Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
David Chesworth,
50 Synthesizer Greats

Here’s something you hopefully already know: Australia is a country and a continent. But hey, think about that for a sec; Down Under’s double-duty means a whole lot of un(der)heard music. Like David Chesworth’s 50 Synthesizer Greats, for example. Unusual, innovative, and accessible, its original self-released edition is also rare and expensive, making it the sort of album post-punk archeologists salivate over. On March 31, it gets a deserved vinyl and digital reissue by Chapter Music.

Well, first off, not 50 but 37, though this reissue’s digital-only bonus tracks spread the total to 39. Furthermore, the initial title 50 Synthisizer Greats has been corrected. If all this resonates a little like undisciplined goofing around, as explained in the label’s background text, 50 cuts were recorded but wouldn’t all fit on a single slab of vinyl. Of the 13 extra tracks, only one survives, presented here in tandem with a subsequent long piece from ’79 using a Serge Modular Synthesizer. Overall, the results connect as serious but not stern as the LP + extras sit at the beginning of a long and varied career.

Chesworth might be better known to Aussie underground mavens as a member of Essendon Airport. Formed in ’78 with guitarist Robert Goodge, they later grew to a five piece; an expanded reissue of their 1981 LP Palimpsest and the retrospective collection Sonic Investigations of the Trivial are both still available through Chapter Music. Alongside Philip Brophy, with whom he co-founded Innocent Records in 1979, Chesworth also took part in Chocolate Grinders, the Dave & Phil Duo, and → ↑ → (aka Tsk Tsk Tsk or Tch Tch Tch).

Some of → ↑ → and Essendon Airport’s activity has squeaked out on compilations over the years, e.g. Chapter Music’s Can’t Stop It! Australian Post-Punk 1978-82 and its follow-up volume, Laughing Outlaw Records’ Inner City Sound, Shame File Music’s Artefacts of Australian Experimental Music Volume II 1974–1983, and most recently the Efficient Space label’s Midnite Spares, a set that also includes a track by Chesworth’s project Whadya Want? It appears that Chocolate Grinders and the Dave & Phil Duo have yet to be anthologized.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, March 2017

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Molly Burch, Please Be Mine (Captured Tracks) This study in classic femme vocal pop form will probably leave “heard it all before” cynics unimpressed, but Burch and her band excel at skirting triteness; Patsy Cline is a clear and admitted influence, yet the tunes avoid twang and instead gravitate toward the Brill building and Spector. Furthermore, her background in collegiate jazz vocal studies insures a talented showing but with nary a supper-club cliché in sight. Largely cut in one day, Please Be Mine places Burch somewhere between Hope Sandoval and Britta Phillips, and it’s a treat. A-

Thelma, S/T (Tiny Engines) Beginning as the solo project of Natasha Jacobs, evolving circumstances resulted in the full band scenario of Thelma. It’s a maneuver helping to loosen the “confessional” tag too frequently slapped onto the records of female singer-songwriters. Don’t think this smartly economical seven-song debut lacks emotional heft, it just doesn’t get overtaken by it. Instead, Jacobs’ voice is pretty and playful without preciousness as the indie rock-ish instrumentation, often quite heavy, is productively enhanced with electronic elements. But it’s her writing that makes this one a winner. A-

REISSUE PICKS: Camera Obscura, “Teenager” and “Keep It Clean” (Elefant) 25th anniversary first-time vinyl reissues of two EPs from this long-running Scottish group’s classic sophomore full-length. At the time (’03), they were routinely lumped with Belle and Sebastian (not unfairly, as Stuart Murdoch produced their debut), but Underachievers upped the bite in their brand of twee indie pop; “Teenager,” “Keep It Clean,” and that EP’s “Suspended from Class” get to the heart of this development, while “A Sister’s Social Agony” hits a fruitful ’50s vibe. The bonuses cut mustard, especially “Amigo Mio.” A- / A-

Albert Ayler, Prophecy (ESP-Disk) Ayler’s regular appearances in this column relate to personal fondness exacerbated by memories of the once terrible difficulty in laying hands on this key avant-jazz figure’s records. As his work continues to pepper our ongoing vinyl resurgence, spreading the news feels essential; bluntly, Ayler rates as one of the 20th century’s sweetest musical iconoclasts. This is his trio, filled out with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray, captured live in ’64 at NYC’s Cellar Café. Later included on CD with the mind-blowing Bells, this is a core piece of the puzzle. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
David Greenberger, Chris Corsano, Glenn Jones,
An Idea in Everything

For decades David Greenberger documented the stories, thoughts, and feelings of those residing in Boston’s Duplex Nursing Home, and for nearly as long cartoonists and musicians endeavored to further illuminate those words. Greenberger has been the overseer of those efforts, a role that sometimes evolved into active participant, and the latest example finds him reading assorted texts in collaboration with guitarist Glenn Jones and drummer Chris Corsano; together they produce a refreshing celebration of the human condition. An Idea in Everything is out now on double 10-inch vinyl through Okraïna Records.

