Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
The Firesign Theatre, Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him

In 1968 The Firesign Theatre, a comedy troop consisting of Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor, began an excellent string of releases with Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him. While not their best work, it is the place any newbie should begin. The smart and surreal environments the disc offers remain unique in the comedy universe, and the rewards are sharply in tune with the long-playing vinyl format.

The comedy album’s rate of productivity remains strong enough in the present that one need not worry over the general health of the form. Yes, people still want to laugh, and to this day the desire of comedians to offer up their art through the medium of records remains, even as the status those performers acquire through the making of said documents has been lessened.

Indeed, the heart of audio-only comedy continues to beat rather strongly, but what was once something like a cultural institution is now closer to a niche genre, largely because the market has always been dominated by the style known as stand-up. Commencing approximately in the 1960s, the boom for stand-up LPs lasted for decades, mainly because it was the easiest way to hear these comedians at extended length, and just as importantly, in uncensored form.

But comedy as performed in night-clubs, halls or auditoriums is also Performance Art, and by far the most widely accepted example of this often derided mode of expression. Throughout its peak years, comedy fans had three main options; the attendance of a show, catching a dose via television, most commonly on late-night talk shows and later premium cable services like HBO, and the purchase of LPs for home enjoyment.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for October 2020, Part Five

Part five of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for October 2020. Part one is here, part two is here, part three is here, and part four is here.

NEW RELEASE PICK: Love Tractor, “1880 to 1920 + 100” (HHBTM) Of the foundational outfits from the Athens, GA scene of the 1980s, Love Tractor is the one that’s gotten the least retrospective hubbub (as the others are The B-52’s, R.E.M., and Pylon), though the band did release The Sky at Night in 2001 (and a few 21st century CDRs after that), and as this vinyl 7-inch makes clear, are still extant. The full scoop is that the two songs offered here are fresh readings by the original lineup of cuts from their eponymous debut LP from 1982, the reissue of which is merely weeks away (also courtesy of HHBTM). And worry not fans, the band’s non-vocal orientation remains unchanged.

On the original album, “Sixty Degrees Below” and “Festival” hit like a cross between jangle pop, new wave, and party/club crowd movers. Here, with instrumental help of Doug Stanley of the Glands, Bill Berry of R.E.M., and with production and engineering by Dave Barbe of Sugar, they deliver “60 Degrees and Sunny” and “FESTI-vals,” with the jangle and gyrational aspects increased and the wavy qualities lessened, even as the spiffy synth flourish in the latter cut remains fully intact. Keen. And while listening to this brings back memories of walking around town, sucking on a Slurpee (trying not to get a headache), with a rolled-up copy of Option magazine in my pocket, while listening to the soundtrack to Athens Georgia Inside/Out on my Walkman (those were the days), this 45 has a sense of playful energy that places it firmly in the present. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Jimmy Giuffre 3, Graz 1961 (ORG Music) This is a ceaselessly brilliant and unusually well recorded live set from an exceptional trio, featuring clarinetist Giuffre, pianist Paul Bley, and bassist Steve Swallow, the music licensed from the Hat Hut label and making its first appearance on vinyl, a 2LP set offering 76 minutes of highly advanced beauty. In their promo description for this release, ORG surmise that Giuffre isn’t a marquee name today, and I’ll add that he’s mostly remembered for his ’50s work, which is fine, except that some of his greatest achievements date from the following decade, with the albums Fusion, Thesis, and Free Fall featuring this very group. If you’re familiar with those records (or the other live recordings of this trio from the era) you’ll know what to expect, though there are some wonderful surprises on this one. Like in “Trance” for instance, Bley does astounding things with a single key of the piano; it’s wildly different from the version of the tune that’s heard on Flight, Bremen 1961. A+

Dexter Gordon, The Squirrel (Warner Music Group/Rhino) There a quite a few live recordings of the great tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, and I can’t say I’ve heard one that didn’t temporarily make me a happier human being. But I rate The Squirrel as special, as it features a fired-up Gordon with a superb band really stretching out on four numbers, the shortest, the ballad standard “You’ve Changed,” a little over 12 minutes and the longest, Gordon original “Cheese Cake,” nearly hitting 21. The opening reading of Tadd Dameron’s title composition and the closing take of Sonny Rollins’ “Sonnymoon for Two” both break 15, which means one track per side as this date from the Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen from June of 1967 hits vinyl (180g, edition of 1500, numbered) for the first time. The band? Kenny Drew on piano, Bo Stief on bass, and Art Taylor on drums. The intensity? It gets rather high. A

