Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Welcome to Zamrock! Vols. 1 & 2

For decades, the prime fount of Afrobeat has been Nigeria. However, turning retrospective attention southward to the landlocked nation of Zambia reveals a distinct strain of ’70s African rocking; Now-Again Records’ two fresh Welcome to Zamrock! compilations spotlight this movement with appropriate depth. The CD editions come with a 104-page hardcover book co-authored by Now-Again’s Eothen “Egon” Alapatt and Zambian music historian Leonard Koloko, while the 2LPs are accompanied with an edited booklet and a WAV download card. Together, they offer 34 tracks recorded from ’72-’76 that in the label’s words represent every important Zamrock band. Both are available now.

The music blog wave has long ebbed and without much in the way of commiseration, but it’s worth noting that an occasional curatorial gem did shine amidst the sea of digitized record collections. For example, music blogs are where this writer first heard a pair of Zamrock’s most prolific acts, specifically the Ngozi Family and WITCH; in a positive turn, Now-Again has licensed full-length reissues of both (amongst others) and awarded them prominent positions on these two overviews of the style.

In terms of groove, Zamrock is certainly related to the sounds that emanated from Nigeria during the same period, but overall, the Zambian approach is distinguished by a larger ratio of rock in the mix, a circumstance that can be attributed to the impact of colonial rule. Having broken free from Britain less than a decade prior to the start of Welcome to Zamrock’s timeframe, the country’s reality is succinctly expressed in Now-Again’s choice of subtitle: How Zambia’s Liberation Led to a Rock Revolution.

The Ngozi Family’s “Hi Babe” is illustrative of the Zambian recipe, and it smartly opens side one of Vol. 1. The cut’s most striking element is a distortion-soaked guitar riff that registers far beyond fuzzy to the point of being downright serrated, the garage-like production bringing it a slightly muffled quality as the sharp crack of the drums strengthens the hard rock foundation.

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Graded on a Curve: Composer-Critics of
the New York Herald Tribune

Other Minds Records’ new CD Composer-Critics of the New York Herald Tribune reissues recordings made from 1953 to ’55 for Columbia Masterworks’ Modern American Music Series; it illuminates a still vibrant thread in the classical music of the 20th century with particular emphasis given to the substantial dual success of Virgil Thomson. The booklet contains two enlightening essays by Thomson alongside informative descriptions of work by Paul Bowles, Lou Harrison, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, John Cage, and Thomson himself by Charles Amirkhanian. This enriching, detailed, yet easily digestible collection is available now.

As I soaked up the 1960 Nouvelle Vague cornerstone À bout de soufflé, I had no prior knowledge of the New York Herald Tribune’s existence, and so upon hearing Jean Seberg’s character Patricia hawking copies on the Champs-Élysées, my kneejerk reaction was that the newspaper was a fictive creation of the film’s maker Jean-Luc Godard.

This was circa 1990, and by that point the publication had been defunct for nearly 25 years. Eventually, I was clued in to reality, specifically due to an interest in 20th century classical, of which the compositions and writings of Virgil Thomson are intrinsically connected. As the notes to this fine set explain, Thomson’s combined efforts came not without controversy. Making music and writing about it have traditionally been practiced by separate, sometimes hostile camps, but Thomson boldly flouted convention, and his importance is directly related to his combined success as reviewer and critic.

A main issue was potential conflicts of interest, but as the history of music journalism has shown, one not need by a musician to fall victim to this scenario. Another problem was bias, which is ludicrous in retrospect as individual preferences are inescapable. Bluntly, as a rock-bored ’90s music hound neck-deep in the fanzine/ u-ground press, a milieu where players often moonlighted as scribes, reading of Thomson’s role as composer-critic bothered me not one bit.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bill Orcutt, Bill Orcutt

Bill Orcutt has been defying solo guitar convention for quite a while now, and with his new self-titled record he’s plugged in. Once a member of noise-rock titans Harry Pussy, his subsequent solo releases explored a unique strain of abstraction while tackling a wide array of classic American song. Bill Orcutt extends and refines his sui generis sensibility, and it’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital via Orcutt’s own Palilalia label

Harry Pussy’s contribution to the vastness of the ’90s musical landscape has endured. Combining the abrasion of early No Wave and the extremity of first generation American hardcore (think Teenage Jesus & the Jerks meets Negative Approach), Bill Orcutt, Adris Hoyos and associates proved a tonic for the decade’s rampant Next Big Thing-ism, and skilled musicianship has secured the Miami outfit a high place in the underground canon.

