John Clark – Faces, 1981


Another gem from the ECM catalogue. Brooklyn-born jazz horn player John Clark hasn’t made many records as a bandleader, but has been hugely prolific and has recorded and performed with Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius, Chick Corea, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, and Leonard Bernstein, among many others. He’s still a faculty member at Manhattan School of Music.

Faces is disarmingly beautiful in ways that I don’t typically expect to hear from a jazz record (though I’m admittedly a jazz idiot). The cover image feels very apt: in addition to much of this being a very quiet record, it also has a ghostly quality, suggesting faint impressions from a carbon copy done too lightly. That vaporous, trailing-behind sensation is echoed in the generous reverb on both the horn and the electric cello, suggesting watercolors or streaks of neon in street puddles. Despite all these murky descriptors, there’s joy to be found all over it: “Silver Rain, Pt. III” is a nod to steel-drum tropical sunshine, and closer “You Did It, You Did It!” is almost baroque in its exuberance. There are some really nice notes about Faces on ECM Reviews, which, incidentally, is an excellent resource if you’re as daunted as I am by the ECM catalogue. Thank you Gil and Matthew for bringing me here!

CHBB – CH-BB, 1981



Compilation of four self-released cassettes (each with 50 copies made), recorded in 1981 from power duo Chrislo Haas (Liasons Dangereuses, Der Plan, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft) and Beate Bartel (Einstürzende Neubauten, Liaisons Dangereuses, Mania D, I have a major crush). The compilation was released unofficially on vinyl in 1998 and to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t been released since. As it’s a compilation, there’s a lot of range–industrial, noise, bouncing new (no?) wave on closer “Go Go Go!”, and the incredible proto-techno “Neger Brauchen Keine Elektronik,” which I still can’t believe happened in 1981. Gritty and very, very good.

Akiko Yano – Tadaima, 1981

Not for the faint of heart, although I think the cover art should give you a pretty good sense of what you’re in for. Akiko Yano covers a lot of ground here, ranging from bubblegum reggae to pure, high-toned J-pop to the spronky sample relentlessness of new wave contemporaries like Devo, “Little Girls” era Oingo Boingo, and, yep, YMO. The dream team is in full force here: Haruomi Hosono on bass, Yukihiro Takahashi on drums, Ryuichi Sakamoto on synth, programming by Hideki Matsutake (and–bonus round!–Masami Tsuchiya on guitar). In addition to some masterfully psychotic vocals, Akiko Yano is also on piano, marimba, electric piano, production, and arrangement. By this time she had already established herself as a fiercely singular writer, producer, and musician, so it’s all the more exciting to hear her explore even broader musical territory here. Tadaima is best known for tracks like synthetic funk-reggae cupcake “Ashkenazy Who?” and the more unhinged classic “Rose Garden,” where you can hear that signature Sakamoto churn in full effect, but I also love the gleefully gnashing opener “I’m Home” (“Tadaima”) and the strung-out experiment “Iranaimon,” in which Yano speak-sings from far away over a non-melodic collage of synth samples and whirrs that open up more generously with every listen. There’s a lot here for fans of Miharu Koshi. Dense, rewarding, and not for laptop speakers.

Roedelius – Wenn Der Südwind Weht, 1981

Hard to pick a favorite release from Hans-Joachim Roedelius, who’s contributed to 92 different releases, according to Discogs. Though most famous for co-founding Cluster and Harmonia, he’s been even more prolific as a solo artist. Wenn der Südwind Weht (“When the South Wind Blows”) was his seventh solo release, though he followed it up with a casual 35 more full-lengths, most of which I still haven’t heard. Of his earlier releases, this is both my favorite and the most exemplary of signature Roedelius. The most remarkable moments are when synthesizer acts as a vessel for his pastoral sensibility, with unabashedly sentimental lines of synthetic oboe, clarinet, organ, and something theremin-like sitting on top of rolling piano chord pulses muffled in golden-warm reverb. The title track, “Veilchenwurzeln,” and “Mein Freund Farouk” are the best instances of this kind of classical miniaturism–they’re what make this record feel like a favorite sweater–but in very German tradition, a handful of the other tracks meander into more shivery, drawn-out synth meditations (and that’s certainly a good thing). Ideal rainy day music.

Joanna Brouk – The Space Between, 1981

My favorite release from the venerable Joann Brouk, considered one of the founders of New Age music, who studied under Terry Riley and Robert Ashley at the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music, and whose work you’re already familiar with if you’ve listened to the worldbuilding I Am The Center compilation.
Streamlined, super minimal, classically inclined ambient that avoids a lot of the ornamentation and explicit emoting of new age. Just chimes, synth, and piano. Leave it on repeat for a few hours.

