Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Shirley Collins,
Shirley Inspired

Great artists assert their influence in numerous ways. In the example of Shirley Collins, the recipe for lasting relevance derives from prodigious if astutely unembellished vocal talent and a keen insight into folk tradition. In terms of wedding the past to the future in the eternal present, Collins is extremely valuable, and for evidence one need look no further than Shirley Inspired, a whopping and wide-ranging tribute compilation assembled by Earth Recordings on three vinyl discs just in time for Record Store Day. Any heavy-duty folk nut should be pining to pony up, and as the proceeds go directly to the production of a film on Collins’ life, the collection’s benefits are especially worthwhile.

Born in 1935, Shirley Elizabeth Collins stands amongst the giants of 20th century folk, though listeners unversed in the British streams of the style may know of her only implicitly; in 1959, prior to commencing her recording career, she accompanied Alan Lomax on a particularly productive song-collecting tour of the US south, the indispensable folklorist back in the States after the quashing of the Red Scare Witch Hunts.

But Collins’ primary importance stems from her own music, and those having stiff-armed Brit-folk aside thinking it the milieu of pennywhistles, jig marathons, and gallivanting around maypoles should pay her stuff some mind; Sweet England, her ’59 debut for British Argo is cool, but things really take off with Folk Roots, New Routes, a ’64 collaboration with Brit guitarist Davey Graham for Decca, and continue through her next two solo efforts, ‘67’s The Sweet Primroses for Topic and ‘68’s masterful The Power of the True Love Knot for Polydor, both albums cut beside her older sister Dolly on pipe organ.

Even better were ‘69’s Anthems of Eden and ‘70’s Love, Death and the Lady, the siblings receiving equal billing as a part of EMI Harvest’s still astounding roundup of late-‘60’s/early-‘70s British sounds. Naturally there are more nuggets to be found in Collins’ body of work, but the material outlined above sets a solid course for the curious novice.

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Graded on a Curve: Colleen, Captain of None

Colleen is the nom de scène of Cécile Schott, a French multi-instrumentalist who’s been performing for over a decade. Her main axe is the treble viola da gamba; similar to a cello and mainly used for baroque purposes, it figures in a decidedly avant-garde context across her substantial discography. If experimental in nature, Colleen’s artistry avoids the inhospitable, and with her sixth album and first for Thrill Jockey, the music takes an accessible twist sacrificing none of its brilliance. Captain of None is out now on LP/CD/digital.

Like many of the essentially underground entities to rise up in the inaugural decade of the 20th century, I initially stumbled upon Colleen in the seemingly endless info stream fostered by weblogs. Dabbling in her material, I found it interesting, but it hasn’t been until very recently that I’ve paid Cécile Schott the attention she deserves.

The treble viola da gamba, or viol for short, is mostly heard today at recitals and on recordings of early music; Schott’s employment of the instrument for undeniably contemporary ends places her in league with such modern wielders of unusual sonic equipment as harpist Joanna Newsom and lute-man Jozef van Wissem.

Colleen’s debut Everyone Alive Wants Answers arrived in 2003 via Tony Morley’s Leaf, the label also issuing its follow-up The Golden Morning Breaks in ’05, the “Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique” EP in ’06 and Les Ondes Silencieuses in ’07. Early in ’06 a limited edition live CD Mort Aux Vaches was released on Staalplaat. After a considerable break, The Weighing of the Heart appeared in ‘13 on new label Second Language.

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Graded on a Curve:
Built to Spill,
Untethered Moon

Boise, Idaho’s Built to Spill have returned with a new studio album, one making no major adjustments to a program that elevated the Doug Martsch-led band into the upper echelon of indie-spawned post-grunge success stories. Untethered Moon is largely defined by familiarity; it starts strong, explores a comfort zone through its middle, and culminates in raucous fashion. It’s out on vinyl for Record Store Day and will be available digitally and on CD April 21st.

By any yardstick, five and a half years between releases is a long time, the longest in Built to Spill’s history in fact. But on the other hand, the gap merely replaces their second lengthiest layoff, the period separating 2001’s Ancient Melodies of the Future and ‘06’s You in Reverse. The latest break comes from a group with considerable achievements under its belt, prominent amongst them a substantial fanbase for their easily recognizable blend of classic and indie rock.

