Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: 30 Days Later

All month long at this blog, we have brought you the Rockaliser 30, a daily series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. We began with Hawkwind and ended with Vanity 6, devoting space in between to everyone from Edan to Ike Turner, Solomon Burke to Rod Stewart. Our hope is that you found this series of two-and-a-half dozen essays edifying, enough at least to check out some of the albums in question. Above, we've compiled a 30-track playlist featuring every song spotlighted over the course of July. And here is the master list:

Day 5: Felt (1971)
Day 30: Vanity 6 (1982)*

Most of these albums are to available to listen to for free on Spotify--those that are not, you will see I have placed an asterisk by. 

If you were reading, thanks for reading. If not, all the pertinent links are above. Don't forget to hit us on Twitter, etc., as a wise man once said. And we certainly aren't done here yet. More news to come in the next few days, of "bookly" proportions.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm due to re-enter the world of Bill Wyman's dreams:

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Vanity 6 (1982)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Thirty. Archive here.]

As was the case with so many records emanating from Minneapolis in the early 80’s, the record sleeve for Vanity 6’s debut doesn’t tell the full story. Scanning the back cover, we learn the group is made up of Brenda, Susan, and Vanity, a tough-looking, interracial trio who favor lingerie. We see the racy song titles, including the opening salvo of “Nasty Girl,” “Wet Dream,” and “Drive Me Wild.” And there, at the bottom, it says “Players: The Time; Produced and Arranged by the Starr Company and Vanity 6.”

So there you have it--Vanity 6 features the instrumentation of The Time and the production of Jamie Starr. Which means that Prince wrote, produced and arranged the entire thing, with zero input from either The Time or Vanity 6.

As with The Time’s debut, this album is a struggle for Vanity 6 to carve out their own identity, while singing Prince’s words over Prince’s music. The quality of the songwriting makes that tough. First single “Nasty Girl” features the slipperiest beat Prince ever threw together. Like “Sign ‘O’ The Times,” the sound might have been too futuristic for its own good. The song was a dancefloor hit, but didn’t make the Hot 100. Twenty years later, Timbaland was constructing beats that sound remarkably like “Nasty Girl,” and they still sounded futuristic. It’s a classic, with a vocal from Vanity that writhes and preens as much as the funk guitar that adorns the song.

Elsewhere, Vanity 6 tends towards the new-wavey funk that Prince explored in the early 80’s. “Wet Dream” is a companion to 1999’s “Delirious,” and “He’s So Dull” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Blondie album.

Those tracks all feature lead vocals from Vanity, the most distinctive of Vanity 6’s singers. On their lead vocals, Brenda and Susan sound more anonymous, overshadowed by the crisp pop-soul, with the ubiquitous synthesizers and LinnDrums of the Minneapolis Sound.

Predictably, the album’s best vocal comes from Prince himself. “If A Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)” is framed as a phone conversation between women arguing over a man. Over a bouncy funk bass, Brenda and Vanity call Jimmy, only to discover a woman on the other line. They verbally assault the lady, Vanity sounding a bit stiff, Brenda reeling off some serious insults. But the woman on the other side of the line--that’s Prince as Jimmy’s girl--is a high-pitched, sharp-tongued force of nature. Jimmy’s Girl is basically rapping, with an impressively loose and angry flow.

Vanity 6 is rounded out by a couple songs that sound a bit like “Computer Blue,” and a sappy finale. It was the only album this group would release, as group members chafed under Prince’s control freak tendencies. Today, Vanity 6 is a mostly forgotten Minneapolis Sound footnote, and that’s a shame. These three nasty girls--gleeful and matter-of-fact in their forwardness--and the prolific genius manipulating things behind the scene had it going on.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: The Roy Ayers Ubiquity, Vibrations (1976)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Twenty Nine. Archive here.]

With its smooth-buttered soul arrangements, cracking backbeats and hazy wisps of psychedelia, Roy Ayers' Vibrations was an album destined to be rejected by jazz purists. And yet the vibraphonist didn't necessarily intend the album as an overture to his soul/funk/acid jazz fanbase, either. Like fellow crossover fusion artists Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd, and Brother Jack McDuff, Ayers saw an appealing midway point between vocal funk and jazz, especially as the former came to prominence in the early 1970s. Songs like "Domelo (Give It To Me)" and "Come Out And Play" were first and foremost ripping funk rhythms with dips into jazz tonality and instrumentation. Other songs, such as "Better Days" and "The Memory," set a smooth template for what would become quiet storm funk. Vibrations nominally belongs in the category of "jazz fusion," but even as fusion goes it has a lot more in common with Isaac Hayes than, say, the Weather Report.

On those rare occasions when someone asks me for a decent introduction to acid jazz or jazz fusion, I tell them to put on the first side of Vibrations, forget the convenient genre descriptors, resist the temptation to mock, and just let the sound envelop you. Ayers is no vocalist--I was once at a party where I tried to play "The Memory," and it provoked very little reaction, apart from comments that the vocals "weren't that great" (granted, we had just been listening to Otis Blue, but that's an outrageous standard when comparing vocal prowess). Even his vibraphone performances are confined to small moments, like the tinkling in the background of "Searching" (later sampled by Pete Rock & CL Smooth) and the title track. But where the jazz lacks, the layers of pop arrangements seem brighter. Vibrations' final number, "Baby You Give Me a Feeling" is a monstrously effective pop song, romantic and dizzying, repetitive and yet never wearying. And the beat is imperishable. When Ayers and his band start chanting "feels so good, feels so good" like a stuck emotional record, it is hard not to jump out of one's seat and jam along.

Will I live to see a Roy Ayers resurgence? Will his albums on Polydor ever be released and remastered, with lovingly detailed liner notes and bonus tracks? Hip-hop used to be the one scene that paid fusion artists any mind at all, and yet nowadays that part of the genre's institutional memory seems to have been lost. Recently, I was listening to Frank Ocean's new album, which is being hailed as a sea change for R&B. But that album does have its moments of spare electronic formlessness, and sometimes I felt myself thinking--this part seems empty, could use a vibraphone solo. That's not a rational critical response, but if the purists were more forgiving about Vibrations back in 1976, maybe my line of thinking wouldn't seem so odd today.

