Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
April 2020, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for April, 2020.

NEW RELEASE PICK: Trees Speak, Ohms (Soul Jazz) I was turned onto this Tucson, AZ outfit via their self-titled 2017 debut on the Italian Cinedelic imprint. The label change for LP two should increase the profile of the group, especially since Soul Jazz hardly ever deviates from reissues and anthologies. Led by Daniel Martin Diaz, rather than jazzy grooving or post-punk, Trees Speak specialize in the psychedelically Krautrocking, but with an unharried approach that could appeal to folks into King Gizzard or maybe even early Tame Impala. I happen to dig what Trees Speak are up to a lot more than those two however, partly because they do it sans vocals (likely why they were on Cinedelic), and additionally due to the heavier (and sax skronkier) passages. The decidedly Germanic keyboard-synth motions are also welcome, as are the spots that again suggest Meddle-era Floyd. Comes with bonus 45. Holding tight! A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Robbie Basho, Songs of the Great Mystery–The Lost Vanguard Sessions (Real Gone) The scoop here is that in 2009 Vanguard contacted American Primitive guitar expert and fingerpicker extraordinaire Glenn Jones regarding a discovered tape of the very great and highly underrated guitarist Basho, who cut records for John Fahey’s Takoma label, Vanguard, and later Windham Hill prior to his premature passing in 1986 at age 45. Turns out the tape was from the same long session that produced his two Vanguard LPs rather than a batch of second-rate stuff for Guitar Soli maniacs, so this is four sides of exquisite playing on guitar and piano (opening and closing the set) plus an abundance of singing (and whistling), so if you can’t abide his voice, then please move along. There are only 1,000 copies in this pressing (on clear wax), and they belong in upstanding homes. A

V/A, Stone Crush: Memphis Modern Soul 1977-1987 (Light in the Attic) Complete with typically excellent liner observations by Memphis expert Robert Gordon, this is an enlightening dive into a run of singles, and everything here was originally issued on 45, that will almost certainly be new discoveries to all but the most soul diligent. I’ll confess that the period covered coincides with a declining personal interest in soul/ funk/ R&B, in large part due to the prevailing commercial sound of the times, but even as a fair portion of the sounds anthologized here bounce around like a dingleberry in Rick James’ jockstrap, the generally modest production values impact the whole in a manner that’s enjoyable, with unavoidable fluctuations, across the set’s four sides. However, things never dip too low as the highlights can get up there pretty high.

Amongst my favorite moments are the linguistic love-tango in “Under Cover Lover” by the wonderfully named Captain Fantastic and Starr Fleet, the swirling DIY of “What Does it Take to Know (A Woman Like You),” by Greg Mason (with crucial input from producer Bernard Haynes), my pick for standout of the bunch, and the sneakily old-school “You Mean Everything to Me” by Sweet Pearl. The intermingled bluesy and fuzzy guitar in Frankie Alexander’s “Take Time Out for Love” and the horn-laden groove-glide of Cato’s “Slice of Heaven” are also dips into earlier sounds. And as Memphis was a music industry town, there are ties to the city’s well-documented past, directly to Willie Mitchell and Ardent Studios, indirectly to B.B. King. Now, you could procure original copies of these 45s, which would be cool but will set you back stupid money, or you can get this, which would be even cooler. You could also do both. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
African Head Charge,
Drumming is a Language 1990–2011

In 2016, On-U Sound delivered vinyl reissues of the 1980s work by African Head Charge, the collaboration of percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah and producer Adrian Sherwood, and compiled the material in the 5CD box Environmental Holes & Drastic Tracks 1981 – 1986. Now, the label has followed up that activity with five more vinyl sets and a second CD box, Drumming is a Language 1990 – 2011. The blend of Jamaican roots, African-derived rhythms, and the expected studio enhancements, including healthy servings of dubby weirdness, establish a high standard of quality; as the discs unfurl, the consistency can be rather startling. In whichever manner one chooses to partake, the music is out now.

