Rock

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

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

The Chambers Brothers “The Time Has Come” (Columbia, 1967)

The Chambers Brothers—who included four actual African-American brothers and, oddly, a white drummer named Brian Keenan who lived in England and Ireland as a child—are best known for their hit single “Time Has Come Today.” And rightly so. Recorded in 1966, released a year later, and covered many times since by artists as diverse as Joan Jett, Me’shell Ndegoecello, Smashing Pumpkins, Bootsy Collins, Pearl Jam, and Ramones, “Time Has Come Today” is a landmark in psychedelic rock—especially the full 11-minute version. But more about that later. The Time Has Come has many other great songs on it besides that monster tune.

The Chambers Brothers’ debut LP busts out of the gate fantastically with “All Strung Out Over You.” With its bobbing bass line worthy of Motown session immortal Bob Babbitt, a barrage of cowbell, handclaps, and rough soul belting, this is a full-tilt expression of romantic expression—certified dance-floor dynamite. It’s followed by “People Get Ready,” a faithful cover of the Impressions’ Curtis Mayfield’s gospelized ballad of political resistance, which was deemed by Martin Luther King as the unofficial anthem of Civil Rights movement. But coming right after “All Strung Out Over You” makes it a momentum-killer. Because it’s more moving than a mover, it would’ve fit better at side’s end.

With “I Can’t Stand It,” the Chambers Brothers fling us back into uptempo heart-/groin-throb action, a potent slice of Northern soul slathered with of harmonica and elevated by possessed backing vocals. Dozens of acts have covered Steve Cropper and Wilson Pickett’s Stax soul classic, “In The Midnight Hour,” and unfortunately the Chambers Brothers’ attempt is merely functional. Another cover that doesn’t play to the Chambers Brothers’ strengths is “What The World Needs Now Is Love,” Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s popular 1965 sanguine ditty. I could easily live without this stodgy rendition. The album’s best cover is “Uptown,” which was written by Betty Mabry (aka funk goddess Betty Davis). This is a sleek, slithering soul gem full of diamond-hard guitar jabs and boisterous vocal interplay. It’s one of Betty’s greatest compositions.

The Chambers Brothers definitely saved the best for last: the aforementioned “Time Has Come Today.” Joseph and Willie Chambers wrote this masterpiece, which must have made Lester and George mad jealous. Everything about this track is fire: the tick-tocking cowbell, the rambling main guitar riff, the massed shouts of “TIME,” the lead vocal’s righteous sagacity, the bizarre bridge during which time slows and dilates to nightmarish dimensions, the delayed “TIME”s, the serpentine guitar solo, the build up to the first climax, the most audacious “OOOHHHH” in rock history, the line “my soul’s been psychedelicized,” the conclusive warped-guitar explosion. I could go on, but your eyes are already glazing over.

This song has special personal meaning, as it opened my ears to psychedelic music when I heard it on the radio as a 6 year old. I’ve been chasing that dragon ever since. Eternal gratitude to whichever radio programmer decided the country was ready for such an outré specimen of rock—and to the Chambers Brothers, too, of course. -Buckley Mayfield

Joe Walsh “The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get” (ABC-Dunhill, 1973)

After he left James Gang (great band!) and before he joined the Eagles (hugely popular band who are not my bag, though I like a few of their songs!), Joe Walsh cut a few albums with Barnstorm, including The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get, perhaps the guitarist/vocalist/keyboardist’s peak with that band—and the title that most resembles a line from a Firesign Theater routine.

The LP is distinguished by its opening track, “Rocky Mountain Way,” which reached #23 on the US singles chart in 1973. One of the most iconic guitar riffs of the ’70s—nay, of all time—kicks off this spaced-out, blues-rockin’ party tune. Yes, you’ve heard it 9 billion times, but its widescreen grandeur, crystalline crunch, and wonky, wah-wah-heavy solo refuse to pall, even after all that exposure. It’s a tough act to follow, but the rest of The Smoker… bears some low-key treasures.

