Read entries 90-81 here.
Ken Nordine – Word Jazz
Even if you do not know Ken Nordine, you know Ken Nordine. Perhaps his iconic, gravely, and bellowing voice is becoming less well-known with the passing of time, but for decades Ken’s voice was known across America, featured in film trailers, commercials, and educational films. Ken’s most interesting contribution to the world was undoubtedly Word Jazz, a melding of spoken word beat poetry, mild mannered jazz instrumentals, and musical tomfoolery. That description does not give Word Jazz its due though, as for every pretty straight forward My Baby, a slick beat poem with bop style jazz, there is a truly strange journey in What Time Is It, a short story with wisps of incidental music, or complete nonsense syllable play in Flibberty Jib. Ken’s voice, an instrument onto itself, paints off-kilter, quirky, and charming tales of eccentric individuals whose lives are turned inside out by curious incidents. Friends of mine will know I am lyric adverse, often finding them relatively irrelevant in the appreciation of an album, and often finding them to be more of a detraction than anything. Since Word Jazz is really focused on, y’know, words, it is impossible to have such an apathetic view on lyrics here. Ken’s odd tales, anecdotes, observations, and philosophies are center stage, but fortunately he is so apt in his verbal compositions it does not matter that the content of his stories often hover in the realm of absurd. Avant-garde works best when it is not afraid to have some humor, and Ken is full of humor. His observations are quick-witted and charming, even giving you an occasional laugh. I discovered Ken on NPR late at night, when it gets quite strange. I was driving to my hometown in the northwest suburbs of Chicago from Kenosha. I was fortunate enough to have my dad’s convertible. As I cruised along with the cooled summer air brushing against me, I was left stunned by this alien man, who at the time marveled at clocks and engaged in a conversation with himself about painting air. Word Jazz has forever been etched into my mind, the meditations of an eccentric who saw music as a template for story, and words as music onto themselves. Ken died not that long ago and I am sad to see his legacy fade rather rapidly. Even if Word Jazz is not the most conventional of listens it is certainly a heartwarming one and also slightly mind melting.
Prince and the Revolution – Purple Rain
I am not going to make an effort to say something new or profound about Prince’s landmark album. Smarter, more well-read, and enlightened persons have written plenty about Purple Rain in a way I could never properly capture. Purple Rain is a perfect pop album, a blending of catchy hooks and sing-along ballads, but also elevated musicality. Prince, by all accounts, was a perfectionist who was unwavering in his talents, which helps us understand why he would often record all the parts on his albums. Purple Rain adds a few more chefs in his kitchen, but make no mistake, this is purely Prince’s creative output, oozing with 80’s synth tones and gated drums. If each song were not so expertly crafted it would be tempting to mock, as by 2020 standards there is a level of cliché, an album so unapologetically 80’s sounding it makes Cyndi Lauper feel timeless. It is that strong musical composition, and Prince’s brazen willingness to lyrically go there, that keeps Purple Rain contemporary. It sticks a massive middle finger up to Reagan’s America with pure filth like Darling Nikki, a song that casually mentions masturbation within the first verse. Purple Rain is a time capsule, a photographic moment of nearly 40 years ago, but it does such a good job of capturing the era without being a parody. Prince would go on to more incredible albums, but Purple Rain is something more than just a good album, it is a cultural marker, a musical landmark, and an incredibly composed pop record with few contemporary peers. Modern pop artists rarely make anything as densely composed, and it is a shame we must go back nearly 40 years for something so catchy, radio friendly and expertly crafted. Pop music can have sophistication, even when talking intensely about sex, and this is proof.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Déjà Vu
I’m not particularly keen on folky, fun, chill, Americana rock. Spoiler alert, there will be no The Band, Grateful Dead, Phish, or similar barefooted ilk on this list. I get nothing out of that type of music, and while the quartet of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young teeters into that realm it never dives too far into ‘chill jams bro’ style music. Yes, it is folky, yes it sounds like everyone has blackened soles from walking barefoot, yes the aroma of them not washing for a week emanates from the vinyl grooves, but it holds its own with nods to 60’s psych rock, the burgeoning heavier rock acts, and much more mild tempered folk. It is the delicate balancing act of styles and ideas that keeps Déjà Vu endlessly fresh, with pop-folk sing-a-longs like Our House, and pseudo-psychedelic protest songs in Almost Cut My Hair. This all fails to mention the grand interplay of guitars and keyboards throughout the album, weaving dense layers of classic rock that gives a lot for the headphone listener to sink into. There are no chunky riffs, but it never feels like the quartet is purely faffing about, compared to others in that fall into this style of music. Perhaps it is not the fairest comparison, as Déjà Vu does not ever feel like a bunch of stoned folks in hemp sweaters diddling on acoustic guitars or banjos. That said, it does often sound like it could have very easily fallen into that trap, as if it is endlessly toying with the idea of “aw shucks lets play this one out for another fifteen minutes. Where is Eddie with the washboard?” Fortunately they do not, keeping songs lean and efficient. In lesser hands this is easily the worst moments of The Last Waltz, musical lollygagging designed to make us all feel good, in these hands, it is a well-crafted fusion of American music for porch bums and music snobs alike.
