Album of the Week: Popol Vuh’s Das Hohelied Salomos (1975)

Popol Vuh have a few classics under their belt, but this is the jammiest. This is the one to smoke to. I mean, it literally starts out with a boom. Full of reverb and cymbal splashes, the atmosphere is so thick, the guitars so damn psychedelic, you might catch a contact high just listening to it.

The title translates to The Song of Solomon, and according to Light in the Attic, “the theme of the album is taken from biblical passages, using verses from King Salomon’s [sic] tales on The Old Testament.” I don’t understand singer Djong Yun’s lyrics any better than that of their high-water mark Hosianna Mantra (1972), but her voice is as lovely as ever. And just like on that album, she again sings “Hosianna”.

The second track “Du schönste der Weiber” starts off quite mellow, but builds up to a crescendo of Fichelscher’s positively face-stealing guitar. I only wish this track didn’t fade out so quickly. The fade-outs are probably my biggest gripe with an otherwise fantastic record.

On the second side, beginning with “Der Winter ist vorbei” (“The winter is over”), we have an added treat of sitar and tabla. To me, the tabla especially adds to the psychedelic groove that puts this band in an upper echelon of all-time rock groups. Sheesh. Spend an afternoon living in this one…

Listen to Das Hohelied Salomos here.

Album of the Week: Steel Pulse’s Earth Crisis (1984)

Forgive me if this one reads weird because I’m in the midst of a 4-days-and-running cold that is probably not Covid (but could be) but still kicking me around, and I’m under the influence of cold medicine and a weird sleep schedule. That said…

This album has one of the best opening lines ever, which is: “Open sesame / Here comes Rastaman!” Dudes were coming out the gate lit, and “Steppin’ Out” might feel almost too cheery an opener when you look at this album’s cover art. Interesting collage that features such evils as the KKK, napalm bombing, Reagan, and the uh… Pope? I don’t really know enough about history to know what Cold War England was like in the early 80s, but maybe the vibes were shaky. “Tightrope” and the title track embody this unease lyrically.

Reggae was not averse to the squeaky clean sheen of 80s production, and it shows here. While the smooth sax (“Throne of Gold”) and synthetic sounds might be a horrorshow to some, I love it. Plus, Steel Pulse have the songs to back it up. Their style isn’t for those who stick to early roots or obscure dub sounds, but they’ve certainly built up a legacy over some decades. The first time I heard them was playing Tony Hawk’s Underground 2, which featured “Born Fe Rebel”. Fantastic song, and I was later turned onto this album’s centerpiece “Rollerskates” (AKA “Life Without Music”) via DJ Screw’s legendary June 27 tape (whaaaat). The normal tempo version rules, too, and is one of Steel Pulse’s best known songs. Once again, Steel Pulse manage to take a dark subject (getting your radio jacked [smh]) and make it sound like sunshine.

I’ll let Wikipedia’s description of “Wild Goose Chase” take the lead here: “This song laments the misguided use of technology for purposes which the song’s author, David Hinds, views as unnatural, such as in vitro fertilization.” This one also calls out contraception and calls abortion “legal murder”. Bro are you an ally or what? It’s 2022. No but ending the album with an anti-abortion jam is pretty weird. Still kinda bops tho. Smh.

Overall, this album is fire and makes me want to listen to more Steel Pulse. If they have any better albums let me know.

Listen to Earth Crisis here.

Album of the Week: Slum Village’s Trinity (Past, Present and Future) (2002)

It can be easy to get stuck on Slum Village’s label debut Fantastic, Vol. 2 (2000), one of the finest hip-hop albums of any era. With J Dilla at the helm, it bumps and grooves on a level that is strictly more beautiful than other records. It’s not hard to see why Dilla has attained a legendary status, but his absence from Fantastic follow-ups (he left the group to focus on a solo career several years before his death in 2006) leaves them relatively underrated.

