Talk Talk – The Colour Of Spring

Talk Talk The Colour Of Spring

EMI 1986

It turns out I hadn't said everything I wanted to about Talk Talk after all. My little tribute to frontman Mark Hollis evolved slowly in the wake of his death, and the piece wound up a tribute to the band as a whole as much as the man himself. In truth, I'd been intentionally vague when it came time to discuss this particular album because I'd intended to dive into it with even greater detail as the March record of the month (appropriately enough, on the first day of spring).

By now, everyone knows Spirit Of Eden is my favorite record the band ever released. However, someone recently asked me where to start with Talk Talk. After all, that's a good question. Their career took a number of twists and turns, the major transition centering around their shift from the new wave, dancefloor-oriented pop of their early records and the freeform blissout of their later material.

Nestled at the very center of the band's five album run, The Colour Of Spring is the axis at which their sound hinges. Blending the indelible hooks of their earlier pop sensibilities with the abstract ambience of later records like Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock, this record also features some of the band's most indelible songs (and with a group like Talk Talk, that's really saying something). As such, it makes the perfect place to start with the group. So take this record of the month as a gateway invitation to work your way forward and back through their discography, because this album — while wholly excellent — is just the tip of the iceberg...

Promo shot of the trio
Talk Talk in a pensive mood

The record opens with the casually unfolding rhythm of Happiness Is Easy, rolling on nothing but Paul Harris' drums and percussion for a solid half-minute before the first sparse accent of plaintive pianos enter the fray. The vocals of Mark Hollis enter with the twang of a guitar, as the song seems to gradually compose itself before your eyes. The throbbing, low-end rumble of double bass (played by Danny Thompson) drives the rhythm in a way that brings to mind Underworld at their most intimate, while the surrounding instrumentation takes on the mood of ECM's sleek European jazz, gently folded into the space of an unassuming pop song.

This sound often makes me think of Dave Stewart's soundtrack to the film Lily Was Here, especially the burning groove and sweeping atmosphere of the main theme, with Candy Dulfer blowing a mean sax in the grand central moonlight. Here, strings rise from the shadows — full of pathos — and underpinned by the organ playing of one Steve Winwood, all aspects swirling together over that unyielding, motorik rhythm as Mark Hollis leans into the chorus:

Take good care of what the priest says:

After death it's so much fun.

Little feet don't let your feet stray.

Happiness is easy...

In a surprise twist, a choir of children (credited as the Children From The School Of Miss Speake) carry the bridge back into the verse. At one point, a mutant horn staggers out of the mix (one of the hallmarks of Talk Talk is their utterly surreal warping of instrumentation into unrecognizable shapes). Showcasing the band's brilliance at shading between joy and sadness, the tune culminates in a sweep of uplifting strings, before receding back into an acoustic riff on guitar that accompanies the children's choir out into the long fade.

Mark Hollis gets passionate on the mic
Mark Hollis sings live at the Hammersmith Odeon 1986

Mirroring the backing choir in Happiness Is Easy, the closing Time It's Time rides great waves of massed choir over a heavy downbeat stomp. In truth, it's my least favorite moment on the album, for a number of reasons. The drums are far too massive, with a crashing eighties sound utterly at odds with the organic crispness in evidence elsewhere. There's also a stark juxtaposition between the quiet verses and the booming chorus, whereas the rest of the record flows together quite naturally.1

Not that there's anything terribly wrong with the tune itself, it's just that the ragged execution sticks out like a sore thumb on an album that navigates such moody terrain so deftly. Subtle currents shift slowly in the shadows, with almost painfully intimate moments telescoping out into an all-encompassing widescreen sound like it were the most natural thing in the world.

Talk Talk I Don't Believe In You EMI

The record hinges beautifully on this axis, as exemplified in a track like I Don't Believe In You, which is the split of Spirit Of Eden drawn in Spring's primary colors. There's a slow-burning intensity in the downbeat verses that gradually gives way to gorgeous Hammond B3 organ in the refrain. The tune is punctuated by a great ragged guitar solo from Robbie McIntosh, writhing in slow motion against the tune's downbeat blues with wild abandon.2 The song is suited perfectly to the album's vivid chamber pop arrangements, which in large part manage to transcend their time of origin.

In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that the band's bassist Paul Webb would later work with Beth Orton (under the pseudonym Rustin Man). I'd wager Portishead were huge fans of the group... one could even imagine the band doing a great cover of this tune. The downbeat rhythms — here and throughout this record — are more locked-down than they'd later be on Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock, prefiguring the sound of moody trip hop like Massive Attack's Home Of The Whale. Even if they're not as brilliantly freeform as they'd become in a couple years, the rhythms do retain a thoroughly engaging sound, with tactile precision every tambourine and shaker seems to clasp at your eardrums.

