Rock

Meat Puppets “Up On The Sun” (SST, 1985)

Kurt Cobain’s favorite Meat Puppets album was II. Obviously. And it’s not hard to understand why Nirvana covered three songs off of it (“Plateau,” “Lake Of Fire,” and “Oh, Me”). Its combo of poignant, desert-fried mysticism and virtuoso, Tasmanian Devil punk packed a distinctive punch—especially for 1984. As great as II is, though, I like Meat Puppets’ follow-up even more.

When Up On The Sun tumbled off the SST Records conveyor belt of awesomeness in 1985, it hit fans like a solar flare. Curt Kirkwood (guitar), Cris Kirkwood (bass), and Derrick Bostrom (drums) had taken another great leap forward, leaving behind their punk roots for a bizarre agglomeration of psychedelia, country/bluegrass, and prog rock. I’m happy to report that Up On The Sun still blazes as hot as it did over 35 years ago. Either that or I’m stuck in my 23-year-old mindset. Anyway

The opening title track finds Curt in mellow stoner sage vocal mode (think Jerry Garcia crossed with Steve Miller) as the group slouch into a Grateful Dead-like, implied-funk amble. Then the buoyant chorus shocks you into a body-wide alertness, as if you’ve actually found yourself on the titular star. Helluva way to begin your best album. The intro to “Maiden’s Milk” barges in with a Zappa-esque motif of absurdly frilly prog-jazzitude, then the song shifts to a swift, Leo Kottke-esque bluegrass romp, with bonus chipper whistles. Here, we become aware that Curt switches into different styles and tones with an unparalleled, speedy nonchalance that would make Frank’s mustache curl with envy.

The album’s greatest achievement, “Away” recalls both the Police’s “When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What’s Still Around” and the Feelies’ “Away” (what are the odds?). There’s a faint undercurrent of swerving, Möbius-strip insistence in Curt’s guitar riff that speaks of Afrobeat knowledge, and the track feels as if it’s going to fly right out of the grooves into that fiery orb in the sky. The mercurial country funk of “Animal Kingdom” is awash with wonder about said domain, and the bridge features Cris’ bass mimicking noises of imaginary creatures. Nice!

Another highlight is “Swimming Ground,” which combines head-spinning country-rock euphoria and touching nostalgia for a childhood idyll. It’s as if the Puppets spiked the concept of “Americana” with the strongest amphetamines and LSD—both of which it wouldn’t be far-fetched to imagine the band consuming in those heady days. “Buckethead” is not a tribute to the Guns N’ Roses guitarist, as he didn’t hit public consciousness till the early ’90s, but the fleet, fluttering filigrees Curt peels off here would surely make him doff his KFC container in respect. The song sounds as if Fear Of Music-era Talking Heads had lost their uptightness and put pedal to the metal. It gives quirkiness a good name.

Up On The Sun‘s remaining five songs offer nonstop excitement. “Enchanted Porkfist” is a clunky pun, but this fast and furious instrumental zooms and curlicues like an American Southwestern Gentle Giant. It’s a new breed of prog rock in which unpredictable tempo changes and virtuosity sound as natural as getting a sunburn in Arizona, Meat Puppets’ home base. Throughout, Curt flaunts superhuman reflexes yet an unbelievably gentle touch that enables him to generate riffs that zip by at an astonishing clip while also sounding velvety, twinkly, and pliable—it really is miraculous, like the Dead’s “Dark Star” at 78rpm. “Creator” abounds with Curt’s faux-wise gobbledygook about deities—which is just as valid as any “good book”’s gobbledygook, and it boasts the advantage of rocking way harder than the Bible or Koran.

Every Meat Puppets release after Up On The Sun receded farther away from its unprecedented incandescence, and that’s okay. Cobain and company knew that trying cover anything on it would be a fool’s errand, because the songs here are too dauntingly sui generis. You have to know your limitations. -Buckley Mayfield

Brute Force “Brute Force” (Embryo, 1970)

People of dubious maturity levels like to ridicule Herbie Mann for posing shirtless and exposing his man pelt on the cover of his very good bargain-bin LP Push Push. But listen up: Besides being a savvy musician with a keen ear for prevailing trends, Mr. Mann flaunted sharp A&R acumen for the Atlantic Records subsidiary Embryo in the early ’70s. (Oh, by the way, the flautist also released at least six great albums as a bandleader—which is six more than the mooks who mock him have made.)

