Album of the Week: Immature’s Playtyme Is Over (1994)

If you asked me at any point over the last 8 years what my favorite song was, I’d probably say Immature’s “I Wanna Know U That Way”. I discovered the R&B boy-band’s early track via a Spaceghostpurrp sample of the track’s face-melting keytar sample. Immature quickly became my favorite boy-band, these adolescents providing the soundtrack to many a high school night of cruising around in the ’03 Honda Pilot.

The members (led by a young Marques Houston, then known as Batman) were aged 12-13 when their second album Playtyme Is Over came out. The kid on the cover with the eyepatch is Jerome Jones, then known as Romeo (later Young Rome). Romeo predated both Lil’ Romeo in name and Nelly’s band-aid in fashion sense by rocking the eyepatch for years (apparently Brandy hit him in the eye). Batman takes the lead here on vocals, while Romeo occasionally raps (like on his adorable “Walk You Home” verse), and third member LDB basically plays the background.

What makes Immature special? Ostensibly, they were just one of several New Edition clones; a factory made formula designed to gain traction on the “Urban” charts, with contemporaries in Hi-Five (“I Like the Way (The Kissing Game)”) and Another Bad Creation (I kid you not). Where Teddy Riley produced Hi-Five at Jive and Dallas Austin produced ABC for Motown, writer/director to-be Chris Stokes (You Got Served) was at the helm for Immature (for Virgin on the debut, then MCA). While Riley and Austin are both certified legends, I think Stokes had a bit more proving himself to do. Jermaine Dupri and “Tricky” Stewart(!) assisted on the debut On Our Worst Behavior, but that album is super scattershot and as the group’s name implies, the youngsters were underdeveloped vocally – they were literally 10! There are some serious standout tracks, like my favorite song mentioned at the top of this piece, but it is not a great album.

Playtyme Is Over is. They almost completely ditched the New Jack Swing thing here – which is a good idea, because you can’t beat Teddy Riley – in favor of a smoother sound. Opener “I Don’t Mind” lays down the vibe – summertime in Cali, cruising in the jeep, just oozing that inexplicable 90s cool. “Never Lie” became the group’s biggest hit and still is to this day. This always surprised me, because the back end of the album hides two absolute jams, which I believe could have hit bigger if released as singles. “Sweetest Love” snaps – think TLC’s “Diggin’ On You” (released 3 months later!) with a bit more punch in the chorus and you’ll be there. Then “Just a Little Bit”, which has a kind of Backstreet/N*Sync synth groove (one that French producer Onra would later sample) and killer background vocals. Both songs rank among the top of the Immature catalog. But I haven’t yet touched on this album’s greatest track, “Constantly”.

What a trip it is to be a young teen in love. Few R&B ballads capture the absurd pain and longing quite like “Constantly”. So picture me, 18 and lovesick, pulling over the aforementioned ’03 Pilot to cry to “Constantly”. Have you ever pulled your car over to cry? It is very cathartic. I mean, just listen to the lyrics here: “You look so fine / I often pretend / That you’re my girl / At least my friend”. Damn. Oh, and that high synth note after Batman sings “Every single way of every single day / I start driftin’ away” – incredible shit.

If “Ambient R&B” were a thing it might be my favorite genre. Maybe I’ll explore the idea further another time, but as a seeker of this particular sound Playtyme Is Over ends with an absolute blessing: “I Don’t Mind – The Vibe Mix”. And what a vibe it is. Simply a version of “I Don’t Mind” with no drums, the subtle difference nonetheless creates an indelible atmosphere, allowing the listener to bask in the harmonies and open spaces of the song.

Immature’s legacy seems largely forgotten, and that’s a shame to me. They would go on to release two more good full-lengths as Immature before rebranding at the turn of the century as IMx, releasing another pair of albums with middling results and eventually separating. Marques Houston continued a fairly successful solo career as a singer and actor. The group reformed in 2015 for an EP released on Soundcloud that mostly harped on 90s nostalgia (with an updated “Never Lie”), but of course failed to beat the peak they hit in ’94. Playtyme Is Over is an excellent album that stands up against almost any 90s R&B release.

