Jefferson Starship, Red Octopus

Of all the various flying contraptions this band has adopted and the local maxima they've reached, they've only ever had one perfect lineup and this 1975 album is its solitary record. A faintly demented combination of folk, fiddle, rock and Grace Slick's sonorous Joplinesque contralto, love is the theme and they sing it all kinds of ways (even the poor Japanese of "Ai Garimasū," properly ai ga arimasu yet inexplicably on the CD reissue as "Al Garimasū" as if he were some sort of nisei sportscaster). Marty Balin returns for some writing and lead vocal duty, most notably on the startlingly sexual lead single "Miracles" (with its slipped-in-the-shower saxophone), but for me the most remarkable part of the album is Papa John Creach's stratospheric, almost trilling electric violin on its two instrumental tracks. Another notable aspect: the faultless programming, deftly building its energy from the zippy opener "Fast Buck Freddie" and the first side's lighter feel through the big finale of "There Will Be Love" on the second. Their apparent concerted effort to make a more commercially friendly album clearly paid off, as well as successfully avoiding the overwrought psychedelia of their previous incarnation even if the lightweight lyrics never quite equal the sophistication of the musicship. Creach's exit in 1975 and Balin's and Slick's (first) in 1978 doomed this morph of the band to never fire on all cylinders again, so enjoy it and think of what might have been. The CD reissue adds the single of "Miracles," whose shortening is an indignity, but the 1975 Winterland Arena live tracks do possess some interest (especially the band introduction) despite unfortunately their recording after Creach's departure. (Content: adult themes on "Miracles" and "Sweeter Than Honey.")


REM, Document

The end of the I.R.S. era for R.E.M., Document is as transitional as its position in their discography would indicate, and even the professional shedding of their college rock roots doesn't quite even its irregularities. There are genius tracks like the (deservedly) heavily rotated "It's The End of the World As I Know It (And I Feel Fine)," and the old jangle pop still yields refreshment in tracks like "The One I Love" and to a lesser extent the harder-charging "Fireplace," but Michael Stipe's more prominent vocals amidst the more competent production only serve to throw this outing's relatively underdeveloped concepts into sharper relief (the bizarre "Lightnin' Hopkins" comes to mind but "Exhuming McCarthy" in particular, a limp criticism of the Reagan era that's more repetitious than auspicious). "Finest Worksong" is a great example: the production is excellent, the mix is high quality, but the feel — starting from the very title, even — always evoked images of Soviet realism in my mind and its commentary on the American work ethic correspondingly comes off as hamfisted and obvious. A taste of yet to come bubbles up from the richly textured "King of Birds" where a double-tracked Stipe sings to and over himself, but the grim and grungy closer "Oddfellows Local 151," like a Reconstruction cast-off, ends up more retrograde than innovative. Green's release the following year was a clear departure from their earlier style; perhaps this album is evidence it had run its course even if it rewards on balance more than it perplexes. The reissue adds a B-side, several tiresome live tracks and two alternate mixes of "Finest Worksong" which aren't any better. (Content: no concerns.)


38 Special, Tour de Force

Band name and title notwithstanding, a middling outing that never leaves the chamber. With shades of REO Speedwagon, though they do it better, the album's formulaic hooks and tired rhythm guitar make for a flaccid attempt at arena rock that can't even get out of your garage. The first three tracks indeed are nearly indistinguishable and closer "Undercover Lover" is just dorky; while "Long Distance Affair" has some nice licks, the lyrics are lunkheaded, and only the power ballad "Only The Lonely Ones" has enough powder to fire. It's not all bad: when they stick closer to their Southern rock roots there's "Twentieth Century Fox" (not to be confused with the unrelated Doors track), and the folksy, entertaining "I Oughta Let Go" has a solid refrain, git-up guitar and saucy vocals. Unfortunately, that's not sufficient to rescue the record, and while I know their fans will shoot me, this album's caliber just isn't big enough. (Content: mild adult themes on "Undercover Lover.")


