Album Reviews

Can “Monster Movie” (Music Factory, 1969)

Choosing a favorite Can album is like pinpointing your favorite orgasm—damn near impossible, but fun to contemplate. As with many things music-oriented, it depends on your mood. One of the great things about these German geniuses (plus their American and Japanese vocalists) is how different each LP is. On any given day, your fave could be the unique funk bomb of Ege Bamyasi, the aquatic space-out of Future Days, the psych-rock/musique-concrète amalgam of Tago Mago, the proto-techno rhythmagic of Soon Over Babaluma, the alien dub and robo-funk of Flow Motion, or the raw-nerved, Velvet Underground-inflected trips and trance jams of Monster Movie. Or yet another one. Choose your adventure, etc.

My lifelong love affair with Can—whom I consider the greatest rock band ever—began with Monster Movie in the very early ’80s. I was smitten from the first seconds of “Father Cannot Yell,” which is a skewed, avant-garde take on the Velvet Underground at their most adrenalized—but with a loose-cannon, African-American sculptor on vocals instead of a NYC hipster. Nothing else really sounded like this in 1969: Holger Czukay’s ominous pulsations of sinewy bass; Jaki Liebezeit’s robust, tricky beats; Irmin Schmidt’s synapse-sizzling keyboard fibrillations; and Michael Karoli’s radiant guitar; Mooney’s spluttering of a disturbing, primal, parental scenario. “Father Cannot Yell” is not so much a traditional rock song as it is a surge of panicky energy that makes you think earth is spinning off its axis.

The next track, “Mary, Mary So Contrary,” ushers in a 180º shift to slack, clanging rock in the vein of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Cream’s “World Of Pain.” Karoli’s articulate guitar lead whines and snakes through the song like a tortuous siren and is underpinned by Liebezeit’s emphatic, deceptive funk beats. Mooney’s obsessive, lyrics about the titular woman are strange, but this might be the most conventional love song in Can’s canon, outside of “She Brings The Rain.” “Outside My Door” features a wonderfully doleful train-whistle harmonica wafting over a spasming psych-rock roar that’s somewhere between 13th Floor Elevators ca. Bull Of The Woods and Mass In F Minor-era Electric Prunes. Mooney looses a stream of discombobulated consciousness in which the standout line is “Any color is bad.”

Monster Movie climaxes on “Yoo Doo Right.” A 20-minute Ouroboros jam of throbbing intensity and sublime subterranean tremors, this is really Holger and Jaki’s show. The formidable rhythm section creates an undulating foundation of low frequencies, heavy on the bass twang and tom-toms, over which Schmidt’s keys and Karoli’s guitar fill the firmament with aching drones that hint at VU’s “Black Angel’s Death Song.” Mooney sings his lust-object mantras as if possessed: “once I was blind now I can see/now that you’re in love with me/you made a believer out of me, babe/you made a believer out of me/she said, ‘yoo doo right, yoo doo right.’” At around 8 minutes, the song reduces to rimshots and Mooney sadly intoning the lyrics for a minute; then the rest of the band resume forging periodic swells of keyboard burbles and a fuzzed-out guitar riff that’s like a fanfare for a super race. Czukay and Liebezeit continue to build a mountain of rhythm out of bare necessities. Mooney’s OCD rants and tender singing capture the mindset of a man in an agitated state of romantic thralldom. It’s an exhausting yet exhilarating trip.

Monster Movie contains some of Can’s most straightforward rock moments, but also their most prodigious improv epic (just nudging out “Halleluwah”). It’s a start-to-finish mind-bender and a rewarding entry point into their incomparable catalog. -Buckley Mayfield

Betty Davis “Nasty Gal” (Island, 1975)

Betty Davis (1973) and They Say I’m Different (1974) are such flamboyant juggernauts of funk and soul that they overshadow all that came after. But Ms. Davis (née Mabry, ex-wife and muse of Miles Davis) still had plenty of creative fire in her belly, as her “difficult” third album, Nasty Gal, proves. This X-rated singer/songwriter may have lost Sly & The Family Stone drummer Greg Errico and bassist Larry Graham, Headhunters drummer Mike Clark, and Santana guitarist Neal Schon from the first two LPs’ lineups, but she still dropped gems with regularity. So while the band she enlisted for Nasty Gal may not be as renowned, but it is damned tight.

