The Cramps, Tom Waits, Khruangbin album covers

Random record reviews: The Cramps, Tom Waits, Khruangbin

By Joel Francis

The Cramps – Stay Sick!

While mainstream America was reliving the 1950s via sock hops and malt shops in “Happy Days,” the Cramps slid a hand underneath the decade’s poodle skirt to celebrate rockabilly music, monster movies and pin-up girls.

The  Cramps roared into the 1990s with Stay Sick!, a debaucherous offering every bit as good as their first few albums nearly a decade earlier. The band’s musk is evident just by reading the song titles on Stay Sick! If a whiff of “The Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon” and “Journey to the Center of a Girl” don’t get you going, dig their perversion of Bob Seger’s milquetoast “Old Time Rock and Roll” into the infinitely superior “God Damn Rock and Roll.”

This is the music your parents warned you about – and for good reason. If that doesn’t provide enough motivation, there’s a song called “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns” which is every bit as awesome as it sounds. C’mon. You know you want to.

Tom Waits – Small Change

Tom Waits’ fourth album plays like the daydreams of a janitor resigned to cleaning up a strip club as the sun rises and the last customer stumbles out. “Tom Traubert’s Blues” opens the album, a romantic fantasy set against a lush orchestra, borrowing the melody and chorus from “Waltzing Matilda.” Jim Hugart’s upright bass propels the next number, “Step Right Up,” a monologue that dances in the common ground between carnival barkers, beat poetry and TV preachers.

The rest of the album settles in between these two poles. Small Change is largely filled wistful, piano ballads with “Step Right Up,” “Pasties and a G-String” and “The One That Got Away” puncturing the fatigue of the late-night blues. Waits quotes a bit of Casablanca’s “You Must Remember This” in the opening and closing bars of “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” illuminating a major influence on the compositions here and the booze-fueled perspective from which Waits was writing.

Waits mined this same fertile territory across the half-dozen albums he released annually in the 1970s, but he never did it better than he did on Small Change.

Khruangbin – Mordechai

Working with vocals seems to please Khruangbin. After building an all-instrumental ouvre, the Texas funk trio released an EP with soul singer Leon Bridges earlier this year. Several months later, they released Mordechai, their third album, replete with singing.

The disembodied vocals on “First Class,” the opening cut, give way to actual lyrics on “Time (You and I),” which recalls Kool and the Gang sans horns. While most songs feature vocals, the singing complements and reinforces the vibe set by the instruments. The upbeat “Pelota” features handclaps and Spanish lyrics delivered with so much gusto it is impossible to listen without moving your body to the rhythm. A couple other high points feature African elements. “Connaissais de Face” incorporates bits of film dialogue alongside African guitar elements and dub rhythm. The relaxing “So We Won’t Forget” floats on a midsummer breeze with its Afro-pop arrangement and chill vocals.

Far from being a gimmick, by the end of Mordechia it becomes clear that the human voice is yet another texture for Khruangbin to play with in their impressive musical arsenal. It will be fun to see where this leads them next.

Phoebe Bridgers, Neil Young, 24-Carat Black

Random record reviews: Phoebe Bridgers, Neil Young, 24-Carat Black

By Joel Francis

Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

Indie folk darling Phoebe Bridgers’ second album is an introspective masterpiece perfect for late nights and headphones. “Garden Song” sets the stage with delicate guitars, subtle electronics and double-tracked vocals, but while Bridgers is able to maintain this mood throughout the course of the 41-minute album, it never feels staid or monotonous. The upbeat “Kyoto” bounces with a horn section, while the autotune on “Punisher” makes the lyrics about loneliness seem even more immediate and detached. “ICU” sounds like one of the best Death Cab for Cutie songs in years. The album culminates with the fittingly titled “I Know the End” and a cavalcade of horns, choir, strings and drums that bleed into screams, electric guitar and deep exhalations – a cathartic release of all the emotions Bridgers has been processing throughout the album.

