Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2018’s New Releases, Part Two

As we bring this week of salutes to a close, a dominant theme emerges. It can perhaps be defined as an assortment of artists tapping into deep traditions and reliable genres. In so doing, they retain the essence of the familiar while producing new possibilities.  

5. Nathan Bowles, Plainly Mistaken (Paradise of Bachelors) & Sarah Louise, Deeper Woods (Thrill Jockey) Durham-based multi-instrumentalist Nathan Bowles has been on the scene since the ’90s, first with the Virginia-based improv-drone band Pelt, then as part of the Appalachian old-time string band Black Twig Pickers, and more recently as a solo artist; along the way he’s taken part in numerous collaborations, including with the late Jack Rose, Steve Gunn and Hiss Golden Messenger. What makes Bowles’ music in any context such a treat is his comfort with both the avant-garde and the traditional music of his region, and more so that he has no problem with the two disciplines rubbing together and creating sparks. His second solo effort, 2016’s Whole & Cloven, was very good, but Plainly Mistaken is a knockout as he works in a full-band (trio) context for the first time. Opening with a swell cover of Julie Tippetts’ “Now if You Remember,” from there everything just rolls.

Deeper Woods is the third solo album from fellow North Carolina resident Sarah Louise Henson, though many were introduced to the guitarist’s work through the first record by House and Land, her duo with multi-instrumentalist Sally Anne Morgan (who played fiddle alongside Bowles in the Black Twig Pickers). Their LP made it abundantly clear that the pair’s approach to roots was respectful but not overly reverent, so Deeper Woods’ bold stylistic leaps aren’t especially surprising (nor is its level of quality, as House and Land came in at the seventh spot in TVD’s 2017 best new releases list), even as her prior record, which was the 12th volume in Vin Du Select Qualitite label’s solo acoustic series (it came out in 2016), didn’t predict she’d end up here. What does it sound like? In my prior short review, I compared her to Haley Fohr in terms of weight and scope, but stylistically it can be pegged as serious-minded psych-folk lingering on the edge of the experimental.

4. Anna & Elizabeth, The Invisible Comes to Us (Smithsonian Folkways) & The Other Years, S/T (No Quarter) The duo of Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle work in a similar mode to the abovementioned House and Land (there are Virginia roots in common), which may make it seem like we are retracing territory in the handing out of accolades, but The Invisible Comes to Us is ultimately quite different in execution and cumulative effect, while still excelling in the grand endeavor of extending folk traditions (after a year’s worth of researching the archives of song collector Helen Hartness Flanders, this record is the byproduct).While the folk foundation is strong (there are moments that even resonate as British), there is a striking amount of range across these two sides, with rock-tangible moments emerging and then subsiding and likewise with unexpected dips (and a few big dives) into an avant-garde sensibility that brings NYC in the old days to mind (well, the ’70s-’80s, at least). All this unearthed potential is uncommonly strong.

Yes, another duo, this one from Kentucky, and yes, one that’s deeply invested in old-time folk. Why is this list seemingly traveling down a particular rabbit-hole? Well, my retort to that prognosticated query is that multi-instrumentalist Anna Krippenstapel and Heather Summers have delivered some of the most beautiful harmony singing that I’ve heard not just this year, but in a long time. Additionally, the solo vocal turns are superb, and the playing top flight; Krippenstapel has worked with Joan Shelley and Freakwater. She plays guitar and fiddle, while Summers brings guitar and banjo. Maybe most impressively, eight of the ten songs on The Other Years are originals, with only one of these exceptions a traditional tune (“Fair Ellen”). The other is a take of Michael Hurley’s “Wildegeeses,” which should hopefully illuminate the acumen that helps define this stellar debut. It’s the kind of record of you can listen to five times in a row and then want to listen to again. Recommended if you like getting goosebumps.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2018’s New Releases, Part One

We now shift into the first part of our roundup of the best new releases of 2018, and below (and right off the bat) you’ll notice a few labels popping up more than once. More than twice, even. After much consideration, this is just how the cookie of quality crumbles in this calendar year, though the juxtapositions are still worthwhile.

10. The Chills, Snow Bound (Fire) & Modern Studies, Welcome Strangers (Fire) Led by singer-songwriter and sole constant member Martin Phillipps, New Zealand’s The Chills have long been one of my favorite melodic-rock endeavors. As a youngster in the 1980s, I grabbed the band’s early records towards the tail end of that decade; they were on the Kiwi label Flying Nun, a sure sign of quality, though the platters were released in the US at the time through Homestead. As the scope of Phillipps’ songs continued to grow, his profile rose as he moved on to Slash. After ending a long break in recording in 2013 The Chills found a solid home with Fire in the UK. Best lists routinely focus on groundbreaking or at least considerably ambitious stuff, but Snow Bound isn’t blazing a trail, with the main ambition here to write and record a solid, memorable set of songs; what they’ve achieved is another batch of notably strong Chills material nearly 40 years after Phillipps formed the group, and that is no small thing.

