Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Nirvana, Nirvana

Today we remember Kurt Cobain on what would have been his 53rd birthday.Ed.

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. 

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: New in Stores for February 2020, Part Three

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

NEW RELEASE PICK: Lee Ranaldo & Raül Refree, Names of North End Women (Mute) Lee Ranaldo is world-renowned as one of the guitarists in Sonic Youth. Spaniard Refree (aka Raül Fernandez Miró) isn’t as well-known perhaps, though along with record producing he is also a guitarist, so it comes as sort of a bait and switch that this release isn’t a fiesta of bent strings. I say sort of, as Ranaldo has been long noted for his range of talent. Underrated as a vocalist, this aspect of his artistry is in ample evidence here. Refree also has range, starting out in Spanish melodic hardcore band Corn Flakes before branching out to work with singers Rosalía and most recently Lina, in projects respectively focused on modernized explorations of flamenco (Los ángeles) and fado (Lina_Raül Refree).

Mute informs us that the music here was composed on marimba, vibraphone, samplers, and vintage tape recorders (guitar can be heard). Additional contributions come via Haley Fohr (aka Circuit des Yeux) and Katy and Yolanda Sey (of the Sey Sisters) with some lyrics by novelist Jonathan Lethem. As Refree produced Ranaldo’s prior album Electric Trim, there is palpable rapport here that’s beneficial to the record’s success. Also, there is a consistent stream of technology running through the songs that is very much of the moment without ever straining for the contemporary. I like that very much. Note that the sequence of the CD/ digital release and the LP slightly differ; the version of “Humps” on the CD/ digital is “Humps (Espriu Mix)” and the version of “At the Forks” on the vinyl is “At the Forks (Edit).” A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Henning Christiansen, Peter der Große / Gudbrandsdal (Institute for Danish Sound Archaeology) Born in 1932 and deceased in 2008, Christiansen was a Danish composer, sound artist and visual artist who fell in with the Fluxus movement (and his country’s Experimental Art School, Eks-Skolen) in the 1960s, and notably, became a collaborator of the artist Joseph Beuys, meeting him in 1964 and working with him until his death in 1986. As detailed in the PR for this very attractive 180gm 2LP in a reverse printed gatefold sleeve, Christiansen and Beuys’ relationship was particularly fertile in the second half of the ’60s as the composer honed his skills as a purveyor of tape music, often using multiple tape machines while on stage during multidisciplined Beuys’ art actions.

The label states that Christiansen ditched Fluxus in the 1970s and began composing neo-Romantic works such as waltzes, symphonies, and material in the mode of Danish traditional song. This turn isn’t at all unusual, as groundbreaking artists often migrate (the common descriptor is backsliding) toward older and more conservative forms as they themselves increase in age. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, though the situation often comes with a bunch of unattractive baggage. But far less predictably, Christiansen returned to Fluxus, (per the PR, again, as prior to being sent this release, my knowledge of Christiansen’s background was fairly limited) or more specifically, he reengaged with his “own vision” of Fluxus. This was during the 1980s, the decade from whence this album derives.

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Graded on a Curve: Typical Girls,
Volume 5

In May of 2016, Emotional Response Records issued the first installment in their Typical Girls compilation series, an endeavor dedicated to “current female fronted punk and indie bands from around the globe.” Here we are in 2020 and the label is dishing out a fifth volume, which includes 16 acts in styles ranging from the expected shades of post-punk to the somewhat less common but totally welcome pop-rocking guitar hookiness to pummeling hardcore. It’s out February 21 on vinyl and digital.

This series of comps is named after a song by The Slits, with the intention to pay tribute to that band’s groundbreaking ways, in terms of kicking over gender barriers to be sure, but also stylistically, as Ari Up and company reside at the head of the UK post-punk class. By extension, tipping the hat to “Typical Girls” is a potentially quick clue-in as to what to expect when needle hits vinyl.

