20 Ravishing Obscurities

I should confess immediately that the title under which this piece appears is entirely dishonest, since none of the expobident (adjective courtesy of San Francisco jazz DJ of yore Miles Mellough) pop albums listed here truly is obscure. On the other hand if you’ve never heard of them I suppose they are.

For the record (cough), among the most detestable conditions afflicting mankind since the appearance of cave drawings are the incidents of creative works underexposed or under enjoyed along with suffering humanity desperate to discover fresh musical nourishment, perhaps for the morning commute. So let the healing begin now.

Thundercat, The Golden Age of the Apocalypse 

Released last year, Thundercat is actually a virtuoso bass player named Stephen Bruner, most associated with the work of Flying Lotus, a genre-bending act whose precise label is hard to apprehend, but could crudely be described as avant-electronic soul-jazz. It doesn’t really matter. Golden Age of the Apocalypse is one of those, “I’m not sure what the hell this is, but it’s a thing of beauty” albums that combine unbelievable musicianship with gorgeous music. For me it has the sound of modernly refurbished jazz-soul fusion from the 1970’s, drawing inspiration from George Duke, Shuggie Otis, Roy Ayers and Return to Forever.  With its stunning, fleet bass playing, lilting vocals, fluid and precise electronic honey it is flowing, unpredictable, futuristic and sweetly soulful at the same time.

Lewis Taylor, Stoned, Part 1

I’m a certifiable bore when I’ve started in on English musician Lewis Taylor, rhetorically grabbing people by the lapels and pushing them against the wall in order to preach the criminality of Lewis Taylor’s far too restricted fame. I pretty much covered it all here with the post, Where Art Thous Undercover Black Man. Still, it’s hard to find one album that is such an immersion in pure pleasure as this one, among only four Taylor released before entirely vanishing in exasperation, despite being lauded by no small number of heralded greats. A man who can play killer guitar, and other instruments well enough to fill out a band in a studio he’s not simply a gifted auteur who can meld Motown, psychedelia, West Coast harmony and dance, but an artist who can concoct absolutely stunning songs. Recreating styles and genres is a limited talent: recreating them with songs of a quality that equals or measures the original versions is exceedingly rare.

The Bird and the Bee, The Bird and the Bee

The Bird and the Bee is the duet of producer and keyboardist Greg Kurstin and vocalist Inara George. Even if she wasn’t a thrilling songbird Inara George probably would have had me at hello anyhow simply out of respect for her lineage, being the daughter of the deceased Lowell George, the core of Little Feat and a master guitarist whose economically funky and tasty playing made him one of the most renowned guitarists of all time in a band that seemed to hit every lick exactly on the money without gratuitous waste or flash. But she is indeed a thrilling songbird and on this the first of three albums so far the collaboration is stellar already. While the playing is fairly standard electro pop (no Vampire Weekend ambitions here) it essentially serves as accompaniment for Ms. George, singing some very, very good songs. Those songs are a difficult to pin mixture of Supremes, Ronnettes, jazzy Tropicalia in the vein of Flora Purim’s work with Chick Corea, and a touch of Dominique Durand from Ivy, maybe. It’s poppy, bouncy, sassy and witty…fluffy in the best sense.

Dean & Britta, L’ Avventura

Another male-female duet, this one is a married couple, Dean Wareham, founder and guitarist of the nineties band Luna and Britta Phillips, bass player in later editions of the band. As one would expect this duet’s work is more musically filled out, Wareham contributing his mid-era Velvet Underground guitar work and Phillips’ accompaniment on bass, along with dollops of strings and synthesizer. This music is dreamy and droll, metropolitan and New York-ey, svelte and shimmering. And indeed the music does suggest the sleek beauty and languor of Antonioni’s classic Sixties’ film L’Avventura.

The Brand New Heavies, Brother, Sister

This one fairly can be described as a lost classic from the 1990’s, song for song a tour de force and a party album extraordinaire. When the Heavies arrived they were categorized with other bands of the period like US3 as Acid Jazz, though they could more fittingly be described as hard soul-jazz perhaps (Maybe a distinction without a difference). Frankly, this album finds and plunders grooves almost to the point of orgasm. You can’t stop playing it. It should come with a warning that it should not be used in combination with drugs or alcohol, though of course it should. The principal singer, N’ Dea Davenport is truly a force of nature and a voice for the ages, while the Heavies have the tightest horns since the JB’s punctuated James Brown.

Arto Lindsay, Mundo Civilizado

You can probably hurt yourself attempting to convey the musical career of Arto Lindsay but I’ll boldly venture. He began as part of seventies Lower East Side experimental No Wave punk band DNA, worked with avant-garde sax player John Zorn before forming The Ambitious Lovers in the late Eighties, whose sound might be classified as Pop-Rock Bossa Nova Deconstructionism. The music was wildly romantic, alternating between squealing guitar and beautiful melody, a truly magical brew clearly doomed. In his solo albums since, Lindsay, who was born in Brazil and grew up in New York explores a subtle, pop-tinged Bossa Nova, alternating English and Portuguese, with Lindsay playing a brand of prickly yet lush electric guitar. Mundo Civilizado is one of his best, music that is gentle, erotic, wry, romantic and intelligent.