Taylor Swift, Folklore

She certainly surprised us all with this one, that's for sure. Unannounced and unheralded, somewhere in the depths of lockdown (though as if anyone over a certain income level actually obeys), she still managed to lay down 16 tracks and almost 64 minutes of music and of a very different sort than what she's wrought recently, too. Stylistically there's a little less grit and a little more earth, largely callbacks to her earlier country works ("Betty" particularly), and to her credit her voice is the star more than any of the arrangements are, even the well-placed contrast of Bon Iver's Justin Vernon's vocal guest turn in "Exile." But the production (largely by Aaron Dessner of The National), while technically superior, is languid and often disappointingly insubstantial, leaving too many same sounding songs stuck in neutral. The singles off the album ("The 1," "Cardigan" and later this month "Betty") do have an appealing style and are even vaguely headbobbers, though I thought "Mirrorball" was stronger, but they're probably the singles because frankly they're the exceptions. Similarly, the writing has problems of its own: I give her props for some solid topicality — "Epiphany"'s COVID-19 overtones by far, the song most deserving of the "quarantine album" sobriquet — but a lot of the wordplay is simple (the rhymes verge on childish sometimes) and her timing sometimes gets caught by the meter ("Peace"). Beyond that, however, what I found to be this album's greatest fault was how hard it is to personally identify with. Now, verily, I am not a 30-something girl from Pennsylvania richer than Croesus with a record contract, so perhaps I'm judging this a little harshly. But while I get the sadness for "The 1" who got away, Scott Borchetta is clearly a pig ("Mad Woman") and I certainly intuit what it's like to say goodbye separated by plastic, I was also young but I wasn't that dumb ("Cardigan"), I don't particularly care about the "Invisible String" of love between her and Lord Masham, and I've never had so many relationships apparently go so wrong nor wish to dwell on them so deeply ("August" and "This is Me Trying," among others). If the songs at least had some unique musical hook or stylistic flourish that would be something, but they haven't, so we don't. Take "The Last Great American Dynasty" as the best and worst example: this is, at least for the first two-thirds or so, a remarkable historical meditation on Rebekah Harkness and the strange tragedies of her life, an Al Stewart-like outing with some of the best writing on the album, and then it turns out it was only relevant to Swift because she bought her house ($17 mil). Now it comes off like another rich girl trying to make us care about her purchase, but unless you're in her tax bracket we end up caring less about Rebekah Harkness because of that revelation which is now, for better or worse, the lasting impression of the song. It took some effort to finish this album amidst so many heartrent pieces that for all their pathos felt ultimately so meaningless, and for music that aspires to be as universal as the title implies, I came away with the distinct impression these songs meant far more to her than they do to me. In these days of plague that may make them great catharsis and possibly even enjoyable in small bites, but they are not enough for what they are, and after listening to sixteen of them together I must gently question their basis for an album. Physical releases add a seventeenth track; although I certainly admire her industriousness, I'm not sure I'd call "The Lakes" worth the additional price for most of the same reasons. (Content: S- and F-bombs, some adult themes.)


Parliament, Up for the Down Stroke

At its nadir this album wastes almost twelve of its 40 minute running time on an interminable noodly nothing even the six-string genius of Eddie Hazel couldn't save ("The Goose") and a biliously regurgitated beat from the title track ("I Can Move You (If You Let Me)"). Of the remaining EP length, though, it's sheer genius. Yes, there's some delightful gospel flavours ("Testify," "Whatever Makes Baby Feel Good"), airy psychedelia ("I Just Got Back," with a truly beguiling whistled bridge) and pompously ponderous musings ("Presence of a Brain"). But the two best tracks by far are "All Your Goodies Are Gone," the bitterest, schadenfreudiest, meanest anti-love song anyone with a broken heart will wallow in for sheer venom, and the title track, with its stupendously trippy signature reversal sure to leave the dance floor littered with bodies. Just pay no attention to what Geo. Clinton is doing to that woman on the cover, skip tracks two and three and thank me later. The 2003 remaster adds slightly extended versions of "Testify" and "Up for the Down Stroke" plus the previously unreleased party funker "Singing Another Song," and is definitely worth the hunt. (Content: album cover notwithstanding, no concerns.)


They Might Be Giants, Lincoln

On the back of the CD is a hand-drawn diagram of, um, "something" that if you sit down for a moment and compare the dimensions would yield something slanted, silly and slightly unstable if anyone actually tried to build it. It's a good analogy for the album, in fact: eighteen tracks of quickly tossed-off off-kilter word play ("life is a placebo/masquerading as a simile") set to a bunch of styles thrown into a hat and shaken around a bit, with no particular reason other than fun and no dwelling on them for very long. If you tried to take a serious seat on that, you'd slide off and hurt yourself, so don't. Like much of their output the babble for its own sake means they miss the chance to matter, but the spare production is clean and appealing, and they still get in some witty social commentary now and then (particularly the terminally snarky closer "Kiss Me, Son of God," but also to a lesser extent the unapologetically nonsense "Shoehorn With Teeth") and even some warped musical references ("Where Your Eyes Don't Go" interpolating bizarro snippets of Bach). Best pun on the album: "Everyone looks naked when you know the world's a dress." With such platitudes on offer, who can resist? (Content: no concerns.)