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for October 2020, Part Four

Part four of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for October 2020. Part one is here, part two is here, and part three is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Laura Veirs, My Echo (Raven Marching Band) This is record number 11 for Portland, OR singer-songwriter Laura Veirs, featuring ten songs that she describes as her “‘my songs knew I was getting divorced before I did’ album.” If that scenario suggests an atmosphere that’s maudlin, despondent, or bitter, My Echo isn’t any of those, though it’s definitely reflective and occasionally a little melancholy, as opener “Freedom Feeling” infuses her indie folky foundation with string arrangements that are sweeping yet don’t overwhelm the writing or Veirs’ vocals, which retain their sturdy and direct appeal. The strings persist but the songs vary, ranging from bossa nova-tinged to vivid excursions into ’00s indie pop, as “Brick Layer” reminded me a little of Mac McCaughan’s solo work as Portastatic circa Be Still Please. That comparison will likely slide right by many prospective listeners, but those who enjoy McCaughan’s work are destined to dig My Echo too, which includes contributions from Bill Frisell, Karl Blau, and half of the Monsters of Folk (that’d be Jim James and M. Ward). A-

The Luxembourg Signal, The Long Now (Shelflife / Spinout Nuggets) For their third full-length, this seven-member group, with members currently residing in Los Angeles, San Diego and the UK, haven’t deviated from their core sound, which hits the spot where dream-pop and shoegaze meet, though in opener “I Never Want to Leave,” they do integrate a few synths that sound like they could’ve been bought at Brian Eno’s garage sale (it’s worth noting that Eno coined the phrase that titles this album). The resonating guitars, courtesy of Johnny Joyner and Kelly Davis, and the ethereal, sweet-timbred vocals of Beth Arzy and Betsy Moyer are the most immediately distinctive qualities, but the drumming of Brian Espinosa is crisp and forceful, the bass of Daniel Kumiega is full-bodied, and the keyboards of Ginny Pitchford add dimension instead of just feeling tacked on. Also, across the record there are honest-to-goodness songs rather than just foundations for the exploration of textures. At the moment, I’m quite fond of “Mourning Moon” and the soaring ache of closer “When All That We Hold Decays.” A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Flaming Tunes, S/T (Superior Viaduct) The release date on this one has been pushed back again to November 13, but as the clear vinyl edition is already listed as sold out on the label’s website (the black wax pressing is still very much available), it’s probably a good idea to cover this one now, mainly so folks interested in a limited transparent copy can be on the lookout, as I’m sure a few stores placed preorders. And anybody who has taken a liking for ’80s experimental DIY should definitely consider grabbing this one, and the same goes for fans of This Heat, as Flaming Tunes is the project of that band’s Gareth Williams, alongside Mary Currie. But while there are occasional fleeting hints that this record is descended from This Heat, the whole is much more in line with the ’80s home recorded proto-lo-fi ethos, but with a higher average of experimental success. Superior Viaduct mentions the Canterbury scene and The Residents, which is on the money, but at a few points this reminded me of New Zealand’s Tall Dwarfs, which is to say that there are songs in this equation. A

Ray Barretto, Barretto Power (Craft Latino) The late Ray Barretto stood like a titan at the crossroads of Latin music and jazz. As a session ace, his credits are extensive, and I’ll confess that I am far more familiar with his work on records by pianist Red Garland, saxophonist Arnett Cobb, and guitarist Kenny Burrell than with his extensive output as a bandleader. And I do mean extensive. This set, released in 1970 and given its first vinyl reissue by Craft for its 50th anniversary, is something like his 17th album. It’s not regarded as his best (many would award that distinction to ’68’s Acid, and I won’t argue, as it’s the best that I’ve heard) Barretto Power is less about innovation that getting back to basic principles, those being rhythmic gusto, rich vocals and vivid brass. A ballad does get thrown in for variety, but finale “Power” is a beast, though not as monstrous as Acid’s closer “Espiritu Libre.” But that’s alright. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Joe “King” Carrasco
and the Crowns,
Mil Gracias a Todos Nuestros Amigos

Casual research into the name Joe “King” Carrasco reveals the synopsis of a manic Tex-Mex bandleader better suited for the club stage than to the purposes of recording LPs. Mention his name to someone who’s seen him in action and you’ll likely hear an enthused recollection of a wild and happy night. Listen to Mil Gracias a Todos Nuestros Amigos, the 1980 Stiff Records debut of Carrasco and the Crowns, and the ear will be greeted by 12 songs from a group that from under the wide umbrella of the New Wave was briefly able to transfer their wild performance-based abandon into the grooves of long-playing vinyl.