Trinity is a great example of this. Take it on its own terms and it’s a very rewarding project. Despite a lack of Dilla’s production (only 3 tracks out of 23), the sound of Slum Village very much remains, in no small part due to the presence of founding member T3 on the boards as well as Detroit producers of the same ilk like Waajeed and Black Milk. Baatin’s trademark voice (similar to Q-Tip’s) carries along from the first album, and a young Elzhi (!) joins as a welcome addition to the crew.

“Tainted”, produced by Roots-affiliate Karriem Riggins and featuring Dwele, is an early highlight with one of the few classic SV videos. Elzhi sounds energized all over the project, with his verse on “La La” standing out as a particular scorcher. “One” has one of the wackiest Dilla beats I know of, with a twinkly piano sample and a punching drum. “Slumber” bangs with a beat courtesy of Hi-Tek.

At nearly 70 minutes, Trinity could have done with some trimming. I mean, there are 2 intros on this thing. Still, for fans of Fantastic and hip-hop in general, Trinity has a lot to give.

Listen to Trinity here.

Album of the Week: The Intruders’ Cowboys to Girls (1968)

Remember as a kid when you used to chase girls and beat ‘em up? What? You don’t? Well, me neither actually. But this is a strange memory of the narrator in “Cowboys to Girls”, a lush dream of a track from The Intruders, an R&B group and early musical project for Philadelphians Gamble & Huff.

Though they would go on to write and produce bigger and better tracks, like “Love Train” and “Me and Mrs. Jones”, Gamble & Huff’s work on Cowboys to Girls has its own breezy charm. Reportedly from North Philly and led (originally) by the smoky voice of Sam “Little Sonny” Brown, The Intruders straddle the line between the harmony-heavy doo-wop of the early 60s and the smooth soul of the early 70s.

“Turn the Hands of Time” recalls The Supremes or Jackson 5 in its ecstatic chorus. Clocking in at under 2 minutes, “Sad Girl” is (perhaps too) short and sweet, rounding out the first side. In the second half we have the quite corny, yet cute “(Love Is Like A) Baseball Game”. Not really as great a metaphor/song as “Heat Wave”, but they can’t all be classics. I do like this brief version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, which, although originally performed by Glen Campbell, I most associate with Isaac Hayes’ mammoth 18 minute version.

The Intruders would go on to release several more albums, which I have not yet heard at the time of this rating. But I recommend Cowboys to Girls to any soul/R&B fan looking for something slightly obscure (it is difficult even to find a high-res upload of the album cover) yet very smooth.

Listen to Cowboys to Girls here.

Album of the Week: Paul Bley’s Open, to Love (1973)

So check this out right… sometimes all you need is a piano. From Debussy to Monk to Ethiopia’s Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, there are lots of artists in different styles who made incredible albums out of solely playing the piano. This one from Paul Bley, his third for German jazz giant ECM, is one of my favorites.

My man Paul got the assist from his ex-wife and brilliant artist in her own right Carla Bley, who wrote tracks 1, 2, and 6 on here. Opener “Closer” (heh) is a bit unsettling in its use of empty space, but it serves to make “Ida Lupino” that much more gratifying. This second track is almost jaunty in comparison, with a memorable melody that Bley rolls into with passion. “Started” also has a certain warmth to it.

What I really love about this album is the way that space is used. The compositions could certainly be played a lot faster, but Bley interprets them with a patience that alternately suggests contemplation, serenity, and occasionally something darker. These qualities are all present on the long title track (credited to Annette Peacock), after which Paul Bley’s “Harlem” enters with a bluesy familiarity, not unlike the aforementioned effect of the second track after the first.

The last two tracks are romantic at turns, with an air of mystery. I think Ms. Peacock wins the outré award here for the eerie, airy “Nothing Ever Was, Anyway”, which is nonetheless a beautiful way to close things out. Dig it.

Open to love? Stream it here.

Album of the Week: Rose McDowall’s Cut With the Cake Knife (2004)

First off, if you haven’t listened to Strawberry Switchblade, do yourself a favor! The Scottish new wave group’s self-titled album from 1985 was a major revelation to me 4 years ago, and it still rules. As a major fan of Cocteau Twins and Kate Bush, I was amazed at how long it took me to hear Strawberry Switchblade, a record filled with great songs and effervescent charm.