In 2012 Editions Mego reissued Let’s Build a Pussy, and the same year Orcutt unveiled the 2LP compilation One Plus One on Palilalia; it fits nicely beside the prior comps What Was Music? (on Siltbreeze) and You’ll Never Play This Town Again (on Load). In 2015 Superior Viaduct returned the group’s self-titled ’93 debut to print, and earlier this year Palilalia brought out a pair of 7-inches in editions of 100.

Over the last eight years or so, Harry Pussy’s name has been additionally bandied about in relation to Orcutt’s rather unexpected but thoroughly thrilling emergence as a solo artist. Beginning with A New Way to Pay Old Debts in 2009 (released first by Palilalia with Editions Mego reissuing it in ’11), Orcutt began wrangling his Kay acoustic (minus two strings) to uncompromising and wondrously abstract result.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, July 2017

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued wax presently in stores for July, 2017.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: James Ilgenfritz, Origami Cosmos (Infrequent Seams) Double bassist, improviser, and composer Ilgenfritz has a loaded résumé; recordings include a disc of Anthony Braxton compositions for Infrequent Seams and an opera inspired by William Burroughs for Con D’or, the label of Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart. This set gathers four pieces by Ilgenfritz’s fellow New Yorkers Annie Gosfield, Miya Masaoka, JG Thirlwell, and Elliott Sharp, all written with his formidable skills on the bass in mind. The results are consistently gripping but ordered so that Sharp’s “Aletheia” delivers the closing jaw-dropper. A

Aruán Ortiz, Cub(an)ism (Intakt) Hidden Voices, the 2016 disc by Ortiz’ trio (featuring bassist Eric Revis and drummer Gerald Cleaver) is a sweet bit of business, but this helping of solo piano is even more worthwhile, in part for how it blends and intertwines modernity and tradition. Based upon four tracks from his ’96 debut Impresión Tropical, he’s made a considerable progression. 20 years ago, Ortiz’s fleet hands engaged with melody and the expectations of a solo piano record much more directly; here, abstraction is a constant and thoroughly satisfying thread. The use of quiet and space is striking. A

REISSUE PICKS: Lynn Castle, Rose Colored Corner (Light in the Attic) Of all the artists snagged in the ill-fated web of Lee Hazlewood’s LHI label, Castle just might be the most talented. There are hints of this in her ’67 single for the venture, “The Lady Barber” (indeed, clipping male wigs was her vocation) b/w the track titling this collection, but it’s the ten previously unreleased songs here, cut solo with Jack Nitzsche at the console, that illuminate Castle’s talent as a singer-songwriter. Had she made a pro recording with Nitzsche or another sympathetic producer, the results could’ve blown some minds. A-

Billy Stoner, S/T (Team Love) Fans of ’70s outlaw country should check out this rescued item, recorded in Longview Farm in N. Brookfield, MA 37 years ago but left in the can until now. The outlaw descriptor runs quite deep; Stoner’s musical sensibility was shaped in Austin, where he began serving time in federal prison for a marijuana bust shortly after this LP was cut, and across its nine songs the man and a crack band (namely Arlo Guthrie’s backing group Shenandoah and singer Jemima James) combine honky-tonk with touches of rock, folk, and Texas singer-songwriter verve to accomplished effect. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Art Pepper,
“West Coast Sessions” Volume 3: Lee Konitz and Volume 4: Bill Watrous

Omnivore Recordings continues their welcome repackaging of six early ‘80s Art Pepper LPs with West Coast Sessions” Volume 3: Lee Konitz and Volume 4: Bill Watrous. Originally issued only in jazz-loving Japan with the crucial California alto strategically positioned in the sideman role for contractual reasons, their reemergence puts Pepper’s name back on the marquee alongside due credit for the initial leaders. While one objective of the series was to capture an informal atmosphere on standards, blues, and well-known tunes, the overall mood of these two installments contrasts markedly. With bonus takes and swell liners by Art’s widow Laurie Pepper, they’re out on CD right now.