Talk Talk Life's What You Make It EMI

In stark contrast, the cascading, widescreen sound of Life's What You Make It represents this album at its most direct and radio-friendly. Propelled by an invigorating electric guitar riff (this time from David Rhodes) that shimmers across its infectious four-note piano stomp, the sound seems to have more in common with the arena-sized ambitions of Simple Minds, with even the guitars themselves bearing a striking resemblance to something Charlie Burchill might play.

However, the band is wielding their strange powers of foresight once again, because this sounds not like the contemporary Simple Minds of Once Upon A Time but instead Simple Minds circa Real Life (which came out five years later!). I wonder if Life's What You Make It did influence the Scottish group's latter day sound (especially the song Real Life itself)? I wouldn't be surprised. From the breezy backing vocals to the swirling Mellotron and those great crescendos of organ, it's all there in technicolor, adding extra bite to the track's double-edged title.


It's worth noting that my Dad was actually the one to introduce me to Talk Talk's music way back in the day, almost by osmosis. I grew up on this stuff! Pops was a huge fan of the group's sound, and this song was a particular favorite. His thing is a strong appreciation of multi-layered music, which naturally rubbed off on me with all my atmospheric obsessions. It was actually his old cassette that I was rocking out to back in college, after putting a tape deck in my very first car. Pops' Talk Talk tape captured a perfect distillation of the band's sound in 90 minutes.

Talk Talk Give It Up EMI

The similarly epic Give It Up is a massive organ stomp cut from the same cloth, although I contend that it's even better. Alternating between subdued verses — carried by haunting guitar lines and fragile lead vocals — and a piano-driven bridge, where Mark Hollis sings:

Gotta give it up

Gotta get a second chance

Gotta give it up

Gotta get a second chance and the joke's just started

And then a great swell of organs crash across the track in a massive wave of pure electricity. I already liked to this stirring performance at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1986,2 which turned out to be the last year the band would perform live together. It's without a doubt one of my favorite pieces of concert footage ever.

What this tune highlights is the band's gift for moving from the most serene passage to a pure rush of energy with unparalleled grace. Check out how after the mad heights of the chorus, the tune subtly collapses back into the muted verse with that gentle guitar passage. Or the way the tune's absolute climax builds into another surreal guitar solo, its twisted notes burning out in the darkness before the massive chorus wheels back once again to conquer all.

Closing out with a stripped-down coda, shades of gospel in Hollis' ad-libs over the backbeat as the organ line finally resolves itself once and for all. It's a very close call, but this might be my favorite track on the album.

Talk Talk Living In Another World EMI

The other contender is Living In Another World, which plays like the severe younger cousin to Happiness Is Easy, burning with a barely-controlled, exposed-nerve fury. It kicks off with a bang straight out the gate, in a roll of piano thunder and a snapping beat reeling out beneath shades of organ, Mark's moody couplets and acoustic guitars strummed with a precise rhythmic fury. The whole thing gradually builds until the organs swell into a flood of raw sound in the bridge — Hollis' impassioned lead vocals haunted by ghostly backing in the distance — before a bluesy harmonica enters the fray with a wild solo cascading up and down the soundscape.

The other day, I mentioned how important this record was for me in the dreary days of (early) high school, and no other song dovetails more perfectly with those memories than this song: Help me find a way from this maze... I can't help myself. Word, Mark, word... I couldn't have said it better myself.

Mention must also be made of the phenomenal bassline Paul Webb lays down in the chorus, throbbing and shape-shifting through the rhythm in fractal counterpoint to the lead progression. It's the true nth power behind the song's central groove, moving with a lunatic precision against the chiming, twin guitar attack of David Rhodes and Robbie McIntosh. Notably, Webb also provides the ghostly backing vocals in the chorus, haunting the melody with another indelible layer of intrigue. Rustin Man strikes again! Taken all at once in a great flood of sound, it adds up to a truly epic vision painted in sound.

Talk Talk Asides Besides EMI

If Living In Another World exemplified the record at its most intense, then the downcast shades of April 5th, played out on a lone piano while tambourine and shaker mark out the time. A fog of mutant horns hang in the distance, the tunings seeming to come from somewhere entirely outside the body pop, offering the strongest hint of things to come. The vocals of Mark Hollis are at their most delicate here, cradled by the warmth of that B3 organ that comes rising from the mist. I'm reminded of David Sylvian's Secrets Of The Beehive, even if this came out a whole year earlier.

