Music Writing // Reviews
A sampling of hundreds of "Editors' Notes" penned for Apple Music 2013-18.
The Texas-born Esther Phillips had a gift for interpreting songs and bestowing upon a lyric the precise temperament of a shattered heart. Yes, gnarly addictions and personal setbacks fueled that voice, and record companies were stumped on how to market it. Performance, her unheralded 1974 funky soul-jazz masterpiece — the fourth of seven albums she did for Kudu — finds Phillips commanding yet fragile, sassy yet vulnerable, destructive yet cathartic. On Dr. John’s “Such a Night” and Eugene McDaniels’ ahead-of-its-time “Disposable Society” she's incontestably spirited despite subtexts of sadness, and the results are as breezy as they are beautiful. On Allen Toussaint’s foreboding title tune Philips holds back gracefully like Billie Holiday — which only makes a line like “As I watch you fall down to your knees/They don’t know that you’re praying to please” more poignant. On Chris Smithers’ “I Feel The Same,” with its back-alley guitar and spare, last-call funk, Phillips sounds almost too comfortable telling us there’s no easy way to say goodbye.
The second album from perhaps the most unsung rock & roll band of the late ’70s is an all-killer-no-filler mold-breaker that bottlenecks pop history (from Latin dance to American girl groups to Beatle-y sing-alongs) into beautifully concise anthems and (two) ballads. One simply can’t ignore the songs: Phil Spector nods and English teenage reminiscence make “Brickfield Nights” pop-punk sangfroid, equal parts sadness and joy. They power-up the Hollies’ “Stop Stop Stop” with uncanny pop aplomb and deconstruct Dean Martin’s lounge classic “Sway” by blending Ramones chords and marimba rhythms with three-part harmonies and blipping horns. With nursery-rhyme candor and chugging riffs they wink at dirty housewives (“Classified Susie”), hurl sugary spittle at their record label (“Do the Contract Hustle”), create the best anti-acne anthem of all time (“TCP”) while soccer hooligans jack fists in “Cast of Thousands. “Talking,” which Dangerfield once said was “a bit of a dig at old mates such as Mick Jones” for “suddenly getting all punk political,” matches muscle with humor apropos of their own power-pop cred.
This 22-song collection by northern soul fave Bettye Swann shows Capitol Record’s valiant attempts to expand Swann’s listenership after her moderate 1967 hit “Make Me Yours” on Money Records. Running the gamut of country, pop, soul and R&B, the songs (recorded between 1968-1970) resonate swimmingly under the guidance of Capital staffer Wayne Shuler, son of famed producer Eddie Shuler. There's a tender reading of Marlin Greene and Eddie Hinton’s “Cover Me,” the attitudinal strut of Tony Joe White’s “Willie & Laura Mea Jones,” and a fetching R&B overhaul of Hank Cochran’s “Don’t Touch Me.” Add on winning left-fielders — like a smoky version of Smokey Robinson’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” and a soul-country spin on the Bee Gees’ “Words" — and here’s a collection of tunes by a singer with an eyebrow-raising ability to transcended genres, whose voice sways sweetly between breathy sexiness and barrel-chested joy, and whose girlish innocence and warmth allow vulnerability to augment well-considered guitar and horn-rich arrangements.
It’s always hard to imagine a harmonious, much less fun, relationship between art and rock, but this 1972 Genesis album (their fourth) is proof that, even in music, opposites attract, and the progeny can be disarming, powerful and even beautiful. From the mellotron-stoked science fiction of “Watcher of the Skies” (which climbs to anthemic levels), to the character-driven fusion of “Get ’Em Out by Friday,” to the Biblical, prog-rock suite of “Supper’s Ready,” the conflict and precociousness, already so embedded in the lyrics, find common musical ground.
Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma
Anyone privy to the masterful post-Monkees work by Michael Nesmith knows all about the artistry and intelligence (and dry wit) required in his blending of genres and layering of styles. Every combination on this 1979 release works, and the results are often alchemical, and that’s without any of his patented country rock. There are sultry and swanky moves (“Light”), spirited impulses of ’50s balladry (“Magic”), some funky jazz melody (“Capsule”), tinges of calypso (“Flying”) and rock ’n’ rollers (“Dance,” “Factions”). Harry Nilsson and Warren Zevon would’ve fallen over each other to have penned the lovely “Carioca,” or the narrative-driven “Crusin’.”