With the arrival of these discs, Omnivore’s release strategy for this string of late-career studio dates by the long-struggling but ultimately triumphant West Coast saxophonist comes into sharp focus: divide the contents into thirds and pair a high-profile guest with a lesser-known but skilled participant for simultaneous release.

Earlier this year, Volume 1 offered Pepper’s fellow alto giant Sonny Stitt while Volume 2 spotlighted the comparatively unknown Cali pianist Pete Jolly; the upcoming editions will present a session featuring West Coast drum mainstay Shelly Manne and a set ripe with the trumpet of the far from forgotten (through sheer diversity of credits) but less celebrated Jack Sheldon.

Over three decades later, Omnivore’s teaming of figures firmly remaining on the musical radar screen with those familiar primarily to aficionados is smart, but the objective of Japanese label Atlas was simply to put some wax into the hands of jazz fiends; the original vinyl releases were titled High Jingo by Lee Konitz and his West Coast Friends and Funk’n Fun by the Bill Watrous Quintet.

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Graded on a Curve:
Crown Larks,

Since forming in 2012, Chicago’s Crown Larks have been honing a strain of druggy, free jazzy, post-punky art rocking that should mosey right up to the pleasure centers of folks into Sonic Youth, Oneida, Thee Oh Sees, and by extension, the eternal, ever-loving, expansionist fount of Krautrock. Their sophomore long-player Population extends and strengthens the impressiveness of their debut; it’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, cassette, and digital through Satellite Records and Already Dead Tapes.

The list of ingredients discernable in the Crown Larks’ sonic stew is considerable: as outlined above, there is psychedelia, jazziness in both instrumentation and execution, post-punk with a nod toward No Wave, and art rock paying special attention to German and indie/ u-ground precedent, but they also integrate touches of post-rock, strands of noise rock, and even elements of pop structure. And yet methodical, as the group led by Lorraine Bailey and Jack Bouboushian avoid coming off as a mere hodge-podge of influences.

When taking their comfort with abstraction into account, this is doubly impressive. For this record, Bouboushian is credited with vocals, guitar, organ, and microphone as Bailey tackles vocals, keyboards, alto saxophone, flute, and synth bass. They are joined by Bill Miller on drums and percussion and Matt Puhr on bass, with numerous guests deepening Population’s palette; there is Linda Malonis on synth, Curt Oren on alto and baritone sax, Peter Gillette on trumpet, and Patrick Sundlof on tabla, as Brian J. Sulpizio adds a few handclaps.

Opener “Howls” almost seems to emerge from the midst of a loose psych-inflected ballroom passageway, but it quickly tightens up to dish electric keyboard-driven Kraut-tinged forward motion. Atmospheric trumpet glides atop as guitar patterns fortify the velocity and tendrils of flute reassert the psych angle heard at the start; as its tones mingle with the keyboard, the deal is sweetened.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mid-Century Sounds: Deep Cuts from the Desert

Mid-Century Sounds: Deep Cuts from the Desert is the story of Phoenix, AZ-based studio operator, label owner, and publishing entrepreneur Floyd Ramsey, but per its title, it’s simultaneously a tour of music history spanning 1957 to 1973. Light on mindblowers but consistently engaging, the set offers 29 selections from an assortment of artists; the biggest name included is Waylon Jennings, as Duane Eddy twangs behind the scenes. There’s also Sanford Clark, Al Casey, Tommy Strange, and even a young Wayne Newton. Danke Schoen! Beginning in a honky-tonk and ending in a psychedelic soul shack, the limited-edition double 140gm vinyl in a gatefold sleeve is out now through Fervor Records.

