Album of the Week: Emmylou Harris’s Roses in the Snow (1980)

Emmylou Harris cut her teeth recording with the late Gram Parsons in the early 70s before breaking out as a solo star. Her output was eclectic, with records ranging from country rock, to Beatles covers, to folk music and other styles. In 1979, she changed direction yet again, hitting the studio with multi-instrumentalist Ricky Scaggs for a bluegrass album.

“Only at one point was I told that what I was going to do was an absolute mistake, was going to end my career, was going to become a commercial disaster—that was when I wanted to do Roses in the Snow,” she told Lucinda Williams in 1997. “And I just said, ‘Well it’s my career.’ I knew I had to make that record… Everybody I knew wanted to do a Bluegrass record and everybody was talking about it, and I wanted to be the first.”

Roses in the Snow, then, wasn’t a mistake at all. It peaked at 26 on the Billboard charts and collects a rich assortment of recordings, beginning with the esoteric title track written by Ruth Franks and originally performed by Bill Grant and Delia Bell. Finding some lyrical parallels with Gram Parsons’ “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning” (on which Harris sang), it’s an upbeat start to a short and sweet album. Always with a trick up her sleeve, track 4 of the album is Emmylou’s cover of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer”, eschewing the traditional country/bluegrass songbook.

Acoustic guitar legend Tony Rice, who died in 2020, plays a key role on this album. Rice, whose proficiency in soloing found him collaborating with virtuosos like Jerry Garcia and Béla Fleck, appears on 6 of the album’s 10 tracks. His solo on the folk classic “Wayfaring Stranger” is beautiful and lithe. He also provides fast guitar accompaniment on “I’ll Go Stepping Too” and delicate picking on “You’re Learning”. Probably the biggest accomplishment on side B is “Miss the Mississippi (and You)”, which sparkles with a kind of classic Hollywood sweetness.

Among other guests, Johnny Cash can be heard singing on “[Cold] Jordan”. The album’s streaming version (a rerelease from 2002) features 2 bonus tracks, including a great take on Hank Williams’ “You’re Gonna Change”. Below, see Harris play the title track from “Roses in the Snow” in 1993.

Listen to Roses in the Snow here.

Album of the Week: Steve Hillage’s Rainbow Dome Musick (1979)

Yer tellin’ me you never heard of rainbow dome musick?? Well, big Steve Hillage was quite productive between the years of 1969-1979. At 17, he played lead guitar in Arzachel (previously Uriel, later known as Egg) and joined Gong shortly thereafter. By 1979 he had released 4 studio albums with Gong and 4 solo albums. Most of these fall in the psychedelic rock/Canterbury scene category, but Rainbow Dome Musick exists in its own ambient plane.

I found some info about the Rainbow Dome on this website, which includes the poster I repasted below. As you can see, the dome was advertised as part of the 3rd Festival for Mind Body + Spirit, which took place at London’s Olympia exhibition space/music venue in ’79. Billed as “The show about you & me”, the festival featured such new age-y attractions as astrology, “Earth mysteries”, and “sports”. Hillage and his wife, the musician Miquette Giraudy, made the music for the Rainbow Dome. I’m guessing this was some sort of psychedelic 3D art piece you could venture inside and space out in, like a Turrell space.

If you’re familiar with Mario Party 3, there’s some sparkly SFX that you hear for about 10 seconds when the players first enter a level (you can hear this at the 6:55 mark here). About 5 minutes into Rainbow Dome Musick, a very similar sequencer sound appears, creating the background for the rest of the track. Shit gets super gnarly about 12 minutes in when Hillage, gently at first, starts ripping on guitar. By 15 minutes in the music has become transcendent.

That’s “Garden of Paradise”, which takes up the A side. The other half is “Four Ever Rainbow”, which to me is somewhat evocative of Ashra’s New Age of Earth meditations. Less ecstatic than “Garden of Paradise”, but quite mellow. The guitar here is more rhythmic, and the synth sounds great.

I really like this comment on the above blog from one Julian Guffogg – “I went then – and met Steve Hillage in the dome!” It appears the event founder Graham Wilson commented as well.

Listen to Rainbow Dome Musick here.

