Album of the Week: Ashra’s New Age of Earth (1976)

Look at the ARP Odyssey. It looks like 1976. At 23(!), Manuel Göttsching used it and an array of other synth equipment to create New Age of Earth. By ’76, the Ash Ra Tempel veteran had spent over 5 years with that group as a young guitarist and vocalist. Despite the Ashra moniker here, New Age of Earth is essentially Göttsching’s solo debut. Göttsching’s official website bio hilariously characterizes him as “Modest, quiet, [and] bad with self-promotion and with answering the phone”. He made all the music himself, and in falling with his modest and quiet character, there are no vocals to be found here, just 4 instrumental pieces.

“Sunrain” is propulsive, perhaps the least “ambient” piece here. It makes me want to sing along like the guy on Pat Metheny’s Still Life who goes “dadadada de DAdoo dayah” (maybe check that album out if you don’t know what I’m talking about).

“Ocean of Tenderness” is, as its title suggests, calm and soothing. Göttsching whips out the Gibson SG on the last 5 minutes for some dank noodling. “Deep Distance” is a whistling jam that some have likened to a proto-Aphex Twin track.

“Nightdust” takes up the whole B side, and it’s the trippiest piece on the record as well as my favorite. It fans out like a bellows before settling, appropriately, like cosmic dust. Along with the ambient pieces on NEU! 75, this is about as good as it gets for spacey Krautrock music. I recommend it to any fan of ambient or atmospheric synth and guitar work.

Listen to New Age of Earth on Spotify.

Weekly Mix: 11/22/20

The GSG playlist has hit 200 songs! Here’s what’s on deck this week. I actually picked 11 tracks today, since “Sunnyside Up Luck” was deleted from Spotify.

We begin with a major throwback from my childhood in Bow Wow’s Let Me Hold You (feat. Omarion). Then the smooth sounds of Onra with Love Tip. Hugh Masakela leads us Grazing in the Grass, Willie Nelson asks Can I Sleep in Your Arms, and Nailah Hunter envisions a White Flower, Dark Hill. The Montclairs then attempt to Make Up for Lost Time, and a 60s one-hit wonder follows in John Fred’s Judy in Disguise (With Glasses). Vallejo’s Mac Mall is up next with Young N Da Game. Then two lovely odes to song in Donny Hathaway’s I Believe in Music and Ahmad Jamal’s classic I Love Music. Rounding things out is my favorite song right now, Mickey Newbury’s Write a Song a Song / Angeline.

I may take a break for a week or two, but if you have 14 hours to spare, check out all 200 wonderful songs on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Frank Sinatra’s Where Are You? (1957)

Ah, Autumn. The perfect time to wistfully smoke a cigarette while staring into the ground. What’s that Frankie? You’re wondering where she is? Damn man, sorry. Haven’t seen her around. You’ll get over it, bro (probably).

I had a bit of a Sinatra phase this year. Lovely stuff, and it felt appropriate during the lonely summer months of 2020. If you ever felt like you couldn’t see your S.O. because they were in another state and it wasn’t feasible to travel during a global pandemic, or you couldn’t go to your favorite restaurant or see friends for the same reason, don’t worry! Frank understands. He’s been lonely. He’s been through it. He’ll tell you all about it.

Yes, Where Are You? is depressing, but also comforting. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic praised its “luxurious sadness”. Want to cry diamond tears on your 24k gold pillow? This is the album for you. As soon as those first string notes open the title track, you’re wrapped up in the sad glory of traditional pop’s greatest singer.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I love music without drums. No drums! And hey, no piano either, so no percussion to be found. Standards become lullabies. But if you’re snoozing by the end of the sublime “Laura”, Sinatra bellowing “New York, NEW YORK!” at the beginning of “Lonely Town” might wake you up. No, this isn’t that New York song. In fact, most of these standards were unfamiliar to me prior to listening. The notable exceptions were also recorded by Miles Davis: “Autumn Leaves”, which Miles performed live frequently in the early 60s, and “There’s No You”, which appeared on the underrated Blue Moods.

