Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Rhyton, Kykeon

Rhyton specialize in blending the sonic traditions and instrumentation of Greece and the Middle East with rock trio firepower of an oft improvisational nature. That might read as a recipe for self-indulgence, but the results, while certainly psychedelic in effect, also wield the discipline of top-notch jazzmen. Kykeon, their third LP and second for the Thrill Jockey label, continues their explorations to great reward; it’s a record that plays as strong as its cover is beautiful.

Rhyton consists of Dave Shuford, aka the leader of D. Charles Speer & the Helix and a former participant in the activities of the No-Neck Blues Band, Rob Smith of the Bronx band Pigeons, and Jimy SeiTang, a gentleman also associated with the No Neck scene but primarily known for the outfit Psychic Ills and his electronic solo project Stygian Stride.

The New York City-based No-Neck Blues Band, or NNCK for short, was part of a thriving underground of outsider rock business that came to a head in the midst of last decade. Some of the contributors to this scenario were able to engage, if not the mainstream, then at least larger audiences via Freak Folk and the New Weird, but the deep-psych/improv-rock/free folk of NNCK proved resistant (though not really by intention) to crossing over.

Of course, this isn’t a tidy assumption, since Wolf Eyes managed two discs of noise brutality on Sub Pop during the same era, but it does feel largely accurate. And so it’s doubly interesting how Rhyton’s latest is so downright easy on the ears. It does bear mentioning however that Shuford’s not exactly a novice to rock gestures of possibly wide(r) appeal.

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Graded on a Curve:
Ttotals, Let Everything Come Through

The Nashville-based “outer-blues” duo Ttotals has been active for a couple years now. After a handful of multi-format releases they’ve recently unveiled their first full-length Let Everything Come Through on the small but impressive Connecticut-based label Twin Lakes Records. Psych-tinged and heavy but with a focus on songwriting and fronted by a throat that’s not afraid to emote, Ttotals’ sound derives from familiar sources as it stands apart from the contemporary crowd.

It can seem as though Ttotals, an act composed of the guitar and vocals of Brian Miles and the drums, drones and keyboards of Marty Linville, aren’t in any particular hurry to get heard, but upon consideration that’s not really accurate, for their discography so far includes a compilation track, a 4-song EP on 12-inch vinyl/3-inch CDR, a 10-inch, a live cassette and a 45, all limited editions. It’s just that up to now the twosome has managed to avoid intruding into the current spotlight too deeply.

Let Everything Come Through is set to put the kibosh on that circumstance, the LP likely to raise their visibility while possibly endearing them to a variety of rock fans. Miles and Linville have coined Ttotals’ sound as “outer-blues,” a unique catch-phrase nicely addressing the late-‘60s psychedelic aspects of the music (the outer) as it underlines a relationship to the non-purist proclivities of the same era (the blues).

With this said, Ttotals don’t really register as all that ‘60s-derived a proposition. The ten cuts here reinforce what their “Spectrums of Light” 7-inch of 2013 (also pressed up by Twin Lakes) hinted at; specifically, they’re not striving for a sound that existed betwixt the Summer of Love and the Nightmare of Altamont. Rather, they’re in the ballpark of those ’80 u-ground/post-punk outfits undeniably impacted by the ‘60s and flaunting the influence in discernible fashion, going deeper than San Fran or Los Angeles into, for one example, the roster of the Texas label International Artists.

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Graded on a Curve: The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 2

Arriving this week through the combined good graces of Third Man and Revenant is the second and final installment in The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records. Comprised of six LPs, a hardcover book, an illustrated Field Guide of artist bios, and a sculpted metal USB drive holding 800 songs and over 90 original ads all housed in a polished aluminum streamlined case modeled on a portable phonograph, it completes a thrillingly exhaustive annotation of arguably the most important record label of the 20th century. The music provides enough insight, mystery, and pure enjoyment to last a lifetime.

By its very nature, The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records Volume 2 is resistant to efficient, decisive conclusions. Loaded with close to 40 hours of audio, it is a history lesson in a suitcase, and when matched with its predecessor from 2013 they offer a vast library of captured sound. Bluntly, the impact of the totality is still being felt nearly 100 years after, so plumbing the fathoms of its essence doesn’t exactly result in a tidy scenario.

