Ostensibly a song cycle about coal miners, Ghosts of West Virginia, the newest album by singer/songwriter Steve Earle, also works as a metaphor for blue collar work. Although the songs were written years ago for a theater production, they seem particularly timely right now, in the midst of a pandemic when sectors of the workforce are literally labeled essential.
The album opens with an a capella song that sounds like an old Appalachian hymn. From there, Earle unearths the heritage and history of the coal mining profession and covers the folk song “John Henry” for further context.
The emotional tour de force “It’s About Blood” opens the second side. As the guitars build, Earle names all 29 miners killed in the 2010 Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion. A climax this intense would conclude most albums. Instead, Earle pivots into the tender ballad “If I Could See Your Face” sung by Elanor Whitmore. This ability to empathetically explores different facets of a coal miner’s life, is not only what makes Earle a cut better than many other songwriters, but also makes Ghosts of West Virginia stand out in his own vast catalog.
Prince – One Nite Alone
Prince’s final shows were billed as the Piano and a Microphone tour, but One Nite Alone shows this context was not a new one. Recorded in 2002, this 35-minute collection finds Prince exploring his jazzier side. The recordings are gorgeous, elegant and intimate, putting the listener in the room with Prince. But like a decadent desert, these songs work best in small doses. Although some tracks, like “Here on Earth,” feature touches of synthesizer and percussion, they all work in the same stately mood, blunting the effect across the course of the album.
One Nite Alone is the album to play when you finally open that bottle of wine you’ve been saving, want to impress a certain someone or just want to curl up in the dark and escape with a gifted artist. Finally having it on vinyl will make the experience seem even more immediate. It won’t be played as much as Purple Rain, but One Nite Alone will be perfect when time comes.
Prince – The Rainbow Children
Once freed from the shackles of a major label, Prince was able to indulge all of his impulses, for better or worse. His 2001 album The Rainbow Children is a jazz concept album about … who knows. I’ve never quite been able to figure it out. The looser arrangements and nearly 70-minute running time allow Prince more space to jam and solo. Whether or not it works depends on your taste in jazz and self-indulgence.
The Rainbow Children is a long way from Prince’s groundbreaking, hit-filled albums of the ‘80s. That said, there are some stand-out tracks. The James Brown funk workout “The Work, Part 1” could have been an R&B hit in an alternate world. Closing songs, “The Everlasting Now” and “Last December” also number among the album’s strongest moments.
Long out of print, Prince completists will be delighted they no longer have to shell out exorbitant figures to own The Rainbow Children on vinyl. Less devoted fans may want to sample the album digitally before deciding if they want to take custody of The Rainbow Children.
Peter Gabriel – Up (2002) As a fan who discovered Peter Gabriel in the early ‘90s, the decade between Us and Up seemed interminable. I’m glad no one told me at the time that I’d be waiting at least twice at long for his next platter of original material. Because of the lengthy delay, Up didn’t have the commercial impact of Us and So. Up is also a much darker album that features electronic elements in several songs. “The Barry Williams Show,” the first single released from Up, is easily its worst track. The arrangement never really gels and the lyrics lampooning talk shows and reality TV seems forced. (Lord, if Gabriel ever knew where those twin genres of trash television would lead us today ….) Sadness and mortality are themes in a couple songs, including the moving “I Grieve,” first showing up on the City of Angels soundtrack four years before Up’s release. Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn assists on the album’s emotional apex, “Signal to Noise.” As Gabriel has continued to move further away from rock music, hearing him surrounded by guitars, drum, bass and keyboards feels almost as gratifying as when this original material was first released.
Thelonious Monk – Solo Monk (1965) ‘Tis a pure delight to hear Thelonious Monk work without a band, with no filter between his mind and the music. The 13 songs on this wonderful album include standards, like the jaunty “Dinah,” which opens the collection, and the wistful, sentimental “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You),” which ends the album. Monk scatters his own compositions among the standards, including “Ruby, My Dear,” one of his signature pieces, “Monk’s Point” and “North of the Sunset.” In his autobiography, pianist Randy Weston talks about Monk holding court at his New York City apartment, sitting at the piano, playing whatever comes into his mind. Solo Monk is as close as we’ll get to eavesdropping on one of those private sessions. Solo Monk is a treasure in every way.
The Kinks – Sleepwalker (1977) The Kinks had such a long career they managed to peak twice. Between 1966 and 1971, they released an amazing cluster of albums, including Something Else, Arthur and Muswell Hillbillies. Then, in the late 1970s they peaked again, starting with Sleepwalker. Disco-era Kinks were a very different group than their swinging ‘60s counterparts. The group had ballooned to five members, to accommodate a keyboard player, and the sound was more hard rock than twee pop. Songwriter Ray Davies abandoned the concept albums that had bogged down most of the band’s 1970s albums, and brought sleek, stand-alone rock songs. Brother Dave Davies turns his guitar up loud enough to reach the cheap seats in the sports arenas they would wind up playing on tour. The subject of songs “Life on the Road” and “Juke Box Music” are evident in their titles. “Life Goes On” is an upbeat anthem guaranteed to brighten any bad day. Sleepwalker isn’t the best album from the Kinks revival, but it sets the table nicely for the pair of albums that follow and improve on this direction.
Lee Ranaldo – Between the Times and the Tides (2012) As a member of Sonic Youth, guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s solo releases were art projects not intended for mainstream audiences. Thankfully his first effort after Sonic Youth’s unfortunate demise is an accessible, low key indie rock album in the same vein as his old band’s album Murray Street. Ranaldo wrote all the songs for Between the Times, but he assembled an all-star band to bring the material to life. Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelly, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and Medeski, Martin and Wood jazz keyboard player John Medeski. My favorite song on the album is “Xtina as I Knew Her,” a haunting look back at underage drinking parties and the danger constantly lurking under the veneer of good times. Here are the lyrics to the bridge, which sets up a stinging Cline solo: “Slip behind the valley curtain/Looking for a place to hide/Shaky and those times uncertain/Everyone drunk on red wine.” The other songs are equally solid, proving that underneath are the abstract noise experiments beats the heart of a pop songwriter.
Steve Earle and the Dukes – So You Wanna Be an Outlaw? (2017) It feels like Steve Earle releases a new album of original material about 18 months. If you don’t like his current musical disposition, wait a few seasons and he’ll be there again in a different mood. Fortunately, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw?, a return to country-ish material, is a keeper. By virtue of being so prolific, Earle’s songwriting has gotten tighter and tighter, to the point where he can write a tribute to the people fighting forest fires simply because he learned they’d never had one (“The Firebreak Line”). Most of the other songs on the album deal with troubles: with women, money and society. Willie Nelson pops by to lend his voice to the title song. Earle ends the album with several earnest covers of classic outlaw country songs, including Billy Joe Shaver’s “Ain’t No God in Mexico” and Waylon Jenning’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”
Pearl Jam – Live at Easy Street (2019) In the spring of 2005, Pearl Jam stopped by a Seattle record shop to play a few songs and spread some hometown love. Seven of those songs were released on an CD exclusively available in independent record shops. Several years later, those same seven songs were released on vinyl for Record Store Day. My biggest complaint with this release is that I wished they would have released the full 16-song set on two albums, rather than the 27 minutes of material that populates this EP. What we’re given is great, though. Two songs from Riot Act, the band’s newest album at the time, one each from No Code and Ten and three covers. John Doe even comes out to perform X’s “The New World” with the band.