Although it probably would.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: The Soft Boys, A Can Of Bees (1979)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Twenty Eight. Archive here.]

A Can of Bees begins with The Soft Boys’ manifesto: “Give It To The Soft Boys.” But what, exactly, is this prurient, absurdist blues number demanding? And why do the Soft Boys think we have it?

In truth, the Soft Boys had already gotten what they needed. It was 1979 and punk had hit, ripping open a space for this Cambridge quartet to explore...howling, off-kilter trad-rock. The young man at the center of the group, singer/guitarist Robyn Hitchcock, was a Syd Barrett acolyte with a penchant for surrealism (which he’s explored throughout his luminous, wonderful career). Guitarist Kimberley Rew reels of riffs that spiral into the distance. Rew would later hit it big with “Walking On Sunshine,” a song that’s a million miles away from the music here.

“Human Music” is probably the album’s best known track. It’s a slow, synchronized jumble of guitar that’s distantly catchy, especially when the band harmonizes on the chorus. With songs like “Human Music,” and on the psych-punk of follow-up Underwater Moonlight, you hear the roots of 80’s indie and college rock (R.E.M.’s Peter Buck was an avid Soft Boys fan).

Most of A Can Of Bees doesn’t so openly strive for listenability. For one, there’s the lyrics. Hitchcock spools off meter after meter of inscrutable, fanciful syllables. On “Leppo And The Jooves,” he observes “Someday you realize that everything you do or see or think of if it interferes with nothing might as well dissolve in arrows or in tears nobody hears.” Even at his most literal, he’s given to confusing observations: “when you’re thin and damp and shoddy/just remember that you’re in a body.”

Hitchcock sings in a high English wail, often dwelling on vowels. They're the most aggressive vocals he's ever put to tape, but dreamy by the standards of his punk and post-punk contemporaries. Still, a certain misanthropy shines through on tunes like “Sandra’s Having Her Brain Out.” (Make sure you hear the 2010 Yep Roc remaster, which features essential cuts like “Rock and Roll Toilet” and “Let Me Put It Next To You”.)

The Soft Boys have an anti-social streak to their songwriting, as well. A Can Of Bees’ dance number, “Do The Chisel,” does not lend itself to dancing, to say the least. Soft Boys tracks sound like ripped-apart shards of 70’s blues-rock, reassembled in tangles with maximum angularity. Bassist Andy Metcalfe hurls the songs forward, and the rest of the Soft Boys dash to catch up. The friction they generate is often tuneful. That might be inadvertent.

Closer “Cold Turkey” is a good model of the band’s approach. The Soft Boys play John Lennon’s tune at one another, emphasizing the pounding bass and zig-zagging riff of the original. It’s not punk, exactly, but a weird expression that punk made possible. The Soft Boys are here, mischievously different, demanding that we give it to them. Let’s.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Tank, Power of the Hunter (1982)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Twenty Seven. Archive here.]

Tank's aggressive debut, Filth Hounds of Hades, was among the fieriest British rock releases of the early 1980s, arriving on the coattails of a sound saddled retrospectively with the unwieldy handle "British New Wave of Heavy Metal" (abbreviated with the equally unwieldy acronym "NWOBHM"). Like the NWOBHM bands they most resembled (mainly Motörhead and Girlschool), Tank's sound fused the high-sludge riffery of Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult, the speed and aggression of punk, and a little of the fist-pumping chants and crowd-pleasing hooks that would characterize the lucrative radio-ready sound of the latter part of the decade.

Tank's second album, Power of the Hunter, is where the group's punk chops start to yield interesting dividends. Tank's singer-bassist Algy Ward was a punk musician before falling in with the Motörhead crowd--he played bass with the Australian punk band the Saints on their second and third albums, Eternally Yours and Prehistoric Sounds, and would later replace Brian James of the Damned on that group's third album Machine Gun Etiquette. As a singer and songwriter, he clearly comes from the Lemmy school of bile-flecked vocals and outrageously un-subtle guitar licks. Power of the Hunter's opener, "Walking Barefoot Over Glass," is a five-minute anthem that feels like two minutes, a blistering no-brainer of a guitar riff and vocal line stuck in tandem, punctuated by Algy's screams of "HEY! What's going on in your mind?" The song isn't quite punk rock speed, but it reaches for a similar type of primitive expressive edge.

There are other songs on the album, such as the eponymous instrumental statement "T.A.N.K.," which rival Motörhead or the Ramones for speed. But Power of the Hunter mostly settles into a groove somewhere between mid-tempo boogie and aggressive, full-throated speed metal. Most compositions are like "Biting and Scratching," heavy, sometimes lengthy guitar riffs set over a minimal bass/drum thump. Like many NWOBHM artists, Tank's music took the aggression and ingenuity of punk and filtered it back through a slightly-refracted blues-rock take, albeit amped to the gills with amphetaminic distortion. Whether your preferred musical method of intake is bluesy, speedy, or something else, Power of the Hunter is a metal album that proudly shows resistance to the expectations of genre.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: The Delgados, The Great Eastern (2000)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Twenty Six. Archive here.]

The Delgados’ third album is an epic swirl of melody and aching grandiosity. Its songs begin quietly, but grow to enormous proportions, larger than they are loud. The Great Eastern is animated by the desire to escape--drug-induced bliss and total silence surface in the lyrics--but the album carves out and plunges into its own narcotized roar.

Paul Savage’s cymbals clash loudly on The Great Eastern, and his echoing, intricate drum work is front and center. The tunes are all built around subdued melodies, but cloaked in elaborate arrangements and shifting time signatures. The Delgados use these tools to build their slow, ornate and psychedelic climbs.

