Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

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more odds and ends... the 70s

Artists reviewed on this page:
Margie Adam - Aerosmith - Sezen Aksu - Phylicia Allen - Amchitka - The Blues... A Real Summit Meeting - Boney M. - Brainstorm - Brick - Cheap Trick - Meg Christian - Betty Davis - The Dells - Disco Spectacular Inspired By The Film "Hair" - Carl Douglas - Lamont Dozier - The Dramatics - The Dynamic Superiors - Brian Eno - Musa Eroğlu - Faze-O - Peter Gabriel - Generation X - Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five - The Abdul Hassan Orchestra - Richard Hell - Holland-Dozier-Holland - Phyllis Hyman - Freddie James - The Brothers Johnson - Judas Priest - KC And The Sunshine Band - KISS - Lakeside - The Langley Schools Music Project - The Last Poets - Lightnin' Rod - Love De-Luxe with Hawkshaw's Discophonia - Cheryl Lynn - MFSB - The Main Ingredient - Bob Marley - Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes - Eddie Minnis - Musique - The New York Dolls - Nightlife Unlimited - The Roches - The S.O.S. Band - Sesame Street - Saturday Night Fever - Telly Savalas - Leo Sayer - Patti Smith - The Staple Singers - Thank God It's Friday - Tonto's Expanding Head Band - U.N. - Van Halen - Wire - Bill Withers - Warren Zevon

Aw shucks, I guess there is more to life than the 60s - but as you'll glean from the brief takes on post-60s acts presented here, we're not yet convinced that there's more to life than the 70s. If you're wondering, AC/DC, A Taste Of Honey, Joan Armatrading, The B-52's, Bad Company, Adrian Belew, Babyface, Black Sabbath, Mary J. Blige, Jackson Browne, Chic, the Clash, Elvis Costello, Devo, Roberta Flack, Fleetwood Mac, Gloria Gaynor, High Inergy, Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians, Jermaine and Michael Jackson, Joe Jackson, the Jam, France Joli, Quincy Jones, Rickie Lee Jones, Evelyn "Champagne" King, Little Feat, Madonna, The O'Jays, REM, Minnie Riperton, The Ritchie Family, Rose Royce, Todd Rundgren, Brenda Russell, Valerie Simpson, Spinners, Stylistics, Donna Summer, Talking Heads, Robin Trower, Television, Tower Of Power, Cris Williamson, XTC, Joe Walsh and Yo Yo are no longer to be found here because they have new pages of their own. Also, 80s and 90s artists have been moved to separate pages. Enjoy...
Margie Adam, Songwriter (1976)
The "women's music" movement of the 70s produced a number of artists who rose above the stereotype of mild-mannered, piano-playing lesbians singing about unicorns. But Margie Adam embodies that stereotype pretty closely. She has a clear voice, solid command of the piano, and competent songcraft ("Beautiful Soul"), but no bite: often the material is twee - "Best Friend (The Unicorn Song)"; "Would You Like To Tapdance On The Moon?" - but even when it's more emotional her tame, restrained approach undercuts the sentiments ("I've Got A Fury"; the would-be shocking "Sleazy"). She does stretch out musically, with two piano-heavy instrumentals ("Rag Bag") and the trippy breakdown in "Lost In Inner Space." Though Adam was on the small Pleiades Records, most of the Olivia cast appears: Meg Christian adds guitar to one tune and vocals to another; Cris Williamson and Vicki Randle turn up on four tracks; Diane Lindsay and Linda Tillery are the rhythm section. Self-produced. (DBW)

Aerosmith, Toys In The Attic (1975)
What can you say about this thing? That it's a multiple platinum album stuffed with radio favorites? That it's the epitome of soulless, by-the-numbers 70s heavy rock, completely derivative and so testosterone-ridden that it makes Zeppelin sound cultured? That it's more or less the loudest, riffiest, catchiest damn rock record of the whole decade? Uh, I guess so. You probably already have your mind made up about this kind of proto-grunge hedonism anyway, so it doesn't really matter what I say. The details: their third record but first real breakthrough; powered by Steven Tyler's screeching, vaguely Robert Plant-like vocals and Joe Perry's blustery, overcharged guitar riffs; written mostly by Tyler working either with Perry or bassist Tom Hamilton; and featuring three classic tunes: the head-banging, triple-time title track, the swaggering "Walk This Way," and the fevery, slithering "Sweet Emotion." Despite the obvious debt to Zep (guitarist Brad Whitford's pounding "Round And Round") and the Stones, though, the band has its own ideas on the misfires: the-blues-meets-the-Beach Boys ("Uncle Salty"); big band jazz crossed with juvenile, smutty R & B ("Big Ten Inch Record"); orchestrated bathos a la Elton John ("You See Me Crying"); and plenty of chugging boogie-woogie ("Adam's Apple"; "No More No More"). Awesome, dude. (JA)

Sezen Aksu, Sarki Söylemek Lazim (2002)
Born in 1954, Sezen Aksu was at the forefront of the first significant wave of Turkish pop in the 1970s, and jumpstarted the current wave by mentoring top artists like Tarkan (Turkey's Michael Jackson, sort of). I hope no one takes these cross-culture comparisons too seriously, but I'd say Aksu's stature is as if Cher and Diane Warren were the same person... you might not love the results but you have to respect the achievement. On this album, she proves Eurodisco is not dead (title track; "Deli Gönlüm") - quite seriously, it would be easy to believe this album was cut in 1977 at Trident. Naturally, I mean that as a compliment: the pseudoclassical strings and percussion breakdown on "Seni Istiyorum" thrill my heart and quicken my pulse. More curiously, "Sen Sarki" has a reggae beat and a flamenco guitar solo. However, there are also a lot of ballads, which isn't such good news: "İstanbul İstanbul Olali" was apparently a big hit though to my ear its six minutes drag; better is the solemn, sturdy "Nihayet." Engineered by Martin Gordon, formerly of LA cult band Sparks. (DBW)

Sezen Aksu, Yüyüyorum Duş Bahçelerinde (2009)
In contrast with Sarki's range of retro styles, this collection has a relentless focus: mournful meditations, stripped-down and slowed-down, often pitting Aksu's delicate voice (her Piafian nickname is Little Sparrow) against only a guitar or piano ("Pardon"). Not to say that it's uninspired - "Lale Devri" and "La'l" are moving even if (like me) you have no idea what she's singing about - just that it has none of the desire to entertain one ordinarily expects from pop music. The arrangements are often strikingly detailed (the bed of featherlight touches underlying "Sorma") but the bulk of the compositions are slight, and/or overlong. "Elveda" is an exception: overblown, but in a rather wonderful way. I dig melancholy as much as anybody - which is what draws me to Turkish music, I suspect - but the unchanging dispirited mood gets a tad draining. (DBW)

Sezen Aksu, Öptüm (2011)
Aksu's latest isn't tethered to any particular theme, delivering a little bit of everything but most often in the Türkpop sweet spot: Middle Eastern melodic strategies underpinning European song forms, played on a mix of traditional and modern instruments ("Sayım"). There are limpid love songs ("Vay") and uptempo near-disco (the cheesy "Ayar," which sounds like it escaped from a biergarten). "Uttun Mu Beni?" does double duty, both opening the album as a fun dance track and closing it as a solo voice-and-guitar reverie. There's plenty of entertainment in all these styles: "Acıtvışım Canını Sevdikçe" is an affecting love song making good use of the aching quality of Aksu's voice; "Ah Felek Yordun Beni" is a singalong blast; "Ballı" - from the ever-dependable Nazan Öncel - is a buoyant party tune. It does strike me as a bit too comfortable, but keep in mind that I have a bias in favor of artists who are continually searching and against those who have fully matured. (DBW)

Phylicia Allen, Josephine Superstar (1978)
Jacques Morali, empresario behind the Village People and the Ritchie Family, had an idea: to tell the Josephine Baker story as a concept album disco extravangza... Alec R. Costandinos eat your heart out! To play the lead, Morali chose Phylicia Allen, then just Debbie Allen's older sister but now best known as Cosby Show mom Phylicia Rashad. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up. There's a brief rendition of the Baker hit "Two Loves Have I (J'ai Deux Amours)" leading into a medley; Otherwise, everything's by Henri Belolo, Victor Willis (then Allen's husband) and Morali, and unfortunately it combines the worst of his other projects: the predictable arrangements the Village People were wont to settle for (the string-swamped title track), with the weak melodies that often kept the Ritchie Family from soaring ("Star Of Paris"). Allen tries her best to fill the void with diva attitude, but just can't hack it ("Around The World"). Mostly dance-floor-oriented, but the LP closes with two dull ballads, the racial harmony number "Colors" and the all purpose snoozer "Don't Cry Mommy." (DBW)

Umar Bin Hassan, Be Bop Or Be Dead (1993)
Former Last Poet Bin Hassan (note different spelling) gets the Bill Laswell Resurrection Treatment, with one-size-fits-all funk/World Beat backing courtesy of Bernie Worrell, Amina Claudine Myers, Bootsy Collins, Laswell, Buddy Miles, and percussionists Foday Musa Suso, Aiyb Dieng, Guilherme Franco and Anton Fier. Vocal group Asante and former Last Poet Oyerwole also pop up here and there. Too many tracks have the usual Laswell problem of oppressively boring and repetitive programmed drums; one exception is the live-sounding, organ-led jazz number "Love." Bin Hassan remakes two of his early Last Poets songs ("This Is Madness," present in two versions; "Niggers Are Scared Of Revolution") - wouldn't you think after two decades he'd have enough new material for one record? Anyway, the remake of "Niggers" is 5:23, about as long as the original, but while it was easily the longest cut on the earlier record, now it's one of the shortest, and the unchanging musical backdrops and Bin Hassan's rising and falling cadences become incredibly boring. All this would be regrettable but forgivable if Bin Hassan's words were as biting and bracing as his early work, but they aren't: he visits the same touchstones again and again (referencing John Coltrane and Miles Davis, for example); many of his images aren't evocative ("Hip hop cadres laughing at Jesus slam dancing" - uh, okay); and his visions both of grim reality and of prospects for a better world lack their former intensity and conviction. (DBW)

Bizarre (1979)
If only. I hunted this down because soundtrack composer Alan Hawkshaw's other disco project is endlessly enjoyable, but this one-off (another Band In Name Only) is a flip, facile waste of time. Where Love De-Luxe featured personable vocalists, irresistible hooks and crisply delineated instrumentation, this album relies on overly chipper choruses ("Don't Move") chirping dancefloor clichés ("Hot Hollywood Nights") over assembly-line backing ("Get Up"). The love songs are similarly short on originality and thrills ("You Make My Life So Beautiful"). Try to imagine the Partridge Family cutting a disco album, and you'll be in the right zip code. Perhaps "Delilah" hitmaker Barry Mason is largely to blame: he co-wrote most of the LP and exec produced. Each cut has an identifying featured instrument (clavinet on "Get Up"; horns on "Take The Money And Run"; Rachmaninoff-lite piano on "Let Me Fill Your World With Love"; Rhodes on "You Make My Life So Beautiful"), so you can tell which one you're listening to even though you'll be hard-pressed to explain why you're doing so. (DBW)

The Blues... A Real Summit Meeting (1973)
Recorded live at Newport on June 29, 1973, this two-CD set brings together performances by both big names - B.B. King, Muddy Waters - and lesser knowns (Lloyd Glenn, who serves up honky tonk piano like "Pine Tops Boogie Woogie"). Everyone gets about twelve minutes to do their thing, except for Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup and King, who are limited to one song each ("That's Alright Now Mama" and "Outside Help" respectively). The surprise star is Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, who captivates the house with tongue-in-cheek verbal boasts ("They Call Me Mr. Cleanhead") and athletic alto sax solos ("Kidney Stew"). Also captured at her best is Big Mama Thornton, who delivers crusty but vulnerable readings of the old standby "Little Red Rooster" and her signature song, "Ball And Chain." None of the performers are young, but it's not strictly a nostalgia set; Gatemouth Brown's "Please Mr. Nixon" demonstrates that the performers are grounded not just in the timeless, but in the here and now (more precisely, the there and then). The band is terrific: Jay McShann adds classy piano backing, while wildman violinist Claude Williams takes some jawdropping extended solos ("Smooth Sailing"). You could certainly argue that this set reaches too hard for variety at the expense of coherence (Crudup's unaccompanied country blues segue into Glenn's super-cool piano stylings), but there's not much else to quibble with: it showcases an impressive array of talents playing their favorite material, with no condescension or pretension. (DBW)

Boney M., Nightflight To Venus (1978)
Frank Farian may be best known in the States for his role in the Milli Vanilli fiasco, but the German writer-producer's first studio project was a much bigger international success. Starting from their 1975 debut, the group - Farian, Liz Mitchell and Marcia Barrett provided the voices; Bobby Farrell and Maizie Williams mimed Farian's parts in public - rang up an unending series of hits all over the world, extending into parts of Asia and Africa where their only Western competitor was ABBA. Like that group, Boney M.'s sales were in inverse proportion to their musical and cultural influence - the anti-Velvet Underground, you might say - chiefly because their records have facile catchiness and pristine production but nothing to sink your teeth into (the ludicrous history lesson "Rasputin"). This third LP is a perfect demonstration of Farian's formula: an easily digestible mix of covers ("Heart Of Gold"), traditional melodies ("Rivers Of Babylon," a remade hymn which became a massive hit) and ripoffs (the bonus track "Dancing In The Streets" is a "Superstition" clone). Even if you like trite pop music, you may find the endless two-chord progressions and overly polished Caribbean rhythms oppressive and stultifying ("Brown Girl In The Ring") - their version of "Never Change Lovers In The Middle Of The Night" is my favorite cut here, and even that is nothing compared to Millie Jackson's. The 2007 CD reissue includes their 1978 Christmas hit "Mary's Boy Child / Oh My Lord" - one of the biggest sellers of all time, so help me. (DBW)