With their opening cut “Mooncake,” Melbourne, Australia’s Empat Lima land in that zone with authority. Self-described as a “beat-garage trio,” they tickle my fancy with a little late ’70s-early ’80s Rough Trade angularity but with an undercurrent of humor in the execution. The song reasserts the modus operandi of the Typical Girls series quite nicely, but just as quickly Color TV of Los Angeles deepen matters with a cut that hits closer to Bomp! Records-style gal-fronted power-pop.

It’s Tipper Newton singing and playing guitar, and she holds down the spot with enthusiasm and panache. Like all top-notch power-pop, “Anybody’s Girl” thrives through repeated play; it sounds fine on this comp, but it calls out for a pressing on 45 RPM vinyl (it has been issued as a cassette single, but it’s sold out).

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Graded on a Curve:
Jan St. Werner,
Molocular Meditation

Molocular Meditation is the new record from Jan St. Werner, who is likely best-known as half of the electronic duo Mouse on Mars. The record offers the titular 19-minute track on side A featuring the voice of the late Mark E. Smith, plus two more shorter pieces on side two where the leader of The Fall speaks, those cuts surrounding a longer cut based on the Renaissance writings of Giordano Bruno. Folks into Werner’s Fiepblatter Catalogue should devour this set without a hiccup, but Smith’s presence will surely broaden the record’s audience. Appropriately, the contents are as appealingly challenging as the rest of Werner’s solo work. It’s out February 21 through Editions Mego.

The first thing to know about this record is that it is not a posthumously assembled cash-in. Famed as the sui generis sole constant member of post-punk cornerstone The Fall, Mark E. Smith died on January 24, 2018, but the electroacoustic composition on side one premiered as a multi-channel installation at Cornerhouse, Manchester in 2014.

This is a re-edited stereo version of the original Molocular Meditation, and in simultaneously showcasing Smith’s vocal observations and general disdain for what the label tags as the “apolitical British upper class,” Werner does a solid job of magnifying his collaborator’s presence while deepening the dimension of the piece overall through what’s succinctly described as experimental electronics.

Werner is nothing if not intensely attentive to the sounds at his disposal. It’s worthy of note that the vinyl of Molocular Meditation was cut with a diamond needle so that the LP possesses as much sonic range as the digital. This may read as weird to folks to have just accepted the argument that digital is inherently inferior to analogue, but in a truth to materials sense, it’s often the case (at least in my experience) that digital recordings often sound best played back digitally (a la the film maxim that images shot on celluloid look best projected on celluloid).

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

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

NEW RELEASE/VALENTINE’S DAY PICK:  Lulu Lewis, “The Love Song EP” (Ilegalia) The general guideline (I wouldn’t call it “policy”) with this weekly column is a focus on physical releases that one could potentially buy in a brick-and-mortar store. While this EP falls into the digital-only category, due to its theme as articulated through three smart cover tunes, I was immediately tempted to make an exception. But as vocalist Dylan Hundley and multi-instrumentalist Pablo Martin are offering made to order limited edition prints in a batch of four, I can include it this week sans conflict. Those prints are the pictured EP cover + one for each song, all in a similar style. Now, some might carp that the EP made the cut on a technicality, but I’ve a creeping suspicion those grumps are staying home for Valentine’s Day.

Lulu Lewis find success with the holiday tie-in through inspired song selection as they hit the sweet spot between interpretation and recognizability. This middle ground is most pronounced in the opening reading of Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” which comes off a little like young Siouxsie collaborating with early Ultravox, at least until Martin’s guitar bursts forth for an extended passage. John Cale’s “Helen of Troy” is next, with guest vocals from someone named Deer, though folks into Lulu Lewis’ Genuine Psychic (available on wax) will have an inkling who that is. The courtly keyboard fanfare retained from the original is a highlight. A take on Funkadelic’s “I’ll Bet You” remains groove-tastic but is sung by Hundley with breathy verve. Altogether, this would make a fine gift for someone you love. A-

