Album of the Week: Astrud Gilberto’s I Haven’t Got Anything Better to Do (1969)

How’s that for a striking cover? I’m not sure if Astrud splashed some water on her face during the shoot, did the acting thing of conjuring up some bad memories, or what. Maybe she was just really that bummed out. In any case, the cover and title drew me to this one. It was actually long before my Sinatra kick, but it would be up any jazz-pop fan’s alley.

Gilberto rejected the “jazz singer” label, and it’s fairly clear why. Her vocals are not complex or improvisational. In fact, they might even be too simple for some, fading into the background at times. Astrud (née Weinert) met João Gilberto through friend and (amazing) singer Nara Leão. João and Astrud married, and she is most known for their smash hit “The Girl from Ipanema” (1963), which they recorded when she was about 23 years old. But it seems she was a bit pigeonholed by this collaboration, and the press referred to her as a housewife.

I like I Haven’t Got Anything Better to Do in part because she is doing her own thing (the couple had by now divorced). Richard Davis, who has perhaps the greatest CV of any bassist ever, is on here. He sounds damn good on “Wailing of the Willow” – one of two Nilsson covers on this album. At under 30 minutes, it’s short and sweet. This album is truly breezy. “The Sea Is My Soil” really comes to life about halfway through in a beautiful moment.

“Without Him”, the other Nilsson cover, is another big highlight. It’s melancholy, yet full of the pep that only that Brazilian-style percussion provides. And as far as tearjerker moments go, I’d rate the saxophone coming in after “if I had wings I could fly” on the closer “If” pretty highly. The fact that this is the last track on the album only adds to its desolate feeling. That’s it! It’s over. What’s left? Nothing!

Astrud Gilberto loves animals and has a very cute old-school website that you should visit.

Listen to I Haven’t Got Anything Better to Do here.

Album of the Week: James Brown’s There It Is (1972)

The Godfather of Soul has an overwhelmingly huge discography, and I’ve heard relatively few of his studio albums, live albums or compilations. The guy basically invented funk music, and many fans point to records like Sex Machine and The Payback as essential collections of his energetic funk mastery.

There It Is is a bit different. It contains some tracks that are outside the sound of James Brown’s typical oeuvre. “King Heroin” is amazingly surreal: over a laconic groove, Brown describes a dream about a “strange weird object” talking to people. Turns out it’s heroin, and Brown (as the anthropomorphic heroin) recites the dangers of the deadly drug. This one must be heard to be believed! Ultimately, James Brown’s anti-drug PSAs feel hypocritical, as he would go on to abuse PCP and other drugs for years. “Public Enemy #1” follows the example of “King Heroin”, but packs less of a punch.

There are a few classic funk cuts here, most notably “Talkin’ Loud and Saying Nothin'”, “I’m a Greedy Man” and the title track. “Who Am I” is a rare James Brown ballad, and his voice isn’t exactly tailor-made for the style. Nevertheless, I like it. The closer “Never Can Say Goodbye” has a laid-back beat similar to “King Heroin”, but there’s no proselytizing on this song. It’s a nice way to end a strong outing from the prolific James Brown.

Listen to There It Is here.

Album of the Week: LaFace’s Boomerang Soundtrack (1992)

This is an album with Eddie Murphy on the cover. And that’s okay.

I wrote a couple months ago about Babyface’s Tender Lover, and how I adore Face and his music. As half of LaFace, he produced TLC, Toni Braxton and others. Babyface would later write and produce the classic Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, but I believe Boomerang was his first compilation album. I haven’t seen Boomerang the movie, which is a romantic comedy directed by Reginald Hudlin (who wrote and directed Kid N Play’s House Party) starring Eddie Murphy as a Casanova who may have finally met his match! But don’t quote me on that, like I said I haven’t seen it.