Where Gordon Jenkins orchestrated the Where Are You? sessions, the bonus tracks (13-16) were recorded with Nelson Riddle, who conducted two of Frank’s most acclaimed works – In the Wee Small Hours and Sings for Only the Lonely. I’ve read reviews that characterize Jenkins’ arrangements as “dour” and “overwrought” compared to Riddle’s work. Frankly (heh), I can’t tell the difference. Where Are You? sounds lovely to my ears, and it’s perfect for this time of year.

Listen to Where Are You? on Spotify while smoking wistfully.

Weekly Mix: 11/15/20

Greetings friends, it’s me Ethan Reis. Back with more music for your cranium.

This week’s addition to the playlist begins with the Supreme Jubilees’ It’ll All Be Over, Stina Nordenstam’s Little Star and Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions’ Drop. Then the great pianist Ahmad Jamal’s Jeff, before things speed up a tad with Yo La Tengo’s Can’t Forget. O.C. drops jewelz on Far From Yours and Vickie & The Van Dykes sing True Love. Then some French monkeying around with Brigette Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg’s Bonnie and Clyde. Rounding things out this week is Outkast’s spectral 13th Floor / Growing Old, followed by Lyfe Jennings’ fantastic ballad Let’s Do This Right.

Stream the playlist on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Nina Simone’s Emergency Ward! (1972)

The great Nina Simone has several lauded live albums, but Emergency Ward! stands out for two key reasons. First, there are are only three songs on this full-length LP. Second, only the first half was recorded in front of a live audience.

The live A-side, “My Sweet Lord / Today Is a Killer” was performed on November 18, 1971 at the Town Theatre in Wrightstown, NJ (just outside of Fort Dix). Noted political activist Jane Fonda (remember when she starred in an experimental political comedy by Jean-Luc Godard?) organized the event as a continuation of the vaudeville/variety anti-Vietnam War FTA tour. A transgressive performance, it allowed the soldiers stationed at Fort Dix the “chance to rail against the army”. Good thing Fonda was a Nina Simone fan.

The Fort Dix performance is electric. The band gets right to it: drums, tambourines, handclaps, bass and a choir quickly develop a rollicking groove to back up Simone on piano and vocals. Audience cheers and the timbre of the recording perfectly capture the live atmosphere of the theater. David Nelson, a founding member of The Last Poets, contributed the poem “Today is a Killer”, which Simone brilliant splices into George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”. The album refers to the piece as a medley, but it’s really more of a new song, a lighting-in-a-bottle creation that was thankfully recorded by RCA technicians at the performance. Which, at 18 minutes on the album, is one of those tracks that sounds way shorter than it is. In fact, the only complaint I have about this release is how quickly this opening track fades out. Surely the live show was longer, but as listeners we can’t be sure what happened.

The last two tracks were recorded in-studio. “Poppies” is a lush song that RCA billed as a “poignant tribute to a drug victim” (see the ad below), though it probably has as much, if not more, to do with war. Then another George Harrison cover (again from his debut) in “Isn’t It a Pity”. If you’re a Galaxie 500 fan like me, you probably think that their version (which closes On Fire) is the best one. Unless you’d like it more sombre and less Beatles-y (Beatlesian?), Simone’s 11-minute rendition won’t change that. But it is lovely and intimate. The reissue/streaming version also adds “Let It Be Me”, culled from the Fort Dix performance.

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Somewhat strange RCA promo for Emergency Ward! Source: trunkworthy.com

The George Harrison connection isn’t all that strange if you know that her preceding album was Here Comes the Sun, which began with the titular track (written by Harrison). In addition, the concert she performed before the Fort Dix show (October 10 at Lincoln Center) featured a cover of another track from Abbey Road, “Come Together”. Thank god we don’t have to hear an 18-minute version of that. Apparently, Harrison was inspired by Nina’s take on “Isn’t It a Pity”, but I’m not sure the two artists ever met, let alone recorded together.

