Author Archives: Joseph Neff

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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Graded on a Curve:
Philip Johnson,
Youth in Mourning

As the bleakness of the ‘70s begat the stagnation of the ‘80s, Philip Johnson was one of numerous figures populating the often fascinating DIY underbelly that fermented in the UK. Issuing over two dozen tapes during the period, he managed a solitary LP, 1982’s Youth in Mourning. Originally released without fanfare by the Namedrop label, the album has been retrieved and given unexpected but welcome reissue by San Francisco’s Superior Viaduct.

In the succinct background information provided by Superior Viaduct regarding their fresh pressing of Youth in Mourning, Philip Johnson is described as a component in Great Britain’s “cassette culture,” an impulse that gets regularly tagged as UK DIY. The origins of this scenario can be traced to the hugely influential shambolic punk act The Desperate Bicycles, the back of their ’77 debut 45’s picture sleeve containing the mantra so many have embraced since: “It was easy, it was cheap—go and do it.”

The increasing ease of cassette reproduction that eventually came to be associated with DIY was also an integral aspect of the fledgling Industrial scene, with Throbbing Gristle one of the earliest adapters of the format. Indeed, DIY and Industrial have much in common, and that crossroads is where the work of Philip Johnson resides.

Along with a ton of self-made tapes, Johnson started the Namedrop label in ’81. That enterprise completed four records: Exist, a 10-inch by Doof, the project of Johnson and a gentleman named Paul Platypus, Straight Out the Fridge, a 10-inch by Twelve Cubic Feet (also featuring Platypus), “The Machinist” 7-inch by Cold War, and Johnson’s LP.

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Graded on a Curve:
Robert Lester Folsom,
Music and Dreams

Music and Dreams, a 1976 private press album by Robert Lester Folsom, isn’t exactly a new find, but its fresh reissue by the Mexican Summer imprint Anthology Recordings will surely introduce it to a wider audience. Coupled with the emergence of Ode to a Rainy Day, a collection of Folsom’s home recordings made between ’72-’75, Music and Dreams doesn’t necessarily contain the man’s best work, but it is the most representative documentation of the singer songwriter/ guitarist/ studio maven’s artistic personality.

Murky and satanic basement heavy metal, overwrought Hendrix idolaters, hippie burnouts on a Christian kick, twisted mystic folkies, and efforts of maximum expressiveness if questionable competency; these are but four apt descriptions of what can be discovered in the self-financed wing of the sonic 1970s.

While certainly not synonymous with the categorization known as Outsider (“Real People”) Music, many of the period’s privately pressed LPs do flirt with or directly fall into this admittedly wide scenario. So the highly developed approach of Georgia, USA resident Robert Lester Folsom is refreshing; where the output of cultish margin walkers regularly flies in the face of their era’s norms, Folsom was truly of his time, his folk and country-tinged soft rock singer-songwriter gestures lacking in overly exaggerated tendencies as they occasionally inhabit a zone retrospectively branded as Yacht Rock.

Ode to a Rainy Day is edgier and perhaps nearer to what one might anticipate from a rescued private press, and in fact much of it was self-released by Folsom onto 8-track tape. If humbly produced (but with considerable ingenuity already on display), as the solid instrumental “Heaven on the Beach” attests, the musicianship throughout is unstrained.

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Graded on a Curve: Lothar and the Hand People,

Even as far back as 1968, there were more bands on the scene than a person could effectively shake a wet noodle at. Naturally, many of them are best left unexamined in history’s voluminous dustbin, but there remains more than a few worthies that endure in flying under the radar. One such example is New York City’s curiously tweaked psychedelic-pop act Lothar and the Hand People. They hung around the fringes of the whole hippie thing and produced a pair of LPs that over the years have managed to acquire a small cult following, and the better of the two is their first one, Presenting…Lothar and the Hand People.

The story goes that Lothar and the Hand People formed in Denver in 1965. That city hasn’t exactly been portrayed as a rock Mecca of the period, and it apparently took all of a year for them to hightail it to the greener musical pastures of NYC. They consisted of Rusty Ford on bass, Kim King on guitar, Moog and Ampex tape decks, Paul Conley on keyboards, liner controller and Moog, Tom Flye on drums and percussion, and John Emelin on lead vocals.

Oh, and there was Lothar, their trusty Theremin, the responsibilities of which fell mainly onto Emelin’s shoulders, or more appropriately, the motions of his two hands. For those unfamiliar, the Theremin was an early electronic instrument patented in 1928 and named after its inventor. For decades the most celebrated use of Léon Theremin’s creation came through the very enjoyable recordings of Clara Rockmore, noted as an early virtuoso on the device. Additionally, it’s a musical instrument that’s distinguished for how it never gets touched by the player’s fingers as it emits its sonic atmospheres.

The Theremin soon became a touchstone in the scores of numerous films, the bulk of them sci-fi flicks from the mid-section of last century including the classics The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing (From Another World). Contrary to popular lore however, it’s not a part of Louis and Bebe Barron’s soundtrack to Forbidden Planet (they used oscillator circuits and a ring modulator for that one.)