You can suss that from the first few seconds of the title track: seething, filthy funk apropos for its titular subject. Davis shifts from guttural growl that telegraphs feral lust to seductive purrs as the guitar, bass, drums, synths, and congas bump and grind with pornographic single-mindedness. The libidinous, swaggering funk of “Talkin Trash” evokes Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” thanks to James Allen Smith’s clavinet-like synth squawks. That seductive, squelchy sound recurs throughout Nasty Gal like a mating call.

This Is It!” is slamming, thrusting funk that takes no prisoners—so lusty, it could make even men pregnant. “F.U.N.K.” telegraphs its intent, serving as Davis’ manifesto for the funk genre while big-upping her musical inspirations (Stevie, Sly, Tina Turner, Ann Peebles, Al Green, Barry White, Isaac Hayes, O’Jays, Jimi, Aretha, Chaka, the Funkadelics [sic]). “Shut Off The Light” bears uncanny similarities to the lubricious funk romp “Turn Off The Lights” from Larry Young’s Fuel LP (which also came out in 1975 and which I also reviewed on this blog). Great minds think alike, for sure.

To show she’s not strictly sex-obsessed, Davis wrote “Dedicated To The Press,” a sarcastic dig at the media set to a throbbing, bubbling funk attack. Betty seems quite worked up about critics’ inability to understand where she’s coming from. Sadly, that’s what happens when you’re too far ahead of your time.

The only real dud on Nasty Gal is “You And I”—shocking, because this should’ve been a highlight; it was co-written with Miles and boasts brass arrangements by Gil Evans. Instead, it’s a somewhat limp ballad with Betty at her most tender and sincere. Curiously, this stab at serious airplay didn’t succeed.

That Betty Davis remains more of a cult icon than a household name on the level with Tina or Chaka might derive from her being too sexy and in your face for most heads to handle. Luckily, you sexy readers are more than up for the task.

(The good folks at Light In The Attic Records reissued Nasty Gal in 2009, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find—or very expensive.) -Buckley Mayfield

Bee Gees “Bee Gees 1st” (Polydor/ATCO, 1967)

Rock bands that emulated the Beatles were 10 a penny in the mid/late ’60s. But among the legions of Fab Four disciples from that era, few sounded as sublime as Bee Gees. They decisively proved this point with Bee Gees’ 1st (actually their third LP, but first to be released worldwide). It’s a cornucopia of baroque psychedelic pop that out-John-Paul-Georged nearly everybody in the field. (Klaus Voorman, the brilliant artist who designed the cover for Revolver, also did a fantastic job with 1st.)

1st came out about six weeks after Sgt. Pepper’s in the UK, and peaked at #7 on the Billboard album chart. That’s how sophisticated pop-music consumers were in 1967. At this point, the Gibb brothers—Barry, Robin, and Maurice—were working with Australian musicians Vince Melouney on guitar and drummer Colin Petersen on drums. Bill Shepherd and Phil Dennys handled the orchestral arrangements with panache. These musicians made for a formidable team.

Right off the bat, “Turn Of The Century” and “Holiday,” show Bee Gees’ vast emotional range. The former’s ebullient baroque pop with echt Beatlesque vocal harmonies, which contrasts with the latter’s lachrymose ballad of precious intimacy, although Shepherd’s orchestrations nudge “Holiday” into Moody Blues/Left Banke territory.

The album really takes off with “Red Chair Fade Away,” an eerie efflorescence of psychedelic pop in the “Strawberry Fields Forever” vein. It pushes a profound nostalgic button for people who love songs in which instruments such as flute and violin seem to be melting in the studio—a number larger than you’d think. Out of sheer quirkiness, Robin brays like a sheep after Barry repeatedly sings “red chair fade away” near song’s end, and “I can feel the speaking sky” is brilliant and terrifying synesthesia. Another towering high point is “In My Own Time,” whose strutting garage-psych recalls “Taxman,” a style I wish the Gibb bros attempted more often. (By the way, the Three O’Clock did a nice cover of this tune on 1983’s Sixteen Tambourines.)

New York Mining Disaster” uh, mines the old-timey vibe of the Beatles’ “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite.” However, it is the Gibbs’ perverse genius to turn a tragic story about a worker being trapped in a mine into a soaring, feel-good hit. The bittersweet vocal harmonies and phrasing come off as a combo of “Good Day Sunshine” and “Eleanor Rigby.” The delightful psych lite of “Please Read Me” is as shaggily wonderful as your favorite Help! or Rubber Soul tune. “I Close My Eyes” is a very special song, bristling with strange beauty, staunch drumming, bravura fragile vocalizing à la 1966-era John Lennon, and a bizarre ee-ew sound that seems like a mistake that producer Robert Stigwood decided to keep for sheer WTF? value.

