Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Cannonball Adderley, Somethin’ Else

Blue Note Records is celebrating 75 years of existence by giving numerous key titles from their incomparable catalog high-quality vinyl reissues, and it’s fitting that we begin our tribute to the label’s longevity with a look at one of their very finest releases, the great alto saxophonist Julian Cannonball Adderley’s 1958 masterwork Somethin’ Else.

The LPs of Blue Note’s classic-era are aptly described as an embarrassment of riches. Along with loads of amazing music, there is of course the surrounding context, and engaging with the fruits of the imprint’s labors offers a truly enlightening historical narrative. Naturally, it’s only part of jazz’s larger story, but it’s also a highly valuable component since Blue Note is an example where respect for the music trumped pure capitalistic desire.

That respect extended to the amount of studio time given to the musicians, but it also concerned other vital aspects of record production, beginning with the use of engineer Rudy Van Gelder and ending with the company’s justly celebrated graphic design. Blue Note didn’t have the market cornered on either the Van Gelder touch or the manufacturing of handsome album jackets, for it really was a fantastic era in terms of both fidelity and sharply conceived presentation, but throughout the salad days of Modern Jazz (and for a good while afterward) the label was at the forefront.

Somethin’ Else is one of many excellent Van Gelder jobs, but some may evaluate its sleeve as solid but not spectacular. Please allow me to disagree. While I don’t think it’s one of the very greatest of Blue Note covers, it is nicely pared down to only essential information and is a fine model of strong but subtle construction; obviously the large black space, but also the contrast with the white lettering, and then the font, bold type that possesses just a hint of distinctiveness. Add the further contrasting element of color, with green for the leader and blue for his band.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, August 2016

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new or reissued wax presently in stores for August, 2016. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE PICK: Ariana Delawari, Entelechy I & II (She King) The long-awaited second release from this socially engaged Afghan American multimedia artist (musician, film director, actress, photographer) offers an electronically based album in collaboration with Butchy Fuego and an accompanying disc of the same songs performed in tandem with tabla player Salar Nader. Impressive: Entelechy I’s rich warmth and lack of gimmickry, the non-quaint immediacy of its counterpart, the high standard of songwriting throughout, and the sturdy beauty of Delawari’s voice, particularly on Entelechy II. A

REISSUE PICK: Anthony Braxton, Three Compositions of New Jazz (Delmark) He debuted nine months prior on pianist Muhal Richard Abrams’ Levels and Degrees of Light (also for Delmark), but this ’68 LP was multi-instrumentalist Braxton’s first as “leader,” though that post-bop notion doesn’t really apply here; the thrill is in soaking up his unique vision from an early vantage point as Abrams, violinist Leroy Jenkins, and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith complete the group and everybody plays numerous instruments along the way. Braxton’s next one For Alto is an absolute beast, but this is still amazing. A

Aktion, Groove the Funk (PMG) The opening title track landed on the first volume of Wake Up You, the Now Again label’s superb pair of Nigerian rock retrospectives released earlier this summer, and this reissue of a ’75 LP originally on Clover Sound makes abundantly clear that Uchenna Ikonne didn’t just cherry pick the finest moment. The name on the sleeve provides an accurate description of Aktion’s modus operandi, but in their favor the contents aren’t overly slick and neither are they instrumental showoffs, instead maintaining a consistent ambiance with fuzz guitar and keyboard. B+

Atmosphere, Fishing Blues (Rhymesayers) Eight albums strong, the latest from rapper Slug and DJ-producer Ant is a whopping dose of cerebral but polished hip-hop, in fact a bit too polished; other than recurring explicitness the ride is quite accessible, and at nearly 70 minutes (and spread across six sides of vinyl) more than a little too long. However, the excessive length stops short of inflicting fatal damage; there are enough ideas, though many are derived from a string of guest appearances (DOOM, Kool Keith, Aesop Rock etc.), to keep this one afloat. B-

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Graded on a Curve:
Shawn James,
On the Shoulders of Giants

Based in Fayetteville, AR, songwriter, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist Shawn James is probably best known as the leader of the Shapeshifters, a combo applying substantial levels of noise and sludge to a blues-rock framework. But as his latest illustrates, James is also a solo artist; On the Shoulders of Giants’ ten selections retain the raw sensibility but gravitate nearer to the bluesy end of the spectrum as James recorded everything himself at the famed Sun Studios of Memphis, TN. Never allowing attitude to usurp substance, the self-released results are out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital.