Penguin Cafe Orchestra – Penguin Cafe Orchestra, 1981

Arguably the definitive work from Penguin Cafe Orchestra, the project of UK-born composer and musician Simon Jeffes. Jeffes saw PCO as the ongoing soundtrack to a dream he had had while suffering from food poisoning in the south of France, as well as a vessel through which to explore his interest in “world” music, particularly African percussion. The ensemble’s music resists genre, though–you can hear Jeffes’s British proclivity towards the pastoral and an interest in folk music that splits itself between Western and non-Western traditions, but you can also hear a love for Reichian minimalism, a vaguely avant-garde quality that presumably compelled Brian Eno to release their first record on his Obscure label, Satie-esque piano ambling, flamenco, and even–going out on a limb here–the chug-a-chug forward momentum of Kraftwerk, for whom PCO opened in 1976 in their first major concert. Comfortably moving between unabashedly beautiful (“Numbers 1-4,” “Flux,” “Harmonic Necklace”), cheeky (the famous “Telephone and Rubber Band,” based on tape loops of a telephone ringing tone, an engaged tone, and a rubber band), and the clever, all-purpose optimism that the best movie soundtracks happily exploit (“Air A Danser,” “Cutting Branches for a Temporary Shelter,” “The Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas”). There’s a sense of déjà-vu to much of PCO’s discography, but it’s especially present here, and combined with meticulous musicianship (this album took almost four years to record), it makes for a deeply transportive listen–with the caveat that the destination isn’t always clear.

New Age Steppers – Action Battlefield, 1981

Second full-length from UK dub supergroup New Age Steppers. Incredible lead vocals from Arianne Foster, aka Ari-Up (The Slits), backing vocals from a teenage Neneh Cherry (The Slits, Rip Rig + Panic, work with the Notorious B.I.G., Youssou N’Dour, and Massive Attack, among others; also Don Cherry’s stepdaughter), bass from Crucial Tony (Dub Syndicate), and production by Adrian Sherwood (founder of On-U Sound, also the only consistent member in the N.A.S. lineup).

About as spacey as production gets, and more vocal-heavy than some of their other work. Mostly covers, including Horace Andy (“Problems”), Black Uhuru’s Michael Rose (“Observe Life”), B.B. Seaton (“My Love”), and the Heptones’ Leroy Sibbles (“Guiding Star”). Summer classic.

Yukihiro Takahashi – Neuromantic, 1981

The third solo release from YMO member Yukihiro Takahashi, with appearances from Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Andy Mackay of Roxy Music, and Tony Mansfield, who’s worked with Lio, the B-52s, New Musik, and Jean-Paul Gaultier. Assistance from Steve Nye of Penguin Café Orchestra, Chris Mosdell, and Hideki Matsutake, who has computer programmed many of the greatest Japanese electronic records ever made.

Unsurprisingly, this has a lot of the same spiky relentlessness as the music that YMO was making at the time, though this is more new wavey, more optimistic, and as a whole, less hopped up. It’s also a vessel for very well-constructed pop songs, like “Something in the Air” and the shimmering, perfect “Drip Dry Eyes” (live version previewed below). There’s a rumor that the title for Neuromancer was inspired by the record (which was in turn a play on New Romanticism)–if anyone can confirm or deny, I’d love a citation 😉 Enjoy!

[In Memoriam] Patrick Cowley – Megatron Man, 1981

The best. Alongside Giorgio Moroder and maybe Kraftwerk, Patrick Cowley can be said to be the most influential figure in electronic dance music. A hero in the west coast gay club scene, and a hero to everyone who likes to dance. Megatron Man is relentless, orchestral, high-energy perfection, sure to induce a natural high on any dance floor it graces. “Sea Hunt” might be my favorite song in the world to dance to. This music is so joyous and unabashed that it made his successive and last record, Mind Warp, all the more hard-hitting as a dark disco concept album about succumbing to the effects of HIV, which claimed his life 33 years ago today at the age of 32. (One of the few useful things that Gawker has ever done is this beautiful piece about Mind Warp.)

Had he not left us too soon, Patrick Cowley most certainly would have continued to dominate the electronic dance underground. Still, he’s left his mark on an endlessly grateful community, and he would no doubt be happy to read YouTube comments on his songs like “OMG! I remember! YES! I was getting PHUKED in the East Village, NYC rooftops when this song was hot on the Disco Floors! Dam I miss those Gay Anonymous Hookup Days! ;-)” and “I met Patrick at The Hexagon House where Sylvester was performing. He was one hot man. We were both staying in cabins at The Woods Resort and briefly hooked up while partying the entire weekend away. I would often see him in the clubs around town after that and we’d party and dance until dawn. I never realized until now but I kind of miss that era.” Thanks for everything, Patrick.

Mkwaju Ensemble – Mkwaju, 1981

This group of Japanese percussionists, led by Midori Takada and Yoji Sadanari, only released two albums, both in 1981. They’re joined on their first release by Joe Hisaishi (more from him soon), who’s credited as keyboardist and producer, as well as Hideki Matsutake (of Logic System, though he’s often referred to as the “fourth member” of YMO) as computer programmer. With such forward-thinking musicians, Mkwaju (the Swahili word for tamarind) takes you for quite a ride. African rhythms and instrumentation combine with synth sounds in a repetitive but ever-evolving flurry stopping just short of cacophony. More information here; listen to the expansive proto-house “Tira-Rin” below.