Another one that could go on for a bit. . .
Erick Sermon — Double or Nothing and Bomdigi EP (1995)
A peak example of just how thanklessly strong east coast hip hop was in the mid-90's. This album, deemed second tier at the time, holds up for that soulful, blunted out, bass-heavy mid-tempo goodness. I'm sure I had a dub of it from Iain, but I know for sure I've never owned a copy of my own before. I recognized a lot of the non-single material, but ultimately, it just goes to prove why I don't like hip hop anymore: for all of the shit talking and gratuitous amounts of swearing, there is an earnestness and honesty present that has absolutely no concern with whether or not anybody actually likes the music. R+B singer Aaron Hall appears on 'Welcome' and, while that was probably deemed a move towards the mainstream, the backing track is just too funky, too spaced out and just too off the wall to really cross over properly. The countless shoutouts to all eras of music and musicians is always fun for me to hear (when it comes down to it, we're all just fans — awesome). The poignant moment of clarity 'Focus' at once makes a point and comes off without an ounce of preachiness. Just good stuff. And, looking back now, it's easy to see how I feel so deeply in love with this music.
Invincible — Venus (1999)
Probably the best thing Mark Burgess did after the Chameleons disbanded. I've had the album in various (unofficial) forms for years, but I decided enough was enough recently and found a (still!) sealed copy on eBay. There are just gobs and gobs of vintage Mark Burgess moments here. Everything is presented with a bit more of a rougher rock and roll edge (thanks to Yves Altana's excellent work on guitars) and through it all is that voice and those words — the work of Mark Burgess, a man so good at what he does, even a relative obscurity like this is amongst his best work. Don't know if I've yet addressed it yet on Redundant Chicanery, but I feel that 'Spooks' is one of the best just straight catchy rock and roll songs of. . . well, ever, honestly. A weird manifesto about not feeling like you belong amidst a downright addictive riff. It's been said that Mark's ambition with Invincible was to rock out and still be able to connect with his audience like the bands he loved growing up did (T. Rex, Bowie, etc.). Mission accomplished. 'Think (it's going to happen)' is one of his best songs ever. A 6/8 time signature masterpiece on par with The Chams' 'Caution' and 'Is it Any Wonder?' and the Sun and the Moon's 'This Passionate Breed,' it's just a magical song that even people who don't like this style of music will probably concede is a genuinely affecting work. There's not a bad song in the bunch and there are definite shades of songs you could easily imagine as Chameleons numbers ('Only You Could Save Me' is case in point). But that's to suggest that this is a lesser work. On the contrary. This is, like I said, one of Mark's very best releases and it should be telling that, besides the Sun and the Moon (which was half of the original band anyway), this is really the only real band he formed outside of the Chameleons. What a wonderful album. Outstanding.
Crosby Stills + Nash — Demos (late 60's/early70's)
Just a crowd pleaser. Simple, sparse run-throughs of long-familiar CSN favorites. I like that it doesn't stick strictly to material that ended up on the band's two initial albums, as several of the tracks appeared on the band member's solo albums. While there is more Stills tracks than I would care for (a full third of the disc), they don't take away from the other highlights. The solo Crosby demo of 'Deja Vu' is darn near better than the original and it's a little stunning to hear that he had such a complicated arrangement worked out so fluidly before the band had at it. Graham Nash's mostly solo rendition of 'Marrakesh Express' is pure fun while, the full band-backed initial run of 'Long Time Gone' is a lot more funked out than I would have imagined. Besides 'Deja Vu', no real revelations, but definitely good fun to hear this stuff.
Gastr del Sol — Camofleur (1998)
I will say the same thing I said when I first heard it about ten years ago: it reminds me of Brian Eno's pop albums from the 70's while sounding nothing like those albums. Instead, it just takes on a confluent role of two guys who just soaked up any and everything they could. The very first song ('The Seasons Reverse') is proof positive that David Grubbs and Jim O'Rourke were just two guys that were into everything and wanted to find a way to incorporate it into the music they were making. The acoustic twangs, the glitchy post-production, the challenging time signature, the incorporation of brass horns and steel drums, it's a really weird song that somehow manages to be catchy. Overall, it's really an acoustic-based album that uses post-production to manipulate the listener into thinking that it's a lot more weird than it actually is. Its influence is probably a lot larger than its notoriety. Wonderful stuff.
Stereolab — Fab Four Suture (2006)
One of the most consistent bands ever just keeps right on going. You can really hear how they were gearing up to move into the orchestrated pop variation of their sound on Chemical Chords (which would be their next move). 'Get a Shot of the Refrigerator' sounds exactly like them, but with an inkling of something else at play. I'm having a hard time articulating it, but that is a fine little manic number. I also really like 'Excursions Into Oh, A-oh' which sounds like classic Lab to me. Overall, there's enough quirks and nuances here to make this yet another one to own for Stereolab fans. And you just can't help but love the democracy that they have in regards to their discography: this is basically Switched On Volume Four, as it collects all of their singles and b-sides from 2005 and 2006. Tunes for days and pure catchiness and interesting ideas from a band that never seems to run out of any of those things.