Beatles panto is fine and all, but do Bee Gees have soul? Oh, they certainly do. Dig “One Minute Woman,” a blue-eyed-soul charmer with sophisticated swagger and elevated by sumptuous strings and horn charts akin to a Lee Hazlewood production. “To Love Somebody” was originally written for Otis Redding, and it shows. One of the greatest love songs ever, it bursts with soul as it swims in a profound orchestral pathos and Barry sings his ass off. No wonder it’s been covered by Nina Simone, Rod Stewart, Roberta Flack, Gram Parson, Janis Joplin, and many others.

Saving the best for last, we come to “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You.” Featuring anguished mellotron played by Maurice and Gregorian-like chants (“o solo dominique”), Bee Gees set a Moody Blues tone before shifting into a stoned bliss psych-rock gem that stands up to the best of Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour. Amazing that this song, with its odd dynamics and strange atmospheres, appeared on the B-side of the “Holiday” 45. I can’t be the only one who freaked upon hearing “Every Christian” on the radio for the first time. In the context of commercial airwaves, it’s hard not to gasp, “What is this?”

It’s that mad combo of sonic adventurousness and indelible catchiness that makes Bee Gees 1st the group’s zenith and a stone-cold classic. -Buckley Mayfield

Curtis Mayfield “Back To The World” (Curtom, 1973)

Imagine having to follow up Super Fly, one of the greatest soundtracks of all time and, to many listeners, a pinnacle of blaxploitation-film scores. No problem, though, for guitarist/vocalist Curtis Mayfield (no relation, by the way). The veteran R&B/soul/funk magus who established his rep with the Impressions showed he had plenty more inspiration from that gritty yet sumptuous palette on Back To The World, which peaked at #16 on the Billboard album chart and #1 on the R&B chart.

Wielding his supple falsetto and presenting himself as a sage street philosopher, Mayfield offered a concept album of sorts about a soldier returning from the Vietnam War and struggling to adjust to society and find a job. The buoyant, loping soul of “Back To The World” introduces you to this scenario, as it bursts with uplifting, swirling strings and punchy brass. Here and everywhere on Back To The World, Richard Tufo kills it with his ambitious arrangements, encompassing triumph and despair with panache. In a similar vein, “Right On For The Darkness” brings more dynamic, orchestral-funk drama. Sampled by everyone from Gang Starr to Insane Clown Posse, the song’s a lament for the human condition, particularly greed and temptation.

As for “Future Shock,” its stark, funky break has been sampled at least 23 times, and has been covered by Herbie Hancock on the same 1983 LP that bore “Rockit.” It’s certainly one of Mayfield’s most potent slices of message-heavy funk, laced with an ecological warning amid urgent horn stabs and weeping guitar interjections. Speaking of sample-worthy tracks, parts of “Can’t Say Nothin’” were lifted by Canadian hip-hop unit Dream Warriors for “U Could Get Arrested.” No wonder: its stealthy funk is as sleek and stylish as Dr. J breezing to the hoop during his ABA phase.

Back To The World climaxes on “If I Were Only A Child Again,” whose euphoric funk flaunts horn charts that inflate your heart to a planet-sized organ of joy. Mayfield’s protagonist expresses a desire to return to a state of innocence to avoid the grief caused by the way adults fuck up society. The music sweeps away any consternation the lyrics induce, exemplifying Curtis’ greatest feat—writing verses that depict hard times while composing music that elevates you far above their grim reality. -Buckley Mayfield

Larry Coryell “Barefoot Boy” (Flying Dutchman, 1971)

From 1969 to 1975, guitar virtuoso Larry Coryell had a phenomenal run of solo albums for prestigious labels such as Vanguard, Flying Dutchman, and Arista. (His date with German avant-jazz keyboardist Wolfgang Dauner on Et Cetera’s Knirsch LP is essential, too.) During this time, Coryell was challenging hotshots such as John McLaughlin, Sonny Sharrock, Pete Cosey, Ray Russell, and John Abercrombie for jazz-rock-guitar supremacy.

Of all the great recordings Coryell cut in that golden period, Barefoot Boy may be the strongest. At points, it predates the fury and finesse of Miles Davis’ On The Corner by about a year. In 1969, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau called Coryell “the greatest thing to happen to the guitar since stretched gut,” and for a change, I agree with him.

