Charles Stepney, “Step on Step” (International Anthem)
Have you heard the big news from the Chicago indie label International Anthem? The same record company that's championed modern jazz greats such as Jeff Parker and Makaya McCraven will issue the abundant and previously unreleased archival recordings of the late Charles Stepney, a genius arranger/producer/composer/musician who deserves to be much more famous. Details regarding this musical treasure trove are scant right now, but a teaser has been uploaded to the web, “Step on Step,” to whet appetites. Unbelievably, this is the first music to be released under Stepney's own name. But before we get to that, some history's in order.
Born in Chicago in 1931, Stepney began his career with Chess Records as a musician and arranger. Things escalated when in 1966 he and the son of Chess boss Leonard Chess constructed the extraordinary Rotary Connection group for the label's freak-friendly subsidiary Cadet Concept. With Stepney behind the boards and writing songs, Rotary Connection cut six albums of wildly inventive psychedelic-soul from 1967 to 1971, which established them as the Sly & the Family Stone of the Midwest.
Out of that fertile creative crew, singer Minnie Riperton and bassist/guitarist Phil Upchurch emerged, and Stepney worked his magic on their solo records, too. Stepney's sonic savvy also colored ambitious releases by Earth, Wind & Fire, Deniece Williams, Ramsey Lewis, the Dells, Marlena Shaw, and Terry Callier. And those radical, psych-rock-friendly LPs by blues deities Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf? Stepney played a major role on those, as well. Remember hearing Riperton's gorgeous “Les Fleur” on the soundtracks to P.T. Anderson's Inherent Vice and Jordan Peele's Us? Stepney's handiwork. Given the scope of his output, Stepney comes off as a cross between Beatles producer George Martin and Motown songwriting team Norman Whitfield-Barrett Strong. Sadly, Stepney suffered a fatal heart attack in 1976, when he was still orchestrating enduring music.
Lacking his trademark extravagant orchestral backdrop, “Step on Step” is a 4-track home recording from the late '60s that presents as a chill slice of jazzy intrigue. A true solo work, the song creeps in on a finger-snapping drum-machine pulse that's filigreed by Stepney's prettily pensive vibraphone motif and autumnal piano chordings. This instrumental captures a rare intimacy for a studio wizard more known for his expansive productions.
In the grand scheme of Stepney's discography, “Step on Step” sounds rather modest, as if International Anthem didn't want to blow our minds too quickly with this legend's secret stash of basement tapes. Whatever the case, anticipation is stoked for more Charles Stepney brilliance. If there's any justice, he's going to become a household name yet.
Flaccid Mojo, “Slow Psychics” (Castle Face)
Because Black Dice members Bjorn Copeland and Aaron Warren have so much weird music inside of them, they formed Flaccid Mojo to squeeze yet more of it out into the world. Anyone familiar with the grotesquely convulsive electro rock of Black Dice won't be shocked by Flaccid Mojo's “Slow Psychics,” the first single from their debut album, FM, which John Dwyer's Castle Face Records will release on June 3.
Similar to Black Dice's output over the last 15 years, FM traffics in audio surrealism that's at once unsettling and absurdly funny—a rare combination in any genre or era. Copeland and Warren are masters of this lonely lane, and the eight tracks here only solidify their status as preeminent poker-faced pranksters of the musical underground. These cuts sound like club bangers, but as if heard on the strongest hallucinogens... of the 22nd century. Like I said, it's a lonely lane.
“Slow Psychics” slinks into earshot like a wickedly distorted and slowed-down dancehall track, with an ill bass synth weaving and wobbling like your drunk uncle at last call. While that element holds steady, as it were, throughout the track's 4.5 minutes, “Slow Psychics” accrues weirdnesses: mysterious voices mutter, delayed percussion bloops and clatters, a rancorously warped guitar shoots the bird to audiophiles, unidentified flying noises carom around the stereo field like phantasms. I just played this song five times in a row and now I need to detox with a gong bath. No regrets whatsoever.