Style Council, Our Favourite Shop

Brit Paul Weller, otherwise known as the Modfather, followed his work in the groundbreaking band The Jam with a band that went in a (mostly) different direction entirely. Perhaps only Weller could so instinctively (it would have to be so to work) blend English mod with American R & B. This may be one of the finest incarnations of Blue-Eyed Soul ever, or at least prior to Lewis Taylor. Of the four Style Council studio albums Our Favourite Shop probably has the headiest mix of Mersey Beat, jazziness, Continental boulevard romanticism, smooth soul and Brazilian, along with acidic anti-Thatcher political critiques to boot.

Mick Harvey, Intoxicated Man

The multi-instrumentalist from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds has made two tribute albums covering the songs of Serge Gainsbourg, this the first. Unless one is fluent in French, these English versions of Gainsbough classics afford fuller access to the Gainsbourg lyrical panache.  Harvey’s voice has the requisite suaveness to pull it off. Bonnie and Clyde, Harley Davidson, Ford Mustang, Lemon Incest and other favorite Gainsbourg Pop Art ditties are here. Harvey backs the songs with a rich sounding and inventively used basic combo of organ, bass drums and guitar. It’s a properly boozy and irony-soaked covering of Gainsbourg’s cocktail manic-depressiveness. You’ll be seeing Pink Elephants.

The Bogmen, Life Begins at 40 Million

This truly original band from New York has been pegged as a direct descendant of Talking Heads, and though they are produced by an original member of the Heads they are in fact sui generis. Somehow the eccentricity of the vocals and lyrics make a set of great songs even more interesting. Perhaps the association with Talking Heads is that you can picture this band playing in a small club adjacent to an art or design school and funkifying the joint out of control. This is a very supple form of ringing guitar-based rock, lyrically obscure, inventive, jumpy, melodic and lush at the same time. It’s uniquely mesmerizing and caffeinated.

Lambchop, Nixon

This band from Nashville creates albums that are strangely sublime, to my ears beautiful downers heavy on the beauty. This is the album of theirs I like best, though it has no discernible association with Richard Nixon as best as I can tell, though you are welcome to do further exegesis on those oblique lyrics. There is a preoccupation with Americana here, though it is conveyed with the most unlikely melodies and arrangements otherwise more likely to be found on an album by Curtis Mayfield or Al Green. The singer, Kurt Wagner will outright sing at times, go sing-song at others, and sometimes veer into the most tortured soul falsetto you will ever hear. The first time around it may send you under the bed to hide, though on future listening it somehow poignantly fits the dolorous material, redolent of the dark lounge, and dejected writers crying in their beer and vodka.

Real Estate, Days

Many a band has attempted to create sun-dappled albums of quiet beauty steeped in jangly guitar and West Coast harmonies and failed, whereas Real Estate has done it successfully on their first album, and last year’s Days. Though there is nothing novel here, this is an album of gorgeously meshing filigreed guitar playing and chiming harmonies that is truly transporting.  The music is meditative at times, whimsical at others, and always intricately woven. They may not be the Byrds; but they still might have appeared on a bill at the Whiskey circa ’67.

Brazzaville, Rouge on a Pockmarked Street

All you need to know about this LA band’s sound is conveyed by the album title, each of their albums bearing a similar feel as this one. The instruments all sound rich and ripe, and the vocals woozily suggestive of cheap hotels in foreign ports and the women who go with them. But this album is more intriguing than that, with strands of the political (Globalism anyone?) while also working the Beat beat.  Exotic, erotic, slightly dangerous, lusciously low rent and adventurous all apply here. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.

I am Kloot, Natural History

If one were to hear this band’s music without knowing precisely what it was, one easily could mistake it for vintage material from the British Invasion. In part this is due to the absence of electronics and the vividness of its basic rock combo instrumentation. This band isn’t trying to recreate anything, it’s just the kind of music they seem to like and do well. But the singer has one of those perfect rock-ready voices, and the hard strumming guitar and hard pounding piano give the songs a timeless feel. On any given song Kloot may suggest early Zombies or certainly pre-symphonic Moody Blues. Their lyrics as well as their sound also possess a dark humor and cheekiness that nod toward Ray Davies and the iconic band the Kinks. It’s a little bluesy and a little jazzy and it’s damn good.

