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: Playaz Circle’s Flight 360: The Takeoff (2009)

You may not fully understand why 2 Chainz is doing that ridiculous airplane wing-arms pose on the cover until you hear Playaz Circle’s “Look What I Got” in a car: truly soaring, blissful music and the finest gem on this largely-forgotten album from the Atlanta duo. Dolla Boy (seen above on the right) is a more than serviceable rapper, occupying the same confident, punchline-filled style as Tity Boi. But it’s clear that he doesn’t have that same X Factor as 2 Chainz, who consistently outshines his partner here. Back to that cover: Deuce is poised to takeoff, paving the way for his solo career (especially that crazy 2012 era in which he had a million features) with very entertaining verses, displaying his outstanding humor and style.

When I play an older release like this one it helps to confirm my opinion that he deserves his props as a seasoned vet, one who has spitting heat since 2003 (see Ludacris’ “We Got”) and finally got his respect with a breakthrough after Playaz Circle. This isn’t an amazing disc, but it is filled with excellent music. The Raekwon track is super hot, “Ghetto” is a great Outkast nod (with what may be 2 Chainz’s strongest verse on the album) and “Stupid”‘s indulgence is delightful. I even dig the corny R&B tracks in the middle, particularly “Quit Flossin” (shoutout Jagged Edge!). Unfortunately “Big Dawg” is like a weaker version of “Duffle Bag Boy”: Wayne’s decent hook and disappointing lack of a verse don’t help a not-that-great song. But it may be the only letdown on this album.

If you have little tolerance for hip-hop post 1997 that isn’t ultra conscious, political or abstract, Flight 360 isn’t for you. But it can get props from me! Maybe this will remain a forgotten portrait of 2 Chainz as a rising star. If so it will still be music that just makes me happy.

Listen to Flight 360 here.

Album of the Week: Clear Horizon (2003)

I’ve not delved into much music by the British band Flying Saucer Attack, but I tend to trust anything released by Kranky, the superb American label that delivered masterpieces by Stars of the Lid, Labradford, Windy & Carl and so on.

Clear Horizon was the collaborative project of Flying Saucer Attack’s David Pearce and Kranky recording artist Jessica Bailiff. By all accounts, the artists created the project by sending each other tapes across the Atlantic in the early 2000s, without recording in the same room.

For me, this is one of those albums where the first track is the best. “Watching the Sea” is some ascension type shit, all blissed-out guitar and sweet singing. I love this song.

“I wonder why you haven’t seen the light for days,” Bailiff sings on “For Days”. And there is a hermitic vibe to this album, everything cavernous, moving at a slow pace. The song structure fades into feedback, transitioning into ambient washes that sound more like Fennesz than any singer-songwriter project.

“Sunrise Drift” is the first song to float along with no rhythmic guitar strumming, just vocals and chimes in an ether of white noise. It’s meditative music. This stuff requires patience to be appreciated, and a more critical ear might deride this album for lack of direction. And it’s not all brilliant, of course. “Death’s Dance” in particular seems more unpleasant than enjoyable. But mostly, Clear Horizon is gorgeous and relaxing, and a forgotten gem.

Listen to Clear Horizon here.

Album of the Week: Shuggie Otis’ Freedom Flight (1971)

17. How’s that for writing “Strawberry Letter #23”? Yes, Shuggie Otis was 17 when he sported that cool mustache and wrote and recorded Freedom Flight, the predecessor to his masterpiece Inspiration Information and an excellent album in its own right. It’s one of his only records, as he essentially disappeared after 1975.

According to a 2016 profile in The Guardian, the guitarist “admits he enjoyed being out of the spotlight, away from the pressures of being Shuggie Otis, the erstwhile teen prodigy who never quite managed to capitalise on all the acclaim”. It is not often that an artist takes over 40 years to release their next album, but that is exactly what happened with Shuggie Otis. 2018’s Inter-fusion proves that he never lost his guitar-playing chops (or, you know, died or anything), but the songs aren’t there. The only track with vocals is “Ice Cold Daydream” a pale remake of the first track on Freedom Flight.