It's worth noting two non-album b-sides from the period, It's Getting Late In The Evening and For What It's Worth, which were from the Life's What You Make It and Living In Another World singles, respectively. Both tunes further develop this abstract, ethereal mood, which turned out to presage the direction they'd begin to take a couple years later. Still, April 4th is the best of the bunch, sounding like a dress rehearsal for Spirit Of Eden.

Appropriately enough, The Future Sound Of London featured the song in their mind-bending BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix 2 in 1995 amidst a sea of post punk, downbeat ambient and twisted psychedelia. Alongside iconoclastic records like Andrea Parker & David Morley's Angular Art, 23 Skidoo's Porno Base and Fleetwood Mac's Albatross, its drifting abstract ambience felt perfectly at home .

The trio look on, walking in unison
Talk Talk walks the lonely road

Chameleon Day is even more deconstructed, with detuned Blue Note horns hanging lonely over the sparse pianos... it's by far the most freeform, deserted track on the record, plangent sounds ringing stark against the dead quiet. Reaching beyond even Spirit Of Eden to the abstract deconstructions of Laughing Stock and the Mark Hollis solo record, its the record's most intimate and unadorned moment. With that Hollis croon accompanied by nothing but a lone piano and windswept horns, this tune could have come from the era of Chet Baker and Mose Allison, only with the wounded pain and vulnerability that comes with Hollis' voice. This deeply spiritual sound might have closed out the record brilliantly, albeit on a quite different note than Time It's Time.

It's sound that no one else could touch. Lying at the crossroads of the group's earlier dancefloor synth execution and the lush oceans of sound painted in their later music, The Colour Of Spring is where both sides meet in a flash of brilliance. It makes the perfect place to start with the band's music, but I must warn you... once you're hooked, you'll find yourself tracking their sound out in every subsequent direction. And few things in music are more rewarding than that.

Footnotes

1.

Still, the flutes in the extended coda have a minimalist attack along the lines of Penguin Café Orchestra.

2.

In some ways, it recalls the bluesy space rock of Roy Buchanan's You're Not Alone and even Journey's I Would Find you, albeit marked by a striking intimacy far removed from such deep space sonics.

3.

Talk Talk. Give It Up. At the Hammersmith Odeon, London, 1986. Live Performance.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASNM9PExla0

Mark Hollis

Mark Hollis, soul man

I was quite saddened to hear of Mark Hollis' passing. As the frontman of Talk Talk, his voice was the extraordinary foundation upon which his group's sound was built, a boundlessly expressive well of understated emotion, passion and burning blue soul. It was a sound that got me through some rough times growing up, wide-open as it was to complex experiences and emotions that the world throws at all lonely souls, buffeted back and forth by the tides of time and accompanying tribulations free of charge.

My understanding was that Hollis had gradually receded from view as the band ventured further toward abstraction, reticent, and ultimately dropping out completely after a solo album and a couple guest appearances in the late-nineties. The truth seems to have dovetailed with the legend somewhat, as it appears that he retired from music to be with his family and out of the industry's media glare? At any rate, peace to the man and unyielding thanks for the music he left behind. By way of tribute, here's a short walk through the records he made...

Talk Talk The Party's Over EMI

Talk Talk started life as a sort of synth-inflected pop group. I say sort of because from the beginning there was nothing conventional about them. I'd often hear them lumped in with new romantics like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet,1 but there was a darkness and depth to their music from the very beginning that placed them more alongside groups like Depeche Mode, Tears For Fears circa The Hurting and A.R. Kane than anything else. However, this being only 1982, Depeche Mode was still recording chipper synth pop ditties, The Hurting wouldn't come out for another year and A.R. Kane were still half a decade away from their first record... which marks Talk Talk's debut out as pioneering from the start.

From day one, there was a gravity to Talk Talk's music, a natural force to be reckoned with. Everything here is imbued with a widescreen, cinematic quality, as if it were the soundtrack to a film happening in your mind. Chart-troubling tunes like Today and Talk Talk bear this out on the dancefloor, with booming rhythms and oceanic synths soaring across painted skies as Hollis' vocals drive through it all like a low-frequency vision blurred in waves of confused emotion. His voice is deep in every sense of the word: low in register, encompassing vast emotion, and cloaking cryptic meaning beneath a blurred painting in sound.

If there's one song I'd single out for praise, it's the title track. Opening with curious sequences that unfurl across a mid-tempo pulse for the verse before dropping into a slow-motion chorus that could only be described as epic, with crashing drums, mile-high synths and Hollis' vocal towering above it all. The tune is etched in my mind. These songs were on a tape I used to play endlessly in college — early days — alongside the steady stream of techno and trip hop that one would've expected of me at that time. Strangely enough, it fit in there perfectly. Which in retrospect, is hardly surprising at all...