Anyway, one case in point for Herbie’s acute scouting skills are Yellow Springs, Ohio’s finest, Brute Force, a sextet whose best-known member was Sonny Sharrock… who guested on some of Mann’s own records. Now that I have your attention, let’s discuss why you need this overlooked album by this obscure group.

Produced by the Herbster himself, Brute Force immediately busts out of the gate like a thoroughbred with its ass on fire. “Do It Right Now” is a rock-and-soul “seize the day” anthem with bandleader Richard Daniel’s vocals swathing heads in warmth in the mellow-vibrant vein of Terry Collier and Lou Bond. Sharrock’s fiery guitar filigree really launches this song skyward. The anti-conformity song “Some Kind Of Approval” bubbles somewhere between early-’70s Curtis Mayfield and Stark Reality. Daniel gets off a sublime keyboard solo and Sharrock adds zonked guitar roughage for this soul-jazz gem that’ll raise your spirits and heart rate.

The Deacon” rambles soulfully like peak Booker T. & The MGs, with its rapid conga slaps and peppy horns making me want to watch NFL highlights from the ’70s. “Right Direction” moves in said place, and you’ll want to shoot its euphoric Latin rock into your veins—percolating congas, sweeping horns, and Daniel’s vocal flights of unstoppable positivity and all. On “Monster,” an incredibly cool bass and conga intro leads into an uptempo horn-rock jam with guitar fibrillations stroked from the instrument’s nut. It sure sounds like Sharrock’s diabolical handiwork, although he’s not credited. Still, I’d bet your stimulus check that it is indeed Sonny shredding. The playing recalls his outré work on his and wife Linda’s Paradise LP. The song builds to an intensity and wildness that bear the Sharrockian stamp, so it can’t help being a highlight.

Speaking of which, “Ye-Le-Wa” is another one. 14.5 minutes of balletic free jazz that waxes and wanes with brassy verve, this track’s not unlike Pharoah Sanders‘ output of that same era, but with more of a grounding in out-rock protocols. Daniel’s soulful vocals may not match Leon Thomas’ high-flying yodelics from “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” but they’re certainly moving, even if they simply repeat the title. The record closes with “Doubt,” a tranquil, flute-enhanced comedown after the previous blowout. Strangely, it recalls the beautifully placid “Love Sketch” by Paul Revere & The Raiders side project Friendsound. Will wonders never cease?

So, whether you’re a Sonny Sharrock completist or someone who simply enjoys soul jazz that rocks with finesse and fiery interplay, you need Brute Force. Herbie Mann would never steer you wrong, shirt or no shirt. -Buckley Mayfield

David Crosby “If I Could Only Remember My Name” (Atlantic, 1971)

This major-label album has emerged through nearly five decades of fluctuating interest and apathy to become at once a bargain-bin staple and a cult favorite. You don’t see that happen very often. My used copy’s cover is torn and frayed as much as David Crosby’s life has been, and that ugly exterior somehow makes the music within the grooves seem that much more special.

If I Could Only Remember My Name arose in the aftermath of Crosby’s emotional devastation following the death of his girlfriend, Christine. The former Byrd was eight miles low when he entered the studio. Emotionally and artistically buoyed by friends in high places (and high friends in spaces), Croz manifested a record that was like a miraculous mirage of folk-rock jamming and heart-string-tugging lyrics.

Name might have been the greatest pity party ever thrown, and it proved that a dozen or so millionaire musicians can set aside their egos and create an enduring work of healing spirituality, in order to mend a damaged psyche. It’s also the rare LP that has influenced middling indie-rock artists such as Devendra Banhart and Sufjan Stevens as well as delighted lovers of rarefied psychedelia.