There’s been a lot of debate over the years regarding the value of the late-‘70s musical surge known as New Wave. Setting aside the zealous haters that simply could not abide the movement’s departures from the Zeppelin/Eagles Arena Rock model, many detractors continue to associate the term with a weakening of the punk aesthetic set in motion by acts looking for wider success as encouraged by the interests of parties that were largely if not completely mercantile in character.

Naturally, some kernels of truth reside in this assessment, as the linguistic sleight of hand of Seymour Stein’s “Don’t Call it Punk” campaign easily attests. But naturally, it’s a far more complex situation than that. For example, new wave’s proponents often describe it as music made in direct response to ‘70s arena rock having reached a juncture of stylistic exhaustion, and for emphasis they point directly to the recycling of the buzzword applied to the cinematic uprising known as the Nouvelle Vague, which in the US, Great Britain and elsewhere was translated under the heading of the French New Wave.

That much needed and still influential development in film was surely a break with its home country’s Tradition of Quality, but it was also delivered by a small handful of auteurs, the most famous being Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol. Displeased with “a certain tendency in the French cinema” they surely all were, and they did certainly set themselves to the task of creating something fresh.

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Graded on a Curve: Various Artists, Strum
& Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983–1987

With Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987, Captured Tracks kicks off their Excavations compilation series with a 2LP deep dive into a scene, both regional and national, that’s long overdue for the retrospective treatment. 28 selections document Reagan-era US bands invigorating and extending an already well-established sound, with the results delightful and cohesive. Fans of melodic guitars will find much to love here, while heavy-duty record nuts can expect some true discoveries; it’s out on orange wax October 24 for Record Store Day, with CD, black vinyl and digital to follow November 13.

In the accompanying press release, Captured Tracks draws a distinction between this set’s chiming guitars and the roar of the 1980s Hardcore uprising. But this contrast can also be extended to the underground groups of the decade that progressed beyond HC and defined the loose movement which came to be known as the beginnings of Indie Rock. Specifically, those acts were detailed extensively in Michael Azerrad’s tome Our Band Could Be Your Life.

That book spanned from the emergence of Hardcore to the dawn of grunge and generally (but not entirely) covered bands that were breaking new stylistic ground, all while staying true to the spirit of punk by disdaining HC orthodoxy. The difference with Strum & Thrum is that the bands it compiles aren’t explicitly connected to punk’s disruptive impulse.

Instead, the contents shine a light on the legions of guitar pop outfits who represented one aspect of the ’80s College Radio sound, with the bands it collects rarely branching beyond the left of the dial in terms of popularity. One group that did, namely R.E.M., are described in the press release by Record Store Day founder Michael Kurtz as the sort of Big Bang of Strum & Thrum’s compendium of jangle, specifically through their 1981 Hib-Tone Records’ single “Radio Free Europe” b/w “Sitting Still.”

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for October 2020, Part Three

Part three of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for October 2020. Part one is here and part two is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: I.P.A., Bashing Mushrooms (Cuneiform) Although this Scandinavian quintet, releasing their fifth full-length and second for the Cuneiform label of Washington DC, is accurately described as an excursion into avant-jazz, the eight tracks here are not particularly formidable in terms of abstraction or raw skronk. Comprised of Atle Nymo on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, Magnus Broo on trumpet, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on double bass, Håkon Mjåset Johansen on drums, and Mattias Ståhl on vibraphone, they initially came together through a shared love of Don Cherry’s music, which is still extant in their sound, though I.P.A. also recall that early ’60s stretch when post-Coleman groups (e.g. the New York Contemporary 5, Sonny Simmons and Prince Lasha) were navigating the new freedoms with a concurrent basis in bop-derived melody. By extension, Nymo’s bass clarinet and Ståhl’s continued presence on vibes puts me in the mind of Dolphy’s Out to Lunch! This is a wonderful thing. Note: this is out on vinyl in an edition of 25. Cuneiform’s Bandcamp says there is 8 copies left. A

