Album of the Week: Gene Clark’s White Light (1971)

Gene Clark of The Byrds was not a successful solo artist. He left the band in 1966 after his role as a primary songwriter and rhythm guitarist was significantly diminished. Listening to any of his solo records, it’s clear that his songwriting skills make him deserving of a greater legacy than his contemporary reception as a lesser Byrd member. Rightfully, this attitude seems to have changed with recent critical appraisal of his 1974 masterpiece No Other, which was reissued in 2019 and received a 9.3 rating from Pitchfork. Their review paints a stark picture of Clark’s dire fate: “No money would go to promote the album and No Other tanked, all but ending Clark’s career. One of the most exquisite spiritual seekers in song, Clark was dead by the age of 46, ravaged by alcohol and heroin.”

Clark died in 1991, leaving behind a legacy that was more than just The Byrds and even more than No Other. White Light is an inspired acoustic/folk album that features one of my favorite Clark songs, “One in a Hundred”, which was also released in an alternate arrangement on 1973’s Roadmaster. The song’s lilting melody is matched by its delightfully 70s (read: hippie) lyrics: “Voices of time / bringing surprise / voices that sing in waking moments to look into life’s eyes.” Clark could be epic to a degree nearing overly-maudlin, but at other times was quite direct, such as on the lovely chorus of “Because of You”: “The sun I see only shines for me because of you.”

“For a Spanish Guitar” situates itself somewhere between Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan, which is pretty much exactly where you want to be if you’re recording a folk album in the early 70s. It’s a lost classic. Speaking of Dylan, White Light features a great cover of “Tears of Rage”, Dylan’s song that was famously played by The Band, Jerry Garcia Band, and probably 100 other people. Clark’s version features impassioned guitar playing (acoustic and electric!) and organ work that would make Garth Hudson proud.

White Light is so succinct that even though the reissue (the version you’ll find on Spotify) packs it with 5 bonus tracks, it barely passes the 50 minute mark. Imbued with a warmth amplified by the magic of early 70s recording technology, White Light is a classic that I’d recommend to any fan of folk or acoustic music.

Listen to White Light here.

Album of the Week: Phish Live 6/27/2010 at Merriweather Post Pavilion (2010)

I’ve been to Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion exactly once, to see Animal Collective perform for the very first time at the venue they named their seminal 2009 album after (the Centipede Hz-heavy show included just 3 songs from MPP). This was in July 2011, and as a high-schooler I was ecstatic to see my favorite band deliver the goods. I knew almost nothing about Phish at the time except that my dad considered them a shameless Grateful Dead ripoff, and being far from even a Deadhead myself I was in no rush to counter. Phish was a total blindspot.

A decade and change later, Phish is my most listened-to artist (I type this with as much humility as possible). Most “phans” consider the mid-to-late 90s as their peak live era, and I won’t dispute that claim. But for whatever reason, a disproportionate amount of their 2010 shows are available on streaming services. This is one show deserving of attention.

The band’s first two-night stand at Merriweather (there have been seven since) began on Saturday, 6/26/10, with the band notably performing a cover of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”. While I haven’t heard that whole set, the “Aeroplane” indicates the magic in the air at Merriweather that weekend.

Merriweather Post is a beautiful venue with a large outdoor lawn and a summery roof over the stage. A review sets the scene for 6/27: “The HEAT was bad! Lot’s of humidity, def. could have rained on us but it held back. This actually created a sweaty, half naked crowd that was just waiting to get down.” Sunday night’s show opens with a rare “Walfredo” (one of only two in the past 20 years!), which despite some speaker feedback and a forgotten line signaled a special night ahead with its appearance. A Marley cover (“Mellow Mood”), the evergreen “Divided Sky”, a roaring “Bathtub Gin” and a ripping “Run Like an Antelope” highlight a fun first set.

