Music connoisseur (and former member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band) RICK SNYDER selects his 10 favourite albums of ‘unique vocal music’.
Listening again to Essra Mohawk’s Primordial Lovers reminded me of how much I love vocal music, especially when performed by unique vocalists. Even if you’re a virtuoso on your particular instrument of choice, my brain will always perceive a piece of music as being only half-complete when performed instrumentally.
In that spirit, I’ve decided to devote the following to a sampling of those “unique” vocal performances that, at least to my ears, have endured the test of time extremely well.
I love music, and in the words Gary Lucas, “If it shines a light on some obscure corners of recorded music, it’s a mitzvah”.
#1 The Lovin’ Spoonful – Everything Playing
This one probably requires some explanation.
It’s the penultimate Lovin’ Spoonful album, cobbled together after Zal Yanovsky’s exit from the classic lineup. When Zal’s good friend Jerry Yester replaced him, this album showed an immediate evolution of sonic possibilities as a result.
The album’s final track, ‘Close Your Eyes’ (co-written by Sebastian and Yester) delights me to my core – and I’ve even recorded a very faithful cover version of it.
One day, I may shove it up on YouTube and see if I can get five people to listen.
#2 Essra Mohawk – Primordial Lovers
This is a “desert island” album that will probably appear on every one of my top 10 lists until I finally cash in my chips. I first heard of it while taking another one of my adventures through the delightful record collection of Ace Farren Ford, and this one grabbed me immediately and would never, ever let go.
Primordial Lovers was the phenomenal debut of the identity of Essra Mohawk, the newly adopted nom d’artiste of one Sandra “Sandy” Hurvitz.
The details of her professional career are fairly well-documented – and her Wikipedia entry is effectively succinct. However, there is one detail that seems to have been relegated to the junk heap of history: David Geffen found her talent to be perhaps a little too challenging to the career trajectory he was planning for his other up-and-coming client, Laura Nyro. Under Geffen’s control, Essra’s career could be successfully (and unfortunately) kept under wraps.
Anyway, back to the Genius of Primordial Lovers, originally released in early 1970. Essra’s voice is a delicately powerful instrument, and she explores its entire range, multitracking herself a la Joni Mitchell on some songs.
Every song is performed exactly as it needed to be and is masterfully sequenced from beginning to end. I find my self singing along every time I listen to this album, so people must wonder aloud at what the hell is coming through the door of my office into the hallway when I listen to it at work.
Back in 1977, Rolling Stone writer Paul Williams stated that “[Primordial Lovers] is firmly on my list of the 25 all-time best albums”. I’m quite inclined to agree, Mr Williams.
#3 Tony Bruno – The Beauty Of Bruno
This album was originally on Buddah Records (BDS 5002) as The Beauty Of Bruno (and was re-issued later as An Original By Bruno on Capitol Records).
Perhaps by virtue of its contiguous release alongside Safe As Milk by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band (BDS 5001), I would posit that this was the finest “one-two punch” in music history.
So, what of this album? Imagine, if you will, a pop record that has a Vegas showroom feel, led by a singer who has “sex appeal with viscera” and “has that ‘Come on, baby’ sound in his voice” (according to the liner notes).
Tony’s visceral pipes are beautifully supported by Artie Ripp’s arrangements throughout and, as a result, each song flows seamlessly from the first track to the last.
Ladies and gentlemen, I proudly present The Beauty of Bruno/An Original by Bruno for your consideration.
#4 – Mark Volman & Howard Kaylan – The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie
Continuing in my appreciation of brilliant albums created by unique vocalists, this one has continued to entertain me since the day of its release. Again, this is another album that I must bless Ace Farren Ford for exposing to my most thankful ears.
Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman had been the tag-team frontmen for The Turtles prior to joining forces with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention for a series of releases that began with Chunga’s Revenge and culminated in Just Another Band From L.A.
On December 10, 1971, their stint with The Mothers would be abruptly cut short when Frank required an extended convalescence following a brutal on-stage attack at The Rainbow Theatre by an ill-tempered fan who was angered by his girlfriend’s Zappa idolatry.
Not content to rest on their laurels, they were more than tempted to revive The Turtles. However, extant contractual restrictions would prevent them from being able to record or perform under that well-known brand. Still under contract with Warner/Reprise at the time, the label’s officials felt that they should capitalize on their Chunga’s Revenge-era noms de guerre (The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie, which were the playful nicknames previously bequeathed upon a pair of Zappa roadies).
So, The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie were born. With the able assistance of their fellow sidelined Mothers (Don Preston, Jim Pons, and Aynsley Dunbar) and ex-Love guitarist Gary Rowles, they ensconced themselves at Ike Turner’s Bolic Sound recording studio in Inglewood and, armed with an ample supply of Laurel Canyon-influenced pop gems, the group proceeded to create a true (and truly underappreciated) masterpiece. There is not a single dud in the collection and its sequencing only serves to strengthen the case for its greatness.
Thanks once again to Messrs Kaylan and Volman, for this most delightful outing. Is it any wonder that their former producer, Chip Douglas, would refer to them as “The Incredivoices”?
