Blues

Shuggie Otis “Freedom Flight” (Epic, 1971)

Shuggie Otis still isn’t as famous and celebrated as he ought to be. Although his discography is relatively small, his name should be uttered in the same reverent tones the listening public reserves for superstars such as Sylvester Stewart, Jimi Hendrix, and Prince.

Now, Otis’ 1970 debut LP proper Here Comes Shuggie Otis has some stellar moments, but Freedom Flight is where he really blossoms. He would follow it up in 1974 with another classic, Inspiration Information, before going many years without releasing new music. David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label revived interest in Otis’ mellifluous mélange of psychedelia, blues, and funk with its 2001 reissue of Inspiration Information that included four cuts from Freedom Flight. It was one of the best music-biz moves the Talking Heads frontman has ever made.

Otis certainly had connections to some of the top players in the biz thanks to his father, the R&B artist/bandleader Johnny Otis. But still, for a 17-year-old to create an album as ambitious and brilliant as Freedom Flight is astonishing. It’s no wonder legends such as Frank Zappa, Al Kooper, and the Rolling Stones wanted to tap the multi-instrumentalist prodigy’s talents.

Ice Cold Daydream” is a fantastic opening number, complex yet catchy funk rock that could make Sly Stone do the splits out of respect. Shuggie’s guitar effects are sweet as hell, and he plays organ and bass like a badass, too. Somehow I’d gone my whole life not knowing about Mike Kowalski—who’s played with the Beach Boys, Nick Drake, and John Martyn—but he proves himself to be a truly funky drummer. Papa Johnny chips in with percussion, which was very nice of him.

Shuggie flexes his formidable blues muscles on “Me And My Woman” and “Purple.” Written by Gene Barge, the former song is about a roller-coaster romance and though it’s pretty straight-ahead, it’ll put serious lead in your pencil. (Does anyone still use this expression? No? Cool.) Shuggie plays guitar, bass, and keys, and his guitar solo is a thing of ornate beauty, while his rhythm guitar chikka-wakkas are nasty. “Purple” is a simmering, shimmering seven-minute blues stroll that one could imagine working well in a classy strip joint. Shuggie once again excels on guitar, bass, and organ and Jim “Supe” Bradshaw adds crucial harmonica accompaniment.

My two favorite tracks here are “Sweet Thang” and “Strawberry Letter 23.” The former was co-written with certified Dirty Old Man Johnny Otis and received high-powered help from George Duke on organ, Wilton Felder on bass, and Aynsley Dunbar on drums. This is swampy funk that’s greasier than Dr. John’s Gris-Gris in a New Orleans grease fire. “Sweet Thang” is so sexy, I can’t think of a metaphor or simile that’ll do it justice, but your libido will surely throb like it’s never throbbed before. “Strawberry Letter 23” is Shuggie’s most famous song, thanks to the Brothers Johnson’s glazed-soul cover that dominated radio in 1977—and justifiably so. Shuggie plays everything on it, and dozens of listens to his and the Brothers Johnson’s versions cannot diminish the elegant elation that this mellow, pastel soul gem induces. Shuggie’s sleigh and orchestral bells and his gilded, ascending guitar arpeggios lift this song to the seventh circle of heaven. It’s one of the purest expressions of enchantment ever put to tape, up there with Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and the Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’.”

Finally, the nearly 13-minute “Freedom Flight” is a patiently unfolding, bluesadelic drift that’ll get you floating in the way that a Hendrix jam at its most blissed-out can do. Duke, Dunbar, and Felder appear again, but it’s Richard Aplanalp on tenor sax and oboe who steals the song. Aplanalp played on Bruce Palmer’s The Cycle Is Complete, and it shows. His blowing has that tender yet questing tone that suggests intimacy with the eternal. The band achieves a peaceful, easy feeling, in excelsis. “Freedom Flight” serves as an exclamation mark in lavender haze to an album that’s a manifesto of artistic adventurousness… created, I remind you, by a 17-year-old. -Buckley Mayfield

Ben Sidran “Puttin’ In Time On Planet Earth” (Blue Thumb, 1973)

One wonders how a nerdy-looking, non-famous white keyboardist/singer convinced legends such as Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams, James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield, and session bassist Phil Upchurch of Rotary Connection and Chess/Cadet Records fame to back him on his third album, Puttin’ In Time On Planet Earth. Granted, Ben Sidran had co-written Steve Miller Band’s 1969 “Lady Madonna”-biting hit “Space Cowboy,” but still. You wouldn’t think a guy like this would have that kind of clout. Maybe Sidran simply charmed them into the fold, and coaxed Blue Thumb Records to compensate them handsomely? Whatever the case, praise your deity of choice that these cats somehow gathered to lay down this understated gem.