Brainstorm, Funky Entertainment (1979)
There's a fine line between covering a lot of ground, and just throwing different styles at the wall to see what sticks. The third album by this Detroit R&B band was produced by Jerry Peters, and it's a promising but ultimately incoherent smorgasboard of funk, disco and ballads. But there are some magnificent, unjustly forgotten tunes here: the opening "Hot For You" marries a terrific funky verse to a high-energy disco chorus, but doesn't stop there, throwing in percussion breaks, uncounted bridges, and even a salsa piano montuno. The title track is a messy masterpiece of funk horns and rock guitar; the relentless "Popcorn" is a goldmine of melodic snippets with delirious, infectious vocals. The one love song isn't much ("You Put A Charge In My Life"), but even that's carefully rendered, with polyrhythmic backing vocals and Thom Bell-style descending sitar and bells. At this point the lineup was Chuck Overton (sax), Belita Woods (lead vocals, far less nasal than in her later work with the P-Funk All-Stars), Trenita Womack (vocals, flute, piano), Renel Gonsalves (drums), and Larry Sims (horns). The group wrote most of the tunes here, though Sam Dees was responsible for giving us "A Case Of The Boogie." Their last album, as far as I can tell. (DBW)

Brick (1977)
I guess you'd have to call this Atlanta five-piece a third-rate funk band, but they're fun. Rather than relying on synth, strings or unchanging disco rhythms, they focused on small-combo arrangements that often sound unrehearsed, funk and ballads alike - like a nicer Ohio Players, or like Earth Wind & Fire without the production touches. They're set apart by prominent flute work by Jimmy Brown (who also played sax); the rest of the band is Regi Hargis (guitar), Ray Ransom (bass), Eddie Irons (keyboards) and Donald Nevins (drums), with everyone contributing lead vocals. Their 1976 debut (Good High) had produced the hit "Dazz," so they continued the lyrical theme with "Dusic" - their second and last Top Forty hit, with a great group falsetto vocal. ("Ain't Gonna Hurt Nobody" was also successful on the R&B chart.) Produced by Phil Benton with the band. I have their 1976 debut and I'll try to review it soon; Brick kept releasing LPs through 1982, with "Sweat (Till You're Wet)" hitting the R&B charts in 1981. (DBW)

Cheap Trick, Heaven Tonight (1978)
Often lumped with very different acts like Big Star as a "power pop" band, Cheap Trick was actually a quintessential late 70s phenomenon, blending slick mainstream classic rock a la Wings with pumping Chuck Berry chords and a distinct heavy metal influence, most obvious in lead guitarist/songwriter Rick Nielsen's guitar sound. Their third record leads off with the irresistable "Surrender," which showcases their entire formula and even adds some Pete Townshend-like synth. Several of the other four-minute tunes are also memorable: "High Roller," where they shift between a stomping metal riff and starry-eyed verses; "On The Radio," with its annoying but catchy falsetto chorus; the slightly ridiculous, quasi-orchestrated, doom-laden title track; and a cover of the Move's tongue-in-cheek 1972 single "California Man," with its distinctive 50s aura. Singer/rhythm guitarist Robin Zander's vocal resemblance to Paul McCartney is pronounced throughout, to his credit (the silly but charming 50s dance tune "How Are You"). And Nielsen even manages to work catchy riffs into some of the LP filler ("Auf Wiedersehen"; "Stiff Competition"; the punchy "On Top Of The World"). There are some problems here - "Takin' Me Back" is the worst example of the pretentious Queen-like arena rock the group often fell into. But if you're into campy 70s rock, this is the one Cheap Trick studio album you'll really want to hear. The rhythm section is Tom Petersson (bass), who cowrote some of the tunes, and Bun E. Carlos (drums). Produced by Tom Werman; Jai Winding plays some fairly prominent keyboard parts. I have their eponymous debut record and it's OK but not that great; their famous live record At Budokan (1979) is huge, gathering most of their best material but dispensing with the tacky studio production that marred most of their work. (JA)

Meg Christian, Face The Music (1977)
You know, it's easy to mock earnest 70s lesbian folksingers - until you actually sit down and listen to some of their records. The first artist to record for "women's music" label Olivia, Christian has a strong, confident, Laura Nyro-ish voice, command of a wide range of folk guitar styles - Appalachian picking ("Nipper," the best cat song this side of Shonen Knife) to jazzy pop ("The Rock Will Wear Away") - and a sense of humor ("Leaping Lesbians"). She wrote about half the material (the Carly Simon-sounding anthem "Where Do We Go From Here," which brilliantly blends an upbeat, singalong chorus with stark verses), with the rest coming from folks like labelmate Holly Near ("Mountain Song"). The arrangements are sparse, with occasional violin, no horns and little or no electric guitar. Occasionally she bites off more than she can chew ("Rosalind," a tuneless, talky examination of racism and homophobia), but on the whole the record's thoughtful and lively - a breath of fresh air in today's calculated, hyperironic music climate. The main backing unit is Diane Lindsay (bass) and Mary Watkins (piano); backing vocalists include Near, Teresa Trull and Sweet Honey In The Rock. (DBW)

Betty Davis (1973)
Not to be confused with Betty Wright (or Bette Davis), Betty Davis was a model and scenester who became a funk singer after a brief marriage to Miles Davis, during which she introduced him to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. Family Stone drummer Greg Errico produced this debut, and the band features most of Graham Central Station (including Larry) and much of the Tower Of Power horn section. As you'd expect, this crew lays down some heavy grooves ("If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up"), but there's no development or structure, just Davis yelling out whatever comes to mind, often fixating on one line ("Walking Up The Road"). Sometimes people say she was too experimental for black radio and too black for white radio, but the truth is she was too unskilled and unhinged for almost anyone's radio: her voice is untrained, but the real problem is that she doesn't have the imagination to keep her sexual predator persona interesting. (The concluding ballad "In The Meantime" is the clearest evidence of her limitations.) Despite her would-be outrageous presentation ("Oooh Yea"), she doesn't approach either the shock value or the vocal capabilities of, say, Millie Jackson. "Anti Love Song" is the closest thing to a coherent discourse here and also the only hint of vulnerability, suggesting that fear of intimacy is behind her focus on sex-only encounters. Davis recorded three more albums during the 70s, then retired and lives in relative obscurity today in Homestead, PA. (DBW)

The Dells, Give Your Baby A Standing Ovation (1973)
Chicago vocal quintet The Dells racked up their first hit back in 1955 with the doo-wop classic "Oh, What A Night," then hit a decade-long dry spell. By the time they resurfaced, they were on Chess Records working with producer Charles Stephney, who reincarnated them as a smooth soul outfit somewhere between the Impressions (who recorded a fair amount of uptempo material and stuck to simple chord progressions) and the Delfonics (who didn't). The Dells put eight singles in the Top Forty between 1968 and 1973, ending with the title track of this album. I can't tell whether these guys were running out of steam, or just not that great to begin with: Stephney follows the basic conventions - lush orchestrations (French horns abound), romantic themes ("The Glory Of Love"), a vague social conscience number ("Stand Up And Show The World") - but doesn't have a flair for melody: there's not a tune here that sticks in your head aside from the title track (produced by Don Davis), and even that's overblown. Johnny Carter's falsetto is as high as the Stylistics' Russell Thompkins, but more grating - rather like Frankie Valli - while baritone Marvin Junior also takes his share of leads. Pleasant enough if you're heavy into Chicago or Philly Soul, but not a classic of the genre by any means. (DBW)

Disco Spectacular Inspired By The Film "Hair" (1979)
It seems absurd, but unheralded NY producer Warren Schatz turns what should have been Grade D hack work into an intense, wide-ranging musical whirlwind, with a great deal of help from guest vocalists Evelyn "Champagne" King and unrestrained disco chanteuse Vicki Sue Robinson ("Turn The Beat Around"), who had appeared in Hair on Broadway. The minimal Chicesque arrangements and soulful vocals actually deliver the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical's message of utopian hedonism better than the original's Broadway-aping-psychedelia ("Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In"). Schatz gives the familiar material unforgettable new hooks (the keyboard/guitar vamp anchoring "Good Morning Starshine," which features either The Brothers or Revelation, two male vocal groups who are on this record somewhere), and rarely falls back on arranging clichés. The guitar solo in "Where Do I Go?" - which spotlights the New York Community Choir - is a hilarious parody of late 70s Santana, though I doubt it was intended that way. And King brings guts and heft to her feature, "Easy To Be Hard." Backing by the famed Warren Schatz Orchestra, all unknown to me except for bassist Francisco Centeno, who adds lively, unpredictable runs throughout. (DBW)

Carl Douglas, Kung Fu Fighting And Other Great Love Songs (1974)
I'm always skeptical of claims that an enormous hit derailed someone's career, but here's a case where that argument might be valid. The title song, a #1 novelty hit, came to define Douglas's career, but actually he was a decent exponent of Philly/Chicago Soul, with classy orchestral arrangements ("Dance The Kung Fu" - yes, really), and a strikingly Marvin Gaye-like voice ("Never Had This Dream Before," the fine ballad "I Want To Give You Everything"). Because of the timing, "Kung Fu Fighting" has been remembered as a disco tune, but really it's smooth R&B with pseudo-Asian affectations. "Blue Eyed Soul" is a pounding instrumental in the best Isaac Hayes tradition. Douglas wrote half the songs, with most of the rest by his producer Biddu. But by playing up the single's camp value in the album title and cover art, Douglas made it impossible for anyone to take him seriously. (Actually, a reader tells me Douglas pulled a gun on Biddu during a contract negotiation, which may be a better explanation for his rapid disappearance.) Arranged by Gerry Shurry and Pip Williams; musicians aren't listed. (DBW)

Lamont Dozier, Inside Seduction (1991)
I guess being a living legend isn't enough for some people. Dozier could've been content with his legacy as part of Motown's Holland-Dozier-Holland hit machine, but instead he had to tarnish his reputation with this brutally boring collection of prefab, mechanical pop/soul. From the opening "Feeling Each Other Out," each track is made up of noisy programmed drums, harsh synth lines (virtually no guitar or bass guitar at all), and Dozier's pleasantly gruff, but unexceptional vocals. He's only one of many 60s artists to make unlistenable noise trying to stay current, but that's no excuse for "Pure Heaven," a sappy ballad with incongruous hip hop drums. Well, forget the production - what about the tunes? More bad news, as neither the ballads ("Love In The Rain") nor the dance numbers ("The Vibe") have any memorable melodies. The only tune that sounds close to Dozier's hit 60s sound (except for the irritating production) is "The Quiet's Too Loud," co-written by (eegads!) Phil Collins, who also added drumming on the record. Otherwise, it's real hard to find high points: Eric Clapton adds a solo to "That Ain't Me," but it's generic rock/blues playing that could've been done by anybody; Bridgette Bryant does contribute a lovely, Diana Ross-like duet vocal on "When We're Together." Produced and almost all written by Dozier; I can't believe he's completely lost his talent, so I'm considering this an unsuccessful experiment. (DBW)

The Dramatics, The Dramatic Way (1980)
Like Deep Purple, The Dramatics made their name with some flashy but inconsistent early work ("Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get"; "In The Rain"), and by the time they started making solid records nearly everyone had stopped paying attention. Produced by Don Davis, and he finds an elusive midpoint of disco, soul and funk that's exciting and digestible without being trite or obvious - the dancefloor lovefest "Get It" is a great example. There are a lot of slow love songs ("You're The Best Thing In My Life"), balanced by uptempo work like "Turn On The Music" (with Rick James-style synthesized claps), as well as songs that switch from one to the other ("How Can I Be Sure") - and while the pleasures are subdued, there are a lot of them. Founder Ron Banks wrote some of the material (the lovely "You Promised To Be My Girl"), and splits leads with recent arrival Larry "L.J." Reynolds split the leads, though much of the singing is by the whole group. (DBW)

The Dramatics, 10 1/2 (1980)
This time Banks and Reynolds split production (Davis having been kicked upstairs to exec producer), fusing a wide range of styles - Stylistic smoothness on "Welcome Back Home"; joyous Eurodisco frenzy on "I Just Wanna Dance The Night Away" - to memorable tunes ("If You Feel Like You Wanna Dance, Dance," which does Brass Construction's stripped-down sound better than they do). The pool of writers includes Anthony - not Tony - Green ("Runnin' From My Love," Tempting light funk) and Cecil Womack (the O'Jays-ish, orchestrated "Music Is The People's Choice"); there's also a Gamble-Huff number ("Love Is Here"). Musicians include Womack and Green plus Nathan Watts, Roland Bautista, Greg Phillinganes and Wayne Henderson among others. The vocalists are the least noteworthy part of the mix, though they're perfectly adequate, if lacking in their namesake drama, except on the melodramatic marvel "It Ain't Rainin' (On Nobody's House But Mine)." Reynolds left soon afterwards and his eponymous 1981 solo album is top-notch; the Dramatics own follow-up, New Dimension, is drearsville. (DBW)

