Eugene McDaniels: Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse (1971)


Executive branch pimpslap.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: 1971. Post-hippie America was fracturing under the twin weights of the Vietnam Conflict and the harsh social policies of the soon-to-be-impeached President Richard Nixon. Gene McDaniels was a moderately successful smoothed-out R&B singer-songwriter whose growing political awareness had started to blossom on his 1970 album Outlaw. Reclaiming his given name of Eugene McDaniels he set his angry, humanitarian ideals to music and recorded the groovalistic Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse.

Stirring up a Molotov cocktail of blues, rock and free jazz Heroes set the sonic and lyrical blueprint for conscious rap decades before it existed. The luscious gravy-thick groove of “Jagger The Dagger” was wholly sampled by A Tribe Called Quest at the beginning of their first album, and mirrors Tribe’s approach to positivity and questioning of the music industry.

Armed with a musical posse of Roberta Flack’s sidemen, including both acoustic and electric bassists, McDaniels tunes snap like dry twigs in a bonfire. Their prickly grooves are a match for his cactus-sharp insights. The slow genocide of the American Indians in “The Parasite” is smoothly supported by a blanket of downtempo melody that slowly devolves into a smallpox of chaos.

McDaniels looks for answers to painfully clear social inequities. “What is the connection between racism and mob violence” he asks in his only-funny-in-retrospect “Supermarket Blues”, where his attempt to return a can of peas results in a personal beatdown. “How much ass will Jesus kick when he returns” is the subject of the rockin’ “The Lord is Back”. His razor-sharp voice evokes preacher-like rage when he sings of impending divine payback:

The Lord is mad
His disposition’s mean
He’s traveling the road to mass destruction
Poor hearts be glad
Y’know your troubles have been seen
He promised he’d make power reductions
Revelations tells us the time is near
(Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)
Better pay attention to the warning voice you hear.
(Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)

There was a payback all right, but not what McDaniels expected.

THE FALLOUT: It’s hard to conceive of it now, in a post-hip-hop universe, but in 1971 there were no angry, government-criticizing Black artists on a major label. In fact, Heroes enraged sitting Vice-President Spiro Agnew so much that he personally called up Atlantic Records and demanded to know why they had released such a disturbing and seditious record. From that point on Atlantic stopped all promotion and the album died. Although Heroes lived a secondary life in hip-hop, baked into songs by The Beastie Boys, Organized Konfusion and Pete Rock, McDaniels didn’t release another record under his own name for thirty-three years,

Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Muzzled by the powers that be, yet sampled by a future generation, the social rage of Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse is eerily current and prophetic.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Just in time for Yom Kippur, the music of Ugandan Jews.

Defunkt: Thermonuclear Sweat (1982)


Skyscrapers of groove.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: The downtown scene of New York City circa 1980 was the nexus of punk, jazz and dance music yet few artists attempted to compile all three styles into one mega-style, citing reasons such as “technically impossible” and “virtually unlistenable”. Enter trombonist Joseph Bowie, who developed the Voltron-like powers to merge these genres into one sound with his group Defunkt, who released their debut album the same year. A hit with musicians and a miss with everybody else they returned in 1982 with a tighter yet schizoid follow-up, the pummeling Thermonuclear Sweat.

Named after a song from their first album Thermonuclear Sweat stacks fast and furious funk grooves on top of one another – horns colliding with guitars crushed by percussion – until every sonic cavity is bursting with sound, and then Joseph Bowie sings on top of that. If the orchestral funk of Earth Wind & Fire walks with military precision Defunkt moves like a prison break: quick and focused but chaotic and angry.

“Avoid the Funk” ignores its own advice, slapping horns upside their heads with mercilessly heavy low end. Ever the versatile band they can stampede “Ooh Baby” into a headlong fury of melting guitar harshness, courtesy of a pre-Living Colour Vernon Reid, yet also float into the straight jazz (kinda) of “Big Bird (Au Private)”.