I’ve heard five Ben Sidran albums, and Puttin’ In Time On Planet Earth is the best. Now, the opener, “Full Compass” (which Upchurch wrote), a 39-second burst of flamboyant, Mahavishnu Orchestra-like fusion, is a red herring. But on the next track, “Play The Piano,” Sidran’s true nature emerges. It flaunts Sidran’s hip, Mose Allison-esque vocals that express how doing the thing that the title says is salvation. Sidran tickles out wonderful cascades of chords on the far right side of a grand piano while Upchurch and Stubblefield lift the rhythm from Prime Mates’ “Hot Tamales,” one of the greatest Latin/New Orleans funk songs ever. Your ears will do somersaults of joy. The striding blues jazz of “Have You Heard The News” exudes that irresistible Mose bonhomie and is boosted by the deft Mr. Williams on drums.

Face Your Fears” features old Sidran buddy Steve Miller on acoustic guitar. It’s an inspirational jazz-pop song with Frank Rosolino on trombone and Sidran on Mellotron bringing new tones to the record, and it really soars in the second half thanks to Miller’s wonderfully warped electric-guitar solo and Tim Davis’ blissful backing vocals. “Walking With The Blues” is actually more dulcet smooth jazz than anything that sounds like Howlin’ Wolf. Here, Sidran sings in his most comforting, confidential tones as Bill Perkins exhales sultry, sinuous tenor sax solos. It’s quite precious.

As fine as all of this has been, Planet Earth really peaks on the last two tracks. I’ll be damned if the title track doesn’t share the same rhythm as that B-boy favorite, Can’s “Vitamin C.” Coincidence? I hope not. I love the idea of Clyde Stubblefield paying homage to Jaki Liebezeit. Upchurch lends crucial wah-wah guitar to this very classy approximation of blaxploitation-flick funk, while Sidran peels off keyboard runs that evoke Deodato circa “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)”.

Even better is “Now I Live (And Now My Life Is Done).” An ultra-slinky groove snakes with guile as Sidran vamps with enough verve to make Donald Fagen green with envy while guitarist Curley Cooke is on crystalline form, somewhere between George Benson and Pat Martino. Sidran’s use of bells and boinger percussion toy really add spine-tingles to this surreptitiously funky song. Throughout, Sidran recites an existentialist poem written by doomed 16th-century prisoner Chidiock Tichborne, who was executed for plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. Crazy backstory, right? This is simply one of the most sublime tracks I’ve ever heard, regardless of genre, and alone worth the price of admission, and then some. -Buckley Mayfield

Eddie Harris “I Need Some Money” (Atlantic, 1975)

The late American saxophonist/vocalist Eddie Harris is king of the jazz bargain bin, now that Billy Cobham’s catalog is rising in stock. Nearly all of Harris’ albums go for under $10; if you see one from the late ’60s or ’70s, grab it.

Over his prolific career, Eddie Harris was an adept balladeer, bluesman, straight-ahead bop melodicist, funky party-starter, turbulent free jazzer, and experimentalist with a keen interest in the mind-bending properties of electronic effects. I Need Some Money arrived toward the end of funk’s reign and near the beginning of disco’s dominance, and you can hear Harris and his skilled group seeking ingenious ways to move bodies.