Recorded at New York’s Electric Lady Studios and produced by Flying Dutchman label owner Bob Thiele, Barefoot Boy charges out of the gate as if ablaze. Coryell and company radically intensify Gábor Szabó’s “Gypsy Queen” to nearly 12 minutes, forging thrumming, seething jazz rock over which saxophonist Steve Marcus breathes rococo fire while Coryell unleashes a Hendrixian vernacular on guitar: scultped feedback, fleet wah-wah riffs, divebombs. The rhythm’s monomaniacally repetitive and robust, thanks to Roy Haynes’ drumming and Lawrence Killian’s conga. Surely, Mr. Szabó was impressed.

It may take a while to catch your breath after that, but hurry, because “The Great Escape” is gonna make you move some more. It’s a brazen funk cut redolent of the torqued tension of Axis: Bold As Love and On The Corner, with Haynes’ clanging cymbal work accentuating the roiling rhythm. Coryell goes into hyperdrive with thick, corrugated riffs and mercurial, pointillistic runs while Mervin Bronson’s bass line churns lubriciously. Icing this groovy cake, Marcus gets off a Wayne Shorter-esque solo of concise brilliance. Was Miles taking notes?

The 20-minute “Call To The Higher Consciousness” begins with an uplifting fanfare not unlike the one in Pharoah Sanders’ “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” with Mike Mandel’s piano emulating the rolling bliss of Lonnie Liston Smith’s. Marcus takes the lead in the early stages, blowing golden arabesques over a lovely, loping rhythm. Eventually, Coryell emits a flurry of crystalline notes that ripple with mind-boggling fluency. There’s room for everyone to take a solo in this sidelong journey, including Mandel’s gorgeous shower of high-pitched chords and Haynes’ nimble and rugged drum workout. When the group barge back in, they spew a geyser of spiritual-jazz euphoria akin to that heard on Alice Coltrane and Carlos Santana’s Illuminations. After several bursts of febrile joy, the song downshifts into subdued mode in the last few minutes.

Although rarely touted as such, Barefoot Boy belongs in the fusion pantheon, with your Spectrums, your Emergency!s, your Birds Of Fires, etc. -Buckley Mayfield

Harvey Mandel “The Snake” (Janus, 1972)

The fact that you often see Harvey Mandel’s albums in the used bins is yet more proof that the world’s full of fools. The Detroit-born blues-rock musician is a guitarist’s guitarist who played with some of the best blues-rock musicians of the ’60s (Canned Heat, John Mayall, Charlie Musselwhite) and was thisclose to joining the Rolling Stones. You can hear Mandel auditioning for the slot given to Ron Wood on 1976’s Black And Blue, on which Harv knocked it out of the park on “Hot Stuff” and “Memory Motel.” I can’t be the only one who thought Mick and Keef blundered with their pick (pun intended).

Anyway, Mandel’s string of albums from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s is strong, with The Snake being its peak. Right from go, “The Divining Rod” alerts you to Mandel’s six-string mastery, with its dynamic, swerving rock powered by righteous cowbell. He wrings serpentine, silvery lines of dazzling intricacy and elasticity, and you can tell Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood was listening intently. The zig-zagging, Gábor Szabó-esque jazzadelia of “Pegasus” assumes a Romani tinge thanks to Don “Sugarcane” Harris’ spirited violin coloration. As for “Peruvian Flake,” I learned from the Urban Dictionary that the title’s a slang term for cocaine, so it’s apropos that this song’s quicksilver rock of mind-boggling technical proficiency. It’s kind of shocking that Steely Dan didn’t hire Mandel after this came out.

Some other highlights include “Ode To The Owl,” a moving blues-rock solo guitar tribute to Canned Heat’s Alan Wilson, who died in 1970 at the tragically young age of 27 and “Levitation,” whose sly jazz rock is elevated by Charles Lloyd’s flute, Freddie Roulette’s sublime, pointillistic steel guitar solo, and Kevin Burton’s flamboyant soul-jazz organ solo. My fave cut is “The Snake” (a slightly less sublime and psychedelic version appeared on Mandel’s 1968 debut LP, Christo Redentor). This might be the coolest, most funkadelic track in Mandel’s canon, and as I’ve discovered as a DJ, it segues very well into Herbie Hancock’s “Hang Up Your Hang Ups.” Mandel saved the fieriest for the last with “Bite The Electric Eel.” This is a fried blues-rock jam that can hold its own with Peter Green’s The End Of The Game. The song’s full of staggering showboating, but there’s nothing at all annoying about it.