Producer Dave Fridmann deserves some of the credit for this sound, especially for putting the drums at the center of the mix. Yet with slightly weaker songwriting (as on follow-up Hate), the magic dissipates. These ten tracks are marvels for their weary elegance, and of course their big melodies, but the little touches matter:

Emma Pollack’s double tracked voice on “Accused Of Stealing,” mournful in one ear, all sweetness in the other. How that same track swoons into its chorus. Alun Woodward’s approximation of a strung out Stuart Murdoch. The trade-offs between Pollack and Woodward on “Thirteen Guiding Principles,” and how they lead into a heavy freakout. The twisting horn, trip-hop drums and heavenly string/horn sounds of opener “The Past That Suits You Best,” their gentle takeoff.

Other albums have explored big, druggy pop sounds--Spiritualized’s Let It Come Down, released the following year, is a close cousin to this disc. And The Delgados belong to a group of bands who try to annihilate the sense of loss and alienation in their lyrics with massive, gorgeous noise (My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr are predecessors). Even in this rarefied company, The Great Eastern is unique--straining to reach its sublime highs, and to stay there.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Ike Turner & the Kings of Rhythm, A Black Man's Soul (1969)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Twenty Five. Archive here.]

A Black Man's Soul
 was the soundtrack to the fake '70s movie running through my head during my final months in New York City. On days when I took the subway to school, as I walked the familiar first few blocks to the L train from my apartment, the abum's opener, "Thinking Black," would amplify the Queens landscape around me, like non-diegetic instruments adding rhythm to an otherwise static film scene. As I rode the train, the playful funk of "Getting Nasty" and "Funky Mule" would announce itself, overriding the conversations and behaviors of fellow travelers, as if they were unknowing actors in my own private montage. When the album came to a close, with the lackadaisical arrangements "Nuttin' Up" and "Freedom Sound," I would finally be in Manhattan. Upon entering the surface of the city, the air and light surrounding the skyscrapers would, in my imagination, take on a  sepia-toned, 35mm muted color scheme. Today, Manhattan looks very different than it did in the 70s, but just for a second, this music would summon that "look" I associate with the freewheeling guerrilla filmmaking of Shaft and other blaxploitation films, as well as studiously amoral New York movies like The French Connection or Taxi Driver and the experimental flicks of John Cassavetes. Of course, by the time I had thought through this fantasy, the album would be nearing its end. The colors of Union Square and its surroundings would return to their normal, drab state. But that's why most mp3 players have a "Repeat whole album" feature these days. Modern society has its benefits, too.

Recorded in 1969 in between tour gigs, A Black Man's Soul is an early glimpse into a gloriously fecund creative era for Ike and Tina Turner, who would record more than twenty albums together in the next five years. Since this album is entirely instrumental, Tina does not appear, although four bonus cuts featuring her voice were later appended to the album, all insanely good (but nowhere to be found on YouTube). Many of the session's songs were written by Turner and saxophonist Oliver Sain, and Turner, though an able multi-instrumentalist, mostly played guitar (sharing piano duties with Fred Sample and Billy Preston) on each of these twelve jams. Those interested in Turner's musical history beyond the usual gossip would probably agree that, for all his instrumental chops, his primary skill was as a bandleader and arranger. His absolute mastery at this craft is important to understanding A Black Man's Soul (as well as, though it's not important here, his dictatorial nature and future character deficiencies)--this is an album where the guitar player takes point, and the band dutifully follows his lead, sometimes shouting in wonder at the funky alchemy they have generated.

The standout track is "Getting Nasty." Those familiar with the beginning of Main Source's album Breaking Atoms may recognize elements of the song, which was sampled by Large Professor. Unlike other compositions on A Black Man's Soul, it lacks the loud, blasting horns and prominent bass fuzz that the Kings of Rhythm patented along the Chitlin' circuit. But it does have Billy Preston (soon to join the Beatles on Let It Be) giving one of his greatest performances, guiding his stately piano melody through permutations and modulations that would leave any other band lagging behind in a stupor. Preston's piano, more than the rest of the rhythm section, brings out the dramatic angle of the funk.

To modern, media-saturated ears, A Black Man's Soul sounds like it must belong on a soundtrack, or associated with some type of image, film or other non-abstract referent. But at the time of its creation, it was simply a demonstration of the expanding capabilities of an artist and his band. Every horn blast and bass line on the album is foremost an act of joy and cameraderie, as well as discovery. This is a "live" album in the most visceral of senses--every moment is alive, every musical idea a question mark that can lead anywhere. Sometimes, when I imagine these sessions, the film I see in my mind is that of the Architect of Rock 'n' Roll sitting at a piano, free of his troubled history at last, relishing in music he and his friends created together. Ike Turner was capable of sweetness and light just as he was responsible for his many sins, and too many of us forget his many legitimate accomplishments.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Rod Stewart, Never A Dull Moment (1972)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Twenty Four. Archive here.]

Throughout Never A Dull Moment, Rod Stewart cuts a meek figure. His characters are lonely lads, sitting around catching colds in towns where they don't belong. He sings like he’s Jagger’s younger brother--a scruffy and eager kid. Like Mick, Rod is a great interpreter--here he covers Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Sam Cooke, and Etta James, finding a home in their forlorn tunes even as his narrators drift. (Etta James loved Rod’s “I’d Rather Go Blind”; we’ll never know what Cooke or Hendrix thought, but he does Bob proud on a definitive “Mama You’ve Been On My Mind.)

On Never, Rod has the same problem on nearly every song--girls he can’t get over. Fictional Rod gets in these spots because he’s so damn indecisive. “I’m not asking you to say yes or no, please understand me,” he sputters on Dylan’s “Mama You Been On My Mind.” In opener “True Blue,” Stewart begs “please can you make up my mind?”

It’s a persona at odds with most of what Stewart projected publicly (a few fine albums excepted), but one in keeping with his 1971 solo breakthrough, Every Picture Tells A Story. That album featured a hapless young man stranded in an affair with Maggie Mae, and brought Stewart his first huge hit as a solo star.