That approach is obvious from the opening track. More than anything, “I Need Some Money” resembles the soulful, swerving funk of the O’Jays, early Commodores, and Larry Young’s Fuel. Harris’ lyrics lament the high cost of living, a common theme in black music of the ’70s, and one that’s proved to be timeless. Hell, it’s been my anthem in this messed-up year of unemployment and limited opportunities. The refrain of “Everything is so damn high!” will prance through your brain for hours. “Get On Down” starts with unsettling stomach-hunger sounds (probably created with a quica) and Eddie saying “excuse me.” A tentative beat percolates and about 100 seconds in, the song shifts into an unstoppable jazz-funk groove that bubbles and shimmies like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious.” Harris drops in some chuckle-worthy scat singing and Leon Thomas-esque yodeling, adding levity to a track that’s almost too much fun. “Get On Down” is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Shifting into a sparser, lower key, “Time To Do Your Thing” is an Afro-Latin percussion fest and a dancin’/romancin’ soundtrack for the carnally advanced. Above all the timbrally interesting beats, Harris’ robust, snaky sax (alluding to Wonder’s “Maybe Your Baby”), Bradley Bobo’s lubricious bass, and Ronald Muldrow’s clanging guitar engage in a vivacious conversation. Harris goes on another tangent with “Carnival,” a weirdly festive exotica excursion. It’s powered by the sort of drum-machine beats that would animate many ’80s synthwave groups, with Harris’ sax FX’d into timbres more associated with synthesizers the instrument Bird and Trane made legendary. African whistle, talking drum, cabasa, and massed, jokey chants add to the track’s otherness.

I Need Some Money‘s peak might be the nearly 12-minute “I Don’t Want Nobody.” Sounding like Spirit Of Eden-era Talk Talk over a decade before the fact, the musicians conjure a gospel-tinged blues of somber majesty. Harris sings through an electric sax at the beginning to feminize his voice while Muldrow’s guitorgan whirs into the church-y mode of Spiritualized’s “Shine A Light.” Rufus Reid’s six-string bass and the guitorgan entwine in a lofty dialogue, as the broken-hearted singer licks his wounds. (“You’ve always said that you love me/That I’d be the only one/You thought of me every night/Why did you say we have a future”). Absolutely crushing. (Trivia: Oh Sees’ John Dwyer is a huge fan.) The album ends with “That’s It,” an alternate-world version of Quincy Jones’ Sanford And Son theme—slower, but just as inspirational and grimy.

From what I’ve read, the title of I Need Some Money was the truth. Alas, Harris didn’t score a hit with it, but in his pursuit of lucre, he inadvertently cut his best album of the decade. If it’s a “sell-out” move, it’s akin to Miles Davis’ similar stab at commercial success that resulted in an uncompromising classic: On The Corner. Bonus: Money still commonly dwells in the cheapie bins. -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

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

Nicky Hopkins/Ry Cooder/Mick Jagger/Bill Wyman/Charlie Watts “Jamming With Edward!” (Rolling Stones, 1972)

I’m not gonna pretend this is an essential album. However! As far as Rolling Stones-affiliated curios go, Jamming With Edward! is an interesting side hustle featuring three members of the then-world’s greatest rock band. Even if they were just messing around, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, and Bill Wyman couldn’t help making compelling music—especially with hugely talented session dudes such as Nicky Hopkins (a frequent accomplice on keys/piano for the Stones ca. 1967-1975) and guitarist Ry Cooder (ex-Captain Beefheart, ex-Ceyleib People) in tow.

Jamming is the operative word for this record—which is usually priced just above bargain-bin prices at most shops. (For those wondering, “Edward” was Hopkins’ nickname.) The back story is, the Stones were waiting for Keith Richards to show up in the studio in the momentous year of 1969 (always a dicey proposition back then), and figuring it not prudent to waste valuable time, they jammed their skinny asses off. The results are occasionally phenomenal—certainly more engrossing than side 6 of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass—and Jamming somehow reached #33 on the US album chart.

Jagger dismissed Jamming in the original edition’s liner notes as “a nice piece of bullshit… which we cut one night in London, England while waiting for our guitar player to get out of bed. It was promptly forgotten (which may have been for the better)… I hope you spend longer listening to this record than we did recording it.” Yo, Mick—this is still way better than She’s The Boss.

First track “The Boudoir Stomp” is a blues-rock shit-kicker that rollicks at the same pace as the superior “Midnight Rambler.” It’s a spicy, hypnotic opening salvo, though, and you’d probably win some friends if you put it on at a bar’s jukebox. (They still have those, right?) The reverent version of Elmore James’ “It Hurts Me Too” thwarts the momentum, but it’s always nice to pay tribute to a blues hero and throw him some change, too.

Edwards Thrump Up” (written by Hopkins, Cooder, and Watts) works up a swift head of steam and mesmerizes like some Delta blues mutation of krautrock. Seriously, Cooder’s guitar sometimes sounds like Neu!’s Michael Rother on the motorik klassik “Hallogallo.” Jagger drops in some spare harmonica and yells here and there while Wyman is the low-key, low-frequency hero with his thrusting thrums. Another ripper is the 11-minute “Blow With Ry,” the LP’s funkiest nugget. Got damn, Charlie is in the pocket here, almost like the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste, and Cooder is in lethal, slashing blues-rock mode. Mick convincingly declaims like the bluesman he sometimes pretends to be, albeit sounding as if he’s in the next room and wearing a balaclava.