NEW RELEASE PICK: Elkhorn, The Storm Sessions (Beyond Beyond is Beyond) Elkhorn’s prior two, Sun Cycle and Elk Jam, came out simultaneously last year on Feeding Tube. The move to BBiB is natural and should only increase the likelihood that newbies will zero in on the work of guitarists Jesse Sheppard (12-string acoustic) and Drew Gardner (6-string electric) as psych in nature. There is an undeniable relationship to the American Primitive as well, but with Turner Williams adding electric bouzouki on the first side and shahi baaja on the second, this hits like something Vanguard (who released Fahey and Basho, yes) or maybe even ESP-Disk might’ve put out in ’68-’69. I mention those labels because as The Storm Sessions glides and searches, it’s often closer to raga than rock, and that’s a wonderful thing. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Maximum Joy, Station M.X.J.Y. (1972) Post-punk’s funk groove subgenre, to which Maximum Joy belong, could sometimes become a little (or a lot) too refined, but Station M.X.J.Y. doesn’t have that problem. This is in part because it was the band’s only LP. Formed by the Glaxo Babies’ Tony Wrafter with Janine Rainforth, then just 18 years old, on vocals, along the way Glaxo Babies Charlie Llewellin and bassist Dan Catsis joined as did John Waddington from The Pop Group, making this something of a post-punk supergroup situation; this might’ve contributed to the brevity of their existence, as well. Throw in production by On-U Sound label founder Adrian Sherwood (plus relevant credits-heavy producers Dave Hunt and Pete Wooliscroft) and the table is set for something special.

Released in 1982 on the Y label, Station M.X.J.Y. is getting its first-time standalone vinyl reissue here, which is quite surprising, as the contents are the sorta thing to knock recent post-punk converts right the fuck over (Crippled Dick Hot Wax! did include this album on their 2LP comp Unlimited (1979 – 1983) in 2005 and there was a Japanese CD released in 2008; both currently sell for too much money). Yes, putting this on in a crowded club between bands could easily result in the audience getting scattered all over like bowling pins on league night at the lanes; y’know, those cats throw fingertip balls designed to hook right into the pocket. Maximum Joy’s pocket is where funk, dub, punk, Afrobeat and even elements of jazz (horns are well represented) come together with robust clarity. Sounds superb today. A

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Graded on a Curve:
Bambara,
Stray

Bambara formed over a decade ago in Athens, GA, with a move to Brooklyn thereafter. The release of Stray on February 14 via Wharf Cat Records finds them four LPs deep in a discography that has evinced considerable refinement. Consistencies include attention to texture and dynamics as they resist cliché in the development of a sound that’s literary and cinematic; think Southern Gothic and New Hollywood neo-noir and you’re cruising through Bambara’s part of town. Offering vivid imagery but with sparks of spontaneity, the new record continues the expansion of their style with no loss of potency.

Comprised of twin brothers Reid (vocals, guitar) and Blaze (drums, vocals) Bateh and William Brookshire (bass, vocals), Bambara’s earlier material resides nearer to the noise zone. This isn’t exactly an uncommon scenario with bands as the members start settling down from energetic beginnings and become more adept at working up songs.

But on that note, with the exception of a pair of cassette EPs, “Rings” from 2012, which features live vocal pieces recorded with a telephone mic by Reid Bateh, and “Night Chimes” from 2015 (also issued as a lathe-cut 7-inch in 2017), which is “12 minutes of manipulated vocals and collected samples” broken into five tracks, everything I’ve heard by them has been rooted pretty firmly in song structure (and “Night Chimes,” while textural, isn’t exactly abstract).

As specified above, with the emergence of Stray the count is now four albums (using the math in the press release, as the internet documents a self-titled 2008 CD and a 2010 CD EP “Dog Ear Days” that I’m guessing the band is evaluating as formative). The first was Dreamweapon from 2013, initially self-released but quickly given a wax pressing by Arrowhawk Records, followed by Swarm in 2016 (also on Arrowhawk) and then Shadow on Everything, their first for Wharf Cat, in 2018.