I paid $1 for my used copy of The Snake, but as it’s the zenith of one of America’s most virtuosic and tone-smart blues-rock guitarists, the album’s worth at least 30 times that. Hot stuff, indeed. -Buckley Mayfield

Sir Joe Quarterman & Free Soul “Sir Joe Quarterman & Free Soul” (GSF, 1973)

Sir Joe Quarterman & Free Soul never became household names, except in those homes where serious crate-diggers have dwelled. For one thing, that name is a goddamn mouthful. For another, their label likely lacked the marketing muscle to get the band the notice they deserved. That theirs is a common story doesn’t make it any less of a shame. SJQ and his crafty mates should’ve been much better known, but at least their debut album has been reissued frequently (both officially and not), making it not too hard to grip this start-to-finish heater.

The album starts with the group’s best-known song, “(I Got) So Much Trouble In My Mind,” a Top 30 hit in 1973. It’s highly torqued funk that would make James Brown do the splits three times and pass out. Not surprisingly, “Trouble” has been sampled over a dozen times. The tight groove, brash horn charts, and caustic, Dennis Coffey-esque guitar solo make it an irresistible force of supernature. Yes, Joe’s voice isn’t JB or Sly Stone caliber, but it more than adequately reaches the era’s demanding gritty-soul quotient. Gamers may recognize it from the soundtrack of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

The greatness continues with “I Made A Promise,” whose devastatingly cool funk boasts a zig-zagging bass line worthy of the Meters’ George Porter Jr. while “The Trouble With Trouble” flexes bravura, horn-laden funk that could score a sports highlight program. Fans of J.B.s ax-slinger Jimmy Nolen’s percussive guitar attack will dig this one. The peppy, feel-good funk of “Gonna Get Me A Friend” will—yes, indeed—likely help you make friends if you play it. That’s some meta genius, even if it wasn’t intentional.

“I Feel Like This” falls very much in the vein of the Meters’ “Just Kissed My Baby,” and I’m not complaining, because this methodical, wah-wah-enhanced funk acts as a libido enhancer. Even though it’s less celebrated than “(I Got) So Much Trouble On My Mind,” “The Way They Do My Life” might be the album’s peak. Marvin Gaye-like, orchestral funk in the What’s Going On/Trouble Man vein, with wicked chikka-wakka guitar (the title derives from a line in Gaye’s “Inner City Blues [Make Me Wanna Holler”]).

To be blunt, funk albums that are great from front to back are rare. Often, these ensembles feel obligated to fill out their records with ballads, which usually drag down the mood and overall quality. When you’re up against superstars of that mode such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Bill Withers, you can’t help coming up short. But Sir Joe Quarterman & Free Soul realized what their strengths were and manifested them to the max. -Buckley Mayfield

Kevin Ayers “Bananamour” (Harvest, 1973)

Is this the second-greatest rock album featuring a banana on its cover? Quite possibly. While Bananamour is not quite as important as The Velvet Underground & Nico, it does boast the best song ever about the German vocalist who appeared on the Velvets’ landmark LP. More on that later.

Kevin Ayers’ last LP for the prog-oriented Harvest label, Bananamour isn’t as far out and cerebral as 1970’s Shooting At The Moon or as wonderfully weird as 1969’s Joy Of A Toy, but it has more hits than misses and it contains perhaps the founding Soft Machine member’s greatest composition. More on that later.

Bananamour—a fruity, bilingual portmanteau word that suggests Ayers is not to be taken totally seriously—starts with the woozily beautiful and ominous “Don’t Let It Get You Down (For Rachel),” a ballad redolent of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” and “Carry That Weight.” Ayers’ feeds his voice through a Leslie speaker while backing vocalists Liza Strike and Doris Troy vibrantly burst to the fore with the title chorus. The carefree lope of “Shouting In A Bucket Blues” is elevated by guest musician Steve Hillage’s honeyed, psych-blues-inflected electric guitar, which contrasts with Ayers’ lusciously lugubrious acoustic-guitar strum. Bassist Archie Legget steps to the mic to sing “When Your Parents Go To Sleep,” a brassy, wobbly legged blues-rock ballad about aching hormones. His voice is like a less pugnacious Joe Cocker while the tune resembles the Stones’ “I Got The Blues.” I’m not complaining.