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Graded on a Curve:
The Pop Group,
Cabinet of Curiosities

The Pop Group stands as one of our persistently vital and truly prescient post-punk units. This week their slim discography increases by one full-length release, specifically a collection of alternate, live, and unreleased material titled Cabinet of Curiosities. Offered in multiple formats by the Freaks R Us label (as is the smoking 1980 comp We Are Time), it’s not the best destination for a newbie, though fans of the outfit will definitely want to investigate.

Every listener has their own barometer when approaching the intersection (some would say the minefield) of the musical and the political. The yardstick of this writer is to proceed with caution while keeping cynicism at arm’s distance, prudence being necessary because, simply through the laws of qualitative averages, most political music is to varying degrees subpar.

Just as important is to not succumb to the bugaboo of sarcastic pessimism. This can be problematic since the majority of the politico-musical discourse is devoted to the lofty yet weak efforts of pop/rock stars. This isn’t to suggest the status of these individuals somehow denies them the right to have a voice in such matters, but rather that a confluence of factors regularly softens or negates the message.

Beyond the basic need to walk it like one talks it, those earning a substantial living through music frequently either purposefully or sub-consciously finesse their messages to avoid alienating all but the most egregious members of the audience, this reasoning likely selfish (don’t want to turn off those buyers) but also conceivably and wrong-headedly intended to just reach as many people as possible. This is of course a generalization, but the result reliably finds the pleas and protestations of the pop/rock star becoming as ineffectual as those of punks in a suburban garage ranting about the obvious.

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Graded on a Curve:
Various Artists,
5 Years of Bedroom
Suck Records

Down Aussie way there’s a record label, and its name is Bedroom Suck. Small but diligent, the imprint has been in operation now for half a decade; to celebrate, a 2LP compilation has appeared sporting a plain but aptly descriptive title. Collecting rare and exclusive tracks from a wide spectrum of acts, 5 Years of Bedroom Suck Records is available worldwide this week through the label’s fruitful partnership with Fire Records of the United Kingdom.

Whenever an independent label withstands the frictions and complications (the arguments, eccentricities, mishaps, disappointments, etc.) that will inevitably arise upon conspiring to add an indeterminate number of releases to an already huge and ceaselessly accumulating mountain of sound, the endeavor deserves a tip of the cap.

In this case “independent label” refers to the grassroots kind; those started by one, two or a handful of individuals and run, at least initially, out of apartments, dorms, garages, or yes indeed, even bedrooms. As these ventures manage more than mere survival, prospering far beyond expectations and immediate geography (though it’s difficult to think of a substantial independent success story that didn’t begin with a predominant or partial regional emphasis), upon attainment of a milestone a little festive commemoration is surely appropriate.

Bedroom Suck began in March of 2009 when Joe Alexander and Sam McCabe whipped-off a few cassette copies of their band’s demo and handed it out at an event that according to Alexander “might have been a fashion show.” That was BSR001; between it and BSR050 Bedroom Suck has taken the lead in documenting a reliably interesting Australian musical movement and in a manner fostering occasional comparisons to the Flying Nun label of neighboring New Zealand.

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Graded on a Curve:
3rd Bass,
The Cactus Album

Released a quarter century ago by the Def Jam label, Brooklyn trio 3rd Bass’ The Cactus Album stands as a hip-hop classic. Due to this stature one might assume the full story behind its creation has long resided in the historical record, but that’s not the case. To get the complete scoop on this and assorted other hip-hop achievements one needs seek out the books of Brian Coleman. Aptly subtitled “more liner notes for hip-hop junkies,” Check the Technique Vol. 2 is freshly available from Wax Facts Press.

Anybody having spent hours inspecting the treasures in a jazz-centric record shop knows LPs in the multifaceted style regularly came adorned with notes (Hentoff! Williams! Jones!) on the back of the sleeve. And folks devoting time, energy and dollars to keeping up with deluxe reissues and box sets in multiple genres understand that extensive annotation of and commentary upon background specifics was/is an expected component in the retail price.

As a relatively young art form, hip-hop has suffered from experiencing its burgeoning stylistic era(s) in a business setting that wrongly assumed buyers of contemporary music (as opposed to those dropping cash on older material) cared about little more than the sounds, the labels mostly throwing context and packaging to the wayside.

This was an easy assumption to arrive at if one’s only concern was making money. But those spending it were reliably left at mysterious loose ends. Producer credits, thank you lists, and cleared samples were a start, and interviews and articles in Spin, Vibe and The Source brought a modicum of enlightenment, but the deep investigation, which often simply entails sincere interest and respect for the subject, becoming comfortable with the artists and then asking the right questions, was lacking for years.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Primitives,

For a US lad of the late-‘80s, the indie pop of The Primitives was a welcome pleasure. Most folks know them for ’88’s Lovely and its accompanying hit single “Crash,” but after breaking up in the early-‘90s the band reformed roughly half a decade back. The group’s latest LP Spin-O-Rama is out this week via the Elefant label; if it doesn’t reach the heights of their best material it also doesn’t fall short by much, the record’s 11 tracks continuing to vindicate the rekindling of the whole endeavor.

