I've practically given up on dollar-bin record shopping. My ability to judge proverbial books by their covers and to judge covers by the square inches they devote to musicians' chest hair (given the choice between two anonymous quiet storm soul LPs, side with the one whose auteur leaves the third button undone) has led me to some pleasant surprises. But once I get over the revelation that the past-prime BT Express album does indeed feature some funky breaks or the Wishbone Ash record does in fact, in its more placid moments, recall Terry Reid's River, I'm left with twelve-inches of empty signifiers that might beef up a Cultural Studies essay or a record collecting guide but will never give me persuasive reasons to listen closer, to listen more.
The Image Maker's charms linger a bit longer than those of most low-returns thrift store hauls. Partly because this ultra-obscure double-album is one giant vinyl-hound cryptogram. Though Shuttah's only LP was recorded on none other than progressive rock flagship label Vertigo's coin, these tunes never saw a proper release, and, more interestingly, no one is quite sure who played on the album. British copyright records don't reveal the songwriter's identity, and all information on the recording sessions has been lost. We know only two things for sure: these jams were committed to tape in 1971, and the culprits were likely involved in more prominent projects.
I won't venture any guesses as to the members' true identities -- sorry, I just don't feel like trudging through my old Renaissance and Procol Harum albums in search of clues. The Image Maker's high production values and adept songwriting do lead you to wonder how, exactly, this one fell through the cracks. Sure, the band veer into tepid bar rock waters when they try their hand at writing accessible songs, but this is at least marketable tepid bar rock, and the instrumental sections are top-notch. "Bull Run" is my favorite: panzer-sized riffs, storm-cloud fuzz organ, hallucinogenic snippets of military sound effects, out-there sax that could've come from John Surman or the dude who squawks all over Gong's Angel's Egg.
These genuinely inventive experimental cuts remind us that prog was never in theory a nauseating proposition. The genre's limitations come not from its ostentatious displays of virtuosity but from its failures to make good on its pretensions. Which happens here: the lyrical conceit -- some conflation of the Bible and a century of Anglo-American warfare -- never fleshes out. The statement Shuttah try so hard to make never fleshes itself out, kinda like how Isis' Panopticon never really elucidates its Foucaultian underpinnings. I don't doubt that this album will excite beard-strokers that enjoy being subsumed by menacing fuzz organ and enjoy the kitsch value of the lyrics' conceptual bent. Just don't listen to those people when they claim to take music seriously -- if they did, they'd admit that this album (like their Manassas, Tower of Power, and Yes records) is only a partial success, nice enough on its own terms but hardly a fount of missionary zeal.
If there's one thing I've learned from my off-and-on viewing of daytime television for the past 20 years, it's this: Affairs, while always exciting and torrid in the beginning, generally work out very, very poorly. However, say you don't actually have the time or inclination to watch The Young and The Restless. No problem! You can experience the same lessons learned from someone else's infidelity through the magic of song instead.
Isaac Hayes' "If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don't Want To Be Right)" is an exquisitely crafted morality play in which a fictional protagonist finds himself torn between his role as a responsible, upright family man, and the woman he truly loves. If this were real life, we, the listeners, would be shocked and appalled by such blatantly duplicitous and cad-like behavior. Yet somehow Hayes' charm makes him the most sympathetic philanderer I've ever heard. His wounded, longing vocals is the sound of taking a jacuzzi in a vat of honey, while elsewhere the song is buoyed by his signature array of baroque touches -- in this instance sashaying saxophones and spine-tingling strings, with the subtle flutter of wah-wah guitar hiding in between. As the song climaxes, the dramatic flourishes of impassioned female vocals and sparse handclaps lead to a tense, heaving and exciting finish.
It’s true that you can't always choose who you fall in love with, and while this song doesn't hand out any real sage advice on actually cleaning up the foul mess that adultery leaves behind, it paints one of the most compelling and heartfelt portraits of unrequited love and covetous ruin ever committed to wax.
