Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
4 x Liquid Liquid

In 1980s New York City Liquid Liquid hung at the crossroads of Downtown and No Wave but are more retrospectively notable for unwittingly laying the musical bedrock for an early rap hit and helping to pave the way for both the paradigm of post-rock and the new millennium’s indie-dance agenda. Superior Viaduct’s reissues of the group’s three EPs are hot off the griddle, as is an LP devoted to relevant prior acts Liquid Idiot and Idiot Orchestra. Folks needing all four can acquire them in a special-priced bundle exclusively from the label. Those looking to dabble can buy separately and in stores.

Featuring drummer Scott Hartley, bassist Richard McGuire, vocalist Salvatore Principato, and marimba specialist Dennis Young, Liquid Liquid announced their presence in 1981 with two EPs issued on 99 Records, a home to significant if initially neglected indigenous happenings of the period; Glenn Branca, Bush Tetras, Y Pants, and ESG were all documented on the influential venture of Ed Bahlman.

But not so fast; before Liquid Liquid’s formation the members were part of two related bands, the older of the two being Liquid Idiot. They formed circa the late ‘70s down New Jersey way at Rutgers University and migrated to Gotham to play gigs. The flyers for these events would encourage the audience to bring their own instruments and join right in, and at one of these hootenannies Dennis Young showed up, playing marimba from the floor.

Liquid Idiot recorded a 7-inch in McGuire’s living room while still in New Brunswick; offering loose, thoroughly non-pro art-inclined DIY totaling 15 minutes, its nine tracks spring from a framework of guitar and rhythm as clarinet, saxophone, and a cheap organ intermittently enter the fray. Favoring abstraction and repetition over melodious concerns, Liquid Idiot’s beginner’s stabs at free jazz/Trout Mask-era Magic Band/general avant-gardism are likeable if far from mind-blowing. Occasionally, the thrust’s comparable to the Los Angles Free Music Society.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sarah McQuaid,
Walking into White

Born in Madrid, the multifaceted folk musician Sarah McQuaid was brought up in Chicago, studied in France, and after a lengthy stay in Ireland currently lives in Cornwall, England. Early in 2014 she traveled to Cornwall, New York to record a follow-up to 2012’s The Plum Tree and the Rose; the result is the trimmest release of her career as McQuaid continues to push the boundaries of an engaging and increasingly personal sound. Issued in the UK/Europe this past February, Walking into White is out now on CD in North America through Waterbug Records to coincide with a September-October US tour.

Borrowing a term from the realm of organized sports, or for those who simply can’t abide the playing of games, the performing arts, Sarah McQuaid is what’s known as a triple-threat; that is, she does three things extremely well, specifically sing, play guitar, and write songs, though she initially excelled more at the interpretation of traditional and even centuries old material.

To elaborate, 1997’s debut When Two Lovers Meet examined trad Irish sources and offered a fine balance of focus between the strength of McQuaid’s playing and the power of her voice, hitting peaks in the unaccompanied six-minute “Táim Cortha Ó Bheith Im’ Aonar Im’ Luí” and “The Parting Glass,” a closing duet with the esteemed Irish vocalist Niamh Parsons.

Backed by additional guitar and ukulele, cello and fiddle, keyboard and double bass, and those Irish standbys whistle and pipes, the sound is far from monochromatic, a circumstance abetted by the sole original composition. “Charlie’s Gone Home” is a decidedly more contempo folk proposition reminiscent of a ditty heard on the countertop radio while visiting the apartment of one’s favorite fifty-something hippie librarian aunt for Sunday brunch.

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Graded on a Curve: Nirvana, Nirvana

In 1991 a Pacific-Northwest three-piece changed the direction of the record industry, securing a spot in music history as the spearhead of Grunge. In 2002 a self-titled album attempted to sum up their essence; rather than electing to represent the trio’s actual range, Nirvana is dominated by chart entries, a handful of non-surprises, and a (then) previously unreleased track. On August 28 it’s available on LP through Universal as either a 45rpm 200gm double or a 33rpm 150gm single, each with accompanying download.

To obtain a full grasp of how well Nirvana succeeds in offering a tidy retrospective of an important, oft volatile, and enduringly polarizing act required getting reacquainted with their discography from ’88 to ’94. With time spent the verdict is in: first hitting racks roughly 8½ years after Kurt Cobain’s suicide and a little over a decade removed from the band’s unexpected runaway success, Nirvana ultimately falls short of top-tier.