Modern Studies are a band from Scotland-via-Lancashire whose 2016 debut Swell to Great impressed me quite a bit. I also dug their track on “Avocet Revisited,” which was a short V/A covers tribute to the very cool Bert Jansch album. Welcome Strangers expands upon their prior baroque folky atmospheres while never totally leaving them behind, in part through their continued use of organic instrumentation, including double bass, harmonium and piano alongside electric guitar and bass, brass and string arrangements and the occasional tasteful use of electronic rhythms. Often dancy and poppy in way that could trigger rampant delight in a busload of ABBA fans, the tandem vocals of Emily Scott and Rob St. John are invitingly warm, but there are also experimental (though never discomfiting) elements aplenty (plus some Krautrock-ish undercurrents), and the cumulative effect is bold without ever faltering into the grandiose. Without ever faltering much at all in fact, across a record loaded with unexpected twists.

9. Madison Washington, (((( FACTS ))))) (Def Pressé) & Obnox, Bang Messiah (Smog Veil) Where so much contemporary hip-hop zigs, Madison Washington zags, and that’s cool with me. The duo of California/New York-based emcee Malik Ameer and Sheffield, England resident DJ/producer thatmanmonkz are named after the man who led the first and only successful slave rebellion in the USA, so rest assured that (((( FACTS ))))) (which follows up their debut EP “Code Switchin’”) will leave you feeling smarter, though to call Madison Washington a scholarly thing is inapt; throughout this 2LP, they instill much more of a party vibe. I said they like to zag, and after an opener that sorta picks up where the EP left off, the thrust shifts into a funky zone (underscoring Ameer’s bi-coastal situation) that references P-Funk and reminds me at times of Outkast. But it’s all so much more than a revamp/ rehash. To restate sentiments from my earlier short review, it’s some of the best hip-hop I’ve heard in a long time.

Hip-hop and a general sense of funkiness are but flavors in Bang Messiah’s overall recipe, but they are essential ingredients rather than the sort of slapdash additives that seem like a good idea but then turn out to be barely palatable at best (the dangers of cooking while high). Main Obnox man and Clevelander Lamont “Bim” Thomas’ prior credits are substantial, including the Compulsive Gamblers, Bassholes (with former member of the Gibson Bros. Don Howland), and This Moment in Black History, bands that might make it clear to the uninitiated that Obnox combines hip-hop and rock, though the garage/ punk/ scuzz background keeps this far away from a baseball cap turned backwards scenario. Instead, Bang Messiah is a weird and noisy affair, and with staying power as it connects as a record of ideas. And as Obnox has amassed a sizable discography, it’s been this way for a while; I haven’t heard everything, but I’ve soaked up more than a few. This is the best one yet.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2018’s Reissues, Part Two

Part two of our reissue spotlight extends the diversity; there is live jazz, the early recordings of an icon, some heavy funk, and rock in varying shapes, sizes and levels of strangeness. It all gets capped off with a bountiful helping of vintage African sounds and a series of releases from one of post-punk’s defining bands.  

5. Thelonious Monk, Mønk (Gearbox) + Bud Powell, The Essen Jazz Festival Concert (ORG Music) Uncovered recordings of great artists are likely to bring reassessments, and so it is with this live platter of Thelonious Monk’s quartet from Copenhagen in 1963, the tape of which (made by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation) was reportedly saved just before being carried off in the trash (it was found in a skip). The reevaluation here relates to this incarnation of Monk’s quartet, which features bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop together with Monk’s longstanding tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. A fine band, and the unit that brought us Monk’s Dream in fact, but not a lineup that has previously stood out as spectacular on live recordings. With this retrieval, the group is now documented as having a great night.

ORG’s The Essen Jazz Festival Concert, which finds Bud Powell in a quartet setting with tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, drummer Kenny Clarke, and bassist Oscar Pettiford, is not a new discovery. However, giving it a deep listen on the occasion of its reissue provided the opportunity to further revise my assessments regarding the work and the troubled, ultimately tragic life of Powell, who was amongst the greatest pianists in the history of jazz. In short, a recurring stream of thought concerning Powell’s later recordings has been that they are to varying degrees subpar, and while I won’t deny that there are some rough patches in the discography, this performance from Essen, Germany is not one of them. This is not to say that the show isn’t without faults, but most of them aren’t Bud’s, and if this isn’t as strong an affair as Mønk, the opportunity to contemplate Powell in the ’60s without a black cloud hanging over the proceedings is very much appreciated.

4. Nina Simone, Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles (BMG – Bethlehem) + Betty Davis, Nasty Gal (Light in the Attic) Shoddy reissues predate the CD era, but the flood of visually unappealing, noncontextualized releases probably hit its peak in the ‘90s. I won’t deny that I sometimes took the bait and bought some otherwise unenticing releases because there was no other way of hearing the contents, and I indeed picked up a bunch of underwhelming packages in gathering the Bethlehem singles of Nina Simone, specifically because no label ever bothered to package them all together. Well, this year BMG and producer Cheryl Pawelski did, and their smart gesture is a joy to hear as it underscores the depth of Simone’s ability on her earliest recordings. Much of the record (available on CD and on vinyl with a bonus 7-inch) finds Simone singing and playing piano alone with results that are sublime, and while bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath do occasionally back her in a jazz framework, this collection forecasts the wide range of her later work. It provides a fabulous opportunity to soak up the brilliance of the artist long before her career struggles set in.

