We have finally reached the 50th volume of Timely Tunes. We are also halfway through 2017, so I thought I would do a brief recap of some of the best reissues and compilations released this year. A busy reissue season has seen everything from generous dips into Prince’s and Radiohead’s vaults to Nigerian disco and Brazilian electro-experimentalism.
Prince “Love and Sex” (From “Purple Rain Deluxe”)
“Purple Rain” was and remains a perfect album, but that doesn’t mean that Prince didn’t leave some (nearly as) magical outtakes from the sessions in the vault. The generous new reissue features a staggering collection of tracks that could have easily made the final cut. “Love and Sex” is a delirious, giddy, synth-y romp through Prince’s horny mind; a fully-formed hit that never was. Recorded just two days before the totemic “When Doves Cry”, Prince gives his newly acquired Yamaha DX-7 synth a fierce workout on this dance floor blast.
Oby Onyioha “Enjoy Your Life” (From “Doing it in Lagos: Boogie, Pop & Disco in 1980’s Nigeria”)
Fela Kuti created a framework for forward-thinking body and soul music during the stultifying oppression of 1970’s Nigeria before his compound was destroyed and he was imprisoned in 1977. What followed was a group of musicians who moved away from the political and toward the more purely physical music happening in America at the end of the decade. This compilation collects some scorchers that could handily worm their way into any DJ set. “Enjoy Your Life” is peak disco perfection.
CAN “I Want More” (From “The Singles”)
An unusual release, as I have never thought of CAN as a “singles” act, but it’s a wonderful introduction and encapsulation anyway. CAN are best exemplified by digesting their otherworldly albums (“Tago Mago”, “Ege Bamyasi”, “Future Days”, and “Soon Over Babuluma” are my favorites), but hearing their work in this context gives a new and exciting perspective. The German experimentalists (accompanied by African-American vocalist Malcolm Mooney from 1968 to 1970 and Japanese outsider Damo Suzuki from 1970 to 1973) were a fount of weirdo-brilliance; incorporating avant-garde minimalism, early electronic music, psychedelia, funk, and a cornucopia of other sounds. “I Want More” is a propulsive highlight from the otherwise scattershot, but somewhat underrated, 1976 album “Flow Motion”. LCD Soundsystem built their career on songs like this.
Mulatu Astatke “Mulatu” (From “Mulatu of Ethiopia”)
Composer and musician Mulatu Astatke is the king eternal of Ethio-jazz; an Addis Ababa-groomed phenom who took his groundbreaking fusion of African pentatonics, Latin rhythms, and Western jazz to London and New York City. A favorite of crate-diggers and hip-hop producers for decades, he has seen a renaissance of interest in the past decade, and this reissue is a fantastic introduction to his singular sound.
Grateful Dead “Loser” (From “May 1977: Get Shown the Light”)
I started collecting Grateful Dead bootlegs in the early days of Internet message boards when I was 12 or 13, and spent awhile submerged in the culture of Deadheads searching and trading for that perfect concert recording. The shows of May 5, 7, 8, and 9, 1977 are widely considered a, if not THE, peak of the band’s live prowess. I admit that I haven’t made my way through this entire exhaustive eleven-disc box set yet, but what I have heard is among the best distillation of what made me a believer. It seems that the Dead have come back into some critical favor over the past few years, but their output is ridiculously daunting to traverse. You can start in worse places than this if you want to catch the bug. If you thought they weren’t for you, it might just change your mind.
Lift To Experience “Falling From Cloud 9” (From “The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads”)
For some reason, a 93 minute concept double album about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ by a group of cowboy hat wearing post-rock weirdos from Denton, Texas, released just a few months before 9/11, was unable to breakthrough to any sort of commercial success. Behind a wall of crushing My Bloody Valentine-indebted feedback and shot through with raw, wild emotion, the album did become an underground cult classic. Leader Josh T. Pearson, who was forced by financial necessity to be the album’s producer, was always unhappy with the final mix and this reissue gives the album the heft, subtlety, and depth of sound that it always deserved. Nothing before or since has sounded quite like this wonderful oddity, which means that it has only grown stranger and more compelling.