Album of the Week: Bloodstone s/t (1972)

Bloodstone started in Kansas City in the early 60s as a junior high singing quartet started by Harry Williams, which became The Sinceres. While The Sinceres they never released an album, you can find their excellent single “Don’t Waste My Time” on Spotify. Moving to LA as Bloodstone, they recorded and released this excellent debut for Decca.

Bloodstone is a tight mix of classic 60s R&B and dirty 70s funk. I love the electric guitar on this record. While opener “Sadie Mae” is not necessarily a killer song, the band makes up for it with their ripping guitars. The centerpiece here is the lone cover song, “Little Green Apples”, written by Bobby Russell and performed by several artists including O.C. Smith, who hit #2 on Billboard with his version. Whereas Smith’s version was about 4 minutes, Bloodstone kick it into epic territory with a 9 minute take. The pre-chorus (“If that’s not lovin’ me…”) is magically drawn out, and the falsetto backing vocals make the track. This is a killer soul deep cut.

The B-side starts with “This Thing is Heavy”, an outsider’s take on the bourgeoning world of recreational drug use (“What’s this thing, people talkin’ bout ‘let’s get high’?”) “Lady of the Night” is a funky rave-up with some excellent rhythm guitar. Next to “Little Green Apples”, closer “Dumb Dude” might be my favorite track here. It starts out as an almost dirge, with Bloodstone’s vocal-group roots showing in vocal harmonies. Then the track finds a more upbeat groove in its final 2 minutes, with a killer guitar tone. Wonderful ending to a tight album.

Bloodstone would go on to record their biggest hit as the title track of their sophomore record, Natural High. Somewhat oddly, the entire B-side of Bloodstone was released on the CD (and now streaming) version of their third LP, Unreal, which is also a winner. But for a place to start, Bloodstone comes with my high recommendation.

Listen to Bloodstone here.

Album of the Week: Nelson Angelo e Joyce (1972)

When it comes to albums that have that hazy, late-night feeling, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. It’s one of those 70s records, like Das Hohelied Salomos, where you can practically hear the weed smoke coming through your speakers. Look at Nelson on the cover – dude is walking on clouds!

The two Brazilian singers were around 22-23 years old when they recorded this album. Angelo, who was part of the Clube de Esquina movement, worked closely with legendary artists Naná Vasconcelos and Lô Borges. Joyce Moreno is a singer and guitarist who would go on to work with Vinicius De Moraes. My understanding of Portugese is about nil, but the opener “Um Gosto de Fruta” translates to “A Taste of Fruit”, and it’s appropriately refreshing.

Angelo is mostly at the reigns here in terms of songwriting and performance. Joyce doesn’t take the lead until “Linda”, which is short and sweet, and then standout “Comunhão” delights in its melodious chorus of na-na-nas. “Ponte Nova” reaches a transcendent jam in its final 20 seconds, only to fade out. Joyce also takes the lead on “Meus Vinte Anos”, which she wrote, and has a blissful harpsichord backing.

Nelson Angelo e Joyce is indispensable. My only possible qualm would be that the record and its songs are so short, it’s hard not to want more. Well then, time to find more Nelson Angelo/Joyce albums…

Listen to Nelson Angelo e Joyce here.

Album of the Week: Les McCann’s Layers (1973)

Another winner from Les McCann! In March, I covered Invitation to Openness, a standout fusion record. Where Invitation was a showcase of swirling, dreamy fusion with extended jams, Layers is often more upbeat. Recorded a year after Invitation, Layers is nothing short of a percussive triumph. Buck Clarke, Ralph McDonald, and Donald Dean join once again on percussion, this time with the addition of Jimmy Rowser on electric bass, bass violin and percussion. The beat on opener “Sometimes I Cry” is so legendary as to provide the backing track for Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”.

“Sometimes I Cry” is a good indicator of the unique sound you get on Layers: McCann’s ARP synth takes center stage in what is essentially an extended vamp (with glorious results). Along with his Clavinet and electric piano, McCann carries the melodies with his synth sounds, still a new frontier back in the early 70s. Anyone who’s heard Marvin Gaye’s I Want You and knows “After the Dance (Instrumental)” will recognize that ARP sound, bright as the midday sky and free as a bird (“Let’s Play” is especially portentous of “After the Dance”).