#5 John Simon – John Simon’s Album
This is yet another album that I wouldn’t be aware of if it weren’t for the marvellous diversity represented by the most singular collection of thee one most estimable Ace Farren Ford.
This is the solo debut by the uber-talented arranger/producer John Simon (most renowned for his work on albums by The Band, Janis Joplin/Big Brother and Blood, Sweat & Tears).
Once again, he is possessed of a most unique voice – and, on his first solo outing, his songwriting and production talents more than make up for whatever shortcomings may be attributed to his most unusual and singular vocal talents.
Without wearying you with any further attempts to sling carefully constructed bon mots in its general direction, let me present to you a favourite of both myself and my brother in musical appreciation, John Simon’s album, Don’t Forget What I Told You, released in the year of our Lord, 1971.
Suffice it to say that any album that features Cyrus Faryar, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Delaney Bramlett, Leon Russell, Jim Gordon, Carl Radle, Jim Price, Rita Coolidge, Bobby Whitlock and Jean Millington can’t be all bad, can it?
#6 Tim Buckley – Blue Afternoon
Once again, I must give credit where credit is due to the one man who shaped my musical tastes even more than my own brother, Ace Farren Ford, in whose collection I discovered and delighted in this remarkable album.
Tim Buckley was, most certainly, a restless soul – and in all the ways one can possibly manifest this restlessness. His personal life was every bit the conundrum that his musical life represented. For all of the careful construction of the brilliant Goodbye & Hello, there was the near abandon and pandemonium of his beloved Starsailor.
On top of all of this, Mr Buckley spared himself no quarter in exploring any and all of the possible regions of his vocal abilities. A truly unique vocalist in any sense of the term, Tim would explore the deepest and loftiest regions of his larynx in search of his musical identity throughout his career and he would do this without the least bit of concern about how such an endeavour would prove costly to the development of such a career, much less a fan base.
However, Blue Afternoon was the album that I most frequently sought refuge in. Again, I must admit that I am drawn to those albums that feature both a production of sound and a sequencing of tracks to make a lasting impact – and this one does both in spades. Tim’s voice is relatively controlled in this outing, but it is utilized in a way that maximizes an impact on the soul of the receptive listener.
I had this album on 8-track while I was going to college – and, while pursuing higher thought and completing research papers, letting this album play over and over in an endless Möbius strip of tape was both solace and succour to my self-doubting soul. I would even let it play throughout the night while I slept.
So, ladies and gentlemen, I endeavour to bring your attention to Blue Afternoon, and hope that you may come to love it as much as I have over the years.
#7 Tyrannosaurus Rex – Unicorn
Before he wanted to get it on and bang a gong, the London born Marc Bolan (née Mark Feld) wanted to take you into a mystical world populated with wizards and warlords. Under the guise of Tyrannosaurus Rex, he released four albums, the first three of which would be near impossible to navigate without the aid of a lyric sheet.
Marc’s vocal approach at this time seemed stubbornly and recklessly delivered; doing everything in its power to obscure his words in underenunciations and serpentine phrasings (not unlike Michael Stipe on the earliest R.E.M. outings). On top of that, some critics felt that his vocals could be likened unto the unpleasant bleating of Larry The Lamb from the popular BBC radio program, Toytown.
Perhaps it was this very impenetrability that forced me to draw closer to “receive the message”? Perhaps. Will it draw you in? Perhaps not. Nonetheless, this was one of those albums that reassured me that I was not on the same wavelength as my peers. I found something in its otherworldly mystery that seduced my ear and demanded my lifelong fealty.
So, ladies and gentleman, I present the tertian effort by Tyrannosaurus Rex, Unicorn. Dig it if you can.
#8 Minnie Riperton – Come To My Garden
Ms Minnie Riperton is a lady who managed to both grab the brass ring (when ‘Lovin’ You’ took her all the way to #1 on the charts) and suffer the greatest indignity to die at the hideous hand of metastasizing breast cancer at the age of a mere 31 years old.
Many may remember that Minnie had started out in the band Rotary Connection, who, despite a few nifty moments (especially the Peace album), never completely broke through on a career-sustaining level. All that aside, Minnie stayed in the fold until their last aggregation as The New Rotary Connection in 1971 before they folded up their tent and packed it in for good.
One year prior, however, Minnie would release her masterpiece (aided and abetted by her husband, producer Richard Rudolph, and the brilliant arranger, Charles Stepney), entitled Come To My Garden. This most remarkable song cycle would challenge the supremacy of any other that you may care to name as being the most perfect musical creation by a most perfect alliance of co-conspirators.
The first time that I heard this record (well into the 1990s, and on an Australian import CD), I couldn’t believe that I managed to miss something this good the first time around. Hers was a truly unique voice – a “coloratura soprano” with a “whistle register” unlike any other – and both the songwriting and arrangements supporting that voice were nonpareil.
Let it be known that once I found this particular album, I never let it go. I hope that you may come to enjoy it in the same spirit that I discovered it.
