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: Catherine Howe’s What a Beautiful Place (1971)

Now that Joni Mitchell’s music has been removed from Spotify, you might find yourself yearning for some lovely 70s female folk singer-songwriter type beats. Well, you’re in luck if you’ve never heard of Catherine Howe. The British Howe made a brilliant debut that may have been more well known had the ill-fated record label Reflection not shuttered about a month after their release of the album.

What a Beautiful Place, produced by Bobby Scott, who wrote “A Taste of Honey” (most famously known as the opener to that evergreen bargain-bin classic, Whipped Cream & Other Delights) and produced Roland Kirk’s superb I Talk With the Spirits (1965). Two very different styles, no doubt, but they show the range that Scott was capable of. He plays keys on What a Beautiful Place, adding a delicate (or, as on the title track, jaunty) touch.

If you listen to “Up North”, you will know peace. This is the first real song on the album and a true standout. The London Symphony Orchestra brings a lush and moody accompaniment to “On a Misty Morning”, and they’re also responsible for the “Also sprach Zarathustra”-like prologue, interlude and epilogue to the album that give it a distinct Romantic flavor. “It’s Not Likely” has an epic melody similar to that of Gene Clark’s “Strength of Strings”, always a good thing. “My heart’s in a hundred places,” she sings on “Words Through a Locked Door”, “Part of it’s under a tree / Part of it by a singing brook / And part I kept for me”. Lovely stuff.

According to Howe, the album was recorded in four days and with no overdubs. The brilliant folks at Numero Group saved What a Beautiful Place from obscurity by rereleasing it in 2007. All props to them, and to Howe, who has released music as recently as 2015. We here at GSG Enterprises also stan the sexy bonus track “Let’s Keep It Quiet Now”.

Listen to What a Beautiful Place here, and you’ll think “What a beautiful place.”

Album of the Week: Astrud Gilberto’s I Haven’t Got Anything Better to Do (1969)

How’s that for a striking cover? I’m not sure if Astrud splashed some water on her face during the shoot, did the acting thing of conjuring up some bad memories, or what. Maybe she was just really that bummed out. In any case, the cover and title drew me to this one. It was actually long before my Sinatra kick, but it would be up any jazz-pop fan’s alley.

Gilberto rejected the “jazz singer” label, and it’s fairly clear why. Her vocals are not complex or improvisational. In fact, they might even be too simple for some, fading into the background at times. Astrud (née Weinert) met João Gilberto through friend and (amazing) singer Nara Leão. João and Astrud married, and she is most known for their smash hit “The Girl from Ipanema” (1963), which they recorded when she was about 23 years old. But it seems she was a bit pigeonholed by this collaboration, and the press referred to her as a housewife.

I like I Haven’t Got Anything Better to Do in part because she is doing her own thing (the couple had by now divorced). Richard Davis, who has perhaps the greatest CV of any bassist ever, is on here. He sounds damn good on “Wailing of the Willow” – one of two Nilsson covers on this album. At under 30 minutes, it’s short and sweet. This album is truly breezy. “The Sea Is My Soil” really comes to life about halfway through in a beautiful moment.

“Without Him”, the other Nilsson cover, is another big highlight. It’s melancholy, yet full of the pep that only that Brazilian-style percussion provides. And as far as tearjerker moments go, I’d rate the saxophone coming in after “if I had wings I could fly” on the closer “If” pretty highly. The fact that this is the last track on the album only adds to its desolate feeling. That’s it! It’s over. What’s left? Nothing!

Astrud Gilberto loves animals and has a very cute old-school website that you should visit.

Listen to I Haven’t Got Anything Better to Do 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 (Beyoncé, 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: Weyes Blood’s The Outside Room (2011)

In February 2012 I went to a Thurston Moore solo show at the small New Hope Winery, near Doylestown, where my dad lived at the time. Thurston’s stripped-down, sad-sack divorcee songs were pretty decent, but I was mesmerized by the opener: local artist Weyes Blood*.