The High Llamas, Snowbug

Since I heard the Llamas breakthrough album, Hawaii released in 1996, and because of its Brian Wilson innovations and stylings dubbed by a critic “the greatest album Brian Wilson never made,” the Llamas have been one of my favorite bands.  Early on the band’s creative force Sean O’ Hagen incorporated a great deal of electronic dazzle into the Llamas sophisticated and strikingly melodic albums. The album Cold and Bouncy was musically warm and cold at the same time with its pinpoint electric guitar and computer gurgling in service of Wilsonesque beauty. The band then moved more heavily into chamber pop, O’ Hagen arguably the best and brightest composer and arranger for strings working in pop music. Snowbug is the perfect mix of Llamas sounds and a fantastic collection of songs. There’s a mingling of strings, electronics and the nylon string guitar playing O’ Hagen features. O’ Hagen has a perfect ear for beautiful or catchy melodies and this is a cornucopia of chamber pop, Bossa Nova and innovative poppiness, complete with idiosyncratically literate lyrics.

Hobex, Enlightened Soul

I don’t know if this group is still a going concern (they haven’t made an album in a while), but the Charlotte, N.C. band fronted by former Dillon Fence guitarist Greg Humphreys can flat out produce southern-fried funk crossed with what in the southeastern United States is known as Beach Music, a brand of classic soul you know when you hear it (The Drifters, the Tams, the Embers for instance) along with a dose of deep south electric blues.  One could say they’re Allman Brothers meets Willie Tee meets Johnny Winter. This album is heavier on the soul and blues end, whereas their album U Ready Man? specializes in long form boogie and Texas Pete blues. This is music that makes you sweat, one way or the other.

Scritti Politti, White Bread, Black Beer

The band’s name is a tribute to the work of Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, the group starting out in the late 70’s, early 80’s as a left-wing post-punk and ska band, though  gradually evolving into experimental electro –pop. Besides its namesake, it is also recommended for having had Miles Davis cover one of its songs, and play on one of its recordings. This is another bunch very hard to pigeonhole, though its auteur Green Gartside is able to combine a very full, soulful electronic sound with intensely sweet, sexy pop melodies. This is the album with the richest set of Scritti songs for my ears, lyrically clever with a little more melancholy and brooding than previously rolled into the mix. Technically speaking this is one of the most polished albums one will ever hear, captivating simply on the basis of its sound. But when you combine the studio virtuosity with the luxuriousness of the music you have something truly gorgeous.

Kurt Weill, Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill

I’m certainly as susceptible to a great cover of an original as the next music nerd; but normally I forego tribute albums, not particularly interested in a full album of covers, preferring to stick with the artists who originated the work. This one is an exception. Though Weill’s compositions have been covered by artists ranging from Bobby Darin to P.J. Harvey to the Doors, the lineup for this collection really produces, and it should given the level of talent: Tom Waits, Van Dyke Parks, Marianne Faithful, Todd Rundgren, Lou Reed, Carla Bley, Henry Threadgill, John Zorn, Elliot Sharpe and Charlie Haden among the artists. There’s healthy representation from Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, while Mahogany, Lost in the Stars, One Touch of Venus and Happy End are represented too. If hearing this turns you into an all-black wearing cabaret communist, just go with the flow.

Field Music, Plumb

If a bastard child can have more than two parents this one is the progeny of 10cc, XTC and Squeeze, and plays a brand of smart-ass art-rock that may require a degree in higher mathematics to understand precisely how it was composed; but the result is really stirring, and precise. This band, with its ability to produce magnetically irresistible hooks and then dispense with them after two minutes resembles Robert Pollard’s Guided by Voices. But this is a very different sound, the opposite in fact, rather than lo-fi this has whiz-bang studio chops written all over it: guitars sounding so crisp and keyboards so percussive you get the feeling they’re playing this music wearing Hapsburg military dress uniforms. The music tends to flow in clipped collages, jagged, intense and catchy as hell.

April March, Chrominance Decoder

Physically and vocally channeling Serge Gainsbourg paramour and Blow-Up cutie Jane Birkin, especially when she sings in French and especially when she covers Gainsbourg, she just as easily channels Astrud Gilberto doing Jobim. Her eclecticism and unpredictability are essential to her charm, but she’s a witty and gifted songwriter too. This album is a genuine pop confection, and like March herself, ravishing. Parts of it suggest nineties French lounge DJ’s like Dmitri from Paris, other parts Sixties girl groups, others clinking glass cocktail jazz, others French Ye Ye and some of it just good old American pop. But it’s all pure pleasure.

Roy Ayers, You Send Me

Roy Ayers isn’t obscure, certainly not in jazz or soul circles.  But you don’t hear a lot about him anymore, even though he was perhaps the most artful of all practitioners of the funk and soul jazz fusion movement of the 1970’s, a genre that seems to be trending heavily these days in the work of any number of current pop and jazz performers.  There were certainly flashes of his style in many of the acid-jazz acts during the flowering of that genre in the nineties.  With its emphasis on electric keyboards and vibes, meshed with soul horns and funky bass played with jazz virtuosity, along with the addition of Motown smooth vocals this music always struck me as a great musical merger. Ayers’ cover of Sam Cooke’s classic You Send Me is really delicious, and the rest of the album renders golden soul with fusion propulsion. It is most definitely a heavenly marriage.

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