Last fall I ended up in Seattle for work. After making an obligatory stop at the Jimi Hendrix gravesite, I was hungry for both breakfast and crate digging. Both desires were satiated at Easy Street, which features a nice little brunch menu and an impressive expanse of vinyl. The large murals commemorating Pearl Jam’s concert brought two and two together for me. If you find yourself in the neighborhood, Easy Street is definitely worth a stop.
Robert Fripp and Brian Eno – Evening Star (1975) Brian Eno and Kevin Shields – The Weight of History (2018) The second album from King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp and former Roxy Music effects wizard Brian Eno continues down the same experimental path established on their first album. Layers of audio are bounced between two tape decks, building up sheets of sound that are then manipulated and augmented with guitar solos and other effects. If this sounds too technical fear not: Evening Star is a supremely pastoral album, especially on the first side. As with Eno’s other ambient projects the point of this music is to almost disappear in the background and enhance the mood and atmosphere of a space. The first side of Evening Star succeeds on this level, projecting a layer of calm into my house each time it is played. The second side, the 28-minute track “An Index of Metals” is more textured, incorporating dense levels of guitar distortion. While distorted manipulations keep the piece from fading into aural wallpaper the result is still soothing.
More than 40 years after collaborating with Fripp, Eno partnered with another guitarist know for dense layers of distortion. The guitar player in My Bloody Valentine, Kevin Shields was the primary auteur behind the shoegaze masterpiece Loveless. The music Shields and Eno have crafted together seems like it builds on the foundation Eno established with Fripp. Like “An Index of Metals,” their work forces some attention to appreciate its wonder. Shields and Eno have only collaborated on two songs so far, but the 12-inch single containing these tracks make me want a more.
Murder by Death – The Other Shore (2018) The eighth album by the Bloomington, Ind. Goth-country rockers is a concept album that according to press materials is “a space-western about a ravaged Earth, its fleeing populace and a relationship in jeopardy.” Well that clears things up. Fortunately the music is so engaging that it masks any plot problems. Their brand of roots rock is bolstered by a dedicated cellist, which brings a sweeping Southern Gothic feel to the music. The music on The Other Shore is certainly more nuanced than the petal-to-the-metal live show I saw from them several years ago at Middle of the Map festival. That said, all the songs on The Other Shore feel like they would translate well to the stage. Murder by Death have built a loyal following over the past two decades. The Other Shore is accessible enough to please the existing fans and win them even more.
Roy Lee Johnson and the Villagers – Self-titled (1973) If the name Roy Lee Johnson rings any bells, it might from the song “Mr. Moonlight,” which he wrote and was covered by the Fab Four on the album Beatles for Sale. Johnson’s lone outing with the Villagers bears no resemblance to that song whatsoever. Opening number “Patch It Up” sounds like James Brown and the J.B.s. The next number, “I’ll be Your Doctor Man” continues in this very funky vein, with the distinct accompaniment of the Memphis Horns. Recorded at Muscle Shoals, Roy Lee Johnson and the Villagers drips with Southern soul and funk in every track. Unfortunately for Johnson, two events coincided to keep him from becoming a star. First, Stax was in shaky financial state when this album came out. Poor distribution killed any chance of this success. Fans couldn’t find the album in stores to buy it and send it up the charts. Secondly, the Villagers young bass player Michael James died suddenly, leading to the end of the Villagers. James’ playing plays a prominent role in the album’s success, adding to the melody line while simultaneously holding down the groove. The side two instrumental “Razorback Circus” is a prime example of what James brought to the material. Johnson didn’t release another album until the mid-‘80s. His most recent album is 1998’s “When a Guitar Plays the Blues.”
The Creation – Action Painting (compilation) If you know any of the Creation’s songs, it is probably “Making Time,” used in the brilliant film Rushmore. It’s the first track in this collection, meaning there are 22 other 1960s British garage rock classics to discover here. Fans of early Who, Small Faces and the Kinks will find a lot to love. As always, the Numero Group has done an excellent job of presenting the music with the best mastering possible and putting it in context as well. All the band’s singles are here as well as a handful of pre-Creation singles by Creation Mark Four and songs that only popped up on later compilations. The Creation like to pose as ruffians on songs like the tough “Biff, Bang, Pow” and the cocksure “Can I Join Your Band,” but their true colors are revealed on several goofy numbers. “The Girls Are Naked” sounds like the nutty younger cousin of the Who’s “Pictures of Lily.” Covers of “Cool Jerk” and “Bonie Maronie” conjure images of awkward dance steps in a school gymnasium. The Creation never seem to take themselves too seriously – they have a song about “Ostrich Man” – but their Mod sensibilities make this an essential addition to any 1960s Anglophile’s collection.
Jane’s Addiction – Nothing’s Shocking (1988) Most of the songs on the major label debut by the Los Angeles-born alternative party band still sound fresh today. I hadn’t listened to this album in a long while before this spin, but Eric Avery’s bassline on “Up the Beach” that opens the record still got the adrenaline going. Nothing’s Shocking was a staple in my college dorm room, but I think nostalgia isn’t the only force powering the album today. Dave Navarro’s guitars and Stephen Perkins drums kick like a blast of dynamite as singer Perry Farrell counts in the band on “Ocean Size.” “Mountain Side” still hits like an avalanche, but it’s not just the heavy songs that land. “Ted, Just Admit It…” is a longer, more experimental piece. “Standing in the Shower … Thinking” is a piece of faux funk that concludes the first side. “Summertime Rolls” is another atmospheric experimental piece carried by Ferrell’s voice. The horns on “Idiots Rule” and the radio staple singalong “Jane Says” are the only dated moments on the album. The brass on “Idiots Rule” sounds like shades of “Sledgehammer” and “Jane Says” suffers from overexposure. Jane’s Addiction have broken up and regrouped several times in the 32 years since Nothing’s Shocking came out, but none of those projects have come close to matching their original output.
Lucinda Williams – Good Souls Better Angels (2020) The 14th studio album from Southern singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams couldn’t arrive at a better time. At a time when COVID-19 shutdowns have people feeling frustrated, sad, angry and hopeful (sometimes experiencing each emotion within minutes of each other), Williams channels these states of mind through her lyrics and amplifier.
On “Big Black Train,” Williams confronts her bouts with depression and determination not to get onboard again. “Man Without a Soul” is a hot pellet of rage directed at the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The album ends with “Good Souls,” a hopeful prayer to “Keep me with all of those/who help me stay strong/and guide me along.”