Listen to Playtyme Is Over on Spotify.

Weekly Mix: 9/13/20

Back at it again, folks. A month ago, after I reached 100 songs on the GSG playlist, I wondered what the hell else I could add. But alas, there are more than 100 great songs in this beautiful world! And so, we reach the next 10.

Have you ever been asked for a lighter, only to never get it back? Well, Vybz Kartel has too, and he was so pissed about it that he made the song Lighter in which he implores his friend to get their own lighter. Like most of his songs, it’s amazing. Speaking of light, Love would love to show you some Orange Skies (probably my favorite track by this great band). Then, Cody Chestnutt is all about Boylife in America, a brilliant and weird song that inspired Kanye’s “Hell of a Life”. Next up, Sly & The Family Stone riff on the thought of Babies Makin’ Babies, and Duke Ellington keeps it lovely with The Single Petal of a Rose. The Japanese artist Piana gets transcendent with early in summer. Following this is Charles Mingus’s Flamingo, from the masterful Tijuana Moods. Then a heartbreaking Astrud Gilberto ballad in If (The Biggest Little Word), followed by a recent track from the underrated songwriter Laura Groves, M6 North. Laurel Halo rounds out the playlist this week with the spacey, brilliant Do U Ever Happen.

As always, check the playlist on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Timex Social Club’s The Lost Tapes, Vol. 1 (2019)

Lo-fi production has a special resonance with music nerds like me. Whether it’s Ariel Pink’s early material (recently re-mastered and re-released), or an obscure gem like Otis G. Johnson’s God Is Love ’78, various genres achieve a special luster when they sound like they’re recorded in a trash can.

Timex Social Club never really made it big. Formed in Berkeley, California in the early 80s, they reached an apex in 1986 opening for Run-DMC while simultaneously hitting #8 on the Billboard Charts with their single “Rumors”. “Rumors” is a glossy, goofy song in the vein of New Edition or Alexander O’Neal. It’s good, but not remarkable amidst a swarm of similar 80s R&B singles. Plagued by infighting and a suit from Timex watches, the group broke up shortly after their hit. Member Michael Marshall would go on to sing the hook for Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It” and have his own solo career. Founder Marcus Thompson currently operates as a DJ and performer under the Timex Social Club name.

In 2019, Thompson released The Lost Tapes, Vol. 1. These songs were recorded in the mid-80s and sound drastically different from “Rumors”. Recorded on a 4-track and truly lo-fi, these Lost Tapes are gritty, weird, minimal R&B jams. The killer, unfinished “Coke Life” envisions a world of beepers, plastic baggies and pistols, while “Driving With Dee-Dee’s” employs sounds of screeching tires and laughter over an anxious beat.

As far as I can tell, Thompson as bandleader sings every song here. Of the bizarre ballad “Green Tears” he writes, “Michael [Marshall] was supposed to come and lay vocals, but he never showed. I thought he might not come because he never liked the song” (How Do Rumors Get Started: The True Story of Timex Social Club, 74). The desperation heard in synth-laden ballads like this and “Heart Like Mine” recalls the outsider romantics of Lewis Baloue. “Heart Like Mine” has a little bit of “Betcha By Golly, Wow” in its noodling background synth melody, but none of the lush nature of classic R&B is shared here. These songs are stark and strange.

It’s not all great. “I’m In Love” is the misstep: it’s simply way too long. But things end on a cute note with “Loving Angelina”. This tale of puppy love is full of fake handclaps and a humming Kurzweil K250 synth.

It’s unclear how much other unreleased Timex material Mr. Thompson has in his possession (I assume much more if the Vol. 1 is any indication). For now we have a worthwhile curio that, at its weirdest, is more Night Dolls With Hairspray than Michael Jackson.