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Arbor Labor Union, New Petal Instants (Arrowhawk) Some will listen to this record, Arbor Labor Union’s second after 2016’s I Hear You for Sub Pop (well, third if you count Sings for You Now, released in 2015 under prior name Pinecones), and find the connections to punk and hardcore dubious. The reason comes down to Arbor Labor Union’s sound, self-described as “Cosmic American Music.” Now, those doubting folks likely consider the punk milieu and hippiedom to be largely incompatible, rather than distinct but complementary offshoots from the same countercultural impulse. The band additionally describe their thing as CCR meets the Minutemen, but on a purely musical level New Petal Instants reminds me of the Meat Puppets circa Up on the Sun, and that fantastic. A-

Jeff Parker & The New Breed, Suite for Max Brown & “Max Brown Part 1” b/w “Max Brown Part 2” (International Anthem / Nonesuch) Guitarist Jeff Parker is surely best known as a member of Chicago’s foundational post-rockers Tortoise. Debuting with them on wax via 1998’s classic TNT album, he helped to accentuate the group’s jazz angle, with a clean tone and dexterousness that one could associate with the classic post-bop string masters but totally at home in what was often a decidedly Fusion-descended context. Well, the jazz influence is strong on his latest LP, which includes an interpretation of Joe Henderson’s  “Black Narcissus” (titled “Gnarciss”) and a reading of John Coltrane’s “After the Rain,” but there’re enough category defying passages to spark the interest of the old Tortoise fanbase.

But I have a feeling many of those folks have kept abreast of Parker’s activities, as this is his seventh solo album (or “as a leader,” in jazz parlance), and his second for International Anthem, though this one inaugurates a label partnership with the folks at Nonesuch. For those unfamiliar with International Anthem, the relationship with Parker is fitting, as they are extending the sort of boundary defying material that reaches back to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, of which Parker belongs. Suite for Max Brown is named for and is a tribute to Parker’s mother, who is pictured on the record’s cover.  The set concludes on a high note with the ten-minute title track. It’s also featured on the pre-album single, broken into two parts but also over three minutes shorter. A- / A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: East Village, Hotrod Hotel (Slumberland) Even though they opened for House of Love and McCarthy, this indie-pop outfit, formed by brothers Martin and Paul Kelly as Episode Four in the mid-’80s in Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire UK, found their greatest success posthumously. It’s a familiar story. This singles collection, initially issued in 1994 on the Summershine label, is arguably their finest achievement. After the name change the band ended up on the Sub Aqua label, cutting two EPs before the imprint went kaput. Both of those records are here, as are a few 45 and their half of a split flexi disc (not here is the “Strike Up Matches” 12-inch as Episode Four). The sound leans to the sophisticated side of the C86 spectrum, but the focus never wanders from the guitars. That’s spiff. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Xetas,
The Cypher

Xetas are an Austin band who have just released their third LP. Their sound is informed by ’80s indie rock but with enough muscle and urgency that one could call them punk without ruffling (m)any feathers. Along with the ensemble cohesion characteristic of hardworking trios, their latest is shrewdly resistant to being pinned down, and after numerous spins is steadily growing. When it’ll stop, who knows? A verifiable fact is that Xetas feature David Petro on guitar, Kana Harrs on bass, and Jay Dilick on drums. Everybody sings. The Cypher is out now on green or black vinyl, compact disc and digital through the 12XU label.

A familiar occurrence for obsessive music listeners is when the discernible influences on a record spread out so wide that it instills ambiguity over its makers’ personality, either individually or collectively. When the complaints arise about a lack of originality, it is a likely indicator that the person opining is a jaded fuck. Well-adjusted human beings know that there is nothing new under the sun, especially as pertains to rock music, but it is far preferable for a band to zero in on a few key inspirations, work up a set of songs, and then execute them with flair, or at least energetically.

Still, there are no unbendable rules in the musical stratosphere. The Cypher is a strong case in point. The opening track from the album, “The Doctor,” begins with a heavily distorted keening guitar pattern that set off a brain buzzer labelled Big Black’s “Kerosene.” However, in short order Xetas redirect into territory reminiscent of Sonic Youth’s distinctive tunings, and then throw down a bruising rant attack that brings us back to the heavier underground Midwestern bands of the ’80s and early ’90s a la the Touch and Go label.