The hunger for music is often accompanied with the desire to devour additional artistic forms, most commonly film and literature, with the latter extending into the realms of comics and zines. Although he led the terribly underappreciated ’80s rock outfit Men & Volts, David Greenberger’s pathway into the consciousness of many came through The Duplex Planet, a self-published periodical that featured conversations with the residents of the elder care facility where he worked as activities director.

The Duplex Nursing Home has since closed, but not before Greenberger’s zine amassed almost 200 issues. Along the way, the content branched out into collabs with a long line of top-flight cartoonists (Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge, Doug Allen, Drew Friedman, Dame Darcy, Wayno, Chris Ware, Jessica Abel) and musicians, notably through Lyrics by Ernest Noyes Brookings, a compilation series where numerous participants (four CDs worth) adapted the poems of Duplex resident Brookings into song lyrics.

That Brookings was encouraged to write poems surely harkens back to Greenberger’s educational background (he graduated from art school in Boston in ’79) but more importantly, it sheds light on his lack of condescension. Over the years his refreshing approach to what he describes as the “art of conversation” has endeared his work to underground rockers, enthusiasts of the graphic novel, and dedicated listeners to Public Radio.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bobby Darin & Johnny Mercer, Two of a Kind

Although quite far afield from our current pop charts, Bobby Darin and Johnny Mercer were once thoroughly of the commercial mainstream. However, their full-length collaboration, originally released on Atco in 1961, finds the pair in a nostalgic and jocular mood. Loaded with older tunes and a theatrical, at times vaudevillian rapport, Two of a Kind succeeds through expert delivery, obvious mutual respect, the bulls-eye backing of Billy May and His Orchestra, and the production expertise of Ahmet Ertegun. On March 24, it gets a fresh and long-delayed expanded CD reissue via Omnivore Recordings.

Waxing autobiographical as a record reviewer can be a dangerous move (though rock scribes have often successfully flouted the “rule” against it), but in considering Two of a Kind’s saturation of personality it feels appropriate to plunge deep into the realm of the first-person. And so; allow me to confess that pre-rock pop vocalizing in the big band mode has never been my favorite scene, and has in fact persistently nagged around the edges of blind spot.

There are of course exceptions, most of them jazzy and female, but the flat fact is I’ve never been that enthusiastic over Bing. Or Sinatra. Or Bennett. Or Dean (sorry, Nick Tosches). Or Torme. Though I do like Louis Prima, especially with Keely Smith (that better, Nick?) And hey, as relevant to this piece, I’ve long been fond of Bobby Darin.

Due to his early hits, Darin is sometimes pegged as a rock ‘n’ roll-era figure who broadened his horizons upon youth music’s decade-closing stumbling block, but he was actually a singer-songwriter, and a solid one at that; “Splish Splash” was reportedly co-written on a dare, and “Dream Lover” stands up as a likable example of ’50s teen pop crooning.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Creation,
Action Painting

The Creation only scored a couple moderate hits during their approximately two-year existence, and they never managed to record a proper album. However, their output was of consistently high quality and their posthumous influence substantial; esteemed by discerning ’70s Mods including Mr. Paul Weller, they were reissued, frequently covered, and even lent the name to Alan McGee’s cornerstone indie-pop label. Now they’re getting the definitive treatment, with the meticulously researched Action Painting available March 17 on double vinyl, double CD + book combo, and FLAC through archival titans Numero Group.

The Creation are secured in the pages of rock history for a handful of songs: there’s “Makin’ Time,” its majestic opening riff burned into the synapses of Wes Anderson obsessives everywhere via the soundtrack to his early classic Rushmore; there’s its follow-up “Painter Man,” the group’s biggest commercial success (though minor at #36 on the UK chart) and its flipside “Biff, Bang, Pow”; and there’s the enduringly influential non-hit “How Does It Feel to Feel” (covered by The Godfathers, Halo of Flies, Ride, Psychic TV, and no doubt others).

But rock history tends to steamroll over short-lived and fleetingly successful acts; by 1968, after numerous lineup changes and extensive gigs throughout Germany (where they landed their biggest commercial achievements including We Are Paintermen, an LP culled from their 45s), The Creation called it a day.

