December 17: David Ackles, American Music Club, Chicago, Drive Like Jehu, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, United States Of America

Because the USA is such a vast, sprawling place, incorporating a whole plethora of different cultures and dynamics and philosophies, and yet at the same time sharing a generally distinctive identity with codified mythology, it inspires many artists to try and reflect that in their music. This week, we’re looking at seven artists who feature America in either their band name or their album title. No Spotify links this week as weirdly half of these albums weren’t on Spotify.

David Ackles, ‘American Gothic’

This guy was a singer-songwriter who was a big influence on Elton John (among others), but his records were completely ignored at the time and even now, less than 5% of the Listchallenges.com community had listened to this album. It’s a sort of theatrical vaudeville heavy on Americana and Brechtian oompah, somewhere between Scott Walker and Nick Cave, between Rufus Wainwright and Danny Elfman. Ackles, who looked kind of like a 70s cop show actor, was already in his mid-30s when he released this, his third and penultimate album. It’s an album that’s easier to appreciate as a fellow architect than as an aesthete: I can admire the craft but the songs didn’t draw me in.

American Music Club, ‘California’

American Music Club are a Mark Eitzel band who recorded in the 80s and 90s and who are often associated with sadcore: this album is mostly slow, melancholy, vaguely country-ish alt.rock. There’s a pedal steel on a couple of the tracks to augment the Nashville tinge, but the album didn’t yield many surprises apart from the Stooges-and-harmonica mis-step of ‘Bad Liquor’.

Chicago, ‘Chicago Transit Authority’

Recorded in 1969, this is the band’s debut album and, much to the delight of their skeptical record label, a double. It is an eclectic yet coherent combination of brassy jazz-rock, Supertramp-ian ballads, Hendrix noodling and politically-charged anti-Vietnam material. Gets a bit boring in the middle with the lengthy guitar digressions. Amazingly, the band are still going, having released over 30 albums, albeit without guitarist Terry Kath, who died in 1978 by accidentally shooting himself in the head.

Drive Like Jehu, ‘Yank Crime’

I’d never previously heard of DLJ before they were stiffed on the All Tomorrow’s Parties that they were curating, but I was mildly familiar with guitarist John Reis’s chart-troubling later band Rocket From The Crypt. This is my first listen to them. Recorded in 1994, this album still sounds incredibly fresh, mainly because of the genres it deals in: it’s an album of complicated, lengthy, aggressively mathcore-ish emo which sounds like it came out in the last ten years, not 23 years ago. There’s only nine songs over 53 minutes here, and the band’s legacy is apparent in later bands like Rival Schools, Hundred Reasons and no doubt many others. Drummer Mark Trombino went on to helm records by Jimmy Eat World and Blink-182 and presumably made millions of dollars out of emo. Good on him.

Curtis Mayfield, ‘There’s No Place Like America Today’

Another one that few of the Listchallenges community had heard, and Mayfield’s final appearance on the list. Characterised by Curtis’s wah-wah guitar and falsetto, this lushly-orchestrated album is a cool place to hang out for 40 minutes. It creates a consistent atmosphere, stabilised by a lack of tempo shifting, even if the melodies rarely grip. I think my favourite album by this guy is his first, ‘Curtis’, which features ‘Move On Up’.

Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, ‘Winter in America’

GSH is seen as a big influence to early hip-hop, although like fellow pioneers The Last Poets, the stuff that inspired rappers is more easily understood as post-Beat: spoken word poetry over jazzy keyboards. Here, GSH alternates between poetry and soulful singing, while Jackson contributes 4am jazz club motifs on acoustic and electric pianos and a rhythm section gently accompanies. Okay, but more an album that sounds cool rather than lovable. Confusingly, the song ‘Winter in America’ is on the next album.

The United States of America, ‘The United States of America’

“Reality is temporary,” Dorothy Moskovitz sings halfway through an album apparently dedicated to proving it. This was a trio of weird Commies who got some knackered science lab equipment to make spacey ‘Blake’s 7’ noises and recruited a rhythm section to try and ground the music on planet Earth. Every so often, some olde calliopes play excerpts from Sousa or whatever before someone makes some sci-fi effects on an electric violin or a ring modulator or something. The band’s name is apt: they celebrate the past of American music while violently trying to wrestle it forwards into the atomic age. Sadly, though, their efforts were abortive: this is their only album before they disintegrated.

For the next two weeks, we’re on Christmas break, so the updates will be a round-up of some of the best albums on the list that I’d already heard when I started this project. (Eventually, all the albums will be on the blog).

Status update: 721 listened to (72%), 280 remain.

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June 25: Chic, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Parliament, Prince, Sly and the Family Stone, War

I hear this week’s choice of albums is a bad mother-

Shut your mouth!