7 of the 12 songs on this soundtrack album were written and/or produced by Babyface. These include the smash opener “Give U My Heart”, a Toni Braxton duet with an amazingly 90s music video, Johnny Gill’s silky-smooth “There U Go” (oh!), and “End of the Road” – perhaps Babyface’s biggest hit of all-time. “End of the Road” is a weird one: melodically, it’s cripplingly beautiful. Even a YouTube piano tutorial of this song is enough to make me glassy-eyed. Depending on your tolerance for the saccharine you may or may not be able to endure its minor-key mushiness. But the reason I say it’s weird is because of the lyrics. The guys in Boyz II Men are essentially refusing to accept the ending of a relationship, and there is a spoken section that gets uncomfortably clingy. Let’s not bring that toxic energy into 2022, kings!

I also really like “Reversal of a Dog” by LaFace Cartel, which is essentially a pseudonym for Babyface and TLC. Left Eye does her thing, it’s a banger! Outside of the Babyface tracks, we have a great Aaron Hall and Charlie Wilson collab (shoutout Gap Band!), a P.M. Dawn ballad, a slinky Grace Jones track, a breezy a capella from one Kenny Vaughan, and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Hot Sex”. This track, which also appears on Tribe’s The Anthology compilation (but none of their albums proper) is perhaps most notable for Q-Tip’s “Where ya at!” line – one that’s been sampled many times. It’s not one of Tribe’s greatest songs, but I like the Phife verse a lot.

Excellent album right here. I wonder if Eddie Murphy listens to it. I know if my face were on the cover of a Babyface record it would be my most cherished possession.

Listen to Boomerang here.

Album of the Week: The Gap Band’s Gap Band IV (1982)

Elementary school gym class, 2003. It’s a beautiful day in suburban Pennsylvania, and I’m ridin’ dirty:

The scooter board experience was fun even for a chubster like myself. At least until you sat too far back and the thing flipped upwards in front of you and you landed on your ass. Or you had to race 30 other kids and got some shoes in your face or whatever. I liked the free time to just glide around the gymnasium floor like a roomba. And on these days, there’s one song I remember the gym teachers blasting over the speakers repeatedly: The Gap Band’s “You Dropped a Bomb on Me”.

Maybe not the most appropriate track given the “you turn me on” line, but damn if I didn’t love this one as a kid. The synth tone is too funky, and of course what makes it is that cartoonish bomb-dropping sound effect. Fucking sick. And it’s just as electrifying today.

“You Dropped a Bomb on Me” is probably The Gap Band’s biggest hit in terms of chart position, but Gap Band IV also features “Outstanding”. This one is a proven smash at any party, and younger listeners might recognize the melody from Tyler the Creator’s “911”.

I have yet to listen to a lot of Gap Band albums, but I can tell you that this is one of those records where every song is good. I love “Early in the Morning”: it begins with a rooster cawing and an ominous synth tone, before the piano shines some sun on the track. It’s an upbeat jam that’s as good as any to start your day to. Charlie Wilson would reuse the “I was young and foolish…” bridge 23 years later on Snoop Dogg’s “Signs” (another classic from my childhood). “Season’s No Reason to Change” has a Stevie Wonder vibe to it, while “Lonely Like Me” is conceptually similar to “Call Me Maybe”: hey, I just met you, but maybe we have something in common!

“Talkin’ Back” is such a clear P-Funk track that it almost feels like George Clinton should receive royalties. This wasn’t totally new for The Gap Band (see 1980’s “Humpin'”), but it’s the only track on IV that fits the description. Nevertheless, it’s so good that it doesn’t really matter. As a closer it makes it clear that The Gap Band’s party is just getting started, and indeed they would keep releasing numbered albums up through 1987’s Gap Band 8 (their… 11th album?). I’ll have to get back to you on the rest of those records, but IV is a funky 80s gem.

Listen to Gap Band IV here.