Some musicians attempt to keep a lid on their influences, but Shawn James is quite forthcoming, even going so far as recording a digital album with the self-explanatory title Covers back in 2014. Opening with “John the Revelator” as made famous by the titan of the Delta Son House, rather than continue down a straight blues path the set does a good job outlining his overall approach.

Iron Maiden, Sam Cooke, and John Legend underscore the breadth of the landscape, while House, Johnny Cash, and the prison work song “Jet Black Woman” reinforce the roots; C.W. Stoneking and A.A. Bondy make clear that James & the Shapeshifters are appreciative of those working in roughly similar contemporary territory.

2015’s The Gospel According to… outlined the band’s original material; undeniably heavy, there is an accompanying heavy-handedness that’s sure to be a deal breaker for many listeners. Indeed, James is the antithesis of microphone-shy and the group explores caustic slide guitar-based mauling with an aggressiveness that illuminates the namechecks given to Earth and SunnO))).

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Graded on a Curve:
Lee Moses,
Time and Place

Although many Deep Soul groove enthusiasts have been long hipped to the goodness of singer and multi-instrumentalist Lee Moses, the Atlanta native continues to be somewhat overlooked today. This makes the fresh reissue of his sole LP a very welcome occurrence; shorn of an earlier release’s addendum of Moses’ numerous singles, the trim package is fueled by Southern verve, a noteworthy range of influence and crack musicianship throughout, and its reputation as a cult classic is secure. Time and Place is out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital August 26 through the Light in the Attic subsidiary Future Days Recordings.

Had the breaks fallen his way, Lee Moses could’ve easily been a big commercial deal; listening to this LP and the handful of 45s that surrounded it reveal a major talent. By Time and Place’s 1971 release on the Maple imprint his artistic personality was well-acquainted with distinctiveness, and given time for further development he might’ve flourished.

Sure, the gist of the paragraph above lands suspiciously close to the breathless hyperbole employed by record dealers and writers dishing out the promo text for a ceaseless stream of reissues, but rest assured that Moses, who unfortunately passed in 1997 before the upsurge of collector interest in his work took hold, is the real deal.

A fair percentage of retroactive discoveries and repackaged obscurities spotlight musicians who either expanded upon or downright copied the success of their immediate predecessors (but please understand the artists being copied were certainly not above this sort of exchange themselves), and evidence of borrowing is easily found on Time and Place; the difference is in what Moses additionally brought to the turntable.

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Graded on a Curve: Andrew Hill,
Point of Departure

Pianist and composer Andrew Hill cut Point of Departure for Blue Note just a touch over 50 years ago. To this day the session endures as one of the true masterpieces in post-bop jazz. Featuring an amazing supporting cast and a brilliant program of Hill’s original songs, it’s a faultless and frustratingly undersung record.

When the subject turns to underrated piano players, the late Andrew Hill fits the description perfectly. While he’s not as unknown as Ran Blake, Lowell Davidson, or Valdo Williams, it’s still stymieing how a guy who consistently produced one classic after another for arguably the most successful jazz label of the 1960s is basically only on the radar screens of heavy-duty jazzbos and Nels Cline-nuts (in 2006 the veteran improviser/Wilco guitarist issued the tribute New Monastery: A View Into The Music Of Andrew Hill).

Andrew Hill often gets lumped in with the avant-garde, and while that is far less of a disservice to his oeuvre than just placing him into the ‘60s jazz mainstream (though he did possess significant commercial potential), the New Thing doesn’t accurately encompass his strengths throughout a long and occasionally problematic career.

A good word to describe him would be cerebral. Both Hill’s composing and his improvising are positively loaded with unanticipated turns gracefully rendered, and he was able to get considerable expressiveness from some of Blue Note’s most familiar personnel. He also regularly included more eclectic recruits, a few of which are painfully under-documented.

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Graded on a Curve: Exploded View,
Exploded View

Exploded View is the eponymous first album from vocalist Annika Henderson, whom some will remember from her album Anika, in partnership with Crocodiles producer Martin Thulin, Robota’s Hugo Quezada, and Hector Melgarejo, best known for his work with Jessy Bulbo and Nos llamamos. Across eleven tracks they combine some very familiar elements, specifically aspects of Krautrock, post-punk, and post-rock, into a surprisingly rewarding whole; the record’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital August 19 through Sacred Bones.

