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 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: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Inventions’ One Size Fits All (1975)

The prolific Frank Zappa did enough musically to accumulate the kind of cult following that sees continued interest decades after his death – It’s only been half a year since the release of the Zappa feature-length documentary. While I haven’t seen it yet, I do consider myself a fan, albeit more selective than the kind of superfans who can rank 25+ Zappa releases.

Rather than the breakout Mothers of Invention records of the 60s (like Freak Out! or We’re Only in It for the Money), I am partial to Zappa’s 70s output. One Size Fits All is a particular favorite, and this is largely because of two words: George Duke.

George Duke was a pioneer in jazz-fusion, disco, pop, and whatever the hell kind of music Zappa made (occasionally a mix of all three). While his solo albums are incredible in their own right, Duke repeatedly excelled as a session musician and sideman. He played keys on such classic records as disparate as Tom Waits’ Blue Valentine and Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall. Duke collaborated with Zappa throughout the 70s, and One Size Fits All represents a peak in their musical union.

For better or for worse, this is one of those albums that starts off with its best song. Duke’s lead vocals and Farfisa get “Inca Roads” off to a rollicking start, and then two minutes in the song transmutes itself into a Zappa guitar jam as groovy as the work of Jerry Garcia. The late Duke once told an interviewer that he didn’t even want to sing, but he did so at Zappa’s request. That’s a good band member! He further described the recording process: “Well, One Size Fits All and Apostrophe, those albums were basically me and Frank in the studio for hours! I mean, it was just us, and the engineer carrying the amp. We would be there at Paramount Recording Studios, or wherever, just recording like from 1 or 2 in the afternoon, until 5 or 6 in the morning.”

“Po-Jama People” is another showcase for Zappa’s guitar work. I don’t know what he’s talking about in the vocal verses, but that guy sure could rip. Zappa had this ability to make these stupid fucking lyrics that are really fun to sing along to: “She lives in Movaje in a winnebagoooo!” The ridiculous “Florentine Pogen” is as much about a cookie as it is a person.

Johnny “Guitar” Watson (Mr. “Superman Lover”) adds another dimension to a couple of tracks in the back half here. He assists on the rocking “San Ber’dino” and croons on “Andy”, which along with “Inca Roads” is the other mini-masterpiece of the album. Once again, Duke does his thing and Zappa shreds. Those Duke vocals just get me every time (see also – “Sofa No. 2”).

For my money, One Size Fits All is about as good and concise a Zappa album as you’ll get. If you can handle the trademark silliness and cartoonish marimba rolls, you’ll be jammin’ like it’s 1975.

Listen to One Size Fits All here.

Album of the Week: This Mortal Coil’s Blood (1991)

If you love the 4AD sound anywhere near as much as I do, then you truly cannot go wrong with This Mortal Coil. Essentially the label’s in-house cover band, TMC formed in 1983 under the aegis of label president Ivo Watts-Russell (the namesake of Cocteau Twins’ classic “Ivo”).

One of their first songs as This Mortal Coil (and still their most popular) was the Cocteau’s (or 2/3, Liz Fraser and Robin Guthrie) take on Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren”. Its popularity is really a no-brainer – a straight-up gorgeous track with one of the inimitable Fraser’s all-time vocal performances, “Siren” was used to great effect in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. He intended to use it even earlier for Blue Velvet, but that proved too expensive.

Although TMC’s “Siren”-containing debut It’ll All End in Tears is their go-to classic, this week I’ll be focusing on their last record, 1991’s double-album Blood, which is nothing to sneeze at. No Cocteau kids to be found here, but there’s no lack of talent: This Vulture article likened TMC to “a dream-pop version of Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group”. Amazing.

The late Caroline Crawley of Shelleyan Orphan starts things off, breezing through the TMC original “Lacemaker” and owning it on their version of The Apartments’ “Mr. Somewhere”. If you’re going to check out one track from Blood, though, make it “You and Your Sister”. Holy shit this song is good! Written by Chris Bell of Big Star for his excellent solo album I Am the Cosmos (the title-track is also covered on Blood), it is masterfully interpreted by The Breeders’ Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly. With its heart-on-sleeve directness and honey-sweet vocals, this one even eclipses the great original version, and rivals “Song to the Siren” as the best TMC track.

Elsewhere, “Bitter” is a whirlwind mix of guitar solos, Colourbox-like sampling and lush vocals. “Several Times”, a standout from the lost ambient classic Sleeps With the Fishes, is included here with vocals and lyrics, a welcome update to a key 4AD instrumental. Oh, and back to that Colourbox-like sampling I just mentioned. It is very dated and not very good, which is why nobody knows about Colourbox. Take “The Lacemaker II”: why are there samples of a barking dog in it? And “Ruddy & Wretched” is about as good as its title implies. Safe to say the best TMC songs are rarely instrumentals.

On the whole though, the production stands the test of time. I’ve mentioned before (probably too many times) how I love drum-less music, and most of Blood is like this: straight atmosphere. “Late Night” is a Syd Barrett song suspended in air. “Inside me I feel / Alone and unreal”. No doubt. The country classic “Til’ I Gain Control Again” is a deep-cut tearjerker, helping to round out the back half.

Like most-double albums, Blood might be better if you pared it down to its best songs. But If you’re in no hurry, it’s one to get lost in.