Layers really kicks up the groove on “Dunbar High School Marching Band” (in which McCann imitates a marching band’s horn section with synths!) and “Harlem Buck Dance Strut”. But I don’t think Layers can be categorized as straight jazz-funk. Its uniqueness lies in tracks like “Soaring”, again evocative of flight, the multi-layered synth/clav sounds creating an atmosphere that is both freeing and a bit melancholy. Layers is a versatile record that is relaxing enough for a Sunday morning and deep enough to avoid any sort of dated cheese.

Listen to Layers here.

Album of the Week: Valerie Carter’s Wild Child (1978)

At a party a few months ago, I was enjoying a very 2022-sounding playlist of Charli XCX and rap stuff when someone threw on Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen”. I was flabbergasted. WHO had the cojones to throw on this cut from Gaucho, my favorite Dan album, and interrupt the frenetic hyper-pop with this smooth whiteboy funk? And why was it so GOOD?

Okay, so alcohol was involved, but I’ll never forget how (probably embarrassingly) excited this made me. That late 70s LA sound is so special, so fine and mellow, with slick session musicians who cut classic records in the place where it never rains. Chuck Rainey is here, who played bass on most Steely Dan albums, as is Victor Feldman, who also played (percussion/keys) on most Steely Dan albums. Jay Graydon, who plays guitar on Aja‘s “Peg”, provides a sick solo here on standout “What’s Become of Us”. Multiple horn players here also recorded with Steely Dan.

It makes sense then, that I think of the Dan when I pop on Wild Child, its opener “Crazy” just dripping with that disco-era production, all soulful and sexy. Admittedly, I don’t know much about Valerie Carter, other than that she was a singer-songwriter who worked with James Taylor and similar artists. She passed away in 2017, and her relative anonymity in the pop world today has me approaching this album almost as more of a Columbia Records group project than a solo album.

Wild Child doesn’t really separate Carter from her contemporaries (Jackson Browne, Phoebe Snow etc.) in that it is lyrical content is all love songs, and musically it’s pure Yacht Rock. This album’s strength is in its consistent quality. “Taking the Long Way Home” is sappy, but builds to a tight climax. “The Blue Side” rolls in like a Pacific breeze. “Wild Child” closes the set on an extremely strong note, with Feldman’s jazzy atmosphere and Carter’s most arresting vocal performance. Though it lacks that X factor found in stone-cold classic albums, Wild Child doesn’t deserve to be a forgotten, bargain-bin mainstay. It’s an excellent record with lasting music, and a defining piece of the late-70s LA sound.

Listen to Wild Child here.

Album of the Week: Sister Sledge’s We Are Family (1979)

Yes, this is Sister Sledge’s We Are Family, featuring the hit Sister Sledge song “We Are Family”. However, this classic disco LP has a lot more to offer! The incomparable Nile Rodgers is in the house, as is his Chic bandmate and bassist Bernard Edwards. The duo produced and wrote the entire album, but it couldn’t be complete without the satin-clad singers you see above.

The sisters Sledge – that’s Debbie, Joni, Kim, and Kathy Sledge – hail from Philadelphia and graduated from Olney High School. I never knew they were actually sisters with the last name Sledge, but that explains “We Are Family”, for one thing. It’s one of those songs that’s so strongly burned into my childhood brain from radio play, family gatherings, sporting events, birthday parties etc. that I wouldn’t really go out of my way to listen to it now. But hearing “Thinking of You” for the first time recently, I was blown away. Here’s a downright amazing song, peak Nile Rodgers. Here’s what Kathy Sledge told PopMatters of the track:

“I remember they would always show us the song that we were going to record, not even the day of, but when it was time to record it… When they first played ‘Thinking of You’, I loved it instantly. I like all the songs that I got the opportunity to sing with Nile and Bernard, but ‘Thinking of You’ always stuck out to me.”

Opener “He’s the Greatest Dancer” went to #9 on Billboard’s Hot 100 – disco was really a thing, huh? If you’re a 90s baby like me, you probably know this guitar line from Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”. Needless to say, the Sister Sledge song knocks it out of the park. This is rock-solid album where the non-hits are great as well: the last minute of “Somebody Loves Me” is heavenly. We Are Family is a laid back slab of grooves from one of the masters, and this album has actually changed the way I think of pop disco. Dig it.

Listen to We Are Family here… ooh- er, that’s actually a video of Phish covering “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”. Listen to We Are Family here.

Album of the Week: The Lyman Woodard Organization’s Saturday Night Special (1975)

Sheeeeeeeit.