For the details regarding African Head Charge’s formation and a deep word dive into the unit’s ’80s stuff, one should consult the earlier review in this column of their first four LPs. For this piece on the latest set, it suffices to say that Bonjo and Sherwood’s union was set into motion by the former’s membership at the start of the ’80s in the group Creation Rebel, an outfit associated with the latter’s extensive post-punk studio productivity during the same period.

What began as a studio project gradually morphed into a band scenario, though one with considerable fluidity of personnel, and Songs of Praise, the first release chronologically in this spate of reissues (hence disc one in the box set) reflects this shift exceptionally well, while keeping a solid grip on Bonjo’s percussive objectives (as highlighted by the new box set’s title) and Sherwood’s production savvy.

Released in 1990, Songs of Praise is considered by some to be African Head Charge’s creative high-water mark. Now, this might be in part because of its ample running time, with 14 tracks on the original CD (truncated to eight on the first vinyl press) totaling just over an hour. For this edition, the number is expanded by three (and the LP edition is now a double, holding everything). And so, the release offers an abundance, and in any version, it doesn’t run out of gas. Another factor is the record’s concept, as it gathers religious chants from across the globe and infuses them with Jamaican-African-UK vigor.

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Graded on a Curve:
Windy and Carl,
Allegiance and Conviction

While this column focuses on new releases, current events are mentioned only intermittently. As we (meaning, the human race) are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is one of those times. During a sustained crisis, art and its makers often get undervalued or pushed aside, but the nature of this emergency has illuminated the necessity of creativity in our world. Whatcha gonna do when you gotta stay home? Listen to records, maybe. Dearborn, MI’s Windy and Carl have a new one out, and while the terse and humorous motto of their label is “going nowhere slow,” rest assured that dropping needle on Allegiance and Conviction will take you places. It’s available now on LP, CD, and digital via Kranky.

Bassist-vocalist Windy Weber and guitarist Carl Hultgren commenced their musical partnership (they are also married) in the early ’90s as part of that decade’s thriving drone-ambient-experimental-psychedelic-shoegaze underground. At the time, if you were into Roy Montgomery, The Azusa Plane, Jessamine and even the slightly higher-profile outfits Flying Saucer Attack, Bardo Pond, Damon and Naomi, and Low, the odds are good that you’d picked up on at least a percentage of what Windy & Carl had laid down.

That is to say, the pair were fairly prolific across a string of releases, output that unsurprisingly included a long stretch of various artists compilation appearances, with these contributions corralled on one of the three compact discs in the self-released (on the Blue Flea label) Introspection: Singles and Rarities 1993-2000; disc one is devoted to 7-inches and EPs, while disc three holds live and unreleased material.

For those unfamiliar with Windy & Carl’s work, Introspection would deliver a solid, if extensive, introduction to their stuff, though you could begin just as satisfactorily with Portal, their debut full-length from 1994, initially a cassette (on Blue Flea) and shortly thereafter pressed onto CD (via Ba Da Bing!). From there, moving forward chronologically is a safe bet.

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

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

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Jon Hassell, Vernal Equinox (Ndeya) & Jon Hassell/Farafina, Flash of the Spirit (Tak:Til/Glitterbeat) First issued by Lovely Music, Ltd. in 1977, Vernal Equinox is the debut album from Hassell, the master of smeared trumpet and a true groundbreaker in ambient music; additionally, it carries the distinction of laying the foundation for what’s now long-established as Fourth World Music. Subsequent examples include Hassell’s follow-up Earthquake Island and a handful of records by Brian Eno, with Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics a collab featuring Eno and Hassell; it’s a record the trumpeter hasn’t always been particularly fond of. I’m guessing he feels differently about Vernal Equinox, and well he should, as it remains a healthy dose of calmly unfurling oddness and beauty.