The Freedom Flight version of “Ice Cold Daydream” starts things off with pep. Then we have the classic “Strawberry Letter #23”, an all-time love song that became a hit for the Brothers Johnson several years later. Shuggie plays “Me & My Woman” with a blues expertise that would make B.B. King proud. “Purple” is a bit formless, but it still rips. Then there’s the title-track. “Freedom Flight” is a stoned 70s classic, a peaceful psychedelic odyssey. None other than George Duke plays keys here, and his assistance gives the track some rhythm after a few minutes.

As a listener, you can’t help but feel a little frustrated that there isn’t more to Shuggie Otis’s discography. Maybe his youthful spark didn’t last. Maybe he was too hard-headed about playing solo, or the alcohol got in the way. Whatever the case may be, Shuggie is a living legend, and Freedom Flight is a standout album of the rich 70s.

Listen to Freedom Flight here.

Album of the Week: 187 Fac’s Fac Not Fiction (1997)

Sometimes an album cover just pulls you in, y’know? When I saw Fac Not Fiction it was like, no question, I have to hear this. Not only are these guys lounging in their own personal hot tubs, but the tubs are in the San Francisco Bay. Amazing! I like the little sailboat in the background, too, good detail.

Enter 187 Fac. A weird name for sure, and it’s no great wonder this duo didn’t take off. But if you’re a fan of 90s Bay Area rap, you’ll find some gems here. As you can see from the cover they were tight with Spice-1, who executive produced. Ant Banks, who frequently worked with Spice and Too $hort, takes the wheel on production here, and the results are excellent.

Opener “Tha Frontline” sets the tone right, with a nice balance of ominous and chill. DJ Screw did justice to “Peer Pressure” on one of his tapes, and the original is great. One thing I like about 187 Fac is their quick flows, and over the g-funk instrumentals the combination is super smooth. They also like to say “facadelic”.

Would it be a Bay Area 90s rap album without a feature from someone in E-40’s Click? Of course not, and that’s why B-Legit shows up on “All Head No Body”. Unfortunately this is a weak track, just some ugly sex raps (this is one of the worst trends in west-coast hip-hop). “Graphic”, though, with what is as far as I can tell the only 187 Fac video, is a slapper. The bass lines are fat, and the mid-tempo bump suggests a lowrider with hydraulics.

“2 Geez”, the single, is a concept song about what the rapper’s personal lives might look like at the turn of the millenium. The guest (I believe it’s the brilliantly named Almon D) wonders if he will be “living like a Flinstone or a Jetson” in the year 2000. He fantasizes starring in a sitcom, “some shit that’ll make your mother laugh,” and owning a hovercraft. Excellent 3-year plan.

The closer “Paul Masson” is a redux of the Beasties’ “Paul Revere”, and we didn’t really need another “Paul Revere”, did we? This and the aforementioned “All Head No Body” are the only obvious skips to me. That means a solid, groovy Bay Area rap album. Since it’s a rarity, finding a physical copy can be expensive – Google the album and you will find copies offered for well over $100! In the year 2Geez, 187 Fac changed their name to DenGee and released one more album, DenGee Livin’. Rapper G-Nut passed away in 2018.

Fac Not Fiction is not streaming as of this write-up.

Album of the Week: Alton Ellis Sings Rock and Soul (1967)

“Mr. Rocksteady”. “Godfather of Rocksteady”. If you Google Alton Ellis, these are the sobriquets you will see again and again. The rocksteady subgenre of reggae lit a fire in the heart of a million lovers, and the late Ellis is certainly one to thank for this. Recording at producer Coxsone Dodd’s legendary Studio One in Kingston in the 1960s, Ellis was at the forefront of the rocksteady movement, and his first album Sings Rock and Soul is all killer, no filler.

A mix of Jamaican originals and (as the title implies) rock covers, “I’m Still in Love With You” is the album’s most recognizable classic, having been later covered by Marcia Aitken and (much later) Sean Paul. This riddim also served as the backing track for Althea & Donna’s “Uptown Top Ranking” and Trinity’s “Three Piece Suit”. Ellis sings the track with confidence and ease. The Beegees ballad “Massachusettes” is given a chill spin, and “Baby Now That I Found You” might be impossible to not sing along to. Later, “Opression” finds Ellis rocking a killer falsetto.