Bowie sings like a football coach yelling plays, which makes the revealing “I Tried to Live Alone” much more engagingly paranoid, and their revved-up fluttery cover of the O’Jays “For the Love Of Money” increasingly desperate.

THE FALLOUT: Not only did Thermonuclear Sweat not gain Defunkt a larger audience but it divided their fans over the inclusion of more traditional jazz elements. Defunkt soon left their label.

Thermonuclear Sweat is available from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

There once was a band from New York City who combined serrated punk guitars with high-speed polyrhythmic funk beats and made a breakthrough dance record in the early ’80s. That album was Talking Heads’ Remain In Light. Defunkt, ironically still together after 25 years, has yet to receive their due for pioneering the same sound years before.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Eugene McDaniels reaches the apocalypse.

Carl Hancock Rux: Apothecary RX (2004)


C’mon, ride the train.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Ever ridden the subway in New York? As part of a massive international city New York’s subway trains are loaded with folks from different lands and cultures, and if all of the riders of a single subway car decided to play music together during their travel, it might sound like the music of writer Carl Hancock Rux.

Rux composes beautiful poems, novels, operettas, plays and songs. In 1998 The New York Times deemed him one of the mostly likely people to artistically influence his generation, an appellation that did not help the sales of his first album Rux Revue, which confounded his labels’ promo team and flatlined. Five years later he released his followup, 2004’s magical Apothecary RX.

Rux’s restless baritone resonates with tobacco and absinthe, as if he’s seen too much and felt not enough, while it steadies and slices through his electronica-enhanced Middle Eastern and Southwestern-tinged songs.

The balletic bass and simmering cymbals drive “I Got A Name” into a tapestry of hidden piano and peek-a-boo choirs, where Rux gives thanks to the Lord while riding the beat like Hannibal on an elephant’s back. “Me”, his ode to his ongoing self-acceptance, jangles with delta-twang and continental buttery piano.

Rux clearly has someplace to be, as most of these songs find him mid-journey. Over a whistling percussion engine the church-like “Eleven More Days” eloquently encapsulates the joys of traveling homeward. The arid “Trouble Of This World” moves more like a sprint through the jungle after the firing of a warning shot, as native drums scare away the screaming guitar macaws.

He drops the ancient future beats for “Fanon” and kicks it super-old-school with wispy layers of cello, violins and melancholy. It’s the perfect song to play when you hear that your new album bricked…

THE FALLOUT:…which is exactly what happened. Four-star reviews yet four dozen copies sold. Rux vaulted to a new label and released Good Bread Alley two weeks ago. Let’s see if the music world has caught up to him yet.

Apothecary RX is available worldwide from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

Like a massive cup of Turkish coffee, Apothecary RX is strong, black, international and not for everybody. But if you like Turkish coffee, it’s very appealing for an exotic train ride.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Her name is Res, which rhymes with “peace”. No wonder you haven’t heard of her.

Betty Davis: self-titled (1973)


The original punk-funker.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 1969 jazz legend Miles Davis courted and married ex-model and songwriter Betty Davis, a fiercely outspoken woman who was half Miles’ age. During this time she served as his muse, turning him on to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone which directly inspired Miles’ creation of jazz-fusion with the landmark album Bitches Brew.

Although a hard-partying free-thinking drug enthusiast Miles found his dynamically hedonistic wife to be too unbridled for him, and divorced her within a year. She continued to channel her boundary-free persona into her music, unleashing her boundary-free debut album Betty Davis in 1973.

Sounding like Tina Turner with the swagger of Ike Turner, Betty Davis decimates preconceived notions of genre, gender and etiquette within its first thirty seconds in the cement hard funk–rock of “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up”. Davis’ singular howl is equally demonic, anxious and horny, and hearing her wail about her sexual prowling is intriguingly scary.

