Album of the Week: This Mortal Coil’s Blood (1991)

If you love the 4AD sound anywhere near as much as I do, then you truly cannot go wrong with This Mortal Coil. Essentially the label’s in-house cover band, TMC formed in 1983 under the aegis of label president Ivo Watts-Russell (the namesake of Cocteau Twins’ classic “Ivo”).

One of their first songs as This Mortal Coil (and still their most popular) was the Cocteau’s (or 2/3, Liz Fraser and Robin Guthrie) take on Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren”. Its popularity is really a no-brainer – a straight-up gorgeous track with one of the inimitable Fraser’s all-time vocal performances, “Siren” was used to great effect in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. He intended to use it even earlier for Blue Velvet, but that proved too expensive.

Although TMC’s “Siren”-containing debut It’ll All End in Tears is their go-to classic, this week I’ll be focusing on their last record, 1991’s double-album Blood, which is nothing to sneeze at. No Cocteau kids to be found here, but there’s no lack of talent: This Vulture article likened TMC to “a dream-pop version of Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group”. Amazing.

The late Caroline Crawley of Shelleyan Orphan starts things off, breezing through the TMC original “Lacemaker” and owning it on their version of The Apartments’ “Mr. Somewhere”. If you’re going to check out one track from Blood, though, make it “You and Your Sister”. Holy shit this song is good! Written by Chris Bell of Big Star for his excellent solo album I Am the Cosmos (the title-track is also covered on Blood), it is masterfully interpreted by The Breeders’ Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly. With its heart-on-sleeve directness and honey-sweet vocals, this one even eclipses the great original version, and rivals “Song to the Siren” as the best TMC track.

Elsewhere, “Bitter” is a whirlwind mix of guitar solos, Colourbox-like sampling and lush vocals. “Several Times”, a standout from the lost ambient classic Sleeps With the Fishes, is included here with vocals and lyrics, a welcome update to a key 4AD instrumental. Oh, and back to that Colourbox-like sampling I just mentioned. It is very dated and not very good, which is why nobody knows about Colourbox. Take “The Lacemaker II”: why are there samples of a barking dog in it? And “Ruddy & Wretched” is about as good as its title implies. Safe to say the best TMC songs are rarely instrumentals.

On the whole though, the production stands the test of time. I’ve mentioned before (probably too many times) how I love drum-less music, and most of Blood is like this: straight atmosphere. “Late Night” is a Syd Barrett song suspended in air. “Inside me I feel / Alone and unreal”. No doubt. The country classic “Til’ I Gain Control Again” is a deep-cut tearjerker, helping to round out the back half.

Like most-double albums, Blood might be better if you pared it down to its best songs. But If you’re in no hurry, it’s one to get lost in.

Listen to Blood here.

Album of the Week: Jackson C. Frank’s S/T (AKA Blues Run the Game) (1965)

When times are tough, you can be thankful that you’re not Jackson C. Frank. I think I found out about the late folk-singer’s story in a RYM thread titled something like “Which musician had the worst life?”

Here’s a rundown: As a child in suburban Buffalo, NY, the young Frank survived a school explosion in which his friends and girlfriend died and he himself suffered severe burns that would cause lifelong injuries. After modest success from his debut, his mental health began to unravel. He married and his young son died of cystic fibrosis. He later became destitute and sick, occasionally sleeping on the streets of New York City. Sitting on a bench in Queens, he was shot in the eye by kids with a pellet gun and blinded. In 1999, he died of pneumonia in Massachusetts at the age of 56, poor, alone and unknown.

Fortunately for us, Frank’s only studio album is not quite as depressing as his life story. The blues are present, sure, but from the opener “Blues Run the Game” you can hear a sweetness in his voice, melodies and strumming. The talent is palpable. Apparently Frank was quite shy about singing around anyone, including his producer Paul Simon (yes, that Paul Simon). It’s not difficult to assume he was traumatized by his childhood. Which is a shame, not just for obvious psychological reasons, but because he had a great range and was more than able to carry a tune. “Here Come the Blues” is as righteous a blues song as one written by the great masters of the American south.