He didn’t do it alone, as the contributors to the album (which is available on vinyl for the first time in 42 years) include Naná Vasconcelos on percussion, David Rosenbloom on synth, and William Winant on kanjira. Jumping forward a little over a decade leads us to Flash of the Spirit, a co-billed collab with the Burkina Faso group Farafina, originally on the Intuition label (and Capitol in the US). The album is less gentle than Vernal Equinox, at times far less so, and the overall thrust isn’t as strange. Therefore, I don’t rate it as highly, though I am impressed by how well its intersection with the then burgeoning World Music genre holds up (particularly as it was produced by Eno and Daniel Lanois fresh off The Joshua Tree). But expanded to 2LP (no extra stuff, though), it still offers its share of worthy moments. A/ A-

Game Theory, Across The Barrier Of Sound: PostScript (Omnivore) My enthusiasm for the work of the late Scott Miller is well documented. Game Theory was Miller’s band, one of them anyway, and arguably the outfit for which he’s most remembered (might depend on whether you’re an ’80s or ’90s child; Miller went on to form The Loud Family). Omnivore has done a bang-up job in reissuing Game Theory’s stuff, and now here are the band’s final sessions, cut with the last lineup, which toured but never released a proper album. The personnel here includes Michael Quercio from the then recently broken up Three O’Clock and Jozef Becker, formerly of True West, Thin White Rope, and Miller’s prior band Alternate Learning, so it was far from a case of Miller scrounging up a bunch of scrubs for a tour.

And Across the Barrier of Sound bears out that everybody was fully engaged, whether it was for home recordings, in the studio, or live. Miller’s songwriting is consistently sharp, which is no surprise, as a fair amount of the contents here turned up on the first LP by The Loud Family, Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things. He’s also in fine voice (I’m just going to say that Ted Leo fans who don’t know Miller should do themselves a solid and check him out), which feeds right into one of this set’s strong points, a mess of covers, including The Beatles (“All My Loving”), The Nazz (“Forget All About It”), Eno (“Needle in the Camel’s Eye”), The Monkees (“The Door into Summer”), and on the CD, Big Star (“Back of a Car”), and Three O’Clock (“A Day in erotica”). Altogether, it’s so much more than a batch of leftovers. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Hank Williams,
Pictures from Life’s Other Side: The Man and his Music in Rare Photos and Recordings

Hank Williams is an icon of early country music, but he recorded before the LP era really took hold, so his legacy is dominated by posthumously assembled compilations. These sets come in various sizes and levels of quality. The latest, Pictures from Life’s Other Side: The Man and his Music in Rare Photos and Recordings, offers 144 transcriptions from Williams’ Mother’s Best radio program on six CDs, all tucked into a magnificent hardcover book loaded with photos, many of them in color, that serve to broaden the life of the artist beyond the still too common reduction of strife and an early death. It’s out now, but if it’s vinyl you require, the 3LP distillation Only Mother’s Best is also currently available from BMG.

When it comes to concise surveys of Hank Williams’ exceptional musical abilities (by which I mean single or double sets), the gold standard remains Polydor’s 40 Greatest Hits. Released in 1978, it was distinguished at the time for its lack of production meddling, as those four vinyl sides weren’t rechanneled into stereo and they lacked additional posthumous meddling such as overdubs and duet fakery.

40 Greatest Hits was just pure Hank, and for those who favored his work, disappointment in the listening was an impossibility. That’s not the same as being fully satisfied however, which is where the box sets enter the picture. Mercury’s 1998 10CD The Complete Hank Williams is an award winner, but amongst the numerous two- and three-disc collections, there’s an even bigger assemblage, Time Life’s The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings…Plus!, which emerged in 2010 as a 15CD behemoth.

As one might’ve deduced, there is a relationship between that release and the one under review here, with the difference being that Time Life simply rounded up the acetates of the original 15-minute broadcasts, which were sponsored by Mother’s Best flour. This left in all the instrumental bits, the guest musicians and the chatting and joking around.

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Graded on a Curve: dumama + kechou,
buffering juju

buffering juju is the debut album from dumama + kechou, a duo from Capetown, South Africa who describe their sound as Nomadic Future Folk. It’s an accurate self-assessment that really gets to the music’s blend of new and old, a mix that can also be approached as having a local foundation and a global reach. Where a lot of folk-based stuff derives the largest part of its appeal by simply carrying forth the traditional, dumama + kechou are connected to the past while unreservedly pointing the way forward; there’s no mistaking this music as belong to any other era than the now. An exciting development, the record is out March 20 on LP/ CD through Johannesburg’s Mushroom Hour Half Hour.

