David Axelrod – “The Human Abstract” (1969)
Following up the recent post of two brilliant Electric Prunes-in-name-only tracks, here is another utterly unclassifiable, stunningly beautiful piece by David Axelrod. This is one of those guaranteed-goosebumps tracks, for me–the very definition of timelessness, masterfully combining stunning orchestral arrangement with an electrifying and effortlessly funky bass and drum combo. Gainbourg’s strings man Jean-Claude Vennier would’ve killed to compose this track. Axelrod is a master of the understated theme, repeating a three or four note pattern in such a way as to produce incredible emotional tension and, eventually, maximum release. There’s just not enough music like this, but I doubt there ever could’ve been. If you generally dig what Musicophilia and Musicophilia Daily are about, run and buy any Axelrod album from ’68 through ’75 and be prepared to be lifted to ecstasy.
Dorothy Ashby – “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” (1969)
There were some German guys like Jonny Teupen who gave it a good showing, but Dorothy Ashby is pretty clearly the royalty of funky jazz harp. Her playing and song selection is top-notch–but she was produced magically, with incredible arrangements that merged jazz, funk, rock, and bits of subtle studio trickery (as here with the subtle delay on the flute hooks) in fantastic ways on her late 60s and early 70s albums (hurry and purchase the ones that are in print–several are priced to move). I could pick half a dozen showstoppers from Ashby, but I recently heard this album thanks to the Joe Blow, The Sample King blog, and it’s a stone-cold killer. The bass line is remarkably modern, and the syrupy string arrangements counterpoint the ultra-heavy beat perfectly. [Dorothy Ashby is featured at Musicophilia with a track even more brilliant than this one, a heavy-hitter that starts of with a funk-sci-fi-theramin intro and never looks back, as part of ‘Le Tour du Monde, Volume 7‘]
Electric Prunes (David Axelrod) – “Holy Are You” and “Our Father, Our King” (1968)
Some might mourn the loss of the band that “had too much to dream last night,” but a “proper band” couldn’t become a product front with a result less like the faux-Velvet Underground debacle than what David Axelrod did with the Electric Prunes moniker. It’s hard to figure it was really worth the trouble of keeping the discarded name alive, financially–especially if what you plan on doing with it is realising albums of quotes from a Mass and from the Torah, however hip. But the whole album from which these tracks come–all 25 minutes of it–is bliss approaching the sublime, with beats that can only be described as “dope,” vibes and organ and soaring strings, fuzzed out guitars and funky basslines, all spinning ever higher in exultation of the text. Not hard to imagine this one dropped the jaws of Monseurs Vannier & Gainsbourg.
Steve Reich – “Piano Phase” (1967)
Don’t miss this one. “Piano Phase” is as much an experience as a piece of music, and as an experience it profoundly affected the way I heard music, how I decided what was music. It gave me permission, as it were, to follow an impulse that was already growing in me when I first heard it age 20: to admit I loved sound first and foremost; if sound took a song form, great, but if not, that ruled nothing out. What mattered was the effect it had on my ears themselves, in my mind, in my heart–and a repeating shape could have as much of an effect as painterly ballad.
I still tend to perceive Reich’s music (especially the phase-based work) as shapes, visually as much as sonically, and I think this is because its constituent elements are so simple and laid bare at the very outset. “Piano Phase,” a simple duet run of twelve notes, played in a staccato, unsentimental fashion: clear, precise, perhaps slightly mechanical. And then these simple elements, with very few changes internally over the course of 20 minutes, are ever so slightly shifted: and instantly an ever-changing set of new, far more complex shapes begin to emerge, as the basic parts continue to slide past one another. And these evolving shapes are anything but mechanical, producing emotional reactions in me that are subtle in their nature, but wholly visceral.
It moves me as no other Modern artform can, because music is never primarily functional; more than any medium, a “functional” conceit no matter how austere must take temporal and emotional form, and beauty need not be rejected or destroyed. I find it fascinating that every time I hear the piece, the shapes are different than previous times, based on the volume listened at, the quality of the speakers, with headphones on a loud bus or in a forest–this is music that technically but more importantly musically is reborn each time it’s heard. [Reich is heard in several of my very favorite mixes at Musicophilia, which attempt to mirror Reich’s work in creating near-physical reality from sound.]
