Vintage Björk, classic shoegaze and weirdo disco: The month’s best reissues and retrospectives
Thanks to the graft of reissue labels and canny collectors, there’s an embarrassment of neglected, forgotten or misunderstood material being unearthed week by week.
The volume of new-old music doesn’t outpace new-new music, of course, but it’s not too far behind either. With so many more archival releases turning up on shelves, we’ve worked though the stacks to pick our favorite reissues and retrospectives of the last month.
Mikey IQ Jones digs through this month’s best releases, from an early Björk oddity and a solo album from This Heat’s Charles Bullen to Japanese post punk and ultra rare soul.
Click on the album title to hear a snippet of each release.
10. Björk Guðmundsdóttir & Tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar
Recorded in 1990 during a hiatus from Björk’s then-band The Sugarcubes, Gling-Gló – which finds the artist fronting a piano jazz trio and singing entirely in her native language – remains an outlier in her discography, but is her best-selling LP in Iceland. It’s easy to understand its popularity as Björk bobs and weaves around the Tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar’s lightfooted arrangements, straddling the emotive sentimentality of the torch song and the fleet-footed weightlessness of jazzdance.
It’s arguably Björk’s most playful album, most akin to ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ but without that tune’s winking pastiche, instead playing it straight without restraining the singer’s glottal eccentricities. Repressed for the first time since the 1990s by original label Smekkleysa — this time as a double LP mastered at 45rpm — it’s not only a key part of the polymath’s discography, but also plays on its own as a lovely slice of rainy-day jazz bop.
For A Reason
(Light In The Attic)
Light In The Attic continues the reissue campaign of This Heat’s influential works by throwing out a surprise — Charles Bullen’s impossibly rare and desirable LP as Lifetones. Self-released in 1983, it emerged around the same time that Gareth Williams had quietly slipped out his Flaming Tunes cassette with Mary Currie and Charles Hayward had inaugurated his excellent Camberwell Now project. Of the three projects, which collectively play like isolated strands of This Heat’s aesthetic DNA, Bullen’s LP is a curious platter of DIY dub balladry.
Where This Heat were often cold, curt, and confrontational, For A Reason is warm, unraveling into Middle Eastern melodies and flirting with raï and raga songforms. At first it sounds almost deceptively slight, but over repeated listens, the record reveals a depth and heart that, while perhaps not deserving of the $200 which original copies can fetch on the secondhand market, make this reissue worth every penny.
The Original Recordings
Dutch ambient explorers CHI were a group of travelers living in a commune together in the mid-80s, constantly recording and performing quietly experimental works inspired by the likes of Jon Hassell, Can, and Byrne & Eno’s seminal My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Their collective improvisations were some of the first examples of ambient music to be regularly performed in a live setting, and The Original Recordings is a beautiful 2LP reissue of pieces originally released by Staalplaat on a limited cassette (later also issued on CD in the ‘90s).
The soft mood-études compiled within are like the melancholic flip-side to the new age synth jazz of Woo, who’ve also had a recent renaissance. CHI skews more into a post-industrial landscape, at times even echoing the eerie harmonics of Hosono or Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ambient works of the era. This is a quiet creeper, not an album that jumps out and grabs you, but rather slowly envelops you and blankets your mind with rich, sonorous evocation.
7. Various Artists
Aloha Got Soul: Soul, AOR & Disco in Hawaii 1979-1985
The Aloha Got Soul label has been one of the most delightfully unique new operations this year, offering obscure funk and soul groovers from the 50th state for deep-cut diggers and those who like to pepper their mixes with funk of the tropical variety. They’ve partnered up with the always reliable Strut Records for this killer compilation of island soul and jazz-funk bumpers which continued the lineage of hapa haole music into the AOR era of quiet storm, soft rock and disco grooves.
If you’ve dug the likes of Mike Lundy, Ned Doheny, or Nohelani Cypreano (all featured in previous columns), or if you find yourself craving some tiki touches with your Tower Of Power and Steely Dan records, this collection will be your key spring/summer soundtrack. As usual, the set includes top-notch liner notes, and a mix of underground classics (for those already into the scene) and some near-unknown gentle monsters. A gateway into the vital Hawaiian pop scene that goes well beyond tourist kitsch.