Utilizing musicians from Sly & Family Stone and Santana plus vocalists The Pointer Sisters and Sylvester, Davis extracts the hardest, roughest elements from rock and R&B and fuses a new, raw, diamond-hard clamor. It’s a sound tough enough to support tunes about being the other woman and liking it (“Your Man My Man”), her general anything-goes lifestyle (“Game is My Middle Name) and the death spiral of her junkie friend (“Steppin In Her I. Miller Shoes).

THE FALLOUT: Even though the early seventies was reveling in its first flush of feminism, a Black woman singing aggressively about sexual gratification went over like a pimp at a day care center.

It was too Black for rock radio, too Black for Black radio, and some cities banned it altogether, leading to pitiful sales and a short print life. Davis released two additional albums before retreating from public view in 1979.

Betty Davis is available worldwide from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

Betty Davis makes a stunning statement about the unification of music and its empowerment of the individual with an uncaged, unheard shriek.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: More fun with time-bending.

Funkadelic: The Electric Spanking of War Babies (1981)


The funk stops here.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: While Parliament rode high in the charts singing about motherships and star children, Funkadelic dealt with more underground concepts like America eating its young, maggots and slop. At least they did before they moved to Warner Brothers Records, when they jettisoned their guitar-heavy Black-nationalistic raunch’n’roll for synth-happy radio-friendly tunes from George Clinton’s Assembly-Line-O’-Funk.

Their turning point came in 1981 when the band realized Warner Brothers no longer had any interest in them, so they recorded an album solely to please their die-hard fans, the ultra-wacky The Electric Spanking of War Babies.

A shiny but spiny dance treat with a surprising world music edge, War Babies brought back lovely layers of nasty fuzztones and angry coded politics. The title track refers to the media’s eager participation in promoting our governments’ pro-war propaganda machine. A weighty topic for a weighty song, it bounces from a sprightly march to a raging metal singalong.

Along the way Funkadelic performs their take on reggae (the goofy “Shockwaves”) and African polyrhythms (the all-drum tour de force “Brettino’s Bounce”), while adding a major dose of giggles to the major league curse-off “Icka Prick”:

…If you think that’s nasty
Follow me to the men’s room
Watch me write on the wall

(This excerpt is the only clean part of “Icka Prick”. I was going to add more lyrics but the printed page misses how gleefully filthy the song is in context).

“Hmm” said the label. “That’s CLEARLY not single material.”

THE FALLOUT: Warner Brothers rejected the album cover, eventually printing it with a censored flap. Warner Brothers also rejected the length, refusing to release it as a double album. They dumped it in the marketplace, pressing only 90,000 copies even though the previous album, Uncle Jam Wants You, moved half a million units.

The only P-Funk product they did like was the soon-to-be-released debut album from Roger Troutman, who had recorded it for George Clinton’s label Uncle Jam Records. Warner Brothers did the unthinkable and secretly purchased the master tapes from Roger, releasing The Many Facets of Roger in 1981. Clinton promptly sued Warner, rightly claiming that he was the original owner of the tapes since he’d paid for the entire recording.

The courts agreed and George Clinton was awarded a chunk of cash, all the master tapes from the four albums Funkadelic recorded for Warner Brothers and the immediate termination of Funkadelic’s contract. Although this made them free agents the P-Funk army imploded under label stress and financial woes, and neither Funkadelic nor Parliament released another album again.

Well, not under those names anyway. The very next year George Clinton released his first solo album which was chock full of P-Funk alumni and featured a song Warner Brothers deemed unfit to include on War Babies: “Atomic Dog”.

Wow, what visionaries.

The Electric Spanking of War Babies is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

A kiss to their fans and a kiss-off to their label, The Electric Spanking of War Babies is the best P-Funk album you’ve never heard.

NEXT WEEK: The first birthday of Uppity Music. Who’s bringing the cake?

Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Wise Guy (1982)


Where your mai-tai is always refreshed.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Oh Europe! You lover of American culture you! How thankful we are that you support jazz and techno and comic books and interpretive dance cause we here in America need a helping hand to validate our own greatness! We love us some Hendrix but damn if he didn’t have to go to England to get a leg up.