This assessment comes not by any fault of the group but through unimaginative assemblage and a problematic title. Leaving the occasional sarcastic usage aside, the words Greatest Hits summarize an objective truth, and the use of Best Of, while potentially arguable, is a nomenclature making its intentions plain. The eponymous treatment employed here is merely ambiguous.

If the purpose behind Nirvana was to encapsulate its subject’s breadth and heights on one record the results don’t meet the goal. Far too safe to accurately embody the Best, it essentially flirts with Greatest Hits; perhaps the term was just considered tacky when applied to retail achievements stemming partially from a perceived lack of calculation and even borderline disinterest.

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Graded on a Curve:
Pere Ubu, Elitism for
the People 1975-1978

Based in Cleveland amid the peak bleakness of mid-1970’s USA, Pere Ubu has forged a path unlike any other in rock’s history, and through lineup changes, hiatuses, refocused ambitions, and a refusal to assume the predictable, empty role of rock elders, David Thomas and his many collaborators stand as one of recorded music’s unlikeliest wonders. Those suspecting this claim as hyperbole should please investigate Fire Records’ new 4LP set Elitism for the People 1975-1978. It gathers Ubu’s earliest output, an achievement still capable of dropping jaws 40 years after the band’s formation.

Before even spinning a Pere Ubu platter on a turntable I’d read and was excited by the term avant-garage, and while the tag did prove useful, as time wore on it ultimately became shorthand for “oddball punk.” Ubu’s sole constant member David Thomas has since downplayed it as a joke-bone tossed into the salivating maws of the journalistic brigade, but it’s interesting how the title of this collection revisits the meaningfulness of the phrase.

Circa the mid-‘70s rock was still partially a populist undertaking, and garage bands continued to exist in closest proximity to the masses, sometimes playing right on the floor at audience level; these are the ashes from whence Pere Ubu sprang, with guitarist Peter Laughner and singer Thomas forming the group after exiting the storied (and subsequently rekindled) proto-punk unit Rocket from the Tombs.

Their ex-mates went on to the Dead Boys, and selections from the Tombs’ repertoire (notably sprinkled with Stones, Stooges, and Velvets covers) carried over to both outfits; as evidenced by this box’s The Hearpen Singles (1975-1977) Pere Ubu was immediately the darker of the two; “30 Seconds over Tokyo,” their first a-side (the label then called Hearthan) took the first-person viewpoint of a bomber pilot in dealing with the ugly reality that ended World War II.

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Graded on a Curve:
Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Press Color

Prior to her untimely death from cancer in 2004, Lizzy Mercier Descloux was involved in all sorts of forward-thinking artistic motion. The smartest place to undertake an investigation into her recorded output is right at the start, and Light in the Attic’s expanded reissue of 1979’s Press Color allows one to do so without scouring the used bins. Its bonus tracks are truly such, enlightening rather than extraneous, and it’s available now on 2LP/CD.

Lizzy Mercier Descloux is noted for her participation in ‘70s punk and to the No Wave convulsion in particular, but her creativity was frankly too voluminous to be pigeonholed into a solitary scene, a circumstance that endures as a major aspect of her cult appeal. Born in France, she and Michel Esteban were at the forefront of the country’s burgeoning punk uprising, managing the boutique Harry Cover and publishing the magazine Rock News.

Descloux befriended Patti Smith and Richard Hell on a visit to New York City in 1975, and they both contributed to her first book Desiderata, printed by Esteban alongside Smith’s Witt and The Night in 1977. Sweet musical heck was breaking loose as Esteban and Descloux packed bags for NYC that year, and getting introduced to Michael Zilkha through John Cale proved a beneficial turn of events.

Zilkha and Esteban left Cale’s SPY Records to form ZE, a label crucial to No Wave history and especially to Descloux’s early stuff; she debuted for ZE as half of Rosa Yemen, a duo with Michel’s brother Didier, both tackling guitar and Descloux providing the voice, their self-titled 12-inch of 1979 documenting a live performance from July of the previous year.

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Graded on a Curve:
Jeff Beck, “Hi Ho
Silver Lining” b/w “Beck’s Bolero”

If ever they mold a Mt. Rushmore of Classic Rock guitar wizards, it will surely include the chiseled mug of Jeff Beck, his career so lengthy and varied that it’s basically a bottomless reservoir of inspiration for articles in Mojo magazine. Along with his work in The Yardbirds, rock listeners persist in celebrating him for the two distinct Jeff Beck Groups and for his many solo albums. Sometimes overlooked is the pair of singles Beck recorded in ‘67, and “Hi Ho Silver Lining” b/w “Beck’s Bolero” is the better of the two.