Following those peaks, though, Jamming descends into inconsequential messing about with “Interlude à la El Hopo” before resuming to burn with the lean, fleet blues-rock of “Highland Fling.” Hopkins’ piano runs are truly stunning.

So, yeah, while the three Stones involved with Jamming probably forgot they even made this sporadically brilliant lark, you would do well to ignore Jagger’s belittling of it and cop a copy for some above-average cheap thrills. -Buckley Mayfield

Fleetwood Mac “Mystery To Me” (Reprise, 1973)

Mystery To Me is one of those sort-of-overlooked Fleetwood Mac albums that came between the Peter Green and Stevie Nicks-Lindsey Buckingham phases. Keyboardist Christine McVie and guitarist Bob Welch dominate the songwriting here; while it’s not the best pre-Rumours Fleetwood Mac album, it does contain a few serious highlights. Your enjoyment of Mystery To Me will be predicated on how much you dig Welch’s Valium’d vox, McVie’s plummy singing, and medium-cool blues rock. The strange thing about this record is that its peak, “Hypnotized,” is an anomaly in the Fleetwood Mac catalog. More about that later.

Side one stands out for a couple of McVie compositions. The peppy, catchy “Believe Me,” the most uptempo tune here, comes across very much like “Homeward Bound” off Bare Trees. “Just Crazy Love” is mildly ebullient pop that hints at Christine’s vibrant songwriting on Rumours. “Forever” shambles in on an odd reggae-rock rhythm that’s endearing almost despite itself. The rambling orchestral, quasi-flamenco rock of “Keep On Going” is unusual for bearing a McVie vocal in a Welch-written song.

Side two’s standout is “For Your Love,” as Fleetwood Mac deploy a a subtly different and dreamier rearrangement of the Yardbirds classic, bolstered by lots of dual-guitar fireworks. In “The City,” Welch explains how he can’t handle New York’s darkness, which is all around—even in Central Park, apparently—as his wah-wah guitar squawk propels a swaggeringly funky blues-rock workout. “Miles Away” is breezy, kinetic rock that makes you want to floor it as you zip down the freeway on a journey to the periphery of your mind, while Welch grinds out some seductive, highly torqued blues rock on “Somebody.”

But the real reason to cop Mystery To Me, is “Hypnotized”—which was a minor US radio hit and covered by the Pointer Sisters on their 1978 album, Energy. Urged along by a coolly detached yet insistent, rolling rhythm and colored by the chillest of spangly guitar embroidery, this song is pure proto-Balearic-beach enchantment. Welch’s mellow-bronze vocals perfectly cap this aptly titled jam. “Hypnotized” is my go-to Fleetwood Mac tune when I’m DJing in a bar and as the night’s winding down and I’m trying to lay the foundation for its boozing patrons to get laid.

Overall, Mystery To Me is a slow-grower that boasts a few cuts that belong on any Fleetwood Mac best-of mixtape. You should still be able to find a used vinyl copy for under $10. -Buckley Mayfield

Sonny & Linda Sharrock “Paradise” (ATCO, 1975)

Paradise is an odd entry in the Sonny and Linda Sharrock discography. First, they made the leap to a major label—which, if you know the husband/wife duo’s earlier, highly uncommercial Black Woman and Monkey-Pockie-Boo LPs, made little sense. Second, ATCO tapped Turkish avant-garde electronic-music composer Ilhan Mimaroglu to produce Paradise. Huh?! Hahaha. Did the execs think ol’ Ilhan had the golden radio ears? Uh, no. Third, look how glammed-up Linda looks on the cover. ATCO sure seemed determined to get the Sharrocks’ unruly music into many consumers’ ears. Spoiler alert: Paradise bombed.

While the record company’s bigwigs may have been disappointed by this album, you, the smart listener at home, should find at least half of Paradise to be freakin’ amazing. Whereas Linda’s Yoko Ono-esque wails and shrieks and Sonny’s free-jazz skronk and busted blues and gospel excursions dominated the aforementioned two records, Paradise represents the couple’s attempt to temper their wildness into something resembling songs that humans might want to listen to without fear of breaking their leases. Hell, it seems like the Sharrocks were even trying to make folks dance to their music.

