Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Bert Jansch,
Live at the 12 Bar

For acolytes of fingerpicking it simply doesn’t get much better than Bert Jansch. Starting in the mid-‘60s the late guitar master issued a series of killer platters that extensively impacted Great Britain’s subsequent musical direction; by extension he altered events Stateside and around the globe, though Jansch was less well-known in the USA. Like numerous vets he struggled through some hard times, but 1995 was a productive year marked by a studio album and a series of gigs, one of which was captured on Live at the 12 Bar. On August 7 it’s available on vinyl for the first time via Earth Recordings.

Akin to many humans wielding acoustic guitars while traversing the highways and byways of the 1960s, the Scottish-born Bert Jansch’s listening habits included Woodrow Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly, Brownie McGhee, and a mess of traditional material, but all it took was a listen to his string of LPs for the Transatlantic label to grasp him as far from a garden variety folkie.

Commencing with a self-titled effort and It Don’t Bother Me in ’65, his nimble fingers, utterly fresh compositions and tough warmth of voice resulted in influence spreading to Donovan, Paul Simon, Nick Drake, Neil Young, and Jimmy Page, who in recognizing the greatness in Jansch’s arrangement of “Blackwaterside” from ‘66’s Jack Orion, promptly stole it as “Black Mountain Side” on Led Zep’s first album.

Jansch also recorded Bert and John in ’66 with his fellow picker John Renbourn, the pair additionally collaborating in the highly regarded folk-jazz-baroque-rock outfit The Pentangle. A five-piece of no small popularity, they cut six slabs between ’68 and ’72 and reportedly embarked on five world tours as Jansch’s own discography grew to eight LPs; he eventually took a sensible break and tended a farm for a couple years.

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Graded on a Curve: BLiNDNESS,
Wrapped in Plastic

The London-based trio BLiNDNESS formed all the way back in 2008 and seven years later their first LP has arrived. Flaunting tunefulness enveloped in rawness and volume, its songs are unabashedly idling at the crossroads of ‘90s alt-rock and indie, with detailed attention paid to shoegaze and nervy electro elements. The results fall a tad short of amazing, but through confidence and focus it serves as a promising debut; Wrapped in Plastic is out now on vinyl/CD/digital via the Saint Marie label of Ft. Worth, TX.

BLiNDNESS consists of Beth Rettig on vocals and programming, Emma Quick on bass, and Debbie Smith on guitar and feedback; all three get credited with noise. Those curious over the long period between the unit’s formation and Wrapped in Plastic’s emergence should understand that Rettig is part of The Mekano Set while Quick plays in Climbing Boys.

Smith has been busy as well, and she’s the point on BLiNDNESS’s triangle sporting the highest profile; from ’91-’94 she was a touring contributor to Curve and was also involved with Echobelly, Snowpony, Nightnurse, and Bows. A bit more casually she was/is in The Nuns, an all-female Monks cover band (!), and more recently worked alongside her former Curve mate Dean Garcia in SPC ECO.

One might be grasping a few commonalities; Snowpony was an indie supergroup featuring members of Stereolab and My Bloody Valentine, and Bows recorded for the esteemed ‘90s UK label Too Pure. BLiNDNESS’s influences are well-contained, however; amidst the rapidly observable strains of shoegaze and electro pop they strive to maintain a specific sound.

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Graded on a Curve: Eleventh Dream Day, Works for Tomorrow

Chicago scene veterans Eleventh Dream Day are back and in typically inspired form. One of the finer exponents from the US rock underground of the 1980s, they’ve undergone numerous changes over the decades while remaining focused on delivering fiery Neil Young-descended rock. Works for Tomorrow adds a second guitarist to the equation as the group chalks up another terrific effort. It’s out now on Thrill Jockey.

Eleventh Dream Day’s existence has roots in early-‘80s Kentucky, though they fully came together after Rick Rizzo and Janet Beveridge Bean moved to the Windy City; their debut ’87 EP was conceived by Rizzo on guitar and vocals, Bean on drums and vocals, Baird Figi on guitar, and Douglas McCombs on bass. Subsequently, they decamped to Louisville and in six hours produced a cornerstone in the band’s discography.