This outright dismissal of homemade brilliance happens less in New York, and its downtown music scene of the early ’80s is where the zoot-suited Kid Creole and The Coconuts made their mark. Their revelatory blend of swinging salsa, frenetic funk and big band Broadway show tunes populated their 1981 album Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places, which found only a tiny audience. For their next album they turned up the gloss without losing the crunch, resulting in the dazzling Wise Guy.

An audio vacation cruise to exotic unknown locales, each cut shimmers and shakes with lusty abandon. Much like the Kid himself all the songs are danceable, humorous, nuanced and oh-so-sharp. The calypso and soca-fueled “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy” cleverly shows off the lighter side of pre-DNA paternity testing (“cause if I was in your blood, then you wouldn’t be so ugly”).

The romantic and dangerous “The Love We Have” mixes cold strings and warm horns into a frothy jungle drink of icy confusion. “I’m A Wonderful Thing, Baby” features a subdued swagger, its rippling muted guitars supporting a laundry list of the Kids’ liaisons.

Straight outta the speakeasy slides “Stool Pigeon”, a gangster-hard cautionary tale of ratting out to the Feds:

If you wanna squeal, said the FBI
We can make a deal, make it worth your while
So he told it all and in return
He got a credit card and a Thunderbird
He got a spanking new identity
And a condo down in Miami
He bought a plane, a boat and jewelry
But he couldn’t buy any company

Deep grooves with dark themes cloaked in confectionary glaze, how could anyone resist?

THE FALLOUT: Like Jimi Hendrix and James Baldwin, Kid Creole and the Coconuts blew up in England big time. Retitled Tropical Gangsters, it was a top five album, produced three hit singles and stayed on the charts for nine months. But back in the States it fell off the chart faster than a baby bird out of a malformed nest. Except for the rare dance hit, Kid Creole and the Coconuts never broke through to most of America.

Wise Guy is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Groundbreaking in its world music synthesis, Wise Guy dances alone.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Click into the future with Spacek.

Cody ChesnuTT: The Headphone Masterpiece (2002)


The Low Fidelity Theory.

Purchase this album:

THE SCENE: In 2000 Cody ChesnuTT’s band The Crosswalk were dropped from their label without ever releasing an album. Where many folks would respond by shutting themselves off in their room for a good long sulk, ChesnuTT went to his room with a four-track recorder and cut the thirty-six tracks that make up the exuberant The Headphone Masterpiece.

Back in the day (and by this I mean before computers came with free audio software) inexpensive four-track recorders were the must-have item for all working musicians. No matter where inspiration struck, within seconds you could capture your musical ramblings for posterity. Eventually many a musician would get the urge to recreate their intimate demos by shelling out thousands of dollars for a proper studio recording, where the unfamiliar surroundings would ensure a soulless, sterile facsimile of a once great performance.

ChesnuTT’s brilliant move was to completely ignore this urge and release his recordings as is, complete with tape hiss, background noise and the occasional bum note. Headphone has ninety minutes of songs as catchy as a food-borne virus, its length providing an extra-large visit with ChesnuTT’s extra-large love and sex-fueled persona.

Like a friendly waiter at a down-home diner he provides comfort-food helpings of ’60s style rockers (the surf garage-y “Upstarts in a Blowout” and “Look Good in Leather), soul-man electronica ( the ominous “The World is Coming To My Party”) and folk-gospel ballads (the sad organ pleading of “She’s Still Here”). With his unfeasibly large ego, flexible tenor and dark humor he begs for forgiveness in the nicotine withdrawal anthem “Somebody’s Parent”, and gets jealous of his infant son in his own damn lullaby (No worries/No stress/You lucky motherfucker) in “Daddy’s Baby”.

