Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Smoke Dawson,

Initially a 1971 private-press LP released in an edition of 750, Fiddle is the solitary record by Smoke Dawson, and its fresh reissue by the vital enterprise known as Tompkins Square illuminates how there is still plenty of unexplored nooks in the vastness of 20th Century Music. On 17 tracks steeped in tradition but infused with a restless, youthful, and sporadically unusual manner, Dawson wields his titular instrument with skill and panache.

Minus the legwork attached to Live at Caffè Lena: Music from America’s Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013, a terrific 3CD set issued by Tompkins Square that documents the Saratoga Springs, NY folky hotspot run by its namesake Lena Spencer, George “Smoke” Dawson’s main artistic achievement would be little more than a footnote.

Specifically, he was the banjoist in MacGrundy’s Old-Timey Wool Thumpers with guitarist Rob Hunter (not the Grateful Dead lyricist) and fiddler-mandolinist Peter Stampfel, the soon to be Holy Modal Rounder and leader of the Bottlecaps proving such a fine picker of the banjo that Dawson felt encouraged to take up the bow. According to Stampfel, “George took a fuck-ton of speed and came back in a couple weeks playing fiddle better than I did.”

He also ran off with Stampfel’s wife. Dawson began performing at Caffè Lena in the autumn of 1960, the java hut as cultural hub additionally serving as his occasional digs for the ensuing eight years. “Devil’s Dream,” his crowd-rousing examination of a fiddle standard, is included on the opening discof Caffè Lena.

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Graded on a Curve:
Document and Eyewitness

When informed of Wire’s plans to reissue Document and Eyewitness Geoff Travis, known the world over as the man who started Rough Trade (the label and the shops) retorted that the group was “completely mad.” This wouldn’t be especially significant except it was Travis who put up pounds to release the damned thing in the first place. This small anecdote is a big tipoff that Wire’s 1981 live LP, notorious to many and beloved by a few, is really quite special. On August 18th Pink Flag’s expanded multi-format edition will again illuminate the range and polarization of opinion.

I retain a fluctuating level of esteem for the live record, but as worthy captured performances continue to occasionally hit the racks it’s hard to deny that the form’s best days are basically behind it. To my ear the neck-and-neck contenders for the finest non-jazz live set ever waxed came relatively soon after the format’s invention, taped in ’62 and ’64 respectively; James Brown’s Live at the Apollo and Jerry Lee Lewis’ Live at the Star Club, Hamburg.

These aren’t controversial choices of course, but they do amplify what’s missing from the vast majority of live records and why most are little more than artistic victory laps/obligatory pop and rock star rites of passage/bones tossed into the salivating yawp of easily satisfied fans. Surely many early live discs were to varying levels studio-massaged sleight of hand, but in the cases of Brown and Lewis it was their abilities as performers that ultimately made those albums so massive. Plus, each slab possesses further crucial qualities in abundance; danger, uncertainty, surprise, and a legit sense of vérité.

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Graded on a Curve: Chrome,
Feel it Like a Scientist

Via the designs of crucial member Helios Creed, underground rock stalwarts Chrome have returned with another blast of fresh and very welcome psych-punk. Feel it Like a Scientist offers Creed leading a crack band through a generous running-time as they extend deep into the 21st century a template honed in late-‘70s San Francisco.

Momentarily setting aside matters of quality, the appearance of new Chrome material in 2014 relates an interesting story and one with little in the way of music scene precedent. To begin, Feel It Like a Scientist is the latest chapter in a narrative finding veteran guitarist Helios Creed continuing the saga commenced by Damon Edge in the steaming guts of the mid-‘70s.

Make that the late Damon Edge; prior to his death in ’95, Chrome shifted in personnel numerous times, though the outfit’s strongest period began once Creed entered the fray in ’76. While the pre-Helios debut The Visitation is worth investigation by serious fans, the sparks that flew from the creative permutation of Edge and Creed remains integral to Chrome’s reputation as one of the most important and least typical experiences to be born from first-wave US punk.

In short, ‘77’s Alien Soundtracks and 79’s Half Machine Lip Moves are must acquisitions for any well-rounded punk collection, and furthermore Red Exposure, Blood on the Moon and 3rd From the Sun, albums issued between ’80-’83, the rhythm section on the last two John and Hilary Stench, aren’t far behind.

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Graded on a Curve:
Aztec Camera,
High Land, Hard Rain

While technically a band, Aztec Camera was always the creative brainchild of Scotsman Roddy Frame. On the debut LP High Land, Hard Rain, released in 1983 through Rough Trade in the UK and via Sire in the US, he made an outstanding case for himself as one of the decade’s great pop music auteurs. The album embraced intelligence and sophistication as it abandoned any pretense to a rapidly aging punk standard that spawned it, and if it isn’t perfect, 30 years after High Land, Hard Rain’s making it wears its minor flaws very gracefully.