It begins with “Music Is Love,” a pinnacle of hippie rock. The song rides an easygoing acoustic-guitar riff and hand percussion/handclap rhythm, bolstered by a simple, indisputable message/mantra: “Everybody’s saying music is love.” Everybody was saying no such thing back then or at any other time, but isn’t it lovely to think so? Through the pure beauty of the tune, though, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Written by Crosby, Graham Nash, and Neil Young, this tune must’ve made Stephen Stills very jealous.

Then comes the “Cowgirl In The Sand”-like “Cowboy Movie,” which sounds like a laid-back James Gang with its subtle, clipped funk undertow. Grateful Dead members dominate here, with Jerry Garcia on guitars, Mickey Hart on drums, Phil Lesh on bass, Bill Kreutzmann on tambourine. Over their Haight-Ashbury groove, Crosby relates a harrowing tall tale about an Indian woman who’s not what she seems. Not sure this track needs to be over eight minutes, but maybe the drugs were kicking in real nice when Croz and company cut it. “Tamalpais High (At About 3)” is a mellow, wee-hours CSN tune with gorgeous wordless vocal harmonies—a motif on Name. With Nash joining Croz on vocals, the song goes airborne thanks to Garcia and Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen unspooling liquid gold filigrees.

For a lot of people (maybe even me), “Laughing” is the LP’s peak. You have the goddess Joni Mitchell and Nash on silken backing vocals, Garcia getting glorious on pedal steel, Phil Lesh on bass, and Kreutzmann on drums. They all lock into synch for this languorous sigh of a song that’s like a more rhythmically easygoing version of “Cowboy Movie.” Think of it as the aural analogue to the LP cover, on which the descending sun glows above the ocean that’s superimposed over Crosby’s pensive stare. The album’s most menacing track, “What Are Their Names” starts with spare, “Dark Star”-esque intrigue, thanks to Garcia’s spindly, stellar picking. With Mitchell, Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, and David Freiberg on backing vocals, Croz and the crew intone lyrics about the evil men who run the country/world. Timeless stuff, unfortunately. Bonus: Seattle resident and Santana star Michael Shrieve’s on drums.

The album’s final four songs are marked by some of the most beautiful and majestic vocal arrangements and performances of the ’70s. The traditional “Orleans” is a showcase for Crosby’s soaring choirboy voice and delicately gorgeous acoustic-guitar strumming. You can hear its profound influence on Fleet Foxes, for what that’s worth. This track bleeds seamlessly into “I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here,” whose vocal origami of ancient-sounding majesty prefigures Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard. Yep.

There are fewer rougher bummers than losing a lover to death, obviously, but Crosby and his posse of West Coast all-stars turned the sourest lemon into the sweetest lemonade on If I Could Only Remember My Name. -Buckley Mayfield

Nancy Priddy “You’ve Come This Way Before” (Dot, 1968)

Nancy Priddy had a one-and-done solo career in music, but You’ve Come This Way Before stands as one of the best albums by an actor—perhaps a low bar, but still. (Priddy acted in TV shows such as Bewitched, Matlock, and The Waltons, and gave birth to another actor, Christina Applegate.)

Before she retired from music for good, though, Priddy racked up impressive credits with the great, grave folk singer/poet Leonard Cohen and synth master Mort Garson. For Cohen, Priddy sang backup on three tunes from his 1967 debut LP, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, including “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne.” With Garson, she flexed thespian prowess to recite astrological insights over Mort’s abstract Moog emissions for myriad Signs Of The Zodiac records. On the gossip tip, Priddy briefly dated Stephen Stills and inspired the Buffalo Springfield song “Pretty Girl Why.”

It was while working with NYC folk group the Bitter End Singers that Priddy met producer Phil Ramone, as well as arrangers Manny Albam and John Simon, all of whom would contribute considerable skills to You’ve Come This Way Before. The musicians are uncredited, but the internet reveals that Bernard Purdie mans the drumkit, and you can tell that’s true from the subtly funky beats on the album-opening title track. Whoever else is backing Priddy’s dulcet, coquettish singing, they’re a killer crew.