The second half of Frank’s album is even stronger than the A-side. The fingerpicking of “Milk and Honey” was atmospheric enough to be sampled on rapper Nas’s appropriately depressing “Undying Love”. This ballad was also covered by such folk luminaries as Bonnie Dobson, Sandy Denny (who dated Frank for a time) and Nick Drake (who recorded several Frank songs before his own death). “My Name is Carnival” has the mystical folk vibe of a group like Pentangle. “You Never Wanted Me” is a bittersweet closer, perhaps more upbeat than you might expect from the title.

On the reissue/streaming version we get some interesting bonus tracks. “Marlene”, a tribute to his childhood girlfriend who died in their school fire, is achingly beautiful and personal. One need only listen to the lyrics to get an idea of the singer’s pain. Some of the other songs are poorly recorded or preserved, as you can hear the tape messing up in “The Visit” and “Prima Donna of Swans”, but for me this is an endearing quality. It is unclear to me when the songs were recorded, but what is clear is that Jackson C. Frank could have made another great album with the proper variables permitting.

A French documentary film, Blues Run the Game – The Strange Tale of Jackson C. Frank, is currently in post-production. You can see an excerpt of it on Youtube here (it is quite sad).

Listen to Jackson C. Frank here.

Album of the Week: Julianna Barwick’s The Magic Place (2011)

“I feel big, you know what I mean? Like, not big in the sense of weight, like, gaining weight or nothin’ like that. Like colossal.”

***

I guess I can believe it’s been 10 years, especially because the last one has felt so long. Still, Julianna Barwick’s debut feels big, which is all the more impressive considering how little equipment went into its recording. Here, it’s just her multi-tracked vocals and one or two instruments added in.

With hardly any discernible lyrics and a consistent, tried-and-true approach, Barwick’s music can be difficult to write about. Wyndham Wallace of The Quietus admitted as much, writing that “Critics have fallen over themselves to conjure up grand metaphors that encapsulate the experience” of her music. There have been comparisons to Enya, Eno, Cocteau Twins, and any other classic music so often described as “ethereal”. But really, it’s not that deep. Barwick described herself as “a pretty happy, easy-going person who is really excited about life.”

By her own account, Barwick always loved to sing. And so, by simply improvising vocal lines and layering the .wav files in GarageBand, she made her breakthrough album. There’s a good video from the Magic Place era that shows her doing it:

It’s not hard to reason why Barwick has named her albums The Magic Place, Nepenthe (“that which chases away sorrow”), or Healing Is a Miracle. There is peace in her music. “White Flag” was always my favorite, and it’s kind of hard to describe without sounding corny (like the gates of heaven opening?) I will say that early 2011 was not a particularly great time in my life and this was music like I’d never heard before, simultaneously calming and exhilarating. Back then, Asthmatic Kitty wrote that “Bob in Your Gait” “sounds the way humans should treat one another.” In a much more recent interview, Julianna said, “I’ve heard from a lot of people that The Magic Place in particular has gotten a lot of people through some dark times in their life, so I’m really glad for that. That makes me feel really good…” You can add me to that list!

I like everything she’s done, and the extended versions of Healing Is a Miracle from last year really blew me away. But it’s hard for me to find any faults in The Magic Place. Even its sequencing is flawless. “Envelop” starts the record off by doing just that, drawing the listener in. “Flown” is a perfect conclusion, like lying down in bed at the end of a gratifying day. I’ve been a fan since this release and Julianna Barwick’s music is a treasure. Hopefully someday I’ll be able to see her perform live.