With an arsenal of punk cock power -- including Steve New (Rich Kids), Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols), Barry Andrews (XTC), Ivan Kral (Patti Smith Group) -- plus both David Bowie and James Williamson (Iggy and the Stooges) on board as producers, this would promise to be a pretty great album. Well, Williamson didn’t like Bowie, so he bailed. Then guitarist Steve New punched Bowie for hitting on his girlfriend, so he was out too (along with most of his guitar parts). But Soldier proved the truism that heavy conflict makes for great rock music, even if some critics chirped that there was too little guitar in this album’s mix. But less guitar means you get more Pop, and he’s on fire, especially when the themes have anything to do with survival or, um, conflict (“Knockin’ ’Em Down in the City,” “Dog Food,” “Take Care of Me”). There’s also classic eye-bulging Pop satire (“I’m a Conservative,” “Play it Safe,” “I Need More”), and you can hear truly how great a singer Pop had become by 1979; just listen to “Ambition.” Yow.
Rickie Lee Jones
Pirates found Rickie Lee Jones following up her 1979 Grammy-winning debut by building upon her love of jazz, R&B and pop and uncanny ability to spin literate little yarns inside of songs. Her sweeping metaphors here use wild-eyed character sketches to show yearnings of lost love, often between flawed dreamers. They're sometimes based loosely around Jones’ own breakup with Tom Waits, particularly on the beautiful “We Belong Together.” You can see rain-speckled night sidewalks reflecting bar neon or be-bop journeymen junkies searching for “Stax and Sun.” But what casts the longest shadow is “Skeletons," a (true) story involving cops who mistakenly shoot a man escorting his pregnant wife to the hospital to give birth; Jones' graceful croon and airy piano accompaniment all betray a sadness as profound as any you’ll likely ever hear in a song. Her voice often bears a childlike whimsy, though she’s very much her own temple of beat cool. Wrapped in Russ Titelman and Lenny Waronker’s perfectly spacious and cinematic production, rich with strings and horns, the album’s a masterpiece.
It was the end of the ’70s, and hard-living survivors were few, but Nilsson stayed the course claiming he’d retire from making albums after completing this, and he did (soundtrack work and an unreleased comeback album notwithstanding). Hence, the L.A. sessions were ripe with classic Nilsson shenanigans, alcohol and drugs, and healthy dollops of satire and scathing wit filled the songs, easily evidenced on “Cheek to Cheek,” “Rain,” and “It’s So Easy” (which is Alice Cooper’s “Welcome to my Nightmare” sideways). With Nilsson there’s always a flipside to the frolic, and the pathos flow on “I Don’t Need You,” which is, despite itself, a really sad love song. It’s been said that Nilsson’s famously blown voice ruined his post-Pussy Cats albums. Not so, and there’s lots to love here alongside the hat-tips to reggae, pop and R&B light, including a couple Beatle co-writes (with Lennon and Ringo) and an oddball cast of contributors that included, among others, Monty Python’s Eric Idle, Dr. John, Van Dyke Parks, Lowell George, while Memphis legend Steve Cropper produced. This reissue marks the first time it was released outside the U.K and Japan.
The Temptations’ reinvention after losing its gifted/troubled singer David Ruffin (killing The Tempts “classic five” lineup) is one pop history’s greatest. For Motown’s signature vocal group to carry on without the “My Girl” voice was considered career hari-kari. But ex-Contours singer (and son of a preacher) Dennis Edwards stepped in, as did visionary Detroit songwriter-producer Norman Whitfield (along with ace songsmith Barrett Strong) and together they kicked down pop-music doors. Incisive songs burst with freak-out soul, funk and rock ’n’ roll that owed as much to Sly & the Family Stone and Hendrix as the Vietnam War-defined turmoil of the era and the friction between Detroit’s ghettos and ’burbs. Songs traced suburban materialism (“Don’t Let the Joneses Get You Down”) and prison life (“Slave”), updated Shakespearean father-son themes (the grand “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”) and nodded to drug-enhanced escape (“Cloud Nine,” which scored Motown’s first Grammy). This set boasts the best from the eight albums that made up the group’s unbelievably prolific and rich psych era (1968-1973) and features many unsung Motowners, such as song arranger Paul Riser and guitarist Dennis Coffey.
Mott the Hoople
The 1970-’71 recording sessions for Mott the Hoople’s fourth album (their last for Atlantic) were famously fraught with mad shenanigans spearheaded by producer Guy Stevens (Traffic, The Clash) and lots of booze was consumed. And it sounds like it too -- in the best, most rock ’n’ roll way possible. That the New York Dolls rewrote “Death May Be Your Santa Clause” for “Personality Crises” says lots about the rumblings here, but, as singer and main songwriter Ian Hunter once said, this album’s as “schizoid as ever … half fast and half slow.” Indeed, “Your Own Backyard,” and the Mick Ralphs-voiced “Darkness and Darkness” are as sweet as Mott can be, while “Sweet Angeline” is classic Mott lipstick-tracing Jerry Lee Lewis’ trail into Memphis, Tenn. -- replete with percussive piano -- and you can actually Hunter grinning throughout. The rock ’n’ roll finally careens headlong on “The Wheel of the Quivering” (an apt Jack Kerouac nod). It’s the sound of a band crashing and burning, like a speed jive, until David Bowie came along.