“Apollo” starts as if S&L are going to sex you up properly with some soulful balladry. Their hardcore fans must’ve been furiously scratching their heads. But 100 seconds in, the Sharrocks get freaky in a whole different way, accelerating into a bizarre fusion of early Mahavishnu Orchestra and Billy Preston circa “Outa-Space.” Kenny Armstrong goes nuts on clavinet and Sonny sounds like he’s auditioning for a No Wave band—a couple years before No Wave was a thing. It’s one of the craziest guitar solos I’ve ever heard—and I’ve heard a lot. And then for “Apollo”’s last minute, they return to the original balladic blissfulness… because they’re perverse like that.

With its Mellotron, Linda’s plaintive chants, and Sonny’s spidery guitar filigree, “End Of The Rainbow” carries an air of earthy Alice Coltrane mysticism. “1953 Blue Boogie Children” finds Sonny getting off some unbelievably strange guitar tones and outlandish solos within a fairly conventional blues framework. He really shatters the form, while Linda enters near the end for some distressed vocal ecstatics. The celestial gospel reverie of “Peaceful” almost hints at Spiritualized à la “Shine A Light.” Album-closer “Gary’s Step” harks back to the Sharrocks’ 1970 records with its ebbing and flowing amorphousness, Linda’s acrobatic, Annette Peacock-like “ah”s and “la”s, and Sonny’s furious stroking of the strings at the headstock, creating high tension amid the song’s ostensible placidity.

Last but most, “Miss Doris” is a funk-rock scorcher, but with frenetic Moog embellishments last heard on Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein.” Linda scats up a feral storm as the band bustles with the bravado of Funkadelic circa the crazily cataclysmic “Wars Of Armageddon,” cowbell and all. I occasionally spin this in DJ sets, and its 9 eventful minutes of splintering guitar heroics and undulating rhythms—including Dave Artis’ On The Corner-evoking bass line—sure get everyone’s attention.

Paradise may strike some Sharrock aficionados as too slick for their avant-skronk tastes, but listen closely and you’ll hear Sonny and Linda inserting tons of subversive actions into the mix—and on a major label’s dime. I don’t care if it gets me kicked out of the Actuel Records Fanboy Club, but Paradise is my favorite Sharrock album… by a plectrum. -Buckley Mayfield

Merl Saunders “Fire Up” (Fantasy, 1973)

Merl Saunders (1934-2008) was a Hammond B-3 demon and all-around keyboard badass who is best known for his recordings with the Grateful Dead legend Jerry Garcia. In 1973, Saunders, Garcia, Creedence Clearwater Revival guitarist Tom Fogerty, bassist John Kahn, drummers Bill Vitt and Bill Kreutzmann, and others cut a hot LP aptly titled Fire Up. If you’re familiar with Hooterroll?, the record Garcia made with keyboardist Howard Wales in 1971, you may hear similarities between that and Fire Up. Both are great, if under-acknowledged, gems in the constellation of Grateful Dead satellite releases.

Fire Up starts strongly with “After Midnight,” which Merl and company render in the laid-back style of the song’s composer, JJ Cale, but they make it even funkier, with Jerry Garcia exuding his patented mellow bonhomie on vocals and embellishing the heaven out of the main chugging guitar riff. For even more savory flavor,Saunders gets off some mad, rococo flourishes on organ and electric piano. This might be the best version of this oft-covered song, outside of the original. The low-key party atmosphere continues with a suave, soul-jazz treatment of Huff-Gamble’s “Expressway (To Your Heart).” “Soul Roach” is a greasy af boogaloo-inflected jam that sounds like the best shindig you’ve ever had south of the Mason-Dixon line. Saunders brings in an Arp synth and Kahn helps out on extra organ, because that’s how dang generous ol’ Merl was in 1973.

Fire Up peaks on “Chock-Lite Puddin’,” a cruising funk rambler with Saunders on Arp and flute. This has become my go-to cut from this LP for DJing, along with “After Midnight.” Drummer Gaylord Birch and bassist Chuck Rainey really fatten up the groove here, with bonus mercurial hand percussion making “Chock-Lite Puddin’” dance-floor dynamite. The record closes with a nearly nine-minute version of “Lonely Avenue,” as Saunders and crew turn Doc Pomus’ classic, frequently covered 1956 song into a slinky exercise in melancholy R&B, with Walter Hawkins singing and Garcia soloing with soulful dexterity.