This period of Simone’s career was marked by frustration. Between the late 60s and early 70s, she had a strained relationship with RCA and America as a whole. Amidst label disputes, sociopolitical unrest and Simone’s increasing mental health issues, the fact of Emergency Ward‘s existence at all is kind of a miracle. This is an anti-war album, largely recorded (by RCA) at an anti-war event, and released (by RCA) with a collage of Vietnam-related news clippings (like Bombing of North Termed Highly Effective by U.S. – Accurate Laser Guided Bombs Believed Freely Used) on the album cover. But you probably won’t find it in your parents’ record collection. “While Nina remained proud of Emergency Ward, essentially a concept album, the commercial payoff was minimal,” writes Nadine Cohodas in her Simone biography Princess Noire (2012).

The next decade of Nina Simone’s career would be markedly less prolific than the previous one. In 1973 she moved to Liberia, then three years later to Switzerland. ”Switzerland is the only place in the world where I am at peace,” she told the Times in 1983. ”The people live in peace, and they don’t steal, and no one’s crazy. When the Swiss see fat tourists from America, they laugh as though it’s a circus and say it’s not possible for people to look like that. The Swiss have protected me. They know that after every visit to America I would always have to go to the hospital to recover.”

Not exactly high praise for the USA, but I can’t blame her. I’m just glad that today, as a time-capsule of a uniquely tumultuous period in American history, we have this magnificent album.

Listen to Emergency Ward! on Spotify.

Weekly Mix: 11/8/20

Howdy folks. After an eventful week in America I can finally relax a little bit. Of course, I can’t relax too much, because that would mean not updating my site every week. And like Obama said after sinking a 3 the other week, “That’s what I do!”

Things get started with Zlatan’s Wake Up, then Philly singer Barbara Mason’s biggest hit, Yes I’m Ready. Next, a cut from Blu’s underrated NoYork! project with an incredible game-show referencing guest verse in Annie Hall. Reggae legend Alton Ellis covers Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale and Massive Attack mash up the sound with Five Man Army. Then Cocteau Twins amazing b-side Ice-Pulse (which I discovered via Jonathan Caoutte’s Tarnation), followed by Del’s goofy Sleepin on My Couch. A gem amongst many 2010s Migos tracks, Zaytoven and Quavo’s Stars in the Ceiling is next, followed by Sarah Vaughan’s classic Lullaby of Birdland. Rounding things out this week is a great one from the major dudes Steely Dan, Katy Lied‘s Your Gold Teeth II.

As always, check out the playlist on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Tor Lundvall’s Under the Shadows of Trees (2003)

Not gonna lie, when I discovered this album I assumed Tor Lundvall was someone in Scandanavia, perhaps making experimental records for Oslo’s Rune Grammofon label. But no, my man Tor is a good ol’ American like me, born in Jersey and based in Long Island. His self-described “ghost ambient” music is soothing, spectral and perfect for Fall, the spookiest season.

Lundvall’s primary output is his paintings, and his website hosts a gallery where you can view hundreds of them. The album cover above is a good representation of what you’ll find: tree-filled landscapes as well as costumed characters who are occasionally a bit creepy. And his painting style is absolutely reflected in the music: pastoral and gentle tones abound.

I’ve probably mentioned before that I love music with no drums, and like a lot of ambient music, Under the Shadows of Trees fits that description. It is a a collection of reverb-soaked synthesizer and piano pieces, many featuring vocals with discernible lyrics (“Distant Children” is almost a pop song) or muted cries (adding to the “ghost” theme).

At just over an hour, Under the Shadows of Trees is fairly long and many tracks sound the same, but this is rarely a problem for me when it comes to ambient music. If quiet, contemplative full-lengths are your thing, then this is a beautiful choice. On its Bandcamp page, Lundvall suggests that listeners play the album outside as the sun sets, “just as the evening ghosts call softly from the woods”.

Listen to Under the Shadows of Trees on Spotify.

Weekly Mix: 11/01/20

It’s officially November, and in Pennsylvania it kinda feels like there’s nothing to do but focus on the election. While this will definitely define the upcoming week, there’s still an abundance of music out there to relax the nerves during this tense time. This week’s addition to the playlist is quite mellow.