High Land, Hard Rain opens with “Oblivious,” one of the record’s more famous tracks, though in hearing it with fresh ears after a very long absence I was struck by two elements. The first was the heights of Roddy Frame’s pop ability and at the tender age of 18; where much pop climbs to greatness in the details, “Oblivious” can be accurately assessed as an exceptionally written tune. It attains its success through sublime construction around a foundation that many well-respected songwriters twice his age had never managed to build.

The second element was Aztec Camera’s sheer level of dedication to an unabashedly erudite sensibility. This was maximal, accessible, unabashedly sophisticated Pop Music not only shirking off any tangible debt to punk but also steering far clear of the swelling tide of the synth-wave. And this relates directly to my third thought; in the bass line to “Oblivious” lays the key to so much of High Land, Hard Rain’s essence.

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Graded on a Curve: Roddy Frame,
Seven Dials

Since the mid-‘90s Roddy Frame, the Scotsman most renowned as the leader of ‘80s indie pop mainstays Aztec Camera, has chosen to issue recordings under his own name. On August 19th, after a break of eight years, his latest effort Seven Dials hits the US through AED Records on multiple formats including 180gm vinyl housed in a gatefold sleeve with CD version and a bonus six-track live disc thrown into the bargain. Lacking in rust as the good decisions far outweigh the questionable, it finds Frame exploring his comfort zone with composed assurance.

Working greatly in Roddy Frame’s favor across the ten selections comprising Seven Dials is a seeming lack of anxiety regarding the trajectory of his post-Aztec Camera career. To be sure, Frame’s rep as a classicist has survived unperturbed over the years, with the pop auteur’s albums arriving infrequently and minus any straining stabs at the cutting-edge.

To the contrary, the first release offered as Roddy Frame, ’98’s North Star, revealed him doing little differently from the contents of the six record stretch documenting Aztec Camera’s existence, and 2002’s follow-up Surf, in a coincidental but fitting contrast to the clamorous musical decade that preceded it (an epoch largely at odds with Frame’s approach), scaled the setting down to just voice and unamplified guitar.

Seven Dials begins likewise, but before a minute’s elapsed “White Pony” blooms to full life through Mark Edwards’ sturdy piano and the precise but tastefully vibrant drumming of Adrian Meehan, the players complimenting Frame’s expert bass and electric guitar soloing. While somewhat formulaic in thrust, it’s still an acceptable start, though the depth of reflective pondering located in Frame’s lyrics does set a tone of rumination that’s additionally worrisome.

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Graded on a Curve: Nolan Strong and the Diablos, “The Wind”
b/w “Baby Be Mine”

In 1954 Nolan Strong & the Diablos recorded one of the great doo wop singles, “The Wind” b/w ”Baby Be Mine.”For years it’s skirted under the radar as a pleasure known by far too few. But this Detroit group impacted two generations of Motown glory, and there is no time like the present to spread the word on this neglected classic.

It’s true that one of the perks of the CD era was the steady proliferation of box-sets, a development that was spurred by both a healthy economy and a general increase in consumer interest in having hefty chunks of music history loaded into their stereo system’s multi-disc changers. Yes, vinyl box sets weren’t uncommon, but in reality labels tended to shy away from subjects that required more than three or four LPs. Often they just broke them down into individual volumes, where most buyers reliably purchased the first few entries and left the subsequent installments (which is reliably where some of the best stuff was found) for those branded as “obsessive.”

This box-set boom included everything from Columbia’s 4-disc Roots ‘N’ Blues Retrospective collection, MCA’s generous stream of single artist and compilation sets procured from the vaults of Chess Records, Polydor’s Star Time, a 4-disc study of James Brown, and maybe the granddaddy of them all, Atlantic’s 9-disc The Complete Stax/Volt Singles 1959-1968. Naturally, Rhino Records got into the act with gusto, producing three 4-disc sets of garage-rock in the Nuggets series and a 4-disc collection of vocal group harmony titled The Doo Wop Box that was so successful it inspired two additional volumes.

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Graded on a Curve: Brigitte Fontaine,
Brigitte Fontaine

On her ’68 debut LP the youthful actress-writer-singer Brigitte Fontaine announced with conviction her presence as an artful practitioner of the chanson; shortly thereafter emerged a record firmly documenting a departure into the avant-garde as it further highlighted adeptness at collaboration. Three years elapsed before her next effort arrived, and the appropriately eponymous affair established her as a musician of distinction. Brigitte Fontaine is the latest of her albums to receive reissue from Superior Viaduct.

Prior to the release in ’68 of Brigitte Fontaine Est…Folle, an LP matching the now revered avant-vocalist and multi-media artist with the accessibly progressive arrangements of conductor Jean-Claude Vannier on 11 French pop songs, Brigitte Fontaine found early success as a playwright and actress, though she began singing in 1963 and made her first recordings with her theater partner, the noted French singer Jacques Higelin, in ’65.