Four months later I went to Siren Records on a beautiful summer night to see the Doylestown-based Weyes Blood perform to a room of about 25 people. I spoke to her briefly and purchased a hand-made copy of her only CD at the time, The Outside Room. I was actually so excited to meet her that I forgot to pay her, until she politely pointed this out as I was walking away: “Um, excuse me!” I was a dumb 17 year old… I took an awkward picture of us on my flip-phone that exists… somewhere.

So check this out: The Outside Room rules. I’m not gonna tell you it’s better than Titanic Rising, or that I was ever friends with her, or that I predicted her success (not that it really surprised me either). One thing was really clear both times I saw her live playing, as I recall, solo on a synthesizer to a small room: she was very talented (and still is)! With no fame or following she created a thick atmosphere and hypnotized the audience (or me, at least). The Outside Room rarely left the 2003 Honda Pilot that I constantly drove around in high school.

Listening to it today, it’s clear that from a young age she could write great songs. From the jump, the organ and watery echo of the drums suggest an incense-filled room, and Mering’s melodies carry you through. There’s a kind of fantastical storybook feeling: “In the pale night / When the mood changes you…” “Storms That Breed” is definitely one for the Ouija board crowd. I love it. “Romneydale” is another highlight. The guitar riff is not dissimilar to a country ballad, but among the swirling chimes and vocals it all kind of melds together into a psychedelic folk track. Things get weirder on the penultimate track, more sound-collage-y than song-based. Based, nonetheless. The closer “His Song” absolutely sounds like levitating.

It’s not surprising that she eventually worked with Ariel Pink (on a supremely underrated EP that is maybe my favorite Weyes Blood release): the lo-fi, bedroom pop style is indebted to his early classics. And maybe it’s just that “Candyboy” is titled similarly to “Chocolate Girl” (both killer songs), but this album also reminds me of Animal Collective’s early lo-fi classic Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished. I think that fans of that release will quickly appreciate The Outside Room. It’s also worth noting that this album was mastered by Graham Lambkin. I don’t think that Weyes Blood plays these songs anymore (I haven’t seen her in nine years), but it’d be cool to see them adapted to her current style!

Listen to The Outside Room here.

*The original article on NJ.com had this to say: “Weyes Blood (first name Natalie) has been around since the mid ’00s and is a conventional folk artist.”

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

wrrrrrrrrrrrrrWRRRrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrWRRRRRRAAAAAAWRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

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.

***

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: Erika de Casier’s Essentials (2019)

Copenhagen’s Erika de Casier just announced her next song “Drama” with an eye-popping Instagram post, so to celebrate I decided to revisit her debut album Essentials, which blew my mind upon first listen nearly two years ago and sounds amazing today, too. Now signed to one of my favorite labels, 4AD, I can’t wait to here what she has in store for her follow-up. Below is a slightly edited version of my Essentials review, which I wrote in 2019:

I love Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, Craig David, Usher, Janet Jackson, Toni Braxton, and so on.

Erika de Casier wears her influences on her sleeve, as Essentials makes quite clear. But this isn’t some trendy gimmick. As the above quote (from an interview with i-D) demonstrates, the 90’s nostalgia comes from the heart. And with the help of mysterious Danish production team El Trick (aka Central) and DJ Sports*, de Casier’s debut is as much an enjoyable blast of nostalgia as it is a refreshingly new pop album.

The hits come early and just keep on hitting. After the lush pull of “The Flow”, the g-funk bounce of “Do My Thing” delivers her M.O. in its earworm chorus (bonus points for the brilliant no-budget video). It’s hard to pick stand-outs from the rest of the bunch because the sound is so fully-formed and consistent, but its worth mentioning the three-song arc of “What U Wanna Do?”, “Rainy”, and “Space”, tracks which in their moodiness work as effective contrasts to the sunshine of the album’s first half.

