Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Sylvie Simmons, Sylvie

Sylvie Simmons has been a part of the scene for decades, but as a noted journalist and biographer, not as a musician. Sylvie changes that state of affairs; released this week through Light in the Attic, it offers a striking combination of Simmons’ voice and ukulele with additional instrumentation and production by the estimable Howe Gelb. It’s one of 2014’s most welcome debuts.

The Los Angeles correspondent for the UK weekly Sounds, chronicler of that city’s ‘80s metal explosion, and the subsequent LA source (under the pseudonym Laura Canyon) for the metallic rock mag Kerrang!; from just these informative tidbits one could jump to an inaccurate conclusion regarding Sylvie Simmons’ first LP.

Please throw these morsels of knowledge into the picture; interviewer of a wide range of musicians, upstart fictioneer, biographer of Neil Young, Serge Gainsbourg ,and Leonard Cohen, writer of liner notes for assorted high-profile projects and maybe most germane to Sylvie, longtime Americana columnist for Mojo Magazine.

With all these credits it’s no shock Simmons has gathered a few noteworthy connections. Along with acquiring the services of Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb as producer for Sylvie (except one track guided by the hand of Chris Schultz) Simmons’ inaugural effort has garnered positive words from Brian Wilson and Devendra Banhart, the praise indicating not only the strength of her tunes but also a savvy blend of timelessness and contemporary appeal.

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Graded on a Curve:
Ariel Kalma,
An Evolutionary Music (Original Recordings: 1972-1979)

World-traveler, multi-instrumentalist, recording technician and spiritually questing denizen of the ‘70s avant-garde; all of these descriptions apply to Ariel Kalma. The current moment is particularly opportune for getting acquainted with the man’s early stuff, as RVNG Intl has just unveiled An Evolutionary Music (Original Recordings: 1972 – 1979), a bountiful compilation of previously unreleased material carefully selected by Kalma and the label. All the necessary info is included, and the 2LP/ 2CD/ digital package coheres into a welcome survey of a highly worthy subject.

It’s well-established that as the 1960s progressed many musicians became bored by the perceived restrictions of pop and rock, with numerous artists introducing other elements into their stylistic equations. Others rejected pop/rock completely for the possibilities of experimentation in jazz and electronic music.

That’s the case with Ariel Kalma. Like a handful of his generation he’d been knocked sideways by the innovations of Albert Ayler and Sun Ra, though he did in fact travel extensively in the band of Belgian pop singer Salvatore Adamo. It was but a stepping stone to greater things; he was soon to join the quartet of bossa nova guitarist Baden Powell.

By the mid-‘70s, after his crucial purchase of a ReVox G36 reel-to-reel two-track tape machine, Kalma was employed an assistant engineer at Institut National Audiovisuel, Groupe de Recherches Musicales (or as commonly known, INA GRM) the pioneering studio formed in 1951 by noted sonic specialist Pierre Henry, a lab utilized by such important 20th century figures as Luc Ferrari, Michaël Lévinas, and Iannis Xenakis.

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Graded on a Curve: Abelardo Barroso,
Cha Cha Cha

The name Abelardo Barroso sits at the very beginning of the Cuban record industry. 78 rpm discs captured him, and a sheer talent for performance insured his fame. By the mid-‘50s Barroso’s renown had withered, but through a convergence of circumstances he returned to the limelight. Cha Cha Cha is World Circuit’s terrific compilation spotlighting the vocalist’s fruitful involvement with Orquesta Sensación, the noteworthy band directed by Rolando Valdés.

The songs Sexteto Habanero cut in 1925 under the auspices of RCA Victor are considered square one for recorded Cuban music. Abelardo Barroso’s singing on those tracks made him a star, or more accurately, helped to make him one; along with the RCA sides a spate of 16 numbers Barroso sang in New York for Brunswick as a member of Sexteto Bolona establish his ability for the ages.

Born in 1905, Barroso was of a time where the stage was still the thing. In fact, his ‘30s prestige at the forefront of the danzonette period, its large-bands replacing the fervor for the guitar-based son ensembles a la Sexteto Habanero and Bolona, is barely preserved on record; only a solitary ’39 78 by the Orchestra Maravilla del Siglo.