Another impressive guest, Soft Machine organist Mike Ratledge, illuminates “Interview.” With Legget’s bass line getting to the funky nitty-gritty, this is severe blues rock that cuts as deeply as Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.” Thankfully, this tune gets stranger as it goes, with Ratledge going off into the stratosphere with some mindblowing improv. Another Soft Machine alumnus, the inimitable Robert Wyatt, bestows harmony vocals to the warm, intimate ballad “Hymn.”

Bananamour has a couple of goofy tangents, too. “Oh! Wot A Dream” falls somewhere between Pink Floyd’s “Pow R. Toc H.” and a Bonzo Dog Doodah Band ditty while “Caribbean Moon” comes off as a British take on Nilsson’s “Coconut,” with all the insouciant charm and faux-calypso vibe that that implies. (“Caribbean Moon” appears on the US Sire edition, not the original Harvest release.)

Now for the pièce de résistance (thank you for your patience)—“Decadence,” a chiming, slow-blooming drone-rock epic that portrays the aforementioned Nico as a cold, elusive heartbreaker. A key passage: “Fading flowers in her hair/She’s suffering from wear and tear/She lies in waterfalls of dreams/And never questions what it means/And all along the desert shore/She wanders further evermore/The only thing that’s left to try…/She says to live I have to die.” Harsh, dude. The song’s gradually accelerating and ascending cruise to the stars (Legget’s bass is a spiraling, springy wonder) foreshadows soulful British space-rockers Spiritualized. That is high praise, indeed. You can bet legendary BBC Radio DJ John Peel loved Bananamour. -Buckley Mayfield

Jon Hassell “Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two)” (Ndeya, 2020)

I don’t usually review new albums here, but this one by a world-class innovator, 83-year-old American trumpeter/keyboardist Jon Hassell, deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.

With Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two), he has found new ways to elaborate on his distinctive sound. Dubbed by Hassell as Fourth World Music, it’s a hybrid of Asian and African styles tempered by minimalist compositional strategies influenced by Terry Riley and Kiranic-singing guru Pandit Pran Nath, and is distinguished by Hassell’s electronically treated horn. It’s tempting to call Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) and its 2018 companion Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One) as late-career resurgences, but Hassell has never fallen off in over 40 years as a bandleader.

Pentimento means “a reappearance in a painting of an original drawn or painted element which was eventually painted over by the artist.” This suggests that Hassell is renovating previous innovations. While that’s partially true, long-time fans will hear new facets. Hassell suffused Listening to Pictures with eerie mists of trumpet and grounded it with thick, tumid rhythms of hazy origins, qualities evident on his luminous 1978 debut LP, Vernal Equinox. Listening to Pictures intensifies his music’s patented meditative and predatory elements while adding new textures and rhythms to his adventurous repertoire.

Seeing Through Sound continues down that path, swirling both minor and major gestures into a rich mosaic. “Fearless” sojourns through Stygian miasmas of smeared keyboard shrieks à la Miles Davis’s “Rated X,” bass smudges, slack funk beats, and eldritch plumes of trumpet. Disorientation reigns from the start. Hassell’s most famous collaborator, Brian Eno, singled out “Unknown Wish” for being “one of the most mysterious, seductive and enchanting things” Hassell has done, adding that he’d never heard anything like it. It’s a highlight, for sure, its twitchy guitar and keyboard interplay giving way to unsettling sighs recalling Goblin’s Suspiria soundtrack and the panther-like stealth of Davis’s In a Silent Way, courtesy of Peter Freeman’s electric-bass pulsations. “Delicado” also pushes into new territory, as slabs of low-end frequencies shunt ominously, forming an intrusive yet oblong rhythm more likely to get you moving toward the exits than the dance floor. The contrast between this and the icy keyboard drones and plaintive wisps of trumpet exemplify Hassell’s paradoxical inventiveness.

Drifting in on a morose, majestic drone, “Timeless” closes Seeing Through Sound on an aptly oblique note. With bass that’s more like pressure fluctuations than chord progressions, spare keyboard dabs, and scuttling crab noises, “Timeless” has too much happening for it to be deemed ambient, but its amorphousness and strange amalgam of elements make it hard to slot into any genre. The track’s yet another paragon of Hassell’s shape-shifting uniqueness. -Buckley Mayfield

A.C. Marias “One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing)” (Mute, 1989)

A.C. is Angela Conway, the mysterious chanteuse who cowrote the 10 songs on One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing) with Wire/Dome guitarist Bruce Gilbert. She’s also appeared on Wire bassist Graham Lewis’ He Said records and Gilbert’s The Shivering Man LP, as well as these Wire dudes’ Dome and P’o projects. Clearly, Conway was a key figure in the Wire diaspora throughout the ’80s, so it makes sense that she would cut her own full-length with those in their orbit. And what a quiet little treasure One Of Our Girls is.