If Nina Simone suffered from a refusal to be boxed into a single category, the issue with Betty Davis was that she was simply ahead of her time. Musically and sexually bold in an era that seemed primed for acceptance, the aggressive funk of this intense, liberated woman was ultimately too much for the listening public at large to handle, as it wasn’t as openminded a time as has often been claimed; naturally, she’s sustained a cult following in the ensuing years. About a decade back Light in the Attic reissued her ’73 self-titled debut and the following year’s They Say I’m Different, the pair opening the eyes of many, and in 2016 they dished her largely unheard early recordings as The Columbia Years 1968-69. It’s all worthy stuff, but this year they returned to print Davis’ third and best solo LP from ’75, a slab of funk so heavy and wild of personality that her career essentially stalled. If you dig Funkadelic but have yet to get hip to Nasty Gal, you’re in for a doozy.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2018’s Reissues, Part One

As we continue our look back at the best of 2018, the gears shift to reissues of the non-boxed variety, covering post-punk, global sounds, jazz, and a sprinkling of American originals. Overall, a bounty of goodness, and this is just part one.

10. The Fall, I Am Kurious Orang (Beggars Arkive) + Cocteau Twins, Treasure (4AD) It’s testament to the late Mark E. Smith’s brilliance that The Fall, simply one of the essential and singular pillars of post-punk, was also a great singles band. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that a significant portion of new Fall listeners initially engage with the band (featuring a plethora of lineups, but always with Smith in the driver’s seat) through compilations, increasingly drawn from their myriad 45s and EPs. That’s cool, and I can relate; while I’d heard them prior through a few V/A comps, my first Fall vinyl was a dog-eared used copy of 77-Early Years-79. While I don’t think the band’s long string of LPs is suffering from lack of exposure, it was still nice of Beggars to reissue I Am Kurious Orang, which is one of The Fall’s less celebrated but fully realized albums, shortly after the label graced the world with a fresh edition of 458489 A Sides. Conceived as the soundtrack to a ballet by Michael Clark, it was a return to restless ambition after a dalliance with pop respectability, and it sounds as sweet now as it did in ’89.

I’ll admit that a touch (okay, a lot) of nostalgia informs my present-day interaction with I Am Kurious Oranj. But that’s okay; we all have our fond remembrances (and madeleine moments). This also applies to Treasure, the 1984 LP by Cocteau Twins, though even deeper recollections are tied to their ’88 effort Blue Bell Knoll. But Treasure, which featured the solidified union of singer Elizabeth Fraser, guitarist Robin Guthrie, and bassist Simon Raymonde, was around too, and it was frequently just the right ethereal capper to hours of noisy, punky racket. Other records suited the same purpose, but few have held up as well as this one; hell, some don’t hold up at all. Part of the reason Treasure sounds even better now than it did back then is directly related to the group’s pushing into uncharted territory. Of ’80s bands, they are amongst the most distinctive, and while they are now often cited as an early practitioner of dream pop, the Twins render as inadequate the vast majority of that style’s contempo offerings. Treasure is one of the few ethereal recordings that can be aptly described as heavy, and it still sounds magnificent today.

9. Joseph Spence, Bahaman Folk Guitar: Music from the Bahamas, Vol. 1 (Smithsonian Folkways) + Stella Chiweshe, Kasahwa: Early Singles (Glitterbeat) We’ve been graced in 2018 with a wonderful batch of vinyl reissues from Smithsonian Folkways including essential discs from Lightnin’ Hopkins, Woody Guthrie, Dock Boggs, and Pete Seeger, but the best, and certainly the most idiosyncratic, of the bunch is this Sam Charters-recorded dose of Bahaman guitarist Spence. While the man’s warmly rhythmic playing and his incessantly tapping feet secure his stature as one of the greats of international folk, its his loose and largely wordless vocalizing that has spurred countless unwitting listeners to quickly inquire “what in the hell is this?” Growly but joyous and yeah, weird but in a thoroughly unforced way, Spence was an utter original in an enduring scene that regularly values authenticity over individualism. Just thinking about the guy can get his music stuck in my head for days. I think about him a lot.

We move from the late ’50s in the Bahamas to the ’70s and early ’80s in Zimbabwe through the superb collecting of the early work from renowned mbira player and singer Chiweshe, whose inroads to international prominence largely began with the ’87 release of Ambuya?; it came out in the US via the Shanachie label as part of that decade’s boom for what was then tagged as World Music. That’s a cool record, but I’ll confess to liking this one a lot more as it quickly gets to mbira music’s beautiful core in the documentation of Zimbabwean traditional sounds made for Zimbabweans. It’s been a fine year for reissued global stuff, with the Analog Africa, Ostinato, and Akuphone labels bringing much goodness, but Kasahwa: Early Singles is amongst the very best as it spotlights something of a rarity; a female master of the mbira. I’m no expert in the instrument, but after numerous spins of this record I feel safe in claiming Chiweshe takes a backseat to nobody.

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Graded on a Curve: The Best of 2018’s Box Sets

Hey, it’s that time again. The time for reflecting on the year that has been (boy howdy, what a year it has been), and the time for making lists of the year’s best releases (there have been a few). Box sets and expanded releases are up first!

10. V/A, Technicolor Paradise: Rhum Rhapsodies and Other Exotic Delights (Numero Group) Back in the ’90s, the rediscovery of the ’50s-’60s genre known as Exotica was an unexpected but welcome thing. However, it gradually devolved into a lounged-out situation that embodied retro Rat Pack shenanigans rather than the tropical island approximations of Martin Denny. As the Buckinghams so eloquently put it, ‘twas kind of a drag. This set however, is decidedly not a bringdown.