The Dynamic Superiors, Pure Pleasure (1975)
This Motown vocal quintet from Washington DC is best remembered today because lead singer Tony Washington was openly gay, but I'm more intrigued by their association with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. The duo wrote and produced the group's self-titled debut and this followup (apart from "A Better Way," by Bobby Gene Hall and Valerie's brother/future Village People lead singer Raymond Simpson) a mere two years after quitting Motown, and there's got to be a story behind that but I don't know what it is. Anyway, the sound is rawer than most of A&S's other productions, but still carefully put together in their trademark style. And the best tunes are terrific: "Pleasure" is a pleasantly mellow groove, and I'm frankly surprised that the gorgeous, defiant testimonial "Nobody's Gonna Change Me" didn't become a gay anthem. Other than a tepid cover of "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing," it's all new material. There are a bunch of forgettable numbers, though ("Face The Music"; "Feeling Mellow"), and although Washington has a clear, accurate falsetto, he occasionally pushes it too far ("Don't Give Up On Me Baby") while coming up short on emotional impact ("Hit And Run Lovers"). (DBW)

Brian Eno, Here Come The Warm Jets (1973)
With glam rock about to crest, Roxy Music mastermind Brian Eno bailed out on the group and embarked on a solo career. After cutting a duet album of inscrutable instrumentals with Robert Fripp, he rounded up a dozen musicians and recorded an elaborately produced LP that has to rank as one of glam rock's most creative efforts. Eno's tenor is thin and neurotic ("Driving Me Backwards"), and his arrangements tend to build up walls of sound from individual parts that are remarkably simplistic. But it's first-rate: he harmonizes with himself well enough to carry an elaborate, Beach Boys-style ballad ("Some Of Them Are Old," which trails off with a lulling slide guitar plus harmonica-like saxophone segment); there's some fine, straightforward rock (the VU-like "Needles In The Camel's Eye"); several memorable mid-tempo numbers sound exactly like David Bowie ("The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch"; the doo-woppish "Cindy Tells Me"; "Dead Finks Don't Talk," with a fascinating harmony arrangement); and he includes some tense, ominous experiments that are crammed with unpredictable electronic noisemaking ("Baby's On Fire"). And surprisingly, the only two instrumentals are respectable (the piano-based "On Some Faraway Beach"; the chugging title track, with a rudimentary, but unforgettable guitar riff). Several of the more tuneful numbers feature Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera; Fripp takes a blazing solo on the noisy, out-of-control "Blank Frank" and plays on two other tracks. Additional players include Chris Spedding and King Crimson bassist John Wetton. (JA)

Brian Eno, Before And After Science (1977)
By now Eno had become David Bowie's producer and muse, and it's no coincidence that this excellent if somewhat dull solo record sounds almost exactly like Bowie's contemporary work - it's also very, very similar to the sound that Eno brought to the Talking Heads shortly afterwards, right down to Eno's dispassionate, mechanical, David Byrne-ish vocals (the relatively manic "King's Lead Hat"). It's mostly a vocal record, but there are some pleasant if de-energized and not very substantial instrumentals, Bowie-style ("Energy Fools The Magician"; "Through Hollow Lands (For Harold Budd)"). At its best the record delivers slow-paced funk grooves laced with freaky percussion and synth noises ("Kurt's Rejoinder"), focusing on Eno's multiple keyboard overdubs (he even adds some laid-back guitar). But the resemblance to Low or Heroes is obvious even when he gears down for a couple of shimmering, luxurious, trance-like pop songs ("Julie With..."; "Spider And I"). So stylistically he's not very broad, although there's a lush, country-western influenced ballad ("Here He Comes"), and sometimes he's pretty close to the sound of Warm Jets ("Backwater," with its goofy, stiff rhythms and cheerful sing-along melody). And Eno's performances are crafted and intelligent, right down to his more mature vocals - he's suddenly an effective baritone ("By This River," another dreamy ballad). It's too bad that only a couple of tracks really stand out, most importantly the hypnotic "No One Receiving." Co-produced by Eno and Rhett Davies. As before, Eno assembled an impressive array of guest players: Fripp, Manzanera, and Fred Frith on guitar, Phil Collins, Dave Mattacks, and Andy Fraser (that Andy Fraser?) on drums, Percy Jones on bass, and several others. The nearest thing to a constant is bassist Paul Rudolph. Most of Eno's remaining catalogue is instrumental and I must warn that I don't find him compelling in that role. (JA)

Musa Eroğlu, Zamansız Yağmur (2012)
A virtuoso folk musician from Turkey's southern Mersin province, Eroğlu has been recording since the mid-'70s. I've listened to a number of records in this style - mostly voice and bağlama, hardly any percussion - but rarely review them because there isn't much for me to say: I don't find any faults but no points of interest either: turgid tempos, simple chord changes, stentorian singing. Eroğlu is different, because his playing isn't just fleet and accurate, it's unpredictable and exciting ("Candan İyerli"). Bassist (who I'm guessing is Cüneyt Sözmen until I'm informed otherwise) adds another layer by subtly upending the chords ("Güzel Dost"). Only a couple of tunes feature fiddle ("Nalın Dilber") or percussion, while "Bayin Oğlu Hangisidir" breaks the formula completely, with electric guitar and drums. I still don't get much out of the compositions or vocals, but this is a rare record worth hearing for musicianship alone. (DBW)

Exit 9, Straight Up (1975)
There are tons of 70s funk records that fell into obscurity, most of them deservedly so. But these guys, who put out only one LP before falling off the face of the Earth, are the exception that proves the rule: They pump out one high energy, hook-filled tune after another ("Fly"), in a similar style to Tower Of Power at a similar quality level ("Jive Man"). In fact, the best bands of the era would be hard pressed to top the interlocking rhythm guitar (David Lavender), bass (Moe Pelzer) and percussion (Enoch Jappa) on a cut like "Miss Funky Fox." Most of the numbers were written by lead guitarist Hollis Googe, including all the best ones ("M.F.B."). The "slow dance" songs are unbearably sappy ("Julie I Love You"; "Thoughts Of You"), vocalist Johnny Rios is nothing special, and apart from the slightly silly "Rhapsody In Funk" there's no attempt to stretch formulas or boundaries. But for what it is, this record is a wonder, and I'm truly surprised nothing else ever came from these folks. Produced by former Jackie Wilson associate Alonzo Tucker. (DBW)

Faze-O, Riding High (1977)
The debut album from this Chicago funk band was produced (as "Tight Corporation") and arranged by the Ohio Players, whose off-kilter blend of rubbery hooks, loose but cohesive propulsion, and carefree humor is wonderfully present and accounted for. The title track - the highest charting hit Faze-O would have - is a slow, minimalist mood piece along the lines of "Far East Mississippi," while "True Love" is a ballad in the tradition of "Heaven Must Be Like This." The two standout tracks, though, are hard funk: the simpleminded but stirring "Get Some Booty" and the explosive "Funky Reputation." The band is Keith "Chop Chop" Harrison (keyboards), Tyrone "Flye" Crum (bass), Ralph "Love" Aikens (guitar), Roger "Dodger" Parker (drums) and Robert "Bip" Neal, Jr. (percussion), with everyone chipping in on vocals; I assume the horns are provided by the Players. I assume the fine bass and Rhodes solos on the concluding "Test - This Is Faze-O" are by Crum and Harrison respectively, and I'll give Faze-O much of the credit for the other tunes as well, considering that the album is more solid than the two LPs the Ohio Players released in 1977. (DBW)

Faze-O, Good Thang (1978)
The OP influence isn't quite as strong on this follow-up, though "Satch" Satchell produced, and wrote the twelve-minute groove "Who Loves You." Not coincidentally, it's also much less inventive: "Space People" waters down elements from Funkadelic's "Cosmic Slop"; "Party Time" is a dull-by-numbers dance tune, and "Funky Lady" isn't much better though it's much more energetic. Even the title tune - a single - is mediocre, though it does contain a nifty fuzz guitar solo. Workmanlike and listenable, but there are no hidden gems here. (DBW)

Faze-O, Breakin' The Funk (1979)
Produced by Satchell and Harrison, and they've basically abandoned straight-up funk in favor of standard issue disco/R&B ("Ya-Ba-Da-Ba-Duzie"). (I might as well point out, though, that the Ohio Players themselves were moving in the same direction at the same time.) It's also heavy on ballads, which is fine except that "I Still Love You" and "See You Through The Night" (with female duet vocals) are treacly and trite, and that's no more welcome from a funk act than it would be from Anne Murray or Dan Fogelberg. If the previous record was a step down from inspiration to competence, this record is a big step down from there. (DBW)

Peter Gabriel (1978)
Gabriel's second of three consecutive eponymous solo albums (he'd scored a substantial U.K. hit with "Solsbury Hill" the year before). I really can't stand his sneering, repetitive, mid-80s art-rock anthems. But this time around he's lucky enough to have King Crimson mastermind Robert Fripp produce. It's mostly written by Gabriel, but "Exposure" was co-written by Fripp and reappeared as the title track of his solo record the next year. Indeed, Fripp relies on that record's same core backing band: Sid McGinnis (guitar), Tony Levin (bass), and Jerry Marotta (drums). They do come up with a memorable radio hit, the super-cool, Bowie-ish dance number "D.I.Y."; Gabriel's colorful lyrics are focused and even funny ("Home Sweet Home"); Fripp's palette of synth, piano, slide guitar, and Frippertronics creates a unique, understated atmosphere; and several other tunes have entertainment value: Levin and Fripp create a funky proto-80s Crimson vibe on the aimless, ominous "Exposure"; "On The Air" sounds like something off of "Who Are You"; and "A Wonderful Day In A One-Way World" nicely blends Genesis-like synth, reggae-y bass, country pedal steel, etc. But the sound is often tepid and spacey ("Mother Of Violence"; "Indigo"), a couple livelier numbers are anonymous 70s rock ("Animal Magic"; the thumping, 50s-flavored "Perspective"), and Fripp's creepy guitar solos are sadly infrequent (the stately ballad "White Shadow"). Distinctively produced and far less offensively boring than his earlier, otherwise-similar Genesis discs, it's still only sporadically ear-catching. Bowie/Springsteen backing pianist Roy Bittan is one of several keyboard players. (JA)

Generation X, Live At The Paris Theatre '78 & '81
A 17-track BBC disc that contrasts two complete shows recorded at opposite ends of the band's career. 1978 sees them as unreconstructed, Sex Pistols/Clash/the Jam-influenced punks, barely able to run through their contemporary, self-titled debut album (they add a primitive take on the Bo Diddley-influenced "King Rocker," the key tune from their Ian Hunter-produced 1979 followup Valley Of The Dolls). Idol snarls recklessly through his booming vocals, guitarist Bob Andrews bashes away with furious power chords, and the rhythm section practically stumbles over itself trying to keep up a breakneck pace (Tony James, bass - he cowrote almost everything with Idol; Mark Laff, drums). Their stomping, sloppy single "Your Generation," blazing singalong "One Hundred Punks Rule," and ragged, overdriven cover of Johnny Kidd's "Shakin' All Over" all emphasize their debt to the Who's Next-era the Who ("Invisible Man"). Oddly, though, the best track here is a practically wholesome power ballad ("Kiss Me Deadly"). By 1981 they've matured into a slick, refurbished hard rock act, with Idol and James joined by original Clash drummer Terry Chimes and freshly minted guitarist James Stevenson (who never appeared on the band's records). Stevenson's much more facile than Andrews, and by now Idol's on-key and over-the-top on every tune. So they end up dangerously close to Idol's vain, shallow, ragin' Elvis 80s solo sound ("Heaven's Inside"; "Untouchables" edges on pure pop), most notably on their aggravating, but unforgettable flop single "Dancing With Myself." They draw mostly on their third and last LP Kiss Me Deadly, winding up with their early single "Ready Steady Go," with its incongruous Merseybeat sound, and another take on "King Rocker"; there's also a solid, entertaining version of David Bowie's classic "Andy Warhol." It's all okay, and at least the sound is still recognizably punk ("Poison"). More than enough here for anyone with a casual interest in the band, and diehards will want it for the three otherwise unavailable tunes ("Shakin' All Over"; "Andy Warhol"; "Rock On," apparently an original). (JA)

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, The Message (1982)
Put together after a few successful singles - "Freedom," "Superappin'" - the debut by this Bronx combo is amazingly varied, with nearly every track in a different genre. Most successful are "She's Fresh," party funk driven by master bassist Doug Wimbish, and "Dreamin'," a catchy love song about the band's (possibly tongue-in-cheek) desire to meet Stevie Wonder(!) Most annoying are "Scorpio," tuneless electrofunk with Scorpio's voice processed to sound like Darth Vader with a head cold. "It's A Shame" and "It's Nasty" (based on "Genius Of Love") are lively early hip hop, with Flash showing off his turntable expertise while the Furious Five trade lines about everything from world peace to having fun. Most of the music was written and produced by Sugarhill Records mogul Sylvia Robinson, famed for her proto-Donna Summer gasps of pleasure on 1973's "Pillow Talk." Oh, I almost forgot: the title track established rap as more than a novelty, with devastating slice-of-ghetto-life rhymes from Melle Mel, and a simple but haunting keyboard/drums backing track. Historical concerns aside, the record's audacious and rewarding - well worth tracking down. (DBW)