Nico – “Frozen Warnings” (1969)
Neither Nico’s contributions to the Velvet Underground, nor the lovely ‘Chelsea Girls,’ could suggest the breathtaking mystery and utter timelessness of her first two incredible albums, ‘The Marble Index‘ and ‘Desertshore‘. Those records might also be the best examples of prime John Cale at the crossroads between his avant-garde and drone-based experimental work, and his “friendlier” singer-songwriter work. Dark doesn’t come close to capturing the shimmering depths of this work; and from a purely sonic standpoint, this is minimal but careful production at its finest, surely influencing later masterworks like Talk Talk’s beloved couplet or Arthur Russell’s more introspective work. This track is relatively “pretty,” but even the more challenging tracks remain stunningly beautiful and emotionally gripping. [Nico is featured on one of my favorite mixes at Musicophilia.]
The Shaggs – “I’m So Happy When You’re Near” (1969)
Most people would hear The Shaggs and think, “that’s just wrong,” but for some of us, it’s just so damned right it simply had to be. The musical expression of “sticktoitiveness” at its best, the young Wiggin sisters may have been coerced into making music in a way that might require a call to CPS today (being taken out of school on the basis of their father’s premonitions and delusions of grandeur). But from the sound of things, once they got going, nothing was going to stop them. And so the seemingly avant-garde clashing of tempo, melody, alternate-tuning, and deconstructed pop forms and subject matter flows forth as though it were the most natural thing in the world–for these girls, it seems to have been, and there is indeed a logic to it all, once the listener acclimates. Many never will, but for those who do, The Shaggs scratch an itch that more considered un-pop music (Captain Beefheart, LAFMS et al) can’t even reach. Just don’t dare call it kitsch–we love this music wholly on its own terms. [The Shaggs are featured on two Miniatures mixes at Musicophilia, including work from their lovable but more “normal” later recordings.]
Free Design – “Kites Are Fun” (1967)
I can think of very little music that so glowingly and lovingly portrays the innocence and openness of childhood, especially in narrative form, as that of the Free Design. The total absence of any detachment may make the music seem jokey to those accustomed to the usually-useful skepticism of adulthood, but if anything can melt our guarded state of mind, it’s the Design’s perfect-pop three-part harmony. [The Free Design are featured on Musique du Monde mixes of glowing 70s warmth at Musicophilia.]
Betty Harris – “There’s A Break In The Road” (1969)
Betty Harris is great, Allen Toussaint is a legend; the lyrics here are an iron maiden of don’t-fuck-with-me clarity, and the vocal hook is no less deadly-sharp. The bassline is timeless, and the feedback howls make your hair stand on end. But I can’t lie: it’s Ziggy Modeliste that makes this track the indelible mind-blower it is. One of the master’s best, the beat rides on its edge full-speed for the duration, never settling into what other drummers would consider the normal expression of the rhythm. If d’n’b had ever really had half this power of the beat–this is the feeling, sped up, it was going for, it seems–I’d be listening to it every day. This was the b-side of the single?!?
“Bob” Darin – “The Harvest” (1969)
Walden Robert Cassatto briefly emerged from his better-known persona, Bobby Darin, to create a couple (very) surprisingly great singer-songwriter-rock-funk albums in the late 60s. I guess it could’ve been a cash-in on the rising hippie tide, but to my mind the risks of alienating his established crooner audience for the ears of (most likely highly skeptical) kids doesn’t seem to make a lot of financial sense. Especially when it turns out the music is pretty great, and the politics are pretty pronouncedly progressive–it seems sincere to me. In any case, the resulting music is sometimes beautiful, sometimes funny, and always enjoyable, as on this rollicking, jumpy track that warns of the hubris of man and the folly of power with a series of clever couplets. [The funky feeling of this track is found throughout this mix that features Mr. Darin at Musicophilia.]
Bill Evans Trio – “Jade Visions” (1961)
Hopefully you know the Bill Evans Trio‘s four albums from 1961, but if you don’t this is a fine introduction. This track, written by the ill-fated bassist Scot LaFaro (who would die tragically mere days after this gig), embodies everything that is wonderful about the records: Motian’s drums, LaFaro’s bass and Evans’ piano are all “lead” instruments, but not in the free-jazz sort of way; they dance with one another perfectly, always balanced, always careful, but full of understated passion. “Jade Visions” in particular still gives me goosebumps, after literally hundreds of listens. The only downside is that you may spend years searching the jazz aisles and find few other sessions that reach this sort of sublime stillness. (If you don’t own ‘Sunday at the Village Vanguard’ and ‘Waltz for Debby,’ I recommend you go ahead and purchase ‘The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings‘.)