With a voice pitched somewhere between the Dream Syndicate/Opal’s Kendra Smith and Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, Conway radiated an ethereal gravity with A.C. Marias. The group included Paul Kendall (studio wiz who’s worked with Gilbert and Loop and Main’s Robert Hampson), John Fryer (producer of This Mortal Coil, Cocteau Twins, Nine Inch Nails, etc.), and Gareth Jones (producer of Depeche Mode, Wire, Diamanda Galás, Einstürzende Neubauten, etc.). Conway’s singing may not be technically extraordinary, but she optimizes her narrow range with an intriguing delivery and glazed timbre. She keeps her emotions close to the vest, forcing you to lean in to try to discern the details.

Case in point is the opener, “Trilby’s Couch.” It begins with a melancholy woodwind melody redolent of seaside desolation. Then a stealthy walking bass line and woodblock taps appear as Conway sings about a hypnosis session. When the avian synth twitters surface, you can’t help getting chills. “Just Talk” furthers the hypnotic quotient with a simple yet transporting guitar riff that cycles over a high-pitched, majestic drone. Conway croons in hushed tones about an enigmatic scenario featuring two lovers and a gun, while meditating on the nature of language and time.

“There’s A Scent Of Rain In The Air” might be the album’s oddest highlight, a mix of pneumatic beats, gaseous gusts, faraway airplane-engine drones, and spidery, glinting guitar accents, like if the Edge had shown more restraint on The Joshua Tree. Another highlight and an outlier is “Give Me,” a serious stab at dance-floor domination, similar to the propulsive yet cool-browed cover of Lou Reed’s “Vicious” from a previous A.C. Marias single. The warped, spiraling guitar filigrees and punchy drum-machine beats form a foxy foundation for Conway to request a “stolen kiss” and a “little bliss.” Hell, she’s earned it.

One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing) climaxes on the title track, one of the greatest songs of the ’80s. Powered by a valiantly galloping rhythm and buoyed by softly stroked guitar and sighing synth undulations, the song bears a melody as sublime as that of Wire’s “Map Ref. 41ºN 93ºW.” After playing “One Of Our Girls” hundreds of times, I can attest that it’s one of the most satisfying syntheses of happiness and sadness in songform.

Following Conway’s sole album as a songwriter, she went on to direct several music videos, including those by Wire, Nick Cave, and Bryan Ferry. We’re fortunate that she dropped One Of Our Girls before finding her more lucrative calling in film. This album is one of those cult artifacts that make aficionados feel as if they’re in on a special secret. Unlike you and me, it never gets old. -Buckley Mayfield

Lothar And The Hand People “Presenting…” (Capitol, 1968)

Look at that cover. The five members of Lothar And The People seem like the high-school students most likely to join a benign cult based on the plot of a ridiculous fantasy novel. Yet after they moved from Denver to New York City, the quirky quintet signed to Capitol Records… and the rest is cult-rock history.

LATHP cut two surprisingly good albums and then adios’d. But they had the distinction of being the first rock group to tour with synthesizers and one of the few to manipulate Theremins. These nerds had an air of gimmickry about them, but they also had talent. Their 1968 debut album, Presenting…, abounds with high-quality, Moog-enhanced novelty rock.

Produced by Robert Marguleff of the excellent synth duo Tonto’s Expanding Head Band (who later worked studio magic on Stevie Wonder’s best albums), Presenting… begins auspiciously with “Machines.” A Mort Shuman composition originally cut by Manfred Mann in 1966, the track rides a ludicrously chunky, mechanical rhythm while the singer belts a cautionary tale about said machines transforming from things that serve humans to becoming our enslavers. The grim message almost gets lost in the robotically bouncy joy the music induces.

A jarring transition occurs with “This Is It,” an easy-going, jazzy charmer that carries the air of a sly Mose Allison tune. The melody is sophisticated yet attention-grabbing, immediately burrowing itself into your memory bank and wiggling adorably there forever more. More catchiness ensues on “This May Be Goodbye,” a psych-pop tune toggling between endearing and annoying, thanks to John Emelin’s nasal, forceful vocals, and “That’s Another Story,” which feels at once old-timey and as hip as Pentangle-esque folkadelia, thanks to its wonderful see-sawing melody.