The Abdul Hassan Orchestra, Arabian Affair (1978)
Judging from the album cover and the five-part, side-long title track, I thought this would be a tacky, borderline-racist medley of discofied Middle Eastern melodies. And in fact it is a fraud, perpetrated by Dutch composer/arranger Hans van Eijck. But it's extremely well done: a cleverly constructed, carefully orchestrated album that's basically classical music incorporating Arabic modes, a Moog synthesizer and a disco rhythm section. The nineteen-minute title suite - a piece of which became a hit single in Holland - is recorded live and performed in five movements, with applause at the end of each: the opposite of disco's usual convention to blend tracks. It's either incredibly good live sound, or incredibly good faked applause, and in any case the tunes are striking and the arrangements expert. The studio side is just as good, with more strong compositions ("Desert Dance") but more prominent bass and percussion. The bulk of the melodies are carried by the strings while the Moog (played by van Eijck, I believe) contributes a number of striking solos, and there are almost no horns (not counting flute on "Abdul's Dance") or guitar. If you're a fan of orchestral disco auteurs like Alec R. Costandinos, Cerrone and Boris Midney, check this out. (DBW)

Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Blank Generation (1977)
Hell was a seminal figure on the downtown NYC scene that produced Television and Blondie, but it's hard to see now what his contribution really was. He can't sing, but there's been a long tradition of that in rock and roll; he's not much of a bass player, but a lot better than the Brit punks who reveled in their incompetence; his lyrics often sound like the scribbling of a heartsick teenager on his first bender ("Love Comes In Spurts," "Betrayal Takes Two"). Maybe that's the appeal, I don't know. His naive shallowness, which comes across best on the endless rant "Another World" and the bonus track "All The Way" (a dead-serious reading of the Sinatra vehicle), set him apart from anyone else in the New Wave or punk scenes, that's for sure. The only musical interest here is in the twin guitar interplay by Robert Quine and Ivan Julian - it's occasionally amusing ("Who Says (It's Good To Be Alive)?"), though it was nothing that hadn't been done better years before by R&B acts from James Brown to Parliament, and concurrently by Television. This record has its devoted fans, but it sure isn't for everyone. (DBW)

Hodges, James & Smith, Power In Your Love (1975)
Motown veteran Mickey Stevenson produced the only release by this soul trio (Pat, Denita and Jessica, respectively), also writing much of it ("Monkeyshine," presumably a reference to a certain Miracles hit). And while some cuts come very close to the Sound of Young America of Stevenson's early 60s heyday (title track), there's more of an emphasis on smooth funk, most of which is quite effective (the opening "Nobody"), plus some curve balls: "Momma" is disco plus psychedelic guitar (courtesy the song's author Roland Bautista). There's no clear lead vocalist on most of the tunes - the lush "He Did Me Wrong But He Did It Right" is an exception - and although no one grabs the spotlight, the blend of voices is unfailingly pleasant ("Rusty Old Halo"). Mostly originals except for a winning, Hayes-y take on the standard "I Who Have Nothing"; fellow Motownie Ivy Joe Hunter wrote "West Virginia Symphony." I guess this didn't sell at all, because the next thing you know they were singing backup for Paul Williams. (DBW)

Holland-Dozier-Holland, The Picture Never Changes (rec. 1972, rel. 1992)
This is one weird story. Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland were among the most successful songwriters of the 1960s, writing countless hits for Motown acts like the Supremes and Four Tops. But they wanted to manage artists and run their own label, so after a messy divorce from Motown, they founded Invictus and Hot Wax records. They had some hits, though nothing like Motown's numbers, but while setting up the labels they took a vacation from songwriting. In the early 70s, when they returned to writing, they took advantage of their freedom to put out several singles under their own names (they had each sung on singles in their early days, though nothing had made much of an impact). None of these tracks were hits either, since the trio focused their promotion dollars on the artists they'd invested in, and the songs were never released on an album until the early 1990s. The CD still didn't sell, and the sides are in danger of slipping into obscurity again. But you, lucky reader, are about to be let in on the secret: this is a fantastic record. Their core melodic and lyrical talents are every bit as good as in the mid-60s, and the stripped-down production and unmannered vocal deliveries only make it that much easier to appreciate the compositions themselves. Nearly every track is a classic, with the exceptions being the overlong soul-rocker "Hijackin'" and the duet version of the ballad "Where Did We Go Wrong" (there's also a solo version included that comes across much better) - it's hard to pick out a couple of highlights when everything's so good. The production is fairly conventional early 70s soul, with minimal orchestration and plenty of greasy guitar licks and thumping piano. If HDH's Motown compositions are part of your life, you owe it to yourself to check out this collection - you can probably even find a cheap cutout copy. (DBW)

Phyllis Hyman (1977)
Philadelpia's Phyllis Hyman was more of a song stylist than a singer, relying on throaty intimation and gentle inflection rather than out-and-out power. Me, I'd rather listen to a singer, and as song stylists go, she's no Dionne Warwick, whose touch is always distinctive even when her material isn't. Anyway, this debut is centered around two donations from Thom Bell and Linda Creed: the cornball epic "Loving You/Losing You" and the subtle, touching "I Don't Want To Lose You." Larry Alexander and Sandy Torano produced the plurality (the insipid "The Night Bird Gets The Love"); Jerry Peters helmed three cuts (Alexander's "Beautiful Man Of Mine") and John Davis cranked out two (the formula disco "One Thing On My Mind"). Whoever's in charge, the result is lite soul that rarely makes an impact, whether it's fast ("Deliver The Love") or slow ("Was Yesterday Such A Long Time Ago?"). The musicians are second-tier session cats like Scott Edwards; jazz saxophonist Gary Bartz blows on Skip Scarborough's "No One Can Love You More." Hyman continued to release albums through the mid-90s, scoring the occasional minor hit, and kept busy with film appearances, guest vocals - such as on McCoy Tyner's Looking Out - and benefit concerts until her suicide in 1995. A detailed fan site is here. (DBW)

Freddie James, Everybody Get Up And Boogie (1979)
Disco producer Tony Green evidently liked to work with young talent: France Joli was seventeen when he produced her smash "Come To Me," and James was three years younger when the title track of this debut became a more modest hit. The song has a bass line recalling the similarly titled Silver Convention tune and an overused refrain, but the singer's youthful charm does come across. Overall, the brief album's nothing near as exciting as Joli's first, sticking close to mainstream conventions ("Hollywood") with no killer hooks, no slow sections, nothing new or different. But it is listenable ("Dance Little Boy Blue") and thus a cut above Green's other project, U.N. (DBW)

Freddie James, Sweetness (1981)
There's a bit of variety here: The opening "She's A Lady" is a shameless copy of Kool & The Gang's "Ladies' Night"; "It's Over" is a sappy ballad, with James emoting like a bargain-brand Michael Jackson. There's also lots of the same mediocre, metronomic disco of the debut ("Dance To The Beat"; "Everybody Here Do Your Thing"). At times, though, Green and company lock onto a pleasant light funk groove (title track; "Let Me Be Your Energy"). Not worth searching out, but a pleasant listen if you're as intrigued by Green as I am (or used to be, before I heard his non-Joli work). After this flopped (not even getting a US release), James parted ways with Green, and has alternated between new music projects, disco nostalgia, and standup comedy. (DBW)

The Brothers Johnson, Look Out For #1 (1976)
Bass virtuoso Louis Johnson headed into Quincy Jones' stable shortly after he and his guitar-playing brother George appeared on the scene in the mid-70s, and Jones produced several solo albums for the twosome, including this one, their debut. Though they're usually thought of as a funk band, the hit single "I'll Be Good To You" is pure pop, and they also come up with a lovely fusion instrumental, "Tomorrow." There is some heavy grooving, including "Get The Funk Out Ma Face" and "Thunder Thumbs And Lightnin' Licks," but it's not as much fun as a deceptively mellow tune like "The Devil" - too often, Jones' DeMille-like arrangements flunk the funk. The Johnsons are nothing special as singers or lyricists either, and their cover of the Beatles' "Come Together" is a waste of time, but this is still a very listenable 70s R&B/pop record. (DBW)

Judas Priest, British Steel (1980)
Not to be confused with Jethro Tull, Judas Priest made their name by stripping heavy metal of its pretentious bombast, careening through reckless, riff-roaring tunes like AC/DC on speed rather than constructing grandiose conceptual suites. Plus, they dressed up like the Leather Guy from the Village People. This album, their sixth, is often hailed as a high point, and indeed it's chock-full of iconic, high-voltage rock like "Metal Gods" and "Grinder," and even a successful reggae-metal blend ("The Rage"). Everything was written by vocalist Rob Halford and guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, and they keep things simple, which pays off on two of the band's best-known hits, "Breaking The Law" and "Living After Midnight" (one of the better takes on the "All Along The Watchtower" chord progression, up there with Blue Öyster Cult's "Burnin' For You" and Vicki Sue Robinson's "Turn The Beat Around"). I'm not a fan of Halford's vocals - his mid-range is ordinary ("Grinder") while his upper register has that operatic quality common to virtually all pre-Metallica metal - and the band's pop leanings show through on the would-be anthem "United." Still, it's pithier and more sure-fire than anything I've heard from contemporaneous British acts like Iron Maiden or Diamond Head. (DBW)

KC And The Sunshine Band (1975)
Look, I'm not happy about it either, but the fact is that Miami-based writer/producers Harry Casey and Richard Finch had a terrific formula: big booming percussion, horns blaring simple riffs, pop keyboards and guitar, and singalong chants, with nobody stealing the spotlight. It works on the #1 hits "Get Down Tonight" - with a sped-up staccato guitar sound that later turned up on "Erotic City" - and "That's The Way (I Like It)," with its unforgettable female backing chorus. It really works on the opening "Let It Go, Part 1" - with a killer rhythm guitar line and stop/start drums, it's my favorite cut on this LP, their second. I'm not crazy about "Boogie Shoes," a more laconic number built on blues changes, though that was also a big hit. Casey's voice is pleasant in an Everyman way; he also plays keyboards and Finch handles bass. Casey and Finch don't follow many of the disco conventions - no strings, strong syncopation in the drums, no breakdowns - It's actually much closer to the pop-funk sound of mid-60s Sly Stone - think of "Get Down Tonight" as the "Dance To The Music" of its time - and Motown: "I'm So Crazy ('Bout You)" features the telltale vibes-doubling-the-lead-vocals, and the ballad "Ain't Nothin' Wrong" wouldn't sound out of place on a Marvin & Tammi record. And there's not a weak track to be found; another medium-slow number, "I Get Lifted," has an interlocking guitar/organ groove to die for. The followup, Part 3, was also huge, with "Shake Your Booty," "Keep It Coming Love" and "I'm Your Boogie Man"; after that, they rapidly ran out of steam, scoring one more smash with the sappy "Please Don't Go" in 1979. See the unofficial home page for more details. (DBW)

KISS, Alive II (1977)
By the time this double-CD live set was recorded, KISS had gone from NYC bar band to heavily made-up, leather-clad rock superheros. Flashy, deliriously macho, totally unpretentious (their name means "Keep it simple, stupid"), they were a sorely needed antidote to a decade's worth of Serious Artists and Deep Meaning. What's often forgotten is that they also wrote a pile of catchy heavy rockers: "Love Gun," "God Of Thunder," "Detroit Rock City," "Makin' Love." Almost all of them are on this album (their hit single "I Wanna Rock and Roll All Night" is on Alive I), and the high-energy performance makes this a better bet than any of the studio records of the period. Not many self-indulgent jams or extended solos here, the focus is on tight, snappy arrangements. Ace Frehley shows occasional flashes of competence on lead guitar ("Christine Sixteen"), Peter Criss is solid if unexceptional on drums, and bassist Gene Simmons is surprisingly facile and even musical. Paul Stanley delivers most of the lead vocals, and he takes some pains to show off his respectable range; Simmons brings no technique but substantial amusement value to his vocal features ("Calling Dr. Love"). Ace muddles through his one shot at the mike ("Shock Me"), and Criss contributes the hilarious ballad "Beth." (You'll want to break out your lighter for that one.) There are five studio tracks thrown on, and they're not too interesting (particularly the cover of "Any Way You Want It"), but if you're in the right frame of mind you'll get a lot out of this. Co-produced by Eddie Kramer. If you like the record, the band's current live show is still about the same, as you'll see in our concert review. (DBW)

Lakeside, Your Wish Is My Command (1981)
The previous year, this pop/funk group of Midwest-to-LA transplants had scaled the charts with "Fantastic Voyage." This followup is one of the best-sounding records I've ever heard: warm yet biting rhythm guitar, burbling but not overbearing synth, heavy bass, solid drums and percussion, lead and backing vocals all balanced perfectly in a subtly funky mix that's as soothing as it is danceable. Alas, the compositions themselves aren't so great, but the grooves are so tight you're liable to get swept away anyway: though the title track is a high-energy delight, and "Special" seems like a well-designed attempt to appeal to Kool & The Gang's pop audience. They also switch between fast and slow numbers adeptly so the record never drags. The single, a ballad version of "I Want To Hold Your Hand," is actually one of the weakest cuts. Produced by the band. I don't know why these guys were never more popular - they're not innovative or particularly distinctive, to be sure, but neither were Midnight Star, who were considerably more famous at the time. If you're looking for unjustly forgotten funk acts, Lakeside should be on your list. (DBW)

