ronson, Chris Spedding, and Brian Godding (Blossom Toes), plus many other studs. It’s all very… nice, but the real thrills come hot and heavy on that opening diptych.
Thom Jurek summed up the record well on allmusic.com: “[X-Dreams] still sounds a bit ahead of its time. Peacock may have been wringing her own personal exorcism from these tracks, but for the rest of us, she offered a guidebook of complex emotional terrain, a treatise on the messy state of love, and a musical dissertation on how to integrate the nuances of form in rock and jazz.” -Buckley Mayfield
You’ve probably heard Lafayette Afro Rock Band without even realizing it. Their song “Darkest Light” has been sampled by Public Enemy (“Show ‘Em Watcha Got”), Wreckx-N-Effect (“Rump Shaker”), and Jay Z (“Show Me What You Got”). Other snippets of LARB tracks also have appeared in cuts by LL Cool J, Biz Markie, De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan, Gorillaz, and Pizzicato Five. And it’s easy to hear why: LARB brought the funk with pizzazz. Through these stealth methods, they’ve become integral to club culture. But they created plenty of riveting music that’s worthy on its own merits, not merely as fodder for other artists’ output.
The Lafayette Afro Rock Band consisted of seven musicians from Long Island, New York who cut two albums in Paris after deciding they’d have a better chance of breaking out in Europe instead of in the funk-saturated United States. Things didn’t quite pan out for LARB commercially, but 1974’s Soul Makossa and 1975’s Malik have emerged as underground funk classics. Aided by French producer Pierre Joubert, LARB created a flamboyant brand of funk that soared with buoyant horn charts and grooved with intricate bass/drum interplay. Ultimate party jam “Conga” predates the stark, percussion-heavy Latino funk of ESG and Konk by about six years. The title track is a laid-back, summertime-cruise joint whose loping rhythms, organ swells, and Kool & The Gang-like soul-jazz horn swoops evaporate your worries and LARB dabble compellingly with Afrobeat on “Raff.” The notorious “Darkest Light” is a paradoxical classic: It rolls sublimely on an utterly seductive rhythmic undercarriage, but above it there ululates a deeply melancholic sax motif, all of it filigreed with rococo guitar and some weirdly distorted organ (or electronically muted trumpet?). Whatever the case, the song endures as a moving (in all senses of the word) tribute to LARB’s phenomenal chemistry and arranging skills. They conclusively proved that a funk band didn’t need vocals to keep you interested. Every instrument on Malik sings with great eloquence and vibrant litheness.
(In 2007, As The Record Turns reissued Malik on vinyl. That may be the easiest way to score it on wax right now.) -Buckley Mayfield
Perhaps you don’t spend much time thinking about gay porn soundtrack music. No worries—it is a fairly niche subgenre. But if you happen to be curious about this stuff, you could hardly do better than to explore the output of Patrick Cowley. Luckily for us, the Dark Entries label has reissued two collections of Cowley’s ’70s and ’80s work, School Daze (2013) and, most recently, the double LP Muscle Up. Whatever clichéd vision you have of gay porn soundtrackage, Cowley will make you readjust your expectations.
Cowley’s music is often eerily atmospheric and, yes, funky, but not in any cheesy, hamfisted way. Some tracks—like “Cat’s Eye,” “The Jungle Dream,” “Uhura,” “Mockingbird Dream 2,” and “Deep Inside You”—sound more like scores for space travel or nature documentaries than they do of cinematic sex. Beatier numbers like “Somebody To Love Tonight” and “Pigfoot” pump with a sexy thrust, but are also adorned with the sort of astral synthesizer dust that will enrapture Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, and Heldon fans. “5 Oz. Of Funk” is the most lubricious/tumescent piece here, and it is sure enough filthy to the core. But then you get something like “Timelink,” which sounds like a didgeridoo hyperventilating in the ozone layer. It’s kind of funny and ludicrous to think that this tune thrummed in the background of some dudes’ orgasmic experiences.
But credit to Cowley for landing this sort of utilitarian job and creating something extraordinary and subversive; what was probably a low-rent gig resulted in high art. [Muscle Up comes with informative liner notes and an XXX-rated poster.] -Buckley Mayfield
It says something that I’ve only seen two Equals albums in all my years of record shopping—and one of ’em is this double LP of chart-dwellers by the multi-racial British R&B/pop-soul group. What it says is that some enterprising label really ought to do the legal legwork and reissue a grip of the Equals’ best material. Until that happens, you might have to make due with Hit Collection or the other Equals release I see most often, Baby, Come Back (1968, RCA). To understate things, they’re better than nothing.
Hit Collection gathers 24 songs from the Equals’ hugely popular (in Europe and England) early phase, and if you dig instantly catchy ’60s R&B sung with gutsy gusto by Derv Gordon and accentuated by the attractive, clipped guitar riffs of Eddy Grant (yes, the bloke who sang “Electric Avenue”), you’ll want to nab this comp… or the 7-inches of which it’s composed, if you’re a very patient and affluent collector.
Highlights here include the Northern soul stomper “Softly, Softly,” the enchanting chugger “Baby, Come Back,” the bubblegummy “Green Light” (which the Detroit Cobras have covered), the marauding “I Can See, But You Don’t Know,” and the exuberant outlaw anthem “Police On My Back,” made famous by the Clash on their 1980 LP Sandinista!
There are a few sappy moments on Hit Collection, but overall the songwriting quality is brilliant. We repeat: Let’s hope some savvy record company is planning to get the Equals’ music back into circulation. It’s way too good to languish in obscurity. -Buckley Mayfield