By Joel Francis
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.