prophets of rage, psychedelic furs, bobbie gentry album covers

Random record reviews: the Psychedelic Furs, Bobbie Gentry, Prophets of Rage,

By Joel Francis

Psychedelic Furs – Made of Rain

For better or worse, the Psychedelic Furs will always be tied to “Pretty in Pink” and the films of John Hughes. The master of 1980s coming-of-age movies directed his last film in 1991, the same year the Furs released their final album. That is until now, 29 years later, and Made of Rain.

Just the eighth album from the band, Made of Rain is far from the cash-in or pale imitation skeptics could rightly assume after so long an absence. To be sure, Made of Rain will never be mistaken for one of the Furs classics made in the first half of the Me Decade, but it is also better than some of the albums released toward the end of the group’s original run.

 “The Boy that Invented Rock and Roll” opens the album with no concession to the passage of time. Singer Richard Butler is still entrenched in that odd niche between Johnny Rotten and David Bowie, while Mars Williams’ saxophone darts around Tim Butler’s propulsive bassline. Lead single “Don’t Believe” is a tough number that features a short, soaring chorus against a dark backdrop. Later, “Come All Ye Faithful” finds Richard Butler at his sardonic best, delivering lines like “When I said I loved you, and I lied / I never really loved you, I was laughing at you all the time.”

Even less-successful numbers such as “Ash Wednesday” and “You’ll Be Mine” get by on their ability to conjure the specific feelings and memories only the Psychedelic Furs can produce. It isn’t pure nostalgia, but also a wonder that no matter how much has changed, life could somehow sound and feel this way again.

Bobbie Gentry – The Delta Sweete

After the surprising – and massive – No. 1 hit “Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry recorded a sometimes-autobiographical song cycle about life in the South. As a Mississippi native, the material is a natural for Gentry, but odd production choices make The Delta Sweete a completely unique release.

Neither psychedelic nor countrypolitian, the acoustic instruments at the heart of each performance are saturated with strings, horns and seemingly everything producer Kelly Gordon could think of. The busy arrangements often draw the focus away from Gentry’s voice and lyrics. At times, the material resembles folk songs posturing Las Vegas show tunes.

Perhaps no number on The Delta Sweete embodies this juxtaposition better than “Sermon,” also known as the country gospel song “God’s Going to Cut You Down.” Gentry’s version is startling upbeat, accented with punchy horns. It is especially astonishing for those used to the foreboding Johnny Cash version.

The new deluxe version unearths a mono mix of the album, along with band tracks, but the spare acoustic demos are most fascinating addition. The Delta Sweete might be a better album if it stayed closer in spirit to these stripped-down performances, but it would also be a lot less interesting.

Prophets of Rage – Prophets of Rage

The remaining members of Rage Against the Machine have had a hard time filling the void left by the unexpected near-retirement of frontman Zack de la Rocha nearly 20 years ago. The trio paired with Chris Cornell for three albums in the ‘00s and are now working with Public Enemy’s Chuck D and DJ Lord and B-Real of Cypress Avenue.

The supergroup’s 2017 self-titled album is closer in sound, content and spirit to the Machine’s celebrated catalog. Chuck D has no problem agitating a lyric against injustice and the like-minded B-Real is a better foil in this context than a post-reality show Flava Flav.

Neither Public Enemy nor Rage Against the Machine were known for subtly and truthfully the Prophets of Rage doesn’t offer many surprises. The album sounds pretty much exactly as one would imagine. Those excited by this prospect know playing the Prophets at maximum volume satisfies both a primal and sociopolitical need.

Keep reading:

Review: Prophets of Rage

Review: “All Over But the Shouting”

Review: David Rawlings Machine

Review: Prophets of Rage

Album review – “Stax: The Soul of Hip-Hop”

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By Joel Francis

When RZA needed a hook for “C.R.E.A.M.” he turned to the Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You” and joined a large fraternity of rappers and producers who have leaned on the Stax catalog for their tracks. And though Stax has provided the samples for hits by Jay-Z, Public Enemy, Notorious B.I.G. and countless others, the source material has somehow remained in the secret province of crate-diggers.

Until now. “Stax: The Soul of Hip Hop” is 14 wonderfully selected, mostly obscure late-period Stax cuts released as part of Concord Record’s revitalization of the label. It’s unlikely that many Ghostface Killah fans listening to “Supreme Clientele” would have the urge to track down the source material for “The Grain.” But listening to Rufus Thomas’ “Do the Funky Penguin” on this compilation not only sheds light on the music that informed Ghostface – it’s fun enough to make the album more than a history lesson.

It’s great if De La Soul and Cypress Hill are the reasons these song sound familiar, but the collection succeeds because it dusts off great songs that are ignored on most retrospectives. 24-Carat Black’s lone album was ignored in 1973. That album’s title track “Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth” opens this compilation with a slab of socially conscious funk. The female trio the Emotions found their greatest success with Earth, Wind and Fire in the late ‘70s, but “Blind Alley” shows they were fully formed pop soul act long before Maurice White helmed their albums.

The Dramatics’ “Get Up and Get Down” foreshadows the disco movement, while Little Milton’s “Packed Up and Took My Mind” is the marriage of soul and blues that Robert Cray has been chasing for 20 years. The inclusion of Isaac Hayes and Booker T. and the MGs tosses a bone to casual fans, although two Hayes cuts may be one too many.

The only misstep is a song that dates from Stax’ early days with Atlantic Records. Wendy Rene’s 1964 track “After the Laughter (Come Tears)” is an unconvincing ballad whose best quality is a great calliope organ line. Complaining about this cut, the extra Hayes track and the wish that the producers would have packed the disc with more tracks, though, misses the point and spoils a great treasure.

This set not only proves that the hip hop samplers had immaculate taste, but that they weren’t just cherry picking.  While they may have only mined 10 or 15 seconds from each track, the ore runs consistently deep through each performance.

If hip hop is the reason for this collection to exist and that marketing angle will draw those fans to this music, then so be it. But a celebration this fun doesn’t need an excuse.