I got into a lot of organ jazz over the past year, and next to Moon Rappin’ my greatest single discovery in that time may be The Lyman Woodard Organization’s Saturday Night Special. Woodard was a keyboardist in Detroit who was apparently inspired to play the Hammond B3 after hearing Jimmy Smith on the radio. Perhaps the premiere jazz organist of all-time, Smith’s influence could only be positive. And so it was that Woodard eventually came to create a classic album of his own under the Organization moniker.

The “saturday night special”, as you may know, is a cheap handgun, like the one seen on this album cover. However, there’s nothing cheap or particularly violent about this album. Most of Saturday Night Special is relaxing as hell, guided by L.W.’s swirling B3. “Joy Road” is smooth as silk, an early standout. “Belle Island Daze” transitions into a percussion-filled jam before Woodward brings it back home with a winning organ melody. “Cheeba” features some rippin’ guitar vamping before “the bongo boys” (a name I made up) storm the track in the album’s most chaotic moment.

“Creative Musicians” is arguably the record’s one misfire, a schmaltzy vocal tune that doesn’t quite fit. At under 3 minutes, though, it isn’t really much to complain about. As is often the case, the first side of this record outdoes the second, but “Help Me Get Away” ends things on a high note with Metheny-like licks and more bongos. The streaming version of Saturday Night Special also contains some added bonuses, including a “Lost Alternative Mix” of the title track that squeezes itself in at about half the length of the original cut with a bit more punch in its drums. This album’s highly recommended for all fans of organ music or funky jazz.

Click here to listen to Saturday Night Special.

Album of the Week: Luiz Bonfa’s Introspection (1972)

Introspection – How It Feels to Chew 5 Gum! Our head is a castle, our mind a sky. And what better way to journey through the clouds than on the wings of an acoustic guitar?

Rio de Janeiro’s Luiz Bonfa had a lucrative career as part of the samba scene of the 50s and 60s, notably writing some of the music for the brilliant film Black Orpheus (1959), including “Manha de Carnaval”, which has been covered by many including Astrud Gilberto. His collaboration with Stan Getz, Jazz Samba Encore! (1963), was a hit that includes Bonfa’s “Saudade Vem Correndo”, which was sampled by J Dilla on the Pharcyde classic “Runnin’”. The guy could write a good song.

Introspection feels more improvisational, but it’s short and sweet at just over 26 minutes. This works to the album’s advantage as the songs are quite similar. No vocals or accompanying instruments, just that airy guitar, slowing in tempo and then picking up again like a classical movement (hence, “Concerto for Guitar”). “Missal (Estudo)” stands out for having what sounds like two guitars in the mix (although I am almost certain there is only one) for a wonderful harmonic effect.

Listen to Introspection here.

Album of the Week: Curtis Mayfield’s Sweet Exorcist (1974)

We love Curtis Mayfield over here at GSG. Curtis, Roots, Superfly – all stone-cold classics, not to mention There’s No Place Like America Today, my personal favorite of his. A few of his albums slipped through the cracks though, including Sweet Exorcist.

A 1974 review in Rolling Stone complains that the album “sounds hastily conceived and then competently executed to meet some contractual deadline.” Christgau gave the album a C and wrote that “To Be Invisible” is “its only interesting song.” Was Sweet Exorcist deserving of its lukewarm reception?

Well, yes and no. Compared to earlier outings from Mayfield, it’s a step down. But once you’ve listened to those records innumerable times, this one comes as something of a fresh discovery. It’s certainly not as weird as the cover would suggest – and seriously, what is going on here? Naked blue-haired men rising from a skeleton sea to lift up the planets and an electrified embryo? I’m not sure if this cover helped or hurt sales.

But the contents are, for the most part, classic Curtis. The title track grooves and “To Be Invisible” is a damn good ballad. While “Power to the People” is a bit rote and “Kung Fu” is lyrically silly, the rest are solid tracks. “Suffer” has a co-writing credit from Donny Hathaway and is accordingly heartfelt. “Make Me Believe in You” ends things on a strong note with a driving beat.

At just over half an hour, Exorcist feels a little slim. Who knows, maybe it was indeed executed to meet some contractual deadline. Nevertheless, we have in 2022 the convenient ability to instantly stream this music instead of going out and buying the record, weird-ass cover and all.

Listen to Sweet Exorcist here.