Album of the Week: Sixpence None the Richer’s Divine Discontent (2002)

Have you ever seen She’s All That with Freddie Prinze Jr. (of Scooby-Doo fame), Rachel Leigh Cook and Matthew Lillard (also of Scooby-Doo fame)? It’s basically an above-average teen movie, but the best scene is undoubtedly when Rachel Leigh Cook’s character walks down her staircase as Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me” is playing. “Kiss Me” (1997) is peak grocery store-core. Happy, catchy, mellow and saccharine, it’s a smash hit that remains Sixpence’s most popular song.

After their (now certified Platinum) self-titled album came out in 1997, it took almost 5 years for the band (with ties to Texas and Nashville) to release a follow-up. Lead singer Leigh Nash, an unabashed Christian, stated in a 2003 interview with Jesus Freak Hideout that label problems delayed the release of Divine Discontent, and that it wasn’t supposed to feature the Crowded House cover “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, which Sixpence recorded for the TV show Smallville.

Though the inclusion of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” may have been a push to sell the album rather than an artistic decision, it’s still a standout here. They stick fairly close to the original version, which is not a bad idea. I became obsessed with the Crowded House version recently, which led me to finding Divine Discontent in the first place. With this song, two versions are better than one.

The rest of the album is cash money too, though. “Breathe Your Name” sets things off with as much sunshine as Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten”, but it’s a little groovier. “Waiting on the Sun” is another pop banger. “Paralyzed” is the rocker that I imagine them ripping in a live setting. “Tension is a Passing Note” is a broken ballad that Nash has called her favorite Sixpence song. “Do I murder us / putting pavement in my veins?” she asks. It’s an unsettling moment, and it works in the band’s favor. The Van Dyke Parks-assisted “Dizzy” is like a primer for the soaring closer “A Million Parachutes”, another stand-out.

As far as being lumped into the Christian rock category, as Sixpence often is, Nash has said “I am a big fat Christian and do not care who knows that. When it comes to our music we’d just like it to be taken for it’s musical value and not lobbed onto a big bandwagon.” Divine Discontent far exceeds any expectations of generic Christian rock, and it has aged well in the same way that Michelle Branch’s early 2000’s hits have aged well. They’re well-written rock songs produced to pop perfection.

Listen to Divine Discontent here.

Album of the Week: Bruce Langhorne’s The Hired Hand (1971)

In 1971, the actor Peter Fonda, to whom [Bruce] Langhorne was introduced by [Hugh] Masekela, invited Mr. Langhorne to compose the music for his movie “The Hired Hand,” an austere soundtrack that featured banjo, fiddle and acoustic guitar… Not suited to the pace of Hollywood, to which he relocated from New York in the late ’60s, Mr. Langhorne moved to Hawaii in 1980 to farm macadamia nuts. He returned to Los Angeles in 1985 and, in 1992, learned that he had Type 2 diabetes. His diagnosis inspired him to create Brother Bru-Bru’s Hot Sauce, an organic, low-sodium salsa. -New York Times obituary, 2017

Two years before his directorial debut The Hired Hand, Peter Fonda starred in the classic road-trip film Easy Rider (Fonda was also credited as a screenwriter). Easy Rider looked to the future with its psychedelic narrative, unconventional style and countercultural themes. I haven’t seen The Hired Hand, but its soundtrack by Bruce Langhorne is similarly forward-thinking.

Though the obit above suggests that he was a man of many talents, Langhorne is probably best known as a session player for Bob Dylan, appearing on multiple classic Dylan albums. However, The Hired Hand soundtrack bears little resemblance to Dylan’s music. Langhorne’s guitar on “Opening” is repetitive and hypnotic, as violins provide a cheery accompaniment. Percussion is quite sparse on this track, including a very lightly played dulcimer, lending the song an ambient quality. “Riding Thru the Rain” is ominous, with a piano that sounds as dusty as the untamed West depicted in Fonda’s cowboy movie.

The sound on the recording as a whole has an old-school reel-to-reel quality that is gorgeous, yet the music is not dissimilar to what 21st century artists in the cross-section of ambient and country (Scott Tuma and William Tyler come to mind) make. According to boomkat, “Langhorne assembled each piece alongside his girlfriend Natalie Mucyn, who with no prior mixing or editing experience multitracked the recording via some distinctly lo-fi tape dubbing.”