For Never A Dull Moment, the follow-up, he works from the same blueprint. This is a harder-edged version of Every Picture’s folk-rock. The tunes, half of them originals, are gorgeously played. Ron Wood, who co-wrote most of the originals, is scrappy throughout. On the Hendrix cover “Angel,” Wood summons the pub-rock spirit inside Jimi’s riff.

The other musicians--a rotating cast, including several members of Stewart and Wood’s group The Faces--find the warm, wistful heart in these tunes. Fiddle, organ, and accordion all age these tracks, giving them the sharpness of a fine whiskey. But it’s Stewart who makes them worth endlessly revisiting. His raspy voice is as loose and assured as his narrators are adrift.

Of Stewart’s transformation into a megastar, Greil Marcus has remarked “If it was necessary to become a great artist in order to get the money to spend and the stars to fuck, well, Rod was willing.” On Never A Dull Moment Stewart is a great artist, just starting his journey towards those reviled, sometimes catchy pop hits. But the stories he sings on this album aren’t about having money or girls. They’re about building up a lot of regrets in a few short years, and on Never, Stewart sells every word.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: U.D.I., Under Da Influence (1995)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Twenty Three. Archive here.] 

Under Da Influence is a truly unknown classic of '90s West Coast hip-hop. The album is an unappreciated example of what is sometimes called "Mobb Music"--a derivative of Dr. Dre's G-funk incubated in the San Francisco bay area during the early 1990s. While The Chronic and other G-funk standards mixed layers of synthesizer melodies with George Clinton samples, Mobb Music achieved a similar type of sound through live, sometimes improvised instrumentation. There is not a lot I could find on the Internet about U.D.I.--in lieu of a Wikipedia entry, the most detailed information about them can be found on their Myspace page--and their debut album seems to have slipped through the memories of even the most curio-minded hip-hop head.

Take it from me, then--Under Da Influence isn't just a "great rap album you've never heard of," it's a great rap album, end of thesis. Like OutKast's Southernplayalisticadillackmusik and Guru's Jazzmatazz records, this is an album where the emcees tailor their lyrical styles to the lush atmosphere of beats mostly created by a live studio band. Indeed, the instrumentation Under Da Influence also has the added benefit of being as catchy and flavorful (in a stoned, even psychedelic sort of manner) as anything from The Chronic, Doggystyle or other key G-Funk releases of the era.

There are three songs in particular on Under Da Influence that I still listen to regularly. The first is "All I Think About," a dance-oriented heavy bass number with the immortal chorus hook "I wanna get hiiiiiigh/I wanna get high/all I think about is endo." The two emcees of U.D.I., Dig and Quint, are not exactly lyrically distinguishable from each other, but they make a great tag team as they wax exuberant over the positive feelings that smoking a ton of reefer can provide. Another song on the album, "Da City Was Made For Me," is my vote for "hardest beat of all time." This aggressive city anthem is a monster of distorted bass and funky scratch guitar. The kicker, of course, is that the song is about San Francisco, home of a hip-hop scene that almost always lagged behind nearby Oakland when it came to "hardness." Next to "Da City Was Made For Me," Dre's synth blasts sound like PM Dawn.

Then there's another song on the record--"Brotha Luv"--that's a bit of a departure for the U.D.I. crew. Whereas most of their songs are either about weed or other cliched gangsta matters, "Brotha Luv" is a story song, and it's a weird one. Over a mellow, descending bass line, Quint and Dig tell a tale "back in the hood" where they knew two brothers, Abel and Cain. Already, it seems silly: when I first heard the song, I thought, boilerplate Biblical reference, I know where this is going--but no. In this story, Abel and Cain are two modern siblings who develop a powerful drug empire through the power of mutual trust and understanding. Over time, though, Abel becomes paranoid and starts partaking in in the drugs he and his brother are selling. Cain tries to protect his brother, but as often happens in Biblically-inspired crime narratives, he is pressured into killing the one thing in life that he loves. Why U.D.I. decided to rewrite the classic Genesis story by making Cain a tragic victim of circumstance, I have no idea. But it's a song that subverts expectations, which is a bonus even amongst the dozens of ornate beats and smooth keyboard funk melodies, which must number in the dozens, that characterize this A+ hip-hop classic.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Fucked Up, Year of the Rat (2009)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Twenty Two. Archive here.]

Assessing Fucked Up’s recent Year of the Tiger, Douglas Wolk writes “Let’s call this an album, OK?” I’m not sure I’d call 2009’s Year of the Rat an album, exactly (it’s seventeen minutes long, shorter than Year of the Tiger’s b-side). But it’s a crucial piece of the Toronto punk band’s scattered and significant body of work. It’s the third entry in their Chinese Zodiac series, and best so far.

From 2012, it’s clear that Rat caught Fucked Up and the end of a phase of their career. They’re not yet bingeing on collaborators, inviting along violins and saxophones, or leavening Pink Eyes’ howl with melodic counterpoints. These changes were to come--natural progressions, for the most part--with the onslaught of accessibility that is 2011’s David Comes To Life.

Year of the Rat followed 2008’s The Chemistry of Common Life, whose chief innovation was to layer guitars on top of guitars on top of guitars, taking a cue from the Smashing Pumpkins. FU had added a third guitarist around this time, but three guitars weren’t enough for these songs. This overdub-mad approach from chief ax-slinger 10,000 Marbles gave the songs a powerful sheen. It’s still punk, but in the tradition of Husker Du’s later records. Year of the Rat is crucial because its two songs are the intensest overdub nightmares FU made.

On “Year of the Rat,” the band gathers its energies before blowing the doors off at two minutes. The headlong rush of the guitars is augmented by Mr. Jo’s drums, panned to the extreme edge of either channel. The overdubs have their own momentum, like those ball-things in Katamari, swallowing speed and volume from everything in their path. By 6:20, “Rat” has powered its way to another loud plain. There’s even a brief return to the intro, before the song flames out in a final metallic burst.