The second set is where things step into all-killer no-filler territory. “Wilson” starts things off by rocking the engaged crowd before “Meatstick” sends things into funkier territory. One thing about Phish: they are silly. I don’t think everyone will appreciate just how goofy “Meatstick” is, but if you let it take you there, it’s 8 minutes of liquid funk. This jam somehow morphs into the near-metal of “Saw It Again”, which turns into a repeated theme for the rest of the show. This “Saw It” is the first since 2003, and it appropriately fries the brains of the present crowd as it explodes. From the ashes of “Saw It” rises a “Piper” which starts delicately enough before Trey absolutely rips shit on guitar. The cheers are audible around the 11:45 mark when Page finally takes over on organ.

“Ghost” is one of Phish’s all-around best and one of their most consistently played songs (they’ve played it at 2 of the 4 shows I’ve seen) for good reason. On this version, Trey’s got that wet guitar tone and stretches the notes out while the rhythm section churns. In the blink of an eye this “Ghost” turns into the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (only time ever played!), an unexpected treat, before resolving as a reprisal of the monstrous “Saw It Again”.

“Contact” is a great breather between the climactic “Saw It Again” and the set-ending “You Enjoy Myself”, the most quintessentially Phish-y Phish song. As for the “Fire” encore, it’s an appropriate victory lap given the level they were at on this night. Give it a go and see for yourself.

Listen to 6/27/10 here.

Album of the Week: Sweet Smoke’s Just a Poke (1970)

Or, a bunch of jewish stoner kids from Brooklyn move to Germany and record a psych-rock classic. With legendary Krautrock producer Conny Plank at the helm, the guys of Sweet Smoke managed to release a two-track jam LP with European distribution on Columbia. Full of flute and guitars, “Baby Night” kicks off with an interpolation of Jeremy & The Satyrs’ “In the World of Glass Teardrops”. Not 3 minutes in, the tempo shifts to a “Moondance”-like strut, stretching out the instruments into jam territory. A minute later, things kick back up into high-gear, with dueling lead and rhythm guitars driving the instrumental passage. Marvin Kaminowitz’s lead around 7 minutes is tantalizing in its brief melodic passage. Then the song shifts again, turning into a cover of The Doors’ “The Soft Parade”. This provides another place for Kaminowitz to stretch out, this time achieving some trippy delay effects, before cycling back to “Teardrops”.

Side B’s “Silly Sally” features some hot saxophone action, so best to start there if you have any aversion to flutes. With some wah-wah guitars, things groove for about 7 minutes until we reach what one Discogs user describes as “one of the most amazing drum solo to hear on drugs .” Some sick fading enhances the solo of Jay Dorfman, who, according to a blog post later “programmed the drum tracks for the seminal dance tech record Planet Rock for Tommy Boy Records” (no way!). The “Silly Sally” solo is about 5 minutes of funky drumming. After that, things round out with more cookin’ sax. Though I have not heard either of their follow-up records, Sweet Smoke’s international debut stands as a strong entry into the canon of both American psych and German Krautrock.

This French fan site also has some good info on Sweet Smoke.

Listen to Just a Poke here.

Album of the Week: A Date with the Everly Brothers (1960)

Who wants a date with The Everly Brothers?? Look, these guys were pretty charming. At the time of A Date‘s release, Don and Phil Everly were 23 and 21 respectively, and writing much of their own material, not to mention playing and singing it.

I checked out their fourth album, A Date with the Everly Brothers, on the strength of the final track, “Cathy’s Clown”, their biggest hit at the time of its release. This one got stuck in my head with its catchy chorus and emo vibe (“I die each time…”). The other well-known track on here is “Love Hurts”, which was actually not released as a single, but became a huge hit 14 years later for Nazareth. It might be corny, but it’s a great song.

I like all the tracks here except for “Donna, Donna”. To me, the Everlys actually sound best on their own songs, such as the aforementioned “Cathy’s Clown” and the tender “That’s Just Too Much”. Another thing that impresses me about the Everlys is the uniqueness of their sound. They got their start in Tennessee, but they’re not exactly country. They’re “pop”, but the Jimmy Reed song here is a blues track. Opener “Made to Love” and other tracks suggest the playful surf-rock of the early Beach Boys, but the Everlys predate them.