These are all winners, but Ellis’s take on Procol Harum’s signature song “Whiter Shade of Pale” is my favorite track here. The song’s nautical lyrics are well-suited to a Jamaican interpretation, and the organ as filtered through the relatively lo-fi Studio One production sounds so damn good. The track also fades out unexpectedly, which fits the surreal vibe of the song overall. Gold star goes to whoever decided on this cover.

In a late interview, Ellis had this to say on Coxsone Dodd: “He reminds me a lot of Moses. He was doing so much good things but at the end of his days he blasphemed against God… The sin that he committed was getting so carried away with the money aspect of it all. At the end he was completely blinded and mesmerized by the amount of money he was earning and he became a very hard and greedy person.” Jamaican singers were often exploited by producers in this era (as you can see dramatized in the classic movie The Harder They Come), and Ellis was no exception. But Ellis’s success lasted beyond his early years, as he moved to England and found success among a number of Jamaican expats living there. He passed away of cancer in London in 2008. While I haven’t heard other albums by Alton Ellis, this debut is an outstanding collection of rocksteady classics and recommended to anyone with an interest in the genre.

Listen to Sings Rock and Soul here.

Album of the Week: Champion Jack Dupree’s Blues From the Gutter (1958)

“I was born in New Orleans on July 4, 1910. My father and mother were burned up in a fire when I was a kid, and I was sent to an orphanage.”

So begins the life of Champion Jack Dupree, according to the original back cover of Blues From the Gutter. A couple months ago on GSG, Jackson C. Frank told you that blues run the game, and poor Jackson dealt with a devastating fire early on in his life too. But the clearest difference between them is apparent from one glance at their album covers: Frank was a white man from New York, and Dupree was a black man from New Orleans. And it doesn’t get more Bluesy than down at the mouth of the Mississippi.

As a young man in the Depression-era South, Dupree learned piano from his mentor Willie “Drive ‘Em Down” Hall. Playing in clubs for $1.50 an hour, Dupree said he “was lucky to get [even] that”. To make ends meet, Dupree took up boxing, which is how he earned the nickname Champion. “In 1940 I fought my last match,” he said. “It was in Indianapolis and I knocked out Battling Bozo in the tenth round.” Around this time, Dupree started recording for the legendary Okeh label (they had a novelty hit in the 20s with the bizarre “OKeh Laughing Record”), before studio albums really existed.

Dupree plays deeply-rooted Blues, but one thing I really enjoy about him is his sense of humor. “Man, slow down, don’t walk so fast!” are the first words heard on Blues from the Gutter, Dupree’s first album. “Walkin’ Blues” had existed for a couple decades already, but Dupree gave it a stroll. The “Gutter” title likely comes from the inclusion of several songs about drugs. This concept wasn’t totally new, but Dupree certainly possessed a lyrical and vocal dexterity to the subject that stands out among 50s recordings. He demonstrates the two sides to the life of a drug user: “I hung around my friends that smoke reefer, I thought I was doin’ alright… But this dope is killin’ me” he sings on “Can’t Kick the Habit”. Then later, on “Junker’s Blues,” “Oh yes, I’m a junker… but I feel good all the time!”

In terms of the music, it’s tight as can be. Dupree was famously noted as a “Boogie-Woogie” pianist, but this only really comes through clearly on “Nasty Boogie”. It’s great, but I’m glad we get more hard-line blooze on most of the album. The backing band puts in work: that electric guitar on “T.B. Blues” rips, and “Bad Blood” contains a thrilling solo as well. The records wraps up with “Stack-O-Lee”, one of the most covered blues standards out (even The Grateful Dead made it a live staple for some years).

A little Google searching led me to this wonderful video of Champion Jack Dupree playing live in 1990. Starting slowly with “Bring Me Flowers While I’m Living”, the 80 year old Dupree sings with a wry smile, “I can’t use no flowers when I’m dead”. At about the 3:25 mark, none other than Allen Touissant sneaks up behind him and starts playing the piano’s highest keys. Their faces are both shining with joy. A couple minutes later, they’ve moved on to “Shake the Boogie”, and Toussaint takes over on piano while Dupree stands up to dance. Shaking his hips back and forth, he has the crowd in the palm of his hands. Sipping a beer and twinkling the keys away into a finale, the people erupt with applause. “The Champion,” Touissant says, “The Undisputed Champion.”