Est…Folle may read like something of an anomaly for the angry year of 1968, but the way in which the sturdy voice of Fontaine and the superb conductions of Vannier (a name some will recognize for his arrangements on Serge Gainsbourg’s ’71 perv-classic Histoire de Melody Nelson, though he worked with Jane Birken and yé-yé singers Françoise Hardy and France Gall amongst others) magnificently gel into a record that would’ve spun naturally upon the turntable of many a chic revolutionary from the era (a la those populating Jean-Luc Godard’s ’67 film La Chinoise).

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Graded on a Curve:
HT Heartache,

Listeners pining for more of the alt-country/indie-folky sounds offered by performers such as Margo Timmins, Hope Sandoval, and Chan Marshall could easily get sated by the new album from Mary Roth, the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter who records and plays under the moniker HT Heartache. Together with the requisite digital option, Sundowner is currently available on vinyl in a limited edition of 400 copies, and it continues to essay the artistry set into motion on her 2010 debut.

The ambiguously named HT Heartache is but one component in Mary Roth’s broad résumé. Not only a singer-songwriter, she’s a model and actress, her work as the latter appearing in a slew of commercials for goods and services ranging from telecommunications to candy bars to car insurance. A sweet gig if one can get it, and in Roth’s case it has seemingly afforded an environment conducive to the pursuit of her musical goals.

This is not to infer that she is especially prolific; since she began writing tunes on her father’s guitar nearly a decade ago Roth has finished two records, an eight-song affair collecting her material up to ’08 titled Swing Low, and now Sundowner, a follow-up also holding eight-tracks that reinforces the moody qualities of her first effort.

As a country-derived artist, Roth has offered influences unsurprising (Emmylou Harris, George Jones) to less expected (Motown, namely Smokey Robinson, and ‘60s/’70s Soul/R&B in general) to pleasingly frank (a formative middle school obsession with the Counting Crows’ Recovering the Satellites). Upon listening to Swing Low however, HT Heartache exuded similarities to the Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins and to a lesser degree The Greatest-era Cat Power and Mazzy Star.

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Graded on a Curve: Lunchbox,
Lunchbox Loves You

Dating all the way back to 1994, Berkeley, CA’s Lunchbox is the work of two constant participants, guitarist-songwriter Tim Brown and bassist Donna McKean (they share vocal duties); after overcoming obstacles and reclaiming their original name, Lunchbox Loves You serves as their return. Those expecting a simple recapitulation of past glories should be pleasantly surprised by the growth Brown and McKean display on this LP’s tidy ten songs.

For folks unfamiliar with Lunchbox, the cover of their new release includes a few handy visual cues into the nature of the sound. For starters there’s the cake, the heart-shaped and clearly homemade dessert representing the sincerity of their occasionally sugary sweetness as it drives home the record’s titular message.

But that formidable blade, an instrument frankly overqualified for the task seemingly at hand, signifies the edge Lunchbox’s music frequently exhibits. While it’s not really accurate to describe them as heavy, throughout their history they’ve conjured reliable currents of intensity enhanced quite nicely at times by stabs of rawness.

And repeating a gesture from breakout ’99 effort The Magic of Sound, Lunchbox Loves You presents its entire track-listing smack dab on the front. This may not seem like an action of any major consequence, but it’s a design choice reflective of the 1960s, and in making it Brown and McKean underscore musical ties to the decade.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Animals,
The Animals

In addition to The Beatles and Stones, the British Invasion produced numerous other noteworthy groups, and one of the most successful was The Animals. A serious-minded bunch led by that brawny-throated student of American blues and early rock ‘n’ roll Eric Burdon, they persist in the modern memory mainly for their hit singles. But on the subject of albums, they also had a few very good ones, though differing US and UK editions have frustrated collectors on both sides of the Atlantic for years. Of the two versions of their 1964 debut The Animals, the Brit issue may not be the best, but it does give a deep glimpse into what this no-nonsense, solidly rocking band was initially all about.

Eric Burdon seems like the kind of cat who’d rather keel over dead than quit singing. Nearly fifty years after his first album came out he’s still out there doing it on stages, and like the R&B legends that provided him with his formative inspiration, his continued activity comes without a whole lot of pomp and circumstance.

Because he played an enjoyably quirky role in the landslide of ‘60s psychedelic rock by fronting a later incarnation of The Animals and proceeded from that to get his fingers nice and funky on a pair of albums in collaboration with the California groove merchants War, Burdon’s profile has easily transcended the outfit that began in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1962, when he joined up with a group then called The Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo.

In addition to Burdon and organist/keyboardist Price, the other members were Hilton Valentine on guitar, John Steel on drums, and Bryan “Chas” Chandler on bass. Rechristened as The Animals and following the advice of Yardbirds’ manager Giorgio Gomelsky, who obviously saw something in the band’s early stage act that was comparable to the act under his supervision, they moved to London and quickly hit the big time.

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