HAROLD MELVIN & THE BLUE NOTES – Wake Up Everybody (1975)

Review by: Syd Spence
Album assigned by: Lex Alfonso

Ah just look at that gorgeous album cover with its proud nubian earth warrior! He’s ready to defend the beauty of nature. He’s not gonna take no guff from any big polluter. No, he’s going to fight for you and me and all of us here on this pale blue dot. WHAT A GREAT COVER! 

Naturally when I first set my eyes on this beaut, my mouth instantly started salivating. I was certain this album was going to be some psychedelic soul like Undisputed Truth or Funkadelic. I mean how could it not, when it features a jolly green giant with a flower in its afro??? So I was really disappointed when I put this on and got really overorchestrated pop soul, that was so damn prevalent in the mid 70s. WHY THE HELL didn’t they just get Harold Melvin in a dapper suit, sweating next to microphone? Are you telling me there were more Funkadelic fans than Isaac Hayes fans in 1975??? 

Anyways, the music is overproduced with all these tacky hollywood strings which make the whole thing sappy as all hell. WHERE IS THE RHYTHM IN THIS ‘R’N’B? If i wanted Disney music, I’d put on the Mary Poppins soundtrack and not a soul record. Though, with that said, this album does have one all-time classic on it, which is “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. If you are at all a fan of Western media, I guarantee you’ve heard this track in some movie somewhere, but I guarantee you’ve only heard the chorus and not the totallity of its six minutes. It begins with this haunting electric piano and then Harold (what kind of soul singer keeps Harold Melvin as his stage name???) starts pleading slowly and then BAM, we get to the galloping disco chorus where Harold goes “AH BABY MY HEART IS FULL OF LOVE….” It’s pretty orgasmic. It’s a shame the rest of this album doesn’t have that soul-disco awesome going on. 

Overall you should probably skip this record and get Harold’s greatest hits or maybe a movie soundtrack that features “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. 

PAT METHENY GROUP – Still Life (Talking) (1987)

Review by: Markus Pilskog
Album assigned by: Lex Alfonso

Pat Metheny Group started out in the late 70s as a vehicle for jazz guitarist Pat Metheny to play in a more typical band setting and have a more regular band unit, with keyboardist Lyle Mears as the main sideman. While Pat Metheny does have his roots in the 70s jazz fusion scene, he quickly left, and on this album the band uses influences from Brazilian music (samba and folk music) as well as pop, rather than rock. This is highligted with the inclusion of the Brazilian musician Armando Marçal, who is featured on percussion and background vocals.

What becomes quickly evident when listening to this record is that it’s not a particularly difficult album to listen to, as long as you’re OK with music that don’t contain any lyrics. ”Minuano” opens the record with some dreamy synths and wordless vocals from Marçal, and it takes almost three minutes before Pat Metheny enters the arena. However, he quickly establishes a quite melodic and catchy theme that fit well with the Brazilian percussion and general feel of the song.

The rest of the record doesn’t stray too far away from this intial sound, though the songs do retain a distinct character, with some being more rhythmic and up-beat and others being more low-key and atmospheric. While some of the melodies and the atmosphere in general may feel slightly cheesy at times and somewhat dated, this never becomes more than a minor nuisance. This remains a jazz album that is quite accessible, while at the same time having its distinct character that separates it from quite many other records. This album should be enjoyed both by people that aren’t very familiar with jazz, as well as most jazz enthusiasts (perhaps with the exception of some purists). 

COLD SPECKS – Neuroplasticity (2014)