Now, most women making records in the ’60s didn’t have much autonomy with regard to songwriting, but Priddy pens every tune here, and the lyrics bear a poetic depth about the vagaries of romance and existence. They’re closer to Joni Mitchell, Bobbie Gentry, and Nico than to those of the evanescent pop stars of the time, e.g., “A chess game played by gods/In which there are no odds/A Master Plan directing man to something more/Our pathways are magnetic/Our logic is synthetic/Our struggle is so pathetic, and a bore.”

Those lyrics to “You’ve Come This Way Before” add luster to the hip, understatedly funky sunshine pop that spectacularly blossoms, thanks partially to the ever-resourceful Purdie. The arrangers whip up exquisite quiet/loud/quiet dynamics while Priddy expresses kittenish charm with sporadic forays into dulcet belting. She’s not quite Dusty Springfield or Bobbie Gentry, but Priddy’s a capable conveyor of subtle emotions.

If you dig orchestral pop à la Serge Gainsbourg and Jean-Claude Vannier, you’ll love “Ebony Glass,” which achieves a majestic moroseness through harpsichord, violins, harps, and glockenspiel. “Mystic Lady”is an arty ballad with lush melodies, surprising, intricate vocal arrangements, and prog-like dynamics—a tour de force with soul. Named after the famous Andrew Wyeth painting, “Christina’s World” is as ornate and sweeping as the Left Banke, thanks to the arranging and conducting of Everett Gordon. The album’s most uptempo song, “My Friend Frank,” is almost as quirky as Lothar And The Hand People and as swinging as the United States Of America’s “Hard Coming Love.” Respect to whoever plays the madly swirling, spiritual organ solo.

Two of the LP’s highlights remind me of another late-’60s woman singer-songwriter who should’ve been much bigger: Margo Guryan (see my review of her Take A Picture album on this blog). “We Could Have It All”’s towering feel-good pop also recalls the 5th Dimension and it makes you feel as if you’re soaring to your final reward. Another should’ve been hit, “On The Other Side Of The River,” offers nonstop excitement, hip-swiveling rhythms, and melodic sweetness, much like Guryan’s “Love,” which is highest praise.

Modern Harmonic reissued You’ve Come This Way Before on vinyl in 2020 and the UK label Rev-Ola re-released it on CD in 2005. Grip this jewel before it slips out of print again. -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

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

Heart “Dreamboat Annie” (Mushroom, 1975)

Recorded 45 years ago in Vancouver, B.C., Heart’s debut LP came out on the small Canadian label Mushroom, with which the band’s creative core (the Seattle-based Ann and Nancy Wilson) subsequently had problems regarding royalties and a tasteless full-page ad in Rolling Stone. Nevertheless, Dreamboat Annie proved that Heart were a phenomenal force right from the start—a rare outlier of women-fronted hard rock in the testosteronic sea of the classic-rock era. “Magic Man” and “Crazy On You” became ubiquitous on American radio from the mid ’70s onward, but despite the over-saturation, they still smack of freshness. If you’re tired of these stone classics, you’re probably tired of life.

Dreamboat Annie begins, of course, with “Magic Man,” whose ice-cold estrogenic rock is energized by a superfine elastic riff. Instantly, Ann Wilson proves that her voice is one of the most wondrous in rock, a vibrant, supple instrument that belts or coos with equal radiance. The acoustic- and electric-guitar parts encompass a ridiculously wide range of idioms, moods, and textures, augmented by Howard Leese’s wicked synthesizer accents. After millions of exposures over the last 44 years, “Magic Man” still enchants like a motherfucker. It’s the miracle song that keeps on giving.

Dreamboat Annie (Fantasy Child)” provides a 70-second bridge of waves- and acoustic-guitar-enhanced shivery folk to the next hit, “Crazy On You.” This is tumultuous rock at its most dramatic, a master class in dynamics and bravura vocalizing. “My love is the evening breeze touching your skin/The gentle, sweet singing of leaves in the wind/The whisper that calls after you in the night/And kisses your ear in the early moonlight” is sweet poetry in a rock context, especially when bolstered by Roger Fisher’s Brian May-like guitar flamboyancy. As with “Magic Man,” “Crazy On You” still has the power to tingle your senses despite being as familiar as your own neuroses.