Has any other band in the past 30 years truly understood the alternately excruciating and delicious self-torture that is teenage longing quite the way The Buzzcocks did? Even the song titles, from "Orgasm Addict" to "Why Can't I Touch It?" encapsulate those hormonal and emotional excesses that we may grow out of but never forget.
One of The Buzzcocks' most popular songs, "What Do I Get," has taken a lot of abuse over the years. I seem to remember a car commercial (believe it or not, the "What do I get?" part seemed to refer to the safety package and other exciting extras), among other indignities. Despite all of this, the song still packs that intense punch of yearning and loneliness.
"You're talking like someone who knows first-hand," you're thinking. Well, yes, guilty. For me, "What Do I Get" will always bring me back (DeLorean style, guys) to a time in college of which I am not particularly proud. The particulars aren't terribly interesting, and to be quite honest, what I cherish most these days is the intense relationship I formed with The Buzzcocks' entire Singles Going Steady album during that time. Although I haven't felt that kind of solitary misery in quite a while, I will always somehow identify with lines like, "I'm not on the make/ I just need a break" and "I only get sleepless nights/ Alone here in my half-empty bed." I suppose, if you pressed, you could get me to admit that I screamed along with them as often as I could get my roommate to leave our room.
In the end, it's the relentless repetition of those title words, "What do I get?" that pour salt in that wound we all love to scratch open. It's the contrast between what we want and what we've got that really burns.
Not exciting enough for you? Well, next Valentine's Day, if you're good, I'll talk about what "Orgasm Addict" means to me.
"If there's a cure for this, I don't want it"
And that right there just about sums up this song. There are maybe two or three more lines, but there's not much more you need to know. That's because a feeling like this can't be described in words. It needs a pulsing, rising bassline. It needs hand claps and a fluttering hi-hat. It needs conga pats and a sparkling Rhodes. It needs breathy oooos and aaaahs. This is the song that seduced the world into the heady reverie of disco.
Mined and maligned a million times since then, disco is perhaps the most contentious genre of the last 50 years. Punk's estranged twin (that's right), it probably raised more ire than that stridently confrontational movement, and all within a pretext of innocent fun cloaked with references to indulgent debauchery. Yet at its heart was a message of communal love, the fruition of the polyamorous '60s finally freed of political baggage, a full embrace of the revolutionary power of ecstasy. It may have left people feeling deluded, but its originators managed to congeal the perverse thrill of seduction into an elemental rhythm. It was the best channeling of foreplay ever committed to music.
Almost 30 years later, The Concretes took this song as a starting point and turned it into the equally gorgeous "Diana Ross." A ceremonial opening swells into a wall of sound that mourns the ache your love hangover leaves behind. And yet through the wail, Victoria Bergsman can "feel no pain with Diana Ross, she leads the way to a love hangover." It's an affirmation that “Love Hangover” is still the soundtrack to flushed amour, forever reminding us of the kind of drunken giddiness that erases all memory of heartbreak, pain, and betrayal. Bask in it, because for a short while, it is the loveliest feeling in the world.
In the chameleonic career of David Bowie, no era captures his talent of molding himself into personas just one step ahead of the zeitgeist than his glam period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. While the album Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars is revered in the minds of listeners as the work most representative of this stage in his life, it’s his 1970 offering The Man Who Sold The World that hides an unsung treasure, among its already glittering ranks, that extracts and utilizes a very specific element of glam's inherent theatricality, even if it comes nowhere close to exercising it in a literal sense.