Eddie Palmieri – Unfinished Masterpiece
Allegedly Unfinished Masterpiece is, as the title states, incomplete; released despite Eddie Palmieri not having given his final stamp of approval. Palmieri apparently did not feel it was up to his standard and was not satisfied with the product. I have a hard time comprehending this however. Sure, Palmieri may have more favorably viewed albums like his Sing Sing recordings, Super Imposition, or Justicia, but Unfinished Masterpiece follows in a somewhat similar suit, a blending of classic salsa vibes like on Puesto Vacante and Kinkamache and some bolder more experimental threads as well like on Cobarde and Random Thought. Heck Eddie even gives jazz fusion some glancing attention on Resemblance. It is the headier moments, specifically on Cobarde, that stand out the most, as the track is more focused on percussive grooves and dissonant piano that keep you bobbing your head rather than the more focused 6/8 dance generators found elsewhere on the album. That is not a ding on that style, but rather a lauding of Eddie’s willingness to play outside the box and not be afraid to break traditions. Even on those more classic sounding songs he shows a willingness to spike the punch-bowl, such as on Oyelo Que Te Conviene where the vibrant frenetic rhythms seem paired with a more dour horn section, and a fierce piano and percussion bridge connects the two halves of the song together. It is bombastic, daring, and confident in coloring outside the lines. Eddie’s best years showed his tendency to break out of traditions and make music that was both a love letter to his roots, but also a break-up, declaring his desires to venture into brave new territories.
Hot Chip – Made In The Dark
British synth-pop luminaries Hot Chip have never been strangers to evolution within their musical context, from indie-pop to 80’s synth-pop to full on dance music. Made In The Dark is a bit of a musical camel, a transitional footnote in their career between the more mellow indie vibes of The Warning and the very danceable One Life Stand. This transitional phase also means Hot Chip are free to participate in some experiments in deciding where to go next with songs like Shake A Fist, about a salvia trip, sampling Todd Rundgren and launching into some high velocity synth tones while playing with some hobbled rhythm patterns, or the very serene ballads of In The Privacy Of Our Love and Made In The Dark. All the while you get some playing around with their older ideas like on Bendable Poseable and gleans of their next direction on Out At The Pictures and Hold On which have far more dance-friendly vibes. There is a bit of a scattershot feeling in the record, true, as Made In The Dark does not quite commit to any one style, but that varied feel is more of a benefit than a hindrance. Here, Hot Chip seem uninhibited by a concept or a theme and are free to test new ideas, some that would never surface again. I also see it as rather brave of them to openly display their creative process like this, showing the world their paradigm shift in motion, kind of like David Bowie’s Station to Station. With a foot in multiple worlds Hot Chip showed the breadth of their styles and talents, with each song being an exploration on a musical concept, their themes and notions fleeting and temporary, which gives us a reminder to appreciate things while they last.