More waves accentuate “Soul Of The Sea,” a sensitivo prog-folk opus with a delicate acoustic-guitar intro leading into an intricate, Joni-esque ballad. Rob Deans and Leese’s orchestral arrangements are subtle and beautiful. More Joni vibes—plus echoes of the Byrds’ “Draft Morning”—ramble into the feathery, midtempo reverie that is “Dreamboat Annie.” “White Lightning & Wine” is the album’s most special deep cut. It’s a nastily funky, cowbell-heavy song about a debauched night that could pass as a more XX-chromosomed ZZ Top, and wow, does the rockin’ intensify near the end.

(Love Me Like Music) I’ll Be Your Song” radically downshifts to a lighter-waving power ballad, flaunting one of Heart’s most beautiful melodies. “But if you love me like music/I’ll be your song” is some clever romantic lyricism. “Sing Child” delivers staccato funk rock in the vein of Physical Graffiti‘s grittier tracks. Oozing diabolically libidinous vibes, the song’s distinguished by Ann’s galvanizing flute solo and Fisher’s Janne Schaffer-like guitar solo. A lush ballad augmented by Leese’s orchestral arrangements, “How Deep It Goes” is a wonderfully wistful and lightly proggy tune à la the Moody Blues.

Come to Dreamboat Annie for the deathless hits, stay for the ravishing non-radio-glutting gems. -Buckley Mayfield

The Fluid “Roadmouth” (Sub Pop, 1989)


Forever known as the first non-Seattle band to sign to Sub Pop, Denver’s the Fluid smashed it out of the park for this city’s best-known label with the 1989 full-length Roadmouth and its 1990 sister EP, Glue. Both records—which were release together on CD—flaunted the Fluid’s savvy blend of grunge-y girth and power-pop melodiousness. They are perfect mergers of the MC5 and Cheap Trick.

Given how great these songs are, the Fluid should have been at least one-fourth as popular as Nirvana and one-third as popular as Soundgarden. Instead, they’ve ended up more of a grunge footnote, mostly beloved by a small hardcore fan base and Sub Pop obsessives. It’s yet another music-biz miscarriage of justice, but Roadmouth deserves your undivided attention, even in the terrible year of 2020.

“Twisted & Pissed” famously begins with the lines, “he was the oldest son of a drag-queen dope dealer/he woke up this morning with a headful of nightmare” and it might be Roadmouth‘s greatest example of an indelible earworm, thanks to the rowdy choruses sung with unison vocals. Most of the album consists of supremely catchy, hell-raising rock, such as “Cop A Plea,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on Mudhoney’s self-titled album. The Fluid really nailed this rugged-rock songsmithing thing; it didn’t hurt that Jack Endino was producing.

Some sly homages appear, too. “Fools Rule” is a relatively slow and heavy bulldozer of a tune that explodes into a Billion Dollar Babies-like lighter-lifter during the choruses. “What Man” cops the strutting riff of Them’s “I Can Only Give You Everything” while “Ode To Miss Lodge” sounds like a hit single in a world in which the Troggs’ “Our Love Will Still Be Here” was as big as “You Really Got Me.” And in perhaps the most surprising move here, the Fluid cover Rare Earth’s party-starting stadium-funk bomb “Big Brother,” and acquit themselves very well.

Roadmouth is one of those LPs in which you hear a different fave song every time you listen to it. It’s much more special than its relative lack of recognition suggests. -Buckley Mayfield

Swell Maps “Jane From Occupied Europe” (Rather/Rough Trade, 1980)

I’m not sure enough people are realizing how great and distinctive Birmingham, England’s Swell Maps were. Their ramshackle, exploratory post-punk songs have influenced hundreds of musicians since their dissolution in 1980, yet they still seem under-recognized in the grand scheme of things.

On their two studio albums—1979’s A Trip To Marineville and 1980’s Jane From Occupied Europe—Swell Maps fused unschooled musique-concrète strategies with garage-rock energy, krautrock hypnosis, and the occasional poppy melody. Although they emerged from Great Britain’s fecund post-punk scene, Swell Maps often had more in common with German improvisational geniuses Can and America’s home of willfully weird unrock, Ralph Records.