It took three Los Angeles nights back in February, 1963 for Sam Cooke to create Night Beat, the first, most beautiful of his artistic statements albums. Here, he's backed with brilliantly spare accompaniment by the Wrecking Crew (including Rene Hall, Barney Kessell and drummer Hal Blaine), and teen organist Billy Preston (all of 16 years old), and unsung pianist Ray Johnson, whose playing here resonates pure midnight ache. The album is neither blues nor soul, but occupies a rarefied place between the two. Cooke swings effortlessly between smoky tenderness (“Nobody Knows the Trouble that I’ve Seen”) to slinky hip-sway (“Little Red Rooster”) to randy blues (“Shake, Rattle and Roll”) to late-bar sadness (“Fools Paradise”). There’s loss and betrayal too (“I Lost Everything,” “Get Yourself Another Fool”). The onetime Soul Stirrer didn’t fill the album with songs of gentle embraces; rather, his optimism is intuited through his voice, that human warmth that says all will be well, soon, and sooner still.
If the MC5 unconsciously simulated the sound of Detroit assembly lines, then the Skids instinctively mined the sound of the Scottish working pit. Both guitarist Stuart Adamson (future Big Country leader) and singer Richard Jobson (later a U.K. TV presenter and filmmaker) grew up in coalmining families in Fife, Scotland, and the big-guitar tunes had undercurrents of Gaelic folk (especially in the guitar and vocal melodies). Jobson took much flak for trivial pursuits and affected obsessions with WWII military behavior and tragic Greek poets -- masculine manias that likely ensured the band would never see U2-like fame. But this Mick Glossop-produced album is wonder for its mix of beauty and power (“A Women in Winter,” “Goodbye Civilian”), anthemic green (“Hurry on Boys,” “Circus Games”) and head-scratching pop wonderment (“The Children saw the Shame”). The Skids were often as musically persuasive as they were fist-jackingly powerful, and it’s hard to believe they never made it beyond minor-player status in U.K. rock history.
The Absolute Game
Tony Joe White
In the tradition of great southern novelists, backwoodsman Tony Joe White, who was born in Louisiana and raised on a cotton farm, could spin a yarn as familiar as any campfire conversation among friends. There’s undeniable regional authenticity to White’s work, both sonically (blues, gospel, rock 'n' roll, R&B) and narratively (the swamp characters in his songs are all based on people he knew). Hence, the singer-songwriter never fit in with the country music biz. Recorded in both Nashville and Memphis, and produced by Billy Swan (of “I Can Help” fame), this 1969 album (his second) was part of White’s two-year stint on the Monument label (before he signed to Warner Brothers). Like his first album, the spare organ, guitar, drums, bass and string arrangements allow White’s hypnotic and dusty talk-croon to pull the listener in, before the stories themselves take hold. Among many greats you get the brooding swamp-goth classic “Rainy Night in Georgia” (covered by myriad folks, and huge for Brooke Benton), a poignant confessional to his wife (“Le Ann”), a hard-driver that would’ve done John Fogerty proud (“Elements and Things”) and a funky, horn-boosted gem (“Woodpecker”).
Too Late to Die
Every once in awhile we stumble upon an album so fraught with musical beauty it stays with us for weeks, months, years. This 2003 release from England’s Tim Keegan-led Departure Lounge is one of those, an almost implausible convergence of songs and instrumentation where lovely acoustics and electronic atmospherics (“Straight Line to the Kerb”) mix with Lee Hazelwood-inspired simplicity (“King Kong Frown”) and unironic swoon (“I Love You”). Remorse even sounds gorgeous (“Silverline”), and a wink to Love goes far as “Alone Again And” is what you might imagine a busted heart sounds like. But wait for the cotton-candy moment in “What You Have is Good,” a four-minute, four-chord stunner of outright optimism that’ll pull you straight from the dull throb of daily life into a world of possibility. No joke.
A Safe House For
Light In The Attic
This obscure soundtrack to an oddball doc made by American music legend Lee Hazlewood and Swedish filmmaker Torbjörn Axelman turned out to be one of Hazlewood’s finest efforts. (The 1975 LP only saw limited Swedish release until this 2012 worldwide reissue). At its core, the album’s a layered celebration of life (its title is lifted from a Buddhist prayer), one loosely inspired by Hazlewood’s years in Sweden and time spent with Alexman on the bucolic island called Gotland. The lovely opener (“Souls Island”) is epic Hazlewood: his dusty twang and cracked-muffler croon glide atop a stunning orchestral swoon, which was arranged by album producer Mats Olsson. The tune’s so good it gets repeated; the second version features a bafflingly apt Swedish narrative by Axelman. Elsewhere, there’s boyhood gaze-back (“Our Little Boy Blue”), a Native American anecdote of heartbreak (“The Nights”), an elegantly ascending instrumental (“Absent Friends – A House Safe For Tigers”) and a rocking country-folk yarn (“Lars Gunnar and Me”) that gets down “to drinking wood alcohol we found in some old barn.”