Check out The Magic Place on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Bob Dylan’s Knocked Out Loaded (1986)

“Ultimately a depressing affair…” –Rolling Stone

“About the only thing it did for Dylan’s career was enhance its decline.” –Warehouse Eyes

“They originally had a photographer shoot some photos of Dylan and Tom Petty. I heard Dylan took a look and threw them all in the trash.” –Charles Sappington, cover art

“Some really abysmal shit here… Avoid .” –RYM user garfieldacres

“A near-flawless work which remains very misunderstood. I have a website discussing this album if you’re interested…” –RYM user burritobroth

If you get really into Bob Dylan, and I mean really into Dylan, you’re eventually going to wade into the darker, more-forgotten corners of his discography. 2020 quarantine provided the ideal setting for a relative neophyte like myself to make this deep dive. With all the time in the world to sit on the couch last Spring, I watched No Direction Home, Rolling Thunder Revue and The Last Waltz, and on any given day was listening to John Wesley Harding, Blood on the Tracks outtakes, or 1997’s “Highlands”.

I’m not going to deny what’s already well-known: 80s Dylan is the worst Dylan. He had his confounding Christian phase, questionable reggae endeavors, and the much-derided Dylan & the Dead, a compilation of his tour with the Grateful Dead for which “Dylan willfully insisted on some songs from very inferior shows”. But when you really venerate Dylan, there are gems to be found even here.

This brings us to Knocked Out Loaded. Essentially a tossed-together collection of rejects from the previous year’s (already mediocre) Empire Burlesque released in time to support his tour with Tom Petty, I doubt this album won Dylan many new fans at the time of its release and its negative reception is no mystery. One problem often cited in reviews of this record is the production. Bob is quoted around this time as saying, “I’m not too experienced at having records sound good. I don’t know how to go about doing that.” You can hear the results especially on “Driftin’ Too Far from Shore”: the drums sound like crap; the synths and background singers do not gel with the rest of the mix at all.

That said, I do like about half the songs on here. And that’s most of the album, considering one of those is the 11-minute fan favorite “Brownsville Girl”, which Dylan noted as one of his most under-appreciated songs in a great 2017 interview. It’s a classic, rambling Dylan epic. One could probably criticize it as overlong, but the melody in the verses is just too damn good.

“Precious Memories” is a return to the reggae-Dylan (or as I like to call it, Robert “Nesta” Zimmerman) of Infidels, but I like it. It’s not hard to find a bridge between this one and the gospel-like classic “I Shall Be Released” (of which reggae legend Keith Hudson recorded a sick cover on one of his best albums). “Got My Mind Made Up” is a decent blues-rock track, and the closer “Under Your Spell” is a successful ballad.

It’s probably a good thing that Knocked Out Loaded only lasts a half hour, but I don’t think it’s as bad as many make it out to be. For my money it’s a step above Empire Burlesque, which Robert Christgau called “his best album since Blood on the Tracks” (had this guy heard Desire??). Ultimately, it’s a record that shows an equal share of the good, the bad, and the (unmistakably, indisputably) Dylan.

Listen to Knocked Out Loaded here.

Album of the Week: Judee Sill (1971)

Spring is a time for Spring things. Things returning, birth, rebirth, growing, flowers, trees, strings and stings. A small picnic in a big park. A nice time in the great outdoors. Plants and fruit. Passover arrived and we ate eggs (which are the most Spring food). Today is Easter. I walked off a bus down ten blocks east to my apartment where my new cat sat waiting. His eyes widened at “The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown”.

Judee Sill’s self-titled debut is as Californian and psychedelic as the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty (1970). Since I’ve mostly been playing the Dead lately, it’s an easy jump to Sill, whose harmonious hippie-folk is an unbeatable soundtrack for ringing in the springtime. Breezy and bright, her songs can stand up to just about anyone who was doing the folk singer thing in the early 70s – and there were many! Her style is soft but steady, imbued with the kind of intimate Christian philosophy that only a sinner can possess. The characters in her tales turn away from darkness and enter the light. And you can feel the light, the warmth.

It seems Sill was not successful in her time. Though she died at a young age, her music is not forgotten at all. I’m sure she has more fans today than ever before, and you can count myself and maybe yourself in that group of those who have been touched by her celestial voice and cosmic music.

Listen to Judee Sill here.

Album of the Week: Love Spirals Downwards’ Idylls (1992)

It’s no big secret that Cocteau Twins are my favorite band, and this has been the case since high school. They have had their share of imitators, contemporaries and comrades over the years, but one album that really struck me in my initial obsessive Cocteau phase was Idylls. The comparisons are too easy: the phaser guitar, the female glossolalia, the drum machines. I’d venture to say it’s less varied than even the simplest Cocteau efforts, and that I think helped me sink into it back then.

