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: The Field Mice’s Snowball (1989)

Takin’ it back to ’89! Well, back to 2011 for me, the year I first heard this classic album by The Field Mice. I think I was looking for more stuff like Magnetic Fields, the ultimate Field band (shoutout to The Field and Field Music though), which led me down the “twee” rabbit hole.

When you talk about twee pop you talk about the UK’s Sarah Records. The Bristol imprint founded in 1987 thrived on pressing cute, catchy indie pop. The Field Mice’s debut single “Emma’s House” remains a staple in the subgenre, and even its cover art is twee. Less than a year later, the band released their debut album Snowball on Sarah in all its twee glory. “Couldn’t Feel Safer” is, indeed, about feeling completely secure in the arms of a lover.

Snowball isn’t all overly cutesy, though. I think the 3 minute instrumental opening to the album really draws the listener in, and there’s some ambiguity there. Like, is this some kind of Durrutti Column type shit, or “Alternative Dance” or something? Nope, The Field Mice have lyrics, and they’re precious. But not overkill. And I think what helps with that is the laid-back vocal delivery. Robert Wratten doesn’t have the range or emotional delivery of someone like Morrissey, but the songs and the sound make up for that.

“End of the Affair” always had me in my feelings with those lil MIDI horns (I think that’s what they are), “This Love is Not Wrong” makes me want to dance. “Everything About You”‘s guitars ring out like “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, which makes sense – is there a more twee Beatles song? And for a twee pop album it ends on a fairly dark note with the frigid “Letting Go”. Perfect!

It isn’t the most complex record ever made, but it is potent. And to me, it’s very innocent. I’ve listened to some other music from The Field Mice and related side projects, but nothing has struck me quite like this one. It’s one that takes me back to being 16, but is not at all difficult to appreciate in the present.

Listen to Snowball 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: 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 (BeyoncĂ©, 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: 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: Bob Dylan’s Knocked Out Loaded (1986)

“Ultimately a depressing affair…” –Rolling Stone

“About the only thing it did for Dylan’s career was enhance its decline.” –Warehouse Eyes

“They originally had a photographer shoot some photos of Dylan and Tom Petty. I heard Dylan took a look and threw them all in the trash.” –Charles Sappington, cover art

“Some really abysmal shit here… Avoid .” –RYM user garfieldacres

“A near-flawless work which remains very misunderstood. I have a website discussing this album if you’re interested…” –RYM user burritobroth

If you get really into Bob Dylan, and I mean really into Dylan, you’re eventually going to wade into the darker, more-forgotten corners of his discography. 2020 quarantine provided the ideal setting for a relative neophyte like myself to make this deep dive. With all the time in the world to sit on the couch last Spring, I watched No Direction Home, Rolling Thunder Revue and The Last Waltz, and on any given day was listening to John Wesley Harding, Blood on the Tracks outtakes, or 1997’s “Highlands”.

I’m not going to deny what’s already well-known: 80s Dylan is the worst Dylan. He had his confounding Christian phase, questionable reggae endeavors, and the much-derided Dylan & the Dead, a compilation of his tour with the Grateful Dead for which “Dylan willfully insisted on some songs from very inferior shows”. But when you really venerate Dylan, there are gems to be found even here.

This brings us to Knocked Out Loaded. Essentially a tossed-together collection of rejects from the previous year’s (already mediocre) Empire Burlesque released in time to support his tour with Tom Petty, I doubt this album won Dylan many new fans at the time of its release and its negative reception is no mystery. One problem often cited in reviews of this record is the production. Bob is quoted around this time as saying, “I’m not too experienced at having records sound good. I don’t know how to go about doing that.” You can hear the results especially on “Driftin’ Too Far from Shore”: the drums sound like crap; the synths and background singers do not gel with the rest of the mix at all.

That said, I do like about half the songs on here. And that’s most of the album, considering one of those is the 11-minute fan favorite “Brownsville Girl”, which Dylan noted as one of his most under-appreciated songs in a great 2017 interview. It’s a classic, rambling Dylan epic. One could probably criticize it as overlong, but the melody in the verses is just too damn good.

“Precious Memories” is a return to the reggae-Dylan (or as I like to call it, Robert “Nesta” Zimmerman) of Infidels, but I like it. It’s not hard to find a bridge between this one and the gospel-like classic “I Shall Be Released” (of which reggae legend Keith Hudson recorded a sick cover on one of his best albums). “Got My Mind Made Up” is a decent blues-rock track, and the closer “Under Your Spell” is a successful ballad.

It’s probably a good thing that Knocked Out Loaded only lasts a half hour, but I don’t think it’s as bad as many make it out to be. For my money it’s a step above Empire Burlesque, which Robert Christgau called “his best album since Blood on the Tracks” (had this guy heard Desire??). Ultimately, it’s a record that shows an equal share of the good, the bad, and the (unmistakably, indisputably) Dylan.

Listen to Knocked Out Loaded here.