“Ending”, the album’s longest track, has a middle-section with flutes that is stunning. It’s a lovely finish to a strange, moving and all too brief album from an unheralded artist.

Listen to The Hired Hand here.

Album of the Week: Weekend’s The ’81 Demos (1995)

As a high schooler reading Kurt Cobain’s Journals, I found out about one of his favorite bands, Young Marble Giants. YMG had only one album, 1980’s Colossal Youth: a genre-defying collection of bare-bones tracks. As a teenager, I didn’t understand it, and it wouldn’t make sense to me for years. When it finally clicked, it became something of a revelation.

Young Marble Giants singer Alison Statton led the band Weekend somewhat immediately after Colossal Youth. Other than her, Weekend shares no members with YMG, but their spirit of minimalism is intact on The ’81 Demos, a collection of tracks recorded in 1981 but not released until 1995 by Vinyl Japan.

“Drumbeat” begins the EP with a kind of twee magic in its cute lyrics and chiming bells. Led by a soft drum machine, the 9-minute “Red Planes” is a brilliant example of a song greater than the sum of its parts. Strings and bass form the melody, and Statton’s voice enters after an appropriate length of time, allowing the track to breathe. The result is an ambient pop fan’s dream jam, a track that could easily last another 2 or 3 minutes, but winds down to a halt. “Nostalgia” acts as a blueprint for the kind of music Beach House would make 30 years later, and “Summerdays (Instrumental)” rounds out the demos with a Durutti Column-esque pep.

Weekend did release an album, 1982’s La varieté, but it only captures so much of The ’81 Demos‘ magic. While all 4 songs from the ’81 Demos are on La varieté, they were re-recorded with cleaner production. “Drumbeat for Baby” has some unnecessary horns and “Red Planes” appears as a truncated 5-minute version. In my humble opinion, the songs simply sound much better as their original demos. Thankfully, they were re-issued by Vinyl Japan and the UK label Blackest Ever Black, and are easy to find on streaming services.

Listen to The ’81 Demos here.

Album of the Week: 8Ball’s Lost (1998)

Wait, that album cover’s not crazy enough… hold on…

There we go.

Deeper than Encyclopedia Brittanica…

In 2006, XXL ran an online piece on the 90s label Suave House. Black Ice, the writer of the article, states that “starting completely independent in 1993 and then getting national distribution through Relativity Records and eventually Universal, Suave opened the floodgates in the mid-90s for Southern imprints to secure support from major labels,” and that the artists on the label lived in an actual house together.

Presumably this group included 8Ball & MJG, Memphis hip-hop legends who released their first four albums on Suave House, years before becoming immortalized on Three 6 Mafia’s “Stay Fly”. Though they work best as a duo, I’ve recently found a lot to enjoy on 8Ball’s solo debut Lost. A double-album (technically a triple-album if you include the Suave House sampler bonus disc, which is not streaming) largely forgotten in the 90s rap canon, it is remarkably consistent in style and quality, with great guest features and an even better solo performance. In this way it reminds me of E-40’s The Element of Surprise, one of my favorite double-albums ever.

40 Water is present here, along with Goodie Mob, Busta Rhymes, and of course MJG. But Ball shines brightest. On single “My Homeboy’s Girlfriend”, he spins a tale that is both hilarious and tragic, and sings the hook. His storytelling is in full effect on this track and “Time”, a dramatic reminiscence on a friendship gone sour. There are straight-up bangers too, like the MJG-featuring “Let’s Ride” and the penultimate “Gett Bucked” (classic Memphis phrase right there). My favorite guest spot comes from Redman, who in the late 90s was just scorching every feature (see also: The Luniz “Hypnotize”).

This is one of those albums that is so long you really can’t mention every track. The production is all in-house and somewhat dated, and there is some filler here and there. But it’s worth a look, especially if you’ve checked out 8Ball and MJG’s high-water mark On Top of the World and want more.

Listen to Lost here.

Album of the Week: Bunny Lee & Brad Osborne’s King of Dub (1978)

Bunny “Striker” Lee was one of reggae’s premier producers. Discogs credits him with production on over 2000 recordings, as well as writing credits for legends such as John Holt, Max Romeo, Dennis Brown and more. His Jamaican reggae productions form the backbone of King of Dub, a Jamaican-Bronx record of unassailable dub music.