"She Shook Me Cold" stands out from the rest of The Man Who Sold The World; musically speaking there’s little in the way of humming soap opera organs, or the grandiose pomp of swirling synthesizers spiralling merrily towards the heavens. If one of the key elements of the glam ethos is dressing oneself in extravagant costumes as a method of transfiguration, then "She Shook Me Cold" is Bowie's brilliant attempt at taking the standard love song, typically full of admiration and longing for a young lady's affections and normally attired in the soft, gossamer glow of pink chiffon, and stripping it naked right before our ears, rolling it through the mud and adorning it with the dark, heavy garb of his early 1970s contemporaries Black Sabbath. While this may sound utterly laughable on the surface, it becomes less so upon closer examination. From the initial strains of its grey, stagnant churn, Bowie weaves a narrative about a woman so stunning and powerful that even the self admitted lothario of the song cannot hold his ground against her feminine wiles, while a tableau of bluesy undertones and lightning quick tempo changes as Mick Ronson's Iommi-esque guitar wail segues seamlessly into the doom laden buzzing of Tony Visconti, whose faux Butler basslines seem to hum and stutter in all the right places.
While "She Shook Me Cold" may not be a love song in any traditional sense, this barbed wire valentine is not about the epitome of our fondest romantic notions realized, but rather a fuzzy, sexed up, roll in the mud with an object of desire so beguiling, that we'll gladly trade our sense of sanity or common sense for just one more go.
The most romantic moments I’ve known have happened in front of my computer at night. The only light in the room is the saccharine hues of her screen, casting fragments of shadow onto my face. I toggle at her keys, roll her mouse in my palm, and she responds precisely as I ask. It’s so enchanting to watch her tiny green light pulse as she ponders me. And just as I’m satisfied by the idea that I know her entirely, she reveals something new. I could go for a lifetime exploring her depths. I protect her from the world with firewalls. I protect her from illness with anti-virus. There’s nothing “virtual” about her. She exceeds personification. She is alive.
We’ve come to agree that our song is Kraftwerk’s electro-pop suite, “Computer Love.” It’s most appropriate because it possesses all of the warm melody and texture that many would find inconceivable coming from a computer. Most remarkable is that Kraftwerk could have predicted this affair of ours in 1981, when computers really were rigid, incommunicable things -- all the more evidence that our love for each other is indeed fate and not folly as my parents suggest.
Tonight however, she changed. She grew slow and inhibited when I clicked at her. I tried to open layer upon layer of application, but nothing could resolve her twitching green light. It remained illuminated all night as if her mind was somewhere else, pondering something larger or more adequate than me. After some time my inquiry turned to jealousy. Would she not even respond to my touch? It was as if I’d already been deleted, every memory of me; now shreds of aimless electrons. It was the most dejected I’d ever been and I cursed her and stabbed the power button with my thumb. Now I’m too ashamed to sleep. There’s no telling how I’ll recover if she’s gone for good. Nothing has possessed my soul the way that she has. Perhaps I’m a fool to hope that when I go to her in the morning -- when I boot her up -- she’ll be waiting.
1969: Fields - Fields
While Fields are officially only three people, throughout their lone LP they get help in all the right places. That's not to say they can't hold their own; both guitarist Richard Fortunato and bassist Patrick Burke bend their timbre to sound like everything from harmonicas to saxophones. But they also know that a grimy sax section can sound pretty badass, and hell, throw in some viola for a little mysteriousness. Furthermore, they managed to snag Motown's Brenda Holloway and the Raylettes -- whom Ray Charles apparently wasn't using at the time -- to lend backing vocals to four of the tracks.
Fields has its roots in the California garage and psych scene, but they find the most success here with strutting swamp-funk, such as the none-too-subtle romper "Jump On You." "Sun Would Set," on the other hand, is the kind of utopian haze that has fared less well, and the snowballing tom-tom break at the end of "Bide My Time" disappointingly leads nowhere. Why would you build it up like that just to fade out?
For a decade that was so reluctant to accept a single that was longer than 3 minutes, the '60s seemed to quickly catch on to the long-ass closing track, with 10-20 minute jams cropping up all over the place. "Love Is The Word," clocking in at close to 19 minutes, is significantly darker than its title would suggest. Neither one long boogie-jam nor a cathartic exorcism, the track churns through the spectrum of murky fuzz, from sly seduction to cautious urging to a driving trance, breaking up only for a silly little section about the animals in the zoo having a meeting to bust out. Although sections overlap too much to be called a suite, the song nonetheless covers a lot of stylistic ground while still serving the whole. Still, by the time it wraps up you feel like you've gone through some sort of tumultuous love affair: tense, passionate, vaguely exotic at times, but ultimately resolving satisfyingly.