Grant Green’s Idle Moments is probably the longest single addition to the playlist at almost 15 minutes, followed by T-Pain’s underrated album cut Time Machine. Rema’s hit Dumebi is next, with John Holt’s optimistic Reality after that. Then we have Yo La Tengo with their lovely ballad Nowhere Near and another indie stalwart, Bill Callahan with Too Many Birds. Then the gospel instrumental Blessed Quietness by Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir, followed by R.E.M.’s gentle Star Me Kitten. If you’ve never heard it, Planet Caravan will take you by surprise as it is extremely out-of-character for Black Sabbath (with amazing results). Rounding things off is Nico’s wonderful cover of Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams.

And friends, you can stream the playlist on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Yusef Lateef’s Eastern Sounds (1962)

So I was thinking, I bought this 1200 year-old Chinese clay flute and I’ve been learning to play it. It only has a scale of five notes, and it is like blowing over a Coke bottle, but I’ve written this piece called ‘The Plum Blossom”, and I think I can make it work.

The accomplished Dr. Yusef Lateef passed away 7 years ago in 2013, at the age of 93. He was 40 when he recorded Eastern Sounds in 1961. All this to say, the man was from a different era. “The idea of the album, as he tells it, was to have an oriental feel,” wrote Joe Goldberg in the liner notes. To quote The Big Lebowski, that’s not the preferred nomenclature, at least not today. The term “oriental” is about as dated as “negro”, but I think it’s important when approaching this album to consider the context of the time in which it was recorded and the artist’s intentions. Granted, I am a white person of no Asian descent, but to me Lateef’s exploration of Eastern Sounds are genuinely informed by his practice of Ahmadiyya Islam (a movement based in India) and, as the quote above shows, an interest in experimenting with instruments uncommon in the Western hemisphere.

This context in mind, it’s not hard to see why Eastern Sounds is Lateef’s most popular recording today. We begin with the aforementioned “Plum Blossom”, and indeed the Chinese flute, or xun, sounds a bit like a Coke bottle or jug instrument. It’s a bit funky, but it has legs. In particular it reminds me of Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet on “Bitches Brew”: deep and ominous, but wonderful all the same.

The next couple tracks were penned by Lateef as well and continue the album’s theme, but after that we get just as many American standards. It breaks up the sound a bit, but these songs are lovely and mellow. This is also, with “Love Theme from Spartacus“, the only jazz album I can think of that incorporates a theme from a Kubrick movie, and to great effect.

A later highlight is “Purple Flower”, which has all the space and beauty of a 60s Miles ballad, albeit with no trumpet. The album rounds out with “The Three Faces of Balal”, on which bassist Ernie Farrow makes great use of the plucked rabab instrument.

This month, Lateef would have turned 100, and UMass Amherst has launched an online celebration of his life featuring music, writing, photos and more focusing on the late jazz legend. One thing I love in particular is this short NPR tribute by John Rogers on his friendship with Lateef. Yusef Lateef has a large discography, but Eastern Sounds is a great place to start. May his life and music be celebrated for centuries to come!

Listen to Eastern Sounds on Spotify.

Weekly Mix: 10/25/20

Looks like Judee Sill’s fantastic Dreams Come True compilation has been removed from Spotify so we no longer have the 45th entry in the mix, “Sunnyside Up Luck” – big SMH. Not replacing it for now, so this week we reach a weird-numbered 159 tracks in the mix. More rap and upbeat stuff in this one!

Big Homie from the short-lived Future Brown project and Sicko Mobb starts things off, followed by the sick AJ Tracey and Mabel track West Ten. Then Tyga’s emo Down For a Min and Jhené Aiko’s brilliant P*$$Y Fairy (OTW). From Method Man’s debut Tical we get Sub Crazy, then Etta James sings her version of Stormy Weather. After that, the first track on Arthur Russell’s classic World of Echo, Tone Bone Kone. Following this is Talk Talk with I Believe in You. Rounding things out this week, Funkadelic’s creepy Atmosphere and Dum Dum Girls’ Coming Down.

As always, check out the playlist on Spotify.