Dustin Laurenzi’s Natural Language, A Time and Place (Woolgathering) Snaketime: The Music of Moondog, saxophonist Laurenzi’s tribute (with the octet Snaketime) to the great composer Louis Hardin, aka Moondog, made my best new releases of 2019 list, so discovering that his other group, the quartet Natural Language, who recorded their eponymous debut in 2016, had a new LP on deck filled me with excitement. And while its contents aren’t as thrilling as the Moondog set, there is much to love as Laurenzi, guitarist Jeff Swanson, bassist Mike Harmon, and drummer Charles Rumback blend highly advanced post-Modern jazz and avant-garde modes to a highly pleasurable result. While sparks of intensity do fly, this isn’t a harried affair, as Swanson favors a clean, recognizably jazzy tone and Laurenzi, if occasionally ruminating upon inspirations such as Albert Ayler (“Albert”) and blowing in a manner reminiscent of Coltrane (“Blocks”) is just as invested in contemplative warmth. Swanson’s cyclical glide in closer “Slate” secures the music as a byproduct of contemporary Chicago. A-

Julia Reidy, Vanish (Editions Mego) Featuring two side-long pieces, this LP is guitarist Ready’s debut for Editions Mego, but it completes a trifecta of records with two from last year, the 12-inch “brace, brace” on the Slip label and In Real Life on Black Truffle. Reidy (from Sydney, based in Berlin) has a few prior releases on cassette, CDR and wax, and is a member of Splitter Orchestra (whose CD with trombonist George Lewis I’d really like to hear), but this is my introduction to her work, a set that establishes her as a multi-instrumentalist, integrating synths, found sounds, autotuned voice, and harmonica into extended vistas that are strange and vivid. Both tracks are unsurprisingly layered, but also fluid and with a few instances of boom-thud. But worry not, mavens of contempo guitar artistry, there are ample stretches of string glisten, especially in the middle and latter portions of each cut. As unusual as it is satisfying, comparisons to other string benders are elusive. I plan on seeking out more of Reidy’s stuff. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: The Bachelor Pad, All Hash and Cock: The Very Best of The Bachelor Pad (Emotional Response) The Glaswegian quintet are sometimes affiliated with the whole C86 shebang, though more as subsequent reactors, as they didn’t get a record out until ’87. Additionally, the reality of catchy numbers dipped in hard-edged punk and psychedelia (the Buzzcocks fronted by Syd Barrett comparison is apt) further distances The Bachelor Pad from the varying shades of jangle that persist in defining C86 to this day. Furthermore, the level of inspired racket elevates this above the studied formalism of the neo-’60s acts that sprouted up like not-so psycho daisies during the same era. This set compiles both sides of their debut 7-inch, the a-side to the follow-up 45 from ’88, one track each from the band’s 4-song ’89 EP, seven cuts from their 1990 LP Tales of Hofmann, and one cut from their 5-song ’91 EP. Obviously, that isn’t everything, but it’s a solid primer and a consistently fine listen (no weak entries), with enough melodicism to please the indie-poppers curious about this one. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass,
Whipped Cream & Other Delights

Herb Alpert is often praised as a veteran bigwig of the record industry who possessed a measure of taste alongside his business acumen. He’s even more notable for his trumpet playing and leadership of a crucial if not necessarily hip 1960s outfit; Whipped Cream & Other Delights is the most popular LP from Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass; it’s also their best.

Let’s get it out of the way right up front; nobody in the Tijuana Brass was from Mexico. They were in fact a purely studio concoction at the outset with Alpert overdubbing his trumpet for increased vibrancy. Naturally, these realities have led many to rashly assume the (largely) instrumental venture effectively putting A&M Records (stands for Alpert and Moss, as in executive Jerry Moss) on the map was an exercise in total squaresville.

The theory ain’t necessarily wrong, as the Tijuana Brass albums remain amongst the highest profile artifacts produced in the Easy Listening era. Make no mistake; beginning with 1962’s The Lonely Bull and continuing well into the ‘70s, Herb Alpert strenuously avoided grating upon even a single human nerve. The objective was to sell a ton of records, which he and A&M did by undertaking a generationally inclusive approach and by appropriating a neighboring culture in a manner that, while surely dated today, was far less contemporaneously niche-driven than Alpert’s stylistic relatives in the Exotica field.