6. Eduardo Polonio
Acaricia La Mañana
Spanish synthesist Eduardo Polonio’s second album Acaricia La Mañana, originally released in 1984, is a dizzying collection of works recorded between 1976 and 1984, documenting the electroacoustic pioneer’s experiments with Polymoog, Minimoog, EMS Synthi, and Farfisa organ. Each piece is structured upon a rotating series of short, repeating cycles, which dance around one another and slowly intertwine into buzzing and belching polyrhythms. It’s a curious kind of minimalist composition, almost like synth phase in a sense, but whose dense textures and gurgling sonorities evoke the stereotypes of a vintage mad science lab.
Acaricia La Mañana is an easy entrypoint into the vast and still quite untapped world of private-press Spanish synthetic esoterica. Bonus points to Vinilisssimo for including an extra 7″ with the LP which contains four previously unheard contemporaneous works from Polonio’s archives, offering further views into this Spanish magus’s brilliant mind.
5. Colored Music
Faithful readers of this column know that I roll deep with the sounds of synthesized Japan — one of my first pieces for FACT was an introduction to Yellow Magic Orchestra, and I’ve often included reissues and archival releases from Japan. While a number of excellent works have been making blog rounds and bootleg pressings recently, the upswing in Japanese synthwave has also led to a number of classics seeing legitimate reissues in various forms, including this absolutely monster tune by Colored Music, a one-off collective fronted by noted pianist and composer Ichiko Hashimoto and saxophonist Atsuo Fujimoto.
Their sole 1981 LP curiously combines lopsided avant-jazz with flourishes of prog-rock and cold no-wave synth splatter. The album’s eerie mood swings make for great home listening, but the standout cut has always been ‘Heartbeat’, itself comped a number of times in recent years, and deservedly so, with its six minutes of time-warped futurism fusing the unwavering drive of electro (and its undeniable influence on house music) with an unsettling choral vocal chant, discordant free jazz piano runs, and what sounds like someone using a syndrum as a Yoruban dundun. It’s unlike any other track of the era, and few things since have ever sounded quite like it – imagine Carl Orff recording cyberpunk chants to the orishas with Cecil Taylor and Trans-Europe Express-era Kraftwerk, and you’ll have an idea of how truly whacked it is.
HMV Japan has just reissued the tune (along with the group’s ‘Colored Music’ calling card) in subtly re-edited form for further dancefloor destruction by noted producer and DJ Chee Shimizu of Balearic behemoths Discosession. Aside from shelling out three figures for the original LP, this is the only way you can readily find ‘Heartbeat’ on wax, and for that, you should give thanks.
Welcome Plastics / Origato Plastico / Welcome Back Plastics
Speaking of Japanese delights, three essential new wave documents by Plastics — one of the era’s most brilliantly flippant yet insightful groups — have just been remastered and reissued as lovely deluxe editions by Victor Japan. Seen as one of the pioneering technopop groups of Japan, Plastics were formed in 1976 by Hajime Tachibana and Toshio Nakanishi (who would also become a mastermind behind Melon and the Major Force collective, bringing hip-hop culture to Japan in the mid-80s with Harajuku fashion don Hiroshi Fujiwara).
They quickly evolved from post-Pistols punk- into something more skeletal and synthetic, with wry songs (sung in English) commenting on the disposability of mass-produced culture. Along with YMO, they helped bring Japanese youth culture into the embrace of synthesizers and computerized technology. While YMO were often more funk-driven, Plastics had a greater lean toward the jittery beach pop of early B-52s and the nervous art-punk energy of Devo’s Eno-produced period.
Victor’s new reissues feature bonus discs with early 7″ single versions, live concerts documenting the group’s DIY energy and party vibes, and bonus DVDs of early gigs in New York City (when they toured with Talking Heads and B-52s, with whom they shared USA management, bringing the comparisons full-circle) and a 1988 reunion in Tokyo showing the band’s tight interplay and entertaining command in the live arena, a side of the group unfortunately seldom discussed.