Erika de Casier’s vocal presence is warm and light, allowing her to float perfectly in the mix of the airy production. Lyrically, this is pretty standard pop fare that could have been written for most any Destiny’s Child song 20 years ago, but there is a repeated theme of de Casier urging her lover/listener to put their phone down and enjoy life (“Good Time”, “Intimate”), which I can totally get behind. Multiple listens reveal a handful of funny quirks and adlibs which are hard not to love. There are no features and other than “Photo of You”, which I think samples “Summer Madness”, there are no discernible samples.

I did a double-take on first listen here and it’s fair that you might too. But as she says on “Story of My Life”, Not tryna hide nothin’ / yeah I’m just comin’ real wit it. A superb debut that holds up well.

Listen to Essentials on Spotify.

*For more on these two, check out this p4k sampler and their distribution website.

Album of the Week: Willie Nelson’s …And Then I Wrote (1962)

Willie Nelson has been around the block. By the time he finished writing and recording his 1962 debut album …And Then I Wrote, he was almost 30. It boggles the mind today that Nelson had been making music for years without success or interest from labels. With a reflective lens, we can easily say that Nelson’s smoky-voice and knack for writing made him a talent that was overlooked for a long time. But back then, things didn’t work the way they did today. A 2020 New Yorker profile notes that “Before he moved to Nashville, in 1960, he worked as a radio d.j., pumped gas, did heavy stitching at a saddle factory, worked at a grain elevator, and had a brief gig as a laborer for a carpet-removal service.” The young Texan Willie Nelson spent years doing just about everything besides being the country superstar he is today.

According to one of his autobiographies, Nelson wrote many songs while still living in Texas. Among these is “Crazy”, which became a big hit for superstar Patsy Cline, helping to jumpstart Willie’s career. I knew the Cline version before I knew that Nelson wrote it, and there are marked differences in delivery between the two recordings. Patsy Cline’s is melodic and whimsical, while Nelson’s near-spoken-word vocal in his version reveals more personal pain. He actually sounds kind of crazy, or at least hurt and lost. It’s incredible.

…And Then I Wrote‘s title reflects the fact that Nelson was a hit songwriter long before he was a solo star. And as a showcase of songwriting talent, the album is both an unheralded country classic and an excellent precursor to more expansive and well-known Nelson releases like Red-Headed Stranger. These songs are stark expressions of heartbreak. “If you can’t say you love me, say you hate me,” Nelson sings on “Undo the Right”, desperate to feel something. “Three Days” is darkly comic: “Three days I dread to be alive: today, yesterday and tomorrow.” “The Part Where I Cry” and “Where My House Lives” are brilliantly coded expressions of grief. In the former, Nelson describes his life as a movie (or “picture”) and sells it to the listener-turned-viewer (“I was great in the part where she found someone new”). “Where My House Lives” is a heartbreaking closer: “Here’s where my house lives… I never go there / ‘Cause it holds too many memories” Nelson tells the listener, removing himself from the picture of domestic happiness and accepting the role of lonesome cowboy-drifter that would come to define his future.

Musically, …And Then I Wrote is Willie Nelson at his simplest, but don’t let that fool you. This seemingly effortless collection of hits (it’s one of those studio albums that plays like a best-of compilation) was borne from years of toil, failure and heartbreak. It wasn’t a huge success upon its release and still seems relatively unknown today, but thankfully, we know ol’ Willie got his due. If you’ve any interest in hearing how it started, I highly recommend a listen to this album.

Listen to …And Then I Wrote on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Frank Sinatra’s Where Are You? (1957)

Ah, Autumn. The perfect time to wistfully smoke a cigarette while staring into the ground. What’s that Frankie? You’re wondering where she is? Damn man, sorry. Haven’t seen her around. You’ll get over it, bro (probably).

I had a bit of a Sinatra phase this year. Lovely stuff, and it felt appropriate during the lonely summer months of 2020. If you ever felt like you couldn’t see your S.O. because they were in another state and it wasn’t feasible to travel during a global pandemic, or you couldn’t go to your favorite restaurant or see friends for the same reason, don’t worry! Frank understands. He’s been lonely. He’s been through it. He’ll tell you all about it.