“The Bystander” wields guitar abrasion that promulgated thoughts of Hüsker Dü, though the unison vocals, often shouted, highlight a punk streak that reaches back to all ages shows (and to Xetas’ debut 45 from 2014). There’s also a more contemplative instrumental section that’s followed by the inevitable but nicely non-hackneyed (through brevity) ramp-up back to full intensity.

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Graded on a Curve:
Neneh Cherry,
Raw Like Sushi

It’s long well-known that singer-songwriter, rapper and DJ Neneh Cherry excels at defying categorization, but roughly three decades ago she burst onto the global scene with confidence by exploding the boundaries between the ascendant genres of rap, ’80s R&B and house music. The single was “Buffalo Stance,” a worldwide chart smash; it widened the era’s pop possibilities and helped lay the groundwork for ’90s trip-hop. In 1989, the song opened her full-length debut Raw Like Sushi, and that the subsequent tracks avoided letdown secured the LP as a landmark of stylistic hybridization. For its 30th anniversary, Virgin/UMe has given it 3LP and 3CD editions, both with a 48pg album-sized booklet. There is also a slimmer reissue of the original record sans extras on gold wax. All are available now.

Raw Like Sushi is Neneh Cherry’s debut, but to call her a newcomer to the scene in 1989 is erroneous, as early in the decade she’d sang in The Slits, with membership in Rip Rig + Panic following shortly thereafter. A little later she was a third of the fleeting trio Raw Sex, Pure Energy (responsible for the Falkland Islands War protest 12-inch “Stop the War” b/w “Give Sheep a Chance”) and Float Up CP (basically Rip Rig + Panic reformed under a new name).

Inching nearer to her pop breakout, she collaborated with Matt Johnson on “Slow Train to Dawn” from The The’s 1986 LP Infected and contributed to “Looking Good Diving with the Wild Bunch,” the B-side to the Stock Aitken Waterman-produced ’87 single “Looking Good Diving” by Morgan-McVey (featuring Jamie Morgan and Cameron McVey, the latter Cherry’s future husband).

“Looking Good Diving with the Wild Bunch” can be described as “Buffalo Stance” in embryo, but the cut has deeper connections to Raw Like Sushi’s whole, as track remixers the Wild Bunch featured Robert Del Naja, soon to be a member of Massive Attack and also the cowriter of Sushi track “Manchild.” The association reinforces the record’s stature as a crucial foundational stone in the architecture of trip-hop, though the deepest credit goes to Cherry of course as she’s long abjured the rigidity of musical format.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for January 2020, Part Four

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Squarepusher, Be Up a Hello (Warp) When I learned Tom Jenkinson (the Englishman who is Squarepusher) had a new record out, I was surprised, excited and worried all at once. Surprised, because there hasn’t been a Squarepusher record in five years, excited because Jenkinson was amongst the first artists (along with Aphex Twin, Autechre, Boards of Canada and a couple more) to turn me around to electronic stuff, and worried because such a long hiatus can foretell a diminishment of inspiration. Well, my fears were misplaced, as this set is a total success. Much of this is like video game music marinating in caffeine and adrenaline, but the anthemic pop angle in opener “Oberlove” is a cool twist. “Detroit People Mover” blends Nintendo and Moroder and offers contemplative regality. A-

Ross Goldstein, Timoka (Birdwatcher) Composer Goldstein’s latest continues the progressions established on his prior LP, 2018’s The Eighth House, specifically a change in direction away from psychedelia. 2017’s Inverted Jenny struck me as an orchestral pop record, and so, a transitional work, perhaps. Timoka definitely has moments, like right out of the gate with “Obsidian Cat,” that one could describe as orchestral (a digital version of the Mellotron is being used), but pop it is not. Instead, like The Eighth House, it exudes a soundtrack-like sensibility, in part through the record’s non-vocal nature, but also because Goldstein’s work is reminiscent of developments in creative film scoring from the ’60s-’80s, but without coming off like a faux OST. This last observation is very important to Timoka’s success. A-