Sure, booze is mentioned in the title and additionally in the subcategories of the three LPs packaged in this exquisitely designed and deeply annotated set (another top-notch job from Numero), but instead of a soundtrack for the return of the Cocktail Nation, the vibe is solidly in the tropical mood music zone. That means the aroma (some would say stench) of cultural appropriation is strong, but it’s all part of a highly listenable history lesson, the majority of which you’re unlikely to have previously heard.

9. V/A, The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions (Craft Recordings) Offering sounds of roughly the same era as the release above, The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions is utterly lacking in kitsch or resurrected, reevaluated detritus, so if Technicolor Paradise’s blend of trend-hopping and surface-level cultural swiping and contortion isn’t your bag, this baby might be, given you dig groove heat produced by the sparks of improv.

While not reassessed castoffs from a dusty box moldering beneath the record store discount bin, that doesn’t mean the five LPs compiled here haven’t suffered from long periods of neglect and general shoddiness when previously reissued. Part of the joy of this collection (as is the case with so many of the best reissues) is how the music, specifically two sessions led by Julio Gutiérrez with one each by Niño Rivera, Israel “Cachao” López, and José Antonio Fajardo, basks in clarity as it’s given its belated due, here in large part through the tenacity of co-producer Judy Cantor-Navas.

8. Guru, Jazzmatazz Deluxe Edition (UMG – Urban Legends) By the time this “experimental fusion of hip-hop and jazz” hit in 1993, I was already neck-deep in jazz research and was steadily devouring East Coast hip-hop, so unlike some folks of my acquaintance, Jazzmatazz didn’t provide an epiphany as to the worthiness of either form or furthermore, that they would blend well together (as Stetsasonic, A Tribe Called Quest, and Guru’s own crew Gang Starr had already illustrated the potential of the stylistic union).

What Jazzmatazz made abundantly clear was that hip-hop could thrive in relationship to live jazz instrumentation across a whole album in contrast to what had largely been the prior norm of cherry-picking choice bits via sampling and looping. That it works may seem obvious in retrospect, but this record, here expanded to three LPs through remixes and instrumental versions, is considered groundbreaking for a reason. It also holds up like a champ and is one of the best rap releases from a decade loaded with quality from the genre.

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Graded on a Curve: Françoise Hardy,
The Disques Vogue Collection

French vocalist Françoise Hardy openly disdains being described as an icon, though of course her modesty plays a large role in why she continues to be revered by so many. Naturally, the most important component in her enduring reputation is the music; a superb singer and true artist from within the oft-unrelenting 1960s pop machine, her records have aged exceptionally well, retaining the allure of their era as they lack period gaffes. Hardy’s first five French language albums, all originally issued by Disques Vogue from ’62-’66, comprise a highly worthy run of productivity; they’re available now on LP and CD singly or as a bundle through Light in the Attic.

Françoise Hardy is a cornerstone of the ’60s Euro-pop phenomenon known as yé-yé. Akin to rock, girl groups, svelte male crooners, and the majority of the era’s teen-oriented sounds in general, yé-yé was widely considered to be of an ephemeral nature, and by extension was basically dominated by the collusion of producers and labels. The singers, amongst them France Gall, Sylvie Vartan, Clothilde, and Chantal Kelly, were the crucial ingredient in a very calculated recipe.

Hardy differed from the norm by writing a significant amount of her own stuff, all but two songs on her debut in fact, and as a result she evaded the sometimes embarrassing subject matter thrust upon other yé-yé girls. Furthermore, she was regularly photographed with guitar in hand, though it’s unclear to what extent she actually played on these recordings. To borrow a phrase relating to Studio-era Hollywood, Hardy transcended the “genius of the system” method of pop manufacture, instead excelling at a subdued auteur-driven approach.

In the tradition of the original filmic auteurs, few recognized Hardy as a major talent during her emergence on the scene. She definitely sparked interest in fellow musicians however, including The Beatles, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan, the last so struck by her skills he dedicated the poem “Some Other Kinds of Songs” to her; it’s on the back of Another Side of Bob Dylan’s sleeve.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores,
December 2018

The TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for December, 2018.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Scone Cash Players, “Scone Cold Christmas” (Flamingo Time – Mango Hill) Bluntly, holiday music is not my favorite music. But there are exceptions, like this 45 from the band of soul-jazz-funk organist Adam Scone. Rather than just diving into standards-based instrumental quickie mode, Scone enlists singer Lee Taylor and some vocal-group backing for “My First Divorced Christmas (Santa Claus Got a Divorce),” a tune that might read as jokey but unwinds as surprisingly heartfelt, with the groove keeping things from getting too weepy. On “They Say It’s Christmas Time (Christmas Time in Brooklyn),” it’s the warm, assured baritone voice of John Dokes that’s the highlight. Well, one of ‘em, as the band ascends an organ-driven Hot Buttered Soul-era Isaac Hayes-like mountain to a killer peak. A-