Talk Talk It's My Life EMI

...given that the title track of their sophomore record was no stranger to the proto-house dancefloors of the Muzic Box and the Paradise Garage, expanding the mood of the debut's floor-fillers into ever more surreal terrain. The sleeve art above gives an idea of what to expect,2 mirroring the fragments and strange sounds pealing from the tune in every direction like the cry of a thousand distant birds. Indeed, there's sounds on these records that I can't even begin to guess where they came from.

Such A Shame similarly grooves adrift in an ocean of sound, its great synths smeared in sadness against that mournful Hollis croon, before the counterpoint sequence echoes the sentiment with just a glimmer of hope. Like The Party's Over, it's a firm favorite. In fact, the two songs seem to share a similar mood, with Such A Shame the understated response by a group two years older and wiser. I've often thought both tunes veered into peak-era Derrick May territory with their icy strings, smeared synth stylings and undeniably emotive thrust. The alien dislocation of techno is but a whisper away.

In contrast, my absolute favorite thing here is Does Caroline Know?, which abandons the rolling tundra for the infinitely more inviting atmosphere of a crystal clear tropical lagoon. With its almost juju-style interplay of percussion, sound effects and scurrying bassline against a great sea of synth — swelling and receding like the tide — its the group's unlikely holiday at the Pier. Blink and you'd swear it was The Neptunes! It's also a great showcase for Hollis in a playful mode, weaving through spaces in the rhythm and reacting to the waterfalls of electronic sound that slide back and forth across the track. In a roundabout way, it hints at the direction the band would take next...

Talk Talk The Colour Of Spring EMI

Not that The Colour Of Spring is where the band goes tropical or anything, but you do begin to glimpse the two prevailing trends in the band's music: an undeniable drift toward a more organic (but no less strange) sound, and an ever deeper plunge into abstraction. This is where the group's knack for left field pop hooks is married to a loose, almost freeform jazz sensibility. There's definite shades of ECM throughout, and a strong affinity with the lush, stately soundscapes of David Sylvian's Secrets Of The Beehive.

From the opening bars of Happiness Is Easy, you can tell times have changed. A (possibly machine-driven) rhythm casually begins to unfurl as the song gradually builds around it piece-by-piece, with the slow accretion of spare guitars, throbbing bass and piano accents opening the floodgates to strings, organs and even a children's choir, all of which swirl together in a rich tapestry of sound. The massive, Hammond-driven stomp of Give It Up manages to turn on a dime between downcast and uplifting, while Living In Another World is one of the band's greatest soundtracks in miniature.

I've always wanted to share this awe-inspiring clip3 of the band playing Give It Up live at the Hammersmith Odeon, and now is undoubtedly the right time. Check that passion! Mark Hollis don't mess around. The funny thing is, this is exactly how I used to picture him singing whenever I'd listen to the records. There's just no getting around it, you can hear it all in the voice. Incidentally, this album always takes me back to high school (circa 1996), when it was a hit of downbeat introspection even greater than the by-then-ascendant Radiohead. Truth me told, even now, none of these Talk Talk albums ever leave my iPod.

Talk Talk Spirit Of Eden Parlophone

With the positively sublime Spirit Of Eden, Talk Talk invented post rock in one fell swoop. The Rainbow starts with a lonely horn and a soft swell of strings — sounds that will come to define the record — for a movement of two minutes before the plaintive guitar line kicks into gear, the arcing blues of a searing harmonica heralding a lazy, loping rhythm. The mood here reminiscent of the cinematic trip hop that groups like Portishead and Massive Attack would explore as their music took a darker, more desolate turn about a decade later (on Dummy and Mezzanine, respectively).

The rolling waves of Eden creep in and out of focus on the interplay of bass and piano melting into guitar, all cut adrift on an ocean of sound where swells of organ come crashing in a rush of electricity. It's no secret that I'm an organ guy. I love me some Rhodes, and I absolutely adore the sound of the Hammond B3. This record is awash in it. Desire opens with a foreboding theme played out on a lonely organ, trading notes with ghostly guitar and piano, horns droning in the mist. Hollis haunts the tune in the quiet before the storm, and then the breaks come crashing in, mad vocals rising through the racket as guitars cutting ragged shapes in the darkness.