Listen to The Lost Tapes, Vol. 1 on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Laura Nyro’s The First Songs (1973)

Laura Nyro is one of my favorite artists ever, and one of the more underrated singer-songwriters of the fruitful 60s and 70s period when such musicians were found in abundance. More deeply rooted in R&B than the Laurel Canyon artists like Joni Mitchell, yet jazzier and more expansive than the great Carole King, New York’s Nyro imbued pure emotion into her music from a young age.

As a teen, she enjoyed tripping on cough syrup and listening to John Coltrane records – and if you don’t believe me, consult Michele Kort’s biography Soul Picnic. I would venture to assume that some of this mind-altered consumption to jazz influenced her masterpiece New York Tendaberry (1969). But that would come later.

The First Songs, however, are exactly that. A reissue of Nyro’s debut More Than a New Discovery (1967), all 12 of these songs were recorded in 1966 (by an 18/19 year old Nyro!). I highlight this reissue for several reasons: it’s more ubiquitous (it’s the version you’ll find on streaming services), it’s the one I own on LP, and it has a better tracklist.

The songs themselves are fairly straightforward: breezy, classic piano pop and R&B, all penned by the brilliant young Nyro. My favorites are the ballad “He’s a Runner,” with its catchy chorus and Stevie-esque harmonica accompaniment, and the sublime “Buy and Sell”. “Lazy Susan” is perhaps the best indicator of what was to become Nyro’s signature style: a lush song with several unexpected changes in rhythm and structure, as well as an emotive vocal performance (hear her almost gutturally bellow “black-eyed Sue” in the middle of the track).

Not unlike Carole King, Nyro initially made it in the industry via the success of her songs being performed by other artists. The 5th Dimension went number 1 with “Wedding Bell Blues” in 1968, and Blood, Sweat & Tears made it to number 2 on the charts a year later with their cover of “And When I Die”. Here you’ll find the original compositions in all their tender glory. As I mentioned above, Nyro would go on to make even greater music, but The First Songs holds a special place in my collection and my heart.

Listen to The First Songs on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Donato Dozzy Plays Bee Mask (2013)

Imagine a party outside, in Japan, on a mountain. Heavy rain falls as ambient techno plays late into the night. This isn’t a dream: this is Labyrinth, an annual music festival on Japan’s Mt. Naeba.

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An attendee’s view of Labyrinth

It was here at Labyrinth 2012 that Italian techno producer Donato Dozzy met Philadelphian ambient/experimental musician Chris Madak, AKA Bee Mask. Dozzy called the festival “Simply, the best thing I ever experienced in my life,” and connected with Madak in an environment ripe for both musicians. Initially commissioned for a single remix of Bee Mask’s “Vaporware” (note: not “vaporwave”) 12″, Dozzy produced an entire album of reimaginings of the source material. The result: Donato Dozzy Plays Bee Mask.

The original “Vaporware” is initially a jarring track, its bleeps and blips immediately scrambling the listener’s brain before gaining a rhythm. Plays Bee Mask brilliantly uses the source material to create a much more subtle and calming experience. Infused with raindrops, the opener “Vaporware 1” is ambient bliss, looping the bells of “Vaporware” to create a sonic dreamscape.

Elsewhere, “Vaporware 3” freezes what sounds like a vocal loop a la The Field, “Vaporware 4” finds a techno groove, and “Vaporware 7” is a mind-melting finale. What Dozzy accomplished with Plays Bee Mask is outstanding in both the ambient and techno genres, especially considering the amount of music released in both fields over the past 10 years. If you consider yourself a fan of either type of music, do yourself a favor and listen to this album.

Listen to Plays Bee Mask on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Joni Mitchell’s For the Roses (1972)

Joel Bernstein photo, used for the album cover.

The great Joni Mitchell has a number of classic albums under her belt, and is perhaps best known for her melancholy masterpiece Blue (1971), surely one of the best singer-songwriter albums in an era chock full of them. But a year later, she wrote and recorded the underrated For the Roses, an intimate and poetic look into the demise of a celebrity couple, decades before the internet made the ups and downs of such relationships so transparent.