‘88’s Prairie School Freakout endures as an absolute killer in the chronicles of post-Crazy Horse/Dream Syndicate melodic burn, and for those interested in a full picture of the independent scene of the ‘80s it remains an essential disc. Critically praised and not easy to find (alongside “Eleventh Dream Day” and ‘89’s “Wayne” EPs it was released on the small Amoeba imprint), it served as their gateway to a contract with a major label.

Beet arrived via Atlantic Records in ’89, frankly an odd time for a band of Eleventh Dream Day’s ilk to be found on the roster of such an enterprise. If a byproduct of a retrospectively sexy musical movement, EDD’s true contemporaries were Rizzo and Bean’s Kentucky cohorts Antietam, Seattle’s The Walkabouts, Boston’s Big Dipper, and Jersey’s Yo La Tengo, all groups that came out the other side of the punk uprising with a heightened understanding of what was valuable in “Classic” rock forms.

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Graded on a Curve: Foxygen, “Brooklyn Police Station” b/w “Cosmic Vibrations”

It’s difficult to imagine a vinyl aficionado who wouldn’t enjoy receiving a free 45. Even if the wax is laced with lameness, one loses no shekels in the transaction. Folks residing near Portland, OR and downtown Los Angeles who are especially excited by the possibility of gratis grooves should mosey to the flagship stores of Tanner Goods on July 25 at 11am, for the company specializing in high quality leather products has teamed with Pickathon music festival and Aquarium Drunkard audio blog to press 200 copies of a 45 featuring a pair of live cuts from last year’s Pickathon show by LA-based duo Foxygen. Lameness is assuredly absent from the equation and the first 50 come with a custom-embossed leather outer sleeve.

It may seem like nitpicking, but giveaways are rarely actually that. Y’know, to get the free flexi-disc one had to shell out, or worse yet, convince one’s parent or guardian to drop dollars on that box of sugary cereal. The situation lingered with age; obtaining the Devo/Colin Newman “Bush Whacked” b/w “Si Tu Attends” split flexi required purchase of the August 1988 issue of Reflex magazine.

All this talk of soundsheets doesn’t apply to the matter at hand, for Tanner Goods’ Foxygen 45 is a 150gm pressing, and landing a copy simply necessitates visiting the abovementioned shops while supplies last. Cynics might be rubbing chin stubble and wondering what the angle is; indeed, to partake in an endeavor for the sheer hell of it may be something of a rarity these days, and if the existence of this record doesn’t fit that description exactly, it is a fine example of commerce fostering a pursuit other than the bottom line.

It falls in place with Tanner Goods’ dedication to craftsmanship and extends to the good rep of Pickathon, an event unwinding annually on Pendarvis Farm in Happy Valley, OR. Now this writer will confess to kneejerk dubiousness upon hearing or reading a description of a multiday music fest as anything other than an audience endurance test and stimulus for the bottled water industry, but it’s hard not to be swayed by the background of Pickathon.

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Graded on a Curve: Goldberg,
Misty Flats

In 1974, from deep inside the fault line between the hippie-era’s disintegration and the initial pangs of the punk explosion, Minnesotan Barry Thomas Goldberg cut Misty Flats. Originally pressed in an edition of 500 and promptly inspiring no hubbub, it features eleven folk-inclined songs eschewing callow trend-hopping and exuding a tantalizing loner vibe. On July 24 it gets a well-deserved reissue by the folks at Light in the Attic.

Not to be confused with the Windy City denizen having risen to prominence as a member of The Electric Flag, this Barry Goldberg hailed from Minneapolis and sharpened his musical chops first in The Shambles and then in The Batch. The former unit managed one single and the latter recorded a bunch, all of it issued retrospectively save for one 7-inch in ‘72.

Peter Relic’s liner essay for Misty Flats mentions Columbia as interested in a single by The Batch, an offer unfortunately nixed by a manager holding out for an album deal. Assessed by Relic as a power pop combo loaded with harmonies, casual inspection of the group’s extant material verifies the description, and the notes further speculate that given a couple breaks The Batch might’ve ended up as historically lauded as The Rubinoos, The Raspberries, and even Big Star.

I won’t quibble with the possibility, but it’s a flat fact Goldberg was in cahoots with Michael Yonkers, the Minneapolis experimental-psych-rock rediscovery who became something of an underground cause célèbre roughly a dozen years ago. Many will remember Sub Pop’s Microminiature Love reissue of 2003; amongst other discs Yonkers had two repressed by Drag City in 2014.