For a certain breed of rock fan, the various permutations of The Yardbirds are a gift that keeps on giving. Whether it’s the early blues purist period with Clapton and the smash “For Your Love” (which sent Eric reeling into the tastefully bluesy embrace of John Mayall), the copious top-notch material and numerous hits produced by the post-Beck rave-ups and experimentation, and the brief pleasures to be had from the short-lived Beck/Page lineup; really, it’s only the culminating quartet that’s patchy, though there’s more quality to be found there than many think.

Of course, scores of folks only recognize The Yardbirds as the group that begat Led Zeppelin, since it was the four-piece fronted by Page that was contractually bound to tour and slowly transmogrified into what we now know as Zep. Similarly, there’s a smaller but significant number of ears that neglect the 45s Beck cut directly after departing the ‘birds. This omission is either purposeful, due to the a sides’ unabashed pop ambition (i.e. the discrete odor of Mickie Most) or purely accidental; for decades, they were most easily discovered in Best of Beck packages. I don’t recall hearing them on the radio.

Those songs were available elsewhere, however. In fact, I first heard “Hi Ho Silver Lining” in the ‘80s on a 2LP import various artists compilation titled Formula 30, and I’ll acknowledge the initial taste proved a tad befuddling, mainly because Jeff Beck was considered, with Clapton, Page, and the departed Hendrix (the only one insured not to fuck up his own legacy), as a true deity of Rock Guitar. And of the three still living, Beck has displayed the greatest ambivalence over the commercial expectations of hard rocking power blues.

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Graded on a Curve: Barrence Whitfield
& the Savages,
Under the Savage Sky

Three albums into an expectations-defying return, Boston vets Barrence Whitfield & the Savages have yet to strike a disappointing note. A brand new full-length finds them continuing to escalate the power and rawness in an already potent attack and honing a dozen selections into brisk soul-punk mayhem. Featuring a strapping batch of originals and a few wisely-chosen covers tucked into a spiffy Alfred Hitchcock/Saul Bass-inspired sleeve, Under the Savage Sky is available on LP/CD August 21 through Bloodshot Records.

Way back in the late-‘70s a Florida-born Jersey resident named Barry White moved up to Boston to study journalism and in due time bonded with noteworthy locals over a mutual interest in stripped-down non-sophisto R&R/R&B action. A band was formed, White becoming Barrence Whitfield to avoid unnecessary confusion with a certain high-profile kingpin of the romance jams; soon he and the Savages issued a pair of no-frills long-players providing a roots infusion to an over-polished era.

All that old history would deserve a greater spotlight if the music recorded post-2010 reunion was somehow unimpressive. Guitarist Peter Greenberg and bassist Phil Lenker returned as new drummer Andy Jody and saxophonist Tom Quartulli rounded out the lineup; with each album they’ve brandished a harder edge, spewing forth wild but well-controlled aural aggression in the undisguised mode of Washington State survivors The Sonics and Detroit’s The Dirtbombs, the latter arriving in the long period of dormancy between Whitfield & the Savages’ fruitful bursts of activity.

As said, those influences aren’t the slightest bit hidden; in fact, both are mentioned in Bloodshot’s press kit for Under the Savage Sky, the citations fitting the scenario so well that interchanging them for others feels wrongheaded. To elaborate, Barrence and crew actually covered The Sonics’ garage punk behemoth “Shot Down” on 2011’s Savage Kings, an LP cut for the long-serving Spanish label Munster (there was apparently a US pressing on Shake It!). And solidifying the connection was a recent Sonics/Savages tour.

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Graded on a Curve:
Units,
Digital Stimulation

San Francisco’s the Units attained a moderate amount of success, landing a video in MTV’s pre-streamlined rotation and playing gigs with a substantial list of first generation new wave cohorts. Unsurprisingly, their finest stuff arrived early and remains a too seldom heard component of the California scene at decade’s turn. 1980’s debut LP Digital Stimulation finds the Units specializing in art-angled synth-punk over straight-ahead synth-pop; it’s currently available on CD and 180gm vinyl via the Futurismo label with “secret tracks Live at Mabuhay Gardens” (guess the cat’s out of the bag now).