Floyd Ramsey might not be a household name, but he’s far from a historical footnote. The first hit produced in his Audio Recorders of Arizona studio was Sanford Clark’s “The Fool,” but it’s his connection to guitar-wielding instrumentalist Duane Eddy, including his smash “Rebel Rouser,” that will secure Ramsey’s name in the annals of 20th century popular music. Additionally, he owned the record labels Liberty Bell, MCI, Rev, and Ramco, small but solvent branches of an enterprise outlined below.

“Never with Your Heart” by Ralph Smith with Bob Taylor’s Western Aces sets our journey into motion. It’s a vibrantly recorded slice of uncut honky-tonk, the leader’s potent C&W drawl accented by achy guitar tendrils as the lyrics detail disappointment in love. It’s a solid lead-in to the Eddy-assisted and Elvis-shaded (mainly through the backing vocals of local barbershop quartet the Devilaires) rockabilly of Glen Morris’ “I Got the Blues” and the country-jump of Joe Montgomery’s “Two Time Loser.”

It segues into the crisp, non-syrupy doo-wop of The Tads’ “She is My Dream” and Dave Moore’s previously unreleased R&B nugget “Four in the Morning,” which thrives on vocals loosely gliding over a framework of piano and a driving beat. It’s followed by the country-tinged pop of Gary Trexler’s “A Better Man Than Me,” the somewhat straight-laced backup singing and soft-spoken lead voice offset by sturdy guitar.

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Graded on a Curve:
Lee Morgan,
“The Roulette Sides”

The list of hard bop trumpeters is extensive and the artistry of its practitioners deep and wide; amongst Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, and Booker Little, Lee Morgan’s achievement stands tall. This does not mean every nook of his ample discography has been given its proper due; backing this up is Warner Music Group’s “The Roulette Sides,” which tucks three tracks from a 1960 session onto 10-inch vinyl. Akin to Warner’s recent John Coltrane reissue program, the results are presented in mono, and it’s altogether a tasty Morgan appetizer. Featuring tenorman Wayne Shorter and pianist Bobby Timmons, it’s out now.

Due to consistent accessibility and a disdain for stagnation, the appeal of Lee Morgan’s brand of jazz has extended right up to the present. Additionally, his profile has been given a current boost through I Called Him Morgan, Kasper Collin’s 2016 documentary spotlighting the trumpeter’s life and untimely death at age 33 at the hands of common-law wife Helen.

As with any successful mid-20th century modern jazzman, the points of entry into the Morgan’s oeuvre are vast. He recorded a ton as a leader, beginning in 1956 with the double-shot of Indeed! for Blue Note and Introducing Lee Morgan for Savoy, and his discography grows substantially when sideman dates are added; by ’56 he was in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, but the crown jewels of his ’50s work as accompanist are John Coltrane’s Blue Train (’57), Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Moanin’ (’58), and Jimmy Smith’s The Sermon! (’58), all released by Blue Note.

Moving chronologically through Morgan’s work means it’ll take a while to get to the remarkable combo punch of ’63’s The Sidewinder, which provided an unexpected dalliance with the R&B singles chart through a two-part 45 of its sublimely grooving title-track, and ’64’s Search for the New Land, a disc that captured Morgan at an expansive highpoint (if securely within an advanced bop framework) with the assistance of Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, guitarist Grant Green, bassist Reggie Workman, and drummer Billy Higgins.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, June 2017

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued wax presently in stores for June, 2017. Part one for June is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Dominique Eade and Ran Blake, Town and Country (Sunnyside) Pianist Blake excels at one-on-one interaction with vocalists, e.g. his indispensable ’62 LP with Jeanne Lee. Here, he engages in dialogue with brilliant chance-taker Eade on a wide variety of songs, from standards to folk to two selections by Walter Schumann for Charles Laughton’s noir masterpiece The Night of the Hunter to Nelson Riddle’s theme to Route 66. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” sounds like Anita O’Day flipped for Bob back in ’65 and decided to transform the song with the assistance of…Ran Blake. How cool. A