B-side “First Born” has Pink Eyes’ gruff shout from the start. Like “Year of the Rat,” it erupts after a couple minutes. As Pink Eyes screams “this is the greatest moment of my life” again and again, the song shifts into a higher gear, a chugging groove. A searing, woozy riff cuts in, recalling My Bloody Valentine (which their overdubs rarely do). It’s another hulking jam, best heard at volumes that violate your city’s noise ordinances.

Above, I didn’t mean to talk down the sugary direction Fucked Up have followed recently. David is my favorite full-length they’ve put out yet, and I’m worried it will be their last. But the ferocious pile-on of Year of the Rat caught FU at one of the their strongest creative moments, and it’s to be savored.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Jean-Luc Ponty, Cosmic Messenger (1979)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Twenty-One. Archive here.]

The classically-trained avant-garde jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty was one of many extraordinary musicians (along with Shuggie Otis, Captain Beefheart, and Little Feat slide guitarist Lowell George, among others) to replace key Mothers of Invention personnel on Frank Zappa's landmark fusion release Hot Rats in 1969. It was that same year that Ponty put out an album of Zappa compositions, King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa. Surveying a seemingly-random selection of the composer's works from Absolutely Free to Chunga's Revenge, the album's most appealing moments were jazzified takes on difficult compositions like "The Idiot Bastard Son" and "Twenty Small Cigars." As in Hot Rats (particularly the legendary title track) Ponty played speedy, electrified violin runs that meshed especially well with Zappa's bleeding wah-wah guitar style. Ponty and Zappa were both voracious consumers of classical music, jazz, pop, rock and classic R&B, and among their peers they had surprisingly little trouble pulling together these influences into epic jazz-rock concertos.

Ten years later, Zappa was putting out atonal blues like Zoot Allures, Jean-Luc Ponty was recovering from a short stint in the Mahavishnu Orchestra (Mark Two), and the landscape of fusion looked a lot different than it had a decade earlier. What had been a novelty in Zappa's heyday had become sublimated through the airwaves and distilled several times since into listener-friendly lite jazz. However, there was also funk and disco to contend with, if one wished to do so, and on Cosmic Messenger Jean-Luc Ponty chose a path between radio-readiness and restless, jittery violin funk--yes, you read that right, "violin funk."

Among other accomplishments, Cosmic Messenger lives up to the requirements of its title. The title track, a rare fusion ballad, is pure transportive, shimmery momentum, with double-tracked guitar leads swooping over dramatic arpeggios. Ponty's violin emerges from this noise and squeaks through blues patterns that would give the average guitarist hand cramps. Among rock violinists of this era, only Roxy Music's Eddie Jobson could match the intensity of his leads. On "Don't Let the World Pass You By," Ponty builds two minutes' worth of tension with a slow, guttural guitar riff, until the song takes off at double, maybe even triple speed. Against this funky layering of  electronic keyboard arpeggios, Ponty moves up and down his violin like a musician possessed by the need to play every every note combination at once. On cowbell rave-ups like "Puppet's Dance," Ponty makes his violin shriek like its an extension of his own voice, disembodied.

If you can overlook its production sheen, Cosmic Messenger is as seductive as it is tense and dramatic. It rarely flags and never runs out of new directions to explore. If Zappa still made music in 1979 like he had ten years earlier, it might have sounded something like this.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Edan, Beauty and the Beat (2005)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Twenty. Archive here.]

Hip-hop has a long history of mind-bending beats and rhymes. From Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” to Cannibal Ox’s “Iron Galaxy,” rappers have launched their futuristic epics into outer space. Lil Wayne has unequivocally declared that he’s from Mars, and Del Tha Funkee Homosapien has given us an album set in the year 3030. Science-fiction is alive and well in hip-hop, but the genre has never embraced traditional psychedelia in quite the same way.

On his 2005 LP Beauty and the Beat, Boston MC, DJ, producer and Bob Dylan lookalike Edan makes up for lost time. He does it by building his songs as straight hip-hop, before splattering them in day glo. This is a man who understands the culture--he once released a mixtape of 20 songs that sample “Funky Drummer.” And he produces, rhymes, and scratches on his records, while most dudes stick to just one of those skills (if you get a chance to see him live, go: he DJs and raps simultaneously, all while projecting his assured, slightly nerdy form of braggadocio).

For Beauty, Edan digs deep into his crates, surfacing with an army of psych samples that are trippy and obscure as hell. He laces the whole album with groovy sound effects and weird soundbites, and turns the reverb up. Check out “Making Planets”: Edan, live from an echo chamber, spits the first verse as mellifluous noises orbit his lazy bassline. Halfway through, the track disintegrates, giving life to a swirl of primary colors, and a verse from fellow Bostonian Mr. Lif. Other song titles here, like “I See Colors,” and and the album cover give an indication of the strain of hip-hop that Edan’s dealing in. On “Promised Land,” he paints a tune as delicate and wistful as anything on Odyssey and Oracle, although I don’t recall any Zombies lyrics about asteroid belts or slapping a 40 ounce to the ground.

Lyrically, psychedelia works well for the Humble Magnificent, as Edan calls himself. On his early releases, including 2002 debut Primitive Plus, his persona was that of the class clown, if the class clown rushed home to study up on hip-hop history after school. With the acid-inspired imagery of Beauty, he inches towards a more distinctive outlook (“I wear the Prime Meridian as a wristband”), though he’s still given to goofy brags and discoursing on rap history. On “Rock And Roll,” Frank Zappa, the 13th Floor Elevators, the Velvet Underground, King Crimson, Black Sabbath and H.P. Lovecraft all get lyrical love from Edan.

We haven’t heard much from Edan lately. He dropped the Echo Party mixtape in 2009, further melding Golden Age sounds with dubby, colorful production. He didn’t rap on it. I saw him live in 2011, and he killed in front of a tiny, distracted audience. But there’s been no new album, and very little production work, since 2005. Let’s hope for a Born Like This-style reemergence sometime soon. Until then, we’ve got the vivid dreams of Beauty and the Beat.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: King Curtis, Hot Sax, Cool Licks (2000)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Nineteen. Archive here.]

