1969: Rebecca & The Sunnybrook Farmers - Birth

The world just isn’t fair sometimes. Though this Pittsburgh collective (of whom no one was actually named Rebecca) scored opening slots for the Lemon Pipers, Alice Cooper, and Jethro Tull during the relevant and creative peaks of their individual careers, they found it strangely difficult to build much of a fan base outside of their native Pennsylvania. They released one album on a primarily country label – which they certainly weren’t suited for, but good on Musicor for giving them a shot anyway – then broke up a couple years later to eventually become a footnote on the Pretty Woman soundtrack. The immutable reason behind this being unfair is that the potential was obviously there for so much more, a fact made apparent to anyone lucky enough to hear the somewhat ironically titled Birth. They hit all the right buttons, musically and culturally, for their own time and place. So what gives?

“Love” explores baroque psychedelic blues under the mournful wail of Ilene Rappaport, perhaps expressing the realization at the end of 1969 that the world needed a whole lot more than just love and good intentions to change the world, while “Better Dead Than Red” rides the hot-button Cold War topics of the day through reflective soft-psych ricochets, sirens, explosions, and back, elevating the level of poignancy to boiling point. “David & Sally” even sees them take a sombre approach to character-driven storytelling, backed by one of the tastiest hooks on the album. Notable from the opener “Oh Gosh (Running Through The Forest)” is the frantic sound of Ilene (yes, two Ilenes) Novog’s violin, which is largely responsible for the folk aspect. Between the personal and politically insightful interplay of male and female sung vocals, Novog’s violin truly fills out their sound to make it their own thing, while the skill level of all involved takes the whole project to a near-epic level. As such, Birth is an incredibly intelligent and moving piece of industrial city chamber pop of which the only real negative is that it clocks in at a mere half hour.

Recorded over a week or a weekend (historically inconclusive) in New York, there was more than enough raw talent and vision to see this project live out a long life, as proven by the solo careers of the group's two Ilenes. Novog would record a couple albums with Chunky, Novi, and Ernie before pursuing a successful life as a session musician, working with the Violent Femmes and Indigo Girls along the way. Rappaport changed her name to Lauren Wood and recorded several albums as such, landing “Fallen” on the Pretty Woman soundtrack as well as singing the closing credits for the popular NBC series Just Shoot Me.

A lot of people point to the deaths of Joplin, Hendrix, or Morrison as the defining musical tragedy of the early '70s, and while they may not have the drama of wasted youth backing up their story, Rebecca & The Sunnybrook Farmers' criminal lack of exposure certainly ranks as a tragedy in its own right. Here’s hoping Fallout's reissue helps to correct that.

2007: X-Ray Spex - The Anthology: Let’s Submerge

If you ever want to attain a full understanding of the depths punk-rock has slipped into, listen to The Anthology: Let’s Submerge and then throw in an album by any number of modern mall-punks; the disparity, if it doesn’t cause you to openly weep, will at the very least hip you to something most of us Indie-genous folk have known for a long time: the wonderfully reckless abandon of late ’70s punk and early ’80s hardcore is gone, and it ain’t comin’ back.

Poly Styrene was X-Ray Spex’ lead singer, and she’s not important because she yelled “Up yours!” every few minutes at concerts or because she talks about “cliché” and “poseurs” in her lyrics – she’s a mini-legend because, like many of her peers, she didn’t give a fuck. The image pressures and marketing infrastructures that have turned punk into a Beach Party companion simply weren’t functioning at full-bore yet, at least in the underground. And so a string of rebels maintained a ‘scene’ – both in America and in the UK, where the Spex are from – so insular that even the most precocious music-industry leeches didn’t know how to go about sucking the life out of it.

Ironically, the albums recorded during this period, threadbare as they were, have become artifacts even noble lo-fi-ers can’t seem to duplicate. While modern – or, should I say, post-modern – bands have been at least marginally successful in recreating the pastoral folk of the early ’70s or the psych freak-outs of the late ’60s (not to mention that swing resurgence most of us have blocked from our memories), the emergence of a truly Punk retread, in the classic sense of the word, has yet to occur. On the surface, this discrepancy may appear to be disappointing – will the young kids ever truly know punk? – but that’s exactly what makes it so magical. Think about it: when an industry that fills its coffers by recycling the Same Old Shit can’t come up with an Nu version (or at least one anyone cares about), it’s truly a reason to celebrate.