Radiohead “Lift” (From “OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017”)
An eternity and a moment have seemed to pass in the twenty years since my mind was first blown by “OK Computer”. The new reissue features that perfect album complimented by era-specific B-sides and a few mythic, previously unreleased songs. One of the most sought-after tracks is “Lift”, a soaring anthem that sounds like a logical step forward from the world-conquering Britpop of “The Bends”. According to the band, they decided to leave it off because they believed that it would have been a huge commercial hit but were worried that it could have taken their career down a path they were trying to avoid. The decision obviously didn’t end up hurting them in the long run, but it’s nice to finally have an official release of a song that is as good as anything they wrote in their pre-obfuscating second act.
Manic Street Preachers “Leviathan” (From “Send Away the Tigers: 10 Year Collectors Edition”)
Ten years seems like a short turnover to re-release an album that never quite felt like a classic in the first place, but this generous reissue of “Send Away the Tigers” reveals that I may have underrated the album when it first came out. The band is forever haunted by the spectre of barbed wire lyricist/guitarist Richey James, who disappeared not long after the release of their bleak masterpiece “The Holy Bible” and was never found. Somehow the band managed to carry on, following it up with another superb album, “Everything Must Go”, before they saw a considerable dip in quality on their next two records. “Send Away the Tigers” was a revitalizing comeback (even if I prefer its follow-up “Journal For Plague Lovers”), and it’s a much more interesting album than I remember. Where this reissue becomes even more revelatory is in the bonus tracks, full of some excellent B-sides and rarities. Among the best is “Leviathan”, a swaggering rocker first released on the War Child compilation.
Sheer Mag “Worth the Tears” (From “Compilation (I, II, & III)”)
This collection serves as a catch-all for the great Philadelphia punk band’s first three EPs; 40 minutes of hook after hook after hook. Sheer Mag fully embraces everything that made bands like Thin Lizzy so eternal (and one of my favorite bands to ever walk this planet), while managing to throw in enough originality and grit to keep anything from sounding tired. Every song is a gem of expert pop-craft and venom.
Helium “Ocean of Wine” (From “The Magic City”)
Mary Timony’s Helium stand shoulder-to-shoulder with PJ Harvey and Sleater-Kinney as one of the greatest post-riot grrrl rock acts of the ‘90s. Unfairly, Timony’s work has been, comparatively, somewhat under-appreciated, but a series of recent reissues of Helium’s discography seeks to right those wrongs. 1997’s “The Magic City” is the confident, exploratory apex of their output; a still-fresh opus of experimentation and emotional heft.
Elliott Smith “I Figured You Out” (From “Either/Or: Expanded Edition”)
No one mixed psychic pain and hushed melodic virtuosity quite like Elliott Smith, and his greatest statement, “Either/Or”, still sounds just as vital twenty years later. He wrote sad-sack songs that were buoyed by a level of craft that was outside the grasp of most of his peers and those who later claimed him as an influence. “I Figured You Out” is one of his all-time best compositions, melancholy but not maudlin, but he left it off the original album and gave it to Mary Lou Lord because he was convinced that it “sounds like the fuckin’ Eagles”. That harsh assessment doesn’t actually ring true, but his self-awareness was one of many admirable traits.
The Beatles “A Day In The Life” (Remix) (From “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Deluxe Edition)”)
“Sgt. Pepper’s” was the first CD I ever owned and “A Day In The Life” remains my favorite Beatles song. But over the years the album has become one that I have returned to less and less. Where once it felt revolutionary, it had grown somewhat stale and gimmicky to me in comparison to “The Beatles” or “Abbey Road” or “Rubber Soul”. When I heard that George Martin’s son, Giles, was being put in charge of creating a completely new stereo mix from the original master tapes, I was cautiously intrigued. The original stereo version of the album was infamously oddly mixed, a strangely unbalanced display of new technology, but fans had also grown accustomed to it. This new mix sounds absolutely revelatory, shining a new light on a classic album in a way that is respectful to the way the album should have sounded in the first place. Essential.