Prior to her emergence as a recording artist Annika Henderson was a political journalist. Alternating time between Berlin and Bristol UK, she connected with Geoff Barrow of Portishead as he was on the lookout for a new vocalist for his side-project Beak>; their ensuing studio meeting proceeded so swimmingly that a full-length and EP resulted.

Dropping a consonant along the way, 2010’s Anika and ’13’s “Anika EP” revealed a mutual interest in post-punk, dub, and ’60’s girl groups, and their covers-heavy reality, featuring Twinkle’s “Terry,” Yoko’s “Yang Yang,” Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz,” The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” Ray Davies’ “I Go to Sleep,” and Dylan’s “Masters of War” exuded an appealing lack of grandiosity wedded to seriousness of intent, an aspect enhanced by her Nico-ish inflection.

The choice to focus predominantly on borrowed material was a potential double-edged sword, however; eminently listenable, they were also easy records to underrate. This circumstance is unlikely to reoccur with Exploded View, the outfit springing to life in a fairly spontaneous manner as Thulin, Quezada, and Melgarejo comprised the backing band for Anika’s 2014 performances in Mexico; in a manner somewhat recalling her hook up with Barrow and Beak>, the collab went down so well they choose to decamp to the studio for recording.

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Graded on a Curve: The Micronotz, The Bar/None Records Reissues

Way back in the Reagan days Lawrence, KS had its hipness quotient significantly elevated by the presence of a hardworking teen band initially known as The Mortal Micronotz. As they honed their strain of US punk the Mortal was dropped, briefly reapplied and then nixed again, but other than a switch of vocalist the lineup remained constant throughout their existence. The discography remains appealing; curious newbies need only proceed to Bar/None’s digital reissues of the band’s back catalogue, and those with a fancy adequately tickled should be on the lookout for secondhand copies in stores and at record fairs far and wide.

The Mortal Micronotz formed in 1980, just in time to latch onto the waning popularity of punk as an inspiration over not fitting in; by the following year guitarist John Harper, bassist David Dale, drummer Steve Eddy, and singer Dean Lubensky cut a demo promptly chosen by Bill Rich for the Fresh Sounds from Middle America (Vol 1) cassette on his label Fresh Sounds; the other participants were The Yard Apes, The Embarrassment, and Get Smart!

Some might be fatigued by yet another band from the ’80s underground receiving a resurrection of availability. All this writer can say is the iceberg is still largely submerged: The Psycho Daisies, U-Men, Turbines, Better Than Death, Al Perry and the Cattle, Sister Ray, Hullaballoo, Nice Strong Arm, The Texas Instruments, Rifle Sport, Couch Flambeau, Tar Babies; the list of acts waiting in the wings could go on for quite a while.

This Micronotz roundup might only be a digital drop in the bucket, but it’s an admirable gesture and it pairs well with Bar/None’s ’95 2CD Embarrassment retrospective Heyday 1979-83 (the label also put out their ’90 reunion album God Help Us). But please don’t get think the Micronotz’ first album is qualitatively comparable to The Embos, a group whose best stuff sat near the top of the early ’80s US u-ground class.

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Graded on a Curve: Johnnie Frierson,
Have You Been Good
to Yourself

Unearthed musical obscurities sometimes inspire rigorous debates over their artistic worth, but it’s difficult to imagine a listener absorbing Have You Been Good to Yourself and not acknowledging its creator had talent. The maker? Johnnie Frierson, whose self-recorded and hand produced cassettes emerged in small quantities in his hometown of Memphis at some point during the early 1990s. Featuring guitar, voice, and an occasional tapping foot in full gospel mode, the results are consistently gorgeous and at times achingly heartfelt; seven of Frierson’s songs have been remastered for release on vinyl, compact disc, and digital, available August 19 through Light in the Attic.

Unsurprisingly, Johnnie Frierson’s story is considerably more eventful than what’s offered above, though his tale lacks eccentricities and instead reveals early commercial success; as the guitarist in The Sunset Travelers, a gospel group led by noted soul man O.V. Wright, he assisted in cutting the outstanding “On Jesus’ Program” for Peacock in 1964.

During roughly the same period, Frierson was also part of The Drapels, a secular quartet completed by his sister Mary Frierson Cross, Marianne Brittenum, and Wilber Mondie. Cutting four sides for hometown Stax, The Drapels didn’t catch on, and the label’s attention gradually shifted to Frierson Cross, who became noted Stax solo artist Wendy Rene.

