Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, December 2016

The TVD Record Store Club’s look at the brand new wax presently in stores for December, 2016. 

NEW RELEASE PICK: Virginia Wing, Forward Constant Motion (Fire) Alice Merida Richards and Sam Pillay currently shape-up Birmingham, UK’s Virginia Wing, the pair deserving commendation for crafting an experimental-leaning strain of electro-pop lacking in cliché if not familiarity; the whole continues to radiate as an extension of Broadcast or to a lesser extent Stereolab as the motorik element found on last year’s Measures of Joy has essentially vacated the premises with drummer Sebastian Truskolaski. “Grapefruit” has been chosen as the LP’s first single, and it’s an exquisite entryway into their sound. A-

REISSUE PICK: OST, Chinatown (Cinewax) Jerry Goldsmith remains amongst cinema’s most distinguished composers. That he wrote and recorded this soundtrack for Roman Polanski’s masterwork in just ten days (after producer Robert Evans nixed the efforts of Phillip Lambro) only reinforces his stature; it’s probably (though arguably) Goldsmith’s finest achievement. Scoring a neo-noir from the midst of the New Hollywood era, this embodies, stains against, and breaks completely with narrative filmic norms as the period-enhancing pop standards are flawlessly executed. The result is 31 minutes of brilliance. A+

Asteroid, III (Fuzzorama) This Örebro Sweden-based trio fits rather snuggly into a heavy psych/ stoner rock mold, but unlike many of their contemporaries they’re handy with a song. Guitarist Robin Hirse’s deft melodic touch, apparent from the lead slide in opener “Pale Moon,” helps to elevate this beyond mere riff motion, but fans of that tactic will still find satisfaction, especially in “Wolf & Snake” and “Them Calling” as both tracks are loaded with textures underlining their relationship with Fuzzorama. The vocals are emotive (with harmonies, even) but they mostly avoid lessening the overall value. B+

Jon Camp, Stifled Hair-Trigger (Self-released) 2016 has been a lousy year by any metric, but the proliferation of prime-grade Guitar Soli has helped to keep the horrors and anguish somewhat at bay; those who can’t get enough experimental-tinged fingerpicking should consider investigating this Washington, DC-based practitioner’s full-length debut. Camp also indulges in bit of instrumental post-rock on the latter portion of the set; my lingering impression is that the stylistic expansion isn’t an improvement, but neither is it terribly detrimental. “Christian, the World is Yours” is a standout. B

Cat-Iron, Sings Blues and Hymns (Exit Stencil) Excellent reissue of the only recordings by Natchez, Mississippi singer-guitarist William Carradine as released in 1958 by Folkways. Cat-Iron wasn’t a nickname but a mishearing of his surname by rediscoverer Frederic Ramsey, Jr., and as the title indicates the record is cleaved between blues and spirituals. Continuity is established through potent vocalizing and string work, reminiscent at times of Son House, so gospel-blues fans shouldn’t hesitate to grab a copy. Only 500 have been pressed, on yellow vinyl like the original. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade, Sunday Morning Revival

Straddling the fence between jam session and no-fuss recording date, Sunday Morning Revival by the Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade features major figures from the fledgling late ’60s Cleveland rock scene including three members of The James Gang and harmonica maestro Bill “Mr. Stress” Miller. The first release in Smog Veil Records’ Platters du Cuyahoga Series 2, this archival recording (once thought lost) is loaded with covers tackled with a combination of studiousness and verve; destined to bring a smile to the face of Butterfield and Musselwhite fans far and wide while deepening the already rich history of its municipality, it’s out now on LP, CD, and digital.

Smog Veil’s Platters Du Cuyahoga Series 1 illuminated a wide array of Cleveland underground nooks, specifically post-Electric Eels-style punk racket with a freedom jones (Albert Ayler’s Ghosts Live at the Yellow Ghetto by X__X), glam-tinged avant-pop (French Pictures in London (1975) by the Robert Bensick Band), and post-Butterfield harmonica-driven blues-rock (Live at the Brick Cottage 1972 – 1973 by the Mr. Stress Blues Band).