Squeeze — Cool for Cats (1979)
Squeeze should be one of the most trusted names in retrospect for pure pop goodness. They do have large hits in America, but unfortunately, they get overlooked as kind of a novelty act. I'm not defending anything past East Side Story, but those first four albums are top tier new wave pop. 'Slap and Tickle' has the synths while the title track has the jangly guitars. It's jerky enough to be easily lumped in with new wave, but it's got enough attention paid to layers and poppy eccentricities to make it transcend; just like the rest of their best work. It probably hangs together with the least continuity of their initial three classics (this one, Argybragy and East Side Story), but its highlights are just as good as the other two. I really like the album as a whole because its songs, as an American listener, are just less familiar. Hard to dislike such a strong album from a band that was in such a productively consistent phase.
Embrace — Embrace (1985)
A curious dollar bin find. This is indeed the Embrace that recorded for Dischord in the mid-80's and was fronted by Ian MacKaye post-Minor Threat and pre-Fugzai. It's good. Very punk and very melodic at the same time. Ian is screamy at times with his voice, but, for the most part, he exhibits his tenor croon in a really well done fashion. The themes he covers in his lyrics are pretty dark and very much angry, self-deprecating and accusatory of others. His music always has a bit of self-righteousness to it, but it feels very real here and you have to just sit back and admire the passion in a song like 'Dance of Days.' And you know what? That's the theme of this material: it may not be expertly played or sang, but the sheer force and passion in the playing and performance genuinely affects the overall outcome of the music. It actually makes me think a lot of early Joy Division because the musical backing is very raw and punky, but the overall feeling is one of the band straining to be something perhaps beyond their capabilities. There is something in me that just loves that intensity.
Lowlife — Permanent Sleep (1985)
Have really wanted to check this band for a while now. This is Will Heggie's band after he left the Cocteau Twins. The LTM Label has reissued the band's entire catalogue, but I just haven't been able to afford any of those pricey imports. I don't want to be misunderstood, because I do like this one, but I am disappointed, to be completely sure. The heavy bass and chimey, echoey guitars are there and that's just heaven for me, but every song sounds exactly the same. Same 6/8 time signature, almost identical tempos and the same post-Ian Curtis baritone croon. Now, with any other lineup of unflinching similarity, I'd write it off pretty quickly, but let's be honest: I am very privy to this sound and era of music, so the very production sounds and the lovely echoing guitars keep things listenable. It could definitely use some diversity, but I certainly am not put off on checking out the rest of the band's discography.
A.R. Kane — Sixty Nine (1988)
Pretty sure it should be acknowledged fact by now that the very first track on this album —the godlike 'Crazy Blue'— is an indisputable classic. Where that track is like Sade meets the Pixies in a delicious promised land of dreamy melodic vibes and into-the-reds loudness, the rest of the album is a bit more willfully weird. The vocals the entire time are mixed to sound like the mic was at least ten feet away from where the vocals were actually coming from and the songs just generally avoid anything closely resembling traditional structure altogether. 'Dizzy' is an especially weird one, as it essentially sounds like classical music being played in an insane asylum full of mentally tortured shrieking maniacs. The segue of 'The Sun Falls Into the Sea' and 'The Madonna is With Child' is just about one of the trippiest —and seamless— things I've ever heard. Ray Schulman is about co-producing and whatnot and this one is just a total winner. Roots of post-rock 101, kiddos. Shame they're still not more known.
A.R. Kane — Lollita EP (1987)
This was produced by Robin Guthrie. I know it's hard to read this spine in the scan photo with the grey text on white matte cover. There are only three songs here, but each one knocks it out of the park easily. The title track plays up the shoegazey-ness of the band and is practically the group's manifesto. 'Sado-Masochism is a Must' squalls its way into existence and is probably the most Cocteau-ish thing the band ever did (in fact, it sounds like Robin Guthrie helped out on guitar), while 'Butterfly Collector' is dark and noisy (indeed, it ends with ninety seconds of white noise). Hard to imagine something this revolutionary getting so roundly ignored in retrospect.
Kenny Burrell — Midnight Blue (1963)
One of the best Blue Notes in that intimidatingly great catalogue. I had the pleasure of sneaking a copy of this album into the in-store play stock while I was working at Tower Records, so I heard it a lot. So much that I never felt like I needed to buy it. Time passes, here I am, buying it anyway. I can't think of a better title for an album that sounds like this one does. The blues hold strong over everything played here, but with the addition of Ray Barretto on hand percussions and an all around slower tempo, there is a sense here of late night, moment of clarity haziness. The thoughtful vibe and tuneful riffs in the songs makes for one of the foundation soul jazz albums of the period. One need not look any further than the solo Burrell composition 'Soul Lament' for the depth and tunefulness achieved here. Classics don't get much stronger than this.