Fire Up is a front-to-back solid collection of keyboard-powered songs that surely illuminated many parties throughout the ’70s, and could do so now among folks of a certain age. Plus, if you’re a fan of Jerry Garcia’s spidery virtuosity, you definitely need this in your collection. -Buckley Mayfield

Lydia Lunch “Queen Of Siam” (ZE, 1980)

Lydia Lunch has a reputation as a provocative, profane No Wave icon and as a spoken-word badass who would just as soon kick you in the ‘nads (with her words) as look at you. Her band Teenage Jesus And The Jerks tore it up on Brian Eno’s No New York comp, and she’s loaned her caustic wit and withering sneer to several other groups (8-Eyed Spy, Harry Crews) and collabs, including a memorable cameo on Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley 69” and a fruitful link-up with Birthday Party’s Rowland S. Howard that included a gothy stab at Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s “Some Velvet Morning.”

But Lunch’s debut full-length under her own name shocks by being accessible—relatively speaking. It contains two covers that suggest the range and vibe of Queen Of Siam: “Gloomy Sunday”—made famous by Billie Holiday and Associates (joking about the latter) and “Spooky,” the chill lounge-pop gem from 1967 that Classics IV took to the charts. Lunch imbues the latter with kittenish charm as her band jazzes it up with boozy gusto. The former is a paragon of insular moroseness—so beautifully hopeless.

Opener “Mechanical Flattery” captures the weird balance of song-oriented approach and arty knottiness that appears throughout the album. Lunch’s numbed deadpan somehow approximates the effect of a coquettish diva, but the stilted beats, oblique piano, and melancholy horn thwart any easy commercial pay-off. This sort of tension makes Queen Of Siam a riveting experience that just improves with each listen. The sleepwalking ballad “Tied And Twist” lumbers lithely, a No Wave plaint in slow-motion. Lunch’s sparse, laggard guitar solo is fantastically wonky; Robert Quine would be proud.

“Atomic Bongos” is the closest thing on Queen Of Siam to a hard-rocker, with its maddeningly repetitive and rugged bass riff and scathing, Contortions-esque guitar tang. “Lady Scarface,” by contrast, exudes a cabaret/big-band-jazz aura—shades of Quincy Jones—as Lunch recounts a lurid scenario about seducing a 16-year-old boy. In fact, most of the record bristles with a strange strain of carnality, at once sleazy and classy, edgy and retro. “I’m split and unbled and I’m ripped to the sore/Every man’s madness and I’m hurdling ripped to the core/There’s knives in my drain/Empty splints in my brain” Lunch leers in “Knives In My Drain” as a David Lynchian nightmare jazz tune slinks behind her. It conjures a pleasingly queasy feeling. (It should be noted that multi-instrumentalist Pat Irwin [the Raybeats and 8-Eyed Spy] and the Billy Ver Planck Orchestra are the low-key stars here.)

[Note: Amphetamine Reptile Records reissued Queen Of Siam on vinyl and CD in 2017.] -Buckley Mayfield

Spacemen 3 “Dreamweapon” (Fierce, 1990)

This anomaly in the sublime British space-rock group Spacemen 3’s catalog might be their headiest release, judging by how highly the true heads I know rank it. Inspired by minimalist composer La Monte Young, Dreamweapon is where Pete Kember, Jason Pierce, and company abandon rock and simply space the fuck out—at great length.

The two-part “An Evening Of Contemporary Sitar Music”—recorded live in London in 1988 by a full band—is a 44-minute study in patient, spangly guitar’d minimalism… with (spoiler alert) no sitar. Very little happens, but what does occur takes on a monumental importance. Over a foundation of murmuring oscillations (is it the sound of some god[dess] repeatedly guffawing? At least one acid trip suggested it was.), Pierce or Kember picks out a spidery, raga-like figure on electric guitar with laid-back insistence. As the piece progresses, the motif gains in intensity, and there’s a quote of “Just To See You Smile” from the Recurring LP. Does all this six-string foreplay build to a revelatory climax? No, it does not. However, you have to give “Dreamweapon” credit for this: It’s one helluva way to come down easy from a hallucinogen trip. I have first brain-cell experience with this scenario.