This is mainly due to the Depression; enter hard times and exit RCA, Columbia, and Brunswick. By the ’50s though, Cuban records were being waxed through independent homegrown companies like Panart and Jesús Gorís’ Puchito, the latter an aspect of what Cha Cha Cha’s substantial liners describe as “a perfect storm.” The other factors were Rolando Valdés’ tip-top band Orquesta Sensación, the group’s arranger/flutist Juan Pablo Miranda, and of course Abelardo Barroso.

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Graded on a Curve: Rhyton, Kykeon

Rhyton specialize in blending the sonic traditions and instrumentation of Greece and the Middle East with rock trio firepower of an oft improvisational nature. That might read as a recipe for self-indulgence, but the results, while certainly psychedelic in effect, also wield the discipline of top-notch jazzmen. Kykeon, their third LP and second for the Thrill Jockey label, continues their explorations to great reward; it’s a record that plays as strong as its cover is beautiful.

Rhyton consists of Dave Shuford, aka the leader of D. Charles Speer & the Helix and a former participant in the activities of the No-Neck Blues Band, Rob Smith of the Bronx band Pigeons, and Jimy SeiTang, a gentleman also associated with the No Neck scene but primarily known for the outfit Psychic Ills and his electronic solo project Stygian Stride.

The New York City-based No-Neck Blues Band, or NNCK for short, was part of a thriving underground of outsider rock business that came to a head in the midst of last decade. Some of the contributors to this scenario were able to engage, if not the mainstream, then at least larger audiences via Freak Folk and the New Weird, but the deep-psych/improv-rock/free folk of NNCK proved resistant (though not really by intention) to crossing over.

Of course, this isn’t a tidy assumption, since Wolf Eyes managed two discs of noise brutality on Sub Pop during the same era, but it does feel largely accurate. And so it’s doubly interesting how Rhyton’s latest is so downright easy on the ears. It does bear mentioning however that Shuford’s not exactly a novice to rock gestures of possibly wide(r) appeal.

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Graded on a Curve:
Ttotals, Let Everything Come Through

The Nashville-based “outer-blues” duo Ttotals has been active for a couple years now. After a handful of multi-format releases they’ve recently unveiled their first full-length Let Everything Come Through on the small but impressive Connecticut-based label Twin Lakes Records. Psych-tinged and heavy but with a focus on songwriting and fronted by a throat that’s not afraid to emote, Ttotals’ sound derives from familiar sources as it stands apart from the contemporary crowd.

It can seem as though Ttotals, an act composed of the guitar and vocals of Brian Miles and the drums, drones and keyboards of Marty Linville, aren’t in any particular hurry to get heard, but upon consideration that’s not really accurate, for their discography so far includes a compilation track, a 4-song EP on 12-inch vinyl/3-inch CDR, a 10-inch, a live cassette and a 45, all limited editions. It’s just that up to now the twosome has managed to avoid intruding into the current spotlight too deeply.

Let Everything Come Through is set to put the kibosh on that circumstance, the LP likely to raise their visibility while possibly endearing them to a variety of rock fans. Miles and Linville have coined Ttotals’ sound as “outer-blues,” a unique catch-phrase nicely addressing the late-‘60s psychedelic aspects of the music (the outer) as it underlines a relationship to the non-purist proclivities of the same era (the blues).

With this said, Ttotals don’t really register as all that ‘60s-derived a proposition. The ten cuts here reinforce what their “Spectrums of Light” 7-inch of 2013 (also pressed up by Twin Lakes) hinted at; specifically, they’re not striving for a sound that existed betwixt the Summer of Love and the Nightmare of Altamont. Rather, they’re in the ballpark of those ’80 u-ground/post-punk outfits undeniably impacted by the ‘60s and flaunting the influence in discernible fashion, going deeper than San Fran or Los Angeles into, for one example, the roster of the Texas label International Artists.