If unapologetically utilizing the tried-and-true template of guitar bass drums and vocals, those unfamiliar with Built to Spill shouldn’t assume theirs is a study in stylistic redundancy, as Doug Martsch’s unit has long-ago transcended the initial indie-centric descriptor of the new band from the guy who used to be in Treepeople.

Those origins are documented on ‘93’s Ultimate Alternative Wavers, ‘94’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love (the place for newbies to start) and ’96’s The Normal Years, a comp issued by K Records; it was during this era that Martsch collaborated with K’s head honcho Calvin Johnson, noted producer/ex-Pell Mell keyboardist Steve Fisk and others in the Halo Benders.

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Graded on a Curve: George Usher and Lisa Burns, The Last Day
of Winter

Survivors from a long gone New York City, George Usher and Lisa Burns have crafted a rewarding new release greatly emphasizing perseverance in the face of great adversity. A collaborative song cycle initiated during Usher’s battle with cancer and recorded by the pair as he slowly recovered and returned to performing, The Last Day of Winter is an inspiring, emotionally resonant work featuring the assistance of a talented band. It’s out now on compact disc via Near and Dear Music.

George Usher and Lisa Burns are accurately assessed as veterans, but across decades of experience neither has been rewarded with widespread recognition. Given the relationship of both to accessible yet substantive pop songwriting and performance, that’s a bit of a drag. Moving to NYC from Cleveland, Usher formed The Decoys; power-pop mavens should really seek out ‘81’s “Not the Trembling Kind,” though many folks will already know it as the title-track to Laura Cantrell’s 2000 debut.

Usher has accumulated a long list of credits including Beat Rodeo, the Schramms, and “satellite membership” in the Bongos, additionally collaborating on work from that group’s Richard Barone and James Mastro. He also led the combo House of Usher, cut a string of acclaimed solo discs and co-wrote the tunes found on Edward Rogers’ first two well-received albums.

Lisa Burns made a self-titled LP for MCA way back in ’78. Produced by Craig Leon with the input of the Boom Boom Band (of Willie “Loco” Alexander fame), it wields likeable neo-girl-group action; while not brain-searing in its brilliance it’s stronger than some evaluations have suggested. Burns was next in ‘80s dance music one-shot Velveteen and a good while later the country-folk-oriented The Lovin’ Kind; both acts included the participation of her husband Sal Maida. She’s also collaborated with poet Holly Anderson in New Randy and issued solo records garnering high praise.

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Graded on a Curve:
Weed, Running Back

A fair amount of shoegaze-inclined stuff is hazy and distorted enough to annoy one’s parents (assuming one’s folks aren’t into Fun House) while possessing an approachability suitable for the patio of that hip bistro up the street. Such is not the case with Vancouver BC’s Weed; the ten selections on their sophomore long-player hit as hard as a nine-pound hammer as they radiate the raw heat of a rare-cooked steak, fitting for a unit also informed by grunge and punk. Running Back is out now on LP/CD/digital via Lefse Records.

Running Back provided this writer with his first exposure to the music of Weed. Prior to that introductory spin an admittedly kneejerk assumption had set in regarding the band’s choice of moniker; this was most assuredly going to be a bonged-out experience, but remaining to be discovered was the quality of the high and additionally the ratio of heaviness to mellow.

Upon listening, it became obvious how faulty a leap this unfounded conclusion actually was, Weed’s sound impacting these ears as powerfully expansive but not tangibly druggy. Had my peepers glimpsed the outfit’s short list of influences, namely My Bloody Valentine, Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and The Band, my misapprehension would’ve been swiftly quashed.

Of those cited the first four are observable to varying degrees; maybe the inclusion of The Band is a Canadian thing, though singer-guitarist Will Anderson moved north of the border for college from the Badger State. Weed initially sprang to life as a solo affair (issuing a pair of cassettes), and in 2010 Anderson welcomed the entrance of fellow guitarist and songwriter Kevin Doherty.