The Langley Schools Music Project, Innocence & Despair (rec. 1976-77, rel. 2001)
In the mid-70s, Canadian elementary school music teacher Hans Fenger decided to stick it to The Man by teaching his young charges to sing and perform pop hits of the day ("Space Oddity") rather than "You Are My Sunshine" or "O Canada." Then somehow he got their parents to put up money to record and press albums of the results. Two LPs cut over two years involving students from four schools are collected here - tracks from the original LPs are spread around to disguise the fact that half of the 1977 curriculum was by the Beach Boys - and most of it is worthless: breathless, out-of-tune group unison vocals; percussionists way too close to the microphone; trite material (The Turtles' "I'm Into Something Good"). But two tracks with solo vocalists are magical: both Joy Jackson (The Beatles' "The Long And Winding Road") and Sheila Behman ("Desperado"), accompanied only by a piano of questionable intonation, have a disarming artlessness that conveys melancholy more honestly than a trained adult singer ever could. (For extra credit, compare and contrast this with the bizarre modern phenomenon where the Kidz Bop munchkins put smiley faces on wrist-slitting fare like "Bring Me To Life.") (DBW)

The Last Poets (1970)
The missing link between Beat poets and Public Enemy, the three Last Poets - Abiodun Oyewole, Alafia Pudim, and Omar Ben Hassan - take turns reciting tales of inner city life, often with a radical political message ("When The Revolution Comes") and not-even-thinking-about-airplay vocabulary ("Wake Up, Niggers"), while the other two chant each track's title and Nilaja keeps time on a variety of percussion. Each poet gets four or five tracks to make their points, and each has a specialty: Oyewole has the most devastating one-liners, Bin Hassan puts together the best extended puns ("Niggers Are Scared Of Revolution"), and Pudim has the most oratorial style and the best use of rhyme. Occasionally the change in perspective sets up a dialogue, as where Ben Hassan's paean to black women ("Black Thighs") is followed by Oyewole's blunt accusation that black women are preventing The Revolution ("Gashman"). But stylistically and thematically they're much more similar than different, frequently touching on drug addiction (Oyerwole's "Jones Comin' Down") and Black Power (Ben Hassan's "Just Because"), each mixing cold-eyed observation (Oyerwole's "Two Little Boys") with optimism (Pudim's "Surprises"). Though I hate most declaimed poetry - I've been known to flee the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe in horror - the images are acidly etched and the wild mix of emotions ("New York, New York") is bracing. Hyped as a direct ancestor of rap, which it isn't (there's much less emphasis on rhyme and meter, and no concern with entertaining an audience), but it is a unique, honest, often searing listen. Produced by East Wind Associates; Alan Douglas is listed as a creative consultant. Though Oyewole soon went up the river on a robbery charge, a shifting lineup of Poets kept releasing albums through the decade, and were later reunited on 1994's Holy Terror, which I think I have lying around somewhere. (DBW)

Lightnin' Rod, Hustlers Convention (1971)
After the remarkable debut of the Last Poets, producer Alan Douglas put the rhythmic rhymes of Pudim (renamed Lightnin' Rod) to music. But Douglas didn't take the trouble to sync them properly, so the funk and R&B backing tracks don't match up with Rod's raps, and every cut is unpleasantly duorhythmic. In marked contrast to the Poets' pointed, image-rich social commentary, Pudim's rhymes here tell one long rambling story about his misadventures among hustlers, drug dealers and prostitutes with his "ace boon coon Spoon" - like a remarkably dull blaxploitation movie. So the record is dull and poorly executed; it's notable for three backing tracks contributed by Kool and the Gang, but they're unexceptional ("Four Bitches Is What I Got"). Most of the other music was improvised by Douglas fellow travelers including Buzzy Feiten (guitar) and Rocky Dijon (congas) ("Brother Hominy Grit," the disc's only interesting groove). Mixed and edited by Tony Bongiovi. Douglas created a further footnote to music history when he repurposed a Jimi Hendrix jam session for a later Lightnin' Rod single, "Doriella Du Fontaine." Soon after, Pudim changed his name to Jalal Mansur Nuriddin and rejoined the Last Poets. (DBW)

Love De-Luxe with Hawkshaw's Discophonia, Again And Again (1979)
One of the remarkable aspects of discomania was the way it lured so many otherwise completely dissimilar musicians to take a crack at such a highly structured and limited medium. While this often led to disastrous or risible results (Ethel Merman comes to mind) there are also happier outcomes, like this one. Alan Hawkshaw was a very successful composer of stock music for TV and film (you've heard more of his work than you realize) who only occasionally dabbled in the record business, but - after the apparent encouragement of Alec R. Costandinos - he made one spectacular venture into disco (Love De-Luxe is one of the era's many bands-in-name-only). The side-long "Here Comes That Sound Again" has a distilled melody that seems underdone at first but slowly sinks in, and makes welcome reappearances as the arrangement mutates through various breakdowns - as a result it's one of the rare disco songs in which the chorus sounds better each time you hear it. Astonishingly, everything else is near the same level: "Then We're Dancin'" has the Romantic flourishes Bohannon often essayed, grafted seamlessly onto luscious pop melody. "Let Me Make It Up To You" is a smooth AM pleader that could have been a hit for anyone from Toni Tenille to the Doobie Brothers. "I Got That Feelin'" has the slow verse/danceable chorus that had become cliché three years after "Love Hangover," but both sections have such strong hooks it can't be dismissed. And while so much disco deemphasized vocals, Joanne Stone and Vicky Brown are fully exploited, and they - separately and when blended - press all the right butons whether they're sweet, salty or both. (DBW)

Cheryl Lynn (1978)
The huge disco hit "Got To Be Real" is Cheryl Lynn's finest hour, with its loping good-time groove and unforgettable opening and closing riff, but there's much more to like on this enjoyable debut album. The production by David Paich and father Marty is just as derivative as you'd expect from stuck-in-the-studio session cats, but it's all so well done it's hard to resist (the blues-based, horn-backed "Nothing You Say"). Lynn, who started as a gospel singer in her native L.A., has a smooth, comfortable voice - even when she's belting or leaping into Minnie Riperton territory, it's somehow soothing. "All My Lovin'" carefully imitates the Chic sound, and also lifts the main riff from the Rufus hit "You Got The Love," but her soaring vocals sell it anyway. "Star Love," on the other hand, is eminently resistable: a weak imitation of Donna Summer's ballad-shifting-to-disco formula - on the heels of "Real," the single still managed to crack Top Twenty R&B. Lynn wrote or co-wrote most of the songs; there's also a calypso-influenced take on "Come In From The Rain," and the closing "Daybreak (Storybook Children)" is by Pomeranz and Proffer. Don't look to this for innovation, but it's very solid late 70s pop. My cut-rate CD doesn't include any musician credits - the bass player is exceptional, busy yet tasteful. (DBW)

Cheryl Lynn, In Love (1979)
Produced by Barry Blue and arranged by Blue and Lynn, this followup is more focused than Lynn's debut, largely sticking to the elegant pop/R&B vein of Arif Mardin and Ashford & Simpson: spirited funky rhythm sections lightened by slow-moving strings. It's a sturdy formula, but they ride it too hard, skimping on breadth and only occasionally hitting on striking melodies ("I've Got Just What You Need" is one) - the result is diverting but easily forgotten. There's also too much bass slapping for my taste ("I've Got Faith In You"), and the title ballad wears out its welcome with a painfully protracted denouement. All that said, it's well crafted, and Lynn's exuberant vocals, without any self-aggrandizing diva attitude, are a treat ("Keep It Hot") - she holds such high notes so long she sounds like she haunts houses in her spare time, not unlike Lázaro Morúa. Lynn wrote only two songs, including "Chances"; curiously, "Hide It Away" was written by all four members of Wonderlove, then Stevie Wonder's backup band. There's a huge cast of session musicians: Chuck Rainey, Bernard Purdie, Cornell Dupree, Paul Jackson Jr., Greg Phillinganes, David Foster, Michael Brecker, Bobbye Hall, and so on. Lynn scored a smattering of minor hits through the 80s, including "Shake It Up Tonight," a remake of "If This World Were Mine" (a duet with Luther Vandross), and "Encore." (DBW)

MFSB, Summertime (1976)
An album-length tribute to the warmest season, performed by the Philadelphia International house band and produced by Gamble/Huff, but if you buy this expecting the uplifting lyrics and rich orchestrations of their O'Jays work, you're gonna be pissed. The personnel is virtually identical to the Salsoul Orchestra, and not surprisingly it sounds similar: unvarying disco rhythm section, soprano chorus vocals, lots of strings, long stretches with no foreground instrument. Salsoul leader Vince Montana Jr. even contributes some vibes solos ("Picnic In The Park"). Gamble and Huff aren't immune to Montana's lapses of taste, either - Gershwin's "Summertime" kicks into a tacky dance mix after a mellow, jazzy opening - but because they have a narrower range of influences, there are few surprises. Put that together with forgettable melodies, and there's not much to listen for. The writing, such as it is, is split between Gamble and Huff ("Hot Summer Nights") and proteges McFadden, Whitehead and Carstarphen ("Summertime And I'm Feelin' Mellow"); arranged by Martin, Jack Faith and Tony Bell. (DBW)

The Main Ingredient, Afrodisiac (1973)
This pop/soul trio was based in Manhattan, but their lush, string-backed sound derives from Philly Soul - very little guitar, horns used for sweetening, never even remotely funky. Tony Silveste, Luther Simmons Jr. and lead singer Cuba Gooding Sr. weren't songwriters, and didn't even try to be: the album's ten tracks include three Stevie Wonder covers ("Superwoman," "Where Were You When I Needed You," "Girl Blue") and three otherwise unrecorded Wonder originals ("I Am Yours," "Something 'Bout Love," "Something Lovely," all written with Syreeta Wright). There's also a cover of the Isley Brothers's "Work To Do." But since the instrumentation and singing are so resolutely faceless, the new versions do nothing to shed light on the compositions - it's like soul Muzak ("Where Were You When I Needed You"). ("Girl Blue" does have an oddly angular brass-led instrumental coda.) While listening to the Wonder donations, I was trying to imagine what Stevie's original demos sounded like, and that can't be a good sign. Produced by the group; arranged by Motown vet Bert DeCoteaux. This release came a year after their breakthrough hit, "Everybody Plays The Fool" - they charted two more singles, "Just Don't Want To Be Lonely" and "Happiness Is Just Around The Bend" a year later, split up in the late 70s and have occasionally reunited since. (DBW)

Bob Marley & The Wailers, Rastaman Vibration (1976)
The great international exponent of reggae and arguably one of the most important pop musicians ever, Bob Marley burst onto the international scene with 1973's breakthrough LP Catch A Fire. Band co-leaders Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh quit after the quickly released followup Burnin', but Marley's production values and songwriting just got more consistent and accessible on records like Natty Dread (1975: it included his breakthrough UK hit "No Woman No Cry"). His next effort is another blast of joyful, danceable, and message-laden fun - just the first two tracks are the instantly recognizeable "Positive Vibration" and "Roots, Rock, Reggae." Like usual, his vocals and lyrics here are outstanding: just listen to his crazy scat-singing on "Crazy Baldhead," a universal protest number like many of the other tracks. Backing singers the I-Threes and the rest of the band are also in great form, and there are plenty of other high points such as the African unity number "War" and the hypnotic "Rat Race." It's a little hard for me to imagine anyone not liking Bob Marley, and if you do like him, you'll certainly want this disc. At this point Marley often was crediting songs to friends and band members for legal reasons, so it's not really clear how much of the record he wrote; I've gotten a series of conflicting e-mails on this topic. The core of his classic band is here - Aston "Familyman" Barrett (bass), Tyrone Downie (keyboards), Carlton Barrett (drums), Alvin "Seeco" Patterson (percussion), the I Threes (Rita Marley, Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt: backing vocals) - and there's a rotating set of guitarists: Earl "Chinna" Smith, Al Anderson, and Donald Kinsey. (JA)

Bob Marley & The Wailers, Exodus (1977)
Another excellent effort, with tracks that range from outstanding (mostly) to pretty damn good (occasionally) to just okay (rarely). On the outstanding side there's the joyous, marvelously melodic "Jamming"; the gorgeous love song "Waiting In Vain"; the classic reggae tune "Three Little Birds," with its soothing refrain "don't worry 'bout a thing/'cause every little thing gonna be alright"; the swaying feel-good hybrid anthem "One Love/
People Get Ready"; and the seven-minute space-jam title track, with its rousing refrain, mesmerizing groove, and creative variations. On the pretty good side, Marley delivers burbling beats and engaging refrains ("So Much Things To Say"); intense, propulsive rhythms ("The Heathen," with some quirky synth); and mellow Caribbean vibes (the pleasant "Turn Your Lights Down Low," which borders on soft rock). And on the just okay side Marley's either diffuse ("Natural Mystic") or just not very original ("Guiltiness"). Apart from some synth lines and other production touches there's hardly any progression or variation in Marley's formula here, but the staggering songwriting more than makes up for that. Not surprisingly, the record rocked the UK charts with three hit singles ("Exodus"; "Waiting In Vain"; "Jamming/Punky Reggae Party"). Self-produced and entirely written by Marley, apart from Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready." At this point the band lineup had stabilized, with the Barretts, Downie, Patterson, and the I Threes being joined by Julian (Junior) Marvin (lead guitar) and an uncredited horn section. (JA)