Jane From Occupied Europe‘s tracks were recorded from 1977-1980 and they display the idiosyncratic aesthetics of members Nikki Sudden, Epic Soundtracks, Jowe Head, Biggles Books, Phones Sportsman, and Golden Cockrill. (Those aliases are as quirky as the music.) The album starts oddly with “Robot Factory,” which features eerie, radiant keyboard drone, wind-up toys, and rudimentary, quasi-funky beats that sometimes slip out of time. It sounds like a post-punk Joe Meek production, endearingly lo-fi and otherworldly. “Let’s Buy A Bridge” is definitive hurly-burly post-punk pop, bolstered by chaotic drum clatter and Jowe’s ultra-wonky sax solo. Sudden’s imploring, whiny vocals full of youthful discontent here became one of post-punk’s most recognizable sounds.

“Border Country”’s tight, torqued rock comes off like a sloppier, less funky Gang Of Four or early Mekons while “Cake Shop Girl”’s weirdly morose pop recalls a less refined version of Ralph acts such as Snakefinger and Renaldo & The Loaf. The mutedly euphoric “The Helicopter Spies” proved Swell Maps could write a catchy melody, even if they festooned it with janky squalls that rival Velvet Underground’s on “I Heard Her Call My Name.” The pell-mell, enigmatic jam “Big Maz In The Desert” aspires to Can’s metronomic mesmerism, but Swell Maps don’t have that German group’s skill level. Still, it’s a weird and wired epic.

On Jane From Occupied Europe, Swell Maps generated such great guitar and keyboard sounds—clangorous, radiant, cyclical—and they spilled over the raw clatter of Epic Soundtracks’ drums, finding new ways to make rock surprise, to make sloppiness a virtue, to scramble the DNA of pop melodiousness. They conclusively proved you didn’t need technical prowess to create great, enduring music—just a surplus of interesting, unconventional ideas.

[The big indie label Secretly Canadian reissued Jane on vinyl in 2012 and on CD in 2015 (with bonus tracks). Those are likely the easiest and most affordable ways to score physical copies of this classic LP.] -Buckley Mayfield

Cristina “Sleep It Off” (Mercury, 1984)

Cristina Monet-Palaci tragically passed away in early April from COVID-19 at the age of 61. She didn’t have a large discography, but what little she did release contained a high percentage of enchanting winners. Perhaps her peak was Sleep It Off, which most fully displays her flamboyant personality.

Cristina’s marriage to Michael Zilkha, co-owner of the excellent funk/No Wave label ZE Records, led to her collaborating with ZE artists August Darnell of Kid Creole & The Coconuts’, James Chance of Contortions, and Don Was of Was (Not Was). Heavy company! The latter produced Sleep It Off at his Detroit studio, and co-wrote three songs—including two of its best. Let’s talk about those first.

“What’s A Girl To Do” starts with some of the best opening lines of the ’80s: “my life is in a turmoil/my thighs are black and blue/ my sheets are stained and so is my brain/oh what’s a girl to do?” And there you have Cristina’s persona summed up from the get-go—an aristocratic hot mess who’s self-aware but making the best of a bad situation by singing over great music. “What’s A Girl To Do” barges into life with a wonderfully warped keyboard riff that telegraphs new-wave oddity and booming beats that translate to club gold. The ultra-jaunty tenor of the music contrasts with the sordid subject matter.

The album’s dramatic and rockiest peak occurs on “Don’t Mutilate My Mink,” bolstered by heroic, beefy guitar riffs by Bruce Nazarian and Barry Reynolds. Cristina’s intonations in the verses recall Johnny Rotten’s on the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The UK.” “My nightdress is expensive/I don’t want to see it soiled/My heart is pretty tender/Don’t want to see it broiled/Don’t want to start my morning/With your traces on my sink/You’ll do just fine without me/Don’t mutilate my mink.” Was’ third co-written song is “Quicksand Lovers,” a femme-fatale portrait framed in a breezy, faux-tropical-electro vehicle.