The story is long familiar. Started as a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company and killed by the harsh reality of the Great Depression, Paramount may or may not be the 1900s supreme label (and the competition is slim, mainly Chess, Sun, and Stax), but indisputable is the venture’s role in shaping pop, rock, the crossroads of folk, Old-Time and Americana, and most importantly the blues.

Paramount gnawed termitically into the music of its era (poetically ironic for the entrepreneurial side-effort of a furniture business), famously revealing for future generations the undiluted sound of the Mississippi Delta. And by now most of Paramount’s discoveries in this regional subgenre have been recurrently documented elsewhere, notably by Revenant’s Grammy-winning box set Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton.

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Graded on a Curve:
JD McPherson,
“I Wish You Would”
b/w “Steal Away,”

JD McPherson might initially seem like an unusually suave and erudite roots-retro guy, but after a little time spent with his work it’s clear he’s too damned cagey to be encapsulated by that description. On the way to finishing his second album McPherson has indulged in a slick bit of vinyl homage, not just covering “I Wish You Would” and “Steal Away,” two prime cuts associated with the Vee Jay label, but also enticing the folks at Concord/ Rounder to revive the imprint for a classy and highly enjoyable limited run 45.

Lots of roots-retro cats nurture the appearance of having just slept off a bender in the backseat of a ’56 Buick. Happily, that’s not the case with JD McPherson. A college graduate and established visual artist, the Oklahoma born and bred singer-songwriter/ guitarist possesses musical tastes far from narrow or stalled in the guts of the 1900s.

Of course, forced or strained eclecticism also lacks appeal. To this point however, McPherson has avoided that potential issue. To illustrate, influences as wide as Stiff Little Fingers, The Smiths, and the Wu Tang Clan figure on his 2011 debut Signs & Signifiers, but the completed disc, produced by Chicagoan Jimmy Sutton, hits a sweet spot between Specialty Records-styled R&B and the loose juice of primo rockabilly. In other words, it’s a gas, man; if by chance The Blasters is one of your favorite platters, you need Signs & Signifiers in your life more than that spare kidney.

First released on Hi-Style Records, it quickly caught the ear of the Rounder label, that long-serving outfit licensing it to broader recognition in 2012. Earlier this year Rounder concluded a move from Massachusetts (where they started in 1970) to Nashville, and back in 2010 they were purchased by the Concord Music Group, an enterprise that happens to be the gatekeeper to a demonstrable assload of the 20th century’s quality sounds.

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Graded on a Curve:
Frank Lowe Quartet,
Out Loud

The late saxophonist Frank Lowe was one of the crucial torchbearers of ‘60s avant-jazz, extending Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders into the lofts and performance spots of ‘70s New York City. He also cut a bunch of discs, though the early material found on Triple Point Records’ 2LP Out Loud is only now seeing release. A hand-numbered edition of 550 copies stunningly designed and accordingly priced for the collector, it may not be the easiest entry point into the fiery improvising of its period, but for longtime fans of Lowe and free jazz devotees in general it’s an immersive, educational acquisition.

This writer’s personal discovery of Frank Lowe came via the 1990s deluge of German import CD reissues of the ESP Disk catalog. Black Beings was the LP, a fierce 1973 blitz serving as one in a series of repudiations to the idea that free jazz temporarily withered after the death of Coltrane and the rise of fusion; it also offered a killer appearance by Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Joseph Jarman and the earliest glimpse of bass titan William Parker.

While certainly integral to the ESP Disk story, the existence of Black Beings is simply impossible without the shaping precedent documented across the previous decade by the Impulse label, particularly the work of ‘Trane. Interestingly, Lowe’s recording debut was on Alice Coltrane’s swell ’72 Impulse effort World Galaxy.