If you're looking for the one record that really gets to the heart of Mark Hollis' greatness as a frontman, this is it. Particularly in the flowing beatless bliss of the second side, which is where the magic of this record truly lies. The gentle drone of Inheritance, slipping as it does into a shimmering climax (shades of Sylvian again in evidence), sets the stage brilliantly. Parallels might be drawn with side two of The Isley Brothers' The Heat Is On, strange as it may sound. That record's ARP-damaged soul is similarly lush and downbeat, mirroring the almost ambient sensibility of Eden's second side.

Which would make I Believe In You4 roughly the analogue of For The Love Of You, with the drone of its verses culminating in the warm, spiritual glow of a protracted chorus, replete with calming organ refrain and angelic choirs in the distance. Indeed, this is positively holy music. This point driven home by the record's final track, Wealth, wherein Hollis sings in an understated gospel style against a sea of B3 organ. When it all transforms into the final progression (around the four minute mark), it quickly becomes clear that you're witnessing something divine.

Talk Talk Laughing Stock Parlophone

The group took their abstract obsessions to their logical conclusion with Laughing Stock, their storied swan song that's gone on to have lasting repercussions. This has gone down as one of the key records of the nineties, and for good reason: transcending the time and place of its origins, it remains at home in the ever-changing now. I love the very sound of this record, even if the songs on Spirit Of Eden mean more to me in the long run. The playing here even looser than before, you'd have to go to seventies spiritual jazz to find something similar.

Songs like Ascension Day build on the framework of Spirit Of Eden's first side, even as they seem to deconstruct it into a blur of modal guitar. This sound also defines New Grass, with its gentle guitar lines wandering amongst tumbling breaks,5 seemingly every end left open and unresolved. The gently rolling After The Flood even plays like a fusion of all angles of Eden, a moment of culmination played in the band's new wide-open style. I'll tell you one thing, it makes it very hard to choose between the two records.

Mark Hollis Mark Hollis Polydor

Seven years after Talk Talk's Laughing Stock, Mark Hollis delivered this solo album, which is of a piece with that record. In fact, Spirit Of Eden, Laughing Stock and this LP form something of a loose trilogy, with a sound that seems to gradually recede back into nature itself. Mark Hollis is the point when it all drifts up on a gentle gust of air through the leaves on the trees, back into the calm of the woodlands without a note out of place.

The man's first solo album would also turn out to be his last. In truth, he said it all here. This sparse, beautiful record is the embodiment of his oft-quoted philosophy, Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note — and don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it. The serene soundscapes of Mark Hollis seem to pick up where Runeii left off at the closing of Laughing Stock, keying into the rich seam of spiritual ambience with The Colour Of Spring and even pure jazz with The Daily Planet. It's hard to believe this record came out in 1998, but then it would be hard to imagine when it should have come out!

The understated, casual brilliance of this record has more in common with the torch songs of yesteryear than any contemporary reference points, with Hollis' vocals taking their deserved place among the greats like Chet Baker, Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday. He was that good, and in the context of a sound so spare and unvarnished, it quickly becomes clearer than ever. Serving as the perfect conclusion to the man's musical career, this album was the ideal landscape for that voice to roam once last time, into the countryside and beyond...

Footnotes

1.

I never hear anyone bring up Visage though, which would be the strongest comparison among the new romantics, particularly their awesome signature tune Fade To Grey.

2.

The group's sleeve art was always excellent, managing the rare feat of maintaining a consistent look and feel from album to album.

3.

Talk Talk. Give It Up. At the Hammersmith Odeon, London, 1986. Live Performance.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASNM9PExla0

4.

I Believe In You was actually the album's lone single, backed by the brilliant blank-eyed riffage of non-album b-side John Cope.

5.

In fact, the asymmetrical breakbeat to New Grass would later fuel UNKLE's Rabbit In Your Headlights, from the album Psyence Fiction. Mark Hollis actually sat in on piano (uncredited) for the song Chaos, from the same album.

Garden Grooves 004

In the final crisp days of winter, we descended upon the weeds that had begun to take over the Gardens, encroaching on anything and everything the way only winter weeds can do. Veering from trip hop into soul/techno/jazz and then finally rock 'n roll, the soundtrack set the pace for the long project of bringing the Gardens back to good order. Time marches on, and the Garden Grooves pulse on through the Heights once again...

Björk Debut

One Little Indian 1993

Kicking off the weekend with Björk's Debut (not debut), which remains my favorite thing she's done (although Vespertine does come close). I love the raw acoustics of something like There's More To Life Than This, that walking bassline so evocative of the era's excitement and gravity. The sound here defined by Bristol's Nellee Hooper, who Björk drafted in for production after his sterling work with both Soul II Soul and Massive Attack. As a result, there's the unmistakable spectre of trip hop hanging over the proceedings, which is no bad thing... trip hop as in Blue Lines, Bomb The Bass and Nicolette.