“Did you ever hear a tenor sax/swingin’ like a rusty axe?” As opening lines go, that's a not-inaccurate bit of music criticism. The question comes from the Coasters’ 1959 recording of Leiber and Stoller’s “That Is Rock and Roll,” one of many early rock songs to feature the exceptional session playing of legendary saxophonist King Curtis. Curtis cut plenty of solo tunes during the 1950s and early 60s, showcasing his braying, stomping, gloriously powerful sax mettle, and in between solo performances he recorded equally amazing session work on group hits such as the Coasters’ “Yakety Yak,” Chuck Willis’ “What Am I Living For?” and Joe Liggins & His Honeydrippers' “The Honeydripper.” These songs, plus about twenty additional instrumentals, make up the bulk of Hot Sax, Cool Licks, the most enjoyable and comprehensive collection of Curtis’ session work available.

Curtis’ sax style—delirious, unhinged, operating way outside the proprieties of “tasteful” jazz playing—was one of the foundational sounds of rock 'n' roll. Younger music fans may not remember a time when rock songs regularly featured “dynamite saxophone solos,” but Curtis’ instrumental influence extends even beyond succeeding generations of sax performers. His closest stylistic peers at the time were not fellow tenor sax players, but outrageous R&B performers like Little Richard and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Like those artists, Curtis’ was capable of adding level upon level of foot-stomping flavor to what were sometimes colorless, workmanlike recordings of early R&B standards. Check out the pre-glam stomp of his take on “IFIC,” for instance, the bubbly tear of his instrument bringing the song’s primal blues pressure to a boil. Curtis was brilliant at bending notes so hard and heavy that they came out sounding almost distorted. in that sense, he is perhaps an unstated influence on the next several decades’ worth of electric guitar skree noises.

Here’s another example of how Curtis elevated every recording he played on: as I mentioned, among the other great cuts on Hot Sax, Cool Licks are two versions of “The Honeydripper.” One features the original vocals of Joe Liggins & His Honeydrippers, while the other (“Part II”) replaces the vocal melody with Curtis’ playing. And boy, does he absolutely wreck Version II. Curtis somehow matches the vocal lines note for note, but adds all these weird bends and greasy bwaaaamp noises. Early on in the song, he breaks out a quick solo that’s so fun and decadent it could have been dropped into the Stooges’ Funhouse
twenty years later.

Like many of the early architects of rock n roll, King Curtis’ music tends to be more appreciated than it is enjoyed, but his style is the furthest thing from old-fashioned. As long as killer solos continue to have their appreciators, Hot Sax, Cool Licks will remain a key document of the early rock 'n' roll scene.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Marvin Gaye, I Want You (1976)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Eighteen. Archive here.]

Sound Opinions’ Greg Kot recently spoke of Marvin Gaye’s “deep fallow period” in the mid and late 70’s. Certainly, 1974-1980 was a difficult time for Gaye, who released only two albums during that seven year stretch. He was coping with drug abuse, marital, and money issues. But musically fallow? Hardly. When he hit the studio, the results were fantastic, in the way Sly Stone’s drug addled but artistically triumphant early 70’s were. Gaye’s 1978 album, Here, My Dear is his divorce-themed opus. Critics have warmed to Here since its release (which was a major commercial disappointment). I Want You, Gaye’s 1976 album, spawned a hit, but hasn’t seen the same level of love.

Maybe it’s the disco: there’s a healthy measure of suave production on I Want You. But it’s not vibrant or upbeat--the music here doesn’t soundtrack a night on the town, but rather a night spent watching the dance floor, with a head clouded by burning thoughts (there's a song called "Feel All My Love Inside"). These thoughts will be satiated, if you are Marvin Gaye, but without the joy depicted on the iconic album cover.

I Want You is basically the second straight album Gaye recorded for his mistress, after turning away from the political themes that had brought him new levels of success and respect. By 1973’s Let’s Get It On, he’d pivoted hard towards carnal themes, which were never simple expressions of pleasure. (Even What’s Going On is suffused with...well, follow this link) For I Want You, Gaye ceded songwriting and production duties to Leon Ware, a second-rate R&B maestro. Ware followed his big break in working with Gaye with an album called Musical Massage.

Yet, Gaye was still Gaye. His vocals are so full of sweetness and desire, even at their most spaced-out. He occasionally breaks out into gorgeous melodies, as in “Since I Had You,” worthy of classic Motown. “After The Dance” sounds like a Miracles song at half-speed. But Gaye will lapse back into airy, broken refrains, often providing atmosphere rather than fronting his own album.

He mightily complements Ware’s production, whose downbeat obscurantism recalls There’s A Riot Goin On or Exile On Main Street. The strings, horns, and guitar all blur into a soupy mix. The bass--played by several musicians throughout the album--is consistently funky, but in a dead-eyed, adrift way. The whole thing just has that vibe.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Frankie Cutlass, Politics & Bullshit (1996)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Seventeen. Archive here.]

A great hip-hop DJ cultivates an individual technique as personal and recognizable as any other type of instrumentalist. A discerning listener who can't distinguish a TR-808 from an MPX-500 can still appreciate the stylistic differences between exemplars of the craft like Pete Rock, DJ Premier and the RZA. What production techniques the Puerto Rican producer Frankie Cutlass added to the early 90s scene, I’m not really sure. His second album Politics & Bullshit continues to impress me with its sonic detail, as it has since I first heard the album’s gateway posse cut “The Cypher, Part 3.” That song features the talents of, respectively and in ascending order of quality, Craig G., Roxanne Shante, Biz Markie and Big Daddy Kane. In a fashion it is a spiritual sequel to one of the first posse records, Marley Marl’s “The Symphony.” Though recorded a decade apart, both songs utilize the same sample from Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle,” and the classic Juice Crew team of Craig G. and Big Daddy Kane appear on both cuts. The difference between Cutlass’ beat and Marl’s is that Cutlass deviates further from the original sample, which appears only sporadically in his version. The remainder of Cutlass’ contribution is a combination of siren sounds and keyboard stabs anchored by propulsively clipped bass. It  may not immediately grab the listener, but it’s a really enjoyable beat to listen to and presumably rap over, as Biz Markie’s exuberantly comical verse seems to suggest.