Williams’ band expertly augments her emotions throughout the album, often working in a swampy blues or Rolling Stones rock form. After an hour of searing, electrified full-band arrangements, the vinyl version of Good Souls Better Angels includes five acoustic demo bonus tracks. They are the perfect palate cleanser. Having shared this emotional catharsis, we are renewed to defeat the next challenge.
Many Beatle fans have put together the ultimate final Beatles album, drawing from tracks on the Fab Four’s early solo albums. I remember a quote from one of the newly liberated Beatles saying the break-up was actually better for fans because instead of one Beatles album, fans would get one solo album from each mop top. I couldn’t find the exact quote, but it’s with that idea I approached today’s spins. We’ll look at the solo albums each Beatle released in 1973. Why 1973? It started because I happen to own all the albums each member released this year, but took on greater significance as I got deeper in listening and researching. Let’s go through them in the order they were released.
Paul McCartney and Wings – Red Rose Speedway (April 30, 1973) The second album released by Wings, Red Rose Speedway was also Paul’s fourth release in the three years after the Beatles’ break-up. Although 1970’s McCartney and 1971’s Ram are rightly revered today, at the time they were seen as lightweight albums that didn’t live up the expectations of a public that had grown up on “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be.” With Red Rose Speedway, Paul takes a few tentative steps in that direction.
The ballad “My Love” became Paul’s second No. 1 solo hit, after “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” The 11-minute medley that ends the album was certainly constructed with Abbey Road’s famous second-side mash-ups in mind. What does Paul give us with the remaining seven songs on the album? Nothing as substantial, unfortunately.
Opener “Big Barn Bed” is catchy, but feels like filler at the same time. “Single Pigeon” seems entirely constructed away the two words in the title play off each other. “When the Night” sounds like a rehearsal that should have been left on the cutting room floor. In fact, “Little Lamb Dragonfly” and the weird jam “Loup (First Indian on the Moon)” are the only other songs from Red Rose Speedway that I’d save in a fire. And Paul wanted this to be a double album at one point, too. Yeesh.
Of the albums released by the former Fabsters in 1973, Red Rose Speedway is easily the lightest of the bunch. Fortunately, Paul was far from done for the year. He’d release another album before Christmas and reunited with George Martin in the summer for the hit James Bond theme song “Live and Let Die.” Their song was far better than the film.
George Harrison – Living in the Material World (May 30, 1973) Despite the success of “Someday,” few fans would have picked George to be the most successful Beatle after the break-up, but in 1973 George was sitting on a mountain of good will from his concerts for Bangladesh (and resulting album) and just as many accolades for his triple-LP masterpiece All Things Must Pass. George’s follow up, Living in the Material World isn’t a major statement like his previous releases, but it does confirm that George’s songwriting skills ran deep.
The only single from the album, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth),” was a No. 1 hit in the U.S. and dealt with George’s struggle between stardom and spirituality. George’s existential grappling dominates the album, but it rarely feels heavy-handed or preachy. The may be because George varies the song structures and arrangements of songs dealing with these themes. For example, the title song and “Give Me Love” are very upbeat, while “Try Some, Buy Some” is slightly psychedelic. “The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord)” and “The Day the World Gets Round” are slower contemplative numbers.
Between all this seriousness, George pokes fun at Paul’s lawsuit against his fellow Beatles with “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” (chorus: “Bring your lawyer and I’ll bring mine/Get together and we could have a bad time”). George would release another seven solo albums in his lifetime, but it wasn’t until the posthumous release of Brainwashed in 2002 that he again reached the same height achieved with Living in the Material World.
John Lennon – Mind Games (November 2, 1973) Ringo Starr – Ringo (November 2, 1973) Picture walking out of the record store in early November excitedly clutching the new John Lennon and Ringo Starr albums, only to discover hours later that Ringo’s album is the better of the two. Sure, Ringo gets by with the help of his friends, but he ropes in A-list guests here.
George chips in two songs and writes another – “Photograph” – with Ringo. John and Paul each write one song. In fact, Ringo has a co-write credit on three songs and wrote “Step Lightly” by himself. Musically, Marc Bolan from T-Rex, Harry Nilsson, Billy Preston and members of The Band all appear, as do the other Beatles (though, sadly not all on the same track). The cover depicts Ringo onstage, and indeed the album is paced like a live performance, complete with Ringo thanking all his guests and signing off at the end.
Ringo (the album) spawned two No. 1 hits in “Photograph” and “You’re Sixteen.” The later is the only bum spot on the album. Johnny Burnette’s original 1960 hit was featured prominently in the film American Graffiti released earlier that summer, possibly inspiring Ringo to cover it. Regardless of the reason, post-adolescent men singing about teenage girls will never not be creepy. Despite this misstep, Ringo is a party, from start to finish. Ringo can usually be found at a cheap price in the used record bins. If you don’t have this album, there is absolutely no reason not to pick it up.
Meanwhile, John Lennon was struggling. The Nixon administration was playing political football with John’s work visa and his marriage to Yoko Ono was on the rocks. On top of that, John’s previous album, the uber-topical and political Some Time in New York City was a dud. Mind Games is a definite improvement, but it still sounds like a man who doesn’t know which way to go. The gorgeous, sweeping title song was a Top 20 hit, but not all of the remaining 10 songs work. “Tight A$” and “Meat City” sound like the same song and while both songs rock, neither go anywhere. The jokey political anthem “Bring on the Lucie (Freda Peeple)” is easily the best up-tempo song on the album. More than 40 years later, this song was used to great effect in the post-apocalyptic action film Children of Men (which is highly recommended).
Other stellar moments on Mind Games include the emotional ballad “Out of the Blue” (John’s best vocal performance on the album), the relationship-affirming “I Know (I Know)” (built around a guitar lick that sounds suspiciously like “I’ve Got a Feeling”) and the upbeat “Intuition,” which foreshadows the direction John would take on Double Fantasy. I also like the slow apology “Aisumasen (I’m Sorry),” which sounds like a sort of cousin to “Jealous Guy.”
Mind Games is a very different album than Ringo, but the inconsistencies on Mind Games puts Ringo in the pole position.
Paul McCartney and Wings – Band on the Run (December 5, 1973) Somewhere between the spring release of Red Rose Speedway and the autumn recording of Band on the Run, Paul managed to lose nearly half of his band. Now down to a trio, Paul, his wife Linda and Denny Laine departed to Lagos, Nigeria, to hang out with Fela Kuti, lose the in-progress studio tapes in a mugging and create a defining rock masterpiece.
If Red Rose Speedway often felt slight, nearly every song on Band on the Run drives with a purpose. The opening one-two punches of the title song and “Jet” remain classic rock radio staples today (as does “Let Me Roll It,” which closes the first side). Tucked between those hits on the first side is the jaunty “Mrs. Vandebilt” with its infectious “ho hey ho” chorus, and the delicate “Bluebird.”