And we do, with four-disc box sets, CBGB comps, still-running mags that can’t seem to Get Over the late ’70s (ever read Jack Rabid’s Big Takeover?), and, last but not least, disgustingly thorough anthologies that try to turn one-trick ponies like X-Ray Spex into a cerebral band through revisionist history and loads of live tracks, John Peel Sessions, demos, and alternate versions. “Whoopee,” you might sarcastically say. After all, Let’s Submerge is on a major label that wouldn’t have deigned to touch X-Ray Spex with a ten-foot A&R pole back in the day. But we’re talking about history here, so don’t sweat the semantics; just be glad these goodies aren’t long lost on old 78s like much of the folk/blues/country of the early 1900s. What’s more, none of the recordings offend. While there are several track repeats – many songs see four different versions – many of them are different enough to warrant inclusion, especially the revealing live takes.

Did I mention Styrene doesn’t give a fuck? As sax player Lora Logic’s horn bleats on unnecessarily – yet so necessarily – in the background and the guitars and bass players barely keep up, Styrene rants so hard and loud your ears will feel like they’ve been sliced, diced, and payin’ the price like Cool J’s rivals on “Mama Said Knock You Out.” To be frank, I can barely stand listening to her for extended periods of time, and this anthology – unlike, say, their only full-length, Germ Free Adolescents – isn’t blessed with brevity. (Just thank your lucky stars the 1995 reunion album Conscious Consumer isn’t included, as it would undoubtedly water down the content of this scrappy, ankle-biting affair.) Styrene’s so emphatic, in fact, that it’s no surprise she joined the Hare Krishnas soon after X-Ray Spex disbanded; after all that purging – today’s modern bulimic could learn a lot from Styrene’s puke-free method – she was probably ready to mellow out for a spell.

Best of all, she didn’t go on to form a shitty solo band. It’s better to burn out fast than to fade away where punk is concerned, and Styrene hasn’t bored us with endless attempts to replicate her golden years, save for the aforementioned reunion. This secures her legend more than her so-punk-they’re-almost-not antics – dayglo clothes, braces – and ensures that true appreciators of punk, music’s flunky, will echo her influence, whether directly or indirectly, for years to come.

2007: Judee Sill - Live in London: The BBC Recordings 1972-1973

Judee Sill never made it big, the way other female singer/songwriters of her generation did. While Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Laura Nyro, and Joan Baez all enjoyed considerable fame and fortune, Sill didn’t sell many albums and was virtually unknown in the United States. In the past few years, interest in Sill, along with the also largely overlooked performer Karen Dalton, has, to a certain extent, been renewed, due to the posthumous re-release of her two early-‘70s albums, Judee Sill and Heart Food. At first listen, Live in London reveals that Sill deserves this newfound attention, and more.

Though comparisons to her folk contemporaries are certainly apt, Sill’s music is more stylistically adventurous, her lyrics more imaginative, cosmic (forgive me the hippie-ism; blame the genre), and often ecclesiastical than the typical late-‘60s, early ‘70s troubadour. Escaping a rough childhood, which included her father and brother’s deaths while she was very young and, subsequently, an abusive stepfather, Sill left home in her teens and began performing in tiny spaces across the country. She had bouts of severe heroin and cocaine addiction (the worst of which caused her death in 1979) and spent some time in jail for possession of drugs, writing bad checks, or robbery, depending on whom you ask.

While other songwriters with troubled backgrounds tend to write biographically, as this live collection demonstrates, Sill was more interested in the metaphysical than in the details of her own earthly existence. Her songs, performed solo on either piano or guitar, most frequently deal with the interaction between heaven and earth, what she calls, in introducing “Down Where the Valleys are Low,” “the place where romantic love and divine love meet.” The disc begins with Sill’s only successful single, “Jesus Was a Cross Maker.” Of all the songs on Live in London, it sounds the most like a Joni Mitchell tune, so it’s easy to see why it achieved popularity. The lyrics are characteristic of Sill, relating religious ideas to contemporary life, describing the Christian messiah as “a bandit and a heartbreaker.” As catchy as a folk song can be, “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” should be considered a classic. The Christian overtones become clear when, before “Enchanted Sky Machine,” a Revelations-via-space aliens fantasy, Sill tells the audience that she’s going to employ some “gospel licks” that she learned during her stint as “church organist in reformed school.”

The most impressive song on the album, though, is a quiet guitar ballad called “The Phoenix.” While still grounded in mythology, it is Sill’s most personal statement. Preceding one performance, she tells the audience that it “confesses that I never do quite get it right.” The emotion in her voice is palpable as she sings, “I’d like to think I’m being sincere/ But I never know.”

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this live record is its inclusion of extensive spoken commentary by Judee Sill. With a blunt, unaffected speaking voice, the songwriter candidly and intelligently explains her work to the audience, discussing the influence of “R&B of the ‘50s” on one song and talking about how she was “living in a car with five other people” around the time that her friends in The Turtles released her song, “Lady-O,” as a single. An interview with the BBC’s Bob Harris toward the middle of the album does break up the flow of the music somewhat, but provides still more insight on her thinking, as Sill rightly observes that British audience were more receptive to her music than American ones and discusses her dislike of opening for rock bands, whose audiences “want to have any ethereal music. They want to boogie on lower levels. They don’t want to boogie on the higher levels. It’s hard to combine those two things.”