Album of the Week: R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People (1992)

In high school I had a tape deck in my car and was looking for tapes to play. So in like 2012 I got this R.E.M. tape at a neighbor’s garage sale for, I dunno, maybe a dollar. I had listened to the album before, and I knew the hits, but it wasn’t until I drove around for a while that it really clicked with me. The deck changed sides automatically (heh), so I never really knew where the album started or ended because I wasn’t paying attention to the track titles on the tape. I thought “Ignoreland” was “It’s Your Land” or “Indoor Man”.

Okay, so this one isn’t exactly an underrated gem. People love R.E.M. They made pop music. I remember talking to a kid in my high school class, and he told me R.E.M. was his favorite band. I mentioned that I really liked “Don’t Go Back to Rockville”, and he told me he didn’t know that song. And this is not to sound holier-than-thou: if you told me you really liked “My Love Paramour” by Cocteau Twins, I’d be like “I don’t know that one”, because I don’t. But you don’t have to be an obsessive music nerd to know R.E.M.

Anyway, this became a really special album to me after all those hours in the car. Every song is great. I haven’t yet heard another R.E.M. album I could say that about. Elizabeth Wurtzel called this album “moody and introspective,” which is about right. “Drive” is like an elegy for rock music, as corny as that sounds. And it is a little bit corny, but it’s beautiful, like the rest of the album.

I want to point out the similarities between “Everybody Hurts” and “Love Hurts”. “Love Hurts” is a tender ballad originally written for the Everly Brothers that was also covered by the late Gram Parsons, and is most well-known as a hit by the band Nazareth. “Everybody Hurts” is the fourth track on Automatic, and it’s also a tender ballad. Talk about corny and beautiful. It’s been used in suicide hotline ads and animated kids movies. Like “Love Hurts”, I can’t really imagine playing this song seriously around other people. It’s one to put on when you’re alone and stare at the wall thinking about life.

“Star Me Kitten” is one of my favorite tracks here. It’s so relaxing. The organ creates a church-like atmosphere, despite the suggestive lyrics. It’s like a lullaby. Amazing. “Nightswimming” is a classic. You’ll be like, damn, this 32 year old bald guy really had me crying. It unlocks something. I want to live in this song.

The melodica melody on “Find the River” will stick in your head for days after the album ends. It reverberates. I like this quality in an album’s final track, where it sounds like it could be a beginning. And to me it is, because I used to just play this album over and over again. I love this album.

Listen to Automatic for the People here.

Album of the Week: Babyface’s Tender Lover (1989)

When you talk about 90s R&B, you might mention Mariah Carey, TLC, Boyz II Men, or Usher. What you might not know is the man behind much of that music. Enter Babyface.

The guy churned out hits: “End of the Road”, “Breathe Again”, “Roni”, “Not Gon’ Cry” are just a few. As half of LaFace, he created a label that turned into an empire, releasing the first 5 OutKast albums among other records. But I didn’t really know about Babyface’s solo music until 2017, when Frank Ocean played “Whip Appeal” on his Blonded Radio show. This amazing track led me to Tender Lover, a major revelation.

Face’s second solo album, Tender Lover is his magnum opus as a solo artist. In the same way that, 20 years later, The-Dream would create fantastic solo albums that failed to reach the commercial success of the artists he wrote and produced for (Beyoncé, Rihanna etc.), Tender Lover exists as an under-appreciated R&B gem.

The first side is good, but the second half is a knockout. The aforementioned “Whip Appeal” builds to an addictive crescendo. “Soon as I Get Home” is my favorite track. The lyrics are ridiculous and the 80s vibe is thick, it just sounds so damn good (Bobby V. did a nice version of it as well). Face has this way of making the happiest pop melodies, every instrument adds up to this maximalist, major key bliss. And he does the classic R&B trademark of singing the shit out of the background vocals in the final choruses of his songs.