But like Les Baxter, Martin Denny and their ilk, there seemed to be a point where the consumers of Alpert’s records arrived at the conclusion that his stuff was either old hat or all of a sudden utterly out of step with their lives. The abovementioned heap of records was unloaded, though not necessarily into the bins of used record stores; instead, the Tijuana Brass was a staple of the antique shop, the consignment store, the Goodwill, the flea market, the yard/garage sale, and the Salvation Army.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Harry Smith B-Sides

The Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952 by Folkways Records in three 2LP volumes, is amongst the most important collections of recordings ever assembled. Indeed, it has been suggested more than once that it is the very apex of 20th Century music, a genuine cornucopia of performances that in their diversity endure as intriguing, devastating, delightful, foundational. The sources were 78-rpm discs collected by filmmaker, visual artist, mystic and great American bohemian Harry Smith, and on October 16 the Dust-to-Digital label releases the flip-sides to those records as The Harry Smith B-Sides, a 4CD box set with a 144-pg book loaded with images and insights, an altogether indispensable item.

A dozen considerations inspired by The Harry Smith B-Sides:

1. Given the Anthology’s undiminished stature in the scheme of all things folk, it can get misplaced, surface noise aside, that Smith’s sources were commercial records, many released by the Columbia, Paramount, and Brunswick labels. This reality has undercut hoary notions of supposed folk purity, and the B-Sides drives home this fact anew, and in so doing, makes abundantly clear that Harry Smith was one of the greatest of all things, a record collector.

2. The B-Sides also illuminates how the concept of the “Old, Weird America,” as famously formulated by Greil Marcus with the Anthology at its core, was preserved by a record industry that, still in its early growth stages, had no firm grip on what would sell in large numbers, only knowing there was a market for music made by a diverse working class including farmers, coal miners, sharecroppers, and bootleggers (nearly all of this music was recorded during Prohibition), both secular and sanctified. The Anthology resuscitated many commercial failures, and the B-Sides further extends and expands legacies.

3. The “Old, Weird America” kinda goes hand-in-hand with the Eccentric Harry Smith. Still, Smith apparently had his limits (or better said, had ideas other than weirdness on his mind), choosing Jim Jackson’s canine homage “Old Dog Blue” over the hokum-blues songster’s yarn of a sentient and telepathic meat cutlet, “I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Jennifer Castle,
Monarch Season

Jennifer Castle, Canadian doyenne of contemporary folk, has released six full-length records since debuting in 2006, originally recording as Castlemusic, a handle that became the title of her third album as she began using her birth name. Monarch Season is her latest, its nine tracks notably constituting the first truly “solo” set she’s released, featuring her (and only her) singing and playing guitar, piano, and for the first time on record, harmonica. Gentle without faltering into the insubstantial and offering sustained passages of beauty that avoid the ornate, the music’s intimacy is a strong suit. It’s out digitally October 16, with the vinyl + songbook and CD following on November 20 through Paradise of Bachelors.

Regarding Jennifer Castle, there is no shortage of contemporary musicians of similar comportment; Paradise of Bachelors makes no bones about this, offering a long list of names (as is their way) that strikes me as astute. I’ll resist simply regurgitating them here, but will add that mid-way through, the comparisons shift to artists a generation or two (three, even) older than Castle, which is in accord with a sound that is flush with singer-songwriter folk rudiments while still managing to sound fresh.

But the opening instrumental “Theory Rest,” infused as it is with glistening fingerpicking and a tangible yet subtle layer of the ambient, establishes that Castle is after more than the standard strumming and emoting. While this attribute is recurrent across the album (notably, the vinyl and CD “include lengthier ambient segues of onsite environmental recordings between songs”) it doesn’t overtake Castle’s thrust as a current folkster; to the contrary, the next track “NYC”  bursts out with the aforementioned harmonica, Castle citing Kath Bloom as her inspiration for playing the instrument.

The mention of Bloom (long a fave of discerning folk listeners) only reinforces Castle as the real deal, though it’s the strength and gorgeousness of her voice in “NYC” that should settle the matter. The prettiness of her singing extends to “Justice,” which features gentle tones that don’t falter into the fairylike, partly through urgency directly related to her lyrics, words it’s worth mentioning that are a cut above the norm, in how they strive to communicate emotions and ideas rather than impressing the listener with how they are communicated.