Series 2 appears to be an equally broad affair, though it begins by burrowing deeper into the city’s blues-rock backstory and adding another chapter to the tale of the late Bill “Mr. Stress” Miller; Sunday Morning Revival finds the singer, bandleader, and mouth harp specialist in a loose conglomeration of likeminded upstarts. There’s keyboardist Mike Sands (Mr. Stress Blues Band), guitarist Glenn Schwartz, drummer Jimmy Fox, and bassist Tom Kriss (all from The James Gang), and guitarist Rich Kriss (Chuck Bates & The Barons and The Joyful Wisdom).

Today the impulse of white guys playing the blues is often oversimplified as mere cultural appropriation, but Nick Blakey’s outstanding footnoted liner booklet for this set does a fine job of complicating this scenario by describing the friction between the ’60s establishment and the sustained tide of nonconformity. One way of articulating opprobrium with the prevailing norms was that of d.a. levy, the jailed Cleveland poet whose work served as posthumous inspiration for Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers.

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Graded on a Curve:
Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, The Complete Capitol Singles: 1957–1966, Don Rich and the Buckaroos, Guitar
Pickin’ Man

Anybody desiring a hearty serving of topnotch country music shouldn’t dally in snatching up Omnivore Recordings’ 2CD Buck Owens and the Buckaroos retrospective The Complete Capitol Singles: 1957-1966; out on December 9, it’s a bountiful but easily digestible dive into the birth and growth of the innovative and enduring Bakersfield sound. Those needing another helping need not fret, for a week later Omnivore spills the spotlight onto key Buckaroo Don Rich via the rewarding 18-track collection Guitar Pickin’ Man.

The career of Alvis Edgar “Buck” Owens, Jr. remains one of the essential developments in the history of country music; primarily remembered today for a still impressive string of chart hits and as the co-host of the TV show Hee Haw from 1969-’86, he wasn’t an immediate success. Often described as a prime dissenter during the reign of countrypolitan, Owens’ embracing of the honky-tonk style and pioneering of the Bakersfield sound (alongside Merle Haggard, who came later) occurred only after his initial 45s for Capitol stiffed.

Active as a musician as far back as the mid-’40s, somewhere in the middle of the following decade Owens made his recording debut for the Pep label. The resulting sides include the pretty cool rockabilly one-off “Hot Dog” b/w “Rhythm and Booze” issued under the pseudonym Corky Jones, but the rest finds him largely in honky-tonk mode and with a detectable debt to Hank Williams.

Due in part to extensive session work in Hollywood for Capitol, Owens landed a contract with the label at roughly the same time that country music was establishing its mainstream; his debut for the company reflects this trend, lacking fiddle and steel guitar while adding the backing voices that were soon to become a defining countrypolitan trait. To be fair, “Come Back,” the rockabilly-ish “Sweet Thing” and their respective flips are decent enough tunes, but they’re not what anybody thinks off when they think of Buck Owens.

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Graded on a Curve:
Van Dyke Parks,
Discover America

Van Dyke Parks is easily one of the most eclectic and engaging musical minds of the last fifty years. Largely known for his involvement as lyricist in the resurrected phoenix that is The Beach Boys’ Smile, he’s also put his stamp on an array of important works, none better than his own 1972 masterpiece Discover America.

Please consider for a moment the impressive range of Van Dyke Parks. Yes, in addition to Smile there is his arranging for “The Bare Necessities” from Disney’s animated classic The Jungle Book. He’s also served as a producer and/or arranger for records as diverse as the debuts of Randy Newman and Ry Cooder, Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits and Joanna Newsom’s Ys, and contributed as a player to Tim Buckley’s first album, The Byrds’ Fifth Dimension, Linda Thompson’s Fashionably Late, and Vic Chesnutt’s Ghetto Bells. The guy even composed music for TV commercials, including work for Datsun automobiles and the figure skating mayhem known as the Ice Capades.

But to really crack the delicious and nourishing nut that is Mr. Parks, inspection of his solo work is an absolute must. Song Cycle, his 1967 debut is in obvious retrospect one of the truly amazing introductory statements in all of 20th Century music. I say obvious because hardly anybody bought the thing when it came out. This was due in part to his low profile. While he’d released a couple singles on MGM, he wasn’t exactly stormtrooping the era’s cultural radar.