#9 Captain Beefheart – Lick My Decals Off, Baby
Well, it was probably about time that I would (and most predictably) shine a little light on my ol’ boss.
His voice was perhaps the most unique one to take on all established forms of rock and roll, only to twist them into pretzels until they cried out “uncle!”
He may have come to get rid of the “big mama heartbeat”, but there was no world invented that would yield completely to the polyrhythmic Sturm und Drang that was endemic to this “only child”.
This “only child” was born Don Glen Vliet. He would later restore the “Van” to his toponymic Dutch surname, but from 1964 to 1982, he would operate in the music business under the pseudonym of “Captain Beefheart” (and, as he would frequently state, this moniker was “the shingle that gave [him] shingles”).
So, though I must assume that anyone who knows me knows that I have revered this man ever since Ace Farren Ford broke his message to me gently, yet ever so persistently.
The first of Captain Beefheart’s layers to break through my defences was his sense of humour. Nonetheless, I still found that the bulk of his most celebrated work would glance off of my internal barriers as the eardrum tried in vain to train the brain to adapt to the unyielding musical demands being placed thereon.
A little side note may be in order here. Ace, from time to time, would post one his infamous mixtapes to my letterbox – and on one particular tape, he had hidden the “key” that would open up my mind and allow the rest of Don’s music to gain entry and take up residence.
That “key” was a track entitled ‘Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop’, found on this, the most challenging album of his career, Lick My Decals Off, Baby. Though the full capacity of Don’s voice is not entirely represented on this album, it is utilized in ways that are employed on this album only.
This, then, represents the use of a unique voice in a unique way – and that alone is something worthy of celebration.
There’s nothing else quite like it – and I believe that I can make that statement without fear of a single successful contradiction.
No fear, whatsoever.
#10 Jimmy L. Webb – Words & Music
This was an album that I stumbled upon completely by surprise while a young man in the lenient employ of a purveyor of sonic goods (in the form of LPs and cassettes at that time).
Don’t ask me how the awareness of this record managed to evade my consciousness for at least a full decade after its release, but I’m inclined to chalk it up to divine intervention.
Ever had a “love at first listen” moment? Well, this one did it for me – and, from that moment forward, I became a bit of an obsessive about his work (Jimmy himself would refer to our ilk as “Webbheads”).
I bought all of his albums to date and started to search for any LP or 45 by any artist that might have one of his writing/arranging/producing credits. I started to chat with fellow Webb fans in an AOL newsgroup in the mid-’90s, and we would receive the occasional chastisement from a character that went by the handle “Chairumpir”, who we all felt sure must have been Jimmy himself.
But, most surely, I digress wildly.
Back to the strange miracle that is Words And Music, which was apparently born from Jimmy Webb hearing his name mentioned in Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 denunciation, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’: “The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb, Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom
Jones, Johnny Cash, Engelbert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth. The revolution will not be televised.”
In a 2017 interview with the Chicago Tribune writer, George Varga, Jimmy would recall that “being considered part of the right-wing establishment was a characterization that I reacted to very vehemently. I was not that. Those were not my politics. My whole life then was reflexive… it was reflexive to being pigeonholed as a middle-of-the-road guy. That was silly, and I’ve never regretted my struggle to escape that.”
Words And Music represents Jimmy’s initial effort to redefine himself as he “struggle to escape” from what he believed were everyone’s erroneous preconceptions. Recorded in MCA’s Universal City Studio and engineered by Brian Ingoldsby (who had also worked with Frank Zappa the year before), this album was as much of “an oasis of undersell” as Skip Spence’s Oar. Being largely the overdubbed efforts of Jimmy and his multi-talented buddy Fred Tackett (who plays bass, guitars, drums, and trumpet), this record has a strange “recorded at home” sound to it despite the sophisticated environment that birthed it.
Gone are all of the rich string and vocal arrangements that characterized Webb’s work in the previous years; this was to be a very stripped-down and honest effort.
On side two’s lead-off track, Jimmy would even go so far as to make a rather bold offer: “If you want me to, I’ll sing about fucking; sing about it fast, sing about it slow…” With that lyric, Mr Webb most assuredly plunged a deep and fatal dagger into the heart of ‘Up, Up and Away’. If that wasn’t getting his new message across clearly enough, then Jimmy would start performing Frank Zappa’s ‘My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama’ in his live performances to show where his new allegiances would be pledged.
The final word here belongs to Jon Landau, in a review that he would pen for Rolling Stone magazine’s March 4, 1971 issue: “Words And Music is the statement of a man who is changing and, in most ways, growing. It has some very obvious faults but we would be foolish to let them blind us to Jimmy Webb’s strengths. Here is a man who is engaged in the act of creating music at a very personal level. He has created some very fine things here – and I suspect that there is a lot more where they have come from.”
* Rick Snyder is a musician and music connoisseur from Los Angeles. His bio includes a stint in Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band as bassist Richard ‘Midnight Hatsize’ Snyder and his own group The Mystery Band, as well as many years as a trusted advisor in record retail.