The only major problem with the album is in the compilation. Split between three performances, for two episodes of the BBC program In Concert and one episode of the network’s In Session with Bob Harris, many songs are repeated. “Down Where the Valleys are Low” and “The Kiss” appear three times, while “Enchanted Sky Machines,” “The Phoenix,” and “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” each show up twice. This might have been all right if Live in London preserved the chronology, keeping each recording session distinct. Instead, tracks from the three performances are mixed together, so it’s necessary to keep glancing at the back cover of the CD to determine which of three instances of certain songs is playing. Another strategy might have been to make a shorter album, including only the best cut of each song. This flaw is annoying, definitely, but it’s worth overlooking for such an exciting and important document of one of the century’s great, almost forgotten musicians.

1996: Crescent - Now

Few of the lo-fi, noise-rock freak-outs of the ‘90s can claim to leave behind the amount of slow-motion wreckage Now does. One can only hope that every Crescent gig during this stage (meaning before they went sampling, electronic dub primitive) was played in a basement illuminated by a grand total of about two strings of Christmas lights and at such volume as to make one nauseous even if the music plodded by at twenty beats a minute. No other environment would really be acceptable. The liners say Now was recorded from September 9th to September 10th, 1994 and I hope that means it was recorded in one night rather than two days. It’s late night music if it ever existed.

Crescent is basically Matt Jones (guitarist and head mumbler/screamer) and threatening bass grooves. With the core decided on, the twain culled various other musicians from the mid-‘90s Bristol area housing the likes of Flying Saucer Attack, Movietone, and Amp. There were singles (Oh, were there singles!) on Planet Punk but Now was the full-length introduction to the band. The album reuses “Sun” from the single/EP of the same name as its opener (with good reason) but everything else is newly minted.

“Sun” uses that rave-up/lull formula so popular during the time (which I’ve never ever tired of, personally). Esophagus-ruining screaming is juxtaposed with shimmery, sideways guitars. “Superconstellation” is perhaps the album’s best groove situated on top of what seems to be a drone made out of French movie samples. “Intermission” is Now’s “5 - 4 = Unity” being instrumental and sort of jazzy albeit punctuated by the sort of noisy spikes that make your mom ask what’s wrong with the car. However, the album’s transcendental section is smack in the center: “Song,” “Exit,” and “New Sun.” “Song” gradually gets wilder and wilder with more frequent screaming by Jones (but whatever the stronger version of screaming is) and organ work like a pissed-off Messiaen. “Exit” destroys. It just destroys. Chinese walls of feedback and distortion, skronking sax, drumming that seems like it’s almost entirely cymbals, and Jones ruining yet another mic. “New Sun” is its polar opposite: just an acoustic guitar and the lone occurrence of intelligible vocals from Jones. The album continues with three more solid noise-rockers, but the album is essentially over after “Exit” rips the entire album into untold thousands of pieces.

Jones’ snarl and that central bass give any second on Now, even the moments when the band obviously built breaks for themselves into the songs, an ominous, “Oh God here it comes” dread. A couple sequencing issues and being a bit overlong even at 40 minutes are the only things holding it back from being one of lo-fi’s crowning achievements. But even those achievements don’t have “Exit.”

1971: Various Artists: Elektra - A Child’s Garden Of Grass

“Many people have smoked marijuana, many have seen marijuana, but very few people have ever heard marijuana.”

Everyone knows that Cheech & Chong’s Up In Smoke, a natural conclusion to their early seventies comedy records, is the single greatest and funniest pot movie ever made (narrowly beating out Half Baked), but you’re either a fool or ill informed if you think that burnout duo produced the best ever pot album. A Child’s Garden Of Grass, a companion to the Jack S. Margolis’ 1969 book of the same name, easily takes that dubious honour. Every eccentric quirk and isolated experience you have ever known about the indisputable best recreational drug in recorded history is picked at here, all produced under the format of an educational fifties school slide show.

Utilizing all the studio tricks and sound effects the early seventies had to offer, the authentic instructional video outline is injected with surreal qualities, paced by ancient synths providing slide cues. “Have you ever been caught watching the {Flying Nun? Experienced a heightened awareness of your anus and genitals? Had three thoughts at once in a room with four story high ceilings while listening to Myron Florin music? Ever attended a meditation class where raucous Yogi mantras trail inconspicuously into a vicious “SEIG HEIL!?”} It’s all acted out vividly in quadraphonic sound.

