Autobiographical Order No. 214: Botch – We Are the Romans

We don’t really choose when we discover music. That maybe seems obvious, but a lot of the time, we end up hearing something much later than the time in which it was released. We maybe miss out on being able to experience it while it was right in front of us—so to speak.

I was aware of Botch back when I was in college, but I had never heard them. A friend of mine went to see The Murder City Devils at the now-closed Cane’s Bar and Grill, and reported back by saying the opening band was some terrible hardcore band. That band was Botch. You saw that coming.

Looking back, I can say pretty easily that I regret not going to that show, because I now listen to and love Botch’s music. But back then? I might not have. I wasn’t listening to a lot of heavy music at the time, and I probably would have shrugged. (As it is, I’m not that big of a Murder City fan either, so I’m sure it just didn’t seem like a big deal regardless.) I discovered Botch’s music about six or seven years later, however, and it blew my mind. Their music was rhythmically complex, heavy but melodic, intricate but thunderous. And they have a similar approach to one of my other favorite bands, Converge, so that’s a major plus. But Botch broke up not long after that one show in San Diego that my friend hated, so it’s sort of moot. I had no idea that this band was one I would come to appreciate later. We can’t plan that.

However, I do have their music to revisit on my turntable. After Hydra Head announced they were no longer releasing new music (which has since proven to be not entirely true), they ended up doing a series of reissues here and there, including this album, which was on my shortlist for a long time.

We Are the Romans isn’t the kind of album you can just put on, relax and vibe out to. It’s extremely intense and aggressive, and features some pretty nutso arrangements. Which is exactly why I love it. You can hear it 100 times and still pick up on something new each time, because there’s so much going on. Heavy music provides more intellectual stimulation than a lot of naysayers care to acknowledge. But then again, sometimes I just put this on so I can rock the fuck out. Maybe I didn’t discover this band in a timely fashion, but I have their music now, and that’s still pretty good.

Rating: 9.4

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 213: Boris – Pink

I can probably write thousands of words about how I got into metal, and what the most important records in my discovery of heavy music were. In fact, I wrote a lot of words in 2015 about the life-changing metal albums in my own experience, which included Deftones, Baroness, Deafheaven and Slayer. But one album I didn’t write about, one that was actually pretty crucial, was Boris’ Pink.

In junior high and high school, I actually liked a lot of heavy music, both metal and hardcore, and my first real concert was seeing The Deftones at SOMA. But somewhere around college, or maybe my senior year of high school, I thought I was done with heavy music. I’m not sure if I thought I was too sophisticated or whatever, or maybe it’s because I was subscribing to some societal idea that these are adolescent concerns that no longer are relevant to a REAL ADULT MAN or some stupid thing, but yeah, I liked Iron and Wine. I wasn’t a metal guy.

Funny thing, though. In 2004 I heard Mastodon’s Leviathan and thought, “huh, maybe I still am a metal guy.” And then I heard Jesu, and thought “huh, yeah, maybe there’s something to this.” And then I heard Boris’ Pink, and thought “Hell yes I’m a metal guy!”

Pink is an interesting album. It’s really all over the place, with a mix of songs that are super sludgy (“Pink”) or shoegazey (“Farewell”) or droney (“Blackout”) or just straight up rock ‘n’ roll (“Woman on the Screen”). Pink became a favorite of mine pretty quickly, and ended up being a gateway to a lot of great heavy music in the ’00s, not to mention showing me that Southern Lord Records has a ton of great releases. It’s like a metal mixtape, it’s always changing shape and direction and it’s a whole lot of fun. And HEAVY!

There’s also a few different versions of this that exist. Boris routinely releases different versions of their albums with different mixes and edits of their songs. For Pink, which I found on red vinyl at the San Diego Record Show (!), it meant using a 2xLP vinyl format to release a longer version of the album. For instance, “Pseudo-Bread” and “My Machine” are each 10-minutes-plus in length, whereas on the CD the latter is just two minutes! Crazy.

This album kind of changed my viewpoint about heavy music in a lot of ways, not just making me excited about it again, but making me realize that it can take on so many different shapes that it defies stereotyping. Boris opened my eyes, and for that I’ll always hold them in high esteem.

(Btw, I interviewed them recently!)