Say Sue Me, “Christmas, It’s Not a Biggie” (Damnably) I’m on board with the non-holiday themed stuff from this Korean indie-surfy pop-rock outfit, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t worried, as even in reliable hands Christmas music can curdle like milk in a failed fridge. Say Sue Me succeed because they don’t lay the theme on too thick. Instead, the guitar is big but congenial in the Dick Dale-tinged pop-punky title track. It and instrumental “Too Expensive Christmas Tree” brought the Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet to mind, and that’s a cool thing to consider, in December or any time of year, really. In “Out of Bed,” vocalist Sumi Choi reminds me of Hope Sandoval diving head first into a sweet sea of early ’60s gal-pop, and from there, all Say Sue Me needs to do is not foul things up. “After This Winter” doesn’t. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Lee Morgan, Indeed! (Down at Dawn) Top-flight hard-bop trumpeter Morgan was 18 years old when he cut this session in 1956 for Blue Note, an achievement that’s undeniably impressive, though it’s also important to avoid overrating it. The whole is solid, with the young leader still clearly in thrall to Dizzy and Clifford Brown, but it’s not a jaw-dropper. So why the pick status? Well, numerous reasons, including Wilbur Ware on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, an always reliable pair, plus Horace Silver on piano, who sounds fine but doesn’t steal the show, as Morgan is clearly in command. This is not to infer that he’s hogging the spotlight, as the obscure alto man Clarence Sharpe gets plenty of solo room. As the album rolls, a decided post-Bird-Diz feel develops, and that’s nice. B+

Freddie Hubbard, The Artistry of Freddie Hubbard (Down at Dawn) Having hit the scene a little later, in some ways Hubbard temporarily stole some of Morgan’s thunder; by ’63, he’d delivered four LPs as leader for Blue Note, and followed them up with this, his first of two for Impulse! It’s a minor classic from a talent-loaded sextet featuring Hubbard’s Jazz Messengers’ cohort Curtis Fuller on trombone, Sun Ra Arkestra lynchpin John Gilmore on tenor, Tommy Flanagan on piano, Louis Hayes on drums, and Art Davis (who’d played with Hub on Olé Coltrane) on drums. While it’s not aptly described as a groundbreaking affair, the playing is assured all around, and the whole, opening with Duke’s “Caravan” and following with three originals and a nice version of “Summertime,” is ripe with ambition. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Daniel Carter,
Telepatia Liquida

As the second decade of the 21st century inches toward its close, jazz has proven extremely durable as a multifaceted genre. It’s safe to say there’s too much sweet action for one set of ears to absorb, but don’t let Telepatia Liquida get sidelined amongst the riches. It’s the second record by multi-horn man Daniel Carter, clarinetist Patrick Holmes, pianist Matthew Putman, bassist Hilliard Greene, and drummer Federico Ughi, and it offers an avant-free stew with considerable bite that’s deepened with threads of lyricism and moments of substantial beauty. Recorded live a year ago at the Forward Festival in Brooklyn, NY, it’s out December 7 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through 577 Records.

As is normal in jazz, Daniel Carter has recorded a ton, though it took a while for the tape spools to really get spinning. On the NYC scene since the ’70s, his work on bassist William Parker’s 1980 LP Through Acceptance of the Mystery Peace seems pivotal, as both Carter and Parker, along with trumpeter Roy Campbell and drummer Rashid Bakr, later formed the free improv-based Other Dimensions in Music. Reportedly coming together in the early ‘80s, they didn’t get a record out until 1990 via Silkheart.

It was deeper into the ’90s that things really started to break open for Carter. A big part of the equation was Test, a unit conceived to play outdoors (as in the NYC subway system) that could spray the free scorch like a flamethrower. Along with contributing to records by Matthew Shipp, Zusaan Kali Fasteau, Saturnalia String Trio, DJ Logic, and more with William Parker (including Other Dimensions in Music’s collab with Yo La Tengo), he was also part of Tenor Rising Drums Expanding and the One World Ensemble.

Shortly after the Italian-born drummer Federico Ughi arrived in NYC from London, he and Carter established a sturdy relationship. Having formed 577 Records in 2001, Ughi has released roughly three dozen records since, with over a third featuring the drummer in some union with Carter. That includes The Gowanus Recordings, a quartet session from ’09 (recently reissued on vinyl) where Ughi and Carter are joined by trumpeter Demian Richardson, bassist Dave Moss, and pianist Matthew Putman.

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Graded on a Curve:
Doug Paisley,
Starter Home

It’s been four years since Toronto-based singer-songwriter Doug Paisley last released a record. In terms of quality, Starter Home, which is out now through Paisley’s longtime label No Quarter, picks up without a hitch where the man left off, courtesy of a sound that’s substantially country in nature, although sharpness of playing and depth of lyrical content place it head-and-shoulders above the vast majority of the form’s contemporary practitioners. While assuredly part of a long tradition, the familiarity of Paisley’s approach reliably sidesteps worn-out tropes, and if concise, his latest delivers a powerful statement (and please note a purchasing option that offers a bonus 45). It’s great to have him back.

With Starter Home’s opening title track, Doug Paisley wastes no time navigating through a narrative peppered with tough emotional truths. The song concerns home-buying and family life, and more specifically, the hopes and satisfaction, followed by the disappointments and disillusionments, that can occur with the passage of time.

Instrumentally and vocally, it’s pretty much dead solid perfect in how it captures a strain of country music primed at the very least for sturdy popularity if not widespread appeal. Enhancing Paisley’s fluid guitar and vocal warmth, there’s Michael Eckart’s pedal steel and later in the tune, John Sheard’s piano. However, it’s the content of the words that makes it clear how this new batch of tunes is destined to delight a smaller audience.