“Wolf” is a spare, bleak ballad in the vein of Aerosmith’s “Season Of Wither” and some of Robin Trower’s ’70s output, generating some chilly melancholy. Written by keyboardist Rocke Grace, “Midnight Moodies” surprises with its elegant jazz-rock vibe, bolstered with piano, cowbell, and flute by drummer Joe Vitale. Another shockingly pleasant tangent comes courtesy of bassist Kenny Passarelli’s Caribbean-spiced rock cut “Happy Ways,” with its sprung rhythm and killer bass line. The song really blossoms into a rousing rocker during the choruses, bursting with “la la la”s and “na na na”s. It’s the feel-good non-hit of the record.

The second side of The Smoker… is more subdued and less interesting than the first side, but it has its moments. “Meadows” is tender, melodious rock with beefy-riffed power surges, while “Days Go By” (another Vitale composition) brings the sort of flute-augmented baroque rock that, oddly enough, sounds more like the Left Banke than anything else.

The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get is the sort of wildly popular major-label album that litters nearly every bargain bin in the country, but don’t underestimate it. It reveals Walsh and company’s instrumental depth and aptitude for emotionally resonant songwriting beyond of the radio staples for which they were known and loved by classic-rock radio programmers and the people mesmerized by them. -Buckley Mayfield

Minoru Muraoka “Bamboo” (United Artists, 1970)

Recent years have seen several labels—Light In The Attic, Palto Flats, Jazzman, We Release Whatever The Fuck We Want, et al.—reissuing obscure gems from Japan. England’s great Mr Bongo imprint also has gotten into the act, most recently with jazz shakuhachi player Minoru Muraoka’s Bamboo coming out this summer. That’s a relief, as original copies of this idiosyncratic 1970 crate-digger’s classic go for hundreds of dollars.

Six of Bamboo‘s nine tracks are covers, and the quality varies among them. Jazz musicians covering Beatles songs was practically law in the ’60s and ’70s, but few artists have attempted to interpret the sentimental 1964 ballad “And I Love Her.” Minoru exoticizes the somewhat sappy melody and takes this middling cut from A Hard Day’s Night to a higher level. Similarly, Minoru does interesting things with the oft-covered folk ballad “The House Of The Rising Sun.” His is probably my favorite rendition—partially because there are no overbearing vocals, just four or five instruments burnishing a poignant melody that, it turns out, is ideal for the shakuhachi’s timbre.

Minoru also excels at archetypal lightweight mid-’60s pop such as Bacharach/David’s “Do You Know The Way To San Jose” and Tony Hatch’s “Call Me,” an EZ-listening standard made famous by Chris Montez and Petula Clark. Minoru transforms these overfamiliar melodies into something more touching through his serene blowing. The latter is the epitome of suave coolness in Minoru’s hands and mouth. These covers display Minoru’s instinct for tackling songs that have been frequently interpreted and injecting them with elements of distinctiveness. You can also hear this when he bathes Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” in a holy penumbra; it’s unbearably touching and somehow more powerful for not having a singer, even one as gifted as Art Garfunkel.

Perhaps Bamboo’s finest cover is that of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.” It’s a fantastic version that illuminates and slightly accelerates Dave Brubeck’s famous, sprightly rendition. Like every song here, “Take Five” gains a sheen of freshness thanks to the airy coolness of the shakuhachi, a flute-like instrument popular in Japan. The unexpected robust and rapid drum solo three-fifths of the way in is a nice homage to Brubeck drummer Joe Morello.

Minoru’s originals rule, too. “Nogamigawa Funauta” is a gorgeous, courtly piece in which Minoru’s shakuhachi wafts and spirals into sacred space, twining around some phenomenal koto ornamentation. (The koto sounds like some magnificent compromise between a banjo and a harp.) “The Positive And The Negative” bears incredibly funky drum and bass breaks, which have made this track a holy grail for hip-hop producers. Lord have mercy, the beats are rotund on this one. Above the irrepressible grooves, shakuhachi and koto engage in a celestial dance, a mellifluous dream soundtrack. The other original, “Soul Bamboo,” sounds like one of the inspirations for DJ Shadow’s mystical-funk masterpiece, “What Does Your Soul Look Like?”