Nearly every song on For the Roses concerns the fallout of her romance with James Taylor. As Laurel Canyon mainstays, the fact of Mitchell and Taylor’s relationship in the early 70s is unsurprising. They sang, recorded and loved together, and Mitchell even accompanied Taylor for some of the filming of Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), the seminal road movie in which he starred. But it was not to last. As Taylor’s stardom increased, so did his roving eye, and his infidelities eventually brought an end to their affair. Fed-up and heartsick, Mitchell abandoned LA for a cabin in the wilds of northern British Columbia:

At a certain point, I actually tried to move back to Canada, into the bush. My idea was to follow my advice and get back to nature. I built a house that I thought would function with or without electricity. I was going to grow gardens and everything. Most of For the Roses was written there.

-Mitchell, 1989 interview with Rolling Stone

Living in solitude and wrapped up in books on philosophy and the nature of human existence (Thus Spoke Zarathustra was never far from reach), it makes sense that “Banquet”, the first track on For the Roses, addresses inequality and the search for meaning among people. Using a banquet as a metaphor for what is divvied up among the social classes, she sings “Some get the gravy / Some get the gristle / Some get nothing / Though there’s plenty to spare”. “Some turn to Jesus / And some turn to heroin,” she adds. This is her first dig at Taylor, who picked up the habit early on in their relationship.

“Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” continues this theme, telling an ominous tale of James trying to score smack. “Let the Wind Carry Me”, on the other hand, sounds like freedom. One can sense the openness Joni explored in the wilds of Canada in the song’s jazzy strides into the sublime. It’s similar to what Laura Nyro had accomplished a couple years earlier on tracks like “Upstairs By a Chinese Lamp”. Lyrically, Mitchell analyzes both her mother’s disapproval of her youthful ways, and her own internal desire to raise a child. But this feeling “passes like December / I’m a wild seed again / Let the wind carry me”. Despite internal and external constraints, her own freedom is paramount.

I can’t quote every line that touches upon her relationship with Taylor, but it is remarkable to hear how stark she is about it. “See You Sometime” is heartbreaking: “Why do you have to be so jive? / OK, hang up the phone / It hurts / But something survives / Though it’s undermined / I’d still like to see you sometime.” The pain of a broken love is sustained in the sound. “Blonde in the Bleachers” examines Taylor’s inability to stay monogamous from his perspective, while “Woman of Heart and Mind” is biting:

You come to me like a little boy
And I give you my scorn and my praise
You think I’m like your mother
Or another lover or your sister
Or the queen of your dreams
Or just another silly girl
When love makes a fool of me
After the rush when you come back down
You’re always disappointed
Nothing seems to keep you high
Drive your bargains
Push your papers
Win your medals
Fuck your strangers
Don’t it leave you on the empty side

According to Mark Bego’s biography Joni Mitchell, Rolling Stone took a deep dig at her in their year-end 1972 issue, bestowing her the “Old Lady of the Year Award”. Bego writes, “It included a chart intimating that she had slept with half of the music business. Mitchell was represented as a pair of lips pursed in a kiss. Lines were drawn to the names of Graham Nash (identified as a broken heart), David Crosby (broken heart), and gay David Geffen (erroneously identified with kisses). Also on the list were supposed lovers like her band member Russ Kunkel and her buddy Stephen Stills.”

The double-standard in rock, where men became legendary for their exploits with groupies, and women were chastised for sleeping with multiple people, was extremely apparent. The sexist distinction hurt Mitchell and severed her ties to Rolling Stone for many years. To me, it also shows how strong she was in making an album about her side of the story in a time where this was the press’s response. Almost 40 years later, I can only thank her for doing so. Transmuting all of her pain and heartbreak into a cathartic and profound collection of songs, Mitchell gave us an all-timer in For the Roses.