As for “Ecstasy In Slow Motion,” it’s doubtful there’s ever been more truth packed into one song title. This may be hard to believe, but there seems to be a harmonium drone humming underneath a shivering guitar that’s wailing a prayer to the electricity gods and then swirling skyward into a celestial orb of blinding light. This music is the elixir of eternal sonic truth, your most powerful, extended orgasm transferred into sine waves. Whenever I listen to this track, I always feel as if I’m dissolving into some sort of divine essential oil. It really is the best shit ever. “Spacemen Jam,” by contrast, is a desolate, bare-bones blues meditation that comes as something of an anticlimax after unprecedented heights of “Ecstasy In Slow Motion”—but what wouldn’t?

Dreamweapon has had many iterations, most of them on CD. Earlier this year, though, the great Superior Viaduct label reissued Dreamweapon on 2xLP with the two bonus tracks originally found on Space Age Recordings’ 2004 CD re-release and liner notes by Spacemen 3/Spiritualized bassist Will Carruthers. I highly recommend you get the Superior Viaduct version. -Buckley Mayfield

Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band “Bluejeans & Moonbeams” (Mercury, 1974)

For decades I avoided Bluejeans & Moonbeams, because conventional wisdom and consensus opinion deemed it one of his worst works and an embarrassing stab at commercial success. (Spoiler alert: The album flopped with the public and critics.) Perhaps the former assertion is true, but when you’re dealing with an artist on the exalted level of Don Van Vliet, that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. As for the second assertion, yes, B&M sounds relatively accessible when compared to Beefheart’s other releases—save for the equally reviled Unconditionally Guaranteed. However, this is still Beefheart, a musician incapable of making a record without something sounding interesting. And therefore I am going out on a withered limb and championing B&M… albeit with reservations.

One thing that makes this album different from most of Beefheart’s others is a new lineup that lacked a musical director who could translate the untrained band leader’s ideas into chords, notes, etc. Consequently, B&M‘s songs are much less complicated than usual for a Beefheart work. Nevertheless, side one is filled with good-to-great songs that may not tilt the music world off its axis like Safe As MilkTrout Mask Replica, or Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), but still go to some fascinating places and hit some familiar sweet spots.

B&M kicks off in grand style with “Party Of Special Things To Do,” a funky blues number that appealed enough to that learned rock scholar Jack White for the White Stripes to cover it on a 2001 Sub Pop 45. There are some serious Dr. John-like swamp vibes here, and Van Vliet’s in his trademark gruff Howlin’ Wolf vocal mode. The cover of JJ Cale’s “Same Old Blues” could never equal the original’s archetypal laid-back blues funk, but kudos to Van Vliet and company for attempting to do so.

B&M peaks with “Observatory Crest,” probably the most beautiful melody Beefheart’s written (with help from Mothers Of Invention/Fraternity Of Man guitarist Elliot Ingber). This dreamy, spacey tune was covered by Mercury Rev and the Swedish band Whipped Cream, and if you can’t luxuriate in the spectral shimmer of this tune, you need to make some major aesthetic adjustments. Side one closes with the funky blues-rock of “Pompadour Swamp,” which harks back to Beefheart’s The Spotlight Kid, but sounds not as menacing or off-kilter. “Captains Holiday” is a laggard, Stones-y blues-funk jam without any input from Beefheart—hence, the title.

The quality drops substantially on side two, unfortunately. “Rock ‘N’ Roll’s Evil Doll” has all the charm of a post-Jim Morrison Doors song, a C-plus blues-rock bump and grind of which Van Vliet and company seem to be going through the motions, while “Further Than We’ve Gone” comes off as a blundering yet snoozy “soul” ballad in which Van Vliet sounds unconvincing and everyone else sounds bored. “Twist Ah Luck” emulates a mid-level Rolling Stones chugger with a straight face, a move that should be beneath Beefheart. But dude was in a slump, as “Bluejeans & Moonbeams” conclusively proves; it’s Beefheart at his sappiest. Try not to cringe at this attempt at tender balladeering, corny orchestrations, and slide-guitar soloing—I dare you. This might the second lowest point in the Beefheart canon, after “This Is The Day.”

Still and all, Bluejeans And Moonbeams has two bona-fide classics (“Observatory Crest” and “Party Of Special Things To Do”) and enough flashes of deceptively dirty funk to be worth your time, if you can find it on the cheap. And at least it’s better than Unconditionally Guaranteed. -Buckley Mayfield