But the main reason Song Cycle was destined for a second life as a cherished cult magnum opus lies in how Parks’ thoroughly non-trite baroque pop and gently psychedelic sensibilities synched-up with both his uncommonly deep and diverse interest in the history of popular song and the man’s shrewd ear for value in the contemporary (the record featured covers of both Newman’s “Vine Street” and Donovan’s “Colours”). With tenuous ties to the rock scene and a lack of capital with the rising tide of youth culture, it’s really no surprise Song Cycle took four years to recoup its admittedly large for the era $35,000 budget.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, November 2016

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the reissued wax presently in stores for November, 2016. Part one is here.

REISSUE PICK: Jungle Brothers, Done by the Forces of Nature (Get On Down) Jazzed by We Got It from Here…? Jonesing for more in the same vein? If so, then check out the 2LP reissue of this ’89 classic from Tribe’s contemporaries. To be accurate, Mike Gee, Africa Baby Bam, and DJ Sammy B slightly preceded their cohorts in the Native Tongues collective, blazing a trail without reaping the immediate recognition; instead, they’ve been the next step for those knocked out by 3 Feet High or People’s Instinctive Travels. Through uplift and inclusion, this sharp album’s immaculate flow has only improved with age. A

REISSUE RUNNER-UP: Waylon Jennings, Dreaming My Dreams (Fat Possum) That Jennings’ 22nd album (in a decade!) is arguably the best he ever cut inspires pause, for that’s hardly ever how it works. Ultimately, the fact reflects newfound artistic freedom through a fresh RCA deal, and the byproduct is subdued but rich with positives; tributes to Hank and Bob Wills (the latter recorded live in Austin), production (by Jennings and Jack Clement) that disdains overdubs, and an utterly non-dated atmosphere. The man is in superb voice (of course he is), and the material consistently delivers. A

Las Kellies, Friends and Lovers (Fire) The fifth studio album (and third for Fire) from this Argentinian grrl group (herein composed of Silvina and Cecilia Kelly) is impressively varied, its contents inhabiting the post-punk end of the spectrum; there’s the soul liberation through body movement of “Sugar Beat,” the reggae-infused “Tied to a Chain,” the riffy VU-update “Make it Real,” the new wavy “I’m on Fire,” the indie poppish “Summer Breeze,” and up-tempo rocker “I Don’t Care.” And that’s just the first six cuts; the LP’s second half tightens the focus. “Sundays” is a late pop-tinged highlight. A-

Lungfish, Rainbows from Atoms (Dischord) From the perch of hindsight some have painted this as a formative work, but at the time this third LP connected as a major stride forward. Sure, the Baltimore group’s roots in ’80s post-HC emo are still very much in evidence (“Mother Made Me,” “Open House,” “Seek Sound Shelter”), but Daniel Higgs’ poetic sensibility was beginning to cohere (“Fresh Air Cure” and especially “Creation Story”) and the cyclical-drone-roar was rapidly evolving as well (“Instrument,” “8.21.2116,” “You Might Ask Me What,” closer “Seek Sound Shelter” again). A minor classic. A-

Harvey Mandel, Snake Pit (Tompkins Square) Guitarist Mandel contributed to a handful of classics (like Charlie Musselwhite’s debut) but he’s also taken part in some iffy sonic situations, so I approached his first widely distributed album in two decades with a certain amount of trepidation. Recorded over two days at Berkeley, CA’s Fantasy studios with a solid band (all Ryley Walker alumni), like a percentage of Mandel’s prior output (e.g. Baby Batter) this is all-instrumental blues-rock; the fusion-y use of keyboards/ strings inspires a personal tug-of-war between pleasure and ambivalence. B

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, November 2016

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the brand new wax presently in stores for November, 2016. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE PICK: Wadada Leo Smith, America’s National Parks (Cuneiform) This 96-minute six-movement suite might seem an arduous undertaking, but in resisting nature’s majesty in favor of celebrating the idea of preservation and public works, the trumpeter-composer sidesteps Ansel Adams-style grandeur for the poetic (think Whitman and Gary Snyder). And by celebrating New Orleans, the Mississippi River, and the writing of Eileen Jackson Southern as deserving of National Park status, he eclipses the danger of mere respectfulness. Yet another highpoint in a long, distinguished career. A+