It’s not just in how the he describes a noisy motorcyclist as an asshole, therefore firmly nixing the radio play he wouldn’t have received anyway. No, it relates directly to how “Starter Home” is the exact opposite of “go down to the honky-tonk” escapism, dealing instead with the cold hard facts of existence and in a manner that steadfastly avoids the clichés that can hinder realism as a musical tactic.

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Graded on a Curve: Avengers, (s/t)

The state of California produced a compelling batch of ‘70s punk treasures, and high in their number is the work of the Avengers. A key component in San Francisco’s initial wave, by 1979 they were done, with the majority of the band’s releases surfacing post-breakup. Avengers first appeared in ’83, subsequently drifting in and out of availability while undergoing assorted CD expansions; the core LP is the group’s essential document and by extension is a mandatory acquisition for punk collectors.

The definitive lineup of the Avengers, specifically Jimmy Wilsey on bass (replacing Jonathan Postal), Danny Furious on drums, Greg Ingraham on guitar, and Penelope Houston on vocals, only issued one EP while extant, though they were still quite busy during their relatively brief reign and impressively so given the lack of hospitable venues for the new music. The payoff for the Avengers’ tenacity was a warm-up slot at The Sex Pistols’ last show, sandwiched between the Nuns and the headlining spectacle, the event taking place at San Fran’s Winterland Ballroom in January of ’78. Reportedly besting the Pistols (the recorded evidence bears this out), the opportunity seemed to cultivate disillusionment in the band, especially in Furious, though it was Ingraham who quit a year later, his spot filled by Brad Kent (of D.O.A., Pointed Sticks, Subhumans etc). The Avengers dissolved in June of ’79, a few months prior to the arrival of their sophomore 12-inch.

Avengers, or The Pink Album as it’s sometimes referred, corrals both EPs with added material of the same vintage to succinctly detail their enduring worthiness. Opening with the debut for Dangerhouse, the LP immediately makes the strongest possible case for the four-piece as one of the finest US punk acts of the pre-HC era. For many the mantra of punk perseveres as “young loud and snotty,” but it’s those delivering the ingredients with a heaviness spawned from relentless determination (a.k.a. practice) that sit at the head of the class; beginning with exquisite guitar clamor, “We Are the One” brings heft, velocity, and an uncompromising vocal presence to the convulsions of ‘77’s rock revolution.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores,
November 2018,
Part Six

Part six of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for November, 2018. Part one is here, part two is here, part three is here, part four is here, and part five is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Oren Ambarchi & Jim O’Rourke, Hence (Editions Mego) Ambarchi and O’Rourke have two prior collabs; well, three if you count 2012’s Imikuzushi with Japanese avant-guitar titan Keiji Haino. And counting that one kinda makes sense, as this new one features the guest tabla mastery of Japan’s U-zhaan. Along with the drum, there’s synthesizer and guitar, and the whole can be aptly tagged as electroacoustic. Hence offers two long pieces, with the level of abstraction quite high, but the cumulative effect is welcoming rather than rigorous. It even fits to call big portions of this downright comforting, particularly on side two, where I was reminded a bit of rainforest New Age. However, this ambiance gets imbued with mysteriousness that’s distinct and ultimately quite pleasing. A-

Owen Lake and the Tragic Loves, The Best of Your Lies (Carrier) This set of “electro-country” from a NYC project pseudonymously led by noteworthy contempo avant-composer Jeff Snyder might read like an imminent disaster, but the blending of techno-pop with honky-tonk and Countrypolitan (all covers save for two solid ones co-written by Snyder and fiddle-harmony vocalist Anica Mrose Rissi) starts out as potentially egregious, then impresses as sincere, moves on to admirable, and with accumulated spins connects as a surprisingly successful legit fusion rather than just an experiment that didn’t fall apart. To be sure, a Carter Family song with vocoder vocals might rile some tempers, but the execution is far preferable to an umpteenth well-mannered (to the point of blandness) Americana version. Believe it. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Dock Boggs, Legendary Singer and Banjo Player (Smithsonian Folkways) While I agree that Dock Boggs’ greatest stuff was cut for Brunswick in ’27, this album still holds a special allure. Boggs had just been rediscovered by Mike Seeger (who contributes illuminating liners here) and by extension the audience at the American Folk Festival, where some of this set was recorded. As the disc unwinds, knowledge of the circumstances leading to its recording enhance the aura of Boggs’ reengaging with, and in a sense rediscovering his own music, as well; he’d reportedly repurchased a banjo shortly before meeting Seeger for the first time. But don’t think Boggs is tentative in his delivery across these 15 songs. As intense as he was in ’27? No. This is a document of an older and wiser man. A

V/A, American Banjo – Tunes and Songs in Scruggs Style (Smithsonian Folkways) Smithsonian Folkways has been celebrating their 70th anniversary by reissuing some choice titles from the vast catalog on vinyl, and the theme of the latest batch is the banjo. This includes Dock Boggs above and two releases below, plus this 1957 collection documenting the three-finger technique developed by Earl Scruggs and popularized roughly a decade before, first in the band of Bill Monroe and shortly after in his own group co-led with guitarist Lester Flatt. In short, it’s bluegrass baseline. Earl doesn’t play on this LP, but his older brother Junie does, along with Roni Stoneman, Snuffy and Oren Jenkins, J.C. Sutphin, Smiley Hobbs, Kenny Miller, and Mike Seeger, who also recorded and produced. It all sounds splendid. A