Jason McMahon, Odd West (Shinkoyo) Here’s the solo debut of a Brooklyn guy who’s been in a lot of bands, most prominently The Skeletons (not the rootsy and defunct Missouri Skeletons), and if a first effort on his own, in large part due to experience it lacks in the tentative, which is doubly impressive as it finds McMahon, already an accomplished guitarist, diving into the deep end of the pool that is  advanced fingerpicking technique, and with gusto. I said this was doubly impressive, but the achievement grows as McMahon offers more than Fahey-disciple moves. There are certainly flourishes of string glisten descended from the more ornate end of the American Primitive spectrum, but Odd West reminds me more of post-rock, and I really dig how McMahon integrates vocals into his scheme. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Jolie Holland, Esconidida (Cinquefoil) When I heard that Holland’s second album from 2004 was getting the first-time on vinyl treatment (through her own Kickstarter), I danced a little jig. It’s quite the special set, and in some ways her solo debut, as prior effort Catalpa was a demo that burst out beyond its original intention through sheer force of quality. Esconidida, first released by ANTI (who also gave Catalpa a wider pressing), avoids even a trace of a letdown; in fact, it’s even better, and a sterling example of quality in the Americana style. A major reason why has to do with her lack of politeness/ affectedness as she rewrites “Old-Time Religion” as “Old Fashioned Morphine” (and references “Billy” Burroughs) and drops a “motherfucker” at the end of “Do You.” A classic. A

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Graded on a Curve: Smithsonian Folkways’ Calypso Travels, Tuareg Music of the Southern Sahara, Gambian Griot Kora Duets

The latest entries in Smithsonian Folkways’ vinyl reissue series come from the global portion of the label’s vast catalog, and with rich and diverse results. There is Calypso Travels by Lord Invader and his group, Tuareg Music of the Southern Sahara featuring numerous uncredited musicians recorded by Finola and Geoffrey Holiday, and Gambian Griot Kora Duets with Alhaji Bai Konte, Dembo Konte, and Ma Lamini Jobate on the titular instrument. The records helped sate a persistent curiosity in the USA regarding music from other countries and regions, be it in a multifaceted cultural dialogue, as is the case with Lord Invader, or seemingly untouched by outside influence a la the Tuareg and Gambian collections. Offered in classic tip-on jackets with the original liner notes, all three are out January 31.

Back in 2018, Smithsonian Folkways wisely began reissuing some of their prime catalog items on vinyl. Maintaining the design and quality of the packaging as originally released, this was a sweet opportunity for listeners from younger generations or even older folks who might’ve missed them the first time around, to score physical copies of some classic records without having to luck into finding them in a secondhand bin.

Issued in groups of three, the first installment featured Woody Guthrie’s Struggle, Lightnin’ Hopkins’ eponymous LP from 1959, and Joseph Spence’s Bahaman Folk Guitar. This was followed by Dock Boggs’ Dock Boggs: Legendary Singer & Banjo Player, Pete Seeger’s Goofing-Off Suite (originally released as a 10-inch), and the compilation American Banjo: Tunes and Songs in Scruggs Style.

The third batch was composed of Dave Van Ronk’s Ballads, Blues, and a Spiritual, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee Sing, and Lead Belly’s Easy Rider, while the fourth turned the spotlight onto women, with Elizabeth Cotten’s Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, Lucinda Williams’s Happy Woman Blues, and Mary Lou Williams’ eponymous LP from 1964.

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Graded on a Curve: Fred Lane and his Disheveled Monkeybiters, Icepick to the Moon

As previously reported in this column, Fred Lane was the name attached to a few of the 20th century underground’s more craftily out-there musical experiences, encompassing swinging Dadaist lounge big-band, a tuxedoed handlebar mustachioed “stripmine crooner” with a face covered in band aids, cracked noir atmosphere, and moldy French toast in a sock. The good news is that a new batch of Fred Lane recordings, Icepick to the Moon, has emerged through Feeding Tube, this time with the Disheveled Monkeybiters as his band. The edition of 400, released last November, will already be difficult to obtain, but on a positive note, Lane will give his first publicized performance since 1976 on January 31 at the Saturn venue in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s sure to be a twisted treat.