The Pale Emperor
The restrained glam and guitar hook in this album's opener, “Killing Strangers,” upholds well a sarcastic pro-gun stance, while telling of what’s to come next. And it sounds as if Marilyn Manson is tortured by a never-ending emotional dependence on demon saviors (“The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles,” “The Demon Beneath My Feet”), sexual incongruity (“Cupid Carries a Gun,” as heard on TV’s Salem), filthy blues (“Odds of Even”), and ugly private aggravations (the pop metalcore “Deep Six”). Manson’s dirty compulsions have always been his salve and curse. But the man who made creepy ironic narcissism radio-friendly delivers his best album in years.
This pretty pin-up with the cleft chin and homoerotic hither had scores of teen girls swooning in the late ’60s, early ’70s. His tenor was honeyed and wholly inoffensive – like Glen Campbell – and his choice of songs sparked innocence in an era wrought with a seemingly unending war and failing hippie utopia. What makes Sherman's career remarkable was he appeared unsullied by the times. He rose from a backup singing/dancing gig on the mid-’60s show Shindig to a breakout role the TV series Here Come the Brides – and then this 1969 debut album. The hit single (the Jimmy Webbish “Little Woman”) sold north of a million. The tune, like all here, featured lush Wrecking Crew-fortified pop arrangements (by Al Capps), often peppered with strings and horns. Sometimes it's country-esqse (“Rainy Day Thoughts”) or languid lounge pop (Bacharach-David’s chest-swelling “This Guy’s in Love with You”). Happy surprises include Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings,” and Sherman’s own psych-out finisher, “Time.”
The U.K. punk rock explosion left scrap heaps piled high with talentless never-wases and pro-forma trend-jumpers. But West London’s Lurkers avoided those heaps if only because their music held a kind of screw-all charm that defined boredom like no other punk band on the planet, then or now. If singer Howard Wall’s pitched monotone aped Pete Stride’s easy power-chord riffs, if the songs sounded like blokes quaking it down at the pub —that was the point. The Lurkers were blessed with an inattentive kind of explosiveness, if that makes sense, and their indifference wasn’t a pose. It’s what made the quartet irresistibly great, a frolicsome mix of The Faces (the haircuts and hangover humor), The Ramones (the deceptively smart simplicity) and lethargy. Hence, Fulham Fallout is littered with elbow-bending loafer anthems, with “Ain’t Got a Clue”, “Jenny,” ‘I’m on Heat,” and “I Don’t Need to Tell Her” among them, punk rock classics all. Even Henry Rollins placed this 1978 album in his all-time Top 10 list of greatest punk albums. That's gotta be worth a toast of something cheap.
After a brilliant and earth-shaking debut that nobody bought, the New Yorks Dolls took their unsettled glitter to legendary girl-group producer Shadow Morton (The Shangri-Las) to record this suitably titled 1974 follow-up. The album further alienated the band from potential record buyers in America while making rock ’n’ roll nostalgic high art: The Dolls embrace everything from the Hollywood Barrymore clan (the album’s dedicated to a Diana Barrymore) to shoe fetishists (“Puss ’n Boots), while singer David Johansen wears personae like a drunken playwright on droll covers of The Cadets (“Stranded in the Jungle”), Sonny Boy Williamson (“Don’t Start Me Talkin’”), Archie Bell (“There’s Gonna be a Showdown”), and the Coasters’ (“Bad Detective”). It’s a beautifully bombastic album by what might’ve been the most misunderstood band in rock ’n’ roll. As much the Dolls were a reaction to a lingering hippie milieu, they painted on the irony with enough killer riffs (Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain, natch) and ’70’s bacchanalia to self-destruct too soon after this album dropped. And it sounds like that.
New York Dolls
In Too Much Too
For every rock ’n’ roller with a hard-luck tale about paying dues, there are 50 soul shouters for whom phrases like “real deal” were invented – those who bottlenecked abject poverty and racism and oppression into song. So it’s no wonder The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, The Bee Gees and Bob Dylan (the 14 best white guys in pop history) all covered Arthur Alexander’s songs – they heard his authenticity and understood it, learned from it, dug it. Versions of Alexander's songs by The Beatles (“Anna” and “Soldier of Love”) and The Stones’ (“You Better Move On”) sound downright Anglo next to Alexander's, though both Lennon and Jagger got Alexander’s phrasing down. This collection rounds up the best of singer’s early 1960s output recorded in Memphis for Dot Records (including lots of overlooked gems like the soul-country stinger “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues” and the bummed-lover jam “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight.”) It’s a tough survey of songs and history, more profound on the knowledge that this 6’ 4” Alabama singer wound up driving a bus for a living, barely a footnote in music history.
