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: 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: Raul Lovisoni & Francesco Messina’s Prati bagnati del monte Analogo (1979)

Whew, that title is a mouthful. Okay, ever seen Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain? Well, it’s partially inspired by French writer René Daumal’s surrealist novel Mount Analogue, in which the titular mountain is either imaginary or inaccessible. Daumal died before the book was finished, and the first track of this album acts as a sort of companion piece envisioning what the mountain contains – the title translating to Wet Meadows of Mount Analogue. I’m using some conjecture here – the album contains no lyrics and I cannot find an English translation to the Italian LP insert. The music, though, is sure to please fans of ambient and minimalist music.

Prati bagnati is composed of three tracks, the title track taking up the album’s first side and most of its running time. This is Messina’s side, and he adds synths to the piano playing of Michele Fedrigotti. The piano is delicate as a lullaby. At about the 14:45 mark, a synth melody slowly enters the mix – it sounds like what an ambulance siren would sound like if ambulances were calming instead of alarming. Then at 18 minutes we hear a couple stronger synth swaths that make me think of OPN’s maximalist soundtrack work.

Lovisoni’s b-side begins with “Hula Om”, a solo piece performed on harp, and ends with “Amon Ra”. “Amon Ra” features vocals by Juri Camisasca, who has appeared on several albums by Franco Battiato, who produced this record. Lots of Italian names, I know, but don’t worry I won’t quiz you. Both tracks continue the meditative vibe of the a-side, albeit to slightly less hypnotizing effect. But if you’re down with the 23-minute jam that opens the album, you’ll be into the rest. As a package, Prati bagnati is a heavenly slice of Milanese minimalism.

Listen to Prati bagnati del monte Analogo on Spotify.

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.

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is nina.jpg
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.

Album of the Week: Brian Eno’s Before and After Science (1977)

What a wonderland of a zoo, a cross between steaming smoke, atonal mystery and hanging, frothy ditties…

Brian Eno is an agent from some other time and some other place who seems to know something that we don’t but should…

There’s a scene in Y tu mamá también where the protagonists are driving across rural Mexico listening to Brian Eno’s “By This River”, and one of the stoned teens says “This song rules!” As someone who spent many a stoned teenage night with Before and After Science, I absolutely identify with this moment. Like the quotes above (from Down Beat and Crawdaddy! respectively) suggest, Eno was tapping in to something otherworldly with Before and After Science, a record that took two years to compose and represents an artist at a peak of his musical powers (Low, “Heroes” and Cluster & Eno were recorded in the same time period).

Like his preceding masterpiece Another Green World, Before and After Science mixes the art-rock of Eno’s first two albums with the ambient sounds he pioneered. But unlike Another Green World, the two sides are distinctly separate in their styles.

If you’re familiar with Eno’s career, you probably know of his Oblique Strategies. This creation method takes the form of a deck of cards, with suggestions like “Ask your body” or “Not building a wall but making a brick”. Created by Eno and artist Peter Schmidt, this technique was utilized heavily by Eno in this period and inspired many, if not all, of the songs on Before and After Science (apparently over 100 tracks were written for it).

“Look at September, Look at October”, Peter Schmidt

Schmidt’s contributions to Before & After Science are particularly notable. Apart from co-authoring the Oblique Strategies cards, four of Schmidt’s prints (including the image above) were included in the original packaging of the album. Schmidt’s work inspired Eno, and the prints included in Before & After Science seem to reflect the meditative, autumnal quality of the album.

As I mentioned before, the two sides of Before & After Science have different styles. With the exception of “Energy Fools the Magician”, the first side is a collection of upbeat, vocal-lead art rock tracks, with a standout in “Backwater”, featuring drumming from Can’s Jaki Liebezeit. It’s a great bunch of songs, but the second side makes the album a 5-star masterpiece, and for my money the greatest work of Eno’s career.