Politics & Bullshit
is also a throwback to an earlier period in hip-hop when DJ albums tended to have the most guest emcee performances, and along with that, the most diverse pool of performers. I defy anyone to name a rap album, from any era, that has a stronger collection of guest stars than Politics & Bullshit. Of the album’s eleven songs total, only two feature the main performer solo. Aside from the principals of “The Cypher, Part 3,” Cutlass also divvies up rhymespace for Heltah Skeltah, the Lost Boyz, M.O.P., Sadat X from Brand Nubian, June Lover, Fat Joe, Mobb Deep, Kool G. Rap, Smif-n-Wessun, Keith Murray, and Busta Rhymes. If that isn’t a “murderers row” of rap talent, it certainly beats any selection of rappers I’ve seen, outside of the odd Arsenio Hall farewell performance jam.

It isn’t just that the rappers selected are strong—with a less focused DJ at the helm, that wouldn't matter. Cutlass is great at placing just the right emcee team on the same track for maximum vocal contrast. A good example of this is the third song, “Focus,” whose verse work is divided between the Lost Boyz and M.O.P. Apart from their reps as legendary 90s rap groups, their respective styles could not be more different. The Lost Boyz' Mr. Cheeks, famous for gently romantic songs like “Me and My Crazy World,” was among the most placid rap performers of the era. The group M.O.P., on the other hand, had two outlandishly stentorian emcees. The beat for “Focus” is on the more subdued end of the spectrum, and leading off with the Lost Boyz the marriage of beat and rhyme is entirely appropriate. But when M.O.P. comes in, the calibration between DJ and emcee is inverted, but instead of the song flying off the rails, it creates a new and surprising dimension. It’s two completely different approaches to rap wedded to a single beat, but it’s all organic.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: 801 Live (1976)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Sixteen. Archive here.]

I’m blasting 801 in my bedroom right now, and Phil Manzanera is letting loose coils of sinister electricity.

It’s “Lagrima,” the first song on 801 Live, a solo guitar workout quickly followed by a joint called “T.N.K.” On this tune, Manzanera’s 801 band switches itself on. Programmed calculator noises and a resolute (and shortly afterward, absolutely jamming) bass mess around, followed by a two-note synth part, and the work of what is surely an eight-armed drummer. Then the vocals start, jumping out of a digital swamp. It’s Brian Eno, sounding more demented than most burgeoning ambient musicians.

“T.N.K.” is a cover of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” an attempt to feed Lennon’s radical experimentation through 70’s art-rock. It’s brilliant, not better or worse than the Beatles recording, just existing in a different universe.

801 were a supergroup who, in this incarnation, featured not just the former Roxy Music bandmates Eno and Manzanera, but also Bill MacCormick on bass and Simon Phillips on drums (a wicked, precise rhythm section) and Francis Monkman and Lloyd Watson on piano and guitar, respectively. Manzanera formed the group while Roxy was on sabbatical, collecting an all-star squad of experimental and prog musicians.

The experimentation on 801 Live is a mad dash for new sounds. The set features a few Eno songs, some Manzanera compositions, tunes from Quiet Sun (Manzanera and MacCormick’s group) and two brilliant covers. “T.N.K.” is the best, but there’s also a proggy, wild-eyed “You Really Got Me.”

The Kinks cover leads into the closer, a version of Taking Tiger Mountain’s “Third Uncle,” which is currently playing very loudly in my room. It’s really fast--the band is just ripping through this already fast song. It’s another fantastic performance--the tenth in a row--and a fine distillation of what makes this strange and futuristic live album so fantastic. 801 Live is at once precise and unhinged, the product of six gifted musicians eager to venture to whatever strange direction the songs suggest to them.

And then it just stops, abruptly. Time for another listen.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, Secrets (1978)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Fifteen. Archive here.]

Although rarely mentioned outside of his collaborations with Gil Scott-Heron, Brian Jackson’s multi-instrumental acumen and deep sense of groove were integral to the creation of nearly all the radical poet’s records between 1971 (Pieces of a Man) and 1980 (1980). During that ten-year interval, Scott-Heron witnessed the ignominious end of one presidency, suffered through two others, and warned of the impending, socially cataclysmic regime of former Hollywood actor “Re-Ron,” or alternately “Ron Raygun,” as he liked to joke. Interestingly, the first album that Scott-Heron and Jackson share proper co-credit, Winter In America, was released at the crisis point of the Watergate scandal, a few months before Nixon would resign. That album also began a gradual pivot away from the spoken-word jazz piano compositions that had been a fixture of Scott-Heron’s solo career ever since he sat down to play piano on “Who’ll Pay Reparations For My Soul?” on debut album Small Talk at 125th & Lenox. On his first few LPs, Scott-Heron’s songwriting was anchored by his serviceable-but-plain jazz figures, but on Winter In America, Jackson’s Rhodes electric piano began asserting itself as the duo’s dominant sonic indicator. Gil Scott-Heron never left his jazz training fully behind, but compare a breezy composition like “Lady Day and John Coltrane” from Pieces of a Man to a late-70s roaring funk monster like “Angel Dust,” from Secrets, and you definitely get a feeling of deepening progression. Clearly, much of this forward emphasis on groove can be attributed to what Brian Jackson brought with his Rhodes electric piano.