I’ll never not champion Babyface. During last year’s Verzuz phenomenon, he graciously countered (the brilliant) Teddy Riley’s overblown showiness with a restrained display of talent. Hearing him talk about making music with Whitney Houston and Micheal Jackson is, to the pop fan, like listening in on a part of history. He speaks modestly and lovingly (check out his interview on Questlove Supreme if you want a great long-form podcast). And although he’s slowed down, he’s still making music: he was heavily involved in the making of Ariana Grande’s debut Yours Truly and he continues to work with his longtime musical partner Toni Braxton.

I recently purchased Tender Lover on cassette for the cheap. Unfortunately, the sound is all wobbly and wonky, it sounds like a fucked-up Screw tape. The streaming version has some cool bonus tracks, though. Besides the pretty video version of “Whip Appeal”, there is the Dub version of the title track (complete with a Bobby Brown rap) and a 7-minute “My Kinda Girl” remix.

Listen to Tender Lover here.

Album of the Week: Weyes Blood’s The Outside Room (2011)

In February 2012 I went to a Thurston Moore solo show at the small New Hope Winery, near Doylestown, where my dad lived at the time. Thurston’s stripped-down, sad-sack divorcee songs were pretty decent, but I was mesmerized by the opener: local artist Weyes Blood*.

Four months later I went to Siren Records on a beautiful summer night to see the Doylestown-based Weyes Blood perform to a room of about 25 people. I spoke to her briefly and purchased a hand-made copy of her only CD at the time, The Outside Room. I was actually so excited to meet her that I forgot to pay her, until she politely pointed this out as I was walking away: “Um, excuse me!” I was a dumb 17 year old… I took an awkward picture of us on my flip-phone that exists… somewhere.

So check this out: The Outside Room rules. I’m not gonna tell you it’s better than Titanic Rising, or that I was ever friends with her, or that I predicted her success (not that it really surprised me either). One thing was really clear both times I saw her live playing, as I recall, solo on a synthesizer to a small room: she was very talented (and still is)! With no fame or following she created a thick atmosphere and hypnotized the audience (or me, at least). The Outside Room rarely left the 2003 Honda Pilot that I constantly drove around in high school.

Listening to it today, it’s clear that from a young age she could write great songs. From the jump, the organ and watery echo of the drums suggest an incense-filled room, and Mering’s melodies carry you through. There’s a kind of fantastical storybook feeling: “In the pale night / When the mood changes you…” “Storms That Breed” is definitely one for the Ouija board crowd. I love it. “Romneydale” is another highlight. The guitar riff is not dissimilar to a country ballad, but among the swirling chimes and vocals it all kind of melds together into a psychedelic folk track. Things get weirder on the penultimate track, more sound-collage-y than song-based. Based, nonetheless. The closer “His Song” absolutely sounds like levitating.

It’s not surprising that she eventually worked with Ariel Pink (on a supremely underrated EP that is maybe my favorite Weyes Blood release): the lo-fi, bedroom pop style is indebted to his early classics. And maybe it’s just that “Candyboy” is titled similarly to “Chocolate Girl” (both killer songs), but this album also reminds me of Animal Collective’s early lo-fi classic Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished. I think that fans of that release will quickly appreciate The Outside Room. It’s also worth noting that this album was mastered by Graham Lambkin. I don’t think that Weyes Blood plays these songs anymore (I haven’t seen her in nine years), but it’d be cool to see them adapted to her current style!

Listen to The Outside Room here.

*The original article on NJ.com had this to say: “Weyes Blood (first name Natalie) has been around since the mid ’00s and is a conventional folk artist.”

Album of the Week: Felt’s Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty (1982)

As a relatively recent inductee into the cult of Deadheads, I’ve been listening to a lot of music that puts electric guitar front-and-center. This includes, outside the Dead, some smoking blues albums and a good dose of Hendrix, but something in my memory must have compelled me to revisit Felt’s debut.

I’m glad I did. Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty isn’t as emo as its cover art would suggest, but it isn’t not lonely. To that end, the reclusive atmosphere gives the lead guitar plenty of room to breathe. I realized the guitar melodies in “Birdman” were still wired in my brain from my hazy college dorm days. Fuck yeah. The overall sound of the band is understated here, with faint drums and instrumental passages, including the entirety of the mood-setting opener “Evergreen Dazed”. Next to Felt’s Forever Breathes the Lonely World, with its swirling organ, Crumbling is comparatively ascetic.