Formed in the wide-open late-‘70s, the core of the Units consisted of Scott Ryser on synthesizer and vocals and Rachel Webber on synth, vocals and projections. Others came and went, but for Digital Stimulation the key third member is drummer Brad Saunders. In the pre-hardcore period punk was generally more accepting of unorthodox approaches, and it was the art-centric wing of the San Fran uprising to which the Units belonged.

Soon to share stages with Dead Kennedys and Crime and to serve as openers for Soft Cell, XTC, Sparks, and Iggy amongst others, their first show wasn’t at the Mabuhay Gardens (which they eventually headlined), The Deaf Club or the Tool and Die, but instead in the front window of the city’s JC Penney’s department store, where they accompanied a piece detailing leisure activities a la sun-bathing and a go-go punk-rock beach party.

This reads as a true dilly of an experience, as signs around them reportedly posed the questions “On Vacation From What?” and “Do You Like Your Job?” Bluntly, I’m bummed over the apparent lack of video documentation of this event and am additionally miffed that cool shit like this never occurred at the JC Penney’s in the berg of my youth.

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Graded on a Curve: Sweat Lodge,
Talismana

Claiming such hefty influences as St. Vitus, Mountain, and fellow Texans ZZ Top, the Austin-based quartet Sweat Lodge hath elected to grapple extensively with the formidable hard rock beast. Sparks of a decidedly stoner persuasion do fly from the ongoing tussle, and trace elements of heavy psychedelia are also palpable. Talismana is their full-length debut for Ripple Music, available now on CD, digital, and a vinyl pressing limited to 300 copies.

Alongside acts like Ditch Witch and The Well, Sweat Lodge is credited with shepherding Austin’s metal/stoner rock scene into its healthy current state. A worthy achievement to be sure, but they’ve additionally shared the stage with such luminaries as Mondo Generator, The Sword, Spirit Caravan, and perhaps most impressively Black Oak Arkansas. And if any doubt lingers of Sweat Lodge’s weightiness let it be known that this August 29 in Portland, OR they will be playing a little thing called the North West Hesh Fest, a three-day affair with a roster sporting Acid King, Dead Moon, and Pentagram.

Sweat Lodge made their initial statement in 2012 on a 4-song self-titled 7-inch EP issued by the American Icon label. At this juncture the band was a three-piece consisting of Austin Shockley’s deeply distorted bass, Caleb Dawson’s drum thunder, and Cody Lee Johnston’s extroverted heaviness at the microphone.

Yes, a guitar-less lineup plowing full speed ahead, the absence of a six-string lending the tracks a left-field edge that was surely appealing but frankly not wholly indicative of Sweat Lodge’s musical intentions. Backing up this observation is the outfit’s cassette tape of 2013, a 100 copy 4-song self-titled “demo style” edition documenting expansion to a quintet through two guitarists, namely Javier Gardea and Dustin Anderson.

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Graded on a Curve: Zachary Cale,
Duskland

Singer-songwriter-guitarist Zachary Cale has been on the scene for roughly a decade. Originally from Enon, Louisiana, he currently hangs his hat in New York City, where The Village Voice named him Best Songwriter of 2014. Nearly two years have passed since the release of the lauded Blue Rider, but Cale has returned with his sixth album and first for the No Quarter label. Duskland is out now on LP/CD/digital.

After emerging with his debut in 2005, Zachary Cale has gradually amassed a sizable discography. Outlander Sessions is a toughly strummed heartily sung slab radiating a bit of a busker vibe, and its follow-up didn’t hit the racks until around three years later. Walking Papers wielded increased range, instrumental dexterity, and emotional weight, with “Running in Place” a particular highlight.

Cale additionally issued See-Saw in ’08 under the moniker Illuminations, a full band outing tackling smartly constructed and earthy melodic rock; there’s an intermittent touch of roots as it unfurls, but the whole could easily satisfy city slickers, a circumstance perhaps reflecting the leader’s rural-to-urban transition. Furthermore, See-Saw seemed to impact his subsequent work.

For ‘11’s Noise of Welcome was vibrant and measurably more mature, considerably eclipsing standard folk trappings and adeptly integrating American Primitive picking and country-rock atmosphere alongside moments bringing to mind such contemporaries as Dan Behar (a professed admirer of the album) and M. Ward.

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