Like many teens I smoked a lot of pot and that is the prime association here. I think more than any Cocteau album I paired Idylls with the hazy balm of weed smoke in an effort to, at least temporarily, rise above the bullshit that hounded my 17-year-old existence. And it worked. This is truly one to spark up and bliss out to.

Listening to it today, sober, it’s still outstanding to me. Give me some conga drums, early 90s atmosphere and a woman singing “sayyylaalooohah soooheyyyaahh”. Hell yeah. I imagine a lot of people find it boring. It certainly lacks the melodrama of say, Dead Can Dance, or the emotional heft of The Cure, not to mention the best melodies of Cocteau Twins. I would also call it front-loaded, with “Illusory Me” and “Love’s Labor Lost” as the key standouts – although the closer “And the Wood Comes Into Leaf” is tight too! Those Cocteaus always had killer closing tracks, just to bring up another parallel.

I never made it far past this one (their debut) in the LSD (heh) discography. I remember buying Flux (1998) on CD years ago but not being very moved. It had some electronic influences that in my mind connect with Slowdive’s Pygmalion – a great record! So perhaps it’s worth revisiting. The guy (Ryan Lum) is now a politician in Long Beach, or has at least attempted such a career. He still makes music as Lovespirals. The LSD discog wasn’t streaming for years, but now you can check it out in all its remastered glory. For a fan of shoegaze, dream-pop, and/or especially Cocteau Twins, Idylls is an album worth getting lost in.

Listen to Idylls on Spotify.

Album of the Week: B.B. King’s Live in Cook County Jail (1971)

I was a pretentious music nerd as a young age, collecting records and correcting those who got their facts wrong by the start of high school. This got me in the most trouble when my French teacher made an aside about “Stand By Me” being a great song by B.B. King. I quickly corrected her – “Stand By Me” is, of course, by Ben E. King – so rudely that she kicked me out into the hallway in front of the entire class.

Hopefully my behavior is less contemptible now, but for years this was my only real knowledge of B.B. King – he was the guy who didn’t make “Stand By Me”. Well, what did he do? Blues, presumably. But the only CD of his I frequently saw in stores and my stepdad’s collection was 2000’s Riding with the King, an album whose cover art practically screams “We, the makers of this album, are over 50 years old, and to enjoy it you should be too.” Riding with the King is probably his most successful album, but if this were that Drake meme format I would wave it away with one hand and then point happily to Live in Cook County Jail. This shit is smokin’ hot.

Yes, Johnny Cash did it first, with At Folsom Prison for Columbia almost three years earlier. That album was a hit, and presumably encouraged ABC to get excited about the opportunity to record King doing the very same. As the story goes, one (or more) of the wardens at Cook County Jail in Chicago reached out to King in 1970 and the performance was arranged in September. Cook County was not the place you wanted to be and I’m sure it still isn’t. Today it has one of the largest inmate populations in America at about 10,000 (In 1970 the inmate population was closer to 2000) and it has a nasty history of racism, violence and injustice. You couldn’t get me do a week’s time there if I knew Frank Ocean and the ghost of Jerry Garcia were playing a double-header for the inmates. Before his performance King walked around the site before the show and, according to The Independent, “his experience at the jail affected him profoundly.” I’m sure his empathy for the inmates inspired him to give them a damn good show, and today it remains a treat for us listeners.

After a staff member’s introduction in which the wardens are hilariously booed by the inmates, King starts off with the uptempo “Everyday I Have the Blues”. He was reportedly nervous, which may explain why this track is so fast. Thankfully, things slow down after that and we get into the best run of the album. “How Blue Can You Get?” and “Worry, Worry, Worry” are both absolute show-stoppers. King somehow manages to play the role of tortured blues singer, electric guitar god and standup comedian all at once. Listen to the pain in his voice when he cries “I gave you seven children / And now you wanna give ’em back!” That’s the blues, baby! On both tracks, he shreds his Gibson “Lucille” for a few minutes and then switches into master storyteller mode. The encouragement of the crowd’s hollers, laughter and applause really fuels both King and the backing band. It’s pure magic.