The second side doesn’t have any singles, but the material remains strong. The slide guitar and string arrangement on “No Words” makes it feel like a George song. “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)” incorporates reprise of some of the earlier melodies with a jolly drinking song. If there’s a weak song on the album it might be “Helen Wheels,” but even this track is better than all but a couple songs on Red Rose Speedway. After four solo albums that confounded and disappointed fans’ expectations, Paul finally delivered the mainstream post-Beatles triumph everyone was waiting for with Band on the Run.
After releasing two albums in 1973, Paul didn’t have another release until 1975’s Venus and Mars. That same year George and John – mired in his lost weekend – both released albums, but Ringo didn’t. In fact, the stars never aligned for all four Beatles to release solo albums in the same calendar year again. No one knew it at the time, but 1973 ended up being the end of another sort of era for the Beatles.
What are your favorite songs from Red Rose Speedway, Living in the Material World, Ringo, Mind Games and Band on the Run? Which of these five albums from 1973 do you like best? Did I overlook or mischaracterize your favorite tune? Leave a comment and let me know.
The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) Did you ever stop to think that maybe the biggest difference between country and rock and roll is marketing? I’m not saying fans of Sleep or Deafhaven are likely to warm up to Garth Brooks, or vice versa, but music is littered with crossover artists, from Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins to Aaron Lewis and Darius Rucker. Elvis Presley may have started the trend, debuting on Sun Records with music that was equal parts rock, country and blues. In the post-monoculture landscape where streaming reigns supreme, genre distinctions mean even less. Bret Michaels, Jon Bon Jovi and Lionel Richie can tour as country artists while performers who started in the country bucket like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood can move seamlessly into being pop stars. And honestly, what is the difference between Sheryl Crow and Miranda Lambert? Or Kid Rock and herpes? Sorry, that was a low blow, but I couldn’t resist.
I bring all this up, because in 1968 these distinctions were a very big deal. The Byrds upset a lot of people when they performed on the Grand Ole Opry. Their hippie hair was too long for the Nashville crowd and their music too twangy for the hippies. The group was banned from the Opry when they dared to deviate from the prearranged setlist. Oh, the humanity! Instead, the band nearly broke up, with new recruit Gram Parsons leaving first. Bass player Chris Hillman and drummer Kevin Kelley, another short-timer left at the end of the year, with Hillman joining up with Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers. As usual, Byrds founder Roger McGuinn was left to pick up the pieces and assemble another formation of the Byrds. McGuinn’s group released another six albums before packing it in. None approach the influence of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Parsons and Hillman used Sweetheart as a stepping stone, building a musical empire that spawned not only mainstream successes like Eagles and the outlaw country movement. That legacy is still obvious today in the music of Lucinda Williams, Sturgil Simpson and the Highwomen.
Ghostface Killah – Fishscale (2006) The prolific Wu-Tang Clan MC Ghostface Killah drops so many albums, pseudo-albums/mixtapes and collaborations it can be daunting to separate the wheat from the chaff. Fishscale, Ghostface’s fifth album is a gritty masterpiece. Ghostface has an amazing eye for detail, making ever scenario across the album crackle to life like a short film or story. Production from Doom, Just Blaze, Pete Rock and J Dilla make the songs both accessible and memorable. Vignettes about drug deals, street life and women blur together to create a cinematic 65-minute arc. Check out the image this paints from the song “Kilo”: “A hundred birds go out, looking like textbooks/When they wrapped and stuffed/Four days later straight cash, two million bucks.” Or this childhood memory from “Whip You With a Strap”: “(T)hen came Darryl Mack lightin’ all the reefer up/Baby caught a contact, I’m trying to tie my sneaker up/I’m missing all the loops, strings going in the wrong holes/It feels like I’m wobbling, look at all these afros.”
Someone once said that Bruce Springsteen songs don’t begin and end as much as they zoom in a focus on a story, then gradually fade back out. Ghostface’s storytelling is easily on that same level for Fishscale. Along the way, the gets help from several members from the Wu-Tang Clan. The entire Clan assembles for “9 Milli Bros” and Ne-Yo pops by to sing the hook on “Back Like That,” a Top 20 Hot R&B hit. Even with these assists, Fishscale is Ghostface’s triumph and should be part of every hip hop library.
Batfangs – self-titled (2018) The women in Batfang live in a universe where Van Halen and Def Leppard are indie rock icons. The nine songs on the duo’s debut album, all written by singer/guitarist Betsy Wright, with some help from drummer Laura King, pay tribute to the 1980s hair band anthems that continue to provide atmosphere in Trams Ams and strip clubs today. At just 25 minutes, Batfangs know how to love ‘em and leave ‘em. Two years on, I’m hoping their album wasn’t just a one-night stand.
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble – Couldn’t Stand the Weather (1984) It’s hard to believe that Stevie Ray Vaughan gifted fans with three studio albums and a live record – the majority of his catalog – in less time than a presidential term. Couldn’t Stand the Weather was Double Trouble’s second album and if it feels like a disappointment after their debut Texas Flood, it is only because Texas Flood claimed so much territory. Lightning-fast guitar heroics can only be a surprise one time. After that, they are expected.
Vaughan didn’t write many songs for this album, but the ones he did are gems. The white hot instrumental “Scuttle Buttin’” sets up the title song, another original, nicely. Vaughan also wrote the last two songs on the album. “Stag’s Swang,” the last number, shows off another tool in Vaughan’s formidable arsenal – jazz guitar.
The four covers are all spectacular. Vaughan owns Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” The slow blues “Tin Pan Alley” couldn’t be more different from the Hendrix cover, but Vaughan is right at home there, too. “Cold Shot” was released as a single and became a Top 40 rock radio hit.
Couldn’t Stand the Weather clocks in at eight tracks and slightly less than 40 minutes. This might make the Weather seem slight in the shadow of Texas Flood, but it remains an indispensable chapter in the book of a consummate blues man that ended way too early.
Charles Mingus – The Clown (1957) Jazz bass legend Charles Mingus’ second album for the Atlantic label was also his second masterpiece in a row. There are only four songs on The Clown, but as with any Mingus release, they leave plenty to unpack. The Clown opens with a Mingus bass solo before the rest of the band joins in on “Haitian Fight Song.” Mingus described the song as a contemporary folk number, but it reminds me of Jimmy Smith’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” the way the song starts simply before the horns swagger into the forefront. “Bee Cee” is a piano-driven blues number. Side two opens with “Reincarnation of a Lovebird,” Mingus’ tribute to Charlie Parker. You can hear different pieces of Parker’s melodies fly past in the song. Mingus revisited this song several times throughout his career. The title track concludes the album. Actor Jean Shepherd – who narrated and co-wrote the film A Christmas Story based on his life – tells the story of a clown who worked hard to please everyone but wasn’t appreciated until after his death. Mingus said the clown was meant to be a stand-in for jazz musicians. There’s a lot going on for an album that lasts a scant 28 minutes, but Mingus always rewards repeated listens.