Nicolette Now Is Early

Shut Up And Dance 1992

Speaking of the latter, by my estimation, Björk got all her dance moves from Nicolette. Nicolette's (actual) debut album — produced by Shut Up And Dance — is an inspired mash up of skewed jazz songcraft, rootsical trip hop vibes and junglistic breakbeat science-before-the-fact. It sounds about five years ahead of its time. Stripped down tunes like I Woke Up... and A Single Ring hinge on the axis of drums, bass and not much else, while the otherworldly pop of O Si Nene and Wicked Mathematics ply a sort of skewed voodoo magic that sounds like nothing else before or since.

Daddy G DJ-Kicks

Studio !K7 2005

This trip hop soundclash from Massive Attack's man with the baritone pipes hit the shelves a solid six years after Smith & Mighty's great DJ-Kicks Bristol showcase, and accordingly casts a wider net with selections from Willie Williams, Foxy Brown, The Meters and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan all thrown into the strange brew. Hearing the awesome Gallic trip hop of Mélaaz's Non, Non, Non in the mix alongside Tricky's Aftermath just never gets old.

Tricky Ununiform

Studio !K7 2017

Tricky continues his mid-career renaissance with his latest album, which drives his sound further yet into Gothic post punk terrain. I saw him a year ago touring behind this album and the show he put on was phenomenal. Ever the visionary (my brain thinks bomb-like), Tricky's music manages the perennial trick of sounding remarkably at home in the ever-changing present.

Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson Secrets

Arista 1978

The late-seventies album trilogy from Gil-Scott Heron partner-in-crime Brian Jackson is a stunning sequence that plays like the culmination of everything that had been wrapped up into 70s soul by that point. Secrets leads off with the impossibly lush and sensual Angel Dust, first heard (by me) on SA-RA's Dark Matter & Pornography Mixtape Vol. 30", which is driven by the soft neon glow of its electronic bassline and a tale as old as time. The remainder of the album follows suit, sounding like a Gaussian-blurred preview of all the best modern soul just around the bend.

Womack & Womack Love Wars

Elektra 1983

Speaking of modern soul, Womack & Womack's debut is one undeniable stone tablet that the form tossed up right off the bat. Not particularly indebted to disco, it seems to draw its propulsion from somewhere else entirely. The title track is a great mid-tempo burner that prefigures the rolling, proto-Underworld neon vectors of Conscious Of My Conscience but the secret highlight is the graceful sashay of Baby I'm Scared Of You, which starts out smooth and mellow before gradually building to a resolute shuffle in the crescendo.

Sean Deason Razorback

Studio !K7 1996

I've often thought that certain strands of Sean Deason's discography chimed in brilliantly with the prevailing trends in contemporary "urban" music. Something like the opening one-two punch of New School/Wisdom 2030 Mix bears this out, while Science Funktion comes at you like like hardcore rap's attitude translated into instrumental technoid form. He certainly showed greater comfort with jungle than just about any other Detroit producer, as the awesome Saxy Muthafucka Mix of the title track attests. This sturdy little album remains one of the great dark horse candidates among Detroit techno LPs of the era, and one that I still return to quite often.

Janet Jackson The Velvet Rope

Virgin 1997

Ah yes, The Velvet Rope. It's gone down as one of my favorites, and I never seem to tire of its convoluted twists and turns. This is an RnB that splits the difference between neo soul (and even trip hop in places) and unfussy dancefloor burners, with just a dash of the sentimental balladry that had by then become one of her hallmarks. At the time, I would have relished a radio station that played selections from this record and Razorback back to back (1997 bizzness, seen!). With a dash of Chez Damier and Romanthony, of course.

Faze-O Riding High

She 1977

This bit of turn-of-the-decade funk grasps for the brass ring straight out the gate with the deeply chilled title track, which remains one of the great atmospheric slabs of soul ever committed to wax (generations of trip hop/hip hop/RnB heads certainly seemed to think so, if sampling was anything to go by). I remember when Kenny Dixon Jr. got interviewed at Red Bull Music Academy, he made the interviewer promise to play something off this album if he had to play one of his own Moodymann jams. Classic!

Herbie Hancock Head Hunters

Columbia 1973

This was my first jazz album, and a natural progression from things like As One, Nation 2 Nation and Innerzone Orchestra that I'd been soaking up at the time. I suspect that this somewhat roundabout path isn't completely unheard of... I suspect a lot of us worked our way backwards from dance music. This is one of a select group of records I wish I could send back to myself just as I was entering junior high.