By the looks of it, buffering juju is the fourth vinyl offering from Mushroom Hour Half Hour and depending on how you count, either their fifth or sixth release overall. The label commenced operations back in 2016 and, befitting an enterprise with a geographical (one could also say national) focus, they have been in no particular hurry putting releases on the shelves.

It was the self-titled debut from Spaza last year that put Mushroom Hour Half Hour on my radar, a positive connection that found me eager when the existence of dumama + kechou’s LP entered my consciousness a few months back. Time spent left no trace of disappointment. While Spaza is tagged as an Afro-futurist improv collective with no permanent members, and the makers of buffering juju are a solid twosome (although assisted by a handful of guests, which we’ll get to below), the records are ultimately quite complementary.

This is partly due to the vibrant input of women. dumama (Gugulethu Duma) and kechou (Kerim Melik Becker) first met in Cape Town in 2017. kechou is of Algerian-German descent but he was raised in Germany and was studying at the South African College of Music in Cape Town during this period, while dumama, who is from South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, was beginning a mentorship with Madosini, a composer and instrument builder who is celebrated in their country for her skills as a performer and improviser.

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Astroturf Noise, S/T (577) Here is one of 2020’s sweetest surprises. It delivers an unpredictable and consistently rich blend of jazz, Appalachian roots, and in the wildest turn into left field, electronics. Sam Day Harmet plays mandolin/fx, Sana Nagano violin/fx, and Zach Swanson string bass. Snappy dressers all, they welcome guests Billy Martin on percussion and Sarah Bernstein on violin. If you are familiar with those names, you’ll likely suspect that this is much nearer to the avant-garde of jazz than some lame-ass library commons area yawn fest, a scenario that extends to their approach to hill roots, as the overly polite aura of contempo Americana is nowhere to be found. I’ll just say that if you’ve dug Eugene Chadbourne’s style shifting over the decades, you’re going to love this one. A

Maria McKee, La Vita Nuova (Afar – Fire) Fucking wow. McKee is the former singer and guitarist for the ’80s country-rock outfit Lone Justice. That band continues to be occasionally tagged as cowpunk, which isn’t wrong, though they did undergo a pretty quick refinement that found me increasingly less interested. Well, she’s been involved with all sorts of things since, including solo work, but I’ll confess to familiarizing myself with little of it, and anyway, this is her first solo effort since 2007’s Late December. As the opening phrase of this review probably makes clear, La Vita Nuova is a doozy. An homage to Dante’s opus on unrequited love, it draws inspiration from John Cale, Scott Walker, and Bowie plus Brit poets Keats, Swinburne, and Blake (initially based in L.A., McKee has relocated to England), but lands securely in Brit-folk/ chamber pop territory. Already borderline excellent and very likely a grower. A-

Sunn Trio, Electric Esoterica (Twenty One Eight Two Recording Company) The world is fucking burning. Maybe you’ve noticed. The music of Sunn Trio is deeply tied to this circumstance, with particular attention to the Middle East. Although based in Phoenix (as is the 2182 label), this outfit, with the core member being guitarist Joel Robinson (at times, the group’s number has been significantly larger than three), dishes desert music that’s considerably (and ethically) world cognizant, as befitting a relationship with fellow Arizonans Alan and Richard Bishop (more on them directly below). The influences of free jazz, improv, psych, and punk are also noted and are integrated here in a manner that, due to obvious practice, is nearly seamless, but with an abundance of grit and danger. A beautiful thing. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Sun City Girls, Live at the Sky Church – September 3rd, 2004 (Twenty One Eight Two Recording Company) This is the first new music from Sun City Girls since Funeral Mariachi back in 2010, but as the title conveys, it’s also archival, documenting a Seattle show from 2004. Charles Goucher, who was a third of Sun City Girls, passed in 2007, leaving brothers Richard and Alan Bishop to carry on in various modes, including as custodians of the group’s legacy. This album, which is accompanied by a DVD of the performance (that I have not watched), captures them at particular heights of psychedelia, antagonism and the perplexing. Note: this is Vol. 2 in the Mount Meru Anthology Series. Vol. 3 is directly above. Vols. 1-4 are being issued in a wooden box set in an edition of 75. A