This album is erroneously attributed to King Tubby on Spotify, which is somewhat understandable. The LP cover suggests that the artist is simply “King of Dub”, and the back cover’s notes from Clocktower Records founder Brad Osborne read in part, “For the right sound and effect, KING TUBBYS ‘the dubmaster’ is a must, knowing when to bring in the Rhythm and leggo the Bass and Drum”. The album was also mixed partially at King Tubby’s studio in Jamaica, and what with Tubby being a prominent King of the dub genre, the confusion is almost inevitable.

Little is written online about Brad Osborne, but this blog post from 2015 gives some insight. Osborne imported records from Jamaica to his shop in the Bronx based on the personal connections he had with Jamaican producers like Bunny Lee and King Tubby. According to the post, Osborne was given exclusive music on tape from these producers and often overdubbed them with flutes and pressed them to vinyl for Clocktower.

King of Dub, then, is a compilation of Bunny Lee productions for reggae artists that Osborne selected and released. With Sly & Robbie holding down the rhythm section you can’t go wrong (this is a general rule in reggae releases): the thing bangs. Like all dub, it’s best heard on loud speakers rather than an iPhone (the LP sounds particularly tight). Horns, organ, echoing vocals and dubby beeps abound on the opener “King Zion Dub”.

Much of the joy in this dub collection comes from tracking the many instruments or lack thereof (and as with any dub, the mixing board becomes an instrument): you’ll hear a horn appear out of nowhere, then fade out, leaving only bass and drums, then a guitar will enter, then echo away. The hi-hats will change in timbre and then drop. At times the music might come to a complete halt altogether. “Rubba Dunza”‘s ominous bass-heavy track is complimented by occasional drum splashes.

The final track “Stalac 80 Dubwise”, a scorching dub of “Stalag 17” by Ansell Collins (better known as the riddim used by Sister Nancy in “Bam Bam” as well as Chaka Demus & Pliers “Murder She Wrote”), is not listed on Spotify. Whether this is due to some sample clearance issue or the title’s similarity to the Nazi POW camp Stalag 18 is unclear. I believe that the track listed as “Fancy Up a Dub” is actually an edit of “Stalac 80 Dubwise”, but I would have to relisten to my record to be sure. Nevertheless, the final track here is a true ranking dub that tops off what is one of the greatest dub albums I’ve had the pleasure of hearing.

Listen to King of Dub here.

Album of the Week: Blue Magic’s s/t (1974)

Five wonderful, outta sight, and talented guys -back cover of Blue Magic LP release

Open your mind, you see the circus in the sky -Jay-Z, “Blue Magic”

Philadelphia is one of the 20th century Meccas of soul music. The super-producer group MFSB, which included master R&B architects like Thom Bell and Dexter Wansel, convened at 212 North 12th Street in the 70’s to record “The Sound of Philadelphia” (which became the Soul Train theme) and other classics by writing team Gamble & Huff (“Love Train”, “If You Don’t Know Me by Now”). Punchy and orchestral, these soul innovators practically invented their own genre.

My interest in Philly Soul began in 2015 when I heard The Stylistics, which remains the subgenre’s high-water mark for me. A year later I found Blue Magic. For a long time I returned only to the mammoth side-A closer “Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely”. But listening to the album today, it strikes me as remarkably solid, an album with no lowlights to speak of.

Compared to The Stylistics, Blue Magic is lesser known. They only nabbed one top 10 Billboard hit in their careers, with Blue Magic opener “Sideshow”, but this is a true gem of a song. Straight away, lead singer Ted Mills lends his delicate falsetto to the beautiful track, which is as heartbreaking as it is catchy. “Sideshow” (and “Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely”) co-writer and session guitarist Bobby Eli had by this point played with the O’Jays, Stylistics, B.B. King and more, and his presence is important here (he would continue to work with Blue Magic on their next 3 albums). Norman Harris was, similarly, an MFSB guy, and his “Look Me Up” is an energetic contrast to the album opener.