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Graded on a Curve: Bunnygrunt, Vol. 4

St. Louis, MO-based Bunnygrunt was but one component in the avalanche of indie that transpired in the early-‘90s. Often branded as a practitioner of twee, since reforming in 2003 they’ve cultivated a heavier yet still highly melodic sound. Their new album Vol. 4 does underscore a decidedly ‘90s approach to format; not only is it available on vinyl, but the CD and cassette double the number of tracks with eight bonus selections. It’s out now via the Happy Happy Birthday To Me label.

Matt Harnish and Karen Ried formed Bunnygrunt in 1993 with Wally Schwartz on bass. Rene Dullum took over for Schwartz, but she too was out before the release of the band’s full-length debut, ‘95’s Action Pants! Dullum was replaced by Jen Wolfe, who stayed through a steady stream of singles and ‘98’s follow-up Jen-Fi. Having toured the country a half-dozen times, Bunnygrunt culminated their initial five-year existence after visiting Japan for gigs.

On first go round Bunnygrunt regularly got tagged as a precious proposition, a circumstance not necessarily inaccurate or unfair as early tunes “Criminal Boy” and “I Just Had Broken-Heart Surgery, Love Won’t Pass Me by Again” did register significantly on the cute-meter. But in their defense Bunnygrunt wasn’t calculatingly shambolic and frequently landed nearer to sunshine pop. Indeed, Jen-Fi’s 15 entries totaled just a tad over a half hour as they explored elements of punk and indie pop.

Harnish and Ried reignited the group in the early Aughts, in part due to the inclusion of their ditty “Season’s Freaklings” on the soundtrack to Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa; there was also In the Valley of Lonesome Phil, a 21-cut comp of old stuff and rarities issued on The Bert Dax Cavalcade of Stars, a label run by Harnish.

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Graded on a Curve:
Alice Coltrane,
Universal Consciousness

One of the most suitable resurgences of esteem to have occurred over the last quarter century relates to the discography of multi-instrumentalist and composer Alice Coltrane. For far too many years far too many people erroneously ranked her as a major accompanist and downgraded her leadership efforts as being of primary interest to aficionados of freeform, modal, or spiritual jazz. Today Coltrane is justly recognized as a master, her output loaded with jewels; none are better than ‘71’s Universal Consciousness. It’s been freshly reissued on LP by Superior Viaduct.

Had Alice Coltrane somehow not recorded Universal Consciousness she’d still stand as one of the defining talents from jazz’s most exploratory era. And even if the woman born Alice McLeod on August 27th, 1937 in that hub of American artistry Detroit, Michigan had never managed to cut an album under her married name, her creative achievements would endure as quite notable.

In assuming the piano bench in the band of John Coltrane, she assisted in shaping the late-period of one of recorded music’s most vital exponents. With the departure of pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones, Coltrane’s “Classic Quartet” (which the saxophonist had been augmenting across 1965) was receding in the rear-view mirror. Drummer Rashied Ali, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and reedman Pharoah Sanders remained as assorted percussionists and Alice Coltrane entered; as of this writing the results remain galvanizing.

Studio evidence of her contribution didn’t emerge until after her husband’s death on July 17th, 1967; Expression arrived the following September, Cosmic Music, co-credited to Alice and John, the next year, and Stellar Regions, sourced from rediscovered tapes, belatedly appeared in 1995. The majority of the collaboration rests upon performance documents, though only one, late-‘66’s Live At The Village Vanguard Again!, was released prior to the bandleader’s succumbing to liver cancer.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Debutantes, “Adams Apples” b/w “Kids” 7″

The Galway, Ireland trio the Debutantes surfaced in the autumn of 2014 with a limited five-song cassette EP, and earlier this year four-fifths of its contents found release in the US through Emotional Response of Flagstaff, AZ. The label pressed “Adams Apples” and “Kids” to 7-inch vinyl with two additional tunes on the accompanying download, and folks into the intersection of indie pop, shoegaze, and dream pop are the prime audience for the record. It comes in a choice of three different colors with a free Emotional Response 45rpm “big hole” adapter.