Buddy Miles Express – Electric Church (1969) Former Electric Flag drummer Buddy Miles got an incredible assist on his second solo album from guitarist Jimi Hendrix. At the time, Hendrix was expanding the Experience to incorporate the players that would become the Gypsy Sun and Rainbows group that performed at Woodstock. Somewhere around this time, Miles was asked to join Hendrix’ new trio Band of Gypsys. Before that, however, Hendrix produced half the songs on Electric Church and played on several cuts as well. Putting aside the long shadow Hendrix casts over this album, Electric Church is a good slice of R&B. The horns on the first cut, “Miss Lady” wouldn’t have been out of place on a Stax release (and place Hendrix’ wah-wah guitar solo in a unique context). Hendrix’ fingerprints are also all over “69 Freedom Song.” The Memphis soul connection is made more explicit on Miles’ cover of Otis Redding’s “Cigarettes and Coffee” and a live version of Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “Wrap It Up.” Side two kicks off with “Texas,” a slow blues number written with former Electric Flag bandmate Mike Bloomfield. There might not be enough guitar pyrotechnics to entice Hendrix fans to sit through the entire album. Likewise, fans of soul music might be put off by the acidic rock explorations. Somewhere between the two camps, however, Miles was able to carve out a nice little niche.
Van Morrison – A Period of Transition (1977) Van Morrison’s ninth album certainly lives up to the title. The gypsy soul that characterized early albums like Tupelo Honey and Moondance was coming to a close, but the jazzier, lengthier contemplations exemplified on Common One and Beautiful Vision had not yet arrived. Pianist Dr. John plays on every track here and co-produced the album, giving the songs his native New Orleans shuffle, particularly on the swampy opener “You Gotta Make It Through the World.” The single “Joyous Sound” shares a spirit and feel with “Domino.” Elsewhere, “Flamingos Fly” and “Heavy Connection” point to the jazzy, adult contemporary direction Morrison would later take on Avalon Sunset and Poetic Champions Compose in the late 1980s. The intro to “It Feels You Up” sounds like something from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, but the song remained a concert staple for decades. Of most interest to this Cowtown boy is “The Eternal Kansas City.” A gospel choir carries the meat of the melody while Morrison namechecks Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Jay McShan and other local luminaries. Incidentally, everyone Morrison honors in the verse was still alive at the time, except for saxmen Bird and Lester Young. Morrison must have liked “The Eternal Kansas City” enough to re-record it with Gregory Porter on his 2015 album Duets: Reworking the Catalog. A Period of Transition is far from essential, but dedicated Morrison fans will want this to see how he got from A to B.
Rare Earth – Get Ready (1969) The late 1960s were the time of meandering hard rock epics that encompass an entire album side, like “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” After transforming the landscape of pop music with their Motor City soul, Motown decided it wanted a slice of this acid rock pie as well. Get Ready contains five other songs, including covers of “Tobacco Road” and Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright,” in addition to the title song, but the 21-minute cut on the second side is clearly the selling point. These types of lengthy, meandering jams aren’t really my thing, but the live audience on the album is eating it up. I don’t think the band is saying anything with the album version that they don’t articulate on the two minute, 50 second single. Then again, I’ve never dropped acid or seen a show at the Fillmore. If you like drum solos or extended organ parts, this is for you. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here with the Temptations.
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice (2017) The prolific Kurt Vile had been releasing laid-back, guitar-centric indie rock albums for nearly a decade when the Australian songwriter Courtney Barnett dropped her debut album. Barnett has a knack for inserting little details into her lyrics that tie her songs together without appearing like she’s trying too hard. In other words, she and Vile shared a laconic approach to songwriting and guitar skills that outpace the songs each write. For their first album together, Barnett and Vile create a level of relaxed comfort where they are able to swap lines like “What time do you usually wake up?/Depends on what time I sleep” (on “Let It Go”) without coming across as lazy or phoning it in. At just nine songs and 45 minutes, Lotta Sea Lice knows not to overstay its welcome. Hopefully we’ll get another collaboration at some point down the road.
Old 97s – Graveyard Whistling (2017) On their previous album, the Texas alt-country quartet turned their amps up and returned to their roots with the raw, profane Most Messed Up. The band appeared to be at a crossroads heading into Graveyard Whistling, their 11th album. While the production is slicker and the songwriting is less self-referential, the 97s are still fully committed to having as good a time tonight as possible and dodging the consequences of it tomorrow. Singer Rhett Miller acknowledges as much on “Bad Luck Charm,” the jig “Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls, the lonesome “Turns Out I’m Trouble” and the bloody “Drinkin’ Song.” Elsewhere, the boys turn theology into a pickup line on “Jesus Loves You” (sample lyric: “He makes wine from water/but I just bought you a beer”), stare into the afterlife with the help of Brandi Carlyle on “Good With God,” and wax nostalgic on “Those Were the Days.” Ultimately, Graveyard Whistling isn’t as essential as Most Messed Up, but it is a very good album from a band with a great run.
Radiohead – Hail to the Thief (2003) Radiohead’s sixth album is only disappointing in context. After blowing everyone’s minds with the Kid A/Amnesiac companion albums, musical expectations were ratcheted to the stratosphere to expect the unexpected. When the band revealed the album’s title, disenfranchised liberals hoped for a political burn that would send a person who occupied the White House despite losing the majority of the votes and his ginned-up war scurrying back to Texas. Spoiler: Neither happened.
Instead fans were treated to an album where guitars are played like guitars, drums are played by an actual human being and songs follow a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure. The band hasn’t turned the amps up this loudly and rocked out since Thief, which makes singles “2+2=5” and “There There” seem even more momentous in retrospect. Meanwhile, “The Gloaming” and “Backdrifts” nod to the Kid A/Amnesiac era. Nearly two decades on, it is easier to enjoy Thief for what it is and soak up its rich rewards.
Red Garland Trio – Groovy (1957) Confession: I bought this album based entirely on the cover art and the cred pianist Red Garland built playing in the Miles Davis quintet with John Coltrane. Paul Chambers and Art Taylor, the rhythm section for this album, were also members of Davis’ group. So what you have here is Davis’ band, minus the horns. Because they performed together so often, the trio are able to swap lines and support each other without breaking a sweat. The songs consist of standards, such as “Willow Weep for Me,” pop songs like “Will You Still Be Mine” and an original Garland blues, “Hey Now.” It might not be an ambitious selection, but the results are superb. In this case, my instincts served me well. Groovy is a 40 swinging minutes of amazing piano jazz.
A.C. Newman – Get Guilty (2009) The engine behind the New Pornographers gives himself a little more space to stretch out on this solo album. There are still tons of big hooks and bright power pop melodies, but Carl Newman sounds more relaxed and confessional here. Get Guilty is the second of Newman’s three solo albums to date and the fact that he still has the ability to craft these albums while doing the majority of the songwriting for the New Pornographers speaks to his prolific pen. Tellingly, Newman hasn’t released a solo album since Dan Bejar, the other songwriter in the Pornographers left the group. However, I have little doubt that Newman will lay another beauty on us at some point, and it will be worth the wait.