Soul, blues, R&B and especially funk, would all sound decidedly different today — and would’ve counted for much less over the years — had Crescent City legend and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Allen Toussaint never existed. Toussaint’s productions and songs (covered by The Band, Elvis Costello, Irma Thomas, Rolling Stones, among many others) defined New Orleans’ musical ascension beginning in the early 1960s. And by ’75’s Southern Nights, Toussaint had it all down. From the happy-hoppy funk of “Last Train” and “Basic Lady,” to the heartstring-jerker “What Do You Want the Girl To Do,” to the lovely country teardrop “Back in Baby’s Arms,” Toussaint’s Big Easy sonic footprint is omnipresent. The title song tells of Toussaint’s nostalgia for Creole-speaking generations of his grandparents and haunts like a drive through late-night Louisiana — a tone completely lost on Glen Campbell’s ’77 hit version. This American treasure couldn’t do vocally what Lee Dorsey or Lowell George or Frankie Miller did with his compositions, but no matter — his country croon and barroom scamp do just enough to transport the emotional weight in his songs.
Valley of the Dolls
This was the perfect 10-song sequel to their 1978 bubblegum-punk debut, though the era’s critics trilled otherwise. What made Generation X great was their forever-young, all-the-young-dudes themes of believing in the power of rock ’n’ roll to change hearts and lives, like it did group leaders Billy Idol and Tony James. Made the foursome a younger, louder (albeit naïve) Mott the Hoople. (This set was produced by Mott’s Ian Hunter.) Teen rally call “Running with the Boss Sound” shows how Strat-basher Bob “Derwood” Andrews was punk rock’s Jimi Hendrix — too bad the guitarist, and Keith Moon-like drummer Mark Laff, quit after this album. (They did replace Laff parts with the drummer from Jethro Tull!) The title song’s “Rebel Rebel” guitar wink and backup vocals are all Bowie, while pop-glam stomp (remember Mud?) and Bo Diddley beats power the U.K. hits “Friday’s Angels” and “King Rocker.” Mott balladry doesn’t quite work for “The Prime of Kenny Silvers,” but does irresistibly on “Paradise West” and its poppy nods to Robert DeNiro and Citizen Kane.
You can investigate music history until you’re blue in the face and never discover another voice that’s as pop-soothing, as countrypolitan, and as Dylanesque, as that of Beau Brummels’ singer Sal Valentino. It’s equally hard to find a songwriterly sensibility that matches band guitarist Ron Elliot's. On Triangle, the pair’s melodies (augmented with harpsichords, accordions, and banjos) create an otherworldly ambience that’s as much the American South as it is San Francisco psych, as much Bakersfield country as it is droning L.A. rock. Throw in some Basque country folk and you get the lovely “Magic Hollow”; kick it up a notch and it’s “Only Dreaming”; flip it over and it’s “The Wolf of Velvet Fortune”; throw in Randy Newman and you get the best-ever reading of “Old Kentucky Home.” Produced by golden-eared Lenny Waronker (Little Feat, Neil Young) with beautifully baroque string arrangements by Van Dyke Parks (Beach Boys), and backed by the Wrecking Crew, this could be the greatest album of the 1960s that no one bought. It certainly is one of that decade’s best.
There’s healthy empathy for the downtrodden and broken on Jesse Malin’s second solo album, and a worldview that'd do Scorsese proud. “Arrested” is a classic NYC singer-songwriter rock ’n’ roll detailing boxed-in city dwellers learning of their own futility. Like observations from an apartment window above a coin-laundry on a drug corner where “The undercover makes the bust/But not before he gets a touch.” Then “Swinging Man” sees an improvident romantic on the run who gets his: “We never had a baby but she got more tattoos/And I got more material for the blues.” The frontman of ill-fated power-chorders D Generation came up in the shadow of Max’s Kansas City — too young to have been damaged in it, but far enough away to romanticize. Throw in big sweeping production — acoustic and slide guitars, droning organs, reverb, piano — and some Midnight Cowboy and Lenny Bruce aesthetics and it’s no wonder that Springsteen’s a huge fan of this 2004 release. Malin’s nasally delivery takes a minute, but his voice conveys sadness (and bittersweet pop tones) when the all the sirens fade.