Listen to Blues From the Gutter on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Kool & The Gang’s Light of Worlds (1974)

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Is there any song quite like “Summer Madness”? Those rising synth notes (presented in my best written attempt above) are jolting; they raise the hair on your arms. The track is iconic enough that it’s been sampled hundreds of times (I heard it years ago in Digable Planets “Jimmi Diggin Cats”), and remains a highlight on Light of Worlds, the fifth album from Kool & The Gang.

Yes, it’s Kool & The Gang, of “Celebration” and “Ladies Night” fame. Light of Worlds finds them pre-Chart Toppers, but post-“Jungle Boogie”. In other words, they weren’t yet a total sensation but they knew how to make a hit. Light of Worlds, then, bubbles with under-the-radar jazz-funk flavor. As an ensemble, they rival Earth, Wind & Fire in their ability to blend funk and pop.

Fans of J Dilla’s Donuts will instantly recognize “Fruitman” from “The Diff’rence”. It’s a groovy, horn-filled jam and an early highlight. The rhythm section is super tight throughout the album, but the title track especially feels like the Gang in top form. The late Ronald Bell, who fronted the group, whips out his fat ARP synth on the second side, and oh boy does this thing rip. Listen to “Whiting H. & G.” and tell me you don’t feel like you’re cruising down the coast with shades on in a convertible. The seagull sounds at the end don’t hurt either.

I’m kind of surprised “You Don’t Have to Change” wasn’t released as a single: it’s as mellow and accessible as most anything else released in ’74. The melody in the verses to me recalls The Spinners’ “It’s a Shame”, which is another classic. “Higher Plane” was the album’s biggest hit on the R&B charts, and its tight funk guitar reminds me of another “Higher” song by one Stevie Wonder. “Here After” closes things on a stellar note, with a great voice-over and a spiritual-jazz leaning instrumental, complete with kalimba! I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this album to any fan of 70s soul music, whether pop, funk or jazz is your thing. Light of Worlds does it all and does it well.

Listen to Light of Worlds here.

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BONUS ROUND: YouTube comments on this live “Summer Madness”

“this version sounds clean and smooth like the album version, i love to smoke weed to this song” (from user masterbate23)

“i am seriously High and im loving this live version!” (from user DontPanic2008)

“Kool and the Gang are definitely cool.” (from user Shanedango32)

Album of the Week: Grateful Dead’s Download Series Volume 4: 6/18/76 & 6/21/76 (2005)

After nearly a decade of touring that only became bigger and bigger, the Grateful Dead took a then-indefinite hiatus in late 1974 that lasted approximately a year and a half. Their 1976 June tour was something of a low-key comeback. Instead of playing massive arenas, they sold mail-order tickets for shows at smaller theaters in only 7 cities. Thanks to the Download Series, which is easily streamed, you can hear great recordings of a couple of these shows. Volume 4 presents the 6/18/76 show at Passaic, New Jersey’s Capitol Theatre (which is now a Pizza Hut), as well as the show three days later at the Tower Theatre west of Philadelphia (which is still standing, about 25 blocks from my current apartment).

The 6/18 show is not their tightest night, but it has its highlights. The sound described in one word? Sloooowwww. The band seemed to be in reggae mode, which may be the reason AllMusic described it as a “low-energy… lazy stroll through a fairly familiar set list.” It sounds like they’re zonked off the honey slides that Neil Young cooked up a couple years earlier for On the Beach (and guessing they’re very, very stoned is not a bad bet). “Crazy Fingers” moves at a turtle’s pace, but it’s like, beautiful, man. I love this song, it’s a gem lyrically and musically. “Row Jimmy” is another total vibe.

The big highlight for the Capitol Theatre show is the super-rare Jerry tune “Mission in the Rain,” which was played by the Dead only 5 times! I find this version fantastic. This trifecta of slow-burners has made the show something of a go-to “mellow” Dead set for me. Later, a nice, jazzy “Eyes” with a long intro jam, and an almost nonexistent “Drums” (yay!) lead into “The Wheel”. Apparently “Tennessee Jed” was left off this reissue due to technical problems, although one Archive.org reviewer surmised it was just not a very good performance and thus cut.