But where Blue Magic succeed best is in their delicate, heavenly ballads. “What’s Come Over Me” sounds more like a daydream than anything else I’ve heard in the Philly Soul oeuvre. “Spell”, the band’s first single, is tender almost to a fault (inspiring a great Rateyourmusic user comment: “spell makes me shed dove tears bro”). “Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely” is epic in scope, extending over 7 minutes with a full spoken-word breakdown. Everything is meticulously composed, scrupulously played and sang. Just incredible stuff.

I’ll be checking out the follow-ups to Blue Magic to see how they measure up. In the meantime, I recommend getting acquainted with this standout soul record.

Listen to Blue Magic here.

Album of the Week: Diana Hubbard’s LifeTimes (1979)

“music you have felt but not heard” – “Rose Coloured Lights” single cover.

This is one of those “elephant in the room” albums – Diana is L. Ron Hubbard’s daughter. I discovered this album 3 or 4 years ago after reading Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, a superb deep-dive on the scandolous history of Scientology. When, amongst detailing the Scientology clan’s bizarre adventure as a self-governing ship (literally) in the Mediterranean, it was mentioned that daughter Diana recorded a jazz album with legendary pianist and avowed Scientologist Chick Corea, my interest was piqued.

LifeTimes was released on the small Minneapolis label Waterhouse in 1979, who seem to have released mostly blues rock records, as well as a comedy album, Henny Youngman’s Take My Album, Please! (track #5: “What, No Jewish Jokes?”). The sheltered life of Scientology progeny Diana Hubbard, who went to music conservatory in London before studying Scientology and spending years on the group’s Mediterranean yacht, lends her music the feeling of an alien’s idea of classical or new age music. “Russian Roulette” (ominous track title, no?) is pretty, yet uneasy, with Hubbard’s piano playing sounding both sustained and clunky. The liner notes to LifteTimes contain penned notes describing each song, with this bizarre entry for “Russian Roulette”: “An arch-duke of Russia travelling [sic] across the plains of Siberia, came to a forest. He had known love, wealth, power, pain and the Napoleon Wars. He had done and experienced everything of his day. He plays Russian Roulette and dies in the forest.”

“Bewitched” features some bugged-out synthesizer work from the aforementioned Chick Corea, who just 10 years earlier played electric piano on Bitches Brew. In comparison, a contemporary review of LifeTimes by the Harvard Crimson called it “Dentists’ Office Jazz”. Like most muzak, LifeTimes is directionless and mostly uneventful. It even contains a vaguely-ethnic-sounding track called “Arabia”. But in its meandering sonatas it is strangely successful ambient music, and absolutely uncanny in the context of its creation.

Some may call it dreck, or just plain boring, but I genuinely enjoy this oddity of an album. To my knowledge Diana Hubbard has not released other music, and little is publicly known about her life. I’ll leave you with Hubbard’s handwritten description for the final track, “Midnight #3”: “A sea rippling quietly with the moon. The cliffs tower. Maybe you heard the sirens.”

Listen to LifeTimes here.

Album of the Week: Black Rob’s Life Story (2000)

I didn’t know much about Black Rob before he passed in 2021, except his song “Can I Live” with The LOX, which has a beautiful beat and finds Styles P fantasizing about “hang-glid[ing] to the Alps with a fly chick”. One of Bad Boy’s most promising artists after Biggie’s passing, Rob was featured on Motown’s “I Want You Back ’98”, a Jackson 5 remix that dropped, strangely, not 30 but 29 years after the original. Why this track was made, I’m not sure, but rapping on a track with (the then-living) Michael Jackson must have been a promising early-career move for Rob.

What followed in 1999 was the recording of Rob’s debut Life Story, including the smash lead single “Whoa!”, which has largely held up well (other than the f-slur). The Buckwild beat is bonkers, and Black Rob sells the single title as a catchall response to anything remarkable. Also worth pointing out is the 8-minute remix with Rah Digga, Beanie Sigel and more. Whoa.

But Life Story is a surprisingly solid front-to-back album. The title track is captivating as a wistful growing-up-in-the-ghetto song (“living in this tenement, eating stale Entenmann’s”). Rob’s character is quickly established: a hard-nosed jailbird who perseveres through life struggles by rapping. Somewhat unexpectedly, CeeLo Green appears as the album’s first rap feature on “Lookin’ at Us”, and he kills it. Sometimes I forgot how good at rapping CeeLo is. Then we have a Bad Boy posse cut with Diddy, Mase and G-Dep on “Down the Line Joint”.