Paula Cullen plays bass and sings in the Debutantes and Sarah Grimes beats the skins. Some will recognize the pair as members of September Girls, a Dublin quintet who’ve drawn comparisons to the Dum Dum Girls and Vivian Girls; that’s a whole lot of youthfully feminine similarity, and to verify the claims one need only listen to Cursing the Sea, their 2013 full-length debut for Fortuna Pop!

The LP didn’t radically alter noise/dream pop history, but it did competently explore the confines of the style; it led to a sleeker, heavier outing in last year’s “Veneer” EP, its four songs reinforcing September Girl’s strengths at the short-form. The scenario is further emphasized by the handful of 7-inch platters and cassette singles in their discography.

A few examples: the sturdy guitar focused indie pop of “Green Eyed” and the tangibly ‘60s keyboard-tinged proposition of its flip “Danny Wood,” the girl group/garage merger “Wanting More” getting backed with the catchy dream pop of “Hells Bells” and the noisier instrumental chaser “Man Chats,” the edginess of Cursing the Sea highlight “Talking” and the lo-fi melodiousness of its b side “Some for Me,” and the grittier stomp of “Heartbeats” (also from the LP) and the slow burn of its opposite number “Wasted.”

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Graded on a Curve: Superchunk,
Come Pick Me Up

1999 marked a decade of existence for indie lynchpins Superchunk; it was also the year they traveled to the Windy City from North Carolina’s Research Triangle to record at Electrical Audio with producer Jim O’Rourke. The resulting album was their most ambitious to that point, offering continued maturation boosted by expertly applied strings and horns. Having aged like a round of fine cheddar, Come Pick Me Up has been deservedly reissued on LP/CD by Merge Records with eight bonus tracks on the download.

Across the span of our current century I’ve made the acquaintance of a few Superchunk fans harboring reservations over the nature of Come Pick Me Up’s 13 tunes. But while I was initially caught off-guard by the boldness of the stylistic leap, it didn’t take long for it to grow significantly in individual esteem. Part of the reason was extra-musical; after spending roughly ten years in the company of their steadily growing discography my 30s were beckoning.

Therefore Superchunk’s transition fell easily into personal synch, but likely came far too late for those who registered their precise honing of no-nonsense catchiness and post-hardcore intensity as an affront to the supposed time-honored practice of striving for the Big Brass Ring. As the flagship act on Merge, the long-serving label formed by the group’s vocalist/guitarist Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance, they unswervingly traversed an independent path and developed at their own chosen speed.

The progression might’ve been gradual, but their oeuvre amassed quickly and the maintenance of their sound was refreshing. Listening chronologically reveals refinement in the balancing of melody and heaviness as they impressively adapted a wide range of cover material into what became a signature approach; in ’94 Superchunk attained a peak with the outstanding Foolish.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Smoking Trees,
TST

The Smoking Trees are a duo of decidedly psychedelic disposition hailing from the West Coast berg of Los Angeles. Formed in 2001 and whittled down from a five piece, over a decade elapsed before the arrival of their full-length debut. Thankfully its follow-up required a shorter gestation period; druggy but approachable and sunshiny with undercurrents of strangeness, TST improves substantially on its predecessor. It’s out on LP/CD/digital July 10 via Ample Play.

Martin Nunez and Al Rivera are the two halves comprising The Smoking Trees. Their bio portrays Nunez as something of a mastermind, which is appropriate considering his nickname is Sir Psych; producer and home recorder, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, psychedelia expert and professed record collector, it’s all discernible upon soaking up their 2012’s Acetates.

On the other side of this yin-yang is an ex-punk. Rivera aka L.A.AL was part of the burgeoning East L.A. punk scene, cutting albums in the late-‘90s with groups Dial 69 and Homesick. L.A.AL underwent a musical transformation after meeting Sir Psych, and it shouldn’t be a bit difficult to suss out the new direction; mention of The Left Banke, The Zombies, and “Defecting Grey” by The Pretty Things should clarify the scenario, however.

At an earlier point named Velvet Tuesday & the Good Smells, The Smoking Trees initially functioned as a pleasurable sideline, Al continuing to play in his prior band as Sir Psych worked as a hip-hop producer and as part of his own crew Forensics. But recording persisted, Nunez credited with production, drums, vocals, keys, bass, and psychedelics as Rivera lent guitar, bass, percussion, and vocals.

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