Review by: Lex Alfonso
Album assigned by: Mark Maria Ahsmann

Jangly guitar leads. Take a shot.
After over half a decade of listening to albums as intently as a guy with no life might, I’ve developed certain Pavlovian responses to things. To wit, a lot of Neuroplasticity triggered an immediate and inexplicable sense of dread and exasperation. I slumped into my seat, blew out a short puff of air and my eyes rolled right around my head as if independently. This record is so ‘2010s indie’ that it is destined to age poorly. Every aspect of it feels like it was taken from another, more successful record. Post-rock guitar leads introduce the lion’s share of the tracks here. Bright synths chug away behind the mix. Vocalist Ladan Hussein croons away, fighting against a beating war drum. By 2014 these traits have been used and re-used so often they’re starting to look like Bill Buckner in the tenth inning. However, like Bill Buckner, it could just be that they’re misunderstood.
The real tragedy of Cold Specks is that, for all her unoriginality and for all the routine of it it’s not a bad record. Misguided? Sure. But through its faults it’s actually incredibly difficult to dislike. Be disappointed in, perhaps, but not dislike. It’s the consistency, partially. Consistency is the one trait it chose to be contrary to its predecessors. It’s short, for a start. That’s not the snooty “self-important-critic-who-has-given-up” critique it sounds like, either. I’m not sure when the world collectively decided to shun any LP that dropped below the arbitrary length of 45 minutes, but can we get over it, already? The album is paced brilliantly, each idea and concept present just as long as it needs to before gracefully segueing into the next song.  There is an attention to detail in the way these songs fade in and out that demonstrates a commendable commitment to the LP format. Each song concludes as if momentum is taking its course. Instrument after instrument stripping itself away until the song’s core essence is all that remains, lingering long enough on the palette to make its point before coming to a complete stop. The next track will, invariably, begin in a similar way, layers and depth added as your palette acclimates to it.
The record seeks to evoke an atmosphere more purposeful and paced than most of its contemporaries. Cold Specks describes herself as “doom-soul” and it fits. I’m hardly going to lobby for it to be a legitimate genre (I’m looking at you RateYourMusic.com) but when it works it works. The most direct comparison one could make (outside of the 2010s indie canon, at least) is Scott Walker’s pop opus Scott 3 for the kindred intent to favour atmosphere over melody. Neuroplasticity’s compositions seem almost secondary to the production and I can respect that. The melody only exists for the soundscapes to canvas themselves on and to give the voice a purpose. A proper balance might be appreciated by some but in a full length format Cold Specks’ priorities function perfectly well. Long story short, you won’t ever remember a tune from Neuroplasticity but you won’t mind.

Similar apathy cannot be lent to the production, sadly. The mixing is a bit all over the place. Its sole constant is, regrettably, the ear splitting favouritism it shows its rhythm section. If there’s one ongoing downfall to Neuroplasticity, it’s that. The rhythm section is garbage. It does everything it can to sabotage the atmosphere the record attempts to cultivate. It mostly succeeds, tragically. Each snare and each cymbal and each kick screams over the mix like it has something to prove. It shouldn’t be so proud of itself. The drumming is very rigid and awkward and feels purposefully contrary to the music. One would think a producer would want to hide that but, alas, here it is for all to see. It gets to be that in some tracks it’s the only thing you can hear. The only other instrument that even compares in terms of volume is Cold Specks’ voice itself. Certainly more understandable, but so many songs feel like adequate instrumental sections whispering meekly behind a duelling cacophony of soul crooning and drum rolls. The balance isn’t there. For something priding itself on atmosphere there’s really no excuse.
In the bigger picture, however, Neuroplasticity fails simply for its lack of ambition. It squanders a perfectly good vocalist and a perfectly good concept on being just more milquetoast indie malaise. Everything about it seems design-by-committee, born not out of a desire to be compelling or progressive, but out of determined artistic counterfeiting. “Post-rock is popular”, it seems to say, “let’s have post-rock instrumental sections.” “Synth-pop is coming back”, it continues, “How about we lead Let Loose the Dogs with some of that?” It’s a shame, too. It’s a perfectly functional record. But that’s just it. Far and away the best track is the last one, because it’s the only one that threatens to have a contrary idea. It becomes comatose, static, foreboding and it’s really rather thrilling. The rest of the album never comes anywhere close to that level of intimacy or depth. It never has an idea as big as “intimacy”. So while you can concede that the craft and workmanship put into it is perfectly fine, you must also acknowledge that it’s also the album’s biggest fault. Maybe it shouldn’t have been “fine”. Maybe it should have had the ambition to alienate or progress or do something that suggests it has humanity. What we’re left with is a beautifully written, beautifully composed, beautifully performed, beautifully sung carbon brick.
You might admire a carbon brick, but you’ll never love it.

A YEAR IN MUSIC: FUGAZI – Repeater (1990)

Review by: Lex Alfonso

Truly, few groups in the history of the punk canon have expanded the vocabulary of the genre so swiftly and so decisively. Fugazi’s compact, but powerful, opus opened the floodgates and redefined what a punk album could be. Its 35 minutes are packed with the detail of a record thrice its size. Repeat listens yield subtle layers hiding behind the riffs. Stabs of jangly guitar leads pierce the walls of distortion and the politically charged lyrics belie a guiding theme of identity and automation.

MacKaye’s commitment to his craft is tragically unprecedented in its near-total absence of pretence. It’s daringly free of compromise, hybridisation or dilution. 1990 might have been the year the world discovered punk could be intelligent and legitimately important, but we were just catching up to Ian MacKaye’s genius.