Another highlight comes on “Ticket To The Tropics,” courtesy of another Detroit character: the Knack’s Doug Feiger. He and Cristina create a brash, danceable new wave with suave key changes and a synth motif worthy of the Time or Prince. Jazz magus Marcus Belgrave—another Detroiter—plays trumpet. The anomalous “Rage And Fascination” bears an ominous quasi-dub groove and stern vocal delivery; it’s the closest Cristina gets to Grace Jones.

The weakest moments on Sleep It Off are the covers. The Sonny Throckmorton composition “She Can’t Say That Anymore”—originally recorded in 1980 by country singer John Conlee—is lackluster. Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Ballad Of Immoral Earnings” is a duet with an annoying male singer and its quasi-reggae treatment doesn’t suit anyone well. The louche version of Van Morrison’s “Blue Money” is the best cover here. It features Chance on sax and allows Cristina to perfect her disaffected, disdainful voice while adding a sheen of sleaze to Van’s tipsy, throwback R&B.

If you want the perfect summation of Sleep It Off‘s lyrical thrust, “The Lie Of Love,” is it. In this ballad about a problematic romance, Cristina conveys regret and acceptance of hypocrisy with subdued poignancy. It’s not her best mode, but she convinces you that she’s lived through this and emerged with an alluring shred of dignity.

(Note: A fidgety cover of Prince’s classic “When You Were Mine” appears as a bonus track on the CD release.) -Buckley Mayfi

Margo Guryan “Take A Picture” (Bell, 1968)

Writing about this classic sunshine-pop album during one of the grimmest periods in world history seems perverse, but what the hell? Maybe listening to Margo Guryan’s sole full-length from 1968 will bring much needed light and joy to your quarantined existence. I’m here to help you get through this.

Take A Picture starts auspiciously with “Sunday Morning”—not a Velvet Underground cover, but rather a diaphanous orchestral-pop tune with a deceptively swaggering funkiness in its undercarriage. Guryan’s voice is sheerest bliss, a meringue-y delight. “Sun” might be the epitome of sunshine pop, right down to its on-the-nose title. Elevated by lashings of FX’d sitars and slashing, swooning strings, it makes “Eight Miles High” seem earthbound. “Sun” blows away your blues with the lightest, lavender-scented breeze. Shout out to guitarist John Hill for the arrangements on these two beauties.

“Pretty love songs always make me cry,” Guryan coos with sangfroid poise on “Love Songs,” and it should irk you with its clichéd sentiment, but the dulcet melody and sumptuous, swaying strings make your curmudgeonly feelings seem ridiculous. The understated McCartney-esque jauntiness of “Thoughts,” undercut with a lightly morose flute and oboe, is fairly slight, but still winsome as hell. “Don’t Go Away”’s waltz time baroque pop verges on breezy prog, while “Take A Picture”’s baroque pop sashays into the exalted realm of the Left Banke.

If you crave more jauntiness, “What Can I Give You?” offers much sugary corniness, but it’s offset by Guryan’s wondrously wispy whisper. The maudlin orchestral pop of “Think Of Rain” is almost too precious, but that’s balanced out by the hushed splendor of “Can You Tell” and the early-Bee Gees bravado and melodic momentousness of “Someone I Know.”

These intimate romantic vignettes are all well and good, but Guryan saves the best for last. By far Take A Picture‘s most adventurous and psychedelic moment, “Love” begins like a drug-induced dream, with drummer Buddy Saltzman busting out outrageously odd beats amid Kirk Hamilton’s gently swirling flute and Hill’s weirdly tuned guitar fibrillations, before a sinuously funky groove enters and the guitars shift into Ceyleib People-like radiation. The flute gets echoplexed to infinity, as the groove gets greasy, and then Paul Griffin’s cosmic keyboards soar into earshot. Margo doesn’t start singing until the three-minute mark, and when she does, you’ll get shivers down your backbone. The change that occurs at 4:30 lifts everything yet again to a head-spinning zenith; the rhythm starts spasming like that in the Doors’ “Peace Frog,” Guryan’s coos spiral heavenward, and Phil Bodner’s oboe foreshadows Roxy Music’s fantasias. “Love” is one of the greatest album-closing tracks ever—hell, one of the greatest tracks ever, period. It’s almost all you need. -Buckley Mayfield