In the original, shambling version of “The Seed”, ChestnuTT compares musical genre-breaking to primal infidelity:

I don’t beg
FROM no rich man
And I don’t scream, and kick,
when his shit don’t fall in my hands, man
Cuz I know how to STEAL
Fertilize another against my lover’s will
I lick the opposition cuz she don’t take no pill
Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-no dear
You’ll be keeping my legend alive
I push my seed in her push for life
Its gonna work because I’m pushin’ it right
If Mary drops my baby girl tonight
I would name her Rock-N-Roll

Even his indulgences are interesting, such as the way-too-short “Batman vs. Blackman”, the never-really started “Setting the System” and the warped-in-progress “ So Much Beauty in the Subculture”.

Ambitious? Oh heck yeah.

THE FALLOUT: Cody ChesnuTT was a media sensation in 2003, appearing in an unprecedented amount of high-profile media outlets normally out of reach for such an unknown and unclassifiable musician. He also had a minor radio hit with “The Seed 2.0”, an muscular re-recording with The Roots. Oddly, The Headphone Masterpiece never sold as well as his notoriety would lead one to believe, and in 2006 I had a difficult time finding a store that stocked it. And I live in a college town.

Cody ChesnuTT has yet to record a followup.

The Headphone Masterpiece is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

In a modern world where nearly every musical note we hear has been placed and altered with diamond-cutting precision, an album that ignores thirty years of recording advancements is downright heretical. But top-notch songwriting and performances trump sonic clarity any day of the year, and The Headphone Masterpiece proves that point admirably.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Kid Creole and The Coconuts get wise.

James Brown and His Famous Flames: Sings Christmas Songs (1966)


Funk is…a ham hock in your egg nog.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 1966 Christmas albums were strictly the domain of pop acts (think Nat “King” Cole) or smoothed-out rock acts (think The Beach Boys). James Brown was the first Black rock’n’roll or R&B artist to release an entire Christmas album, the aptly named Sings Christmas Songs.

One of five albums he released that year, Brown recorded a surprisingly lush assortment of standards with subtle dustings of breakbeats. Even though this coincided with his ascent into his heavy funk many of these tracks are waltzes. Go figure.

Brown tackles Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” with skittering drums, warm horns and a vocal raspyness that humanizes some of the more trite lyrics. He also serves up a cover of Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby”, in which he oddly tries to emulate Charles Brown’ buttery flow.

He reclaims his own voice in “Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year” where he stops singing and talks to you, the listener, about what he’s thankful for this holiday season. It should be corny as hell but he pulls it off brilliantly.

Rich romantic violins feature prominently in “Please Come Home For Christmas” and “Christmas In Heaven” where Brown gets his croon on and gently pleads (OK, begs) for his baby.

His ode to Jesus, “Sweet Little Baby Boy”, is a surprisingly orchestrated country & western affair, perfect for drinking hot toddies or slow line dancing.

All in all, the perfect holiday package for, well, no one in 1966.

THE FALLOUT: Stylistically out of character and indifferently packaged, Sings Christmas Songs went over as well as coal in a Christmas stocking. He fared exceeding better with his next Christmas album, 1968’s unabashedly funky Soulful Christmas.

All of Sings Christmas Songs can be found on The Complete James Brown Christmas, available from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

A groundbreaker in holiday albums, Sings Christmas Songs opened the door for all musical acts to record Christmas-themed concept records. (So in some strange way, William Hung’s Hung for the Holidays is James Brown’s fault. Thanks, James.)

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: The last review of 2005!

MeShell Ndegéocello: Bitter (1999)


Truth in packaging.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 1996 singer/bassist/composer MeShell Ndegéocello released her second recording, the funky and soulful Peace Beyond Passion. Adding to her repertoire of romance tunes were songs about racism, religion and homophobia — just enough food for thought for commercial radio to drop her from playlists. Three years later she returned with all-new reasons for radio silence, the wounded Bitter.

Raw as a salted wound, Bitter is the fresh grave of a dead romance; the sounds that come out of your mouth after you’re all cried out. Gone are the rubbery bass lines and synthetic articulations, replaced with acoustic instruments played at speed of melting ice.