After the pastoral “Here He Comes”, “Julie With…” creates a celestial atmosphere featuring Eno’s Moog synth and bells. It is a dazzling six-and-a-half minutes. “By This River” is a meditative yet moving song made with Eno’s Cluster buddies Moebius and Roedelius. It has a descending piano line that embodies Schmidt’s watercolor depictions of nature. “Through Hollow Lands” is an instrumental piece that acts as a sort of preamble to the album’s final track.

If the heavenly sprawl of Eno’s many lengthy ambient works were distilled into a sublime four-minute “pop” song, the result would be “Spider and I”. Indeed, the album closer achieves the great beauty of “Discreet Music”, while the lyrics paint a youthful fantasy: “We sleep in the morning / We dream of a ship that sails away / A thousand miles away…”

Of course, Eno has continued to make stellar music over the past 40+ years, and any fan of ambient or work labelled “art rock” may have a different favorite in his discography. After years of listening to it, Before and After Science remains his dearest treasure to me.

Listen to Before and After Science on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Linda Ronstadt’s Silk Purse (1970)

Linda Ronstadt - Silk Purse
via PC_Music on rateyourmusic

Not knowing much about Linda Ronstadt outside of some big hits, I stumbled upon Silk Purse last year while looking for cover versions of “Will You (Still) Love Me Tomorrow?”, as made famous by The Shirelles. I loved Linda’s take on the song and this quickly became one of my favorite country albums.

Recorded in Nashville at age 23, Rondstadt’s second album Silk Purse is a mostly breezy record, as evidenced by its adorable album cover and short runtime (just under 30 minutes). The brevity makes it easier to love. There’s an undeniable Soul imbued in the aforementioned Shirelles cover as well as “Are My Thoughts With You?” (written by the great Mickey Newbury,), and the traditional singalong closer “Life is Like a Mountain Railway”.

Elsewhere, “Long Long Time” is a wrenching ballad with the album’s best vocal performance, and according to an admin on a Linda Ronstadt fan forum, “Linda was so exhausted after doing that take that she fell asleep in the control room.” The single earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, and was the only semblance of a hit from the album, peaking at #25 on the Billboard Hot 100.

A few years later in 1974, Ronstadt would reach superstar status with Heart Like a Wheel. That’s an excellent album in its own right, but Silk Purse is simply an underrated gem that deserves more love. See a couple great related photos below and a link to stream the album today.

1970 LA billboard via simpledreamin-blog on tumblr, photo by Anthony Fawcett
Album cover outtake via rockcellarmagazine.com

Listen on Spotify

Album of the Week: Roberta Flack’s Feel Like Makin’ Love (1975)

Atlantic / SD 18131 via LogicalSpock

Some of legendary singer Roberta Flack’s most popular albums include her debut First Take and later Killing Me Softly, gospel-leaning soul albums with immortal ballads like “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and the latter album’s famously Fugees-covered title track. But my favorite is the under-appreciated Feel Like Makin’ Love, a lush and sensual foray into the Adult Contemporary sound that defined many hits of the mid-70s.

Musically, Feel Like Makin’ Love is more Carole King than Nina Simone, its breezy title track earning a #1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 as well as three Grammy noms including Song of the Year. Younger heads like myself may also recognize it from D’Angelo’s cover version on his mid-career masterwork Voodoo.

The vibe here is resolutely mellow and sexy, with a much larger band than previous Flack recordings, including but not limited to jazz legends Bob James (keyboards), Idris Muhammad and Alphonse Mouzon (drums), and Joe Farrell (oboe). Though quite accessible, the record is expertly arranged and performed, with an early highlight in “I Can See the Sun in Late December”.

“I Can See the Sun” was penned by Stevie Wonder, who was at a career peak around this time. It shows: the nearly 13-minute epic feels less than half that length, with Flack carrying the soaring melody and the band filling out the sound like sunlight shining into the forest of the album cover. It’s a wonderful song on an album full of them.

Feel Like Makin’ Love‘s recording process took over a year and was reportedly fraught with production disputes, leading to delays in its release and an emotionally distressed Roberta Flack. But you wouldn’t know that upon hearing it. The final product is an outstanding collection of smooth soul, ideal for summer days and nights.

Click here to listen on Spotify.