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Graded on a Curve: Special Ed,
Youngest in Charge

1989 was an outstanding year for hip-hop. Classics in the rapidly developing genre included EPMD’s Unfinished Business, the Jungle Brothers’ Done by the Forces of Nature, and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. In fact the list is so deep that worthy items are bound to be overlooked. A recent reissue of Special Ed’s Youngest in Charge will certainly keep the Brooklynite’s enduringly striking wordplay in the discussion, with the LP housed in a gatefold sleeve sporting notes by estimable hip-hop scribe Brian Coleman. 

Of Jamaican descent, Edward Archer is the youngest of five brothers and the only one born on US soil. As a rap obsessed teen from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, he quickly became a battle rhyme specialist, employing a variety of handles before settling upon Special Ed. The initial chapters in his story are approximate to the beginnings of numerous local legends; the difference is Ed’s realization that breaking on a larger level required a key collaborator.

Enter Howard Thompson; English-born and also of Jamaican descent, he’s better known as Hitman Howie Tee. Ed was 14 when he first met the older and more experienced Howie, his future cohort having been a member of CDIII, an electro-rap trio who cut a pair of singles on the Prelude label in ’83-‘84. And while uncredited, in ’84 he contributed production to UTFO’s rap smash “Roxanne, Roxanne.” The next year he worked on Whistle’s “(Nothing Serious) Just Buggin’.”

Suffice it to say Ed and Howie knew each other from the neighborhood. Once properly introduced, the producer was struck by the rapper’s sidestepping of the Jamaican angle for what can be described as a New York-based approach. He was furthermore impressed by the maturity in his execution; Youngest in Charge’s title references Ed’s age, 16 at the point of the album’s making, but the LP is in no way the prototype for Kris Kross or Lil Bow Wow.

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Graded on a Curve: Reverend John Wilkins, Trouble

We remember Reverend John Wilkins via the archives from just one month ago. His brand new release is in stores now.Ed.

Reverend John Wilkins can be described as a specialist in the sanctified blues, but that’s really only the tip of his stylistic iceberg. As the son of noted pre-war bluesman (and also ordained minister) Robert Wilkins, there is a firm North Mississippi root in his work, but more prominent is the sound of soul and even a well-integrated turn toward country gospel. Although he has been playing music and preaching for decades, Trouble is only Wilkins’ second album, but it’s an assured one, cut at Royal Studios in Memphis, TN with family and friends and engineered by Willie Mitchell’s son Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell with production by Amos Harvey. It’s out on vinyl (300 blue, 500 black) and compact disc September 18 through Goner Records.

To start, we should shed light on the achievements of Reverend Robert Wilkins, first as a blues singer and guitarist for the Victor and Brunswick labels from 1928-1936 including such major sides as “Old Jim Canan’s,” “Rollin’ Stone” (an influence of Muddy Waters’ later bombshell of the same title), and “That’s No Way to Get Along,” this last one likely better-known in its later gospel version, reworked, extended and renamed by Wilkins as “Prodigal Son” (covered by The Rolling Stones on Beggars Banquet).

If reliably placed in the country-blues category, Robert Wilkins is more aptly classified as a songster in his pre-war days, with the breadth of his talent well expressed by Yazoo’s compilation The Original Rolling Stone. This is all worth mentioning in relation to his son John (one of seven children), as Trouble thrives on diversity while keeping a firm grip on Southern gospel tradition with an underpinning of Hill Country blues (Wilkins has been a pastor at Hunter’s Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Como, MS since 1983).

What is Hill Country blues, you might be asking? In short, it’s a rhythmically driving, often hypnotic style from the North Mississippi region that’s distinct from the sound of the Delta; its celebrated exemplars include Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Robert Belfour, and Jessie Mae Hemphill. The North Mississippi fife and drum bands (Sid Hemphill, Othar Turner, Napoleon Strickland) are closely related to the Hill Country style.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for October 2020, Part Two

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for October 2020. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Garcia Peoples, Nightcap At Wits’ End (Beyond Beyond Is Beyond) The latest from these Rutherford, NJ-based expansionists doesn’t disappoint, but it does showcase their aptitude for relatively compact songs without squelching the fire of their outbound tendencies, and that’s just marvelous. As the band’s name underscores, Garcia Peoples soar from a late ’60s San Fran psych platform, and I’ll reinforce soaring rather than choogling unimaginatively, as have too many prior examples of neo-jam rocking; neither do they noodle. Nightcap At Wits’ End offers a dozen tracks totaling not quite 49 minutes (the longest cut lasting seven), but painstakingly recorded and assembled (across nine months with Jeff Zeigler) so that it can be absorbed as one long multifaceted ride. The attention to songs can lead me to think of the Airplane as much as (maybe even more than) the Dead, while the touches of Krautrock illuminate the avant underpinnings in their attack. There are even some non-toxic prog vibes on hand. After time spent, this one shapes up as Garcia Peoples’ best yet. A

