Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: African Head Charge, The On-U Sound
Records Collection

Co-founded at the start of the ‘80s by percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah and UK producer Adrian Sherwood, African Head Charge constitutes a particularly successful chapter in the story of On-U Sound. The project’s early work, four albums combining post-punk-derived experimentation with dub and African ingredients, shapes up the latest installment in On-U Sound’s deserved retail retelling. They’re available now on vinyl and digital separately and as a bundle directly from the label.

Gradually returning a vital hunk of ’80s musical history to print, the ongoing string of On-U Sound reissues and compilations provides lovers of way-out dub, edgy post-punk, and specifically recent converts to the achievements of Adrian Sherwood with numerous reasons for celebration. Revealing striking consistency amongst steady growth, the emergence of African Head Charge’s ’81-’85 output deepens the scenario considerably as it illuminates an especially fertile collaboration.

Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah, or Bonjo for short, had studied in the Rasta drumming camp of Jamaican bandleader Count Ossie. After time spent on the UK scene he joined the Sherwood-produced group Creation Rebel and like many of his bandmates ended up in the credits of numerous On-U Sound releases including those by New Age Steppers, Dub Syndicate, Singers and Players, and Mark Stewart. However, African Head Charge stands as Bonjo’s deepest contribution to the label.

Indeed, what essentially started as a joint Sherwood-Bonjo effort (with assistance from Style Scott, Crocodile, Deadly Headley, Crucial Tony, Bruce Smith, Steve Beresford, Mus’come a.k.a. Charlie “Eskimo” Fox, Doctor Pablo, Public Image Limited’s Jah Wobble, Sugarhill Gang/Tackhead member Skip McDonald and others) slowly became an actual band led by the percussionist; the four records reviewed here represent African Head Charge’s collaborative, studio-based period.

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Graded on a Curve:
Matt Kivel, Janus

Matt Kivel has been on the scene for a while in a handful of bands, but the profile of the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter and guitarist was effectively boosted by a pair of recent solo efforts documenting a progression from folky individualism toward a more pop and rock-tinged milieu; the experimentation-flecked Janus combines aspects of each and exhibits tangible growth to produce his best album thus far. It’s out on LP February 5 via new label Driftless Recordings.

Before stepping out solo Matt Kivel was in the group Princeton alongside his twin brother Jesse; additionally, he played guitar in the garage pop outfit Gap Dream. His debut Double Exposure, the byproduct of a couple of years of work, arrived in 2013 on cassette through Burger Records and on vinyl courtesy of Olde English Spelling Bee.

Aptly described as folky, Double Exposure has been compared at least once to Nick Drake, though Kivel’s no copyist, his occasional falsetto distinct for starters. A big similarity is purity of conception, the record having emerged without much in the way of expectations and finding a label home only after completion. But it wasn’t entirely like that; the title track was a sleepy-lidded post-shoegaze pop nugget foreshadowing Kivel’s follow-up Days of Being Wild.

Swiping a title from Wong Kar-wai’s classic film from 1990 (this cinephile hypothesis is reinforced by Double Exposure’s final entry “Days of Heaven” sharing a moniker with Terrence Malick’s ’78 masterpiece), Days of Being Wild was issued in 2014 through the Woodsist label and revealed a considerable move into the light.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bert Jansch, Avocet

By its very nature instrumental music is a study in form, and frequently to such an extent that listeners nurturing vocally focused comfort zones can feel left out in the cold. Bert Jansch’s non-vocal debut Avocet is well-poised to overcome this obstacle; a trio effort of welcoming beauty devoted to the glory of British birds, the whole stands amongst the lauded Scottish guitarist’s most fully realized achievements. On February 5, Earth Recordings reissues the album, its vinyl edition featuring lithograph art-prints by UK illustrator Hannah Alice depicting the six birds titling Avocet’s tracks as the compact disc is tucked into a hardback book with 24 pages of notes and artwork.

The making of Bert Jansch’s twelfth LP transpired in February of 1978, a point on the calendar roughly coinciding with the nasty storm of punk rock, and wherever the eye of the squall traveled across the landscape of the UK, it can be safely surmised Avocet was elsewhere. Over time the guitarist would come to be revered by a heaping dog-pile of alternative-indie figures with creative DNA directly traceable to the punk upheaval, but it’s well-established that the late ‘70s proved to be a tough stretch for practitioners of non-clamorous sounds not limited to veterans of the Brit-folk scene.