In an attempt to not spill all the beans served up in Andria Lisle’s well-penned liner notes, I’ll reduce the amount of background offered here, though Frierson being drafted to serve in Vietnam is an illuminating tidbit directly relating to his waning attempts at establishing a musical career. And yet as should be obvious by this release, his need for expression through song remained; those collected here get right to the core of the art form as a vessel of beauty and communication.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, August 2016

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new or reissued wax presently in stores for August, 2016. 

NEW RELEASE PICK: The Dead C, Trouble (Ba Da Bing) Dating back to 1987, Kiwis Bruce Russell, Michael Morley, and Robbie Yates comprise one of the underground’s great treasures; that their current output still sounds this inspired and stimulating is a true source of amazement. Taking a sharp left turn at the fork where many of their Flying Nun peers veered toward conventionality, they specialized in “free-rock”; so it was then and so it remains. Maintaining a balance of inspiration and abstraction in rock music is rare, as even the best can fall victim to wank. Here, a creative streak for the ages continues. A    

REISSUE PICK: V/A, Venezuela 70: Cosmic Visions of a Latin American Earth: Venezuelan Experimental Rock in the 1970s (Soul Jazz) The title gets right to the point; this set isn’t likely to melt the synapses of experienced listeners as much as it will, through smart choices and sequencing, illuminate yet another layer of 20th century global sounds. Soul Jazz draws a comparison to contemporaneous German stuff, and that’s certainly on point, but much of this is equally reminiscent of Brazilian Tropicalia and US jazz-funk. Angel Rada’s gloriously antiquated synth excursion “Basheeba” nearly steals the show. A

-(16)-, Lifespan of a Moth (Relapse) These Los Angelinos are now seven albums deep into gruff-throated chunky-sludge. Against the odds, the attack remains effective, though bluntly, the faster the tempo (easily chalked up as a lingering facet of a stated hardcore influence) the less these ears are swayed; when they choose to dish out the copious riff bombast of “Gallows Humor” the album finds a sustained apex. There are a whole lot of vocals to contend with here, but to Cris Jerue’s credit he largely resists going overboard, which isn’t the same as fading into the background. B

Jon Bap, What Now? (Astro Nautico) Very impressive for a debut, as drum ‘n’ bass, hip-hop, ambient, jazz, spoken word and poetry, sound collage, and a high ratio of funk and soul get acquainted with an experimental approach. The presence of drummer Mike Mitchell gives parts of this a slightly jazzy avenue of accessibility (he plays in Stanley Clarke’s trio), but that’s only after the first couple tracks traverse shrewdly deceptive alleyways of minimalist sonic grafting and avant-poetics. As the record progresses elements of pop do emerge, but often in hunks and shards; it’s all quite intriguing. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Lida Husik & Soma Allpass, “Future Ghosts of America”

Since debuting way back in the late ’80s longtime Washington, DC denizen and current resident of Portland, OR Lida Husik has accumulated a rich and extensive discography, but she’s been all but unheard from in our current century, a circumstance making her new EP in collaboration with Danish cellist-vocalist-composer Soma Allpass very welcome. Happily, its four songs don’t disappoint; providing a fresh example of Husik’s extensive use of studio as instrument and adding to Allpass’ lengthy list of credits, it’s out now digitally through HusikMusik.

Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Lida Husik made her debut as Red Emma on State of the Union, a various artists LP assembled and released in 1989 by Dischord as a benefit for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Community for Creative Non-Violence. Loaded with post-hardcore bands hailing and wailing nearly entirely from the nation’s capital, it’s an album well-remembered by this writer, and Husik’s pretty folk ditty “Candle” stands as one of its highlights.

Placed in the comp’s penultimate spot, her song definitely contrasted from the heaviness surrounding it, but rather than sticking out like an achy appendage it served as a fine complement to a music community in transition. And it was through DC associate Don Fleming (Velvet Monkeys, Gumball) that Husik was introduced to Mark Kramer; her first LP Bozo came out in 1991 via the NYC-based musician and producer’s Shimmy Disc label.

It delivered refreshingly non-standard pop songs with smart rock and psych flourishes, and the use of samples (notably in “Farmhouse” the gravelly voice of Louis “Red” Deutsch of Tube Bar prank phone call infamy) quickly established a tendency to explore the studio environment’s full potential. While not exactly novel, at the time sampling was still a distinctive tactic, if one familiar as a Kramer production strategy; two more LPs quickly followed for Shimmy Disc, Your Bag in ’92 and The Return of Red Emma the next year.

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