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Graded on a Curve: Analog Son,
Funky Mother

There’s no shortage of funkiness on the contemporary scene, but as lovers of the style do find it difficult to get enough, they might want to check out the fresh releases on Color Red Records, a new label based in Denver, CO founded by guitarist Eddie Roberts of the New Mastersounds. If you dig Roberts’ thing, it’s basically a cinch you’ll feel the same about Color Red’s wares; two of his other projects, Matador! Soul Sounds and WRD are also on the label, and he’s produced much of the discography. That includes Funky Mother, the fourth record from Denver combo Analog Son. Self-described as horn funk, they also feature organ, guitar, intermittent vocals, and naturally, beaucoup rhythm. The LP is out now.

Matador! Soul Sounds’ Get Ready arrived on vinyl back in March and since then there’s been a flurry of activity from Color Red headquarters, with additional items on wax, including three 45s. Fans of Get Ready will want to check out the group’s non-LP single “The Juice Ain’t Worth the Squeeze” b/w “Go On, Love,” and fans of Roberts’ in general should soak up the organ trio urgency of “Happy Hour” b/w “Corner Pocket by WRD, his outfit with organist Robert Walter and drummer Adam Deitch. “Out West” b/w “Love Tree” by The Echo System (featuring guitarist Mike Tallman) completes the single trifecta.

Alongside Get Ready, Color Red has given Analog Son’s Funky Mother a vinyl press, so together with a weekly arrival of digital content, long-playing wax is a significant component in the label’s scheme. As said, Analog Son have three prior releases, but this is the first to make my acquaintance, and like a lot of contempo stuff in the classic R&B, soul and funky zone, not all of group’s influences fit snugly into my bag.

Take Funky Mother’s opening track “CTI,” for instance. While I’m no big fan of the CTI label (clearly the track’s inspiration), Analog Son manage to pay homage to the soul-jazz-funk mershness of Creed Taylor’s enterprise (with Gabe Mervine’s trumpet bringing Freddie Hubbard to mind) without slipping into a cravenly smooth situation. But still; if they’d lingered for too long in this mode there wouldn’t be much cause for personal excitement, as I do prefer a tougher funk template.

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Graded on a Curve: Michael Hurley,
Living Ljubljana

Musically active across six decades and as vital now as he ever was, sui generis folk icon Michael Hurley has a new LP out. Featuring a live recording from a European tour in the spring of 1995, it captures him in a sweet trio with bassist Robert Michener and percussionist Mickey Bones; it’s called ‎Living Ljubljana, and its ten songs offer a tidy serving of the guy in spectacular form. Warmly played and recorded, the contents easily transcend the “one for the fans” scenario familiar to so many live albums. In fact, if spied in the racks of a local shop, it’d make a fine introduction to Hurley’s work. It’s out now on vinyl only (that means no download or digital, folks) through Feeding Tube Records of Florence, MA.

The first Michael Hurley record I ever heard was Snockgrass, which came out in 1980 via Rounder and was still available to special order a decade later. It was as fine a doorway into the man’s expansive corner of the sound universe as I could’ve asked for back then, and if you can find a copy now (it was repressed on wax by Light in the Attic in 2011), its introductory power hasn’t diminished. But hey, it was only one worthy point of entry among quite a few.

Until someone writes a book on Hurley (he deserves it), the best rundown of his life and music that I’ve been exposed to is Byron Coley’s piece from back in 2013 for the 35th issue of Arthur Magazine. It’s still available online, but please note that it’s a long one, so get comfy before reading. Coley is also co-operator of Feeding Tube (which is a store as well as a label), so he put out ‎Living Ljubljana, and his advocacy in print for Hurley is well-established; indeed, it was his “Underground” column in Spin magazine that directly led to my purchase of Snockgrass.

As said, there were other options available in getting acquainted with Hurley’s stuff, and so it remains. You can do the chronological thing and check out First Songs, which was released to essentially no fanfare by Folkways back in ’64. Reissued a handful of times including by Locust on CD as Blueberry Wine: The 1st Songs Of Michael Hurley, the set is in no way embryonic or tentative, and if it resides a little more snugly in the zone of ’60s solo folk, it’s still a highly distinctive affair, at times startlingly so. Whenever I play it after a substantial break, I’m amazed all over again that it came out when it did.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores,
November 2018,
Part Five

Part five of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for November, 2018. Part one is here, part two is here, part three is here, and part four is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Foghound, Awaken to Destroy (Ripple) The new LP from doom-riff behemoths Foghound arrives with non-musical heaviness relating to the death of the band’s bassist Rev. Jim Forrester last December (RIP). After overcoming health problems delaying the recording of Foghound’s follow-up to their second album The World Unseen, Forrester was gunned down in Fells Point in Baltimore. Rather than fold activities, the band rallied and finished the LP (Forrester had been part of the basic tracking) and have recruited Adam Heinzmann to continue forward. The perseverance directly relates to Forrester’s memory, but Foghound also have a smoking album on their hands, one that’s raw and pummeling and engaging until the very end. Amid this enduring style, one of the year’s best. A-