Although the group wrote songs for a second album, they broke up before it materialized. The band’s Rose McDowall then recorded Cut With the Cake Knife in 1988 and 1989, featuring some of the songs she wrote for this fabled follow-up (including the title-track).

Cake Knife, it would seem, met a similar fate as the unreleased Strawberry Switchblade album, given that it went unreleased until 2004. The original cover’s goofy Microsoft Word font was changed to the image above when re-released by Sacred Bones in 2015. Funny enough, I actually discovered this album recently from a thread of worst album cover fonts.

Onto the music: “Tibet” is a killer opener, a track that ranks among the best Switchblade material. “Sunboy”‘s drum machines are more dancey, backing a glimmering guitar melody and sparkly synths. “Darkness is my home,” McDowall sings, owning the emo-goth vibe that tows the line so brilliantly with the sugary goodness of her music.

Other than a decent, if unnecessary, cover of “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, Cut With the Cake Knife is a great slice of 80s pop that suggests Strawberry Switchblade had more to give than their short career allowed them to. McDowall recorded with several other acts, including SPELL with industrial weirdo Boyd Rice (NON). Thankfully, Cake Knife exists to extend the legacy of Strawberry Switchblade’s inimitable music and style.

Listen to Cut With the Cake Knife here.

Album of the Week: Brenda Ray’s Walatta (2006)

Brenda Ray did it right. Flexing the melodica on the cover a la Augustus Pablo, the British musician gives a clear tribute to a hero who helped pave the way for Jamaican music’s international takeover in the late 20th century.

According to her Bandcamp, Ray “became ‘hooked to the dub’ via Roger Eagle. In between sets at Erics Club (Liverpool), he played the rarest cuts on the planet – dub plates to rockabilly out takes.” Beginning her career in the late 70s, she recorded with friends in a home-made Liverpool studio, releasing dub and pop records under the monikers Naffi and Naffi Sandwich.

Perhaps more fine-tuned than earlier releases, Walatta was recorded between 1993-2005 and acts almost as a greatest hits compilation of that era. Assisted by Roy Cousins (producer for King Tubby and others), for whom she was helping to remaster old reggae/dub tapes, she dubbed vocals, synths, koto and other instruments over some of his classic riddims. The legendary Prince Far I guests on “Sweet Sweet Wine”, though I’m not sure how exactly, since he died in 1983. Scientist, a gargantuan name in dub, appears on “Swirling Hearts”, which is indeed swirling in dubbed-out ecstasy. Anthony Doyley of the reggae band Knowledge assists on “Lend a Helping Hand”, where Brenda Ray harmonizes wonderfully with his voice. Given the personnel involved, there’s no real question as to the authenticity of the project.

Towards the back-half you get a solid cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” (Midnight Cowboy) and the aptly titled “Vision-Dreamin”, which closes the album in a swoosh of drumless magic.

Listen to Walatta here.

Album of the Week: Music by William Eaton (1978)

Driving drifting through the lonesome sandstone canyons as the sun slanted away, west. You, too, were on your way.

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Private press albums can be hidden gems or unremarkable projects. William Eaton’s debut of improvised instrumental guitar passages definitely falls into the former category. As soon as I heard the first track here I knew this was absolutely golden. After a bit of a warmup, Eaton reaches a brilliant harmonic theme that recalls the storied greatness of John Fahey – who was, I suppose, a contemporary of Eaton’s!

Eaton came from a family of bankers in Lincoln, Nebraska, but after attending Stanford headed to Arizona and ended up, according to Ultravillage, “living out of his car, roaming the desert and eating mesquite pods and cactus fruit.” He began designing his own guitars, including a 26 string and double neck quadraphonic electric guitar.

Given the open and wandering, almost ascetic lifestyle Eaton led, it’s not surprising that this album is full of ambient space and warm, gentle tones. It’s become my recent comfort album, and resonates as a night-time listening companion the way Scott Tuma’s Hard Again (2001) did for me in 2020 (when, god knows, I needed it).