Along with the performance by Lane with the Disheveled Monkeybiters, there will also be a screening of Skizz Cyzyk’s documentary on the man, also titled Icepick to the Moon, along with a DVD release of the film. Please note that the LP is not a soundtrack to the movie, which Cyzyk has been working on since 1999. The album has been in on-off development (more off than on) for a decade longer. It was announced as imminent after the release of Lane and His Hittite Hot Shots’ Car Radio Jerome in 1986.

Car Radio Jerome was issued on Mark Kramer’s NYC-based label Shimmy-Disc, then riding a wave of u-ground scene notoriety through the work of Bongwater, King Missile, and B.A.L.L. (to name but three), which boosted the profile of Lane and his musical associates. This gang of Southern misfits was originally known as Raudelunas, with their activities spanning back to the mid-’70s at the University of Alabama.

They even cut an album, the Raudelunas ‘Pataphysical Revue (an undisguised nod to the French Dadaist writer Alfred Jarry) a live recording where Fred Lane, the character creation of Tim Reed, made his debut alongside Ron ‘Pate’s Debonairs (‘Pate’s real name being Craig Nutt). The first release on Say Day-Bew Records, it created something considerably less than a stir, though it did make it across the Atlantic to England somehow, where Steven Stapleton put the Debonairs and two of the group’s members, violinist/ violist LaDonna Smith and guitarist Davey Williams, on the legendary Nurse with Wound list.

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

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

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Breathless, The Glass Bead Game (1972) The band name derives from Jean-Luc Godard, the album title from a novel by Hermann Hesse, and the music is amongst the more underrated post-punk of the 1980s, with this their debut from 1986. Breathless singer-keyboardist Dominic Appleton is perhaps best known for his participation in This Mortal Coil, though if you recognize him through that contribution, it’s quite likely you know his work in tandem with bassist Ari Neufeld, guitarist Gary Mundi, and Tristram Latimer Sayer. They apparently sometimes get lumped in with The Sound and Comsat Angels, but the music here ultimately owes more to the precedent of The Cure and Joy Division. Unsurprisingly, Breathless fit in with the stronger 4AD work of the period.

Had This Mortal Coil member and 4AD label honcho Ivo Watts-Russell put this out on his own label rather than Breathless self-releasing it on their Tessa Vossa imprint, the chances are good that this record and the band would have a much higher profile today. This is speculation of course, but the likelihood is reinforced by inspired musicianship rather than the by-the-numbers (or better said, hand-me-down) moves that were surfacing in ethereal post-punk (aka OG dream pop) at the time. But it’s also not as if the influences can’t be discerned, as Joy Div greatly impacts the consecutive “All My Eye & Betty Martin” and “Count on Angels.” But they do it very well. It’s side one’s closer “Monkey Talk” that works up a level of intensity reinforcing The Glass Bead Game as the beginning of something special. A-

Go Hirano, Corridor of Daylights (Black Editions) This 2004 set is the third of three records Japanese musician Hirano cut for the P.S.F. label starting in 1993, though he was also in psych rock band White Heaven. This music is aptly described as home field recordings with piano at the fore. It also features melodica, wind chimes, the ambience of Hirano’s surroundings, even a little vocalizing, and in “Coral,” some treated guitar from Roderick Zalameda. The whole is gentle and captivating as it naturally differs quite a bit from White Heaven and is further distinguished from the too-often predictable bright buoyancy of neo-classical piano stuff.  This is the only one of Hirano’s P.S.F. releases not originally on vinyl, debuting on the format here. Next month it is bundled with a cassette of unissued material. A