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Graded on a Curve: Rashied Ali, First Time Out: Live at Slugs’ 1967 and Duo Exchange: Complete Sessions

The farther we travel forth in time, the more the belief is encouraged that 20th century music history is set in stone. Upon chiseled tablets, inquisitive minds can ascertain events and achievements that unspooled tidily like fallen lines of dominos leading to the dawn of the 21st and right up to our current moment. But two new releases featuring drummer Rashied Ali, one in duo with saxophonist Frank Lowe, take the idea of a settled music history and explode it to sweet kablooey: First Time Out: Live at Slugs’ 1967 and Duo Exchange: Complete Sessions are out now, each on double vinyl, through Survival Records.

Indeed, music history is far from codified as the progressions that define it were far from neat. One of the niftier byproducts of vinyl’s resurgence (perhaps a better term is physical product’s resurgence, as the phenomenon includes an upsurge in cassettes, multi-format box sets with books, and yes, the against the odds endurance of the compact disc) is the increased spotlight material tangibility has shed upon uncovered works by complete unknowns and of course, entities with varying heights of profile.

The latter is the case with First Time Out: Live at Slugs’ 1967, which offers nearly 92 minutes of live performance by Rashied Ali’s Quintet that would’ve been lost except for the discovery of two 7-inch tape reels in the drummer’s private recording library. In the tersely informative notes for the release, Ben Young and George Schuller, who produced the set along with Patricia Ali, and Joe Lizzi, who mastered the recording, date the shows to May of 1967, just a few months after Ali was captured in duo with John Coltrane for Interstellar Space, though that session wouldn’t be issued until 1974.

If Ali was known in 1967, it was likely due to his role in Coltrane’s band, which he joined in ’65, initially flanking and then replacing Elvin Jones. Ali also played on Archie Shepp’s terrific On This Night from ’65 and was a member of Marion Brown’s quartet for two swell ESP-Disk albums recorded in ’65-’66. Ali’s releases as a leader didn’t begin surfacing until the ’70s, with this new, early vantage point a major facet in First Time Out’s allure.

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Graded on a Curve:
Cindy Lee,
What’s Tonight to Eternity

Upon the dissolution of the band Women, Toronto’s Patrick Flegel began recording solo as Cindy Lee, with results that blended classic pop motifs with wonderfully chilly late-night ambience and a bold defiance of gender norms. What’s Tonight to Eternity finds them back with an often-captivating set of songs and an undiminished love of guitar textures, including feedback. An abundant serving of alternately piercing, lilting and ethereal subterranean pop, it’s out now on W.25th, the contempo music subsidiary of the always interesting San Francisco-based reissue label Superior Viaduct.

For a lot of music past and present, the biographical info is pretty standard stuff. It’s the story of bands forming and maturing, of lone artists honing their skills, and additionally of individuals transitioning from groups into solo mode, which is the case with Cindy Lee, though with Patrick Flegel the change is deeper than it is for most, being aptly described as an evolution.

A Cindy Lee performance will reliably find Flegel in drag as their music explores queer identity and gender freedom. Like much queer art, it is deeply attached to prior touchstones while eluding the standard modes of homage. Simultaneously, while inextricably attached to the past, Cindy Lee isn’t camp; instead, their music is reminiscent of what an earlier era would have categorized as subversive. In the current moment, this is a total compliment.

Flegel’s influences include Nico, ’60s girl-group pop a la The Ronettes and The Crystals, the work of avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger, and Karen Carpenter. The impact of the last name listed relates as much to the soft-pop icon’s personal struggles as it does musically, but don’t discount the Carpenters’ recordings in the Cindy Lee scheme of things. Still, Flegel’s post-Women oeuvre is generally lo-fi and occasionally severe in a manner that a typical fan of Karen and Richard would likely find off-putting.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
March 2020, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for March, 2020. 