The 1976 Tokyo Cinema Club gig ,included with the Welcome Plastics reissue, is the only recorded document of the Plastics’ “punk” years — the band rips through covers of Velvets, Bowie, Roxy Music and even R&B hits like ‘Tracks Of My Tears’ and ‘It’s My Party’. Anyone hot for the sounds of post punk/new wave from any region, not to mention the beginnings of Harajuku fashion culture, owe it to themselves to check out these three classic albums of offbeat electropop.
3. Urban Sax
Fraction Sur Le Temps
Gilbert Artman is an avant-garde wildman. His work in the still-unheralded Lard Free remains some of the most brilliant prog-funk ever cut to wax, and his work as drummer and synthesist in Jacques Berrocal’s confrontational post-punk trio Catalogue is up there as well. It’s his last project, Urban Sax, that to me has really delivered the greatest rewards in terms of both recordings and performances (for real, go watch some of this group’s video documentation on YouTube, they are fucking insane).
A large-scale choir of saxophone players and vocalists, Urban Sax is precisely that — a mobile orchestra who stage theatrical site-specific performances in costume, utilizing pulleys, levers, rope suspension, and natural acoustic resonances that bridge the worlds of performance art, theatre, modern classical, and cyclical minimalism. While nearly any release in their discography is worth your attention, the fourth album — 1995’s Fraction Sur Le Temps — is my personal favorite, as it displays their power and beauty in the most concise and direct structures they’d ever put to tape.
Beginning with the spiraling call-and-response cycles of 30-plus horn tonalities, the piece slowly escalates and builds into a thick wash of brass and reed clouds before the second side introduces a choir of 15 human voices, a string quartet, subtle guitars, and gongs, adding celestial overtones to a rather earthy invocation. Wah Wah, the label previously responsible for reissuing Artman’s Lard Free catalogue on vinyl, has just re-released this masterpiece.
Of the numerous bands making records during the zeitgeist of what has come to be known as shoegaze and dreampop, Lush have often been held in lesser regard than the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive, which is both irrational and unfair. The quartet were always different from their peers, simultaneously more subdued and spiky than the majority of bands exploring similar sounds. Lush were able to fuse weightless pop hooks with propulsive and at times even aggressive post-punk textures, remembering that even the most innovative pop production — here undertaken by the likes of Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie and Talk Talk’s Tim Friese-Green — is near-worthless without effective hooks to anchor the experimentation.
In advance of the group’s reformation this spring, 4AD have released Chorus, a career retrospective compiling almost all the band’s collected works, including three studio LPs and two single-and-EP compilations, each bolstered by generous helpings of bonus material culled from BBC sessions, tribute albums, and Japanese-only releases. These albums are totems of 4AD’s second-wave peak period, and prove to be absolutely essential listening.
1. The California Playboys
Trying To Become A Millionaire
Of everything on the list this month, this one had pretty much cemented itself into the top slot early on, both due to its insane rarity and the absolutely brutal soul tunes pressed into its grooves. Long a holy grail among private-press funk and soul collectors, the lone LP by a group of session heavyweights dubbing themselves The California Playboys was self-released in 1976 to little fanfare outside of the local San Fransisco scene where it originally saw release via the Loadstone label. Many of its cuts have gained serious dancefloor traction over the years in the Northern soul scene, and then later on among dusty-fingered private-label soul spelunkers, for good reason — the LP is stuffed to the gills with deep rhythms, vocal harmonies and percolating Latin and proto-disco beats.
Each track veers into a different zone, continually snapping and stomping (to quote the little footnote hidden on the sleeve: “Disco Sound HOT”). The musicians have one hell of a pedigree, having played with the likes of Irma Thomas, the Pointer Sisters, and Little Johnny Taylor, and that same blend of bluesy boogie soaks into each song here. Officially licensed via Playboys guitarist Robert Jacobs (who also arranged the songs), sourced and scanned from one of his sealed mint archive copies, and beautifully remastered by engineer Jessica Thompson, who has previously worked her magic on Ata Kak’s Obaa Sima and the majority of the Awesome Tapes From Africa catalogue, Trying To Become A Millionaire delivers on all fronts.