Cluster – Zuckerzeit
The 60s and 70s are a musical goldmine in Germany, rejecting traditional western musical form a small armada of strange and quirky acts surfaced to take on the status quo. True, many of them only created one or two albums, and also true many of them were unremarkable love letters to mind-altering substances, but there are some acts that surfaced that have never really developed peers to this day. Cluster, was an experimental electronic duo, and right away eyes are beginning to roll, I can feel it, and “experimental electronic duo from 1960’s Germany” is one of the more eye-rolling statements one can make. Starting off in Berlin as Kluster, where they made incredibly dense dissonant, and unapproachable electronic noise. The band would relocate to the countryside, rename themselves Cluster, and continue to make dense dissonant, and unapproachable electronic noise, but at least it was higher fidelity. Their first two albums, Cluster and Cluster II are relatively formless, but unlike their initial Kluster output, were not as abrasive. No, I would not recommend as a gift to grandma, but as some curious headspace music it did the job of creating layered droning and meditations to get lost into that would clearly inspire industrial and experimental artists down the road like Throbbing Gristle, Keiji Haino, and Merzbow. Zuckerzeit, their third album, harnessed that meditative energy and channeled it into something far more approachable. Gone were the 15 minute drones and grating audio experiments, and in its place were short modular synth contemplations, each incredibly simplistic, but delightfully intoxicating. It was this pulling back on excess that pushed Cluster to their best, perhaps the country life allowed them to shed their need to impress the Berlin art elite, maybe it was escaping the suffocating feeling of the city, or maybe it was the time spent with German guitar deity Michael Rother in their side project Harmonia. The blending of cheap drum machines and synths works here, as they keep things uncomplicated and bare, layering a few ideas on top of each other, playing with it for a couple minutes and quickly moving on to the next idea. Despite the simplicity there is still a bit of German quirk, a middle finger to pop. While these new futuristic instruments would lay the way for pop music Cluster opted to use them in more curious manners creating oddly timed rhythms and unique sonic textures. Rhythmic pulses and buzzing synth whirrs never fully coalesce into formal songs, but rather scenic ambiance. Cluster decided it had done enough Cosmic music in the broad and brutal sense, instead focusing and condensing it into bit sized ideas. Shedding the need to pulverize they could still celebrate their rejection of conventional musical form, but they could do it in a way that is pleasing to the ear.
Hella – There’s No 666 In Outer Space
A few years back I wrote an intensive review of There’s No 666 In Outer Space, lauding it for its larger than life stature, but also criticizing it for never being able to fully commit to a musical paradigm. It is neither a pop album, nor prog, nor truly experimental rock, bouncing between those and more in a precarious manner. I still feel that way, but I also must admit that it is what makes There’s No 666 their most engrossing album to me. It is that blend of their old-style nuking of time signatures math-rock blended with the more grounded verse-chorus-verse structure of traditional pop music, and the winks and nods to classic 70’s progressive rock. The compromise between these styles does betray Hella’s more classic sound, sure, but respectfully it is for the better as I can only process so many belligerent guitar and drum assaults. The addition of Aaron Ross on vocals gives the songs a bit of an anchor and a sense of direction despite his esoteric lyrics, and less than traditional lyrical structure. The addition of Hill’s cousin on second guitar and Carson McWhirter on bass fill out the group, giving it a lush fuller band sound. Songs like The Ungrateful Dead may have been technically impressive without Aaron, but that extra lyrical layer helps it gel, despite its less than conventional design. I still stand by my criticism that I gave in 2015 that this album is still rather sonically dense and could have benefited from some more tinkering in the mixing department, but it is a minor gripe in the grand scheme of things. Back when I first heard this album around its release I had this idea of this is what progressive rock was going to be in the modern age, brash, bold, daring, and going in strange directions that had not been tested before. There’s No 666 In Outer Space is a band hitting its apex, pushing the boundary, but unfortunately getting no feedback in return. This should have been the album that put this band on some small festival stages for people to freak out on and for performing musicians to gush about. It should have spawned imitators and clones much to our dismay and it should have helped usher in the new era of progressive rock. Instead they did a tour of small clubs and venues before disintegrating back into a two piece four years later. Sadly, this alternate timeline never got the chance to bloom and instead progressive rock devolved into knuckle dragging metal skull-duggery which consists of nothing more than playing the most notes humanly possibly. This should have been our future, but instead it is now just a what-if alternate timeline to muse on.
Jamila Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY!
This is a new addition to my list of loved albums, only having heard it about a year ago, thanks to Ryan picking it for an episode of Music Talk. I am still working on sending him the thank you fruit basket, because when this album slow crawled out of my speakers and into my brain I was forever changed. Jamila’s take on R&B is paradigm shifting, discarding the sheen that often bogs down the genre and instead giving us a gritter, more subversive vibe. Her voice is sultry, but profound. She is clearly an excellent singer belting out heartwarming long notes like on the refrain to BETTY, but also has giving a mild vibe of “yes I can kill you” like on MUDDY which explodes with the seething “Mother fuckers won’t shut-up”. The music itself has more teeth than your typical R&B album, with cutting drums, and gnarly synth noises. It does know when to pull back a bit, but instead of shifting into ballad like songs we get cool smokey longue-like vibes such as on ZORA. The bass often takes precedent, being fat and boisterous. It feels like a great direction to take the genre. LEGACY! LEGACY! Still can get buttery with smooth Rhodes piano style tones, but it almost always feels it has been laced with something. There is a smokey aura throughout. Jamila’s record was the best new release of 2019 for me, opening a door to a new way to view the genre of R&B for me. I look forward to hearing more of her music.