NEW RELEASE PICK: Big Blood, Do You Wanna Have a Skeleton Dream? (Feeding Tube) Based in Portland, ME, Big Blood are a psychedelic outfit spawned from the band Cerberus Shoal that features domestic partners Caleb Mulkerin and Colleen Kinsella, and now, for the first time as an official member, their daughter Quinnisa, who’s wearing a Thrasher magazine sweatshirt in the band photo glimpsed in this LP’s nifty insert poster. Her full-on inclusion makes this a “family band” situation, and sorta fittingly, this record is less “out” and more pop than the previous Big Blood material I’ve heard (although there is a whole lot of it, and I’ve only heard a percentage). I mean, parts of this sound appropriate for spinning at listening parties where the gals are flaunting beehive ‘dos. Hairdresser underground!

The PR notes by Byron Coley (as is the norm for Feeding Tube) mention Julee Cruise/ Badalamenti/ Lynch as a reference, which helps situate that this album isn’t as normal as the girl-group/ neo-’60s pop vibe might infer. It also underscores that unlike some other historical family band situations, there is nothing cutesy or saccharine going on. The psych element is still present, as is a wonderfully non-pro vibe overall. These approachably unusual twists are a treat, and when they plunge deeper into the realms of the strange, as during the Goth pop meets B-movie hypnotist vibe of “Pox” (featuring a repeated quote familiar from The Smiths’ “Rubber Ring”), it still goes down pretty sweetly. Dedicated to Greta Thunberg and Fred Cole, likely a first-time combination (but hopefully not the last). A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Charlie Parker, The Savoy 10-Inch LP Collection (Craft) Along with his recordings for the Dial label (which chronologically overlapped the material featured here), Charlie “Yardbird” Parker’s work for Savoy constitutes the portion of his discography that is inarguably essential; there are plenty of other releases by the saxophonist that you’ll not want to do without, but these selections are part of the foundation upon which so much subsequent 20th century music was built, and it all still sounds amazing. I was going to say these eight sides of 10-inch vinyl serve as a blueprint, but the reality is that Parker’s artistry at the point of these sessions (which span from 1944-’48) was fully formed.

There have been plenty of variations and advancements (to say nothing of flat-out imitators) since, but I don’t think anybody’s done pure bebop better. Of course, it’s important to note that these sessions are loaded with crucial figures, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell, John Lewis, Tommy Potter, Duke Jordan and Curley Russell. Often, recordings stuffed with such august personnel are anticlimactic, but there isn’t a trace of letdown here. Nobody’s coasting, and the interaction is electric throughout. As Neil Tesser observes in his liners for this set, at the time of release this music was the avant-garde of jazz. Over the many decades since, many have smoothed its surfaces and draped it in respectability. But listening anew reasserts Parker’s eternal cutting edge. As said, indispensable. A+

Horace Tapscott Quintet, The Giant is Awakened (Real Gone) It’s likely not that hard to find a clean playing used edition holding some if not all of Parker’s Savoy stuff (that Craft has assembled it with class and care is deserving of distinction), but exactly the opposite is true of the 1969 debut from Los Angeles-based pianist and composer Horace Tapscott. Scarce and quite expensive on vinyl (I recall seeing two copies of this for sale, both times behind glass), this is its first-time reissue, on green neon wax by Real Gone for February’s Black History Month. And the rarity is multidimensional, as The Giant is Awakened provides a healthy dose of a rather uncommon sound, specifically the free jazz-adjacent West Coast of the 1960s (it doubles up nicely with Smiley Winters’ Smiley Etc. on Arhoolie, also from ’69).

Along with being an uncommonly strong debut that, due to some reported record label funny business, Tapscott didn’t follow up until nearly ten years later (he was apparently not eager to cut this LP, and thereafter, recorded only for independent labels, including Nimbus, Arabesque, and HatArt), this album offers an enlightening early taste of alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe (indeed, I do believe this is also his debut on record). When folks consider avant-tinged jazz from the ’60s West Coast, it’s Ornette Coleman who often dominates the discussion, but The Giant is Awakened presents a stylistic alternative in part due to Tapscott’s instrument (the piano being absent on nearly all Coleman’s recordings until the ’70s). The music here, compositional and quite engaging, is likely to please those into ’60s Andrew Hill. A