On the second side King slides into a more relaxed groove where he plays some older hits because, in his words, “I think a lot of the things we let go sometimes are the things we cherish most later on.” You might not want to cover “Sweet Sixteen” today, but it’s a crowd favorite here and a late highlight of the set. He gets cookin’ towards the end of his big hit “The Thrill Is Gone” as well. The last track, “Please Accept My Love”, cuts quickly to an end-of-set fanfare, and I have to imagine that some of the set was edited for album release. It would be fun if we could get an unabridged version like At Folsom Prison got in 2008. As it stands though, Live at Cook County Jail is a concise and remarkable recording.

Listen to Live at Cook County Jail here.

Album of the Week: Ray Charles & Milt Jackson’s Soul Brothers / Soul Meeting (1958)

I recently rewatched Ray (2004) on HBO, which was fun, since Jaime Foxx is so charismatic and the music is so good. I think I realized this last year watching Fassbinder’s Gods of the Plague (1970), in which the protagonist slow-dances to “Here We Go Again” in one of the best scenes. Indeed, Ray Charles was immensely talented and his discography is full of gems. In 1958 he recorded Soul Brothers with the famed jazz vibraphonist Milt Jackson, AKA Bags.

This collaboration is interesting for a few reasons. For one, there are no vocals, which makes it atypical of Ray’s output and is probably why it’s one of the lesser-known releases in his oeuvre. Additionally, the two musicians decided to play around with different instruments, switching roles occasionally. That’s Ray Charles on saxophone on “Soul Brothers” and “How Long Blues”, where Milt Jackson plays the piano.

Soul Brothers and Soul Meeting were originally released as two different albums, both culled from 1958 sessions with the latter first released in 1961. The reissue combines them and sort of jumbles the track orders: for example “Soul Brothers”, originally the first track on the titular album, is now track 8. No matter – the two albums are quite similar and the relaxed nature of the pieces don’t require much of a formal order.

As I mentioned above, Ray plays the sax here, and he rips it. I especially love “How Long Blues”. Like most of these tracks, it’s in no hurry, but once you do reach Ray’s sax playing about 6 minutes in, it’s well worth the wait. “Blue Funk” has some tight guitar playing (courtesy of Skeeter Best) and groovy vibes from Bags. You can practically smell the smoke wafting out of some southern bar 60 years ago. As a jazzy collab, this is not the most immediate Ray Charles release. But it’s perfect for that laid-back Sunday afternoon vibe.

Listen to Soul Brothers / Soul Meeting on Spotify.

Weekly Mix: 3/7/21

Welcome, welcome. 300. This is Sparta. Yes, we’ve reached 300 songs on the playlist. That’s 10 a week for 30 weeks. And since GSG currently has 29 followers on Spotify, that means hypothetically each follower could grab 10 songs and the last 10 would be left for me. Anyhow…

We begin with The Beach Boys’ Feel Flows in all its psychedelic glory. Next, Polaris with She Is Staggering from The Adventures of Pete & Pete. Remember that show? Even if you don’t, this is a great slice of early 90s rock. Then, “the boy from Lagos that they hate to love”, Odunsi (The Engine)’s Fuji 5000, a certified smanger from one of my faves. About ten years ago I listened to Waka Flocka Flame maybe more than any other artist. Among the dozens of Flocka tracks compiled on my iPod I specifically remember Grind, Stunt, Go Hard playing as I drove down Route 1 (who knows why), and man, this shit is too good. I’m not really sure why dude disappeared, but that’s a thought for another day. Next things get jazzy with Cullen Knight’s Deal With It. Some strong trumpet on this here track. Then Walter Egan’s Magnet and Steel from the Boogie Nights soundtrack, which my parents often played during my childhood. I used to confuse it with Saturday Night Fever because I didn’t live through the 70s and I hardly remember 1997, so of course I did. Anyway, this was one of those songs that cast a spell on me as a kid and has not lost a bit of its magic today. Dreamy stuff.