Her voice remains a smoky hush but now blackened with ash. Pleading with vulnerability, her empathic grief extends to every song, every tone, but never becoming pitiful. In the measured “Fool of Me”, her anguish is so deep perhaps the brushed drums are the only thing keeping her from falling to pieces.

“Beautiful” is even more fragile, revealing the intimate talk between lovers that we probably shouldn’t be hearing:

such pretty hair
may I kiss you
may I kiss you there
so beautiful you are
so beautiful

don’t move
you feel
so good to me
tell me in my ear


Even the instrumentals offer no solace. The casket-black beats of “Adam” anchor the weeping violins, while the plucked strings of “Eve” sound lost in a void of displacement.

The faster tracks sparkle with restrained tension. The pastoral regalness of “Satisfy” is a woodsy, forest dream. “Wasted Time” is a sparse skeleton dance of the burnt-out, with a tasty dehydrated slide guitar.

Ndegéocello also reinterprets Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love” as a quasi-East Indian raga that hovers and darts into space music. Within the confines of the album this zigzag of styles is intoxicating, but outside the album….

THE FALLOUT: Named “Album of the Year” by many journalists, Bitter infuriated fans who wanted the funkier MeShell back, and it tanked. Ndegéocello revisited her approach again in 2005 with the release of the jazzy and challenging The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance Of The Infidel.

Bitter is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

A fierce emotional letter-bomb, Bitter triumphantly reconstructs the particles of heartbreak into a new, hopeful organism.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Good stuff from Bad Brains.

Shuggie Otis: Freedom Flight (1971)


What did you do when you were eighteen?

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: If you were the son of R&B great Johnny Otis, you were releasing your third album. As a kid Shuggie Otis spent years playing guitar in his father’s band, receiving an enviable musical education. His previous album, 1970’s Here Comes Shuggie Otis, was a charming blues entry but Freedom Flight was something else entirely.

Using the blues as a starting point, Otis effortlessly blended California’s folk, funk and orchestral pop genres into a unified theory of music, composing and arranging and performing it nearly by himself. At freakin’ eighteen.

Otis is a master guitarist, and his rippling fretwork buzzsaws through “Ice Cold Daydream” like hail on a windshield. His gentle, sunny voice is a mellow counterpoint to the aggressiveness of the track.

Well-known through its smoothed-out interpretation by The Brothers Johnson, “Strawberry Letter 23” is a gorgeous masterwork of spacey textures and evocative lyrics:

In the garden, I see
West purple shower bells and tea
Orange birds and river cousins
Dressed in green

Pretty music I hear
So happy and loud
Blue flowers echo
From a cherry cloud

Named for his desire to receive his girlfriends’ next strawberry-scented letter, this original version’s fragility is a revelation. The bells and “ooh ooh ooh ooh-oohs” all are present but its’ heartfeltness adds a tension missing from the more famous version.

“Sweet Thang” features him playing barroom piano and western slide guitar in one ear and churchified organ in the othe rear, resulting in the effect of having an angel and the devil standing on your shoulders, chatting away.

“Freedom Flight” is a rumbling and purring lullaby of sweet strings, chiming guitar and echoey sax. It’s grace and restraint allows it to command thirteen minutes without succumbing to tediousness.

The overall mood is wonderfully unpretentious. He seems to have no idea how dramatically groundbreaking his music is, he’s just a kid having fun.

THE FALLOUT: Although the album got props from other West Coast artists, it was received by the public with all the joy of a tax audit, and found no takers. Three years later Otis released his last album, the brilliant and equally genre-mining Inspiration Information, which only found an audience after its 2001 re-release.

During a concurrent high-profile comeback tour, Otis’ inability to perform a complete or coherent song with his band, night after night, was the first public inkling that the unfulfilled prodigy within him had taken a dark turn.

Freedom Flight is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Beating both Prince’s and Stevie Wonder’s one-man show by both personal age and recording date, Shuggie Otis’ Freedom Flight is a genre without a name, an album without a time, and a voice without a future.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: The first time Richard Pryor was on fire.