NEW RELEASE RUNNER-UP: Elliott Sharp, Port Bou (Infrequent Seams) Sharp’s been a crucial part of avant-NYC from the late ’70s right up to this release, an opera devoted to the final moments in the life of philosopher Walter Benjamin at Port-Bou Spain in 1940 as he fled Nazi-occupied France. The tenor of the times has surely deepened the emotional impact of this demanding but not formidable avant-classical work, but the primary reasons are bass-baritone Nicholas Isherwood, pianist Jenny Lin, accordionist William Schimmel, and of course Sharp, who adds electro-acoustic backing tracks. A

Apostles, S/T (Presch Media GmbH) Once The Funkees left for London, it was reportedly The Apostles who stepped into the void to become the leaders of the Nigerian rock scene; this first-time reissue of a ’76 EMI LP is proof positive pudding. Presch Media states that album opener “Never Too Late” “could well be the best Afro Rock song ever recorded,” and after listening that seemingly bold statement isn’t at all farfetched. Although they don’t maintain that level of quality, the rest is consistently up to snuff, particularly the organ-infused “Play Girl” and the psychedelic guitar flights all over side two. A-

Beastie Vee, “Vee Sides” (BUFU) Native of France Bastien Vandevelde previously beat the skins for Juan Wauters. Beastie Vee is his side project, tagged as post-punk/ noise rock; I’d assess it as nearer to the former, though to Vandevelde’s credit it’s not easy to draw direct lines to precedent. “Outro” sets this 4-song EP into motion and is something This Heat fans might want to check out, a scenario that persists during “Lvvrrss.” A subterranean ’80s vibe does inform “Make a Wish Break a Stick,” while the brief “Bonus Clic” concludes matters with shout-racket. Promising stuff. B

Kadhja Bonet, The Visitor (Fat Possum/ Fresh Selects) Enjoyable debut from an LA soulster with a considerable amount of tradition in her scheme, though the finished product still connects as a contempo situation. Merging psychedelia with strains of sci-fi and hip-hop rhythm during “Intro: Earth Birth,” much of what follows extends from the progressive soul-R&B of the 1970s, utilizing string-sections, bilingualism, and a general tony atmosphere to positive effect. Falling short of a knockout, folks with collections holding Roberta Flack, Curtis Mayfield, Sun Ra, and Shabazz Palaces should investigate. B

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Graded on a Curve:
Nolan Strong and the Diablos, “The Wind”
b/w “Baby Be Mine”

In 1954 Nolan Strong & the Diablos recorded one of the great doo wop singles, “The Wind” b/w ”Baby Be Mine.”For years it’s skirted under the radar as a pleasure known by far too few. But this Detroit group impacted two generations of Motown glory, and there is no time like the present to spread the word on this neglected classic.

This box-set boom included everything from Columbia’s 4-disc Roots ‘N’ Blues Retrospective collection, MCA’s generous stream of single artist and compilation sets procured from the vaults of Chess Records, Polydor’s Star Time, a 4-disc study of James Brown, and maybe the granddaddy of them all, Atlantic’s 9-disc The Complete Stax/Volt Singles 1959-1968. Naturally, Rhino Records got into the act with gusto, producing three 4-disc sets of garage-rock in the Nuggets series and a 4-disc collection of vocal group harmony titled The Doo Wop Box that was so successful it inspired two additional volumes.

Doo-wop was particularly ripe for anthologizing, since so much of the genre was about one-hit wonders and obscure classics from groups that recorded a couple of sides at best before breaking up. To my knowledge the LP era was basically bereft of any serious attempts to house the essence of doo-wop’s rich history into box-set form; instead there were a ton of single LP collections, but they frequently lacked much in the way historical focus, oozing mercenary intentions as hit songs took up space on numerous different albums, crowding out lesser known material purely in the interest of sales.