Pavone String Ensemble, Lost and Found (Astral Spirits) This is the second release for the ensemble of violists Jessica Pavone and Abby Swidler and violinists Erica Dicker and Angela Morris, (Brick and Mortar, their debut came out last year on the Birdwatcher label), though Pavone has extensive experience both solo and in various collaborative situations, including membership in JOBS and four records with guitarist Mary Halvorson. String ensembles can’t help but tilt expectations toward the Classical, but Lost and Found, like its predecessor, spotlights diversity that situates the group’s music amid the overlapping realms of the avant-garde, experimentation and New Music. Classical music remains nearly synonymous with composition, and while Pavone is credited here as the composer (she is highly adept in this regard), her working method utilizes improvisation, but with an emphasis on collectivity within the pieces rather than promoting a solos-based (read: jazz) individualism. That’s a major factor in the magnificence of this set (which is available on CD and cassette), but so is the affinity for the Drone. A

Mary Lattimore, Silver Ladders (Ghostly International) The work of harpist Lattimore has been one of the sustained pleasures of the last decade, both in her own body of work, which commenced in 2012 with The Withdrawing Room, and in collaboration with others, notably Jeff Zeigler, Steve Gunn, and Thurston Moore. For this set, her third for Ghostly International, she is working with Slowdive’s Neil Halstead as producer and instrumentalist, with the sessions taking place across nine days in his studio in  Cornwall, England. To specialize in the harp is to embrace lushness and glisten, which Lattimore continues to do here to splendid effect, but as on prior releases, her pluck can be quite vigorous, and that’s even better, particularly in combination with the synths and Halstead’s guitar. A dark tone is discernible, but so are passages that border on psychedelia, and both in late track “Don’t Look.” Lattimore’s willingness to take chances has resulted in a career highlight. A

Linaire, S/T (Capital Zero) The songs are by Anna Atkinson, who also sings, along with playing Omnichord, viola, and keyboards. She is accompanied by Alexander MacSween on drum machines and additional keys, and this largely duo approach lands them halfway between synth pop and bedroom DIY, but with the wildcard that Atkinson sings with the bold verve reminiscent of artists with a far more commercial orientation. Her delivery lends uniqueness to the record, but flows naturally, as she has the pipes for it. However, it does provide a sharp contrast to many of the instrumental settings, which can strike my ear as analogous to the sort of projects that were getting released on home-recorded cassettes back in the early ’90s. A comparison has been made to Young Marble Giants, and that’s fair, except that Linaire resonates like it’s thoroughly Atkinson’s show. Also, “I’ll Buy You Lunch” reminded me a bit of a stray Magnetic Fields track. In summary, this LP starts out intriguing and then slowly impresses with the strength of its assemblage. A highly accomplished debut. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Gunn-Truscinski Duo,

Steve Gunn is best known for his string of records in singer-songwriter mode, especially two for the Matador label, but the man has been involved with numerous other projects spanning back to the mid-’00s, including the Gunn-Truscinski Duo, which features drummer John Truscinski on the right side of the hyphen. Soundkeeper is their fourth full-length in twosome configuration, a double set delivering more by design as their sound also gets broadened in unexpected ways; psychedelia is still in abundance, but with impressive improvisational fortitude. It’s out October 9 on 2LP and CD through Three Lobed Recordings.

The intro above perhaps short-shrifts John Truscinski a bit. Along with contributing to three of Gunn’s “solo” albums, he’s played on records by Magik Markers and Dredd Foole, and has been a member of Desert Heat with Gunn and Cian Nugent, and X.O.4 alongside Jake Meginsky and Bill Nace. A notable recent project is Sound for Andy Warhol’s KISS, which was recorded by Truscinski, Nace, Gunn, and Kim Gordon and released last year by the Andy Warhol Museum. Nace (who’s half of Body/Head with Gordon), also plays on Bridle Path, Truscinski’s own solo record, released earlier this year.