In a 1987 interview for Musician, speaking on her retreat from fame, the interviewer asks, “Could you find a place in yourself where you could sort things out?” Joni replies:

One day about a year after I started my retreat in Canada I went out swimming. I jumped off a rock and into this dark emerald green water with yellow kelp in it and purple starfish at the bottom. It was very beautiful, and as I broke up to the surface of the water, which was black and reflective, I started laughing. Joy had suddenly come over me, you know? And I remember that as a turning point. First feeling like a loony because I was out there laughing all by myself in this beautiful environment. And then, right on top of that was the realization that whatever my social burdens were, my inner happiness was still intact.

Listen to For the Roses on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Johnnie Frierson’s Have You Been Good to Yourself (2016)

from Light in the Attic

When quarantine began in March, I experienced feelings of despair. With life turned on its head, I looked for something in music to help lift me up. And what I turned to time and time again was this, Johnnie Frierson’s lost classic Have You Been Good to Yourself.

Recorded in the 90s* and released on cassette tape, Frierson’s songs are simple. The only sounds you hear are guitar, voice and occasionally the beat of a stomping foot.

What hooked me on this release is the song “Miracles”. Hypnotic and slightly bizarre, the chugging “Miracles” tells the tale of a Memphis car-customizer known as “Spaceman”. According to a 2017 article from WMC Action News 5 of Memphis, “Spaceman was a Memphian who was ahead of his time. He’d created a self-driving, voice-activated car. This was 1988 in Memphis; not 2020 in Silicon Valley.” See a surreal news clip of the report below:

“We all airplanes in this big airport called the world. We all are capable of flying,” Spaceman says. According to the reporter, “Everything [Spaceman] does is a testament to God”. Not surprsing, then, that he and Frierson would be friends.

One needn’t be a christian to feel something from Frierson’s overtly religious songs. His piety is so touching because it translates to pure passion in his music, and this passion reverberates throughout these recordings, especially in Frierson’s voice. Occasionally he releases a chilling wail, as in “Woke Up This Morning” when he cries, “I could’ve been deaaaaad! In my graaaave! But the lord has blessed me!” The straightforward lyrics, clearly delivered from the heart as the entire recordings are without any studio embellishment, are pure and uplifting. On “You Were Sent to this World”, Frierson tells the listener that they were brought to this Earth for a purpose, and that their life has meaning. Even from a disembodied voice of the past, it’s nice to hear in these difficult times.

To my ears, the best song on Have You Been Good to Yourself is the final track “Trust in the Lord”, which combines everything that makes this album so great: Frierson’s passionate singing, homey guitar playing, and simple and sincere lyrics, as well as a beautiful interpretation of “Amazing Grace”.

Have You Been Good to Yourself was re-released in 2016 by the great folks at Light in the Attic Records. According to the Memphis Flyer, label founder Matt Sullivan heard the tape from a friend and record dealer who had randomly found the cassette in a Memphis thrift store, and he was blown away. From the Flyer: “No doubt this is one of my favorite things in our catalog,” Sullivan says. “It’s one of those special albums where you feel like you’re in the room with the man, almost eavesdropping on an incredibly personal moment. He’s singing from the bottom of his heart and soul. Personally, it doesn’t get better than this.”

Check out Have You Been Good to Yourself on Spotify.

*Most sources indicate that this music was recorded and released by Frierson in the 90s, however I’ve also read that he recorded these songs in the 70s after returning from Vietnam. The references to Memphis’ Spaceman lead me to believe that these songs were most likely recorded in the late 80s or early 90s. The true nature of the recording dates seems unknown, but I also have not read the liner notes of the release.

Weekly Mix: 8/2/20 (100 Songs)

100 songs! 100 songs!

After 10 weeks at 10 songs a week, we’ve reached a GSG milestone: 100 songs on the weekly Spotify playlist. To celebrate there are some special picks this week. Not all songs are exactly celebratory, but these are some of my favorites.