Released halfway through Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Secrets is Scott-Heron’s leanest collection of tunes. And yet, despite featuring one of his best-known songs “Angel Dust,” the album has been out-of-print for years. There’s never been much renewed interest in his back catalog, even after his death in 2011. One listen to “Angel Dust” should be enough to change anyone’s mind on that score. An evocative recreation of the mindset of a PCP addict, “Angel Dust” is really about Jackson’s fluid synth bass line, which wobbles its way around brief interjections of guitar and flute as Scott-Heron delivers one of his most anguished vocal performances. I cannot praise the bass work on this song enough. 

The rest of the LP matches the intensity of "Angel Dust." “Madison Avenue” is an attack on Manhattan’s culture of consumption with a mighty breakdown and an appealingly agile jazz guitar solo at the end. “Cane” is a tragic ballad inspired by the Harlem Renaissance poet Jean Toomer and his novel of the same name, which focuses on two female characters from the book, Karintha and Amy. This song is one of Gil's earliest pro-feminist anthems (”For often as our flowers grow/men will try to cut them down”), a subject that would ultimately become the central focus of his swan song, 2010's I’m New Here. Picking up the pace dramatically, “Third World Revolution” is Gil’s call to revolutionary action, aided by a tight piano groove and some judicious cowbell. “Better Days Ahead” is the record’s slowest ballad, resting on the strength of Scott-Heron’s gentle, optimistic croons. “Three Miles Down” contains one of Jackson’s synthiest bass productions and an oppressive metaphor for impotent rage against white society: “Feels like I’m working in a graveyard three miles down.” And that’s just 2/3 of the record. Every song on this album is a killer; even the album cover ranks among the poet's best.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Rick James, Street Songs (1981)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Fourteen. Archive here.]

Before he was a punchline, Rick James was an amazing funk musician. That much is clear from the first seconds of Street Songs opener “Give It To Me Baby.” It's a masterclass in soul, insanely generous in its blend of angry bass, wild synth, rubbermouthed vocals, prancing guitar, and the Temptations’ Melvin Franklin (the narrator’s lady love doesn’t feel so generous, after Rick comes home unashamedly intoxi-caay-ted).

It’s an attack plan James draws on often during Street Songs, whether he’s dishing on ghetto realness (“Ghetto Life”) or complaining about how boring his hometown of Buffalo, New York is (“Below the Funk (Pass the J)”). Street Songs is proto-gransta rap, with its pounding rhythms, anti-police screeds, inner-city sleeze, emphasis on Rick's sexual prowess, and craven pop moves.

The tempos vary, but these are all vivid songs. They’re lascivious, mostly, but the musicianship and songwriting have a professionalism that befits James’ corporate home, on Motown Records. James’ expressive, elastic vocals match his funky creations. Even the slow jam, a duet with Teena Marie, manages to twist what was essentially a bone thrown to Quiet Storm radio into a compelling and genuinely emotional eight minutes.

Street Songs also contains one of the great New Wave singles. I’m guessing you’ve heard that one, and it’s no joke either.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Manzel, Midnight Theme (2004)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Thirteen. Archive here.]

The city of Lexington, KY is not known for its proximity to any regional funk scene, but it is home to two military bases, one of which once stationed a US army lieutenant named Manzel Bush in the early 70s. Bush, also a keyboardist and songwriter, began performing heavy, jazzy funk instrumentals with guitarist John L. Van Dyke and drummer Steve Garner in 1973. The trio never got signed, but they landed an interested producer, Shad O’Shea, who got the group a bit of session time in a brand new Cincinnati recording studio. Two 45s would make up the entirety of Manzel’s initial output: “Space Funk” b/w “Jump Street,” released in 1977, and “Midnight Theme” b/w “Sugar Dreams,” released two years later. By that point, Bush had left music to continue his career in the armed forces, his eponymous band had ceased to exist, and fate seemed to have consigned their lush breakbeats to obscurity.

Today, the band is just as obscure, but the beats for “Space Funk” and “Midnight Theme” are an inseparable part of hip-hop's DNA. Manzel’s tiny output has been sampled by everyone from Cypress Hill to Grandmaster Flash to KRS-One to Biz Markie. One listen to either “Space Funk” or “Midnight Theme” will easily demonstrate why both beats persist. Both songs coast on the unstoppable momentum of their opening grooves, which were perfect for breaking even during the more complicated jazz bits. “Space Funk” begins as a jittery set of alternating bass-snare paradiddles, which is cool enough, but wait until the bass synth part kicks in—it’ll kick you in the teeth. Likewise, “Midnight Theme” begins with a heavy, loose yet metronomic beat, commendable on its own when sampled in songs like “Plug Tunin’” or “How I Could Just Kill a Man,” but when the sweet jazz piano builds and builds, it takes the song to the next level, and then another level beyond that.

Even with the glut of notable samples to his credit, Bush's contributions to hip-hop remained under the radar. In 2004, DJs Kenny Dope and the Undercover Brother, two aficionados of obscure disco jazz funk-type stuff, put together the definitive Manzel release,
Midnight Theme. In addition to multiple remixed versions of “Space Funk,” “Midnight Theme” and their respective B-sides, the DJs found and remixed six previously unreleased Manzel recordings. How these utter gems were left in the studio, I have no idea. Cuts like “Evil, Wicked, Mean and Nasty” and “It’s Over Now” are so unfiltered and joyous, they’re like the platonic funk I conjure in dreams. With no vocalist taking prominence, the album is all about taking groove past the point of sober expectation, and boy does it get pretty glorious at points. Though not everyone got the vibe—a critic from The Jazz Times decried Midnight Theme
as cheesy, saying it “sound[s] like outtakes from failed blaxploitation flicks of that era.” I pity the jazz critic who sees that as a bad thing.

Since it’s a retrospective collection of a few recordings from the 1970s, many of which were previously unreleased, one might say that Midnight Theme does not count as a proper front-to-back album experience. Perhaps not by definition. But in terms of what I expect from great albums, especially in terms of the pleasure principle that separates truly addictive works of art from the merely excellent, these songs are transportive rhapsodies of the highest order. Manzel was, simply, a purveyor of the deepest funk of its kind.