The preparatory guidance given, though it may seem obvious to veteran smokers, is priceless to people just learning about the non-Satanic qualities of reefer. Tips on the methods of acquiring pot as well as a brief rundown of its glorious history are bound to start newbees off on the right foot. “A basic truth about being stoned is that everything –even television– is good… you must learn to be careful of this.” Good advice to young reviewers out there. Don’t make the same mistakes your parents did.

Which is most remarkable, this LP has inarguably aged with amazing grace, and is still every bit as accurate and punchy as when it miraculously found release on Elektra in 1971. The cultural relevance is evident by samples that still turn up on contemporary hip-hop and electronic albums, notably the Madvillain debut, DJ Vadim’s USSR: The Art Of Listening, and Mark Farina’s “Betcha Do” from Air Farina. And yet, despite the solid testimony, this record has yet to have a decent re-release.

1968: The Soft Machine - Self-Titled; Volume 2

Though you never see their name on any “as seen on TV” best of the ‘60s compilations, the legacy of The Soft Machine finds themselves remembered as one of the most talented and influential collectives ever to flourish out of the English countryside. Their story began in Canterbury when drummer Robert Wyatt, bassist Kevin Ayers, guitarist Daevid Allen, and idea man Mike Ratledge on keyboards formed the original line-up in 1966. It was this quartet that recorded the first Soft Machine single, while earning themselves a lot of buzz in the UK underground, coming out of the same scene that produced Gong (of which Allen was also a member) and Caravan, among others. They were frequent guests at the UFO Club and even toured Holland, Germany, and the French Riviera. However, upon returning from France, Australian stowaway Allen ran into a little visa trouble, and the group was forced by default to go on as a trio. Andy Summers, who would later become the guitarist for The Police, joined the band for a brief period, but it was as a trio that Soft Machine toured America opening for Jimi Hendrix, and recorded their debut album in New York in 1968.

Without a lead guitar, their eponymous first outing (fondly remembered as Volume 1) sought to meld psychedelia and jazz-rock through Wyatt’s imaginative, liberally panned drumming, Ayers’ jazz & pop bass grooves, and Ratledge’s horror movie Doors organ. With those pieces in motion, they achieved a wondrous time capsule of experimental pop under the constant surreal lyricism of Wyatt and Ayers. Like Syd Barrett was to Pink Floyd, Ayers brought an infatuation with unhinged, uncouth pop to the group aesthetic, which would make Vol. 1 the most conventional SM album in terms of structure. Ayers wasn’t long for this band, though. He left on good terms after the US tour in order to focus on his solo career, which would find modest success over a few decades and a dozen odd releases, many of which returned to the themes first explored on Vol. 1. There’s no rest for the wicked, as they say and the bass-hole was quickly filled by one Hugh Hopper just in time to record their second album in 1969. Hopper had previously played with Wyatt in the Daevid Allen Trio, so it was an easy fit that reflected in the work they produced together.

Without Ayers in the picture, the properly titled Volume 2 would see Wyatt helm the ship deeper into the jazz-fusion they’d toyed with before but hadn’t fully embraced, as well as Dadaism in general. Lyrics left the rational and became more freeform (often, if not always, refusing to rhyme), absurdist humor (the British alphabet in 12 seconds?), and self-reflexive (which included an ode to Hendrix for introducing them to their audience on that first US tour) while the song structure went all avant-punk. Here, a minute of sunshine pop chords bunts a non sequitur into twenty seconds of an organ being tortured without pause (except to flip sides, natch) as if that was always the thing to do, with the average track length running around an anti-radio two minutes. Hopper’s bass morphs from fuzz bomb to mellow scat at the drop of a hat, while Wyatt’s drumming only improved in intensity. This album would mark a rough thematic template that SM would take to its extremes in the years to come.

Both of these first two albums are equally superb in execution, though their aims differed. There are no bonus tracks on either of these Runt reissues, so my views are untainted by extraneous material, but the packaging, for all intents and purposes, is presented as accurately to the original pressings as possible in a jewel case, so it’s an admirable theme. All you get here are two bottles of fine wine. In later years, Soft Machine would go through many changes and release some nine albums in ten years, while Robert Wyatt is still releasing very well received material under his own name to this day. Daevid Allen has had an amazing, collaborative career that’s survived the test of time (reforming Gong as late as 2003 with members of Acid Mothers Temple), while Hugh Hopper has kept busy with all kinds of solo and group projects. You can’t point to any one person and say “that’s Soft Machine” and have much of a case to back it up. The magnitude of raw talent that blessed this William Burroughs named collaboration is written all over history, the fluid motion that propels the windmills of your mind. Open wide and let the sunshine in.

There's a lot of good music out there, and it's not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that's not being pushed by a PR firm.