It’s so great to have Bamboo back in circulation at a reasonable price. Don’t sleep. -Buckley Mayfield

Pell Mell “Flow” (SST, 1991)

Before such a thing was facilitated by digital files, Pell Mell wrote songs by sending ideas on cassettes to members via snail mail. Once everyone in the scattered group—Robert Beerman (drums, guitar), Bill Owen (guitar), Steve Fisk (keyboards), Greg Freeman (bass, guitar), David Spalding (guitars) for Flow—had contributed to the track, they convened to finish it in a studio; in Flow‘s case Lowdown in San Francisco. Not that you need to know this method to appreciate Pell Mell’s sonic sorcery, but it does increase one’s admiration for the final product.

While their major-label debut, Interstate, is Pell Mell’s best-known full-length, Flow is their peak. There’s something poker-faced and quietly intense about Pell Mell’s music, even when they’re in swaggering, heroic, quasi-surf-rock mode, as on album-opener “American Eagle.” Sounding a bit like Contortions spin-off group the Raybeats, the song is a fitting tribute to the regal bird—or the clothing company, as the case may be. “Breach Of Promise” downshifts into a pensive brooder, revealing guitar tones of deep warmth and expressiveness, the melody so moving yet so minimal. “Bring On The China” boasts a chunky chugger, suggestive of industriousness and purposeful motion while “The Devil Bush” purveys wickedly torqued surf-rock, again evoking the Raybeats.

Smoke” is Flow‘s highlight, featuring the most psychedelic guitar tones, the most resonant bass line, the most sublime chord progressions, and the most dramatic dynamics. I don’t say this lightly: It’s one of the greatest songs of the ’90s… or maybe ever. Pretty bizarre that it’s never been licensed for a film. It’s followed by the LP’s second-most exciting track, “Aero.” This is ultimate driving music, a West Coast American motorik road-burner with crashing metallic percussion accents. “Flood” is the funkiest track here, flaunting an almost Madchester/baggy rhythm with crystalline guitar interplay, subtly menacing atmospheres, and a Tuvan throat singing sample.

Things become a bit less thrilling toward the end of Flow, but “Little Blue Dance” is a poignant meditation recalling some of Tom Verlaine’s solo work from the ’80s and ’90s while the valedictorian “Mopping Up” closes the record with a tune that oozes gorgeous resignation.

Because Flow came out on SST, its chances of getting reissued legitimately are slim, due to label boss Greg Ginn having some weird kink that involves not wanting to make money or please fans of great music. Let’s hope that one day Pell Mell can find the legal wherewithal to wrest their music from Ginn’s obstinate hands. -Buckley Mayfield

Norma Tanega “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog” (New Voice, 1966)

Though she had a single that reached #22 on the charts in 1966 and wrote songs for British pop-soul diva Dusty Springfield (with whom she also had a long-term romantic relationship), Norma Tanega has remained an obscure cult figure. Call me an optimist, but I think that situation might be remedied by Real Gone Music’s recent green-vinyl reissue of Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog, a delightfully quirky folk-rock record that quickly charms its way into your heart—especially that chart-dwelling title track alluded to earlier. I mean, RGM only produced 1,000 copies, but maybe this review will tip the scales in Tanega’s favor. (HAHAHAHA.)

All kidding aside, you gotta love the moxie of opening your debut album with a song title “You’re Dead.” Tanega grabs you from the get-go with a matter-of-fact voice that’s somewhat flat yet alluring, like Bobbie Gentry (or indeed Springfield), with a lower timbre and less breathy flamboyancy… or like Buffy Sainte-Marie without the stentorian vibrato. Tanega’s music is urgent, stripped-down folk-rock that gives Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs’ songcraft a run for its trenchancy. “Treat Me Right” is upbeat folk with gospel-vocal call-and-response uplift. “Waves” and “Jubilation” form a diptych of feel-good, intimate anthems that celebrate coupledom, in waltz time.