It's an easy album to take for granted — indeed, jazz purists hate it — but there's nothing quite like the funky synth attack of the title track or the loose-limbed proto-fourth world grooves that follow. Today, the wild abstraction of Sextant might be my favorite of Herbie's records, but this is where it all started for me. I've played it incessantly ever since, and that certainly counts for something.

Stacey Pullen Todayisthetomorrowyouwerepromisedyesterday

Science 2001

This is cut from the same cloth, despite being separated by a gulf of decades. From the synths on down to the sleeve, this is a perfect elaboration on vintage jazz funk attitude in the era of broken beat. It certainly couldn't have happened in any other moment. Alongside Roy Davis Jr.'s Traxx From The Nile and Recloose's Cardiology, this had me thinking the loose agglomeration surrounding the whole neo soul phenomenon had reached something of a peak.

Stacey Pullen is one of the great under-recognized institutions of Detroit, with a wholly unique take on the music, ranging from Bango's tribal rhythms to the sun-glazed techno soul of Silent Phase and Kosmic Messenger's no-nonsense dancefloor moves. I only wish he'd had a chance to record more music at the LP level after this (if I had a label, I'd certainly try to get him to do a record). I'm forever threatening an extended feature on the man... maybe I should get off the dime and finish it up right quick!

Gary Bartz The Shadow Do

Prestige 1975

This from the excellent run of Mizell Brothers-produced jazz funk slates that surfaced over the course of the seventies, in this case fronted by sax man Gary Bartz. This record happens at the axis of seventies smooth soul and the flowing post-modal jazz trip, much like the contemporary output of Weldon Irvine and Lonnie "Liston" Smith. Unlike the largely instrumental records of Donald Byrd, Bobbi Humphrey and The Blackbyrds, everything here features the homespun vocals of Bartz himself, prefiguring the general ambience of producers and musicians who'd moonlight behind the mic in the years to come. Appropriately, Bartz wound up playing on SA-RA's Nuclear Evolution: The Age Of Love.

Phil Upchurch Upchurch

Cadet 1969

This evocative slab of rock-inflected soul jazz is spiked with a heavy dose of contemporary psychedelia. With a vast sound arranged by Charles Stepney (during his storied tenure at Cadet) around the guitar pyrotechnics of Phil Upchurch, this dream jam session indulges in the under-explored terrain between David Axelrod and Jimi Hendrix.

The Litter Emerge

Prime 1969

This record ought to be much more widely known, lodged in all the lists alongside Dylan and The Stones. The Litter are perhaps most famous now for their blistering rave-up Action Woman (as heard on on the Nuggets compilation), but this record is another matter altogether. Existing at the precise axis between garage punk and hard rock, the band veers into proto-metal Blue Cheer/Sir Lord Baltimore territory with wild abandon, at times sounding like early Grand Funk Railroad and even the MC5. Needless to say, no headbanger should be without it.

Fleetwood Mac Kiln House

Reprise Reprise

After Peter Green burnt out and gave up the reins to what was largely still a British blues band, Fleetwood Mac wandered through varied climes ranging from acid rock to soft folk and even proggy psychedelia. Kiln House finds the band messing around with a sort of mutant rockabilly under the auspices of guitarist Jeremy Spencer.

This must have sounded so out of step with the prevailing trends at the time, but none of that matters today as we get to revel in this incongruous mash up of weepy country ballads and slacker rockabilly. Jewel Eyed Judy has the same unfussy melodic brilliance of Big Star and Badfinger, while One Together prefigures the burnished sound of Tusk's most gentle passages.

The Gun Club The Las Vegas Story

Animal 1984

One could make the case that The Gun Club exercised the same impulse — plying a sort of rootsy, atmospheric rockabilly — albeit shot through the lens of punk rock rather than early-seventies soft rock. Their debut album Fire Of Love is usually considered the classic, but I listen to the ones that follow just as much (if not even more). In fact, I'd go so far as to say you can't go wrong with anything they put out in the 1980s. The Vegas Story is ragged and moody in the extreme, coming on like an unholy mash up of Repo Man, Pulp Fiction and Mulholland Drive in sonic form.

Red Snapper Prince Blimey

Warp 1996

Trip hop quartet Red Snapper had the invisible soundtrack thing on lock in the 90s, a live band rocking in parallel to Maxinquaye and adding a dash of Can and King Tubby to the concoction. Prince Blimey's loping, bass-heavy dubbed-out sound is one of the great forgotten delights of the 1990s, picking up quite naturally from The Vegas Story as dusk begins to descend on the gardens.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience Electric Ladyland

Reprise 1968

The next day, my uncle was in town doing some work on the house so it made sense to go with Hendrix. My uncle's a rock 'n roll guy, after all. Electric Ladyland is where Hendrix really cuts loose in the studio — playing with edits and sound itself — and the record is accordingly thick with ATMOSPHERE. Of course, it doesn't hurt that it also has some of the man's greatest songs, from blazing rockers like Crosstown Traffic and House Burning Down to the sprawlingly epic 1983... A Merman I Should Turn To Be and Burning Of The Midnight Lamp, while heavy jams like Voodoo Child Slight Return and All Along The Watchtower lay the foundation for hard rock and heavy metal. Maybe the greatest rock 'n roll album ever?