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Graded on a Curve:
White Heaven,
Out

For many music fans, 1991 is defined by the arrival of the second album from a certain Pacific-Northwest band, its emergence precipitating a significant convulsion in the decade’s rock mainstream. But for a smaller percentage of listeners, the studio debut by Japan’s White Heaven delivered a far greater impact, specifically due to an approach to heavy psychedelia that embraced a bevy of classic rock archetypes without blatantly replicating those examples’ auras and occasional missteps. Simultaneously, White Heaven brandished intensity and edge (and avant tendencies) that placed them on the timeline securely After Punk. Black Editions’ gorgeous vinyl reissue of Out is available now.

The comparison in the intro above, specifically between Nirvana and White Heaven, may resonate to some like ye olde underground elitism, but it really just underscores that for those plugged into the subterranean scene at the dawn of the 1990s, Nevermind was no great revelation. This was directly due to numerous bands having already reached back before (and more generally, beyond) punk rock for inspiration, and with the expected varying degrees of success.

This is why the analogy to White Heaven is so proper, as the band, who at the point of Out’s recording featured founding singer You Ishihara, guitarist Michio Kurihara, drummer Ken Ishihara, and bassist Naohiro Yoshimoto, basically perfected a strain of hard psych that was neither gonzo a la the Butthole Surfers nor overly reverent either in form, like those populating the trippy end of neo-garage spectrum, or in spirit, which was to be largely the case with the rise of the Jam Band scene.

Instead of just copping a series of moves, White Heaven registered as if they’d truly absorbed the expansive lessons of their inspirations. There were surely points of reference, with an early comparison likening Kurihara’s guitar to that of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s John Cipollina. I’d read of this similarity long prior to hearing Out (which didn’t happen until it was reissued on CD in the mid-’90s, as the vinyl press was an edition of 500), bit after soaking up the disc’s five tracks the observation was right on the money, though White Heaven was striving for different sonic ends.

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Graded on a Curve:
Wire,
Mind Hive

With the release of Mind Hive, Wire reinforce their status as the quintessential post-punk band who, in the sheer unlikelihood of their tenacity, simply refuse to settle into obsolescence, or appealing predictability, even. Utterly disinterested in nostalgia, their new record is sharply focused on the ominousness of the current moment. Powerfully terse, it’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Pinkflag. They are also currently touring the USA, with a stop on March 9 at Union Stage in Washington, DC.

The worthiness of Wire’s longevity finds them essentially without peer in the realms of punk’s class of 1977, though it’s well-established by now that the band were never a tidy fit with that style in its baseline form. Art-punk specialists before that subgenre was articulated, they were also one of the foundational acts in the whole post-punk shebang.

By extension, they have been often (brazenly) imitated. These approximations, even when likeable, do sit in stark contrast to Wire’s resistance to the regurgitation of formula. Where the vast majority of outfits who persevere across decades thrive by delivering a well-practiced sameness to an audience eager for slight variations on the same pattern, Wire seem to exist in a state of perpetual growth while always being identifiable as themselves.

This recognizability factor is crucial in reinforcing a trajectory of coherence throughout the group’s history. Each Wire album is quickly identifiable as a byproduct of the band, an experience not at all like meeting a succession of strangers but rather akin to consistently reconnecting with a tight pool of individuals who maintain a fine equilibrium of restlessness and tenacity.

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Graded on a Curve: Moondog, Moondog

A beautiful eccentric residing in mid-20th century NYC, Louis Thomas Hardin aka Moondog also possessed extraordinary musical vision. An associate of Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini, and Charlie Parker, a collaborator with Julie Andrews and the Brooklyn Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, a key influence on the minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, covered by Janis Joplin, Kronos Quartet, and Antony and the Johnsons; there was truly nobody else like him. After a handful of singles and EPs his long-playing debut arrived with 1956’s Moondog.

A simply fantastic photograph of Moondog is used for the jacket of the 2LP compilation The Viking of Sixth Avenue; it finds him on a ‘50s Gotham street corner standing in front of a lamppost and decked out in full regalia. He cuts quite an appealing figure, but what makes the snap such a kick is the older couple passing by on his left side.