Bob Marley & The Wailers, Kaya (1978)
Here Marley decided to downshift to a slightly more mellow pace - but without really modifying his approach. There's a trumpets-plus-sax horn section on most tunes - they're quite sharp at times ("Misty Morning") - and suddenly he's playing games like dribbling on Latin percussion and electric piano ("Satisfy My Soul," where the I-Threes really shine) or even burbling synth (the feel-good title track). The songwriting isn't really consistent this time, with frequently abstract or skeletal lyrics ("Misty Morning") and sketchy tunes (the shuffling, aimless "Running Away" and formulaic mid-tempo love song "She's Gone"). But his uplifting sense of melody and the subtle, soothing production touches are still always engaging ("Time Will Tell," with synth and chorusey guitars). And he still manages a clutch of tunes that are effortlessly danceable (title track; "Easy Skanking"), several of which are classics: the oddly menacing, reverb-drenched "Sun Is Shining"; the hook-laden one-size-fits-all anthem "Crisis"; and most importantly, the ecstatic, unforgettable "Is This Love," a major UK hit ("Satisfy My Soul" also sold strongly, although it's a bit rote). Marley produces and takes all the songwriting credits this time. His usual band is still intact here, but this time the horn section is listed: Vin Gordon, sax; Glen Da Costa and David Madden, trumpet. Marley released two more LPs before dying of cancer in 1980. (JA)

Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, Wake Up Everybody (1975)
One of the more successful Philly Soul acts, Melvin and the Blue Notes had been singing in the Philadelphia area for more than a decade before they hooked up with songwriters/producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. Gamble and Huff fed the Blue Notes a steady diet of elegantly orchestrated love songs - without the Temptations psychedelic influences present in their O'Jays work. With most leads handled by Teddy Pendergrass, they ran up a bunch of successful singles including the much-covered "If You Don't Know Me By Now." Nothing on this disc rises to that level, partly because the arrangements have shifted into unimaginative disco territory, with the usual conga-fortified unchanging rhythm, string swirls, and that unrelenting high hat. The title track, a platitudinous "save the world number," was an R&B #1, but it's not particularly memorable, and drags on for seven and a half minutes with no instrumental variety. The other single was "Tell The World How I Feel About You Baby," but the key track is really the disco tune "Don't Leave Me This Way," which became an influential hit when covered by Thelma Houston. This was Pendergrass's last outing with the group, and Sharon Paige's first - she sings lead on "I'm Searching For A Love" and duets with Pendergrass on the slow disco "You Know How To Make Me Feel So Good." Four songs were written by the team of McFadden, Whitehead and Carstarphen, including the title track; as usual, instruments were played by Gamble and Huff's MFSB cabal. I suspect the early Blue Notes records were better, and I'll keep looking for them. (DBW)

Eddie Minnis, Der Real Ting (1976)
Harry Belafonte notwithstanding, calypso has never gotten anything like the international respect of its cousin, reggae, perhaps because it doesn't take itself as seriously. But in the hands of Bahamian singer/songwriter/political cartoonist Eddie Minnis, calypso's gentle rhythms and three-chord tunes underpin a series of affectionate, satirical celebrations of island life. The hit "People To People" is a sly, irresistible ode to the necessary evils of tourism; "Finance Man" is a sorrowful examination of someone living beyond his means to impress visiting US women; "Tarzan And Robin Hood" take aim at the overmarketing of deodorant. "Goin' Ter Pick Up Der Mail" and "Der Bull Frog Song" don't have that edge, but as evocations of daily Bahamian life they're equally memorable, while "Straighten Up And Fly Right" is a cross-cultural pleasure: as he says, "For everyone who's ever been in love, but hate to remember." The backing tracks are performed by Ronnie Butler, himself a well known Bahamas recording artist, and Der Ramblers. My mom brought this album back from a late 70s vacation, and it's difficult to find now, but many of the songs are available on compilations sold at Minnis's personal site. (DBW)

Eddie Minnis, Tropical Waves (2000)
Minnis put out a string of albums through the 80s and 90s - Island Life, Discovery, Hey Mon - with hits including "Mind Your Own Business." His approach hasn't changed much since his 1976 debut, with more songs about local themes ranging from descriptive ("Church Out - Crab Crawlin'") to mournful ("Money Can't Done"). Some are easier for outsiders to relate to than others: "Pussy Cat" is the complaint of everyone who lives reluctantly with a cat, while "No More Conch," a bad dream about the disappearance of the staple Bahamian dish, doesn't make much sense to me. "Poor Tourist" laments the high prices in tourist traps around the world, sort of the flip side of "Finance Man." The liner notes say the music is rake an' scrape, a low-tech form of music played on a handsaw, but it still sounds like calypso: syncopated bass, I-IV-V chord progressions, light touches of steel drum, synth and various percussion. Produced by Fred Ferguson, who also played most of the instruments; Ronnie Butler pops up on "Ting An' Ting Y2K," a sober but upbeat assessment of changes in Nassau, while Sweet Emily sings lead on the mediocre love song "Read My Mind." (DBW)

Joni Mitchell/James Taylor/Phil Ochs, Amchitka (rec. 1970, rel. 2009)
A benefit show for what eventually became Greenpeace, in Vancouver on October 16, 1970, is documented on this 2-CD set. Each performer appears solo, with Taylor joining Mitchell for a couple of songs at the end of her set (including a cover of "Mr. Tambourine Man"). The setlists for Ochs ("Changes," "I Ain't Marching Anymore") and Taylor ("Fire And Rain", "Sweet Baby James") are what you'd expect, while Mitchell threw a couple of curves: Larry Williams's "Bony Maronie" appears in the middle of "Big Yellow Taxi"; there are two songs from the then-unreleased Blue ("My Old Man"); and "Hunter (The Good Samaritan)" never did make it to an LP. Each performance is crisp, but Taylor's is the most focused and rewarding: "Carolina In My Mind" is spellbinding, while minor tunes like "Blossom" are charming. Perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise, considering that he was then at his peak, while Ochs was rapidly descending into alcoholism and Mitchell was still developing as a performer. In any case, a valuable and rare live peek at the State of the Singer/Songwriter in late 1970; available from Greenpeace's site. (DBW)

Musique, Keep On Jumpin' (1978)
Disco was unfairly stigmatized for motivating albums that contained one good song and a bunch of trash, but this album lives down to the stereotype: it's a hell of a 12" single, but not much of an LP. The club hit "In The Bush" is an eight-minute adrenaline rush of bass/horn riffs, breathy vocal chants and insidious rhythm guitar, and "Summer Love" is a complex mood piece, contrasting uplifting strings with earthy clavinet under a soothing melody. But that's it: a flat reuse of "Bush"'s zippy polyrhythms (title track) and an instrumental mix of "Summer Love" fill out the stingy 31-minute running time. It's still worth picking up cheap: the single's better than you remember, and "Summer Love" is hard to find elsewhere. The vocalists are Jocelyn Brown, Christine Wiltshire, Angela Howell and Gina Tharps - Brown later became the darling of NYC cutups Masters At Work. Like many disco acts, there's no real band, just studio musicians assembled by producer Patrick Adams, who also produced Carol Douglas and others, later engineering seminal rap records like Salt-N-Pepa's Hot, Cool & Vicious. (DBW)

Musique, Musique II (1979)
An entirely new group of singers - Mary Seymour, Denise Edwards and Gina Taylor, though Wiltshire did the vocal arrangements - and this time they're actually pictured on the album cover. Produced by Adams, but he didn't have any new ideas: "Love Massage" recycles the percussion breaks and over-the-top moans of "In The Bush," while the minimal "Glide" is too smooth for its own good: The spacious, subtle, string-laden Chic approach is harder to pull off than it sounds. "Good And Plenty Lover" is the best of the bunch, but it doesn't measure up to any of the four tracks on the debut. (DBW)

New York Dolls (1973)
The quintessential proto-punk rock record by the infamous cross-dressing Lower Manhattan band, stuffed with songwriting gems, lifted by ferocious energy, and serving as an audible link between 60s garage rockers like the MC5 and the Velvet Underground, contemporary glam rock a la Mott the Hoople, and first-generation punk bands like the Sex Pistols (who were called into being by Malcolm McLaren, who'd managed the Dolls during their 1975 collapse). Fans of late 70s punk will find it bizarre: the Chuck Berry-based rhythm guitars ("Looking For A Kiss") and Buddy Holly-like falsetto backing vocals ("Trash") point to an unabashed 50s rock 'n' roll influence; the grinding tempos are often sluggish (the incongruous rock ballad "Subway Train"); David Johansen's vocals are gravelly, breathy, menacing, and entirely idiosyncratic; his sci-fi and urban lowlife lyrical imagery come straight out of Lou Reed ("Frankenstein"); the band's palpable sense of humor is surprising ("Looking For A Kiss"; the blazing cover of Bo Diddley's "Pills," complete with Johansen's honking harmonica); and guitarists Johnny Thunders and Syl Sylvain spew out frenetic, noisily distorted pentatonic solos that are quintessentially 70s. It adds up to an arrestingly innovative sound - the Stooges' ear-busting Raw Power is much louder and less self-conscious, and although the Dolls are close to blues-based heavy metal ("Bad Girl"), they're much less predictable. Johansen's songwriting (often co-credited to Thunders, and twice to Sylvain) doesn't always hit the mark ("Vietnamese Baby"). But the record has so many wacked-out classics like "Looking For A Kiss," "Frankenstein," "Trash," the head-banging "Jet Boy," and the raving "Personality Crisis" that it can't be denied. Producer Todd Rundgren adds some keyboard parts ("Private World"), brings in Buddy Bowser for a sax solo on Johansen's dippy, off-kilter acoustic ballad "Lonely Planet Boy," and creates a professional sheen ("Jet Boy," which is practically AOR). After this, the band cut just one follow-up (Too Much Too Soon) before Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan quit and formed the Heartbreakers with Richard Hell, while Johansen (backed by Sylvain) began a solo career. (JA)

Nightlife Unlimited (1979)
This got lost in a glut of anonymous later 70s disco product, but it's a blast. Producers Peter Dimilo and George Cucuzella serve up two sides of lively dancefloor fillers that aren't complicated or innovative but merely fun. The timbal-heavy "Disco Choo Choo" was the single, but "Dance, Freak And Boogie" is just as strong: the excitement builds as the arrangements shift, but it never becomes too hard to follow even if you're drunk, and what more can you ask from dance music? Side Two - traditionally the "romantic" side - is less striking but no disappointment, as Motown-recalling backing vocals lead into a vibes break on the midtempo, Salsoul-like "Love Is In You." You wouldn't guess it from the Gribbitt! album art, but there's a real band here: Tony Bentivegna (drums), Johnny Dorazio (guitar and bass), Luis Tateda (keys) and Peter Scioscia (vocals) wrote all the songs in addition to playing most of the tracks, with lots of vocal help from the Sweethearts of Sigma: Barbara Ingram, Carla Benson and Evette Benton. (DBW)

Vicki Sue Robinson, Never Gonna Let You Go (1976)
Philadelphia-raised Vicki Sue Robinson combined the raw emotion of a blues belter with the reckless improvisation of a bebop singer, making the most of her somewhat limited range. As a teenager she appeared on Broadway in Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar and sang backup for Todd Rundgren , and by her early twenties she was singing disco, cutting this debut under the auspices of Warren Schatz. The first single, "Turn The Beat Around," was a huge hit, and contains everything that was great about their partnership: congas in your face, asceding bass riff, over-the-edge vocals and a simple, engaging melody. But Schatz sticks too close to the formula on "Common Thief" and - albeit a trifle slower - on the title track. Side Two is mostly ballads following Gaynor's First Law of LP Organization, but it's better than some similar efforts because Schatz doesn't drag the tempos ("Lack Of Respect") and because Robinson finds some unusual interpretations ("Wonderland Of Love"). (DBW)

Maggie & Terre Roche, Seductive Reasoning (1975)
Released four years before Maggie and Terre Roche hooked up with their younger sister Suzzy and cut their neo-folk masterpiece The Roches, this obscure flop record is odder but far less innovative than their later work. Inexplicably, they're produced by Muscle Shoals vets David Hood (bass) and Jimmy Johnson (guitar), who drag in cronies like Pete Carr (guitar), Barry Beckett (keyboards), and Roger Hawkins (drums). So much of the material veers toward country-western, which only makes a joke of Maggie's songwriting - whether intentionally (the grating hillbilly parody "Wigglin' Man") or not ("The Mountain People"). Only the arch "Underneath The Moon" is any fun, with the band almost rocking out as the sisters spoof country clichés. Elsewhere they go with upbeat, glossy, slightly countrified pop, indistinct and unsuited to their talents ("Down The Dream"; "Telephone Bill"; "Burden Of Proof"). Bad enough, but Paul Samwell-Smith makes things downright chaotic by producing a pair of sorry, sluggish, string-slickened piano ballads (the bombastic "West Virginia"; "Jill Of All Trades"), and dumbing down the sweet acoustic folk tune "Malachy's" with a sappy mandolin. And things get even worse when fellow New Yorker Paul Simon shows up to produce an embarassing cowboy sendup, complete with reverby guitar, Simon's own plodding 2/4 bass, and Jordanaires-like backing vocals by the Oak Ridge Boys ("If You Empty Out All Your Pockets You Could Not Make Change"). A waste, because the key elements are all here: sharp, sophisticated, and sadly underused harmonies; Maggie's extraordinary range - as low on the low end as a baritone; and eggheaded lyrics that range from cutting to goofy. (JA)