Listen to Blood here.

Album of the Week: Bob Dylan’s Knocked Out Loaded (1986)

“Ultimately a depressing affair…” –Rolling Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to Knocked Out Loaded here.

Album of the Week: Love Spirals Downwards’ Idylls (1992)

It’s no big secret that Cocteau Twins are my favorite band, and this has been the case since high school. They have had their share of imitators, contemporaries and comrades over the years, but one album that really struck me in my initial obsessive Cocteau phase was Idylls. The comparisons are too easy: the phaser guitar, the female glossolalia, the drum machines. I’d venture to say it’s less varied than even the simplest Cocteau efforts, and that I think helped me sink into it back then.

Like many teens I smoked a lot of pot and that is the prime association here. I think more than any Cocteau album I paired Idylls with the hazy balm of weed smoke in an effort to, at least temporarily, rise above the bullshit that hounded my 17-year-old existence. And it worked. This is truly one to spark up and bliss out to.

Listening to it today, sober, it’s still outstanding to me. Give me some conga drums, early 90s atmosphere and a woman singing “sayyylaalooohah soooheyyyaahh”. Hell yeah. I imagine a lot of people find it boring. It certainly lacks the melodrama of say, Dead Can Dance, or the emotional heft of The Cure, not to mention the best melodies of Cocteau Twins. I would also call it front-loaded, with “Illusory Me” and “Love’s Labor Lost” as the key standouts – although the closer “And the Wood Comes Into Leaf” is tight too! Those Cocteaus always had killer closing tracks, just to bring up another parallel.

I never made it far past this one (their debut) in the LSD (heh) discography. I remember buying Flux (1998) on CD years ago but not being very moved. It had some electronic influences that in my mind connect with Slowdive’s Pygmalion – a great record! So perhaps it’s worth revisiting. The guy (Ryan Lum) is now a politician in Long Beach, or has at least attempted such a career. He still makes music as Lovespirals. The LSD discog wasn’t streaming for years, but now you can check it out in all its remastered glory. For a fan of shoegaze, dream-pop, and/or especially Cocteau Twins, Idylls is an album worth getting lost in.

Listen to Idylls on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Brian Eno’s Before and After Science (1977)

What a wonderland of a zoo, a cross between steaming smoke, atonal mystery and hanging, frothy ditties…

Brian Eno is an agent from some other time and some other place who seems to know something that we don’t but should…

There’s a scene in Y tu mamá también where the protagonists are driving across rural Mexico listening to Brian Eno’s “By This River”, and one of the stoned teens says “This song rules!” As someone who spent many a stoned teenage night with Before and After Science, I absolutely identify with this moment. Like the quotes above (from Down Beat and Crawdaddy! respectively) suggest, Eno was tapping in to something otherworldly with Before and After Science, a record that took two years to compose and represents an artist at a peak of his musical powers (Low, “Heroes” and Cluster & Eno were recorded in the same time period).

Like his preceding masterpiece Another Green World, Before and After Science mixes the art-rock of Eno’s first two albums with the ambient sounds he pioneered. But unlike Another Green World, the two sides are distinctly separate in their styles.

If you’re familiar with Eno’s career, you probably know of his Oblique Strategies. This creation method takes the form of a deck of cards, with suggestions like “Ask your body” or “Not building a wall but making a brick”. Created by Eno and artist Peter Schmidt, this technique was utilized heavily by Eno in this period and inspired many, if not all, of the songs on Before and After Science (apparently over 100 tracks were written for it).

“Look at September, Look at October”, Peter Schmidt

Schmidt’s contributions to Before & After Science are particularly notable. Apart from co-authoring the Oblique Strategies cards, four of Schmidt’s prints (including the image above) were included in the original packaging of the album. Schmidt’s work inspired Eno, and the prints included in Before & After Science seem to reflect the meditative, autumnal quality of the album.

As I mentioned before, the two sides of Before & After Science have different styles. With the exception of “Energy Fools the Magician”, the first side is a collection of upbeat, vocal-lead art rock tracks, with a standout in “Backwater”, featuring drumming from Can’s Jaki Liebezeit. It’s a great bunch of songs, but the second side makes the album a 5-star masterpiece, and for my money the greatest work of Eno’s career.

After the pastoral “Here He Comes”, “Julie With…” creates a celestial atmosphere featuring Eno’s Moog synth and bells. It is a dazzling six-and-a-half minutes. “By This River” is a meditative yet moving song made with Eno’s Cluster buddies Moebius and Roedelius. It has a descending piano line that embodies Schmidt’s watercolor depictions of nature. “Through Hollow Lands” is an instrumental piece that acts as a sort of preamble to the album’s final track.

If the heavenly sprawl of Eno’s many lengthy ambient works were distilled into a sublime four-minute “pop” song, the result would be “Spider and I”. Indeed, the album closer achieves the great beauty of “Discreet Music”, while the lyrics paint a youthful fantasy: “We sleep in the morning / We dream of a ship that sails away / A thousand miles away…”

Of course, Eno has continued to make stellar music over the past 40+ years, and any fan of ambient or work labelled “art rock” may have a different favorite in his discography. After years of listening to it, Before and After Science remains his dearest treasure to me.

Listen to Before and After Science on Spotify.