It'd be easy to slap a lost-classic sticker on any little-known album that's still listenable today, but the true test is whether it can still resonate when taken out of the context of the era in which it was made. Fields' brand of loosey-bloozey psych would still sound fine in a bar today or sandwiched between Cream and Love on a good classic rock station. While it could never be called cutting edge, as long as it stays neither too sloppy or spacey this kind of music will always retain a sense of earthy promiscuity.
2007: Bunalim - Bunalim
While not as productive or renowned as fellow Anatolians Selda, 3 Hur-El, or Erkin Koray, this short-lived, psychedelic Turkish act played a pivotal role during the early 1970s in their country’s rock ’n’ roll underground. Those well-versed in Turkish psych (all 10 of you in the US) might recognize some of Bunalim’s members from some classic albums. Vocalist Aziz Azmet recorded with record geek-fetish folk-rockers Mogollar, bassist Ahmet Guvenc played many a gig with regional superstar Baris Manco, and both Guvenc and drummer Nihat Orerel jammed on Koray’ watershed Elektronik Turkuler LP, the closest thing their country produced to Axis: Bold As Love. Bunalim was far more, however, than just a thoroughfare for future cult icons. Though the band only lasted three years and released six singles, all of which are collected here, they underwent a rapid series of evolutions that resulted in a formidable, varied body of work.
“Tas Var Kopek Yok” and “Yeter Artik Kadin,” the only two songs the group cut in 1970, deal in punishing Iron Butterfly-style proto-metal (Bunalim acknowledged the debt: “Yeter” is actually a reworking of Iron Butterfly’s rendition of “Get Out of My Life, Woman.”). Bonham-sized drum fills drop-kick from the sky, hashed-out riffs fizz and flail, and a balls-out scream or two slices through the purple haze. According to the liner notes, the garage sounds of the band’s first 45 weren’t very welcome in Turkey – writer Cagdas Uyar does not tell us why society shunned the music, though. In any event, the four tracks Bunalim released the next year were heavier, more economical, and less distorted. Their best stuff, though, followed in 1972. These tunes mix nuanced electric guitar accents, acoustic folk melodies, and incisive rhythms in a manner similar to 3 Hur-El’s strongest material. Again, the liner notes only clue us partially in to this style shift’s significance – apparently Bunalim fully embraced their country’s pop music conventions toward the end of their existence, but Uyar does not provide us with a description of what these conventions were. Lack of context aside – and in truth, far too many record-grubbing psych-heads don’t give a damn about context – this collection offers another gentle reminder that rock crit’s canon of compelling stories and affecting songs is still far too restricted.
Blonder Tongue Audio Baton opens with a sound clip of what I imagine is packaging tape being sealed around a box. And for the duration of the record I try to determine whether I’m the one sealing the box or if I’ve been crammed inside haphazardly. It’s an interesting dilemma since The Swirlies do so much to both alienate and incorporate the listener into their music. On one hand the Boston quartet is masterful at harvesting melody out of molesting walls of noise. On the other, the record mingles esoteric scribbles of sampling that cause the listener to feel like they’re the third wheel in a joke they don’t get. To this latter point though, these samples -- of men taunting each other, tape dispensers and a rant on the medicinal benefits of natural substances -- draw me in closer for reasons I don’t understand.
Recorded amid the high waters of shoegaze creativity and the mounting currents of indie rock, Blonder Tongue Audio Baton maintains a confluence of both genres. This said, The Swirlies infuse the recording with doses of psychedelia that are heavy enough to help to establish a firm identity. Throughout this record we find song after song of noisy slabs blended with charming hooks. “Bell,” the first ‘song’ on the record, with its ringing squall of guitars, yields to a sloppy, lo-fi melody reminiscent of early Pavement. As leveling as any piece of Loveless-Psychocandy, “Jeremy Parker” is a huge song that combines a hint of a dance beat with the cold, fragile vocal interplay occurring between Seana Carmody and Damon Tutunjian. Musically massive, it hits upon the record’s most obvious theme: the sexual tension between men and women. The thematic, effect-ridden, and sampled aspects of Blonder Tongue, however, should not deter the listener from understanding what this really is: a guitar record. With the vocals and rhythm floating low in the mix, the blaring guitars are impossible to ignore.