Jacco Gardner, Somnium (Polyvinyl) Gardner is tagged as a baroque pop multi-instrumentalist, but one with a penchant for integrating ambient and kosmische elements (the promo text mentions Bo Hansson, Vangelis, Cluster, Tangerine Dream, Eno, and Oldfield). The album’s title is in direct reference to Johannes Kepler’s book from 1608 that’s been cited as the first science-fiction novel. This reinforces the considerable retro-futurist spaciness of the whole, but there are also appealing tendrils of psychedelia manifest in part through injections of fuzz guitar (and longer pedal-driven washes). It’s altogether an inviting ride, expansive yet crisp, with passages reminding me of Laurie Spiegel, the BBC Workshop, and even David Axelrod (so this would pair well with the Pride reish below). A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Michele Mercure, Beside Herself (RVNG Intl. – Freedom to Spend) Between 1983 and ’90, Pennsylvania-based synth composer Mercure self-released a handful of cassettes through tape-trading networks; until this 2LP retrospective covering her early work, 2017’s Eye Chant (the first release on Freedom to Spend) was her only music to grooved into vinyl. The 19 pieces collected here, while unmistakably from the 1980s, are refreshing in how they navigate and transcend the aura of the period. At times, like when she manipulates audio taken from TV news program, her circumstances as a denizen of the underground come to the fore, but as the collection unwinds the surprises pile up, with “An Accident Waiting to Happen” just one of the standouts. Another revelatory release from RVNG. A

The Germs, “What We Do is Secret” (ORG Music) I was just chatting with a pal the other day about the cornerstone LPs of classic LA punk. We came to a consensus over Los Angeles by X, Group Sex by the Circle Jerks, The First Four Years by Black Flag (which is a compilation, I know), and (GI) by the Germs. There are other fine full-lengths sure, but this is an effective starter kit for the scene. “What We Do is Secret” is not as massive and essential as (GI), but its best moments aren’t far behind, and its eight songs would serve as a fine introduction. Well, better make that seven songs, as one track consists of captured banter from a 1980 gig at the Starwood that, rather than superfluous, magnifies the band’s essence (and segues into a pair of worthy cuts from the show). A tidy taste of disheveled glory. A

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores,
November 2018,
Part Four

Part four of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for November, 2018. Part one is here, part two is here, and part three is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: V/A, 3 x 4: The Bangles, The Three O’Clock, The Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade (Yep Roc) A lot of scene-oriented regroupings/ get-togethers are hindered by a sense of self-congratulation, but this endeavor by four key Paisley Underground bands, with the above-named participants covering each other’s songs, doesn’t give me that vibe at all, partially because this celebrates a movement that was initially a rejection of “gotta-make-it-big”-ism in favor of classic stuff (as listed by Steve Wynn in the booklet; VU, Nuggets, Syd-era Floyd). They all sounded so good though, that making it big (to varying degrees) was basically inevitable. This has three songs each by all four, and if you ever wondered what the Bangles covering “That’s What You Always Say” would sound like, well wonder no more. A-

Tav Falco, Cabaret of Daggers (ORG Music) Memphis titan Tav Falco came to prominence as arguably the finest, and less contentiously, the deepest of the post-punk (as in after punk) champions of pre-Beatle rock ‘n’ roll and sweet Southern roots. I consider it hard to dispute that he was the most striking personality of the bunch, and his flair has extended into his later work, which has retained its relevance through a consistently expanding sphere of interests, including tango music. Accompanied by his Unapproachable Panther Burns, Cabaret of Daggers sounds markedly different from Tav’s thing in the 1980s, though the man’s huge presence integrates it quite nicely into his oeuvre as a whole. That he gets political in “New World Order Blues” (and a cover of “Strange Fruit”) is a welcome bonus. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: The Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, Almost Acoustic (ATO) I know this one well through the Deadheads in my life, but I’ve never owned it; ‘tis nice that I can rectify that with ease. Recorded live in San Francisco and Los Angeles, this 70-minute set of bluegrass, blues, and roots reinforces both Garcia’s talent as a guitarist and his pretty-much unfaltering taste in material, as he chooses a bounty of traditional songs, “Blue Yodel #9” from Jimmie Rodgers, “Oh, Babe, It Ain’t No Lie” from Elizabeth Cotten, two from Mississippi John Hurt, and more. The entire band is in top-notch form (of special mention is the record’s producer Sandy Rothman on mandolin and dobro) and they roll with clear delight all the way to a concluding version of “Ripple.” You know the crowd loved it. I do, too. A

Bauhaus, “The Bela Session” (Leaving), Press the Eject and Give Me the Tape & The Sky’s Gone Out (Beggars Arkive) For Bauhaus lovers, the EP is the crown jewel in this batch of 40th anniversary reissues, as three of the five cuts are previously unreleased (one is “Boys” from the ’79 “Bela” 12-inch in its original version). Those who like but are not bonkers over Bauhaus might be wondering if these tracks hold more than historical interest, but it’s really getting to hear the band before they totally solidified their direction that makes it all such a treat. Press the Eject is the ’82 live alb; it’s solid but skippable if you’re on a budget. Third LP proper Sky holds signs of strain but is strong enough that their positive trajectory was essentially maintained. The opening cover of Eno’s “Third Uncle” rips. A-/ B+/ A-

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