Tangerine Dream, Sorcerer Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Waxwork) Director William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, released to theaters in 1977, was a commercial flop and for a long time was also considered an artistic dud. Its bad reputation endured partly because it wasn’t easy to see in the years after its initial run was over, and if one could locate a copy or a screening, it would likely not be the uncut version in the proper aspect ratio. Well, Friedkin’s cut has since been restored to considerable critical reevaluation, and this soundtrack, notably the first for a Hollywood film from the Krautrock-affiliated Tangerine Dream, is sorta the icing on the cake. It features a short liner text by the director detailing the collaboration. Where much of the Dream’s later stuff doesn’t thrill me, this one satisfies nicely. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Six from Black and Wyatt Records

We’ve commenced the second decade of the 21st century, and record labels still matter. This applies equally to enduring companies and recent upstarts, though the men behind newer enterprise Black and Wyatt Records, namely Dennis Black and Robert Wyatt, are longtime music fans. Based in Memphis, they transformed their shared love of attending live shows into a tandem effort to get some unheard hometown sounds into brick and mortar shops. The results, with the crucial exception of an archival 45 by The Heathens, all date from the 2000s, with full-lengths by Fingers Like Saturn, The Toy Trucks, Jack Oblivian, The Opossums, and a just-out 45 by Mario Monterosso surprisingly and satisfyingly varied. The whole discography is available now, and it’s reviewed below.

The release that has thus far thrown the brightest spotlight onto Black and Wyatt Records’ nascent activities is the outlier in the discography, “Steady Girl” by The Heathens, a group of five teenagers enrolled in Memphis’ East High School who cut two takes of their sole song at Memphis Recording Service (a.k.a. Sun Studio) four days after the Presley-Perkins-Lewis-Cash Million Dollar Quartet session (which dates from Dec. 8, 1956).

The song, co-written by 15-year old Colin Heath (his surname giving the band their moniker) caused a considerable if long belated stir, and was reviewed in TVD’s New in Stores column in March of last year, with its grade holding strong. The idea was floated (and persists) that “Steady Girl” was the earliest example of garage rock, which is understandable as the tune’s utterly nonfancy rhythmic thump is a component in the recipe of many future garage 45s.

But to my ear, the song, co-written by Heathens’ guitarist Kaye Garren (notably, an early gal in the R&R scene) is a wild and fun example of Memphis’ rockabilly bedrock crossed with the burgeoning youth music (aka Teen Beat) impulse. Issued in a sturdy and attractively designed picture sleeve with informative notes on the back, its historical importance is matched by its sheer oomph.

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Graded on a Curve: Σtella, The Break

To quote her Bandcamp bio, Σtella, a resident of Greece, “was born beside the sea and raised by a Canadian nanny who waterskied topless.” If this is indeed true, that’s terrific. What’s indisputably a fact is that Σtella has a new record out, The Break, with its contents illuminating her output as unabashedly pop, often with a synth flavor. One thin dime can procure a dozen examples of this exact same scenario, but they won’t likely be as pleasurable, even when she delves into boldly commercial territory. Part of the reason is musicality that’s deeper than the norm for the style, even if it occasionally seems like that’s only slightly the case. It’s out on LP, CD and digital January 24 through Arbutus Records.

Σtella (real name Stella Chronopoulou) has previously issued a self-titled effort from 2015, with Works for You arriving two years later, but The Break is being described as her international debut; it’s her first for Arbutus, and it’s also the first of the bunch that I’ve heard. Once cognizant of the style she proffers but having yet to drop the needle, I was braced for disappointment, as the subgenre’s contemporary manifestation is (over)loaded with retreads of Depeche Mode, The Human League, and Berlin, etc.

I still haven’t sat down with Σtella’s earlier stuff, in part because The Break bears up to repeated listens. Doing so strengthens the contents as a few subtle cuts above the norm, though I’ll confess that opener “Bellaria” had me expecting something much closer to library music than synth-pop. What’s nifty is that she avoids the cheesiness (to be blunt) that too often emerges in library stuff.

Instead, her track is a delight of cyclical electro wiggle, glistening cascades, intertwined wordless vocals both reverberating and atmospheric, a unifying big beat, and some sneaky guitar late in the game. Successful on its own terms, “Bellaria” also illuminates the instrumental moves that deepen the more forthright pop maneuvers shaping the majority of The Break.

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