Alice In Chains Jar Of Flies

Columbia 1994

This seemingly unassuming mini-album by the great grunge/metal outfit finds their sound burnished to a shimmering finish, led by the inimitable vocals of the great Layne Staley (I reckon he might be thee great rock voice of the decade). The very sound of this record is exquisite and totally unique, setting the stage for their sparkling MTV Unplugged album a couple years later, while the songs themselves are some of their best ever.

The moody, slow-burning Nutshell seems to tie up all of Dirt's loose ends into one moody, acoustic culmination of brooding grunge. I often think something like No Excuses isn’t a million miles removed from the sort of thing Larry Levan might have played at the Paradise Garage (in Van Halen mode), while I Stay Away is possibly the most inspiring rock song of the decade.

Moonshake Eva Luna

Too Pure 1992

Moonshake's debut is ragged post rock avant la lettre, blazing a path out the gate of straight up indie rock into great churning waves of pure sound. I started out with the band's later album Dirty & Divine not long after it first came out, and then worked my way backwards. Eva Luna quite bracing and elemental, and even as the rolling dreamtime vibes pour over the circular rhythmic racket, there's a barely-contained fury bubbling just below the surface. Moonshake reside on the fault line that separates post rock and punk.

PJ Harvey Dry

Indigo 1992

More rough 'n ready alternative rock, this time from the illustrious PJ Harvey. The connection here is that she actually recorded with Moonshake on their second full-length, The Sound Your Eyes Can Follow. I'm not ashamed to admit that I first discovered Harvey by way of the Batman Forever soundtrack... I'd argue that's one of the great compilation style soundtracks of the decade (which itself was something of a peak era for the phenomenon). Dry has the raw attack of all the best alternative, even blazing into Groundhogs territory from time to time. I only recently noticed that this was in Kurt Cobain’s list of 50 favorite albums, alongside Scratch Acid and the Marine Girls.

Prince Jammy Strictly Dub

Jammy's 1981

Pre-digital Jammy, back when he was still an apprentice to the once and future King Tubby. This is rock hard dub music on the order of contemporary Scientist and Brad Osborne/Clocktower. Immigrant Dub is an utterly absorbing downbeat excursion that rocks the splashing beats and percussion that his mentor perfected, before beaming the whole underwater trip into the eighth dimension. Strikingly tactile and three-dimensional, this music massages your mind.

Link Wray And His Ray Men Jack The Ripper

Swan 1963

Perched midway between surf and rockabilly, Link Wray arguably invented desert rock with a sound that conjures up imagery of souped-up heavy metal Triumph motorcycles blazing down a two lane highway stretching out into the horizon. This sound splits the difference between the Repo Man and Pulp Fiction aesthetics decades before the fact. Instrumental rock doesn't get much better than this.

And I love the way this album mixes prototypical Link Wray rockers like Fat Back and the title track with forays into demented swing like Steel Trap and the goofy proto-proto-proto-Sonics garage punk Mashed Potato Party, both of which are at first bound to disappoint fans coming from (killer) compilations like Early Recordings that boil the man's sound down to its red hot essence. Nevertheless, it's a great little record if you can forgive it for not just repeating Jack The Ripper twelve times in a row!

Long green of the winter makes way for spring

With the closing bars of Rumble staggering into the last rays of setting sun, the Gardens had been tended and everything was on balance in the Heights once again.

Hip Hop Blues

B-Boys wander solitary on the streets of Chiba City

How can I be sure in a world that's constantly changing? Maxinquaye and Bristol, dragging breakbeats and bass from the dark side, dubbed-out shadows within and traces of the jungle bizzness in the mix. Mtume on the neon plane, slow-motion boogie equations drawn up in the sky, Lowrell Mellow Mellow Right On >> Massive's Lately and Shara Nelson in the soft afterglow of the night. Martina's lonesome voice in the ether three feet above the spectral crawl, shades of Dub Whip and Spying Glass (you live in the city) reggae en digital In A Lonely Place (you stay by yourself ) and the grimy breaks play on into the night...

So this is the aftermath.