The dramatic orchestral pop of “Don’t Touch” features a chorus paraphrasing that of Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” It should’ve been a hit! What did become a hit, “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog,” is simply one of the greatest songs of the ’60s, a lolloping melody that makes you want to tear off all of your clothes, wad ’em up, and throw ’em in the air. Mutedly euphoric, the song sounds like Martha & The Vandellas gone folk, and it reflects Tanega’s genius for surprising song structures and idiosyncratic harmonica tones. “A Street That Rhymes At Six A.M.” offers another Motown simulacrum, but in off-kilter folk mode. So damn fresh.

For variation, there’s “What Are We Craving?” (a stomping, martial tune with Nico-like vocals), “No Stranger Am I,” (an Astrud Gilberto-esque saudade folk tune in an odd time signature), and “Hey Girl” (a cover of the 1870s Appalachian folk standard “In The Pines,” which was made famous by Lead Belly… and then more famous by Nirvana and Mark Lanegan). Oddly, the album closes with its most conventional track, “I’m The Sky,” whose jaunty poppiness recalls the 5th Dimension.

Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog is one of the most welcome reissues of the year. The fact that the latest edition of it already has sold out bodes well for its rehabilitation. Now get to repressin’, Real Gone Music. -Buckley Mayfield

High Speed And The Afflicted Man “Get Stoned Ezy” (Bonk, 1982)

A self-described “hippie punk,” British guitarist/vocalist Steve Hall cut this cult classic during the waning days of post-punk’s zenith. It must’ve sounded extremely out of time in that milieu of severely angular and often funky rock that frequently agitated for leftist/progressive political causes. Here was an unabashed, heavy-as-fuck psych-rock beast built for reckless—if not wreckless—speed that practically made listeners grow mutton chops while it was playing. Its three long songs hit you with Hell’s Angels-on-a-tequila-bender brutality.

Get Stoned Ezy sounded nothing like, say, post-punk touchstones such as Joy Division, the Pop Group, or Raincoats. Unsurprisingly, High Speed And The Afflicted Man pretty much vanished without much fanfare… until the reissues started materializing in the 2010s. (Thanks, Guerssen!)

The six-minute title track sets the tone; it’s dominated by primitive, ram-rodding riff, fuzzed and metallicized and run right into the ground, till it hits the earth’s core. Hall boozily bellows about getting blunted with not much difficulty, his guitar sounding like Ron Asheton trying to blend Jimi Hendrix and Tony Iommi at their brashest.

Zip Ead” offers 14 minutes of slightly slower Neanderthal rock in which Hall’s guitar bleeds way outside the lines of decorum, like early Blue Cheer jamming with Japanese speed freaks High Rise. It’s another exercise in repetition as redemption, the road of excess leading to the chalice of (six-string) jizzdom [sic].

The 12-minute “Sun Sun” is a burly, fuzzed-out mantra that pummels its way into the delirious jam-band zone where Hapshash And The Coloured Coat, Ya Ho Wa 13, and Magic Hour dwell. Let us take a moment to praise bassist Paul Mason and drummer Billy Frater, who get the motherfuckin’ job done with minimal fuss. They’re the rock-solid foundation beneath Hall’s flagrant guitar wankery. And no, that is not a diss in my book, if the person musically masturbating has talent and cunning. Hall has just enough of those things to make his caveman rock punch above its weight. -Buckley Mayfield

Golem “Orion Awakes” (Psi-Fi, 1996)

This album is draped in mystery and has been suspected of being a hoax. It allegedly was recorded in 1972-73, but some production touches make it sound more like it was done in the ’90s. In an interview reproduced in the liner notes of the 2016 vinyl reissue on Mental Experience, producer Toby Robinson can’t remember any of the details—and the same edition’s credits bear a “℗ 1976.” They can’t keep their stories straight… All the musicians recorded under pseudonyms, but are reputedly well-known krautrock figures. Alan Freeman, author of The Crack In The Cosmic Egg krautrock encyclopedia, speculates that members of Dzyan, Birth Control, Baba Yaga, and Sixty Nine may have been involved. All the rest of the CD reissues from the ’90s on the Pyramid imprint (Nazgul, Galactic Explorers, Cozmic Corridors, etc.) have similar murky origins.