Punisher recalls the lineage of Elliott Smith, Cat Power and early Sufjan Stevens, but Bridgers’ guest appearances with the 1975 and Mercury Rev and projects with Conor Oberst and boygenius reveal a broad talent that should be successful in whatever path Bridgers chooses. I’m happy to follow her on the ride.

Neil Young – Homegrown

After the success of his classic album Harvest and its No. 1 hit “Heart of Gold” in 1972, Neil Young was at a crossroads. His guitarist and a member of his touring crew had both died from drug overdoses and a longtime romantic relationship ended. Young poured his emotions into two disparate projects. Death got a hard look in the eye on Tonight’s the Night and heartbreak was at the core of Homegrown. Of the two projects, Homegrown was much closer in spirit to the homespun charm of Harvest. This might be why Young released Tonight’s the Night and Homegrown languished in the vaults until now.

Although several songs appeared across Young’s later ‘70s releases, Homegrown is the first chance to hear the dozen songs as Young first envisioned them. The result is this missing link between Harvest and Comes a Time. Not everything works – the spoken word piece “Florida” and lumbering blues of “We Don’t Smoke It No More” stall the album’s momentum – but the rest capture Young in a lyrically vulnerable and musically tranquil state.

24-Carat Black – III

Funk collective 24-Carat Black released only one album, which flopped on the charts in 1973 but gained a second life in the in the 1990s thanks to several prominent hip hop samples. The Numero Group, a Chicago label specializing in obscure and forgotten labels and bands released a collection of unreleased 24-Carat material in 2009. Now, even more 24-Carat Black material has been unearthed and released by Numero as III.

It is clear from some of the performances and mixes that these recordings were never intended to be the final version. That said, there are some moments worth seeking out. The muted trumpet on “I’m Coming Back” places the track in jazz/fusion territory popular in the late ‘70s. Similarly, “Speak Low” feels like a missing link between classical, funk and jazz. The 10-minute “Skelton Coast” sounds like something mid-‘70s Marvin Gaye would have cooked up. It is interesting to wonder what ideas were waiting to be added to the mostly instrumental track. Fans who devoured 24-Carat’s proper album and the previous vault collection will enjoy III. Newcomers should start with the original 1973 Stax release.

shabaka and the ancestors, hinds, the 1975 album cover

Random record reviews: Hinds, The 1975, Shabaka and the Ancestors

By Joel Francis

Hinds – The Prettiest Curse

hinds album cover

One need only compare the cover of Hinds’ third album, The Prettiest Curse, to their previous albums to notice change is afoot. While the first two covers look like yearbook photos shot in a dark corner of a gymnasium, The Prettiest Curse looks like it came from Glamour Shots.  While the music is similarly polished, it thankfully retains its soul and effervescent fun.

The album is filled with nods to the Strokes, the Breeders and the band’s hometown, Madrid, Spain. Back-to-back standout tracks “Boy” and “Come Back and Love Me <3” not only feature the quartet’s first Spanish lyrics, but an unguarded tenderness. This newfound vulnerability returns a few songs later, on “Take Me Back.”

Fans of Hinds early albums need not worry. They still know how to rock, but by peeling back the garage rock aesthetic, The Prettiest Curse reveals Hinds have considerable songwriting chops as well.

The 1975 – Notes on a Conditional Form

With a running time only slightly shorter than most romantic comedies, the fourth album from Manchester pop rockers The 1975 suggests an overstuffed epic. Instead, Notes on a Conditional Form plays like a manic yet polished playlist, careening from one style to another with little regard to flow.

The seven singles plucked from the album so far have done a good job of cherry-picking the high points, from arena rock and dancefloor pop to a tender acoustic duet and ‘80s pastiche. If that’s not enough, environmental activist Greta Thunberg, a gospel choir, an orchestra and several atmospheric pieces also appear.

There’s enough here that everyone will find at least a few tracks to like, but without a core narrative or flow, the album just ambles along. After 22 songs, Notes doesn’t conclude as much as it stops. It’s an album ripe for selective shopping, but spreading the songs across a surprisingly succinct four sides of vinyl, creates mini playlists. These smaller doses work in the album’s favor and make for a more enjoyable listen.