Bob Dylan – Live 1975: The Bootleg Series, Volume 5 (2002) Well before the sleight-of-hand Netflix documentary, Bob Dylan gifted his fans with this gift of the best moments from the first leg of his Rolling Thunder Revue tour. The performances are comfortably ragged and delightful. The set charges hard out of the gate with three reworked, electric numbers. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” tears like a locomotive. “It Ain’t Me Babe” sways like a gypsy waltz. Best of all is a hurtling “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” If Dylan was a prophet standing on the city wall, warning the people below on the original acoustic version, here he is Paul Revere, tearing through the countryside, shouting his message. The rest of the music isn’t as revelatory, but fantastic. The ensemble airs performs two-thirds of Desire, Dylan’s most recent album, including “Sara,” an autobiographical love song to his wife, with her listening from just off-stage. The acoustic material and duets with Joan Baez are fine, but nowhere near as intimate as what crowds were treated to on the first set of the 1966 tour documented on Bootleg Volume Four, or the 1964 show documented on Bootleg Volume Six. That said, Live 1975 is not only an essential Dylan document but a fun listen. I turn to it often.
Husker Du – Savage Young Du, LP2 (compilation) The second album from Numero’s four-record collection of early Husker Du starts with the band’s first single and features many unreleased live tracks recorded at various Minneapolis clubs in 1980. You can hear the songwriting start to sharpen a bit here as the music remains at full volume and throttle. We discussed other albums in this eye-opening box set on Day 3 and Day 40.
Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid of You and Will Beat Your Ass (2006) The New Jersey-based indie rockers have made a great career combining long noisy adventures with intimate ballads. For their 11th album, the noisy tracks bookend the shorter, poppier numbers. The nearly 11-minute opener “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” sizzles on James McNew’s bassline. From there, I Am Not Afriad hops from the horn-driven pop of “Beanbag Chair” to the falsetto of “Mr. Tough” and through a few other songs before landing on the nine-minute, soothing ambience of “Daphina” almost halfway through. At 15 songs and 77 minutes, I Am Not Afraid sometimes feels too long, but none of the songs are filler. Think of it like an album with a bonus EP buried in the playlist. If you haven’t heard Yo La Tengo, this is as good a place to start as any.
With today’s entry, we cross the 300 album threshold for social distancing spins. How many more will be added? As much as it takes for everyone to be safe in public.
George Harrison – Brainwashed (2002) George Harrison’s final album appeared 15 years after his previous release and a year after his death. Of course, this meant Brainwashed received far more attention than it would have otherwise, but the extra press didn’t diminish the fact that Brainwashed features some of the most consistent songwriting and playing in Harrison’s catalog. Certainly being able to cherry-pick the best work from such a long period of time works in the album’s favor, but the songs all hang together as a relaxed portrait of the Quiet Beatle abandoning any pretense of chasing a hit and meditating on the same themes of spirituality and mortality that go back to “Within You, Without You” and “The Inner Light.” The tablas and sitars of those Beatles songs have been replaced with acoustic guitars and ukuleles. Although completed after Harrison’s death by his son and fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne, Brainwashed never feels incomplete or patched together. It is an incredible, cohesive parting gift from a major talent.
Carolyn Franklin – Chain Reaction (1970) Carolyn Franklin may not have the pipes of her older sister Aretha, but then again, few people did. What she is also sadly lacking on Chain Reaction, her second album and first for major label RCA, is a sympathetic producer. Most of the songs on Chain Reaction are drowned in strings and the type of earnest production that sunk many of her sister’s better moments on Columbia. Also, curiously, despite penning the hits “Angel” and “Ain’t No Way” for her sister, Carolyn Franklin didn’t write any songs for Chain Reaction. The album is pleasing – Franklin is too good a singer for it to be a bust – but also leaves me wishing she had punchier production like Aretha was finally receiving at Atlantic at the time Chain Reaction came out.
By the end of the decade, Carolyn Franklin was all but out of the music industry, although she did appear as one of her sister’s backing singers in The Blues Brothers. Sadly, Carolyn Franklin died from breast cancer in 1988.
J Dilla – The Shining (2006) J Dilla’s third album was more than halfway done before the revered hip hop producer succumbed to lupus six months before The Shining’s release. As such, it feels a little incomplete as an album and rushed as a tribute. There are some amazing moments to be found here, to be sure. Common and D’Angelo ride a sample of the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Say Goodnight” into the spiritual stratosphere. As a bonus, the version on The Shining is 60 heavenly seconds longer than the one on Common’s album Finding Forever. Another high point is the Pharoahe Monch feature “Love,” built around Curtis Mayfield and the Impression’s “We Must Be in Love.” Less successful is Busta Rhyme’s pointless profanity on the introductory cut and MED and Guilty Simpson’s waste of a great percussive track on “Jungle Love.” Solid contributions from Black Thought and Dwele make up for these missteps, but it’s hard not to wonder if executive producer Karriem Riggins had waited a bit longer he could have found stronger contributors for all the tracks. Then again, maybe Busta and Guilty Simpson were already in the can when Dilla passed. It’s hard to know for sure. What is definite, however, are Dilla’s skills as a producer (and MC, as he shows on the final song here). Gone too soon at age 32, any time with Dilla is well spent.
Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite – No Mercy in This Land (2018) Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite won a Grammy for their first album together, so a sequel was inevitable. Funny thing, though – I like No Mercy in This Land even more than the first one. Chemistry wasn’t a problem before, but it feels like the two musicians play off each other even better this time around. Maybe all the time on the road broadened their musical rapport. The songs here, again all written and primarily sung by Harper, are uniformly excellent. Musselwhite knows exactly how to dart around Harper’s voice and guitar, to accent and punctuate without getting in the way. The song “Love and Trust” first appeared on Mavis Staples’ album Livin’ on a High Note two years prior (and discussed back on Day 41). It’s hard not to miss her husky, soulful voice on this version. Otherwise No Mercy in This Land is the blues at its best.
Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody (2017) The days of the Flaming Lips being able to write a catchy pop melody along the lines of “Do You Realize” or “She Don’t Use Jelly” were well behind them when they started work on their 14th album. Instead, the songs on Oczy Mlody – Polish for young eyes – float in the same atmosphere, equally informed by hip hop beats as much as psychedelic prog rock. As such, most of the songs tend to blend together. One of the sonic experiments that stands out is “There Should Be Unicorns.” I’m not going to attempt to decipher the lyrics, but the song itself is a wonderful mix of bells, drum machines, droning synthesizers and falsetto vocals. The arrangement is captivating on its own terms, but also screams for a remix with someone rapping over the top. Album closer “We a Famly” (featuring Miley Cyrus on backing vocals) is the closest thing to a single here, bringing this unsettling yet satisfying anthology of fairy tales to a close.
Jenny Lewis – On the Line (2019) Before the release of On the Line, I was more of a Jenny Lewis appreciator than a fan. Then I had the opportunity to see Lewis in concert at the Ryman Auditorium a few weeks after On the Line came out. That night converted me, in no small part because the material from On the Line is so strong. A Southern Californian bacchanal, On the Line is steeped in the 1970s MOR sound of Carly Simon, Carole King and Stevie Nicks. Lewis processes the death of her mother and the end of a long relationship with help from studio aces Benmont Tench (from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers), drummer Jim Keltner, Beck, Don Was and, unfortunately, Ryan Adams. The lyrics are peppered with references to Elliott Smith, Candy Crush, the Beatles and Stones while the music swoons like someone stepping into a sunny Los Angeles afternoon fighting a hangover.
Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream (2012) The second album from Los Angeles-born R&B singer Miguel starts with what sounds like a sideways interpretation of the synth and drum line to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” Miguel, however, is more about the sexual than the healing. What keeps the album from being a one-topic wonder, however, are the masterful arrangements that make each song feel like a different psychedelic fantasy. The soundscape grows even more fascinating as one discovers the snippets of the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and the Carpenters “We’ve Only Just Begun” casually slipped between the futuristic soul spells.
A closer look at the lyrics, however, reveals that Miguel isn’t as interested in the sex as much as the intimacy. He confesses to wanting to the lights off in “Use Me” and wants to play paper, rock scissors in “Do You.” The reverie ends with “Candles in the Sun,” an entrancing song that asks hard questions about living in poverty and being ignored by the larger society. It’s a somewhat surprising end to an album that has been so inward-focused most of the time, but it also fits with Miguel’s passions. He feels everything so deeply that it is all magnified, especially the existential questions that can’t be easily answered.
Kraftwerk – The Man-Machine (1978) It’s been a while since the excellent Drive soundtrack brought synthpop bubbling back to the surface alongside bands like Cut/Copy and Phoenix. But really, from Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby in the ‘80s to Chvrches and Shiny Toy Guns today, the shiny, synthetic music pioneered by Kraftwerk more than 40 years ago has always survived in one form or another. The Man-Machine didn’t start this movement – that honor mostly likely belongs to Trans-Europe Express, Kraftwerk’s previous album – but it built upon the concept of layering minimalist songs until they form something more elaborate and inviting for the dance floor. As a result, The Man-Machine became the defining album in Kraftwerk’s catalog. In fact, when I saw the band nearly five years ago (time flies!) they performed every song from the album. To make it even more exciting, they had actual robots come out and perform “The Robots” for the first encore.
Florian Schneider played an immense role in taking Kraftwerk from the primitive nob-twiddling on their early albums to the expansive synth masterworks that defined their best songs. I’m not versed enough in the band to tell you where he added to specific songs. The group likes to remain fairly nebulous. Even seeing them in concert, it looked like four men at podiums. However, Schneider was a founding member of Kraftwerk and present on all their albums through Minimum-Maximum. He also got name-checked by David Bowie on Heroes, and that’s enough street cred for me. Sadly, Schneider died from cancer in late April. The next time you’re on a dance floor, moving to a pulsating synthesizer, or tearing down the highway humming the melody to “Autobahn,” remember this pioneer.
Frank Turner – Positive Songs for Negative People: Acoustic (2016) A British folk singer with a punk rocker’s heart (and musical approach), Frank Turner released his sixth album in two forms, acoustic and electric. Either version gets me in the feels. The acoustic versions are just as powerful in their stripped-down arrangements. It’s not hard to imagine Turner on a stool singing directly to you. The material lives up to the Zig Zigler-approved title, although the chorus to “The Next Storm,” one of my favorite songs, is a little awkward in this time of physical distancing. When Turner sings “I don’t want to spend the whole of my life indoors/Laying low, waiting for the next storm,” I guarantee he wasn’t think of this reality. I’m also fairly confident Turner would counter with the chorus of another song here: “We could get better/because we’re not dead yet.” Amen.
Dwight Yoakam – Dwight Sings Buck (2007) This one’s so obvious the only question is why it didn’t happen sooner. Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens, who pioneered the Bakersfield sound of country music, first shared the mic in 1988 and took the song all the way to No. 1 on the country charts. Yoakam embraced the rock-driven, electric instrumentation Owens helped established. Owens’ death in 2006 must have inspired Yoakam to pay tribute. Of course none of the 15 songs here will replaces Owens’ indelible recordings, but Yoakam is clearly both having a ball and dead serious about this homage to his mentor. My favorites here are “Act Naturally” – which I first heard from Ringo – “Cryin’ Time” and “Foolin’ Around.” There’s not a bad song (or performance) in the bunch.
The Who – Who Are You (1978) The Who – Face Dances (1981) I like to play these Who albums back-to-back because despite having different drummers, I don’t think they are as dissimilar as traditionally thought. For a while, I thought Face Dances was the better of the two albums, but playing them consecutively for the first time convinced me otherwise. Who Are You caught The Who at a low point. Drummer Keith Moon was out of shape and punk had changed the landscape of rock music. Pete Townshend reached back to the decade-old, abandoned Lifehouse concept for several songs. Bass player John Entwistle wrote his songs in singer Roger Daltrey’s range so they would have a better shot at getting on the album. Both moves worked. Entwistle placed a record three songs on the album and Townshend’s leftovers – including the title song – were solid. I think Who Are You gets more credit than deserved because of the iconic title number and Moon’s death less than a month after the album was released. I also think Face Dances gets knocked unfairly because of Moon’s absence. To my ears, Townshend’s writing on the whole of Face Dances is just as reliable as that on Who Are You. “You Better You Bet” may not be as good as “Who Are You,” but it doesn’t miss by much. “Don’t Let Go the Coat” and “Another Tricky Day” should be on every expansive Who playlist alongside “Guitar and Pen” and “Sister Disco.” Although Who Are You gets the nod as a slightly better album, both releases are second-tier Who. Unfortunately, the band has yet to release a first-tier album in the decades since these.
R.E.M. – The Best of R.E.M. at the BBC (compilation) I was a pretty intense R.E.M. fan for a long time, but after they broke up in 2011, their music gradually fell out of regular rotation. This 2018 collection made me fall in love with the band all over again. The two-record set cherry picks the best cuts from the eight CD set. The first LP pulls from the band’s studio sessions, while the second draws from concerts recorded in 1984, 1985 and 1999. Because founding member Bill Berry only appears on a third of cuts, the album inadvertently becomes a showcase for late-period R.E.M. While the albums released without Berry certainly weren’t as strong as those with him on board, each of them still had several amazing moments. It is fantastic to have many of those late-period high points collected here. The later in-concert material shows that while R.E.M. may have slipped on record, they remained an undeniable live force until the end.
Special mention must be made of drummer Bill Rieflin, who became R.E.M.’s drummer in 2004. He only appears on two songs here but beat the skins for the band’s final three albums. Rieflin also appeared on albums by Ministry, Swans, Robyn Hitchcock, King Crimson and KMFDM. Rieflin died of cancer a little over a month ago, in late March. Thanks for the music, Bill.