Someone on Discogs wrote, “I have sources from a musician that he confirms played on this record wich [sic] was recorded back in 1995 in Croydon near London.” I can believe that! But ultimately, the music on Orion Awakes is so good, its back story is beside the point.

Whatever the case, if you dig freaky, vocal-free krautrock, you’re gonna want Orion Awakes. The title track approaches tentatively and ominously with delayed guitar shivers, then slowly blooms into a glimmering, methodical psych-rock stomp, replete with thick organ swirls. I can’t help thinking of the ’90s band Sundial and their awesome Other Way Out album when I hear this song. Similarly, “Stellar Launch” is a contemplative space-out that meanders with menace, marked by subtle wah-wah guitar and wispy Mellotron sighs. Gradually, though, it achieves a semi-funky midtempo groove and ascends to sublime heights of cosmic chaos. The shortest track at 6:32, the aptly titled “Godhead Dance” will get you spazzing and throwing ridiculous shapes. It features an unstoppable groove powered by over-the-top Hendrixian wah snarl. If you hear “Godhead Dance” under the influence of hallucinogens, all bets are off. No wonder it’s my go-to Golem track in DJ sets.

The three-part, 14-minute suite “ Jupiter & Beyond” is powerful, surging psychedelic rock music geared for large venues. The album’s finale, “The Returning,” probably should’ve been left off of Orion Awakes. The fat drum sound and trademark indie-rock guitar tones really give away the ’90s provenance of Golem. This song sounds like something on Drag City, Matador, or Merge more than any subterranean German label. It’s also the least interesting work here. It’s not a good way to persuade anyone who suspects this LP is (mostly) a well-executed prank. -Buckley Mayfield

Chicago “Chicago VI” (Columbia, 1973)

If you were conscious during the ’70s, you couldn’t help being aware of the music made by the unimaginatively named band Chicago. It was in the air like perfume and cigarette smoke and summer breezes, dominating the airwaves with soulful, jazz-inflected rock and heart-melting ballads. Some of those ubiquitous hits were damned good, some tilted the schmaltz meter into the red. But it was all impeccably played and produced and usually housed in gatefold sleeves, and it somehow appealed to hip folks and squares.

By the time the seven dudes in Chicago had reached their fifth album, VI (odd, I know, but they were called Chicago Transit Authority on their first LP), they were surefire chart-dwellers who had their shit down pat. But they weren’t averse to bringing in some outside help for this one, tapping Brazilian percussionist Laudir De Oliveira (Sérgio Mendes, Marcos Valle) to accentuate the rhythms. The results on VI, though, are a mixed bag, which you can expect when you have four songwriters angling to get ideas expressed.

The album begins unpromisingly with “Critics’ Choice,” an acerbic, Elton John/10cc-like ballad that dissects said critics’ negative traits. But that meh start quickly gets whisked down the memory hole as “Just You ‘N’ Me” enters earshot. Yes, it’s a warm power ballad you’ve heard 18 million times, so it’s curdled into an innocuous bauble that reminds you more of shopping for deodorant in a chain drugstore rather than as one of the classiest, slinkiest, and most earnest love songs ever to top a chart. It helps that composer/trombonist James Pankow pulls a “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” sucker punch that elevates the track to a much higher level.