The Black Beings CD lending the abovementioned introduction was but a single volume in a mass of plastic dropped without much fanfare into the midst of the ‘90s compact disc reissue boom. Amongst the best of ESP’s later entries, it remains a wooly snapshot of free jazz’s ‘70s transition into the lofts and art spaces of self-reliance and is an absolute prerequisite to a full understanding of Lowe, whose curious “Out of Nowhere,” a one-sided 12-inch compiling two duets with drummer Phillip Wilson, arrived more or less concurrently with Black Beings return to print.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sonny Vincent & Spite,
Spiteful

For fans of gutsy ‘70s-style punk Sonny Vincent’s name should trigger immediate buzzers of recognition, but after more than four decades of activity he hasn’t really attained the level of notoriety he deserves. His most well-known band is Testors, though the release of Spiteful just might change that. Featuring assistance from such punk heavyweights as Damned drummer Rat Scabies, original Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock, and reed-chewing Stooge Steve Mackay, Sonny Vincent & Spite defy the odds and deliver unto the waning months of 2014 an LP of raw, energetic, and stylistically varied punk rock.

Part of Spiteful’s appeal derives from how it manages to overcome a handful of reliable obstacles on the way to its well-earned achievement. For starters, there’s the matter of format; while punk absolutely has its share of masterful long players, the style’s always been about great songs and therefore has historically excelled at the short form.

The second potential issue concerns experience; bluntly, the vast majority of punkers don’t age like Chardonnay, they sour into a rotten and malodorous strain of vinegar, and Sonny Vincent is no spring chicken. Indeed, he’s legit first generation NYC punk royalty, with his involvement in the bloozy hard rocking proto-punk of Fury dating back to 1972; their slim output was belatedly issued on 45 in 2012 by the HoZac label.

I don’t want to succumb to ageism, however. While this writer was all of one year old at the time Fury cut those sides, these days your correspondent is more than halfway to certifiable codgerdom. Besides, there are certainly exceptions to this circumstance, and when older punks manage to stay on top of their game they can bring a truly unique perspective. Vincent is one of them, the endearing defiance of his vision having become gradually more distinctive as time has passed, a scenario amplified by the increased rarity of quality punk in general.

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Graded on a Curve: Bessie Jones with the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Get in Union

Anybody familiar with Moby’s “Honey” knows the sampled voice of Bessie Jones. Primarily celebrated for her leadership of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, she played a considerable role in the ‘60s folk revival and remains an exemplar of cultural diversity in 20th century USA. With Get in Union’s two CDs and splendidly informative package, the Tompkins Square label and producer Nathan Salsburg have turned a brilliant spotlight upon a trove of her work from numerous sessions recorded by the great Alan Lomax.

To begin to absorb the significance of Bessie Jones one needs at least a little bit of insight into the unusual history of the Georgia Sea Islands. Situated near the coast of Georgia and taken early in the Civil War by the Union Army, the islands were a part of what’s known as the Port Royal Experiment, more specifically an opportunity for approximately 10,000 freed slaves to practice self-sustainment (i.e. what Reconstruction could’ve been).

The Port Royal Experiment lasted until 1865 when President Andrew Johnson returned the land to its former white owners. And yet from the end of the Civil War to the mid 1930s the Georgia Sea Islands sustained a separation from mainland life as two different sets of ex slaves intermingled, those from the USA and a large influx of Bahamians freed after the British Empire put the kibosh on their ownership of humans.

In 1935 Alan Lomax made his first trip to the Georgia Sea Island of St. Simons in the company of folklorists Mary Elizabeth Barnicle and Zora Neale Hurston (most famous as the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, amongst other novels and writings). On that visit they recorded for the Library of Congress the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia, a group organized by Lydia Parrish, the wife of painter Maxfield Parrish.

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Graded on a Curve:
Chris Forsyth & the
Solar Motel Band,
Intensity Ghost

On a handful of solo discs guitarist and current Philadelphia resident Chris Forsyth has been establishing his presence on the scene for roughly the last half decade. With Intensity Ghost, he steps forward as the leader of a working unit, the Solar Motel Band. Their LP contains five outstanding tracks of instrumental psych-rock executed sans nonsense, and it’s freshly available from the No Quarter label.