Likely the most ignored album in the Bee Gees canon -- and named after a tune on the trio’s 1967 debut --1970’s Cucumber Castle brims with the band’s classic pre-Saturday Night Fever sound: autumnal pop-psych and finely wrought strings mixing with lots wholly unironic lyrics and lost-love melancholia. While both “Then You Left Me” and the gospel-hued “Bury Me Down by the River” are sonic equivalents of hearts breaking, the sugary power of “I.O.I.O.” might be that year’s best pop song, upheld by Barry Gibb’s Lennonesque vocals and Maurice Gibb’s McCartney-ish basslines. Contrastingly, the country-ish “Sweetheart” and the ironic “The Lord” hum like young Aussies wrote them after a string of cold November nights spent in London clubs listening to Louvin Brothers covers. This album dropped after the band’s 1969 double-LP doozy Odessa. The bros Gibb had enough of each other by then and all but split-up, which might explain the eyebrow-raising King Arthurian suits of armor on the album’s cover. In fact, Robin Gibb is no-show here, but you’d hardly notice.
The Bitch is Back
This onetime James Brown paramour and Tammi Terrell fill-in was a hard-touring overseas star when, after numerous delays, she finally released her sole Motown album in 1975. Superstar producer Norman Whitfield (Marvin Gaye, Temptations) took the main reins here and kicked out the maximum R&B. The opener, “Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On,” kills, a doors-kicked-down blast with an impossible groove and saucy vocal that showed how Fair was too much for radio in the day. (She’s brandishing a whip on the album jacket.) She could be as gutsy as Tina Turner and even James Brown (listen to her dominate the psych-era Temptations’ ditty “Let Your Hair Down”), then unexpectedly flip to her gentler side and lead a classic Motown sound of honeyed strings and sweet vocal accompaniment (“It’s Bad for Me to See You,” “Stay a Little Longer”). Elsewhere she handles Stevie Wonder (“You Can’t Judge a Book by it’s Cover”) and Gladys Night and the Pips (the 1968 hit “It Should’ve Me”) with all the sassy ease of dungeon priestess administering religious rites.
After a brilliant power-pop debut that sold next-to-nothing, 20/20 released this 1981 follow-up with a eye at American radio. But this was hardly a sellout, not when considering the band members themselves were weaned on American A.M. Yes, the songs nod at older pop heroes such as The Left Banke (“A Girl Like You”) and The Raspberries (“Life in the U.S.A.”), and contemporaries The Plimsouls (“Out of My Head”) and The Cars (“Beat City”), but it also sold fewer copies than the group’s debut. Too bad because the shoulda-been-huge “Nuclear Boy” and the lovely lullaby to broken suburban culture “American Dream” uphold a collection of pop that could only have appeared after Reagan was elected but before the outbreak of AIDs; singable tunes not at all satirical and not too serious either — more like a pleasing curio from the last gasp of American innocence. The type of songs that would’ve been programmed at a 1981Midwestern high school prom dance by the one kid in school who had good taste.
Zinc Alloy & the
Hidden Riders of
When this 1974 album dropped, T. Rex mainman Marc Bolan was desperate to crack the U.S. market after 1972’s huge “Bang a Gong (Get it On).” So he teamed with singer-girlfriend (and onetime Motown promise) Gloria Jones, injected shots of American soul and funk into his hipswing, and all but bid adieu to his massive U.K. fame. The result did less to tempt Yankee favor. But it wasn’t all for naught. Sure, the “20th Century Boy” T. Rex was now lost in space (dig “Interstellar Soul”) and going by the name of Zinc, but this soul-rock hybrid predated Bowie’s Young Americans disco-glam by more than a year. (Though “Teenage Dream” updates Bowie’s previous “Moonage Daydream,” and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow cop their allegory from the Spiders From Mars). But Zinc Alloy showed there was real soul in Bolan’s velvet trou, and some Dylan too: “Venus Loon” catches his inner Zimmy rocking an afternoon delight, and surely Dylan would have been proud of the cockeyed Rimbaudisms in “Explosive Mouth.”
Just As I Am
By the time Withers recorded his debut, 1971’s Booker T.-helmed Just as I Am, he was a well-lived 32-year-old who had done time in both the armed forces and factories. The album is, without reservation, one of the greatest, most personal soul LPs ever recorded. Mixing ’70s-style singer-songwriter confessionals with ’60s Southern soul, it crossed genres and racial boundaries, topping both pop and R&B charts. The huge “Ain’t No Sunshine” draws in listeners and then Withers’ stings with everyday truths, all culminating on “Better Off Dead,” where an alcoholic commits suicide after drinking away his woman and life. Yes, his songs are melancholic and sad, sometimes with zero redemptive qualities; vérité, like life. The album feels and sounds like it had to be made, that other options were none for a West Virginian son from a coal-mining town who grew up in a world of railroad yards, welfare lines, "and deceitful congregations."
Stretchin' Out in Bootsy's Rubber Band
Rising from the Detroit crush of Parliament-Funkadelic (and an earlier James Brown association), bassist/vocalist Bootsy Collins and his Rubber Band travel mad expanses of sonic terrain using bewilderingly saucy personae and groove-slam jams. “Psychoticbumpschool” is a P-Funk Allstars suckerpunch, and the title tune attacks the dull comfort of ’70s suburbia and disco monotony (“And glory be/The funk’s on me!”). Big-band horns and greasy R&B frame “Another Point of View,” and the mellow finally descends on “Love Vibes” (lead vocal by Leslyn Bailey) and the Sly Stone-ish “Vanish In Our Sleep.” This George Clinton-produced 1976 debut is a P-Funk essential.
