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

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

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

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

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

Open to love? Stream it here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to Cut With the Cake Knife here.

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to Walatta here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to Music of William Eaton on Bandcamp or Spotify.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to Invitation to Openness here.

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

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

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

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

Stream No Shame 3 here.

Album of the Week: Soulja Slim’s Give It 2 ‘Em Raw (1998)

Crushed out tank on my neck / protect my chest like a vest / No more coke, no more dope / just alcohol and sess

I wish I could find a huge high-res version of this album cover because it’s just that good. White Flame is my favorite Lil B mixtape, and that cover is a take on this one. It’s just one example of the late Soulja Slim’s wide influence in hip-hop. Known as a teen for rocking block parties in New Orleans’ oft-namedropped Magnolia Projects (his home), he was signed to Master P’s No Limit label where he recorded Give It 2 ‘Em Raw at 20 years old.

A young man, it seems Soulja Slim had seen enough for 2 lifetimes (hence “You Ain’t Never Seen”), which could be the reason he has so much to say. Over 20 tracks, Slim raps like he’ll never be able to get everything off his chest. He repeatedly references a past life of snorting dope and the reality of doing time in jail. According to nola.com, he “was serving in prison on a probation violation in 1998 when… Give it 2 ‘Em Raw fell just short of selling the 500,000 copies needed for coveted gold-record status.” However, his debut seemed to lead him in a positive direction. Having sworn off hard drugs, Slim focused on music and continued to record up until his murder in 2003.

“From What I Was Told” busts this album open with a vocal energy that just keeps going and going. The explosion sound effects compliment Beats by the Pound’s cartoonish digital production. No Limit is really in full effect here. You have Percy on 5 tracks, 2 Mia X duets (of which “Anything” is superior), C-Murder, Silkk the Shocker, Mr. Serv-On, the then-No Limit artist Snoop Dogg(!), and an uncredited appearance from Mystikal on the standout “Get High With Me”. Another favorite of mine is “Getting Real” with Fiend, whose energy puts him among the best of No Limit’s best (and he’s still rapping 25 years later, god bless him).

If you can get with the somewhat dated production, it’s not hard to appreciate Soulja Slim’s gift. You can hear his influence on the GOAT Weezy, especially on a track like “Takin’ Hits” – early Lil Wayne sounds a lot like this.

“He would have you laughin’ all day, he would say somethin’ out of the blue to make you laugh.” -5th Ward Weebie

Listen to Give It 2 ‘Em Raw here.

Album of the Week: Barry 7’s Connectors – 21 Rare Library Tracks (2001)

Barry 7’s Connectors raids the vinyl archives of 1970s library music, a cheap soundtrack source for films, TV and adverts. Mr. 7 is normally found fronting Add N To (X), or going out as a very alternative DJ.Lo Recordings

Sometimes, when you don’t know what to listen to, or when your enjoyment of everything else feels a bit saturated, a compilation of esoteric library music hits the spot. Thanks, Mr. 7! The first of 2 compilations, Connectors is a fun and varied sampler from the world of production music.

One thing that’s fun about library music is its range of styles. Since the music could potentially soundtrack any kind of TV show or movie, you’ll get the goofy “Catch That Man” next to the beautiful “Dawn Mists”. “Amour, Vacances et Baroque” has a classic French groove a la Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson. “Solar Flares” and “Quasars” by Sven Libaek, who produced music for Hanna-Barbera (including Yogi and the Invasion of the Space Bears), could be psych-rock hits of the early 70s if they had any vocals. The biggest highlight for me, though, comes from Roger Roger, a composer who was actually named Roger Roger. “Coconut Coast” is the perfect soundtrack to twirling around in a little outfit while drinking a little cup of tea.

Library music is a genre without many limitations, and thus recordings that are up to 60 years old still come off as inventive and strange. These recordings can be a good source of hip-hop samples, relaxing background music, or unique and heady experiences. Take a dip for a trip. Weird sounds abound!

Listen to Barry 7’s Connectors here.

Album of the Week: NoCap’s Steel Human (2020)

In the streaming version, the eagle has a chain, too.

NoCap! If you’re unfamiliar, the name might be too ridiculous for you to commit to the music. But I implore you, if you’ve never heard “Ghetto Angels”, listen to it. The song is an incredible ode to the artist’s fallen friends, expressing a vulnerability (“I end up cryin’ on my best days”) that is often missing in hip-hop, over an appropriately heavenly beat.

It’s hard to say “Ghetto Angels”, from The Backend Child (2019) isn’t the young rapper’s best song, but lately I’ve been stuck on Steel Human, which as it stands is the most recent project from the 23-year old artist. Like a lot of newer rappers, Cap does the rap-singing thing. He stands out for a couple reasons: for one, he has a great voice and ear for melody. And lyrically, he has a unique and clever approach. The song that really sold me on NoCap (besides “Ghetto Angels”) was Lil Baby’s “Dreams 2 Reality” from 2018. Produced by frequent collaborator and fellow Alabama native Al’Geno, it features the NoCap line, “I’m on top of all these n****s, I can see when all these angels piss.” It’s such a weird way of bragging that it stuck with me.

Steel Human contains similarly confounding gems. “If I leave the game, will my Xbox love me?” “I’m a drunk boxer / I pour lean in my Hawaiian Punch”. “Playground love / I let her slide and she got mood swings”. The more you listen to NoCap, the more wordplay you uncover. As far as younger rappers with a pop/melodic sensibility, NoCap is one of the best. Also, all the features here are great. Here’s hoping for more from NoCap.

Listen to Steel Human here.

Album of the Week: Catherine Howe’s What a Beautiful Place (1971)

Now that Joni Mitchell’s music has been removed from Spotify, you might find yourself yearning for some lovely 70s female folk singer-songwriter type beats. Well, you’re in luck if you’ve never heard of Catherine Howe. The British Howe made a brilliant debut that may have been more well known had the ill-fated record label Reflection not shuttered about a month after their release of the album.

What a Beautiful Place, produced by Bobby Scott, who wrote “A Taste of Honey” (most famously known as the opener to that evergreen bargain-bin classic, Whipped Cream & Other Delights) and produced Roland Kirk’s superb I Talk With the Spirits (1965). Two very different styles, no doubt, but they show the range that Scott was capable of. He plays keys on What a Beautiful Place, adding a delicate (or, as on the title track, jaunty) touch.

If you listen to “Up North”, you will know peace. This is the first real song on the album and a true standout. The London Symphony Orchestra brings a lush and moody accompaniment to “On a Misty Morning”, and they’re also responsible for the “Also sprach Zarathustra”-like prologue, interlude and epilogue to the album that give it a distinct Romantic flavor. “It’s Not Likely” has an epic melody similar to that of Gene Clark’s “Strength of Strings”, always a good thing. “My heart’s in a hundred places,” she sings on “Words Through a Locked Door”, “Part of it’s under a tree / Part of it by a singing brook / And part I kept for me”. Lovely stuff.

According to Howe, the album was recorded in four days and with no overdubs. The brilliant folks at Numero Group saved What a Beautiful Place from obscurity by rereleasing it in 2007. All props to them, and to Howe, who has released music as recently as 2015. We here at GSG Enterprises also stan the sexy bonus track “Let’s Keep It Quiet Now”.

Listen to What a Beautiful Place here, and you’ll think “What a beautiful place.”