Bay Head, the last record by Gunn-Truscinski Duo, issued by Three Lobed in November of 2017, was a truly superb dose of psych action, modern but timeless, with a cumulative heft that felt conjured by more than four hands. As a double album, Soundkeeper hangs in the same weight class while displaying impressive stamina, with none of the tracks (ten of them cut in studio, two captured live) serving as padding (the set runs a relatively trim 71 minutes).

The striking thing about Soundkeeper’s contents is how so much of it reaches outside of psych’s parameters while maintaining expansive cohesiveness. And right off the bat, as the succinct opener “Into” is loaded with enough string shimmer to make a guitar-pop act envious, with Truscinski helming a synth for the track (his use of said instrument initiated on Bay Head), though the intent is to bring depth to the piece rather than deliver easily recognizable tones.

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Graded on a Curve:
Josh Johnson,
Freedom Exercise

Freedom Exercise is the debut album from alto saxophonist and composer Josh Johnson. With that title and the current Los Angeles resident’s choice of instrument, folks might be expecting an excursion into avant-garde jazz, but that’s not what’s up. Learning that Johnson’s heading a band comprised of guitar, electric bass and drums could lead others to anticipate a neo-fusion scenario, but that’s not the scoop either, though elements of that genre are found in Johnson’s style. Instead, the album’s contents are far more accessible and with intertwining and very welcome contemporary progressions. It’s out digitally October 9, with LP pre-orders shipping in December, through Northern Spy.

The alto saxophone was the instrument in the hands of arguably the greatest innovator in the history of jazz. However, speaking as someone who generally prefers the style when it’s spitting out sparks of creative friction far more than the pursuit of placid atmospheres or the cultivation of prolonged and unimaginative grooves, the alto sax has played no small role in many questionable moments.

To be fair, in jazz terms, the alto is certainly not as potentially frustrating an instrument as the vibraphone, the flute, the organ, the guitar, and even its reed relative, the soprano sax. In fact, due to Parker’s supreme mastery of the horn, people rarely bring up that it’s aptitude for unperturbed buoyancy is especially well-suited for mellow situations.

I mention all this because Josh Johnson is not a particularly hard blower, though he avoids sinking into the mire described above through smart playing, compositional verve, and savvy execution from a four-piece band featuring drums and percussion by Aaron Steele, electric bass by Anna Butterss, and guitar by Gregory Uhlmann. If not modeled on fusion, they are more than slightly reminiscent of Chicago post-rock.

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Graded on a Curve:
Townes Van Zandt,
Townes Van Zandt

Both in songwriting circles and in the oft harsh arena of departed personalities that never got their just due, the late Townes Van Zandt has grown into a mythic figure. Widely celebrated today for his very personal blend of smart country-folk expression, for the majority of his life Van Zandt was a frustratingly unknown entity. There exists numerous worthwhile entry points into the man’s rich body of work, but the best doorway is provided by his exquisite self-titled third LP from 1969, a record inching toward its forty-fifth year of existence with all of its artistic power undiminished.

Townes Van Zandt was one of the true bittersweet troubadours of American Music. The woeful obscurity that afflicted him during a life too short and rife with trouble (dead of a heart attack shy of his 53rd birthday in 1997 after many years of drug and alcohol addiction) is hard to reconcile with the nude beauty of his music.

The Velvet Underground’s now legendary lack of popularity while extant was basically tied to their being so defiantly ahead of their time, Big Star’s elusive sales figures were directly related to how they harkened back and revitalized the tidy appeal of ‘60s pop-rock in an era that greatly preferred excess, and Don Van Vliet was a kingpin of cult status mainly because he was such a blatant weird-meat, but Townes Van Zandt was just a powerful singer and brilliant songwriter whose early recordings should’ve been, if not huge, than certainly substantially bigger than they actually were at the time of their release.

From ’68-’72 Van Zandt recorded six albums that slowly solidified his reputation as a true rough diamond in the oft-problematic category of singer-songwriter, and it can be speculated that the guy’s natural blend of folk and country was perhaps a little bit urbane for the C&W hardliners of the time and maybe too tough for a folk-set that was preparing to turn the corner into the mellow hell of James Taylor etc. But at worst this should’ve somewhat limited Van Zandt’s appeal, not kneecapped it outright; it’s far easier to surmise that lack of promotion from the small Poppy label led to his misfortune as a musician’s musician.

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