Fleetwood Mac “Where We Belong (Demo)” (From “Tango In the Night (Deluxe)”)
There was no reason that, in 1987, Fleetwood Mac could have been expected to create anything more than a horror show of embarrassment. Interpersonal soap operas, financial excess, and septum-destroying drug abuse should have left them in creative tatters, but “Tango in the Night” somehow managed the impossible feat of being both another mega commercial AND creative success. As the years have passed, “Tango” has only grown in my personal esteem, marrying the quirks of the mesmerizingly fantastic, coked-out “Tusk” (my favorite Fleetwood Mac album; sorry “Rumours”) with a laser-sharp pop focus that makes it one of the truly great late-career records by any “legacy” act. “Where We Belong” is a skeletal demo, but it is magical all the same.
Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello “That Day is Done – Original Demo” (From “Flowers in the Dirt – Special Edition”)
An admirable, if not always successful, experiment in collaboration between two of our great songwriters, “Flowers in the Dirt” is one of the most interesting oddities in either’s discography. The new reissue features the original album, which features some great, if occasionally over-fussed songs, but where the reissue really shines is in the extras. The demo version of “That Day is Done” strips away the unnecessary accoutrements to reveal the warm heart of a secular gospel gem. Two great voices, a piano, and an acoustic guitar was all that the song really needed anyway.
The Creation “Biff Bang Pow” (From “Action Painting”)
The Creation, in their original incarnation, only existed in a brief flash from 1966 until 1968, but they left behind a terrific string of vital singles and one shambolic album (1967’s unfortunately-titled “We Are Paintermen”). They never came close to achieving the success of their British Invasion peers, but they had all the nervous, proto-punk energy of The Who and at least a portion of the wit of The Kinks. They received some posthumous love from mod-revivalists like The Jam in the late-‘70s, but they remain a bit of an obscurity. My favorite reissue label, Numero Group, released this fantastic collection of their work that is a must for anyone interested in revved-up ‘60s British rock.
Soundgarden “Flower” (From “Ultramega OK (Expanded Edition)”
Soundgarden’s 1988 full-length debut, released on the legendary SST label, was a hint of the power the band was on the verge of harnessing. “Flower” opens the album and remains one of their greatest metallic pop confections. They perfected this amalgamation of heavy metal and Beatlesque pop melody on later albums, but “Ultramega OK” remains an essential document of Seattle before the scene became a global phenomenon. Kim Thayil was already a monster of the riff and Chris Cornell was a fully-formed vocal maverick.
Swans “I Am The Sun” (From “The Great Annihilator”)
“The Great Annihilator” was the first Swans CD that I was able to find and buy, after being introduced to their eviscerating music in the early days of MP3 dial-up downloading, so it will always hold a special place for me, even if it isn’t my favorite Swans album. It finds them caught in between the crushing brutality of their early years and their expansive third act, but is still worth revisiting. “I Am The Sun” is a bite-sized distillation of the dichotomies of love and hate that Michael Gira has built his career upon.
Alice Coltrane “Om Rama” (From “World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda”)
I have already featured another track from this revelatory reissue in a previous Timely Tunes, but it’s worth reiterating just how incredible this album is. Culled from a small catalog of idiosyncratic recordings by the blissfully enigmatic Alice Coltrane when she was living in the Hindu ashram that she founded and directed from 1983 until her death, this is, easily, one of my favorite records of the year. It is an example of the transcendental heights that spiritual music can reach.
Leimer “Testimony and Honor” (From “Land of Look Behind (Remastered + Expanded)”
I heard that this album was labeled “ambient reggae” by someone from “the Pacific Northwest” and very nearly avoided it on principle, but I’m glad I didn’t. Kerry Leimer’s soundtrack to the 1982 documentary of the same name is an unclassifiable mix of ambient beds of synth and, on this track, disembodied samples of Jamaican vocals. The film focuses on the impact of Rastafarian culture on Jamaican music, but the soundtrack stands on its own as a beguiling work of art.
Pep llopis “Muntanyes De Granit” (From “Polemusia La Nau Dels Argonautes”)
The label RVNG has begun re-issuing some long-forgotten mystic gems lately at a surprising clip, and this one by Spain’s Pep Llopis is perhaps the most intriguing yet. Llopis recorded this disarmingly original album in 1987 after exploring the islands of the Mediterranean. Influenced by American minimalists like Steve Reich, but achieving a unique sound that is enveloping, yet tastefully restrained; a beautiful rediscovery.