This album is succinct at a tight 30 minutes, but none of it feels rushed. In fact, I wish more bands put out 6-song albums like this. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, but instead leaves you wanting more. Even if you’ve never heard of them, Felt’s influence is pretty massive. According to lead man Lawrence, they were Robin Guthrie’s (Cocteau Twins guitarist) favorite band. They’re also favorites of MGMT, and I can see a direct influence on Galaxie 500. I plan to dive deeper into their discography, and if you’re curious, this debut is a good place to start.

Listen to Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty here.

Album of the Week: Playaz Circle’s Flight 360: The Takeoff (2009)

You may not fully understand why 2 Chainz is doing that ridiculous airplane wing-arms pose on the cover until you hear Playaz Circle’s “Look What I Got” in a car: truly soaring, blissful music and the finest gem on this largely-forgotten album from the Atlanta duo. Dolla Boy (seen above on the right) is a more than serviceable rapper, occupying the same confident, punchline-filled style as Tity Boi. But it’s clear that he doesn’t have that same X Factor as 2 Chainz, who consistently outshines his partner here. Back to that cover: Deuce is poised to takeoff, paving the way for his solo career (especially that crazy 2012 era in which he had a million features) with very entertaining verses, displaying his outstanding humor and style.

When I play an older release like this one it helps to confirm my opinion that he deserves his props as a seasoned vet, one who has spitting heat since 2003 (see Ludacris’ “We Got”) and finally got his respect with a breakthrough after Playaz Circle. This isn’t an amazing disc, but it is filled with excellent music. The Raekwon track is super hot, “Ghetto” is a great Outkast nod (with what may be 2 Chainz’s strongest verse on the album) and “Stupid”‘s indulgence is delightful. I even dig the corny R&B tracks in the middle, particularly “Quit Flossin” (shoutout Jagged Edge!). Unfortunately “Big Dawg” is like a weaker version of “Duffle Bag Boy”: Wayne’s decent hook and disappointing lack of a verse don’t help a not-that-great song. But it may be the only letdown on this album.

If you have little tolerance for hip-hop post 1997 that isn’t ultra conscious, political or abstract, Flight 360 isn’t for you. But it can get props from me! Maybe this will remain a forgotten portrait of 2 Chainz as a rising star. If so it will still be music that just makes me happy.

Listen to Flight 360 here.

Album of the Week: Clear Horizon (2003)

I’ve not delved into much music by the British band Flying Saucer Attack, but I tend to trust anything released by Kranky, the superb American label that delivered masterpieces by Stars of the Lid, Labradford, Windy & Carl and so on.

Clear Horizon was the collaborative project of Flying Saucer Attack’s David Pearce and Kranky recording artist Jessica Bailiff. By all accounts, the artists created the project by sending each other tapes across the Atlantic in the early 2000s, without recording in the same room.

For me, this is one of those albums where the first track is the best. “Watching the Sea” is some ascension type shit, all blissed-out guitar and sweet singing. I love this song.

“I wonder why you haven’t seen the light for days,” Bailiff sings on “For Days”. And there is a hermitic vibe to this album, everything cavernous, moving at a slow pace. The song structure fades into feedback, transitioning into ambient washes that sound more like Fennesz than any singer-songwriter project.

“Sunrise Drift” is the first song to float along with no rhythmic guitar strumming, just vocals and chimes in an ether of white noise. It’s meditative music. This stuff requires patience to be appreciated, and a more critical ear might deride this album for lack of direction. And it’s not all brilliant, of course. “Death’s Dance” in particular seems more unpleasant than enjoyable. But mostly, Clear Horizon is gorgeous and relaxing, and a forgotten gem.

Listen to Clear Horizon here.