Rating: 9.6

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 212: Cal Tjader – Soul Sauce

I’ve written before about my most eye-opening introduction to jazz being Miles Davis. I’m sure a lot of other people have similar experiences. And they should: Miles was the greatest. And from there I discovered Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, etc. But also in that group was Cal Tjader, a Swedish-American vibraphone player and Latin jazz bandleader whose reputation has never been as respected as that of some of those other artists I mentioned, though he had some really excellent records.

Tjader’s style of jazz tended to be more concise and accessible, a bit like the pop jazz of the ’60s, I suppose, though that sounds cheesier than it actually is. He had a lot of really excellent Latin jazz jams, though, and on a series of mid-’60s albums with “soul” in the title, he hit a kind of artistic peak. The centerpiece of the trio, Soul Sauce, is the most boogaloo of the three, meaning that it incorporated a blend of Latin and R&B sounds. Though it’s not a boogaloo album proper. That being said, it does feature the playing of Willie Bobo, who recorded one of the best boogaloo tracks of all time: “Fried Neckbones and Some Home Fries.” More on that in a bit.

Soul Sauce actually has some remarkable musicians on it: Donald Byrd, Kenny Burrell, Lonnie Hewitt. It’s a pretty stellar session jam going on in there. It’s also a fun record to listen to, lively, upbeat and with a lot of catchy melodies that sometimes more serious jazz musicians evade. (Which is fine! But sometimes you just want something with a little more swing to it.)

This was a record swap find, a bit worn around the edges on the sleeve and likely an original stereo issue of the album. So no, it’s not in near mint condition but I also didn’t pay that much for it. I do, however, enjoy the hell out of it, and a few months after I bought it, my wife and I started a periodic tradition of having “Latin brunches,” wherein we’d make pancakes or eggs and put on a Latin jazz record. We still do that, and I’ll get into it more in a bit, but for now I’ll just leave you with this: Cal Tjader never released anything as ambitious as Bitches Brew or A Love Supreme, but damn if he didn’t bring the jams.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Good

Autobiographical Order No. 211: Curtis Mayfield – Superfly

You can tell a great musician by how universal their music is, regardless of context. Like Curtis Mayfield, for instance. Context is obviously important in his music overall; his 1970 album Curtis is best understood in the context of the Civil Rights Era, because so much of it is about the Black experience, about empowerment, about struggle and survival and solidarity. And that’s also important to understand in the context of his 1972 album Superfly, a movie soundtrack about a drug dealer, with songs that both touch upon themes of the movie while also dealing in more topical subjects of drugs in the Black community, and their adverse effects on it.

But there’s also the context of the movie. I’ve never seen it. Somehow it’s always been on my list but I never got around to viewing it. Yet I love the soundtrack. It’s utterly essential, some of my absolute favorite music ever recorded.

So on one level, I might not have the context of the movie for which the songs were written, but I do understand to some degree what went into it. Mayfield scored a movie, but he also had his own message, which resonates regardless of whether or not you’ve seen the movie. (Though I should watch it, since its plot devices have become major tropes—the hustler doing one last score before getting out of the game, etc.)

Still, the songs! “Freddie’s Dead,” “Superfly,” “Pusherman,” these are all classics. All essentials. All some of the best psychedelic funk ever put to tape. When I’m in a bar with a jukebox and Superfly is one of the choices, it’s my choice. I don’t even think about it.

The version I bought of this record has a cool 3-D flap thing that opens and sounds great, though it’s definitely been loved over the years, and the sleeve shows. But as always, that’s fine with me. It’s comforting to know that someone spent as much time with this record as I have and hope to continue to do so.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Good to Great (some crackles, but man, the music itself is cae

Autobiographical Order No. 210: Prince – Dirty Mind

There’s a difference between an artist’s best album and your favorite album of theirs. Sort of. Maybe. Kinda. In many cases, my favorite album by a band or artist is the one that’s the canon favorite (Trail of Dead, Interpol, The Rapture…most ’00s indie bands I suppose). But in a lot of situations, my personal favorite is something different. A more underrated album perhaps.

With Prince, it’s hard to call anything underrated. He was a massive star, a genius that earned everything ever said about him, and one of the greatest musicians/artists/icons to ever grace this earth (and we didn’t have him long enough). Everybody loves Purple Rain. Everybody should love Purple Rain. If you don’t love Purple Rain, then something is seriously wrong. If you find yourself in this situation, listen to it again. And again. Until it clicks. It will.