Of course it’s not all so simple. As related in Colin Harper’s excellent notes for Avocet’s reissue, Jansch’s prior set A Rare Conundrum, released in the UK in ’77 on Charisma, had been well-received by the Brit music press in part because it was viewed as a sort of homecoming affair after two full-lengths cut out California way (those would be ‘74’s L.A. Turnaround and ‘75’s Santa Barbara Honeymoon).

Avocet also soaked up positive coverage in the weeklies, but didn’t appear in the UK until 1979; its initial ’78 pressing came via the Ex-Libris label of Denmark, the enterprise of Jansch’s Danish manager Peter Abrahamsen having additionally brought out A Rare Conundrum (as Poormouth) a year ahead of its emergence in British record shops.

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Graded on a Curve: Françoise Hardy,
The Disques Vogue Collection

French vocalist Françoise Hardy openly disdains being described as an icon, though of course her modesty plays a large role in why she continues to be revered by so many. Naturally, the most important component in her enduring reputation is the music; a superb singer and true artist from within the oft-unrelenting 1960s pop machine, her records have aged exceptionally well, retaining the allure of their era as they lack period gaffes. Hardy’s first five French language albums, all originally issued by Disques Vogue from ’62-’66, comprise a highly worthy run of productivity; they’re available now on LP and CD singly or as a bundle through Light in the Attic.

Françoise Hardy is a cornerstone of the ’60s Euro-pop phenomenon known as yé-yé. Akin to rock, girl groups, svelte male crooners, and the majority of the era’s teen-oriented sounds in general, yé-yé was widely considered to be of an ephemeral nature, and by extension was basically dominated by the collusion of producers and labels. The singers, amongst them France Gall, Sylvie Vartan, Clothilde, and Chantal Kelly, were the crucial ingredient in a very calculated recipe.

Hardy differed from the norm by writing a significant amount of her own stuff, all but two songs on her debut in fact, and as a result she evaded the sometimes embarrassing subject matter thrust upon other yé-yé girls. Furthermore, she was regularly photographed with guitar in hand, though it’s unclear to what extent she actually played on these recordings. To borrow a phrase relating to Studio-era Hollywood, Hardy transcended the “genius of the system” method of pop manufacture, instead excelling at a subdued auteur-driven approach.

In the tradition of the original filmic auteurs, few recognized Hardy as a major talent during her emergence on the scene. She definitely sparked interest in fellow musicians however, including The Beatles, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan, the last so struck by her skills he dedicated the poem “Some Other Kinds of Songs” to her; it’s on the back of Another Side of Bob Dylan’s sleeve.

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Graded on a Curve: Freakwater,
Scheherazade

Formed in Louisville, KY, Freakwater span back to the early days of alt-country. Co-headed by guitarist-vocalists Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Ann Irwin, the group’s string of albums has helped to raise their genre’s level of quality considerably, and after a decade-long stretch of inactivity they’re back with a new full-length. Featuring longtime cohort David Wayne Gay on bass, Scheherazade finds them reigniting their non-hackneyed approach to roots-infused harmony without a hitch; it’s out February 5 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital via new label Bloodshot Records.

A huge mess of alt-country recordings have been cut, shrink-wrapped, and delivered to the bins since Freakwater issued their self-titled debut in 1989. In fact, the style has been extant long enough that a sizable percentage of its practitioners have fallen victim to the same faults and miscalculations the form was initially attempting to remedy.

Risk averse, excessively calculated, beleaguered by overzealousness of persona, and frequently too damned slick; circa the late ‘80s these problems amongst others proved a nagging burden to the trad country landscape. Of course, the best of the upstart acts on the yet to be named alt-country fringe weren’t overly reactionary in form or content, instead electing to just do their own thing as they accumulated fans and forged relationships with likeminded artists along the way.

Some were punkers who’d gotten energized by a taste of undiluted country glory, while others had grown up with exposure to the music and were moved to carry it forward. Freakwater are roughly in line with the former scenario, Catherine Irwin coming of age in Louisville punk bands to be eventually swayed by the sounds of the Carter Family. Additionally, the group sprang in part from the hard-edged roots-rock of Eleventh Dream Day, a Chicago band formed by Louisville transplants Rick Rizzo and Janet Bean.