Track 7B was sampled to great effect by DJ Shadow on 2002’s “Fixed Income”, so props to him for knowing about this one 20 years ago, before it was even reissued. I mean, the guy made Endtroducing after all, so that checks out. Eaton continued to record and release music, though I haven’t yet heard other work of his that captures the same subtle beauty as Music. He co-founded a luthiery (guitar construction) school in Phoenix, Arizona that he now directs.

Listen to Music of William Eaton on Bandcamp or Spotify.

You can see some of Eaton’s incredible self-designed guitars here.

Album of the Week: Les McCann’s Invitation to Openness (1972)

If Miles Davis opened the floodgates of fusion with In a Silent Way (1969), we can regard the ensuing years of the early 70s as jazz-fusion’s most fruitful era, with many outstanding records from musicians in Miles’ cadre and otherwise.

By 1971, Les McCann had been recording for just over 10 years as a jazz and soul pianist, but his largest achievement came in 1969 with Swiss Movement, a defining soul jazz performance with saxophonist Eddie Harris recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. On Invitation to Openness, a 3-song album with a range of talent involved, he sets the mood with a dreamy Rhodes-like tone to open the side-long “The Lovers”.

I’ve written before about Yusef Lateef, who mastered many wind and horn instruments, including relatively esoteric Asian instruments. Lateef takes center stage about 5 minutes into Invitation to Openness as a stone groove complete with psychedelic electric guitar allows him to take over. It’s ecstatic, and the overall sound is not dissimilar to Ray Manzarek’s extended solo on “Light My Fire”. “The Lovers” isn’t as interested in restraint or trailblazing ingenuity as the work of Miles with Zawinul, but then again, what is?

Percussion takes on an essential role in fusion, and the lineup here is suitably up to the task. We have Donald Dean, who played the kit with McCann on the aforementioned Swiss Movement (1969), as well as two renaissance men in Alphonse Mouzon (Weather Report) and Bernard Purdie, who played with everyone from Nina Simone to Steely Dan. The second half of “The Lovers” in particular allows these men to shine in all their polyrhythmic glory.

“Beaux J. Poo Poo” (how’s that for a song title?) is similarly groovy and allows McCann to flex his muscle on the keys a bit more. Lateef’s flute sounds wonderful here, but only appears for a fraction of the track.

The closer “Poo Pye McGoochie (and His Friends)” is the standout song and my favorite thing Les McCann has ever done. Its recurring theme is played on a futuristic Moog synth that sounds like being zapped through space, but the tone isn’t overly cartoonish, it’s just super-charged and incredibly fun. You can practically hear the smile radiate from McCann’s face as he plays the melody, like a secret weapon he’d been saving for the album’s finale. The tension of McCann’s resonant keys in the drum-less intro and ambient middle section is delightful. I love driving to this song.

As of this writing, Les McCann is 86 years old and has performed live as recently as in the 2010s.

Listen to Invitation to Openness here.

Album of the Week: Allblack’s No Shame 3 (2020)

First off, I want to give a shoutout to DJ Fresh. For 15 years he’s been making killer beats for artists in the Bay Area and elsewhere. His Tonite Show series of full length collaborations with various rappers never fails to impress me. He only produced 2 tracks on No Shame 3 (“All My Children” and “S.H.E.”), but they both stand out.

I first heard Allblack on Nef the Pharaoh and 03 Greedo’s “Ball Out” (2018). That one’s a slapper, opening with an Allblack verse over a beat from DTB, who produced almost half of No Shame 3. Allblack is from Oakland, but he has a fast, punchline-filled approach that would fit well with the contemporary Detroit sound. Indeed, Detroit’s Helluva has 2 beats on here including the title track.

The vibe throughout No Shame 3 is fun, an impressive display of lyrical energy with distinctive Oakland swagger in both beats and rhymes. The aforementioned DTB pumps bass into tracks like “Pizza Rolls”, with its hilarious depiction of drug-induced paranoia (“I watched Silence of the Lambs and had a bad dream / I stopped smokin cause I caught my potna lacin weed”). Overall, I’d call it one of the more under-appreciated rap full-lengths of the last couple years.

Stream No Shame 3 here.