I get the criticisms. They would improve on many of these performances (notably “St. Stephen” > “NFA” which sounds a little lackluster here) in 77. Mickey had joined the band on percussion for his first tour in 5 years, and the rhythm section sounds sluggish. I think the Dead were finding their sea legs again.

The Tower Theatre set, played 45 years ago on this very date, is tighter. The “Candyman” sparkles, and the “Playin'” jam is an exploratory treat. To round out the excerpt of this show we get a great version of “High Time”, one of my favorite Jerry ballads.

With 1000+ shows, millions of fans and an uncountable number of memories forged and formed over the past 56 years, there is sure to be an endless variation of interpretations on what the Dead did best, where they faltered, and everything in-between. I just like to, y’know, chill and jam out, man. This snapshot of June 1976 is nice for the Heads in no hurry.

Check out Download Series 4 on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Presenting Isaac Hayes (1968)

Isaac Hayes was the man before he was the man. At 22, the Tennessee native was playing keys on Otis Redding records and writing songs for Sam & Dave. Fast forward a few years and we arrive at his breakout Hot Buttered Soul (1969), one of those records to end all records, a consummate soul masterpiece. Stand it up next to What’s Goin’ On, Innervisions, what have you. Hot Buttered Soul is a monolith.

But it wasn’t Hayes’ debut. That would be the previous year’s Presenting Isaac Hayes, a surprisingly unknown soul-jazz session that deserves more props. The back-cover details the story of a typical 60s night in Memphis with Big Ike: “A few years back, Isaac strolled into Currie’s Tropicana Club in Memphis and sat in with the group, which included drummer Al Jackson, Jr. He sat down at the piano and began rambling over the keyboard. His offerings were an instant crowd success.” This was the Stax/Volt Records house band, essentially Booker T. & The M.G.s augmented with Isaac Hayes instead of Booker, who was in school at the time.

Presenting finds Hayes on piano and vocals, with the aforementioned Jackson Jr. on drums and Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass guitar. The trio’s Stax sessions for the album were improvised with no additional musicians. I’d love to hear more from these sessions, since the original album with 5 tracks is only half an hour long.

Once you’ve heard the full version of “Precious, Precious”, the album edit doesn’t really work. It’s sort of like if you took a 20-minute Coltrane session and cut it down to 3 minutes. Like its perfect follow-up Hot Buttered Soul, Presenting Isaac Hayes works best outside the confines of radio-friendly time constraints. The longform tracks here are just excellent – “I Just Want to Make Love to You” is raw: the sound is live and intimate, like you’re in the studio with the three players. With alcohol on his breath, Ike has a vocal swagger that pushes the track to the next level. It’s blues, as blue as Willie Dixon’s original, but Hayes’ chops on piano take it to the ever-transcendent realm of soul-jazz.

The “Going to Chicago Blues” track is another rambling wonder, with a fantastic vocal from Hayes at the end of the conjoined “Misty”. The closer “You Don’t Know Like I Know” is one of two Ike originals (though he makes every song his own), and the instrumental piece wouldn’t sound out of place on an Ahmad Jamal Trio record. There’s something in the timbre of the drums here, they’re just so warm and organic. While I wouldn’t mind vocals, it’s a great cut nonetheless.

And then, on streaming and reissue versions, we conclude with the long version of “Precious, Precious”. Wow! Big Ike is feelin’ it here! It’s no wonder he has that top hat and baton on the cover, because this is 20 minutes of magic. Sorry for the corny line, but listen! The man mumbles and wonders, the band carries the driving theme and the music just flows and flows. I love Isaac Hayes wordless vocals, it sounds like he’s making love to the music. Or, as Lil Wayne would say 45 years later, “I just fucked this piano”. Probably another reason they cut it for the first release.

If you like jazzy R&B, soulful jazz, soul-jazz, improvised blues jams or otherwise groovy tunes, don’t hesitate to give this one a spin. It’s an overlooked debut by an underrated master.

Listen to Presenting Isaac Hayes on Spotify.