But I’m talking about funk!

Then we can dig it!

This week, we’ll be getting on the dancefloor with some of the funkiest platters in the box, so I hope you’re ready to shake your ass.

Chic, ‘Risque’

Our second and final visit to Nile and the gang opens with immaculate evergreen ‘Good Times’, and if you don’t like that then I can’t do nothing for you. There’s two other singles on the album, ‘My Forbidden Lover’ and ‘My Feet Keep Dancing’, which follow a similar template of cool guitar chopping, elastic bass and string section. Meanwhile, this week’s most apt song, ‘Warm Summer Night’, drifts at the same sort of tempo I was operating at all week in zillion-degree heatwave temperature. As with ‘C’est Chic’, the album’s B-side has a dull experiment in repetition, although at least ‘Will You Cry (When You Hear This Song)’ is only four minutes compared to seven minutes of ‘At Last I Am Free’. One of the great singles bands, this is the better of their two albums on the list.

Isaac Hayes, ‘Shaft: Music From The Soundtrack’

The private dick who’s a sex machine with all the chicks is probably better known from this song than the film series in which he appears, and ‘Theme From Shaft’ is Hayes’ best-known song. Only three vocal tracks over four sides here, with the majority being instrumental soundtrack pieces based around horns, Hayes on keyboards and vibraphone and rhythms that often feel Latin in flavour. Second disc standout ‘Do Your Thing’, nearly twenty minutes long, accelerates tempo and guitar dissonance like a rock song, before crumbling into organ solo exhaustion. I didn’t mind having this on, but it’s no ‘Hot Buttered Soul’ is it.

Curtis Mayfield, ‘Superfly’

Mayfield’s best-known solo album is certainly better known than ‘Super Fly’, the film which it soundtracks. I’ve never seen ‘Super Fly’, which had a perfectly acceptable amount of commercial success (and 91% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I can see why this great record was much more successful. The film tracks a drug dealer, which allows Mayfield to incorporate social themes (i.e. drugs and their consequences) into a fusion of funk and soul which marries strong rhythm sections with orchestral strings, making for a soundtrack as groovy as it is dramatic.

Parliament, ‘Mothership Connection’

I’ve heard these goofballs a few times in their alternate incarnation as Funkadelic, a more guitar-heavy, leftfield take on funk. Here, they create a mythology of black guys in UFOs (although wasn’t that part of Sun Ra’s whole deal?) and leave most of the instrumentation to Bootsy Collins, he of the star-shaped bass, who also contributes guitar and drums. This took a couple of tracks to warm to, but I was onboard from ‘Unfunky UFO’ onwards. The album was fun, but I bet it’s more entertaining live, where the ebuillence of the musicians is more likely to be infectious.

Prince, ‘1999’

Guys I know you all like Prince, but his albums haven’t done a whole lot for me yet: for every stone-cold classic, there’s a lot of waffle on the Fairlight and the Linn, and sections where nothing happens. The title track is a classic of course, a bit of Cold War four-minutes-to-midnight paranoia which was reclaimed as a party anthem by the time we actually hit the year 1999. Yet it’s ‘Automatic’ that feels like the more representative microcosm of the album: ten minutes of Prince yowling like Red Dwarf’s Cat, weird synthesizer squeals and long instrumental passages. Just one more of the Purple One’s albums on the list, ‘Purple Rain’.

Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Stand!’

‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On’ is the album always considered the classic: a gloomy bit of bleak drum machine funk which sounds smothered due to a master tape ruined by endless erasing and overdubbing. Yet ‘Stand!’ feels like the drugs were better, with a upbeat first half, ‘Everyday People’, a thirteen-minute jam with a lengthy drum solo which somehow manages to avoid boredom, and more. The first half sounds vaguely like the Temptations or the Drifters, while the second half pushes the boat out into looser and more abstract waters. Still, this is less oblique than I was expecting.

War, ‘The World is a Ghetto’

I only knew a few things about War – Eric Burdon, ‘Why Can’t We Be Friends?’, ‘My Mate Marmite’ – none of which are on this record. ‘The World is a Ghetto’ is probably the most rock-orientated of this week’s cuts, with a faint nod to ‘Voodoo Chile’ in second track ‘Where Was You At’. The third song, ‘City, Country, City’ is 13 minutes long, but mostly concerns itself with maintaining the beat, whereas last week’s prog albums were only bothered about the beat if it was 13/8 or something. The B-side is boring, floating woozily through the summer evening like a bee drunk on nectar and at the same sort of pace.

Next week: It’s time to check out some of the bands with three albums each on the list, including some artists making their blog debut!

Status update: 548 listened to (55%), 453 remaining.