The Roches, Keep On Doing (1982)
In a bizarre turn of events, the group's third album was produced by electric guitar genius Robert Fripp. Surprisingly, the record is short on personality and not all that interesting instrumentally. Their usual snotty humor and acrobatic vocal arrangements are almost absent, although they really pull that off on Terre's catchy "The Largest Elizabeth In The World" and Suzzy and Terre's "Want Not Want Not," with its irresistable choo-choo train rhythm. There's also the sarcastic "I Fell In Love," with some cool melodic tricks. But most of the time you get stuff like a sparkling a capella rendition of Handel's "The Hallelujah Chorus" that seems designed only to show off the group's technical ability. Incredibly, they waste time with two donated songs (George Gerdes' slightly goofy character sketch "Steady With The Maestro"; David Massengill's dull, deadly serious folk song "On The Road To Fairfax County"). They're even flat-out dreary on Maggie's "The Scorpion Lament." Frustratingly, three-quarters of King Crimson (Fripp, Tony Levin, and Bill Bruford) are somewhere in the studio, but you can barely hear them outside of Fripp's spacey sci-fi lead on "Keep On Doing What You Do/Jerks On The Loose" and his wiggy solo on the wistful, well-executed acoustic love song "Losing True" (unless that's him soloing amateurishly on Terre's not-quite-instrumental "Sex Is For Children"). Otherwise it's mostly vocals-plus-acoustic guitars with some keyboards. Competent, but nothing more. (JA)

The S.O.S. Band, S.O.S. (1979)
A pop/funk act in the same general mold as the Gap Band: combined live and synth bass, live and programmed drums, funky horns and synth solos, riffs that are visceral without being obvious ("S.O.S."). All this and a powerful lead vocalist, Mary Davis. The big payoff is the unforgettable hit single "Take Your Time (Do It Right)," a masterpiece of layering simple but exquisite instrumental parts. The arrangements aren't predictable: the midtempo love song "Open Letter" sports loud lead guitar and zig-zagging strings; the funky "Take Love Where You Find It" features a flute solo. But the songwriting's not always up to the task: the dance track "Love Won't Wait For Love" is overly peppy, and the slow duet "What's Wrong With Our Love Affair?" is a bore. Bandmembers include Jason Bryant (keyboards), Billy Ellis (sax), James Earl Jones III (drums), Sonny Killebrew (winds), Bruno Speight (guitar) and John Alexander Simpson (bass); other musicians include the Horny Horns. After this, the group languished for a few years before Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis put them back on the charts with the wonderful electrofunk ballad "Just Be Good To Me." (DBW)

Saturday Night Fever (1977)
As time passes and memories fade, this once-reviled 2-LP set is getting a posthumous reputation as disco's finest hour. Don't buy it. The 25 million-selling movie soundtrack is 25% new songs by the Bee Gees, 25% orchestrated disco instrumentals by David Shires, and 50% recycled hits, from the Bee Gees ("Jive Talkin'," the incandescent brilliantly arranged "You Should Be Dancing") and a host of others: Kool & The Gang's "Open Sesame," the Trammps' "Disco Inferno," Walter Murphy's insufferable kitsch "A Fifth Of Beethoven." Shires' contributions are abominable ("Night On Disco Mountain," poaching on Murphy's preserves, is the best of a sorry lot). So the record really boils down to five Gibb compositions: "Night Fever" and "Stayin' Alive" are ordinary dance tracks plastered with irritating falsetto vocals ("Stayin'" also lifts its middle from Carole King's "I Feel The Earth Move"). The ballad "How Deep Is Your Love" is similarly submental, but not danceable. "If I Can't Have You" (sung by Yvonne Elliman) is the sort of tacky pop Barry Gibb would soon inflict on Dionne Warwick; "More Than A Woman" (in two versions, by the Bee Gees and Taveras respectively) is similar but catchier. Okay, you may say, it's not a great record but it's emblematic of the era - a Cliff's Notes to disco, as it were. But how can you understand a genre without listening to any of its best artists? None of the important disco acts - Gloria Gaynor, Chic, Donna Summer - are represented here. The Bee Gees were successful trend-riding hacks, nothing more, and this sales phenomenon is no more significant than Hootie and the Blowfish's Cracked Rear View. (DBW)

Telly Savalas, Who Loves Ya Baby (1976)
A shamelessly tacky mix of nightclub patter ("Time"), cheap sentimentality ("The Men In My Little Girl's Life"), and hammy boisterousness (Jim Croce's "A Good Time Man Like Me Ain't Got No Business Singing The Blues"). In other words, this fucking rocks! Why do I celebrate these qualities in Savalas when I excoriate Diana Ross for the same behavior? Partly because Ross is capable of so much more, and partly because there's a difference between a ham and someone who's truly self-deluded: Savalas is the latter. And it's enjoyably perverse to hear how much creative thought and energy went into the arrangements (by Bill Byers except for the title track, the disco strings and cooing backup singers of which were arranged by Motown vet Gene Page). They're not authentic - Savalas's salute to country-western, "Gentle On My Mind," is only recognizable as such because of an out-of-control harmonica - but the swelling and shrinking orchestrations give you something to listen to when you need a break from Telly's Vegasisms. Produced by Marvin Laird, who also wrote the title track and "Love Is Just A Word." (DBW)

Leo Sayer, Endless Flight (1976)
Okay, I got what I deserved this time. This album went platinum on the strength of two #1 singles, the Albert Hammond/Carole Sager weepfest "When I Need You," and the disco/pop "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing," with a sky-high falsetto part that's catchy or nauseating depending on your perspective. Sayer cowrote that one with Vini Poncia, and there's so much other high-powered talent on hand here (Mann & Weill, producer Richard Perry, Chuck Rainey, Willie Weeks, Steve Gadd, Richard Tee, Bobbye Hall Porter, etc.) I figured there'd be something else of value to be found. Nope: there are no other memorable melodies (except possibly Sayer's "How Much Love") and Sayer doesn't even use the falsetto elsewhere, instead going for Rod Stewart-style white soul grit and failing miserably (the cover of the Supremes' "Reflections" is perhaps the low point). The arrangements are tasteful, dull and derivative: Andrew Gold's title track is an unabashed imitation of an Elton John ballad, aided and abetted by a Paul Buckmaster string arrangement and Nigel Olsson on drums. After this, Sayer cranked out one more smash single ("More Than I Can Say") and shortly afterwards was reincarnated as Richard Simmons. (DBW)

Sesame Street 2 (1970)
I had this LP as a kid, which is just one reason it's my favorite children's album. The writing is split between the show's musical director Joe Raposo, and the show's head writer Jeffrey Moss, and they consistently pull off the difficult trick of crafting words and music that captivates children without boring the hell out of adults ("High, Middle, Low"). Similarly, the arrangements are simple but not condescendingly so - the closing theme on the final track has the first wah-wah guitar I ever heard - making healthy use of woodwinds and bells. Generally Raposo delivers the harmonically complex pop ("Sesame Street," the Bacharachian "Picture A World") and Morris brings blues-based rock (the 50s throwback "Mad," "The Grouch Song"), but it's not that cut and dried: Raposo wrote the protogrunge environmentalist "The Garden," while Moss came up with the gorgeous, introspective "What Do I Do When I'm Alone." Though children's choruses on albums are usually out of tune for some reason (see Earth Wind & Fire), "Sing" is rendered flawlessly. Using the Muppets to sing most of the songs detracts from the material a bit, though: I'd love to hear a real torch singer tackle "What Do I Do When I'm Alone" rather than Grover, and I'd rather hear anyone sing "Everyone Makes Mistakes" than Big Bird. Meanwhile, Marty invents emo-core on "Has Anybody Seen My Dog?," breaking down sobbing in mid-song. The LP loses steam on side 2 with a run of undistinguished cuts ("Stop!," "I'm Pretty") but finishes strong with the starry-eyed anthem "Someday, Little Children" sung by Susan, whose strong alto is clearly the best of the adults'. Musicians aren't listed - I assume it's a crew of NYC studio pros. (DBW)

Patti Smith, Horses (1975)
It's no coincidence that punk rockers in general, and Patti Smith in particular, were critical favorites: the original scene started out in New York and wasn't merely nourished by the New York rock establishment, but actually involved professional writers such as Smith and Richard Hell. A quarter-century later, all the boosterism seems uncalled for. Smith's debut record is thin and even wimpy sounding, despite all the heavy-weight help - production by John Cale, cover photos by Robert Mapplethorpe, a competent guitar/piano/bass/drums backing band, some haunting slide guitar by Blue Oyster Cult member Allen Lanier ("Elegie," the record's only ballad), and a great guest guitar solo by the still-unsigned Tom Verlaine ("Break It Up," an effective rock anthem). Her vocals are excruciatingly off-key, and her pretentious, off-the-cuff poetry is a notch above Jim Morrison in imagination, but a notch below in entertainment value. Rather than taking the lead of true proto-punkers like the Stooges or the New York Dolls, the band camps it up with calypso ("Redondo Beach") and barely gets into the red zone: their loudest stuff is merely the famous cover of "Gloria"; a polite, repetitive, nine-minute rave-up that makes "The End" sound like a work of brilliance ("Land:"); and some mid-tempo, Bruce Springsteen-like rockers ("Free Money"). It is avant garde: they deliver a listless, swaying, nine minute poetry rant ("Birdland," like Beefheart lite), and Smith is relentless in her disdain for song structure and melody. And most of the tunes do have an enjoyable basis in pop music ("Kimberly"). So despite everything, I still would recommend this album to anyone who wants to understand the New York punk explosion that followed within a year or two of its release. (JA)

Patti Smith, Radio Ethiopia (1976)
Produced by Jack Douglas, this is another erratic and not so terribly original rock record. It does sport a couple of solid, New York Dolls-like hard rock numbers ("Ask The Angels," which is downright commercial; the orgasm ode "Pumping (My Heart)"). But elsewhere the group flails about trying on musical hats: the lurching "Ain't It Strange" has a really strong reggae influence; the down-tempo, electric piano-driven jazz/blues hybrid "Poppies" sounds practically like Joni Mitchell, although it's interrupted by a stilted poetry reading; and "Pissing In A River" is an overly dramatic rock epic. The only really intriguing effort is "Distant Fingers," with chorus-soaked, Television-like guitars and a druggy, smiley-faced calypso beat that recalls Blondie. None of this is truly memorable, and the band just doesn't have enough solid song ideas to fuel a whole record, so side 2 devolves into an exhausting 12-minute jam (title track). And Smith's marginally entertaining lyrics, with a lot of word play and shock value but few striking images or ideas, don't make up for her more professional, but still painful vocalizing. Like all four of Smith's early albums, this one features Lenny Kaye and Ivan Kral on guitar, Richard Sohl on keyboards, and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums. After this Smith cut two more albums, scoring a major hit single in 1978 ("Because The Night," written with Bruce Springsteen and sounding exactly like him), and working with Todd Rundgren on 1979's Wave. She then abruptly retired to a life of domestric tranquility with MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, and in 1988 cut the first of many comeback albums. (JA)

The Staple Singers, Be Altitude: Respect Yourself (1972)
Not just another family of gospel singers-turned-soulsters. Okay, maybe they were, but they were good: lead singer Mavis Staples has a huge voice, lots of presence, and engaging mannerisms; producer Al Bell assembles a bunch of excellent tunes with social and/or religious overtones, and even wrote the album's classic #1 single "I'll Take You There" himself; the Muscle Shoals rhythm section is in fine form, sticking with meat-and-potatoes R&B rather than the more fanciful material Aretha was recording in this period. In fact, it sounds very much like a classic-era Franklin album, only less personal, and with a few early 70s trappings like mellow lead guitar licks. If you go for soul music at all, and aren't put off by all the Christianity, you'll probably be playing this one over and over. (DBW)

Time Waits For No One (Mavis Staples: 1989)
The first album in quite a while from the Staples Singers' former lead vocalist is mostly written and produced by Prince. Production ranges from tasteful and subdued ("Train," "Come Home") to generic Prince funk ("Jaguar"), and either way, she never really gets to turn that glorious voice loose. Still, slow tunes like "Crazy" and "Come Home" are so good you won't regret picking this up. (DBW)

The Voice (Mavis Staples: 1993)
Apparently Prince lost interest in this record and called in producer Ricky Peterson to finish it up. Mostly updated R&B, there's great material ("House In Order," "You Will Be Moved"), good material ("The Undertaker," the title song) and a bunch of songs that aren't real interesting. Again, you wish the producers would just get out of the way and let the woman sing! (DBW)