Anno Luz “Por Que” (From “Outro Tempo: Electronic and Contemporary Music From Brazil, 1978-1992”)
Brazil is home to some of the most beautiful music on the planet, but between 1964 and 1985, much of it came under a near-constant attempt to squash any creativity by a culturally oppressive military government. Inimitable stars like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were exiled, and others like Milton Nascimento were forced to find work-arounds in pursuit of transcendence. This vital collection of strange and wonderful sounds recorded as the country attempted to transition from darkness, is a portrait of exceptional experimentation. It’s full of highlights, but Anno Luz’s wordless, dreamy “Por Que” is especially haunting.
Dominique Lawalree “Musique Satieerique” (From “First Meeting”)
Dominique Lawalree is a mysterious composer who has spent his entire life in Belgium (and who now spends time playing piano and organ at church), and “First Meeting” is a compilation of the idiosyncratic work that he released on private press between 1978 and 1982. Influenced by the work of Erik Satie, John Cage, Pierre Boulez, and Brian Eno, the latter toyed with the idea of releasing Lawalree’s music on his own label, Obscure Records, before it folded. Until the release of this collection, his music was limited to titles distributed by English composer Gavin Bryars, and it is great to finally have a portion of his work plucked from obscurity.
Brother Ah “Inner Voice” (From “Divine Music”)
French horn phenom Brother Ah worked with Donald Byrd, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Roland Kirk, Don Cherry, Thelonious Monk, and so many other heavy-hitters in the jazz world, but this Light in the Attic Records release collects three of his previously unreleased solo records (recorded in 1978, 1981, and 1985). It is incredible. Experimenting with elements of Eastern and “Third World” music, they reflect a restless creativity that sounds unlike anything else.
Tomorrow’s People “Open Soul” (From “Open Soul”)
Rereleased on Floating Points’ Melodies International label, this album, which sometimes sells for $1500, has finally been reissued. What truly sells the album is the cosmic and insane 20 minute title track. It’s a truly epic, exhaustive but never lagging, funk-soul workout that will probably blow your mind. Even if the rest of the album doesn’t quite live up to this high water mark, it doesn’t matter when this track starts playing.
Deathprod “Treetop Drive 3” (From “Treetop Drive”)
I regret not being able to make time for Deathprod’s allegedly levitating set at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival this year. Performed in sensory-depriving pitch blackness, it was supposedly one of many highlights (I did see a lot of other incredible acts that weekend and recommend the festival to anyone who prizes boundary-pushing music). Helge Sten is a Norwegian soundscaper and is probably best known for being a member of the avant-garde improv group Supersilent, but his solo work as Deathprod is ambient drone at its most darkly affecting. These early pieces sound like beautiful decay.
TIMELY TUNES, VOL. 50
1. Prince “Love and Sex”
2. Oby Onyioha “Enjoy Your Life”
3. CAN “I Want More”
4. Mulatu Astatke “Mulatu”
5. Grateful Dead “Loser”
6. Lift To Experience “Falling From Cloud 9”
7. Radiohead “Lift”
8. Manic Street Preachers “Leviathan”
9. Sheer Mag “Worth the Tears”
10. Helium “Ocean of Wine”
11. Elliott Smith “I Figured You Out”
12. The Beatles “A Day In The Life”
13. Fleetwood Mac “Where We Belong (Demo)”
14. Paul McCartney & Elvis Costello “That Day Is Done (Original Demo)”
15. The Creation “Biff Bang Pow”
16. Soundgarden “Flower”
17. Swans “I Am The Sun”
18. Alice Coltrane “Om Rama”
19. K. Leimer “Testimony and Honor”
20. Pep Llopis “Muntanyes De Granit”
21. Anno Luz “Por Que”
22. Dominique Lawalree “Musique Satieerique”
23. Brother Ah “Inner Voice”
24. Tomorrow’s People “Open Soul”
25. Deathprod “Treetop Drive 3”
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