You’ll Lose a Good Thing
If we said an African-American singer-songwriter from Southern Texas, who played guitar left-handed, had scored a Top 10 hit single in the early ’60s, you wouldn’t believe it. Women who played instruments and sang their own songs had little chance then. If we added that Huey “The Crazy Cajun” Meaux (a showy hairdresser and DJ) produced said song (“You’ll Lose a Good Thing”), and this debut album (of the same name), you’d be less inclined to believe. But it’s true; the 20-year-old Barbara Lynn was a trailblazing badass who could rattle the rafters or pull tears from the depths, so great was her playing and singing. Her soul, R&B and blues connects lots of emotional dots here — from tender ache (“Teenage Blues”) to unwavering self-belief (“Second-Fiddle Girl”) to regret (“I’m Sorry I Met You”). It’s the sound of a girl becoming a woman in full command of her writing and playing. No wonder Otis Redding and The Rolling Stones covered her songs a few years later.
This double album was nearly pretentiously titled Phoenix to symbolize the band’s rebirth after settling into a solid, post-Gram Parsons lineup. It was 1970 and bandleader Roger McGuinn was as song-and-culture intuitive as ever while longtime Byrds producer Terry Melcher was cooling off from Charlie Manson panic (the Manson clan had targeted Melcher for murder), so this set beautifully captures in essence failing hippie promise and the seemingly eternal Vietnam War. With one LP recorded at two New York City shows (featuring heavier renditions of earlier hits including “Mr. Tambourine Man” and a fitting, 16-minute “Eight Miles High”), and a second featuring songs co-written by theater great Jacques Levy (for an ill-fated country-rock musical), Untitled boasts some of the finest Byrds on record. (“Chestnut Mare,” a gorgeous 12-stringing song of yearning, is McGuinn’s finest five minutes.) The set includes leftfielders too, including a pair of winning Kim Fowley co-writes (“You All Look Alike,” “Hungry Planet”), a Little Feat cover (the ever heart-stopping “Truck Stop Girl”), as well as a classic Lomax bros ditty detailing the buttonholed evils of blow (“Take a Whiff on Me”).
Frankie Miller’s one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll/soul shouters and songwriters ever that hardly anyone knows. He’s been called a Scottish Rod Stewart, but that’s too easy. Bob Seger copped tons off Miller (listen here to “Down the Honktonk”), even covered his tunes, but The Seeg just ain’t got the same soul, grit or groove. Like Van Morrison, Miller’s a white dude who often sounds black and you can hear the Otis Redding, the Sam Cooke, and also a life flush with guttered-up experiences. He’s a romantic die-hard (“[I’ll Never] Live in Vain”), a fighter (“This Love of Mine”), a believer (“Take Good Care of Yourself”), a lover (“Searching”) and a cheeky dancer (“The Doodle Song”). This 1977 Chris Thomas-helmed LP, Miller’s fourth, saw the singer’s first U.K. Top 40 hit (“Be Good to Yourself” — written by Free’s Andy Frasier), the best version of Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” a continuing fascination with the American south and a blinky-sweet bunch of outcast guests, including The Memphis Horns and guitarist Chris Spedding.
So Soon We Change
David Ruffin could’ve sung the The Muppet Show theme and it would’ve punched with power and beauty. His voice didn’t age as much as reveal his life’s missteps. Made Ruffin one of the most believable soul singers ever. After a handful of appealing yet scarcely promoted Motown solo albums, this 1979 Warner Brothers debut saw underrated Detroit producer and songwriter Don Davis (Johnnie Taylor, Dramatics) smooth-out Ruffin’s delivery while backing him up with horns, dance beats and funked-out riffs (many provided by Funk Brother guitarist Dennis Coffey). Ruffin’s the dancefloor priest on “Let Your Love Rain Down on Me,” “Sexy Dancer,” and “Chain on the Brain,” while “Break My Heart” shows he’s still a balladeer worthy his ’60’s Temptations sides. On “Morning Sun Looks Blue” and the Davis-penned “Let’s Stay Together,” you can actually hear Ruffin on his best behavior, working all routes into the heart where true change happens.