Peter Tosh’s Fools Die is a contender for my favorite song of all time. I discovered this ballad via the documentary Life and Debt, which explores economic uncertainty in Jamaica. I’ve been blown away by Tosh’s drumless, moving paean to the downtrodden ever since. Following this is another spacey favorite of mine, Laurel Halo’s Light + Space. Next is Leonard Cohen’s Phil Spector-produced masterpiece Memories. Things speed up a bit with Devin the Dude’s What a Job, on which André 3000 steals the show. Foxes in Fiction provide some dreamy catharsis on Say Yes to Violence. Then a LOX classic with the DJ Premier-produced Recognize. Following that is an underrated, weird jam, Timex Social Club’s Green Tears. After that, Smino and Dreezy’s Fenty Sex. Johnnie Frierson, who I will be posting more about tomorrow, follows with Miracles. And lastly, one of my favorite rap/r&b songs ever, Do Or Die and Twista’s Do U?

As always, check out the playlist on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Julee Cruise’s The Voice of Love (1993)

Perhaps my favorite quality in music is a dreamy atmosphere. From rap (Blowout Comb) to jazz (In a Silent Way) to rock (any Cocteau Twins LP), many of my favorite albums have more in common with the lush trappings of ambient and new age music than is standard within their respective genres. And when it comes down to it, it doesn’t get much more dreamy than Julee Cruise.

Immortalized by her appearances in Twin Peaks, Julee Cruise has been making music since the 80s and her collaborations with David Lynch are well known. Since I first watched Blue Velvet in high school I was enthralled by her song “Mysteries of Love”, and I quickly bought her debut album Floating Into the Night on CD. Floating, by far her most well known project, features such legendary tracks as “Falling” (the Twin Peaks theme), “The World Spins” and the aforementioned “Mysteries”. But it wasn’t until years later that I discovered The Voice of Love, her underrated follow-up album that almost matches the consistency of the debut.

Some reggae in my Julee Cruise? Yes please! The Voice of Love opens with “This Is Our Night”, which bobs along like a Sly & Robbie remake of “Falling”. While “Friends For Life” also executes something of a reggae rhythm, the rest of the album is less surprising in its styles: “Movin’ in on You” recalls the doo-wop balladry of “Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart”, “Up in Flames” sounds like an ominous vocal take over the Bookhouse Boys theme (complete with those jazzy drum brushes), and the goofy “Kool Kat Walk” is almost a reprise of “Audrey’s Dance”.

Donna sings along to Cruise’s “Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart”, via Welcome to Twin Peaks

According to a 2018 interview with Pitchfork, Julee Cruise is not a fan of The Voice of Love. “It sounds like soup and the songs are bad”, she said. “They put on too much fucking reverb.” Surely the album isn’t for everyone, especially if it’s not for Cruise herself. It’s largely a retread of the first album, and Lynch’s lyrics are no deeper than the ones on …Baby One More Time. But if you, like me, love those earlier songs and truly believe that Twin Peaks is some life-changing shit, The Voice of Love is absolutely worth checking out.

And, if you have Spotify, you can stream it here.

Weekly Mix: 7/26/20

Hey there friends. I’ve got some music for you.

For this hot and rainy week the wunderkind Brenda Lee welcomes us to The End of the World, then Lil Wayne eases off the drama to present us a Leather So Soft. 90s R&B group Intro, in one of my favorite R&B ballads that inexplicably features a ballpark organ, remind us that despite our troubles There Is a Way. Then another throwback to an early Nite Jewel track, Universal Mind. Possibly one of Stevie Wonder’s most underrated tracks, Creepin’, follows. To break things up, a Hyperdub classic in Joker’s Digidesign. Then my favorite Bieber song, the touching One Life. Another inspiring track follows in Mos Def’s classic UMI Says. Things cool off with Father’s ICEMAN before The Dells round this week out with their show-stopping Stay in My Corner.

As always, check out the playlist on Spotify.