Purple Rain is one of the few cases of massive acclaim and monoculture that I’m 100 percent behind. Usually when everybody loves something, I’m skeptical. But not Purple Rain. Still, I might say my personal favorite (not saying it’s a better album, but shit it’s close) is Dirty Mind. It’s a relatively brief album, at just a hair over a half-hour. And it’s a new wavey kind of funk album that seems humbler and more raw in the face of Prince’s bigger productions later on. It makes it sound a little more punk, honestly. I kinda love that.

This isn’t where Prince started to get raunchy, but he went wild with it. “Head” is one of his funkiest tracks ever, about what you think it is. “Sister” is one of the most provocative things he’s ever written. And “Uptown” celebrated sexuality and rule-breaking defiance of gender norms that seems pretty radical now. And every single song is an absolute banger. Of course.

I had a copy of this album on CD well before I picked up the vinyl version at the Record Swap, but once I saw it I didn’t even think about it. Obviously you need Dirty Mind on vinyl. I definitely needed it. I might even listen to this one more than Purple Rain, come to think of it. Whatever the case, it’s proof of how great Prince was very early in his career, and an album that I’ll always have a special place for. Maybe it’s not Prince’s best album (though like I said, there’s an argument for it) but it’s my own personal favorite.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

(Side note: I’m conflicted about Prince being ubiquitous on the Internet now. It’s great that you can find his music everywhere, but that’s not what he wanted and I feel weird about it…)

Autobiographical Order No. 209: Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters

Is Head Hunters the funkiest album of all time? It’s at least in the running, a top-10 contender. Probably top five. Probably top three. I’m generally not the type of person to judge an album based on how funky, or how metal or how punk or whatever something is. But when you take a genre’s characteristics and heighten them, deepen them, exaggerate them to the extent that you’re essentially redefining it, then you’re doing something radical and admirable.

That’s essentially what Herbie Hancock did with Head Hunters. It’s one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, and with good reason. It’s more accessible than most jazz albums, and takes the improvisation and groove of jazz and gives that structure some damn hooks. It’s no wonder that this album, as heard on my dad’s stereo, was one of the first jazz records to resonate with me. Probably because it registered as funk. Full stop.

“Chameleon” is a monster of a track. Fifteen minutes of groove that could just as easily be 30 and not be long enough. I put this on a  mixtape for a friend, once, taking up a full third of a side. He knew the song already, but had no objections. Once you hear that bassline, you are in it for the long haul.

I think I’m just leaving it at that today. No need to go overboard. It’s another Record Show find, an album that you need to grab once you find it. But it’s essential, it’s amazing, and it’s definitely funky.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 208: Al Green – Call Me

“A member of Ku Klux Klan doesn’t need a frying pan upside the head! He needs an Al Green record and some good books. He needs better information so he can make better decisions and reach better conclusions. He needs to be inspired.”

These words are taken from a commencement speech that Henry Rollins gave at Sonoma College. (How amazing would that be to have Rollins be your speaker? I got a military officer. It seemed like a peculiar choice for a school of journalism/communication, but whatever.) I think about this a lot, because right now we’re in a time where racism and white supremacist ideology is a lot more out in the open than it had been for a while, and I find it utterly maddening. But I also know that some people come out of it. Some people do, in a manner of speaking, see the light, or more accurately the error of their ways.

Henry Rollins isn’t necessarily saying that Al Green is literally the answer. But he’s not a bad start. When I listen to Al Green, I hear joy. I hear humanity. I hear something that can improve and soften your mood, and take you somewhere you didn’t expect to go.

Call Me does that. And it’s ironic, in a way, because it’s a breakup album. But while it’s an album that deals in sadness, loneliness and pain, it’s not a hopeless album. It’s not a defeatist album. I listen to it and I hear joy, in part because that’s just the power of Al Green. His voice, his amazing backing band (who, I might add, played soul music that was particularly complex for being mainstream—the chord sequence in the title track is just stunning), it’s all part of music that’s meant to inspire. I’m not a religious person, but when I hear “Jesus Is Waiting,” I feel something.

I picked this up at the San Diego Record Show, along with The River (and a handful of other records I’ll be mentioning this week), and it filled a gap in my collection that had been empty for too long. And while it’s an album that maybe wasn’t in pristine condition (though it sounds great for the most part), I take comfort in the fact that it was given the proper attention by someone before me.

Because it’s not just those who have erred in their ways that need an Al Green album; everybody does.

Rating: 9.5

Sound Quality: Good/Great