Oh, and the cover’s promised “Candid photos of the Everly Brothers with Hollywood stars” includes pictures of them with Roger Moore and Jack Kelly, among others.

Listen to A Date with the Everly Brothers here.

Album of the Week: Popol Vuh’s Das Hohelied Salomos (1975)

Popol Vuh have a few classics under their belt, but this is the jammiest. This is the one to smoke to. I mean, it literally starts out with a boom. Full of reverb and cymbal splashes, the atmosphere is so thick, the guitars so damn psychedelic, you might catch a contact high just listening to it.

The title translates to The Song of Solomon, and according to Light in the Attic, “the theme of the album is taken from biblical passages, using verses from King Salomon’s [sic] tales on The Old Testament.” I don’t understand singer Djong Yun’s lyrics any better than that of their high-water mark Hosianna Mantra (1972), but her voice is as lovely as ever. And just like on that album, she again sings “Hosianna”.

The second track “Du schönste der Weiber” starts off quite mellow, but builds up to a crescendo of Fichelscher’s positively face-stealing guitar. I only wish this track didn’t fade out so quickly. The fade-outs are probably my biggest gripe with an otherwise fantastic record.

On the second side, beginning with “Der Winter ist vorbei” (“The winter is over”), we have an added treat of sitar and tabla. To me, the tabla especially adds to the psychedelic groove that puts this band in an upper echelon of all-time rock groups. Sheesh. Spend an afternoon living in this one…

Listen to Das Hohelied Salomos 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: R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People (1992)

In high school I had a tape deck in my car and was looking for tapes to play. So in like 2012 I got this R.E.M. tape at a neighbor’s garage sale for, I dunno, maybe a dollar. I had listened to the album before, and I knew the hits, but it wasn’t until I drove around for a while that it really clicked with me. The deck changed sides automatically (heh), so I never really knew where the album started or ended because I wasn’t paying attention to the track titles on the tape. I thought “Ignoreland” was “It’s Your Land” or “Indoor Man”.

Okay, so this one isn’t exactly an underrated gem. People love R.E.M. They made pop music. I remember talking to a kid in my high school class, and he told me R.E.M. was his favorite band. I mentioned that I really liked “Don’t Go Back to Rockville”, and he told me he didn’t know that song. And this is not to sound holier-than-thou: if you told me you really liked “My Love Paramour” by Cocteau Twins, I’d be like “I don’t know that one”, because I don’t. But you don’t have to be an obsessive music nerd to know R.E.M.

Anyway, this became a really special album to me after all those hours in the car. Every song is great. I haven’t yet heard another R.E.M. album I could say that about. Elizabeth Wurtzel called this album “moody and introspective,” which is about right. “Drive” is like an elegy for rock music, as corny as that sounds. And it is a little bit corny, but it’s beautiful, like the rest of the album.

I want to point out the similarities between “Everybody Hurts” and “Love Hurts”. “Love Hurts” is a tender ballad originally written for the Everly Brothers that was also covered by the late Gram Parsons, and is most well-known as a hit by the band Nazareth. “Everybody Hurts” is the fourth track on Automatic, and it’s also a tender ballad. Talk about corny and beautiful. It’s been used in suicide hotline ads and animated kids movies. Like “Love Hurts”, I can’t really imagine playing this song seriously around other people. It’s one to put on when you’re alone and stare at the wall thinking about life.

“Star Me Kitten” is one of my favorite tracks here. It’s so relaxing. The organ creates a church-like atmosphere, despite the suggestive lyrics. It’s like a lullaby. Amazing. “Nightswimming” is a classic. You’ll be like, damn, this 32 year old bald guy really had me crying. It unlocks something. I want to live in this song.

The melodica melody on “Find the River” will stick in your head for days after the album ends. It reverberates. I like this quality in an album’s final track, where it sounds like it could be a beginning. And to me it is, because I used to just play this album over and over again. I love this album.

Listen to Automatic for the People 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: 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: 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 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.