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Graded on a Curve: The Superior Viaduct Punk Singles Bundle

Minus the aid of a financial stockpile it’s often difficult and sometimes well nigh impossible to experience many punk classics via their original format. So it’s tremendous that five killer chips off the genre’s block by The Residents, the Germs, The Dils, X, and Flipper are seeing reissue as they initially appeared; as 7-inch singles. Pressed on color vinyl and available separately in stores the week of April 14, the whole batch can be obtained as a special-priced bundle only by ordering through the website of Superior Viaduct.

Unfold and ogle a map of North America and it’ll be hastily apparent that California covers a lot of acreage, and is in fact the third largest territory in the US union. By extension the Golden State looms large in its country’s punk narrative through the spawning of thriving city-scenes in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Apart, they join New York and Cleveland as the USA’s healthiest regional explosions from ’76 to ’81; considered together, LA and San Fran become an unbeatable combination.

It might not seem a fair fight, but of the 50 states the 31st wields the strongest output of the pre-HC era; New York and Ohio had the heaviest hitters, the former municipality cultivating many of the defining acts in the style as the latter berg came to embody the sparks that can fly when the need for artistic expression collides with significantly grim surroundings, but simply put, California had the deepest bench.

As the music bundled by Superior Viaduct illustrates, Cali possessed a hefty share of vital bands; these units, two hailing from Los Angeles and two from San Francisco with one chalking up time in both cities, managed to unleash wide-ranging sounds persisting as highly influential. Indeed, the music ranks amongst the finest punk ever waxed.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Apartments,
the evening visits…
and stays for years

A hefty and rewarding collection can be amassed in solely corralling the output of cult acts, and the reemergence of the evening visits…and stays for years by Brisbane Australia’s The Apartments has eased the procurement of a key entry to that shelf. Closely associated with The Go-Betweens and led by songwriter Peter Milton Walsh, the group’s ’85 effort has been awarded a freshly expanded reissue; also included are a pair of early singles and a batch of illuminating demos. The set’s available now on 2LP/CD from Captured Tracks.

For years this writer mainly knew of The Apartments through the appearance of “The Shyest Time” on the soundtrack to the John Hughes-written (though like Pretty in Pink, Howard Deutch-directed) ’87 film Some Kind of Wonderful. A few years later and a bit wiser, The Apartments impacted my consciousness as part of the story of The Go-Betweens, with Walsh recruited into the group in ’78 by Robert Forster and Grant McLennan.

Differences in temperament made the union a brief one, and shortly thereafter in ’79 The Apartments cut “The Return of the Hypnotist,” their self-financed 7-inch debut bearing the logo of The Go-Betweens’ Able Label. Featuring two tunes penned by Walsh and one from co-guitarist Michael O’Connell, the single sits alongside “Lee Remick” and “People Say” from Walsh’s ex bandmates and “Sunset Strip” by The Riptides as the picks of the Able Label litter.

Altogether, “The Return of the Hypnotist” is a fine strum-pop specimen, frankly an unsurprising scenario given the use of dual guitars. If accessibly catchy, even at this juncture Walsh’s writing is ambitious; each of his songs eclipse three minutes, with “Help” nearly attaining four. Just as interesting is how his voice’s edgy emotionalism imparts “Help” and especially “Nobody Like You” with a weight they’d otherwise not possess; he’s equally engaged during the bruised heart achiness of O’Connell’s “Refugee.”

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Graded on a Curve: Blackout, Blackout

The Brooklyn trio Blackout specializes in a particularly heavy form of metal. Additional adjectives applying to their self-titled 7-song long-playing debut: sludgy, dense, thick, doomy. Few will describe them as original, though that’s hardly the objective. Rather, the aim is the inspired exploration of an esteemed style, and to this end Blackout succeeds. It’s out now on RidingEasy Records.

Blackout’s new LP first came to my attention while checking messages on my laptop. In so doing, the thumbnail image of the cover glimpsed above was reduced to roughly the size of, well, a thumbnail, and my immediate reaction before reading any clarifying text was that the email in question was promoting a mid-‘70s-vintage reissue.

It’s likely I would’ve thought the same had I stumbled over the record as I perused the B bin at my local wax shack. For starters, it’s a flat fact that the utilization of band photographs as cover art is far less common than it used to be, and by extension Blackout’s B&W portraiture, and the abundant locks and facial hair it captures, are the focal point of an undeniably retro design motif.