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Graded on a Curve:
Cian Nugent,
Night Fiction

It’s been a couple of years since guitarist Cian Nugent joined forces with the Cosmos to release Born with the Caul. That truly striking LP surveyed a major progression into edgy ballroom-style psych regions from a guy previously known as a fingerpicker in the post-John Fahey tradition, and in early 2016 Nugent returns but with a newfound tendency toward the realms of the singer-songwriter. The results aren’t as brilliant and seamless as his prior effort, but Night Fiction is still a winner, considerably widening its maker’s range; it’s out January 29 on vinyl and digital through Woodsist.

Though initially noted as an exponent of the American Primitive guitar school, Cian Nugent’s status as a natural-born Irishman, indeed a Dubliner, deepened the scenario more than a little. His album Doubles came out in 2011 on the small Virginia-based label VHF; it featured a pair of instrumentals, both over 20 minutes long, and while it wasn’t difficult to peg Fahey as Nugent’s main point of reference, his playing was at times spectacular (basically an American Primitive prerequisite) as horn arrangements and elements of drone carried him beyond the style’s norms.

Nugent’s next long-player found him in the company of a full-fledged band, the Cosmos helping to elevate Born with the Caul to the plateau of 2013’s best releases. Launching from the fingerpicking sensibility of Doubles, the 3-song set unfurled a heavy psych disposition somewhat reminiscent of late ‘60s San Fran but with crucial threads of contemporary verve.

It also briefly offered vocals, a facet in far greater abundance across Night Fiction. And for his latest Nugent has essentially retained the core of the Cosmos, namely Conor Lumsden on bass, Brendan Jenkinson on organ and piano, David Lacey on drums, and Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaigh on viola; the latter two contributed to Doubles, so it’s clear the guitarist and now tune-slinger’s creative evolution benefits from a recurring cast of collaborators.

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Graded on a Curve:
This Heat, This Heat, “Health and Efficiency” EP, Deceit

On the list of compulsory post-punk, This Heat’s records reside near the very top. However, the music of the trio formed in January of 1976 in Camberwell, South London is more aptly described as a riveting and widely influential plunge into the then largely uncharted realms of experimental rock. The two albums and an EP they released prior to breaking up in 1982 present a stimulating interweaving of genre and technique; in the years since the sounds haven’t aged a bit. On January 22 Modern Classics Recordings offers vinyl editions of This Heat, “Health and Efficiency” and Deceit. They’re available through Light in the Attic separately or in a cost-effective bundle.

For nearly their entire existence, This Heat consisted of vocalists and multi-instrumentalists Charles Bullen, Charles Hayward, and Gareth Edwards. Prior to formation Hayward had the most experience, serving in Mal Dean’s Amazing Band and for a few moments in the enduring space-prog entity Gong. He made his recording debut as part of Quiet Sun, playing on Mainstream from 1975 while contributing to band member Phil Manzanera’s Diamond Head the same year.

Hayward first teamed with Bullen circa ’74 in the outfit Radar Favourites; other participants included Geoff Leigh (Henry Cow), Jack Monck (Syd Barrett, Delivery), and G.F. Fitz-Gerald (of the cult item Mouseproof). Archival material by Radar Favourites surfaced in 2010 on Reel Recordings, though it’s currently out of print and Bullen’s not on it. The pair was also in Dolphin Logic; upon meeting Williams, This Heat sprang to life.

The primary roles were Hayward on drums, Bullen on guitar, and Williams on bass, and the three eventually settled into their Cold Storage recording space, so named as it was a converted meat locker, and took a studio-based approach to experimentation (a whole mess of live boots do exist, though); this activity is often cited as a harbinger/early example of post-punk, but as reinforced by the ’76-’77 demos, work which resulted in their first airplay via John Peel (their sessions for the DJ are highly enlightening), from the outset there was hardly anything punk in This Heat’s constitution.

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Graded on a Curve: Tortoise,
The Catastrophist

Chicago’s Tortoise has been around for nearly a quarter century, and what once was a novel approach to instrumentally focused genre hybridization has persevered into an indie cornerstone with a disinclination to rest on laurels. Illuminating a desire for growth, the band’s latest album sequences guest voices and an unforeseeable pop cover amidst their distinctive blend of jazz, rock, electronic, and experimental elements. The Catastrophist is out January 22 on vinyl, compact disc and digital via Thrill Jockey.