Thank God It's Friday (1978)
Casablanca Records' answer to Saturday Night Fever, this 2-LPs-and-bonus-EP movie soundtrack is the place to go if you want to know a) how disco got so big, or b) why everyone got sick of it so fast. The best material here is wonderful - Donna Summer's tempo-shifting, cleverly orchestrated "Last Dance," D.C. LaRue's slow funk "Do You Want The Real Thing," Love And Kisses's typically lush "You're The Most Precious Thing In My Life" - but the overreliance on mechanical drum kicks and unimaginative string arrangements (Paul Jabara's "Disco Queen") and bad taste (Santa Esmeralda's "Sevilla Nights") will have you begging for mercy. Part of the problem is that Casablanca used the package to promote artists who were less than destined for greatness - Pattie Brooks, Marathon - but there's also subpar work from their best artists: Love And Kisses's silly title track; Summer's repetitive "With Your Love" - she also wrote Sunshine's "Take It To The Zoo" and contributed heavy breathing to a mostly instrumental 16-minute cover of Serge Gainsbourg's "Je T'Aime." A joint venture with Motown, which provided a couple of cuts: The Commodores' "Too Hot Ta Trot," one of the only previously released songs; Diana Ross's forgettable "Lovin', Livin' And Givin'." (DBW)

Tonto's Expanding Head Band, Zero Time (1971)
Perhaps the first electronic music album that's worth a damn, the "band" here is a Series III Moog, produced, programmed, modified and endlessly multitracked by Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, with all selections written by them to take advantage of the instrument's unprecedented capabilities. The duo entered into a tremendously rewarding partnership with Stevie Wonder immediately after this release, and you can hear many of their signatures - the voice bag effect ("Riversong," where the treated voice seems to be imitating a sitar), the buzzing bass ("Timewhys"), high squiggly background lines ("CyberNaut") - but the difference is that here they're unconstrained by any pop considerations: if they want a whole track to sound like echoey rockets landing, they do it ("Aurora"). No vocals or live instruments; the song material doesn't compare to the Wonder years, of course, but the programming's even more imaginative, and despite dull repetitive stretches ("Jetsex"), the record is still challenging and compelling to today's ears, not just a curio. (DBW)

U.N. (1979)
It's a shame I'm not writing album cover reviews, because this one would get five stars easy: With four models of various genders and ethnicities sitting in a sauna wearing nothing but towels and a fearsome amount of makeup, the cover shot not only elucidates the band name but it sums up the disco era to a "T." Unfortunately, I went ahead and listened to the music, because everything was written and produced by Tony Green, who'd been behind the boards on France Joli's splendid debut. That rhythm section is back, but the invention and emotion aren't, so the lengthy tracks spin on to no purpose ("In The Groove"). One critical difference is the lack of a strong lead vocalist: most of the record features group vocals or chants from Barbara Ingram, Carla Benson and Evette Benton, while the guy who does occasionally sing lead (presumably Green, the mustachioed man on the cover, or both) has a gruff, uninvolving manner. Green does find room for percussion interludes and sax solos ("Get It On") but they don't pay off, in part because the melodies are precisely as generic as the titles imply ("Hot Lover"). The "Boogie Oogie Oogie" ripoff "Disco Power" is the best of a bad lot. The same year, Green also found time to produce a debut for fourteen-year-old Freddie James. (DBW)

Van Halen (1978)
Even if you don't like singer David Lee Roth's sex god schtick or guitarist Eddie Van Halen's hyperactive hammering - and I don't - it's impossible not to rock out to the California quartet's debut. For one thing, the sound is marvelous: producer Ted Templeman balances massive guitars with a thundering rhythm section (drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony), light but effective use of studio tricks (delay on "On Fire"), and performances that are precise without being clinical. And the hooks are huge ("Runnin' With The Devil," "I'm The One") - Eddie redeems the whiny "Jamie's Cryin'" with clever dual lead riffs. The hit version of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" was the first and probably best of a long line of Van Halen covers. The only parts I dislike are Eddie's solo piece "Eruption" - more showoffmanship than showmanship - and the Zep-style minstrel blues opening of "Ice Cream Man," but even that eventually kicks into satisfying arena rock. Van Halen cranked out a few more albums with the same approach, then added synths and jumped into the sales stratosphere with 1984, fired Roth, hired Sammy Hagar, and grew ever more smarmy through the early 90s, eventually replacing Hagar with Gary Cherone and abruptly losing their audience. I'm not interested in the Hagar stuff at all, but I will probably review more of the early albums as I come across them. (DBW)

Wire, Pink Flag (1977)
Groundbreaking British New Wave minimalists Wire split after three influential late 70s studio albums, then reformed in 1986 and stuck it out for another decade. Their original stuff matches artsy, super-stripped down noisemaking with a mechanical rhythm section that's as funky as hell, and it influenced all sorts of acts from the Gang of Four on down. At this point they're very strongly influenced by the Sex Pistols ("Mr. Suit") and the Clash, but they've already got a menacing, militaristic, avant garde sound that completely sets them apart. The focus is Colin Newman's enigmatic punk vocals and Bruce Gilbert's churning, distorted rhythm guitar ("106 Beats That") - the group normally eschews solos. But the contrast between Gilbert and the rhythm section of nimble bassist Graham Lewis (the bonus track "Options R") and restrained, precise drummer Robert Gotobed also is striking. They're already fascinated with repetition ("Reuters") and their playing is taut and even funky ("Three Girl Rhumba"). The big surprise here is that most of the tracks are carefully composed, sub-two minute fragments, and they never add up to much even when they're intriguing ("It's So Obvious"). But most of the finished songs except the leaden, aimless title track are marvelous: the Clash-influenced "Ex Lion Tamer"; "Lowdown," built on a robotic, tension-building riff; the uncharacteristically upbeat, New York Dolls-like rock 'n' roller "Mannequin"; and best of all "Strange," with its addictive, grinding, tick-tock beat and anthemic, paranoid lyrics. The record's bizarre lyrics and disdain for song structure and melody mark an artistic breakthrough, but it just isn't solid enough to have broad appeal. Produced by Mike Thorne, who doesn't have them do much other than add a few handclaps ("Champs"), backing vocals, and weird guitar noises. (JA)

Wire, 154 (1979)
A sharp turn toward New Wave in its most avant garde sense, laced with creepy industrial noises, cryptic high-brow lyrics, and an oppressive atmosphere. They band's still dishing out creeped-out punk ("Once Is Enough") with irresistably mechanical beats ("Two People In A Room"), and sometimes it's brilliant ("On Returning"). But now there's an unmistakable and welcome Eno/Bowie influence (the ominous, slow-burning, seven-minute "A Touching Display"), complete with groovy Euro-disco beats (Gilbert's funky vocal spotlight "Blessed State") and soaring synths by producer Mike Thorne (the even more disco-y "The 15th"; "I Should Have Known Better"; Gilbert's clever, minimalistic "40 Versions"). It's particularly obvious on the best song ("Map Ref. 41°N 93°W"). Sure, they still toss off underdeveloped two minute riff tunes ("Single K.O.") and aimless longer numbers ("A Mutual Friend," which wastes a great hook). But they only really get into trouble with some pretentious experimentation (Lewis' haunted house "The Other Window"; "Indirect Enquiries"). So the record isn't the next Heroes, but it's even more daring. This time they bring in a bunch of low-impact bit players on instruments like flute and viola. The songwriting is split by Lewis, Newman, and Gilbert, or by various combinations of the three; Lewis adds measured, slightly threatening baritone voiceovers to several of his tunes. The CD includes five highly experimental bonus tracks, two of which are seriously danceable (Gotobed's instrumental "Song 1"; "Go Ahead"). (JA)

Wire, Manscape (1990)
Wire's late, post-reunion period is mostly a drag, full of depressing, repetitive electronic collages - 1991's instrumental experiment Drill is unlistenable - and insincere New Order-style dance-pop. This disc is a good example. Newman is smoother than ever, but his dry, half-spoken phrasing and unresolved melodies are extra-drab; Gilbert and Lewis bury their own heavily distorted tracks with loads of high-flying sequenced synths, soft, fuzzy mid-range synths, crashing electronic percussion, and throbbing tape loops; and its hard to tell what's programmed and what's actually Gotobed's live drums. When they're not irritatingly pompous and gloomy ("What Do You See?") or maddeningly aimless ("You Have Hung Your Lights In the Trees/A Craftsman's Touch" runs in circles for ten minutes), they're often just dull ("Other Moments"; "Where's The Deputation?"; the lulling, computerized "Sixth Sense") or spaced out ("Children Of Groceries"). Lyrically, they're mostly just plain cryptic, but they do occasionally match the creepy, absurdist free-association imagery of their early period ("Small Black Reptile"), and fans might find their familiar harshness admirable ("Torch It!"). And they do come up with a clutch of ear-grabbing groove tunes: "Life In The Manscape," whose silly chorus verges on New Order-style electronic polka; "Morning Bell," which crosses a lush New Romantic sound with fractured, threatening lyrics; and the understated "Goodbye Ploy," which is about as much fun as 80s British synth-funk ever got. Still, though, by now the band had polished away the anarchic creativity that made their early stuff so great. (JA)

Bill Withers, Just As I Am (1971)
You don't hear much about this West Virginian soul singer/songwriter anymore, but in the early 70s Bill Withers racked up a bunch of hits that were promptly covered by other top soul acts: "Use Me" (Isaac Hayes), "Cold Bologna" (Isley Brothers), and especially "Ain't No Sunshine (When She's Gone)" (Hayes again), a country blues number that's one of the highlights of this debut album. His strong points are a weathered, plaintive voice, intimate arrangements and charmingly simple songwriting - sort of a soul Jim Croce. Produced by Booker T. Jones with backing from Duck Dunn and Al Jackson, but don't expect a Stax sound: most of the tracks are just acoustic guitar, soft bass and congas (courtesy of Bobbye Hall Porter). A cover of the Beatles' "Let It Be" exemplifies his approach: it's simultaneously sped up and quieted down, with an offhand delivery as if he were singing on his porch. "Grandma's Hands" (another single) is the great song about the grandparent-grandchild bond, with blues guitar from Stephen Stills; "Sweet Wanomi" is a sweetly rolling love song. The few full band numbers aren't as effective: the proto-Steely Dan faux jazz "Do It Good," the string-swept but directionless "Harlem." You might wish Withers weren't quite so mellow, but he does get more mileage out of his unvarnished, low-key approach than you'd think possible. Withers's followup, Still Bill, had two more monster hits, "Use Me" and "Lean On Me"; after that he occasionally charted hit singles (most recently singing Grover Washington Jr.'s "Just The Two Of Us" in 1981) but his influence gradually faded. (DBW)

The Wiz (1975)
Soundtrack from the Broadway show based on The Wizard Of Oz, starring a very young Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, Hinton Battle as the Scarecrow, Tiger Haynes as the Tinman, Ted Ross as the Cowardly Lion, and Andre De Shields as The Wiz. The songs are by Charlie Smalls, and they include such memorable numbers as "Ease On Down The Road" and the bluesy "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News" (belted out by Mabel King as Evillene). (Luther Vandross wrote "Everybody Rejoice" and the string-crazed disco instrumental "Tornado" is by Timothy Graphenreed). Mills stands out on her slow-burning features, "Soon As I Get Home" and the finale "Home." As usual for Broadway shows, there's a lot of plot-advancing filler ("He's The Wizard") and campy excess ("Slide Some Oil To Me"; "Y'all Got It!"), but there are also some hidden joys like the Scarecrow's gently rolling "I Was Born On The Day Before Yesterday." On the other hand, nothing's nearly as memorable as the songs from the 1939 film, unfair as that comparison may be. The recording is lush, though it seems practically spartan compared to the film soundtrack that would soon follow... (DBW)

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack - The Wiz (1978)
The album from the movie based on the show based on the book, with a ridiculously high-powered cast: Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, Richard Pryor as The Wiz, Nipsey Russell as the Tinman, Lena Horne as Glinda... Mabel King and Ted Ross are the only holdovers from the Broadway ensemble. Producer Quincy Jones kept the original songs more or less intact, but also co-wrote several new songs with Ashford & Simpson ("Can I Go On?") and some incidental music. The musicians aren't obscure either: The Breckers, Paulinho Da Costa, Steve Gadd, Eric Gale, Anthony Jackson (who pillages his "For The Love Of Money" riff on "Poppy Girls"), Richard Tee, ad infinitum. Unfortunately, the whole thing is a mess, because Jones gets so carried away overarranging, overproducing and overdoing everything he completely loses the charm of the original show, while Jackson and Ross don't get enough room for their star power to shine, either. Rarely unbearable (the "Emerald City Sequence" excepted) but never actually entertaining. (DBW)

Warren Zevon, Excitable Boy (1978)
A Jackson Browne discovery, Zevon wears his twistedness on his sleeve: the title track is about a rapist/murderer, the purportedly humorous hit "Werewolves Of London" contrasts clichés of staid Brits with man's true animal nature. Yawn. There are also a couple of allusive, Dylan-esque love songs ("Accidentally Like A Martyr"). Double yawn. Zevon does better with the ambiguous political numbers "Veracruz" (set during the Mexican Revolution), "Lawyers, Guns And Money," and "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner" - he can be an effective storyteller when he's not trying too hard. Musically, it's a slick take on country rock (except for the tongue-in-cheek disco "Nighttime In The Switching Yard"), with familiar-sounding melodies and backing supplied by LA hotshots Bob Glaub, Russ Kunkel, Danny Kortchmar, Waddy Wachtel, etc. Produced by Browne and Wachtel. (DBW)

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