Dinah Washington enters the pantheon of torch singers on the GSG playlist with I Thought About You. Also wistful is 2 Chainz’s Poor Fool, which I think I mostly come back to for the Swae Lee chorus. Things are gonna get real tender near the end here. Oh, and I’m actually writing about 11 songs today because one of the old ones must have been removed from Spotify. So next up we have Funkadelic’s not-so-funky ballad We Hurt Too, a beautiful song. Then After 7’s Ready Or Not, one of my favorite Babyface productions (did you know I love Babyface?). Finally, a Quincy Jones track from 1995, You Put a Move on My Heart. Strangely enough this is track 4 on the Q’s Jook Joint album, which seems weird to me only because this plays to me like a show-stopping finale. I love the living hell out of this song.

I might take a break on the playlist for a bit, as I’m not sure there are much more than 300 great songs in existence. Anyways, if you’ve come along for the ride, thank you. You can listen here.

Album of the Week: Yelawolf’s Trunk Muzik: 0-60 (2010)

Say what you will about Yelawolf, and since it’s 2021 you’re probably not saying anything. But back in 2011, Yelawolf was in the same XXL Freshman class as Kendrick Lamar, Meek Mill, YG and Mac Miller, and showed at least some of the same commercial, if not artistic, potential. The “Freshman” Yela was already in his 30s, having independently released his first album CreekWater in 2005. CreekWater wears the influence of ATLiens (1996) on its sleeve, which as hip-hop touchstones go is a pretty good one to use as a springboard, even for a white boy from Alabama. Listening to it today, it’s clear that from the early days of his career Yela could both rap and carry a hook well (see “Breathe”). In this early stage he wasn’t showing much Eminem influence (besides being a white rapper), but that connection would come to full fruition by the end of 2011, when he was signed to Universal’s Shady imprint by Em himself.

Even on 2010’s Trunk Muzik the comparison is hard to avoid, since Yela presents himself as a sort of Southern Slim Shady, spitting fast and hailing from the trailer parks of Gadsden, Alabama rather than the trailer parks of Detroit. But Eminem himself is nowhere to be found. I think, then, that this was a sweet spot in Yela’s career where he could operate as a still-gritty, rural counterpoint to Em without being overshadowed by the influence of the superstar, who was far past his prime even ten years ago.

I remember seeing the video for “Pop the Trunk” on MTV back in the day, and its slightly cartoonish, eerily vivid atmosphere is still an effective representation of what Yelawolf is about (“This ain’t a figment of my imagination, buddy / This is where I live”). But my real introduction to Trunk Muzik was “I Just Wanna Party”, which I discovered deep into my Gucci Mane phase of 2012-2013. The hook is absurd (I love it), but Gucci kills the shit, declaring himself a partying rockstar in the company of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Paul McCartney in a rapid-fire verse. Fans of Big Boi’s 2010 solo debut Sir Lucious Left Foot should recall that both Yelawolf and Gucci had great features on that album. Indeed, Big Boi himself appears in the “I Just Wanna Party” video. Rittz kills it on “Box Chevy”, another cool ode to cars that finds him rapping fast over a laid-back beat, bringing Houston’s Z-Ro to mind. “Love Is Not Enough” spins Rick James’ “Hollywood” (also sampled on Three 6 Mafia’s “Da Summa”) into a pained tale of high-school love.

This era of late 2000s-early 2010s rap music is special to me because it reflects my early teenage years. Trunk Muzik 0-60 is not one of the best rap albums of this era. “Get the Fuck Up!”, “Billy Crystal” and “Marijuana” are all pretty bad songs. Yelawolf is now 41 and it’s doubtful that he will ever regain anything close to the traction he had a decade ago. But I think this music is worth revisiting. After all, a rapper giving props to Kingpin Skinny Pimp, Beanie Siegel and Pastor Troy on the same album doesn’t happen that often. Yelawolf is the real deal.

Listen to Trunk Muzik: 0-60 on Spotify.