Insurgence DC – Broken in the Theater of the Absurd (2019) Insurgence DC formed in the late ‘80s, but Broken in the Theater of the Absurd is just their third album, arriving 19 years after their previous release. The Washington D.C.-based punk trio has plenty to say about the corruption and incompetence they see around their hometown. Reading the lyrics printed across the back of the album, one could be forgiven for thinking she was looking at a Billy Bragg broadside. What keeps songs like “Poison Profits” and “Third Party Opinions” from being op-ed pity parties is a well-seasoned band that plays well off each other and knows how vary textures and arrangements to keep the music fresh. The aggressive songs are tempered by flourishes of avant noise (think Sonic Youth), post-punk moodiness and the gleeful ska of “Pick Pocket Pirates.” Fans of the Dischord label and anyone P.O.ed by the current political landscape will find a lot to like in the Theater of the Absurd.
Miles Davis – In a Silent Way (1969) I shudder to think how Miles Davis would have responded to the age of Twitter. Davis has been dead for nearly 30 years and audiences are still trying to catch up to what he was doing. The period when In a Silent Way came out demonstrates Davis’ restlessness and ambition. Just a year earlier, Davis disbanded his second quintet, one of the most incredible ensembles in music history. Three members of that quintet appear on In a Silent Way, but are used in completely different ways and surrounded by a host of other musicians. I’m having trouble coming up with a contemporary corollary for the sounds here. The last couple Davis quintet albums hinted at this direction, but In a Silent Way’s music still sounds surprising and fresh more than half a century later.
Neither rock, nor jazz (and not fusion), the closest touchstone to the music on In a Silent Way might be a psychedelic, improvised version of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp tried to accomplish both together and on their own in the mid 1970s. In fact, John McLaughlin’s electric guitar that opens the second side on “In a Silent Way/It’s About that Time” sounds like what Daniel Lanois would play with Eno in the 1980s. Davis had long moved on by that point, of course. He jerked even more heads by releasing Bitches Brew, another masterpiece, the following year. The vast expanse of the universe is barely enough to contain all of Davis’ ideas. I’m glad he never had to face myopic imbeciles limited to 280 characters.
Alex Chilton – Songs from Robin Hood Lane (compilation) What is it about the Great American Songbook of the 1930s to ‘50s that compels repeated interpretations? Late in his recording career Alex Chilton drew from this well for two solid albums. The output bears absolutely no resemblance to the power pop that Chilton created with Big Star or the blue-eyed soul he brought to the Box Tops. While no one would confuse him with Grant Green, the albums do reveal Chilton has decent jazz guitar chops. Chilton’s phrasing and vocal delivery also depict him as someone completely at home in this style of music. The title of this collection holds the key to Chilton’s comfort with these jazz standards. Robin Hood Lane was the name of the suburban Memphis street where Chilton grew up hearing his mom play these classic songs endlessly. Come to this collection not expecting “September Gurls” or “Cry Like a Baby,” but with an open mind to hear another facet from a criminally neglected (by mainstream society and himself) artist.
Eddie Hazel – Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs (1977) Parliament-Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel left his stamp on many P-Funk classics (dig “Maggot Brain” as Exhibit A) but this was the only solo album released in his lifetime. Solo is a relative term here. Bassman Bootsy Collins co-wrote three of the songs here and keyboard legend Bernie Worrell is credited on two. Those two, plus the Brides of Funkenstein and a host of other P-Funk players all appear, but the album really does belong to Hazel. He transforms “California Dreamin’” into a slow jam and turns the Beatles “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” into an acid-drenched guitar workout. The original songs fit well into the P-Funk songbook, but Hazel’s playing is remains prominent throughout. Although Hazel continued to sporadically appear on P-Funk releases after this album dropped, he was never as prominent as before. Thankfully back in print, Game is essential not only for P-Funk fans, but anyone who wondered what Jimi Hendrix or Ernie Isley might have sounded like fronting a funk band.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Hard Promises (1981) Nearly 40 years ago, when Hard Promises came out, MCA records wanted to hike the price to $9.98. Today, you can down the album on iTunes for $9.99. Inflation, huh? Petty and the boys refused to be the reason their label nicked fans an extra buck and Hard Promises eventually came out at the standard price of $8.98. Regardless of how much you paid, the music here is worth the investment. The songwriting on Hard Promises is every bit as good as Damn the Torpedoes, the band’s previous album, but doesn’t suffer from the same overexposure. The album starts with the classic “The Waiting” before leading into “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me),” the album’s second single. The remaining eight songs are all album cuts, but still beloved to hardcore Petty fans. Stevie Nicks duets on the gorgeous “Insider,” the Heartbreakers roar on “A Thing About You” and the album ends with another delicate ballad, “You Can Still Change Your Mind.” In between we get the slinky “Nightwatchman” and “The Criminal Mind,” which opens with a slide guitar part that sounds like a country version of the riff from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”
Heartbreakers bass player Ron Blair left after this album and didn’t return until 20 years later. Of the four original-lineup Heartbreakers albums, Hard Promises is easily my favorite. Heck, it might be my favorite Petty album pre-Full Moon Fever. Either way, all American rock fans need this album.
The Roots – Game Theory (2006) The Philadelphia natives that comprise The Roots are often labelled the best band in hip hop, an unsubtle jab at other groups that don’t play traditional instruments. Twenty-seven years after their debut album, I think it’s past time to drop the sobriquet and call them what they are: One of the best bands ever. Full stop. After striving (and compromising) for mainstream success on their previous album, The Roots went all-in on a darker, stripped down sound for Game Theory. Even though they weren’t aiming for the charts, I find myself humming the hooks in these songs for days afterward. Named after a mathematical model for decision making, Game Theory stares at big-picture topics like police brutality, drug addiction, poverty and dishonest media outlets. MC Black Thought’s isn’t afraid to drop heavy lyrics, but his delivery swings enough that you wind up tapping your foot as you nod your head. “Clock With No Hands” isn’t just a thought-provoking (no pun intended) look at addiction, but features a beautiful original (read: non-sampled) melody. In fact, one of the few samples on the album comes when Thom Yorke’s voice floats in and out of “Atonement.”
I saw The Roots perform with a full horn section on back-to-back nights of the Game Theory tour and they are among the best shows I’ve ever seen. Not in hip hop, but among everyone. Full stop.
Various Artists – Lows in the Mid-Sixties: Vol. 54: Kosmic City Part 2 (compilation) Between 1967 and 1973, Cavern Studios in eastern Kansas City, Mo., were a hotbed of recording activity. Local groups could venture into the subterranean limestone cave where the studio was located and, for the right amount of money, walk out with a record. The best of the rock sides were compiled on Numero’s exquisite collection Local Customs: Cavern Sounds, shown back on Day 12. Lows in the Mid-Sixties is a companion to that release, rounding up 14 covers of well-known hits by bands you’ve never heard. It is solid garage rock with a touch of psychedelia sprinkled across for good measure. One of my favorites is Dearly Beloved’s version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” Dearly Beloved have clearly studied Van Morrison and Them’s cover, but removed the shimmering signature guitar line (later sampled by Beck on “Jack Ass”). The music here is far from essential and I’m not sure how interesting it might be to an audience beyond KC’s metropolitan area, but it proves the local music scene was humming around the Age of Aquarius.