This 1981 album continued Alice Cooper’s commercial fall for a couple reasons: 1) rock ’n’ roll had begun a slide into a morass of synth and drum-machines, and 2) Alice was black-out drinking with even greater gusto. Despite new wavey undercurrents, early ’80s-sounding radio grabs such as “Skeletons in the Closet” and “Don’t Talk Old to Me” upheld the Coop’s black humor while “Prettiest Cop on the Block” would’ve snugly fit any Cooper era. Better, his “Seven and Seven Is” rivals Love’s original (no mean feat!) and class warfare punch-out “Who Do You Think We Are” is one of his all-time best. You’ve got to love a guy who flippantly nods, mocks and preens along with his own inner-narcissist (as on “You Look Good in Rags”) with a wit that had little in common with the year’s hit pop music. The album stiffed but the hardcore fans understood — even a minor Alice effort bettered most albums by anyone else.
After fleeing the wreckage that became the New York Dolls, David Johansen cobbled together a crack team of mostly Italian New York rock and rollers and released in 1978 what Rolling Stone called “devastating rock & roll,” and a “genuine masterpiece.” Johansen also dumps the Dolls’ junkie swagger and ironic androgyny to play it straight, often romantically. He comes off like Bruce Springsteen had he'd been a Warhol scenester with a big, black-sounding voice. The album is still pure New York City (listen to Manhattan roller "Cool Metro") and Johansen is as deceptively smart as he ever was in the Dolls. He shows he's the crushing bandleader on both his solo statement song (“Funky But Chic”) and on a Dolls holdover (“Girls”). Heavy Stones riffs and a polyamorous girl converge on "Not That Much” and grief over a dead lover lifts “Donna” to teardrop status (with help from Bobby Blain’s lilting piano). Motown allusions, purposely syrupy rhyme schemes and backward-gazing melancholy brand “Frenchette” a mini-epic and a fitting closer.
Promise to Love
The smooth-crooning Kem embraces and upholds an old-school R&B tradition of songcraft, sexed-up softshoe and songs for lovers. So the ubiquitous comparisons to Marvin Gaye aren’t for naught. In fact, for this 2014 album (his fifth), Kem hired undersung Motown man Paul Riser (Temptations, Supremes, Quincy Jones) to arrange the tunes, so there’s an even heavier sense of classic soul than on his previous albums. “How Does it Feel” closely resembles old Detroit R&B, recalling the Stylistics and Stevie Wonder, and the spare, guitar-and-vocal “Pray For Me” is as mournful a confessional as you’ll hear in months. The ever-optimistic (and unironic) piano ballad “Beautiful World” is, well, beautiful, while “The Soft Side of Love” is, as he says, music to make babies by. Kem has also bumped up the tempo in places, adding some rocksteady to backdrop his candlelit croon. The single “It’s You” is equal parts late-night chill and dancefloor fodder. Ronald Isley duets with Kem on “My Favorite Thing,” while the silky “Downtown” features Snopp Dogg, though you’d never know it; the tune glows like a nighttime skyline through luxury apartment windows.
Before Japan frontman David Sylvian carried himself with a Brian Ferry élan, before the funk-inspired trysts with Robert Fripp or any acoustic and jazz-intoned solo steps—in other words, before he truly became David Sylvian—he led the teenaged version of Japan, a quintet that was far prettier than the New York Dolls. This 1978 debut reveals the band’s fascinations with Tamla-Motown, glitter rock, American funk and reggae wrapped into concise blasts, mixing disco backbeats with distorted guitars and raw synths. It’s an astounding glam-dance slam like what you’d imagine blaring from an Indonesian whorehouse in some lost Martin Scorsese scene. Sylvian’s fragile, feminine mien only adds weight to his purposely art-school-trash vocals that places him firmly down on the seedy avenues, whether he’s one of “Lovers on Main Street” or a jaded tourist in “Communist China” or the disconnected practitioner of “Adolescent Sex” or the singer helping to sleazily deconstruct “Don’t Rain on My Parade” into a perfectly detached song of existential indifference.
Imagine it's late '68 and you're a green 19, dropping acid with Mia Farrow and Michele Phillips and there's sexual tension, or Terry Melcher and Lou Adler saying your band will rule the world while perfectionist John Phillips, he behind the multi-platinum Mamas and Papas, takes you under his Beverly Hills wing, signs your group to his Warlok records and produces your album in his home studio while Sharon Tate, George Harrison, Keith Richards and others stop by. And then ... nada.
This shamefully lost 10-song album is all late-'60s Los Angeles canyon splendor, airy and suspended on Phillips-arranged harmonies, youth beat, and loud, happy-wristed guitars — there are no bad songs (absolute pop perfection in "Poor Widow," "Strawberry Jam Man," "She Sits There").
The quartet, who looked beautifully Dickensian in a sort of tousled, free-love pre-glam way, had shockingly split by the record's belated 1970 release.
The mighty-mite Now Sounds label did this obscure gem justice — 24-page (!) booklet, original master tapes, new interviews with members, eight extra songs. ...
Fans of Badfinger, Emitt Rhodes or pre-disco Bee Gees, or pop songwriting in general, buy this now.
[From Metro Times]