Keyboardist Robert Lamm’s “Darlin’ Dear” is horn-heavy funk-rock with a festive, Dr. John-like air, enlivened by Terry Kath’s sizzling, snarling guitar solo. Kath’s lone writing credit, “Jenny,” sounds like the Band’s earthy roots rock, but with more rhythmic complexity. The album’s best deep cut is Pankow’s “What’s This World Comin’ To,” whose boisterous, busy funk rock bumps somewhere between Funkadelic and Grand Funk Railroad. I wish Chicago explored this vein more often. Similarly deep and not oversaturated by radio, “Rediscovery” is a midtempo funk jam with low-key jazz chordings, as Kath channels Eddie Hazel’s fluid, wah-wah squawk.

Like a lot of smart groups, Chicago saved the best for last. No exaggeration: Peter Cetera and Pankow’s “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” stands as one of the greatest pieces of music ever. This magnum opus has about five or six distinct parts, and each one is dazzling. The song begins like a fairly typical inspirational, casually strolling rocker, but you can sense it’s going to build to something much more majestic. Sure enough, about halfway in, “Feelin’ Stronger” accelerates into a magnificent chug and then things just get insanely sublime from there on out. The massed, swaggering horns, the crazed, galloping drums and mad tom-tom fills, the “YEAH YEAH YEEEEAAAAH,” the soaring backing-vocal vortex, Cetera’s aerated “We get stronger today” refrain that rides till the fadeout… Put the coda on in a loop in your brain while running and you’ll never fail to break your personal record. Trust me… I’ve tried it. -Buckley Mayfield

The The “Uncertain Smile” (Some Bizzare, 1982)

As someone who’s only listened to The The up through 1986’s Infected, I can’t claim to be an authority on leader Matt Johnson’s musical career. However, I can confidently state that I am an expert on The The’s 1982 EP, Uncertain Smile. I bought it soon after it came out on British import during the grim Reagan/Thatcher era and proceeded to listen to its three sui generis songs obsessively, while putting the title track on many a mixtape. Uncertain Smile may not be the most popular or revered release in Johnson’s catalog, but I maintain that it deserves repeat plays and a lofty place in your musical pantheon.

“Uncertain Smile” itself begins with some of the most urgent, warped marimba you’ve ever heard, before suavely shifting into a midtempo dance-rock groove augmented by a plangent guitar and mournful flute motifs of utmost poignancy. The flute solo is mellifluously melancholy enough to earn a spot on a Moody Blues LP. Johnson sings like an introverted, less narcissistic Morrissey here, relating a fraught internal emo-drama with intimate equanimity. You will feel Matt’s pain.

The song’s long instrumental bridge coasts into mysterioso jazz territory, with brooding sax and sly bass laying a foundation for another madly undulating marimba solo. As the song progresses, more elements enter (sumptuous synth swells, heavily FX’d harmonica, an intriguing sound I can’t pinpoint), adding to the sensation that this is a once-in-a-lifetime epic that transcends its early-’80s British milieu. Make no mistake: “Uncertain Smile” is The The’s peak and one of the greatest songs ever. The truncated version on the 1983 LP Soul Mining pales beside this one.

By contrast, “Three Orange Kisses From Kazan” is a weirdly ominous yet enigmatically beautiful piece of art pop, like some amalgam of Tuxedomoon, early Clock DVA, and Tin Drum-era Japan. “Why do people never say what they mean? / Why do people just repeat what they read?” Johnson gripes, and that sentiment still resonates 37 years later. Another example of Johnson’s unique way with songcraft and vocal modulation, “Three Orange Kisses” presents a perfect balance between melodiousness and cacophony. It’s some of the most gorgeous chaos that appeared on record in the ’80s. “Waitin’ For The Upturn” can’t help sounding somewhat anticlimactic after the preceeding two classics, but it’s still a gem of low-key, chilling balladry, like a master class of muted Sturm und Drang. The production on Uncertain Smile by Mike Thorne (Wire, John Cale, Laurie Anderson, Soft Cell) is spacious and dynamic, abetting Johnson’s idiosyncratic ideas about timbre and atmosphere. -Buckley Mayfield