V/A, Typical Girls Volume 2 (Emotional Response) This continues the admirable international focus of the first set and with no drop off in quality. Beginning with jagged art-racket-rant by Aussies Bent and swiftly and sweetly shifting gears into the charging melodic punk of Oakland’s Midnite Snaxxx, there’s also edgy wavy stuff (Madrid’s Juanita y Los Feos, California’s Cold Beat), stomp-throttle (Cali’s Neighborhood Brats), more art-squall (Oakland’s Naked Lights), solid post-punk (Berlin’s Levitations), and more including Aussies Suss Cunts (see below) and UK vets Skinny Girl Diet. A remedy for power imbalance. A-

REISSUE PICKS: Tony Conrad, Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain (Superior Viaduct) Some know Conrad through his connection to The Velvet Underground, others are familiar with his work with Krautrockers Faust, and abstract film nuts might be hip to The Flicker. This 2LP/ 2CD set, consisting of one remarkable 88-minute piece featuring Conrad on violin, Rhys Chatham on the Long String Drone (a homemade instrument of wood, metal, bass strings, an electric pickup, tape and rubber bands), and Laurie Spiegel on bass, now sits at the top of this too often overlooked avant-gardist’s already potent discography. A+

Game Theory, 2 Steps from the Middle Ages (Omnivore) It’s common for the final album in a band’s reissue cycle to be one for the die-hards, but across their ’82-’90 existence Game Theory never put out a bad record. More to the point, once Scott Miller and company attained greatness the albums largely maintained that standard. Because this is a somewhat streamlined affair compared to Lolita Nation, I’ve heard some put it down, but listening to it in 2017, I have no fucking clue what those people are talking about. Listen up and get a grip; this is guitar pop for the ages. A-

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Graded on a Curve: William C. Beeley,
Gallivantin’ and
Passing Dream

Tompkins Square continues to rescue neglected independent releases from the cruel clutches of obscurity. The latest: William C. Beeley’s Gallivantin’, which came out in a self-financed edition of 200 in 1971, and its follow-up Passing Dream, cut as Will Beeley for the Malaco label in ‘79. The first is full-bodied solo folk, the second a serving of uncut country verve, and the reemergence of both comes attached with the good news of new Beeley material to be issued by Tompkins Square in 2018. Sage advice is to get hip to the guy’s stuff right now; Gallivantin’ and Passing Dream are available on vinyl June 30.

Historically, it’s been far more common for talent to be underappreciated or outright ignored than to be met with the deserved level of success. Gallivantin’ is the prime example of this circumstance; it’s a private press, but it’s not loner, outsider, or offbeat in any way. In fact, opening with a sharp cover of Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and closing with an astute ten-minute merger of two songs by Buffy Sainte-Marie, “Little Wheel Spin and Spin/Co’dine,” the disc has a very strong connection to the folky spirit of the time.

Tackling Bob was, if not a prerequisite, then extremely common during the era, but it’s Beeley’s take on Sainte-Marie that really drives home Gallivantin’ as an in-tune byproduct of the folk scene. Most importantly, the high quality of his interpretations extends to the record’s eight originals, which unwind without a letdown; “Gallivanter” and “Summer Colored Skin” are loaded with imagery without going overboard, and “Walk” offers a blend of Leonard Cohen and the Greenwich Village that’s the highpoint of the first side. It’s followed by the scaled-back relationship ditty “And then I’ll Be Gone.”

Concision is another constant element, as seven songs, none breaking the three-minute mark, comprise side one. The brevity only serves to reinforce the album’s function as a demo of sorts for bigger labels; one listen to Gallivantin’ is all it takes to understand the interest of Elektra and Capitol, and it was through a promotion rep with A&M that Beeley hooked up with Malaco.

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