CAN – CAN Harvest 1C 066-45 099 (1978)
This is the last album that CAN recorded before disbanding (though they later reunited). The conventional narrative is that the band went downhill from 1974 onward. Is that fair? Yes and no. While the post-’74 material is by no means as pathbreaking, there is still much to like about it. The self-titled CAN (renamed Inner Space for some reissues) grapples with popular music of the day, which is to say disco, funk rock, even reggae, jazz fusion, and more. This ranges all over the place. Some of it (“A Spectacle”) even locks into a proto-hip-hop breakbeat-style groove. “E.F.S. Nr. 99 (‘Can Can’),” a rendition of Jacques Offenbach‘s iconic “Infernal Galop” composition, is sometimes greeted with a sneer, but it’s actually great! CAN had a sense of humor, which was one of their admirable qualities when it shone through, and this particularly sunny song is much less pretentious than a lot of other CAN genre tributes of the prior few years. Of course, the opener “All Gates Open” is really a song that ranks among the band’s best, with a moderate tempo, a mechanical rhythm with hints of ambient music, and a jammy, laid-back mystical quality evoked by the lyrics. “Safe” and “Sodom” are other particularly good ones. “Sunday Jam” is a dud, with cheesy smooth jazz trappings, but it proves to be the only dud on an otherwise fine album.
Don’t let the haters sour you on this, which is a good one for anyone with open ears (that is to say anyone who doesn’t limit CAN to their sound of the 1968-74 period). This has much more of a sense of purpose than the last couple CAN albums, which had good songs here and there but tended to kind of drift about aimlessly. It is sleeker, more immediate and more accessible than earlier CAN recordings, but it is no worse off for any of those qualities.
CAN – Out of Reach Harvest 1C 066-32 715 (1978)
Widely regarded as the worst CAN album — it was for a long time omitted from a reissue program. No doubt, this is not music quite like what the band was making from 1968-74, for a number of reasons. This comes across as a bit slight most of the time. And another reviewer was probably right to say, “About half of this is merely OK; the other half is terrible. I’ll leave you to decide which half is which.” And yet, on the whole, this is passable enough. If there is a parallel, it would be The Beach Boys when they brought in Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin, and in the years that followed when the band flirted with disco and such. In CAN’s case, it was new members Rosko Gee and Reebop Kwaku Baah from Traffic. There is a pronounced shift here with a focus on club/disco music and easygoing, grooving prog rock. If there is one thing that annoys urban elites, of the sort who are the main body of supporters of avant garde acts like CAN, it is to dally with the music of the uneducated rabble, which is a big part of the demographic of disco, and groove rock. There is a tendency to consider any engagement with disco (or groove rock), and its fans, to be inherently slight. Maybe, or maybe it is just elitist bigotry? Frankly, Rosko Gee’s songs (“Pauper’s Daughter and I,” “Give Me No ‘Roses'”) are not bad, just quite different from the sort of music CAN fans were accustomed to from the band. But this is just like Fataar and Chaplin’s contributions to The Beach Boys (“Leaving This Town,” “Hold on Dear Brother”). Still, this is a pretty middling album at best, and much of it feels worn out. But taken entirely on its own terms it works adequately enough as background music. That is not much of an endorsement, which the album wouldn’t deserve, yet in the right setting it sounds perfectly okay. The better songs are in the middle of the album (the end of side one and the beginning of side two in the original LP format). Should I feel bad about kind of liking this, mediocre or not? Nah.
The Beach Boys – L.A. (Light Album) Caribou JZ 35752 (1979)
A small improvement over M.I.U. Album. The best stuff here, like “Good Timin’,” is actually not bad at all, but there is a very real danger that the Boys are going to soft rock you to sleep listening to this one. Plus, there are some serious duds here that can only induce cringes, like “Shortenin’ Bread” and the stab at disco “Here Comes the Night.”
Arthur Russell – Calling Out of Context Rough Trade RTRADCD161 (2004)
Overlooked disco maverick Arthur Russell left large amounts of material unreleased at his death in 1992. Calling Out of Context pulls together songs from an unreleased album (tentatively titled Corn — though a later archival released titled Corn had entirely different contents), and some works-in-progress from the later part of Russell’s life. Confident in his eccentricities, Russell still cultivates enough dance mojo to blanket the nation under a groove. This was a different kind of groove though. Disco and dance could be different. Arthur Russell made it different.