Individuals and groups were most assuredly making abstract, mind-altering music long prior to the 1960s intersection of heightened (self-)consciousness, rapidly expanding rock styles and prime chemicals; for one example please tilt an ear toward the strange tangle of sound that is “Fiorassio,” a 1930 78 of Efisio Melis on the launeddas, a Sardinian woodwind instrument also known as the triple clarinet or the triple pipe (said piece can be heard on the first volume of Yazoo Records’ The Secret Museum of Mankind).

But it’s hard to deny that when the subject of psychedelia is broached, most folks including this writer immediately think of the 1960s psych-rock explosion. And this isn’t off-target, since so much of it hit racks during the period, and not just in the USA and Great Britain; like punk rock, it really was a global phenomenon.

But roll back the clock thirty years and psychedelia was pretty out of vogue, at least on a mainstream level. On the margins as part of the Paisley Underground an ample amount of psych-aligned stuff was touched by Neil Young and The Byrds (we’ll leave Farfisa-driven retro-garage out of this); yes, there was Brit neo psychedelia and the twisted drug-punk of the Butthole Surfers, but a more appropriate specimen pertaining to this review would be The Meat Puppets.

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Graded on a Curve:
Arrica Rose & the …’s, Wavefunction

Wavefunction is the new record from Arrica Rose and the …’s. Available this week via Rose’s pOprOck label, it coheres into a highly individual whole, possessing a wide array of influences intermingling with large doses of personality and skill as vibrant youthfulness matches veteran confidence; the result is an 11-track LP of potential interest to indie rock fans and those fostering a predilection for older, long-enduring pop and rock styles.

Like all artists, musicians can be a guarded lot. For example, many display particular care in how they disclose and detail not only their biggest influences but also the background of their listening habits in general. Of course it’s a mistake to equate music makers with collectors or even frequent partakers of the output of others, but in Arrica Rose’s case she’s both.

A California-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Rose is quite forthcoming regarding the discs that spun throughout her formative years, revealing such on both her website and in a TVD First Date posted just a couple of weeks ago. And to look at a list of her favorites without context will provide no inkling into what Rose’s work actually sounds like.

But to read her relate the story is to discover a musician impacted by various indie scene developments, especially acts taking shape in the 1990s (Unwound, Low, Come, Elliott Smith, Superchunk), who also openly engages with a longstanding love for older forms, stuff defined to varying degrees as classic (Bowie, Tom Waits, Fleetwood Mac, Patti Smith, Big Star, Dusty Springfield, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf).

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Graded on a Curve: Throwing Muses, Purgatory/Paradise

In October 2013 Throwing Muses released their ninth album and first in ten years on CD in tandem with a book of photos, artwork, lyrics, and short essays by leader Kristin Hersh. An atypical yet smart combination, and in a swell turn of events the Athens, GA label Happy Happy Birthday To Me is issuing Purgatory/Paradise in a 2LP edition of 500 copies. Intrigued parties who missed it should not dally to investigate, for it finds the three-piece of Hersh, drummer Dave Narcizo, and bassist Bernard Georges in skilled, vibrant form.

Another encroaching year’s end foretells many things, and a certainty is a surge of Best Lists. I enjoy reading them almost as much as writing them, as I’ve done a few times here at TVD. What’s important is to not take them too seriously, in part because nobody, not even rapscallions and dandies living lives of utter leisure, can absorb everything released across the span of a dozen calendar pages, and most assuredly not by the 31st of December.

For instance, I’ve just recently become acquainted, roughly 12 months after its emergence, with Throwing Muses’ outstanding Purgatory/Paradise. Now, I could chalk up the delay to the music’s unusual connection to the publishing industry described above, but that wouldn’t be accurate. I’ll simply confess to not keeping up with the singer-guitarist-bandleader’s activity post-University back in ‘95. As stated, one cannot hear it all. Bluntly, I’m very pleased to have belatedly caught up with this record.

Last year’s dual release is frankly a savvy idea, one I’m surprised hasn’t been employed with more frequency. And I do look forward to examining Purgatory/Paradise’s accompanying tome, for clearly the text will provide scores of insights into a rather unique collection; however, this review is specifically concerned with those 32 tracks. Not to worry, for their uniqueness stands up easily on its own.

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