For other than Dwight and Mamie, one would be hard-pressed to find a better, or perhaps I should say more stereotypical, representation of Eisenhower-era America. The contrast between Moondog and this strolling pair is so sharp that the cynic in me has occasionally suspected the pic was staged in an attempt to play-up the legendary composer’s unconventionality.

This is not to insinuate that Moondog’s image was some sort of con. To the contrary, the legit uniqueness of the man’s background rivals that of sui generis American boho-hobo Harry Partch. Born in 1916, Hardin lived in Kansas, Wyoming, Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, and Tennessee, with exposure to Native American tribal ceremonies having a profound effect on his art. After moving to NYC in 1943 he lived as a street musician and sporadic recording artist until the early ‘70s.

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Graded on a Curve: Mazzy Star,
Seasons Of Your Day

Today we remember Mazzy Star’s David Roback who passed away yesterday, February 25 with a look back from our archives. —Ed.

If it seems like the nonce is very ripe for ‘90s-era comebacks, Mazzy Star’s Seasons Of Your Day easily transcends the predictability of this phenomenon. Rather than shaping up like a quickly conceived money-grab or a time-filler for middle-aged bored dudes, its ten tracks are sourced from across the group’s long sojourn from the public eye, and it’s a very strong inclusion into their already significant body of work.

She Hangs Brightly, Mazzy Star’s debut album from way in back in 1990, has stood the test of time exceptionally well, but as a very good disc it also didn’t register as the inaugural offering from an act that was going to be sticking around for a while. This was partially due to vocalist Hope Sandoval having replaced Kendra Smith in Opal, the locale from whence Mazzy Star had sprung. While the resemblance between She Hangs Brightly and Opal was surely distinct, the record’s pleasures also gave no indication that it would differ from guitarist David Roback’s prior background.

To elaborate, Roback’s tenure in his previous outfits, specifically Paisley Underground cornerstone Rain Parade and the all-star cover-song project Rainy Day, wasn’t exactly noted for longevity. His involvement with the former ended after one LP, ‘83’s terrific Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, and the latter’s sole self-titled ’84 effort was by design a very sweet one-off. Likewise Opal, while having subsequently amassed a fairly hefty posthumous discography, only released one full-length, ‘87’s excellent Happy Nightmare Baby, before Smith up and quit the band.

While it may seem odd from this distance, when Mazzy Star first announced their presence, they were widely considered as simply being the latest incarnation of Roback’s estimable thing. This is not to belittle Sandoval’s contribution, which on She Hangs Brightly is of course immediately striking, but only to underline that Roback had acquired a substantial rep as a major participant in the whole Paisley Underground scenario. And by 1990, this movement seemed to be winding down.

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Graded on a Curve:
Herbie Hancock,
Maiden Voyage

The short description of Herbie Hancock’s gorgeous 1965 LP Maiden Voyage, is that it’s the ’63-’64 Miles Davis Quintet with Freddie Hubbard subbing on trumpet. But as nicely as that reads, it’s actually much more. Hancock’s fifth and best record as leader, to this point it was also his most ambitious, and was additionally something of a rarity in jazz terms; a wildly successful and delightfully peaceful concept album.

Herbie Hancock has had a long and illustrious career, and in tandem with his contribution to the groups of Miles Davis, Maiden Voyage is probably his finest moment. As a look at the personnel relates, the disc is closely tied to Miles’ ‘60’s work, but as a standalone document Hancock’s masterful session equals anything Davis produced in the decade with the exception of the live material from the Plugged Nickel.

Some will disagree and a few will downright scoff at the notion of Maiden Voyage being rated so highly, in part because of its lack of edginess and decidedly refined sensibility. This circumstance extends to the considerable influence Hancock’s record wielded upon subsequent endeavors in the jazz and rock fields, byproducts that span in quality from mediocre to flat-out awful.

But that’s okay. What Maiden Voyage lacks in bluesy grit or fiery abstraction is greatly made up for by boldness of aspiration and a beautifully sustained mood, and as the title track and “Dolphin Dance” have both become late-period jazz standards, a certain percentage of underwhelming interpretations is basically inevitable.

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