It reinforces the differences in Blackout’s approach, though Sabbath-roots aside the group doesn’t sound like they escaped from the ‘70s. No, part of their distinctiveness comes down to an undisguised sense of humor, which certainly stands apart in a field known for a high ratio of solemnity. This comic facet is healthy but not obnoxious, for no yuk-meisters are they; once the amps are plugged in and the picks and sticks are in hand, Blackout is a decidedly serious proposition.

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Graded on a Curve: Houndstooth,
No News from Home

Houndstooth’s membership hails from numerous points on the North American map, this geographical breadth mirroring musical range that helped to strengthen their 2013 debut. Formed in Portland, OR as a five piece in 2010, in the interim they’ve shed a member, but their follow-up record maintains the diversity of inspiration; indie elements blend with Americana, Classic-rock and psychedelic flourishes as Katie Bernstein’s lead vocals enhance the tunes’ worthiness. No News from Home is out this week on LP/CD/digital via No Quarter.

Houndstooth’s influences are broad but complementary, their music striving for cohesion from inside the melodic rock realm. The sound they make is refreshing and not a bit unusual; at times, in indie terms, Houndstooth can even be described as classicist. To begin, they rely heavily upon strength of material, with each of the band’s full-lengths springing from the songwriting fount of Bernstein and lead guitarist John Gnorski (both originally from Austin).

Graeme Gibson (who moved to Oregon from Canada) plays the drums and produces, and newest edition Cari Palazzolo (also from Austin) rounds out the lineup on bass. Since the group’s inception a pair of contributors have departed the scenario (and on good terms; Courtney Sheedy and Mike Yun, both Detroit to Portland transplants, are listed on Houndstooth’s website as “past pals”), but these changes in personnel haven’t discernibly effected the togetherness of their attack.

All the ingredients were in place for first LP Ride Out the Dark; its stronger moments include the Crazy Horse-tinged “Canary Island,” the crisp Americana of “Wheels on Fire,” the fibrous indie pop of “Strangers,” and the Bernstein showcase “New Illusion.” Additionally, “Francis” could’ve been an entry on a ‘90s Too Pure label sampler, sly Krautrock influence being one of Houndstooth’s aces in the hole, while “Don’t I Know You” tickles the ear like Mazzy Star circa She Hangs Brightly.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sly & The Family Stone,
Original Album Classics

The late-1960s was loaded with musical groundbreakers, and one of the most enduring is Sly & the Family Stone. Formed by brothers Sly and Freddie Stone, the group grew by leaps and bounds through the combination of rock, R&B/soul, psychedelia, and pop, and by ’69 they had effectively conquered the scene. Theirs is a reign dotted with masterworks, and Sony has collected the bulk of the discography into the vinyl box set Original Album Classics. It includes five 180gm LPs remastered from the source tapes by Vic Anesini and pressed at URP; for a limited time it’s available exclusively at Popmarket.

He was born Sylvester Stewart in Denton, TX in 1943. Two decades later the man was wielding the handle Sly Stone, and when his Sly & the Stoners joined forces with his brother’s Freddie & the Stone Souls in ’67 San Francisco, he was already well-ensconced in the music biz both as a performer and producer at Autumn Records. In due time Sly excelled at his leadership role, though the Family Stone, credited as the first major American rock act to incorporate integrated multi-gender personnel, was always something more.

They initially consisted of Sly (vocals, organ, and assorted other instruments), Freddie (guitar, vocals), Larry Graham (bass, vocals), Cynthia Robinson (trumpet, vocal interjections), Jerry Martini (saxophone), and Greg Errico (drums), with assistance from Vet Stone, Mary McCreary, and Elva Mouton, collectively known as Little Sister (backing vocals). Signed to CBS Records’ subsidiary Epic, they worked fast, maybe too fast; the first long-player was in the can before June was done.

Indeed, if they’d broken up after A Whole New Thing’s cashbox failure, Sly & the Family Stone would likely be forgotten. Over the years the debut has taken its share of heat, some of it undeserved. Things begin fairly well; “Underdog” is bookended by horns riffing on the melody to “Frère Jacques,” but the meat of the matter is upbeat soul. The opener establishes one of the album’s distinctive attributes, specifically a heavier drum sound than was then the norm for the R&B genre.

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