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Graded on a Curve: The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 2

Arriving this week through the combined good graces of Third Man and Revenant is the second and final installment in The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records. Comprised of six LPs, a hardcover book, an illustrated Field Guide of artist bios, and a sculpted metal USB drive holding 800 songs and over 90 original ads all housed in a polished aluminum streamlined case modeled on a portable phonograph, it completes a thrillingly exhaustive annotation of arguably the most important record label of the 20th century. The music provides enough insight, mystery, and pure enjoyment to last a lifetime.

By its very nature, The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records Volume 2 is resistant to efficient, decisive conclusions. Loaded with close to 40 hours of audio, it is a history lesson in a suitcase, and when matched with its predecessor from 2013 they offer a vast library of captured sound. Bluntly, the impact of the totality is still being felt nearly 100 years after, so plumbing the fathoms of its essence doesn’t exactly result in a tidy scenario.

The story is long familiar. Started as a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company and killed by the harsh reality of the Great Depression, Paramount may or may not be the 1900s supreme label (and the competition is slim, mainly Chess, Sun, and Stax), but indisputable is the venture’s role in shaping pop, rock, the crossroads of folk, Old-Time and Americana, and most importantly the blues.

Paramount gnawed termitically into the music of its era (poetically ironic for the entrepreneurial side-effort of a furniture business), famously revealing for future generations the undiluted sound of the Mississippi Delta. And by now most of Paramount’s discoveries in this regional subgenre have been recurrently documented elsewhere, notably by Revenant’s Grammy-winning box set Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton.

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Graded on a Curve:
JD McPherson,
“I Wish You Would”
b/w “Steal Away,”

JD McPherson might initially seem like an unusually suave and erudite roots-retro guy, but after a little time spent with his work it’s clear he’s too damned cagey to be encapsulated by that description. On the way to finishing his second album McPherson has indulged in a slick bit of vinyl homage, not just covering “I Wish You Would” and “Steal Away,” two prime cuts associated with the Vee Jay label, but also enticing the folks at Concord/ Rounder to revive the imprint for a classy and highly enjoyable limited run 45.

Lots of roots-retro cats nurture the appearance of having just slept off a bender in the backseat of a ’56 Buick. Happily, that’s not the case with JD McPherson. A college graduate and established visual artist, the Oklahoma born and bred singer-songwriter/ guitarist possesses musical tastes far from narrow or stalled in the guts of the 1900s.

Of course, forced or strained eclecticism also lacks appeal. To this point however, McPherson has avoided that potential issue. To illustrate, influences as wide as Stiff Little Fingers, The Smiths, and the Wu Tang Clan figure on his 2011 debut Signs & Signifiers, but the completed disc, produced by Chicagoan Jimmy Sutton, hits a sweet spot between Specialty Records-styled R&B and the loose juice of primo rockabilly. In other words, it’s a gas, man; if by chance The Blasters is one of your favorite platters, you need Signs & Signifiers in your life more than that spare kidney.

First released on Hi-Style Records, it quickly caught the ear of the Rounder label, that long-serving outfit licensing it to broader recognition in 2012. Earlier this year Rounder concluded a move from Massachusetts (where they started in 1970) to Nashville, and back in 2010 they were purchased by the Concord Music Group, an enterprise that happens to be the gatekeeper to a demonstrable assload of the 20th century’s quality sounds.

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Graded on a Curve:
Frank Lowe Quartet,
Out Loud

The late saxophonist Frank Lowe was one of the crucial torchbearers of ‘60s avant-jazz, extending Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders into the lofts and performance spots of ‘70s New York City. He also cut a bunch of discs, though the early material found on Triple Point Records’ 2LP Out Loud is only now seeing release. A hand-numbered edition of 550 copies stunningly designed and accordingly priced for the collector, it may not be the easiest entry point into the fiery improvising of its period, but for longtime fans of Lowe and free jazz devotees in general it’s an immersive, educational acquisition.

This writer’s personal discovery of Frank Lowe came via the 1990s deluge of German import CD reissues of the ESP Disk catalog. Black Beings was the LP, a fierce 1973 blitz serving as one in a series of repudiations to the idea that free jazz temporarily withered after the death of Coltrane and the rise of fusion; it also offered a killer appearance by Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Joseph Jarman and the earliest glimpse of bass titan William Parker.