Shabaka and the Ancestors – We Are Sent Here By History

In the 1960s, Impulse Records was responsible for releasing some of the most incendiary and forward-leaning albums by John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. The spirit of those recordings thrives on Impulse’s latest release, the second album by Shabaka and the Ancestors. The 11 cuts on We Are Sent Here By History are filled with a sense of urgency and vitality that make them the perfect soundtrack to our tension-filled time.

Quite simply, there are no songs or even bad moments on this album. Imagine Kamasi Washington spiked with Afro-beat and the best elements of those ‘60s Impulse releases and you’re close. We Are Sent By History is an essential addition to any music library.

Steve Earle, Prince album covers

Random record reviews: Steve Earle, Prince

By Joel Francis

Steve Earle – Ghosts of West Virginia

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.

Steve Earle - The Ghosts of West Virginia

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.

Social distancing spins on pause

Social distancing spins started as a silly little experiment during the coronavirus shutdown. While the virus is still a very real threat, writing about what records I play each day seems too frothy in the face of the very real, very heavy issues currently at the forefront of America today. The series may be back in the fall, when we all will probably need a reprieve from real life.

Until then, check on your friends, support your favorite artists and do something each day to expand your worldview. I am stepping away for now. Thank you all for reading. Don’t forget to check out The Daily Record archives.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 76

I’m still taking a break from writing for a while, but may start creeping back in and adding my thoughts on some albums. I am also happy to take requests. If there’s an album you’d like me to write about, please let me know in the comments section and I’ll do my best to share my thoughts. As always, you, dear reader, are welcome and encouraged to share your insight.

Scott Dunbar – From Lake Mary (1970)

The Cure – Acoustic Hits (2001)

Bob Dylan – Real Live (1984)

Bettye LaVette – I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (2005)

Sly and Robbie – Present Taxi (1981)

Van Morrison – A Sense of Wonder (1985)

R.E.M. – Green (1988)

Off! – Self-titled (2012)

Billy Bragg and Wilco – Mermaid Avenue, Volume Two (2000)

Social Distancing Spins – Day 75

I’m still taking a break from writing for a while, but will be happy to make an exception. If there’s an album you’d like me to write about, please let me know in the comments section.

John Cale – Music for a New Society (1982)

Various artists – Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968 (compilation)

The Roots – Home Grown! A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the Roots, Vol. 1 (compilation)

The Roots – Home Grown! A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the Roots, Vol. 2 (compilation)

Maxwell – BLACK Summer’s Night (2009)

Bob Dylan – Modern Times (2006)

Sleater-Kinney – All Hands on the Bad One (2000)

Buddy Guy – Skin Deep (2008)

Social Distancing Spins – Days 70-74

I hope everyone had a great Memorial Day weekend. In case you didn’t notice from the photo, the greatest living American songwriter turned 79 over the weekend. Don’t worry, I’ll be back to writing up each day’s spins soon. As always, if there’s an album you’d like me to write about, please let me know in the comments section.

Massive Attack – Heligoland (2010)

New Pornographers – Twin Cinema (2005)

Various artists – Black Panther: The Soundtrack (2018)

James Cotton – Live at Antoine’s Night Club (1988)

Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)

Bob Dylan – Infidels (1983)

Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind (1997)

Social Distancing Spins – Day 69

I’m going to take a break from writing for a while, but will be happy to make an exception. If there’s an album you’d like me to write about, please let me know in the comments section.

Nas – Hip Hop is Dead (2006)

Lionel Hampton – You Better Know It!!! (1964)

Gogol Bordello – Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike (2005)

Randy Newman – Little Criminals (1977)

Social Distancing Spins – Day 68

I’m going to take a break from writing for a while, but will be happy to make an exception. If there’s an album you’d like me to write about, please let me know in the comments section.

Tweedy – Sukierae (2014)

The Rolling Stones – Their Satanic Majesty’s Request (1967)

Esperanza Spalding – Chamber Music Society (2010)

Prince – Musicology (2004)

Nikki Lane – Highway Queen (2017)