Classic Album of the Week: Digable Planets-Blowout Comb

On their second LP as Digable Planets, Ladybug Mecca, Butterfly, and Doodlebug combined their laid-back, internal-rhyme-heavy verses with landscape-sketching beats and infectious yet fleeting refrains for a project that is at once relentlessly mellow and chock full of hidden detail.

Blowout Comb opens on classic horn punches, but a tiny guitar melody follows with warm vocals, before a verse from Ladybug.  Black Ego follows with seven minutes that thrive nearly entirely on instrumentals with a solemn acoustic bass melody combined with highly articulated drums and distant, whispery backing vocals.

The group wear Brooklyn on their sleeves on Borough Check–which starts with a crunchy, live rap-battle setting, before finding a more smooth studio sound–and Graffiti, where the planets strut their stuff and out-rhyme the whole city.

Political undercurrents pop out on Black Ego‘s sketch of an arrest–“like I ever had rights?” and although the album is famously not radio friendly,  the infectious Ohio Players sample on 9th Wonder (Blackitolism) shines as lyrics address mainstream consumption of black style–“Now glamor boys want to be triple phatted.”

Shouting out Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus (among others), the group owned the Jazz-Rap tag and brought it to new heights on the masterful Blowout Comb.

Classic Album of the Week: Roscoe Mitchell Sextet-Sound (1966)

On his first album as a band leader, Roscoe Mitchell gave the world a first glance at the music that the Art Ensemble of Chicago–of which Mitchell and a few of these musicians were a part of–would be enamored with throughout their illustrious career.  Coming seven years after Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, Sound extended Coleman’s message with a more collective playing style and further dives into experimental textures. The aptly named opener Ornette follows the same melody-improvisation-melody formula that Coleman used so often, but The Little Suite follows with great deal of components, each of which tested limits of aesthetic and timbre with harmonicas and other texturally driven instrumental sounds.  At 20-minutes long, title-track Sound was certainly one of the most rebellious offerings of the 1960s.

Chicago was a town that always held an influence on jazz history as many New Orleans-born heroes had to flee to a less racist part of the country late in their careers.  The Art Ensemble of Chicago proved the importance of the city’s art music scened by pushing the idea of improvisation further than it had ever been with each performance.  Sound was the start of their rise and without it the fundamental ideas of free improvisation would not be where they are today.

Classic Album of the Week: The Slits-Cut

On Cut, The Slits wore feminism on their sleeves and presented a pivotal late-70s rock record that fused post-punk, reggae, and art-rock into one eclectic jangle.  “Instant Hit” kicks things off with a taste of the group’s open, back-beat grooves and collective vocal delivery.  “Spend, Spend, Spend” and “Shoplifting”battle consumerism before “Ping Pong Affair” depicts the ever-present possibility of facing violence as a woman in society. Perhaps the work’s most notable single is the anthemic “Typical Girls.”  Switching between that pretty piano melody and the driving punk riffage, vocalist Ari Up sarcastically drums up society’s formula for the respectable woman and rips it down with her iconic snarly high-notes.  From the quirkier approach to synths that the Talking Heads would take up in the 80’s to the lo-fi obsession of the 90’s, reverberations of this album would be heard all over rock music for decades.

Classic Album of the Week: Marvin Gaye-What’s Going On

1971 found the United States deeply involved in a seemingly meaningless war in Vietnam. Families were destroyed, men were drafted across seas to fight for unclear reasons, and many an American was simply wondering what was happening to the world.  Mowtown legend Marvin Gaye took a step back and concisely asked “what’s going on” over eloquently produced orchestral arrangements for 35 minutes of flawless, politically-charged musical material.  The album is a singular concept work, each song flows into the next, and some absolutely transcendent musical moments strike in the middle of the individual tracks.  The soaring high note as Gaye pleads “save the world that is destined to die” on “Save the Children” descending a half step on the final beat has always struck me as well as the massive shift from driving funk with smokey horns back to the spacey darkness of the rest of the album on “Right On.”

It’s also important to remember that this work is not entirely meant for “all Americans.” Alongside “War is hell,” Gaye also wonders when the police brutality facing the black community will end: “for those of us who live where hatred is enslaved.”  He wants to know when he–and other people of color–will truly feel welcome in their own country. It’s an album that criticizes war and asks for a movement for peace for all, but it’s also an album that tackles racially driven inequality at home.

Classic Album of the Week: Sonic Youth-Daydream Nation

Daydream Nation is one of those records that came at the end of a decade and gave the world a taste of every sound that was about to explode all over a genre.  The band looked to DC hardcore and threw in some lengthy, Patti Smith spoken word art rock and also purely innovated new ideology.  The general brooding darkness–a byproduct of alternate guitar tunings and heavy distortion–would be all over the Seattle scene, whereas experimental moments–like the ambient track “Providence”–would influence the likes of Bark Psychosis and Godspeed! You Black Emperor.

Raucous riffs dominate, on some tracks underlying a fun vocal delivery before pounding the listener for huge swaths of time with a switch into minor yielding a noisy finale.  There’s a sense that the band came up with little, simple song structures, but they come at an irregular pace.  We open with Kim Gordon’s hazy spoken word, before a fun, marching tune sets in; “The Sprawl” ends with a spacey instrumental, then the singers don’t show up for another two minutes at the beginning of “Cross the Breeze.”

The lyrics capture the moods of the 20s with laying them out to obviously for you.  “I’m over the city, fucking the future” suggests mild arrogance; “I remember our youth, our high ideals” tells us about how the magic gets pummeled out of you.

When you take a step back, you see an 80-minute record that many consider a masterpiece, but the listening experience is never overly daunting and flies by with each stroke of that cheap guitar.

Classic Album of the Week: Alice Coltrane-Journey in Satchidananda

The year 1959 is one of the many years in music deemed “the year that started it all” or “the best year in ___.”  In the jazz realm, artists like Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Dave Brubeck, and Charles Mingus all released earth shattering material that would drive musical ideology for the next decade.  In a very broad sense these albums were tied together by a push to extend the possibilities of jazz within a traditional aesthetic.  Brubeck wanted to play in new time signatures, whereas Davis and Coleman wanted to see how far their ensembles could go with improvisation.

Although the 1970s weren’t necessarily heralded in by an equally inspiring year, the inclination to add new instruments and fuse new genres seemed to take over.  On Journey in Satchidananda, Alice Coltrane truly came into her own and found a way to complement her use of harp.  Iconic bass lines, and modal vamps form the basis for huge swaths of improvisation from Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders.  Tanpura supplied by Indian Musician Tulsi–along with occassional use of oud–ties in the use of harp in a way that Coltrane had never done.  It’s an album that showcased the remarkable talents of the instrumentalists at hand and pushed the genre into uncharted territory.

Classic Album of the Week: Underworld-dubnobasswithmyheadman

My latest idea is to listen primarily to one classic record while walking to and from class all week and make a post about it on Saturdays.  First up is Underworld’s dubnobasswithmyheadman.

Underworld’s 1994 record is a lengthy trance effort that bends elements of rock and minimal wave into a techno setting.  With Karl Hyde’s jaunting vocal efforts bouncing over massive grooves built up by instrumental and synthetic elements, the record hearkens back to the 80s, while pushing forward to the underground dance scene of the 90s.  The group also manages to use a great deal of different centerpieces when constructing their tune.  From “ME’s” vocal sample, to the pummeling drums of “Mmm Skyscraper I Love You,” the band constantly challenges themselves to construct their wall of sound on a different foundation, making the 72 minute album pass by with ease.

-Donovan Burtan