George Harrison – “Under the Mersey Wall” (1968)
Yes–this is the George Harrison. But don’t hold your breath for any gently weeping guitars, or even any sitars. I can imagine this might have caused about as many pissed-off teeny-boppers as ‘Metal Machine Music’ caused pissed-off proto-punkers. This is outre, experimental, long-form early electronic music, along the lines of Morton Subotnik with touches of the kosmiche of early Tangerine Dream or Cluster. Once you let go of any Beatles-based expectations, this is actually pretty compelling stuff, abstract but visceral; if Harrison was dabbling, it’s more convincing than his ersatz-ragga stylings. Who knows–for all the people this record probably angered, it probably set a few down mind-expanding paths beyond anything even “Revolution #9” could have done. [If you can roll with this track on its own, you’ll probably enjoy ‘The Somnambulist,’ an experimental mix into which Harrison’s electronic work is embedded.]
Nina Simone – “Black Is the Color Of My True Love’s Hair” (1966)
Of all the Queens of vocal jazz, when she’s at her best (and with the most sympathetic production) nobody tops Nina Simone, for me. Her voice isn’t the unbelievably singular instrument of Lady Day, nor does she have the stylishness of Sarah Vaughan; but the tremble, shake, just-controlled fire and depth of her voice makes the emotional impact of her ballads greater than anyone else. Hers is the voice of wisdom, hard-won, of grace amidst the day-to-day. This is one of those tracks that makes my hair quite literally stand on end every time, and brings a lump to my throat, imbuing a traditional tune with immense heartbreak and a sense of meaningfulness (in political context) that is astonishing. The use of space in the mix is absolutely mastered here.
Pauline Oliveros – “Bye Bye Butterfly” (1965)
Oliveros seems like one of the least po-faced and self-serious of the early electronic/minimalist/musique concrete pioneers. It’s not that she didn’t take her work seriously–it’s just that she possesses an eclecticism and verve that doesn’t call to mind tweed jackets and wooden pipes (she writes books with titles like. Rather than seeing music as the purview of the ivory tower (although she was a moving force in the study of experimental sound), she promotes the idea of music being everywhere–requiring attention, perhaps effort to discover, but not “education” or “correctness”. She seems to think a great deal about the relationship between spaces and sound, something I find greatly appealing–although my career is in preservation architecture, it is the sound of St. Pauls which strikes me most fully, for example. This early piece creates a cavernous soundscape, constituted of echoing sheets of modulating sine-waves and pastiched orchestral and operatic samples, creating a web of sound that is definitely not pop music, but which I find quite viscerally appealing. Like a sensitive AM radio, you sort of have to tune to the right wavelength, but once you’re there I think you’ll find it rewarding. [Pauline Oliveros is featured in the complex web of sound found in the Somnambulist mix at Musicophilia.]
Eddie Gale – “Black Rhythm Happening” (1969)
For those who don’t quite buy the defiantly unpopular Art Ensemble of Chicago’s claim to making “Great Black Music,” the Sun Ra Arkestra might instead capture what AEC were after. Here Arkestra trumpeter Eddie Gale lays claim to “Black Rhythm happening everywhere,” and here it takes the form of a chorus’ voice dancing in call and response around a snaking guitar line, snare-heavy drums and hand percussion, all enveloped in a warm wide reverb. Not quite funk, not quite jazz, laid back and open-ended, happening it certainly is.
Tyrannosaurus Rex – Eastern Spell (1968)
By one of the flukes of buying records without guidance during formative years, I actually heard Tyrannosaurus Rex before T.Rex, and in some ways I still prefer this incarnation of Bolan. Basically in description, everything about them seems just plain wrong: folk songs inspired by Tolkien with fast hand-drumming and male vocals that sound like an old woman. Yet it sounds just. . . so right. Bolan’s melodic tendencies were never stronger. [Tyrannosaurus Rex is featured in more subdued form here in a Miniatures mix at Musicophilia.]
El Kinto – “Don Pascual” (1968)
I was turned onto El Kinto by the proprietor of Twisted Village in Cambridge, Mass. and I must thank him for the perfect soundtrack for a trip to the beaches of the Cape on a lovely spring day. Despite being apparent linchpins of Uruguay’s early rock/psych-candombe fusion scene, there’s seemingly very little information about them out there, other than that they really never recorded, and exist on record now only through several live-for-tv performances that were miraculously rescued and released a decade after their creation. It’s a good thing–and the music tells you all you need to know: beautiful, spare, careful melodies and harmonies, understated rythms, unadorned guitar work. [A compendium of El Kinto’s known surviving recordings is in and out or print, but very worth hunting down. El Kinto is featured on one of my favorite mixes at Musicophilia.]
Creation – “Making Time” (1967)
Gotta love that scuzzy, chunky bowed guitar, that put-on snarl that can’t hide the fact that this is a perfect pop song. Every once in a while, Musicophilia is prepared to rock.