Yes, Where Are You? is depressing, but also comforting. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic praised its “luxurious sadness”. Want to cry diamond tears on your 24k gold pillow? This is the album for you. As soon as those first string notes open the title track, you’re wrapped up in the sad glory of traditional pop’s greatest singer.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I love music without drums. No drums! And hey, no piano either, so no percussion to be found. Standards become lullabies. But if you’re snoozing by the end of the sublime “Laura”, Sinatra bellowing “New York, NEW YORK!” at the beginning of “Lonely Town” might wake you up. No, this isn’t that New York song. In fact, most of these standards were unfamiliar to me prior to listening. The notable exceptions were also recorded by Miles Davis: “Autumn Leaves”, which Miles performed live frequently in the early 60s, and “There’s No You”, which appeared on the underrated Blue Moods.

Where Gordon Jenkins orchestrated the Where Are You? sessions, the bonus tracks (13-16) were recorded with Nelson Riddle, who conducted two of Frank’s most acclaimed works – In the Wee Small Hours and Sings for Only the Lonely. I’ve read reviews that characterize Jenkins’ arrangements as “dour” and “overwrought” compared to Riddle’s work. Frankly (heh), I can’t tell the difference. Where Are You? sounds lovely to my ears, and it’s perfect for this time of year.

Listen to Where Are You? on Spotify while smoking wistfully.

Album of the Week: Mariah Carey’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel (2009)

Mariah Carey is snarky. After Eminem repeatedly dissed her and then-husband Nick Cannon, she made “Obsessed“, a smash hit that still ranks among the most popular songs in her extremely successful catalog. And she wasn’t afraid to bite back at Em: “See, the difference is, my song is on the radio and his, you have to search for it,” she said in 2009.

Of course I knew the brilliant “Obsessed” back then, but I just discovered Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel earlier this year and my first thought was, “how did it take so long for me to hear this album?” I’ve followed The-Dream for the past decade as a big fan, so it surprised me that until 2020 this album, almost-entirely penned and produced by The-Dream, somehow Mandela effect-ed its way from seeming nonexistence into my ears. And – surprise! – it’s her best work.

Most Mariah full-lengths are scattershot. And that’s ok! She’s made a lot of music, and plenty of it is top-notch. But for every “Vision of Love” or “Fantasy”, there’s usually some sappy filler that lines the rest of the album. Memoirs, however, hits over and over.

Much of Memoirs sounds exactly like what Dream was doing on his first three albums (AKA The Love Trilogy), and that is a good thing. “Candy Bling”‘s beat is almost identitcal to “I Luv Your Girl”; the screwed “lovin’ on my mind” vocals on “Ribbon” recall the same effect on “She Needs My Love”; the whole album is filled with ay-ay’s and oh-oh-oh’s that are hallmarks of Dream’s sound. No complaints there.

What separates the album from being just another Dream record is, of course, Mariah herself. Besides contributing her iconic vocals, the female voice in her songwriting is the antidote to what we hear excessively on Dream’s solo albums, namely the licentious tales of an extremely horny guy. Take “It’s a Wrap”: over a silky piano line, she begins, “Yet another early morning and you walk in like it’s nothing / Hold up, hold up, hold tight / Ain’t no donuts, ain’t no coffee / See, I know you seen me calling and calling / I should crack you right in your forehead”. Damn, MC. Sass is a consistent lyrical motif in this album, and she pulls it off. For the last few songs, however, Mariah changes her tune and goes full ballad mode, covering Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is”. She pulls that off, too.

In fact, Carey’s cover of “I Want to Know What Love Is” got the nod of approval from Foreginer’s Mick Jones, and broke the record for longest-running number 1 on the charts… in Brazil. It’s a euphoric end to her tightest album. I only wish that Spotify had a version of the album without the bonus remixes, so that I don’t have to hear a ridiculous techno mix of “Obsessed” every time the main album ends.

Listen to Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel on Spotify.