While certainly integral to the ESP Disk story, the existence of Black Beings is simply impossible without the shaping precedent documented across the previous decade by the Impulse label, particularly the work of ‘Trane. Interestingly, Lowe’s recording debut was on Alice Coltrane’s swell ’72 Impulse effort World Galaxy.

The Black Beings CD lending the abovementioned introduction was but a single volume in a mass of plastic dropped without much fanfare into the midst of the ‘90s compact disc reissue boom. Amongst the best of ESP’s later entries, it remains a wooly snapshot of free jazz’s ‘70s transition into the lofts and art spaces of self-reliance and is an absolute prerequisite to a full understanding of Lowe, whose curious “Out of Nowhere,” a one-sided 12-inch compiling two duets with drummer Phillip Wilson, arrived more or less concurrently with Black Beings return to print.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sonny Vincent & Spite,

For fans of gutsy ‘70s-style punk Sonny Vincent’s name should trigger immediate buzzers of recognition, but after more than four decades of activity he hasn’t really attained the level of notoriety he deserves. His most well-known band is Testors, though the release of Spiteful just might change that. Featuring assistance from such punk heavyweights as Damned drummer Rat Scabies, original Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock, and reed-chewing Stooge Steve Mackay, Sonny Vincent & Spite defy the odds and deliver unto the waning months of 2014 an LP of raw, energetic, and stylistically varied punk rock.

Part of Spiteful’s appeal derives from how it manages to overcome a handful of reliable obstacles on the way to its well-earned achievement. For starters, there’s the matter of format; while punk absolutely has its share of masterful long players, the style’s always been about great songs and therefore has historically excelled at the short form.

The second potential issue concerns experience; bluntly, the vast majority of punkers don’t age like Chardonnay, they sour into a rotten and malodorous strain of vinegar, and Sonny Vincent is no spring chicken. Indeed, he’s legit first generation NYC punk royalty, with his involvement in the bloozy hard rocking proto-punk of Fury dating back to 1972; their slim output was belatedly issued on 45 in 2012 by the HoZac label.

I don’t want to succumb to ageism, however. While this writer was all of one year old at the time Fury cut those sides, these days your correspondent is more than halfway to certifiable codgerdom. Besides, there are certainly exceptions to this circumstance, and when older punks manage to stay on top of their game they can bring a truly unique perspective. Vincent is one of them, the endearing defiance of his vision having become gradually more distinctive as time has passed, a scenario amplified by the increased rarity of quality punk in general.

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Graded on a Curve: Bessie Jones with the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Get in Union

Anybody familiar with Moby’s “Honey” knows the sampled voice of Bessie Jones. Primarily celebrated for her leadership of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, she played a considerable role in the ‘60s folk revival and remains an exemplar of cultural diversity in 20th century USA. With Get in Union’s two CDs and splendidly informative package, the Tompkins Square label and producer Nathan Salsburg have turned a brilliant spotlight upon a trove of her work from numerous sessions recorded by the great Alan Lomax.

To begin to absorb the significance of Bessie Jones one needs at least a little bit of insight into the unusual history of the Georgia Sea Islands. Situated near the coast of Georgia and taken early in the Civil War by the Union Army, the islands were a part of what’s known as the Port Royal Experiment, more specifically an opportunity for approximately 10,000 freed slaves to practice self-sustainment (i.e. what Reconstruction could’ve been).

The Port Royal Experiment lasted until 1865 when President Andrew Johnson returned the land to its former white owners. And yet from the end of the Civil War to the mid 1930s the Georgia Sea Islands sustained a separation from mainland life as two different sets of ex slaves intermingled, those from the USA and a large influx of Bahamians freed after the British Empire put the kibosh on their ownership of humans.

In 1935 Alan Lomax made his first trip to the Georgia Sea Island of St. Simons in the company of folklorists Mary Elizabeth Barnicle and Zora Neale Hurston (most famous as the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, amongst other novels and writings). On that visit they recorded for the Library of Congress the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia, a group organized by Lydia Parrish, the wife of painter Maxfield Parrish.

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