Naturally the point is arguable, but of all the ‘80s indie pop acts to have missed the original cut for the New Musical Express’ genre-defining C86 compilation, The Primitives are a very likely candidate as most deserving of inclusion. As evidence, earlier in 2014 the Cherry Red label assembled a 3CD expansion of that release, and three tunes into the second disc one can find The Primitives’ nugget “Lazy” standing proud.

Not that one needs to buy the set to hear it. The group’s pre-RCA period as self-documented on Lazy Records has been collected and reissued numerous times and is currently in print through, wouldn’t you know it, Cherry Red. And for this writer’s money, the Lazy stuff, which contains the dandy singles “Thru the Flowers,” “Really Stupid,” “Stop Killing Me,” and a bunch more (a double CDs worth, including demos and an ‘87 live show from London’s ICA) is their strongest work.

But I will readily declare that Lovely is a fine LP in a style/scene where excellent long-playing records are, if not exactly rare, then far from common (the concept of the indie pop compilation as a spotlight for a succession of individual highpoints has endured up to the nonce). Plus, the band’s classique thrust once Aussie Tracy Tracy (born Tracy Cattell) was fully established as lead singer (replacing Keiron McDermott) made them palatable to US listeners, particularly those with an undying jones for prime-era Blondie.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bing & Ruth,
Tomorrow was the Golden Age

Formed in the middle of last decade by music students attending New York City’s New School, the minimalist ensemble Bing & Ruth is led by pianist-composer David Moore. Possessing compositional breadth and instrumental sturdiness to potentially engage fans of Steve Reich, Brian Eno, and even assorted post-rockers, Tomorrow was the Golden Age, their second full-length and first for RVNG Intl. features the group executing Moore’s album-length piece across four sides of vinyl (CD and digital options are also available).

Even if one lacks familiarity with Bing & Ruth (and please don’t confuse them with Big & Rich), numerous other avenues do exist for listeners to make the acquaintance of David Moore. Most recently there’s the indie-Americana of Pepper Johnson, a solo project responsible for last year’s digital-only collection Flat Country, and The Piledrivers, a hot-burning string-band trio where Moore plucks banjo, their self-titled CD also appearing in 2013.

Both are available through Moore’s Happy Talk Recordings, the label additionally issuing a pair of his solo piano titles, ‘05’s Book of Days (initially circulated privately) and ‘07’s Neighborhood Shifts; between them sits Bing & Ruth’s self-titled ’06 debut, its follow-up Kenitle Floors appearing later in ’07. On top of this activity he has scored for film, theater, and instillation and plays live in a variety of contexts ranging from NYC’s New Music/avant-garde haunts to lending his banjo/keyboard to the band of Scott Scolnick aka Langhorne Slim.

While Bing & Ruth and Kenitle Floors are categorized by Moore as EPs, they are in fact lengthier than the format’s norm, offering durations complemented with unstrained ambition to raise the overall value considerably. Amongst other qualities, elements aptly assessed as Reichian combine with contemporary vigor as a highly versatile wordless vocal component is utilized to powerful effect.

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Graded on a Curve: Vashti Bunyan,

After a break of nine years, crucial Brit-folk figure Vashti Bunyan is back with Heartleap, her third and in all likelihood final LP. As beneficiary of a truly warranted resurgence of consumer interest in the early moments of the new millennium, Bunyan hasn’t squandered her good fortune; next to the album that stirred the belated fuss, Heartleap is her finest work. It’s out on vinyl/ CD/ digital via her longtime supporters DiCristina Stair Builders in the US and Fat Cat Records in the UK.

As the 20th century drew to a close, Vashti Bunyan’s name was just as likely to ring bells due to a connection to Andrew Loog Oldham and the recording of a Jagger/Richards composition “Some Things Just Stick in your Mind” as it was through the slowly increasing cult status of her debut LP Just Another Diamond Day.

Cut with lauded Brit-folk producer Joe Boyd and barely issued by Philips in 1970, Just Another Diamond Day is a masterful document, one that not only brought her very long-delayed and fully-deserved attention but also helped to shape a significant portion of what came to be known as the Freak Folk scene. As evidence Lookaftering, Bunyan’s quite strong LP from 2005, received assistance from such relevant names as Banhart and Newsom. But the personnel ranged wide; alongside the return of arranger Robert Kirby from her debut could be found neo-classical composer Max Richter.

Present and future converts to her achievement have and will persist in seeking out Some Things Just Stick in your Mind, Fat Cat’s double-LP/CD collection of her fairly Marianne Faithfull-informed ‘60s material. Including the aforementioned Oldham-aided Mick/Keith ditty that Decca put out as a single in ’67 under the singular Vashti, amongst other stuff the comp corrals “Winter is Here,” Bunyan’s appearance on the soundtrack to Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, Peter Whitehead’s sorta-documentary about the UK swinging hippie movement.

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