Other comps followed (Discogs lists Action Painting as the 17th), with maybe the key assemblage being the ’73 release Creation 66–67 on the Charisma label; surely many a mod had that one. But perhaps the gesture that serves as the biggest compliment to the band’s strides of excellence is Rhino’s choice to open disc one of Nuggets II, the label’s 4CD plunge into British Beat and related activities, with “Makin’ Time.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Pere Ubu,
Drive, He Said 1994-2002

The latest archival box set from Pere Ubu documents the trailblazing Cleveland outfit’s move to a darker, thornier sound after a fitful major label-funded dalliance with commercial fortunes. Ray Gun Suitcase was the indie label return, followed by Pennsylvania’s surefootedness, and then new millennium entry point St. Arkansas; building upon prior form rather than approximating past glories, they shape Drive, He Said 1994-2002. Multidisc collections are often merely data dumps, but Fire Records’ Ubu boxes thrive on a spirit of revision, especially this volume. It’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital March 17.

The unusually information-rich website ubuprojex.com is even more distinguished by a refreshingly cogent point of view regarding the band’s activities and oeuvre. For one example, on a page devoted to the set under consideration here, Ubu’s leader and sole constant member David Thomas states: “there is no such thing as a ‘linear’ Ubu story or construction.”

The quote relates to the three discs making up the bulk of this box as they represent a Mark Twain-inspired pursuit of The Great American Novel in album form, but it applies just as easily to how Fire’s Ubu reissue program has jumped over the band’s output for the Fontana label, not out of dim retrospective esteem but simply due to the difficulty in securing rights for proper rerelease.

In good news, progress has been made on the Fontana-era volume Les Haricots Sont Pas Salé (likely to hit stores this autumn), but that’s not what’s here; instead, Drive, He Said comprises what many consider to be Ubu’s “comeback,” though this writer can attest that Ray Gun Suitcase’s emergence in 1995 was accompanied with as much mild curiosity as unbridled enthusiasm.

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Graded on a Curve: Tamikrest,
Kidal

Delivering five LPs in seven years, Tamikrest has helped bring global exposure to the music of the Sahara Desert’s nomadic Tuareg people, all the while keeping a firm handle on their modern twist to long-established traditions. Named for the Malian cultural center where Tamikrest was formed, their latest is no exception; its guitar-rich and rhythmically insistent contents are likely to reach out and grab fans of their fellow Tuareg movers Tinariwen. As is the norm for the Glitterbeat label, Kidal is out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital March 17.

Tamikrest formed in 2006 in a locale described in Glitterbeat’s promo text as the “spiritual home of a dispossessed people.” A site of conflict during the civil war of 1990-1995, the town was conquered and reconquered many times, and when riots broke out in 2005, Ousmane Ag Mossa and Cheick Ag Tiglia chose music over weapons.

Recruiting likeminded bandmates, they honed their chops on trad-Tuareg stuff and the hybrid sound of predecessors Tinariwen, by extension soaking up a variety of Western rock. Four years later they issued Adagh on German label Glitterhouse, the connection sparked through an association with the American-Australian act Dirtmusic.

Featuring guitarist (and former member of the Walkabouts) Chris Eckman, Dirtmusic met up with Tamikrest at the 2008 Festival au Désert in Mali. Two years later the Tuareg outfit was invited to record on Dirtmusic’s second album BKO, with Eckman producing both Adagh and its follow-up for Glitterhouse, 2011’s Toumastin.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, March 2017

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: The Feelies, In Between (Bar/None) A considerable internal debate transpired over awarding this pick status. Not due to matters of quality, but rather that I’d come-off as an utter sycophant regarding a band I’ve long loved as they gravitate toward strum-pop. It’s a style that’s always been a facet in their overall attack, but the increase here turns these Hoboken beauties’ second post-recommencement album into a grower of sublime proportions. With a refreshing lack of late-career baggage, it’s crystal clear this is what The Feelies want to be doing. If you’re a fan, you’ll eat it up. A

Cindy Lee Berryhill, The Adventurist (Omnivore) Berryhill’s first album in decade is a gorgeous song cycle inspired by her late husband (and Crawdaddy magazine founder) Paul Williams, and it’s a long way from “Damn, I Wish I Was a Man” and her stature as a prime player in the late-’80s anti-folk movement. Here, warm and woody production (thanks to recurring use of cello and violin) and a crack band including Syd Straw, DJ Bonebrake, Danny Frankel, and Probyn Gregory and Nelson Bragg of Brian Wilson’s group, enhance Berryhill’s already splendid writing, as she’s nimble of finger and strong of voice throughout. A-