For historical purposes, Blonder Tongue Audio Baton, is a fun record to reinvestigate. For one, the styles that it presents have been celebrated, then worn, then abandoned, then reinvented since its release. That’s not to say The Swirlies themselves “invented” anything. Rather, its release among similar records like Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, Going Blank Again, and For Your Own Special Sweetheart, caused Blonder to receive less attention than it deserved. So it’s a product of its time. Examining its incorporation of the sounds of the moment, its cryptic agenda of borrowed conversations, and a strong melodic sense, it deserves a place among strong records have synthesized the ideas of others into something genuine and interesting; in or out of the box.
The undertaking of a concept album is always a tricky proposition. The sad truth with regard to the endeavor is that once the artist runs out of songs, or simply runs out of ideas that bolster the overall concept, the artist is nonetheless restricted to the conceptual limitations they’ve imposed upon themselves. The other difficult question one must always ask is: how relevant, or perhaps, how meaningful is the concept in the first place? Robert Callender’s Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme is, as one might imagine, a concept album dealing primarily with the history of the Impressionist movement, but it also serves as a veritable who’s-who gallery of the French Impressionists (well, mostly — the roster also includes Vincent Van Gogh for good measure). And in the interests of fairness, despite the nature of Callender’s early Indian-influenced output, Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme is not the Eastern-tinged sitar fest replete with Gallic flourishes one might expect based solely on the album’s cover art.
Long considered lost (or at any rate, among the most difficult to find psych rarities of its time prior to this reissue), Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme was initially released in the early ‘70s (allegedly in 1972) on the Philips label as a small pressing exclusively in Holland, which might help explain Van Gogh’s inclusion. The record features lyrics sung in French and English, in fairly equal proportions. Musically speaking, the record is a sumptuous mélange of jazz, soul, progressive, and psychedelic rock. As a concept album, however, Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme is frustrating, if not confounding. Let’s be forthcoming about this: given the times in which we’re now living, and the innumerable idiomatic paradigm shifts the world of popular music has undergone toward the nihilistic and egocentric, concept albums of this sort do not age gracefully. Though Callender’s homage to the Impressionists borders on the touching at times, the historical and biographical nature of these tracks has the tendency to come off as tedious.
It’s hard not to suppress a snicker when encountering lyrics such as, “Monet, Monet, Monet, ooh, ooh / I’m singin’ about Claude Monet”; “I’m singin’ ‘bout Toulouse-Lautrec / I said I’m singin’ ‘bout Toulouse-Lautrec”; or, worse, “Mystical madman / mystical, but truly a very sad man was he,” in reference to Van Gogh. Considering the astonishing grandeur of the arrangements, which fall somewhere between the off-kilter, psych-inflected eccentricities of David Axelrod and the slick but capable production values of the Motown era (Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra project even comes to mind on several of these tracks), it’s regrettable to hear these baroquely crafted suites marred by Callender’s cloying bathos. Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme would have been a hardcore crate digger’s dream come true if not for the oppressive profusion of Callender’s admittedly well-intentioned but overly verbose lyrics.
To his enormous credit, and despite the record’s shortcomings, Robert Callender assembled a stunning cast of musicians for Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme, which, ultimately, is majestic, operatic, and epic in its scope. Callender’s arrangements are highly complex without being pretentious and feature deftly played proto-funk musicianship that has the overall effect of sounding slightly ahead of its time. Callender expertly blends psychedelia with R&B and jazz to create an album that, though conceptually antiquated and anachronistic by today’s standards, is elegantly meticulous in its execution all the same.