LATHP could go hard, too. “Sex And Violence” is a groovy, heavy jam featuring the title chanted and sung menacingly. Rusty Ford’s bass line is sick and the guitar solo anticipates Butthole Surfers freak Paul Leary. The tough yet baroque garage rock of “You Won’t Be Lonely” evokes Detroit’s SRC. “It Comes On Anyhow” is the most psychedelic and disjointed moment on the record, full of “OM”s, warped harpsichord motifs, Paul Conly’s synth drones, Tom Flye’s huge beats, and mutterings of “It doesn’t matter.” Imagine a more concise “Revolution 9.”

For Moog-lovers, Conly shines on “Milkweed Love,” an ominous ballad in the vein of Mort Garson and Jean-Jacques Perrey, and “Paul, In Love,” a beautiful reverie à la Garson’s Plantasia. Plus, nearly every song here is capped by little Moog filigrees.

A cloying wackiness occasionally mars Presenting… “Kids Are Little People”’s goofy children’s-television rock and “Woody Woodpecker” (yes, the cartoon theme) especially annoy. But the loony-bin-bound pop of “Ha (Ho)” at least has the decency to end with an enticing electronic coda that foreshadows Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. Thankfully, most of this LP hits the sweet spot between sublime and silly. These songs may carry an indelible late-’60s timestamp, but that only adds to their charm when heard in 2020. -Buckley Mayfield

The Undisputed Truth “Cosmic Truth” (Gordy, 1975)

The plaything of producer/composer/arranger Norman Whitfield, the Undisputed Truth were Motown’s great black freak-soul hopes—basically, the Temptations’ younger, wilder siblings. UT even recorded several songs cut by the Tempts (and Rare Earth, for that matter), a ploy that demonstrated Motown boss Berry Gordy’s practice of recycling the catalog in order to milk hits for all they’re worth. Because Whitfield and his songwriting partner Barrett Strong were on a scorching creative roll in the ’70s, the Undisputed Truth reaped the artistic rewards of their genius, if not the commercial successes of Motown’s more palatable acts.

Cosmic Truth is UT’s sixth album and their second of 1975, following the flamboyantly soulful and funky Higher Than High. For me, Cosmic Truth is the group’s peak. It should be discussed with the same reverence people reserve for classics such as Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Axis: Bold As Love, Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, and Love’s Four Sail.

The LP’s gatefold spread features UT’s five core members wearing garish silver makeup and sporting huge white afros, a visual analogue to what you’ll hear in the grooves. Opener “Earthquake Shake” immediately tips you off that Cosmic Truth isn’t going to be your father’s typical Motown release. This brassy, tumultuous psych funk is the sonic embodiment of the title. A bit beyond the halfway point, a massive drum break enters and the whole song gets about 77 percent funkier and stranger. The coda of birdsong, distant backwards strings, oboe (?), more earthquake rumble unexpectedly takes the song into prog territory (Moody Blues or early King Crimson). So far, so surprising.

But you ain’t heard nothing yet. How about an oozing-molasses cover of “Down By The River”? Undisputed Truth soul up Neil Young’s 1969 epic to the max, elevated by an absolutely heavenly keyboard performance by Mark Davis. The guitar solo here—it sounds like Motown session badass Dennis Coffey—is a shimmering helix of spun gold. Neil had to have been gobsmacked by how godly this version was.

However, “UFO’s” [sic] is not a surprise; it’s spacey, psychedelic funk with guitars that sound like gnarly, alien engines. It’s also the LP’s most explicit Parliament-Funkadelic homage, with vocals evoking Bootsy Collins’. Similarly, “Lil’ Red Ridin’ Hood”’s sleazy funk could’ve easily slotted on Free Your Ass And Your Mind Will Follow. “Spaced Out” is my go-to track on Cosmic Truth for DJing purposes. Its strutting and rutting funkadelia with exceptional dynamics, caustic guitar pyrotechnics, and the echoed unison backing vocals send this interstellar lust song over the edge.

1990” features mad guitar heroics in a dank, midtempo, War-like vein, harmonica and all. Finally, the fantastic, heartbreaking “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” which the Temptations made a hit in 1966, receives a supremely soulful treatment with a sweet piano solo, subtly effective congas, and masterly vocal arrangements. It’s up there with the commanding renditions by Rod Stewart and the Faces and Rare Earth.

The aptly titled Cosmic Truth is one of Motown’s most fascinating, undersung magnum opuses. -Buckley Mayfield