Pink Floyd – Meddle
Let us all take a collective moment to pause and reflect on the dense as a black-hole bass slapping goodness that starts this album off. One Of These Days is one of the best Pink Floyd songs ever to exist, and one of the best album openers ever, despite the heroic Hammond Organ stabs making it sound more like a closer. Instead, the charging line of that organ shoots into a murky and shifting Pink Floyd epic. Despite the post-punk vibes of the opener the album has no problems getting acoustic and folky throughout on A Pillow of Winds and San Tropez. While stylistically diverse there still is a connecting vibe throughout. There is a melancholy vibe that Pink Floyd knows how to do so well; we hear it throughout their discography. Meddle is this vibe at its best, the psychedelic and dysphoric quagmire perfected. One of These Days and Seamus sonically are miles apart, but both have a hollow lonely feel, as if lost if a foggy haze. The whole album is awash in this glum isolation, a sense of disconnect from the surrounding world. The centerpiece, of course, is the entire B-side of the album, Echoes. Echoes is Floyd’s take on the big dumb prog extravaganza, a sprawling 23-minute monster. Unlike other big dumb prog epics of the time though it never goes for bombast or “epic” feels. There is no story about killing dragons, being a wizard, or saving the damsel in distress. Rather, it just exists, it swells instead of pops, having two separate apexes where the band kicks into a higher gear before allowing things to slow back down to a plod. These high points are sparse, with the real meat being the ethereal flow, with soft cooing keyboard work, shy vocals, and comforting bass tones. There are no real singles on Meddle; you will not hear these songs on the radio. It makes Meddle extra unique, as the album, compared to others in Pink Floyd’s canon, has not been beaten into the ground by classic rock radio. Partly, it seems this is due to the cohesive nature of Meddle. It all belongs together and to remove a piece would cause harm as it loses its context. Meddle is Pink Floyd’s zenith, the best reflection of all their best tendencies, not bogged down by their later pretentious bloat, and having outgrown some of their wilder, albeit charming, earlier tendencies. It is the musical equivalent of your 30’s, sure you are putting money into your retirement account, but you also like to go to out to the club occasionally.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk – Volunteered Slavery
Roland Kirk’s absurd gimmick of playing multiple horns at once operates as a disservice as it takes away from his unquestionable musical chops and songwriting skills. Unfortunately, he often gets delegated to a shtick; as the guy with three saxophones in his mouth at once. That is true, but he also could play all three of them better than you can. Kirk’s Volunteered Slavery, a mix of live and studio takes, is a sonic buffet, varied and extensive in ideas. The album starts with an amalgam of big-band style jazz and spiritual incantation, even teasing the listener with a brief nod to The Beatles’ Hey Jude. Things continue to shift, to gospel, varying styles of jazz, blues, and whatever One Ton is; a frantic flute solo that seems like the he is summoning the physical embodiment of amphetamine. Whatever the song, Volunteered Slavery is bursting with a frenzied energy. Kirk is relentless, a bottomless well of power, that is poised to launch off into outer space at any moment. I am unsure what makes Roland Kirk a dark horse among his jazz peers in the modern age, getting nowhere near the accolades. Perhaps it is because Kirk does not seem to play the dark, brooding, serious jazz musician all too well or perhaps because he dares to have a sense of humor. His sharp wit is noticeable here, joking about his lack of vision, and he was known to banter with his audiences throughout his career. That sense of humor comes alive within the songs as well. Three For The Festival is truly berserk, My Cherie Amour features some singing along the “this is my twelfth beer” vibe, and yes you will hear slide whistle on this album. All of this works to Kirk’s advantage, even though the music is incredibly tight, the levity is disarming, reminding even the sophisticated jazz connoisseur to lighten up once in a while and just enjoy the music.
Read entries 80-71 here.