Tortoise’s initial two bassist-three percussionist lineup consisted of Doug McCombs, Bundy K. Brown, John Herndon, John McEntire, and Dan Bitney; they emerged in 1992 with a pair of 7-inches, one for Jesus Lizard bassist David Wm. Sims’ short-lived Torsion imprint and the other for Bettina Richards’ still-thriving Thrill Jockey label, initiating a long and fruitful association solidified through ‘94’s self-titled debut LP and continuing to the present.

For many, Tortoise’s arrival presented an attractive escape route from grunge’s diminishing returns. Brandishing heightened musicianship while being decidedly non-rockist in embracing dub, electronica, and remix culture (the latter inspiring ’95’s Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters), their eschewal of vocals offered refreshment in a period saturated in angst.

Tortoise’s most well-known/highly regarded releases were spawned from these beginnings, ‘96’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die (which saw David Pajo replacing Brown) and ‘98’s TNT (guitarist Jeff Parker joins) capped by 2001’s Standards (and Pajo’s exit). Subsequently, their pace slowed, producing It’s All Around You in ’04 and Beacons of Ancestorship in ’09; it’s nice to discover that even after a gap of seven years The Catastrophist avoids the creative hiccups and gullies frequent on records by veteran bands.

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Graded on a Curve:
Steve Warner,
Steve Warner

Originally released as a private press in 1979, the sole self-titled effort from Australian songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Steve Warner is undoubtedly a niche item, but it’s also a consistently enjoyable and occasionally intriguing collection emanating nary a trace of outsider vibes. Additionally, there’s an unusual amount of range on display across its 13 tracks, so ears attuned to psych-kissed folk balladeering enhanced by appreciable skill on guitar, bass, piano, and more may find Warner of interest; he returns to print January 22 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Earth Recordings.

Steve Warner reportedly honed his chops in the Melbourne acoustic folk and coffee house scene, and he immediately exhibits deftness bred from experience on his only recording. It’s a private press affair paid for via bank loan and council grant, but there is basically nothing off-kilter or amateurish about this painstakingly conceived project.

Warner cut the LP across three years with the assistance of Nick Armstrong at Spectangle Studio, the same facility where his fellow Aussie Howard Enyon made his only record So What If Im Standing in Apricot Jam. No doubt some recall Earth’s reissue of Enyon’s platter a couple of years back; Apricot Jam was initially released on the tiny Basket enterprise in 1974, but it took until ‘79 for Steve Warner to briefly emerge on the Tasmanian Candle label.

Frankly, that was a little late in the musical game for the sound Warner had crafted. Just as bluntly, those who require a modicum of edge in their listening choices (and by extension abjure the lightness of the hippie-folk ‘60s and the maturing mellowness of the following decade) should probably steer clear of Steve Warner.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Global Sounds of Glitterbeat Records

The long-established pipeline of recordings from Africa, South America, Asia, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere lessened the sonic hegemony of the US and UK considerably, and as the clock continues to tick the outpouring shows no signs of diminishing; devoted to pushing boundaries and expanding stylistic possibilities, Germany’s Glitterbeat plays a major role in the distribution of contemporary global sounds. Below is some additional background and thoughts on five Glitterbeat acts either from Africa or tied to the continent, their offerings pressed onto 180gm vinyl and tucked into gatefold jackets with accompanying downloads.

Founded in 2012 by co-owners Pete Weber and Chris Eckman, Glitterbeat is a branch of Glitterhouse, the long running German enterprise that gained traction back in the late ‘80s as the Euro arm of Sub Pop, distributing Eckman’s band The Walkabouts in the process. In the ‘90s they served the same capacity with Amphetamine Reptile.

Glitterhouse has undergone many changes since those productive days; subsidiary Glitterbeat began putting out records in early 2013. Roughly two years later the venture has amassed a steadily growing discography featuring robust sounds from a wide range of locales; Mexico, Italy, Brazil, and Vietnam are all included in the midst of heavy attention paid to Africa, particularly Mali.

Admirably, Glitterbeat has chosen to largely focus on the new, but they’ve also cleared space on the roster for welcome reprints, namely Jon Hassell and Brian Eno’s Fourth World Vol.1: Possible Musics and Laraaji’s Ambient 3: Day of Radiance. Furthermore, the label has issued recordings by Dirtmusic, co-owner Eckman’s endeavor with fellow Yank Chris Brokaw (of Come) and Australian Hugo Race (a former Bad Seed); their second album BKO finds them in collaboration with the Malian group Tamikrest.

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