REISSUE PICKS: Buzzcocks, “Spiral Scratch” and Time’s Up (Domino) A core document of DIY punk (self-released on their New Hormones label) and one of the genre’s greatest statements, the limited-edition reissue of “Spiral Scratch” came out in late January; it’s still very much available and pairs nicely with this 11-track studio session. Recorded for 45 pounds at Revolution Studios in October of 1976, Time’s Up isn’t as sharply honed as the EP, but it does deliver a glorious glimpse of brilliance in bloom. NOTE: these two releases encompass the audio portion of Domino’s new Buzzcocks Mk. 1 box set. A+ / A-

V/A, The Sound of Jazz (Analogue Productions) This one ain’t cheap, but as history it’s indispensable; derived from the December 8, 1957 CBS telecast Seven Lively Arts, this gave the mainstream public a rich taste of the jazz milieu, with music consultants Whitney Balliett and Nat Hentoff insuring the opportunity was not wasted. They roped in Basie’s cornerstone band, the post-Armstrong-isms of the Henry Allen Orchestra, Lady Day with Mal Waldron, plus Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Pee Wee Russell, and Jimmy Giuffre. Everyone is in fine if not peak form. Special is an understatement. A

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Graded on a Curve: New releases from Cuneiform Records

Silver Spring, MD’s long extant label Cuneiform Records offers a catalog worth celebrating, and in what’s becoming a bit of a tradition, the early months of 2017 have offered up a smorgasbord of fresh releases spotlighting the enterprise’s personality and continued importance; they hold the Ed Palermo Big Band’s plunge into jazz-rocking Anglophilia, the Chicago / London Underground’s ocean spanning avant-jazz summit meeting, The Microscopic Septet’s distinctive Downtown investigation of the blues, and Thinking Plague’s robust, socially-concerned art-rock. Diverse and clearly the result of dedicated music fans, all four are out now on compact disc and digital.

It might seem an obvious remark, but a major component in a record label’s longevity relates directly to the rapport between proprietor and artist. More to the point, when long relationships are established, it can be asserted with some confidence that the company is running with a combination of efficiency, ingenuity, and in the case of smaller independents, a sincere interest in the music they offer.

All the records included in this piece are the byproduct of long and fruitful associations. In the case of Ed Palermo, the comfort zone possibly encouraged him to spread the latest effort by his big band across two CDs. Notably, The Great Un-American Songbook: Volumes I & II is not the first time a concept from the saxophonist-composer-arranger has required a pair of discs.

Previously, it was Oh No! Not Jazz!!, a 2014 set that combined Palermo’s enduring desire to tackle the Frank Zappa songbook with a corresponding program of originals, the whole thing capped with a version of The Beatles’ “She’s So Heavy” that points to the content of the band’s newest offering; The Great Un-American Songbook focuses almost entirely on music written and performed by UK rock musicians of ’60s-’70s vintage.

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Graded on a Curve:
Jenn Grant,
Paradise

Nova Scotian pop singer-songwriter Jenn Grant emerged in the mid-’00s, first with a self-released EP, and then a full-length debut. She’s released five LPs to increasing critical acclaim since, sharpening her instincts and imbuing her contemporary folk-pop with increasingly lush atmospheres along the way. Paradise is her latest, and it’s available now on the Outside label in Grant’s home country and through Ba Da Bing! in the USA.

Prior to stepping out on her own, Jenn Grant was a touring-member of the long-running Halifax-based group the Heavy Blinkers; her EP “Jenn Grant and Goodbye Twentieth Century” came out in 2005 and stirred up enough notice that the Paris 1919 Sound label chose to finance her second effort of two years hence.

Enlisting the Blinkers, fellow Canadians Ron Sexsmith, Matt Mays, Jill Barber, and numerous others, Green injected occasional touches of jazzy tastefulness into an Americana-ish folk-pop equation for Orchestra for the Moon, with much of the disc suitable for café listening. 2009’s Echoes was the first of three releases for Six Shooter, the set raising the intensity and placing her firmly in the contempo alt-indie framework.

2011 brought her next album, Honeymoon Punch showcasing her versatility by opening with a rocker, though not so raucous as to alienate those attuned to her wavelength. Mostly, the record illuminated Grant’s inclination to tinker with the rudiments of her sound; the next year’s The Beautiful Wild was even more ambitious, validating the tag of songstress as she exhibited pop-auteur moves and raised the lushness quotient.

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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