Later on, “B.R.” is some expert noir-rap with gritty rhymes and the beat to match. “Thug Story” is a Slick Rick callback, and “Jasmine” is steel-drum infected storytelling rap. “I Love You Baby” originally appeared on the Puff & The Family album No Way Out (1997), which went 7x Platinum. Things wrap up with some pep on “I Dare You” (that’s after the J-Lo feature). I really like this album. It’s packed to the gills but there is nary a garbage track to be found. God bless Black Rob.

Listen to Life Story here.

Album of the Week: Domo Genesis & Evidence’s Intros, Outros and Interludes (2022)

This release from two LA-to-the-core hip-hop artists is an overlooked joint project. It’s a merging of two different generations: The 31-year-old Domo Genesis cut his teeth as a member of Tumblr-era phenoms Odd Future, and the 46-year-old Evidence co-founded the group Dilated Peoples in the 90s. What the two have in common is a laidback, uncomplicated approach to rap music. While this trait may have kept both artists from achieving the mainstream success achieved by some of their peers, it rewards listeners as they age with confidence and consistency in their respective outputs.

Evidence and Domo first collaborated on 2017’s “Deez Nuts”, a Domo track produced by Evidence. A year later, Ev rapped on Domo’s “Fuck a Co-Sign”, from his brief yet excellent Arent U Glad Youre U tape. Evidence produced the entirety of last year’s Intros, Outros and Interludes, and his beats are absolutely lush. I find myself playing this album early in the morning as it relaxes me. “Trust the Process” finds Doms riding over a 70s soul sample, his lyrics unadorned observation: “This hash is in my lungs / a bunch of plastic in the ocean”. The sunny “Stay One More Day” sample fades in and out as Evidence proves himself a master beatmaker.

Ev’s one guest verse is smooth: “Drive slow, homie / Like my son is in the car / My summers as a kid in Brooklyn made me to a star”. This is a reference to canon hip-hop (Late Registration), a sly nod to his age, and a reflection on his come-up in one rhyme. Domo follows with “I never had a chance / I lose my life to seek a new one, look we movin’ through the dance”. It’s just two guys ruminating on how they got where they are, but in the context of the album it feels almost like a passing of the torch moment.

The beat on “December Coming” is heavenly, another delicious piece of a brief yet worthy album from two rap devotees. Here’s hoping they team up again.

Listen to Introshere.

Album of the Week: Pat Metheny’s New Chautauqua (1979)

Here’s an idea: what if Pat Metheny fans were referred to as Meth-heads? Eh? No, sorry, not sure about that one. But the guy does have a devoted fan base. When I saw Metheny in concert (2021), an older couple in line joked to security, “Metal detectors?? But we love Pat Metheny! We would never do anything to hurt him!”

There’s a reason people seek to protect Pat Metheny at all costs. He controls an active legacy dating back almost 50 years to a 1974 recording with Jaco Pastorius, Bruce Ditmas and Paul Bley. Metheny was 19 at the time of the recording, and the album was released in 1976, the same year as Metheny’s proper ECM debut, the trio recording Bright Size Life. Metheny would continue to release strong records for ECM for almost a decade, but his only true solo effort in this bunch is his fourth album, New Chautauqua.

By layering tracks of acoustic and electric guitars, Metheny achieves a strikingly full sound on New Chautauqua by himself. Though the title track is upbeat, the album’s sound as a whole is weightlessly drifting, most notably on the 10 minute “Long Ago Child / Fallen Star”, which reaches a mesmerizing conclusion. It takes almost 7 minutes to get there, but “Fallen Star” is a brilliant oasis, a background of shimmering echoes with soft strings plucking away at the fore.

Chautauqua was a kind of rural educational fair that spread in popularity throughout the U.S. in the late 19th century. What Metheny’s music has to do with it I’m not sure, but I have read somewhere that the album is based on his impressions of New Mexico as a child. After “Fallen Star”, “Hermitage” provides another one of those “oh shit” moments, when the melody drops about a minute in. It’s an easy song to treasure. “Daybreak” rounds things out in a manner fitting its title, as it starts off a slow crawl and rises to a gleaming resolution.

Listen to New Chautauqua here.