Part of the reason for doo-wop’s neglect resides in how it lacks what some would call an alluring back-story, especially in the genre’s relationship to the 1950s, a decade that’s still generalized as being plagued with conformity. Where much of the era’s jazz was the soundtrack to the hipster life, R&B was a subversive sound that made uncomfortable the white and uptight, and original rock ‘n’ roll was seen as an act of rebellion even if it largely lacked a specific ideology, doo-wop was and to an extent still is (and not even incorrectly) considered a reflection of the status quo. It was the stuff of making out, of hanging at the malt shop, of tuning in a crackly radio and then slowly drifting off to sleep and pleasant dreams.

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Graded on a Curve:
Tim Buckley, Lady, Give Me Your Key and Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974

Two new releases illuminate Tim Buckley as being far from the typical 1960s folkie. Light in the Attic’s Lady, Give Me Your Key uncovers two ’67 demos and is easily the more consistent of the two, its contents complementing a significant portion of Omnivore’s Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974. That set leaps over a highly fertile period in chronologically documenting the 45s of an artist primarily known for his albums, but still manages to detail the lessening of quality in Buckley’s work. The former comes with vinyl, compact disc, and digital options, and the latter is CD only; both are out now.

Tim Buckley’s output can be divided into three segments: the early formative period that includes his self-titled ’66 debut and the following year’s Goodbye and Hello, a fertile middle section beginning with ’69’s Happy Sad and Blue Afternoon and continuing with ’70’s Lorca and Starsailor, and a highly disappointing shift into strained soulfulness and off-putting conventionality that includes ’72’s Greetings from L.A., ’73’s Sefronia and ’74’s Look at the Fool.

Since his premature death in 1975, Buckley’s discography has roughly doubled, mostly through performance material, a circumstance helping Lady, Give Me Your Key to stand out a bit; composed of a pair of demos made for producer Jerry Yester in aid of choosing the contents of Goodbye and Hello, there are enough new song discoveries to enhance the familiar numbers, and if belonging to Buckley’s earliest period the album deepens the man’s work rather than just offering minutiae for diehards.

If predominantly straightforward in approach, it’s important to qualify that on his first LP Buckley was already more than a clichéd strummer. Working largely in baroque mode with a full band including drummer Billy Mundi, his longtime guitarist Lee Underwood, and on piano, celesta, and harpsichord Van Dyke Parks, a third of the album sets Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974 into motion, the A-side to the first 45 lending the collection its title.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Bangles,
Ladies and Gentlemen…The Bangles

Those who came of age in the 1980s surely remember The Bangles; with songs on the radio and videos on MTV, they provided the era’s musical environs with a crisp ’60s influenced guitar-pop breeze, but too few have gotten hip to the band’s early work. Ladies and Gentlemen…The Bangles! collects their initial recordings, a sum embodying the melodic end of the garage spectrum with gestures in accord with Cali’s neo-psych movement. Released a couple of years ago as a download and earlier in 2016 by Omnivore on compact disc, on November 25 the collection hits vinyl for the first time.

A lot of bands who originate in the garage gradually shed layers of appeal as they make their way toward prominence, but even after they attained full-fledged stardom that wasn’t necessarily the case with The Bangles. Hitting pop consciousness in the latter half of the decade, Susanna Hoffs (guitar, vocals), Vicki Peterson (guitar, bass, vocals), and her sister Debbi Peterson (drums, bass, vocals) began in Los Angeles in 1981 as The Bangs, and it didn’t take long for the trio to wax a 45.

However, many early fans residing outside of L.A. were likely introduced through “Bitchen Summer / Speedway” on the 1982 Posh Boy compilation Rodney on the Roq Vol. III, making the tune a sensible place for this compilation to start, doubly so as it illuminates a connection to the region’s post-punk ’60s infatuation that came to be tagged as The Paisley Underground.

Featuring warm fuzz, bright surf vibes, and late in the track, a taste of their soon to be well-known vocal harmonies, it’s a nifty slice of the sort of classic-minded stuff that sprang up in void left by ’70s punk’s waning fortunes, and the relationship to the Paisley upswing is solidified through a co-writer’s credit alongside Hoffs for Dave Roback, then of the Dream Syndicate and later half of Mazzy Star.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Poets of Rhythm, Anthology 1992–2003

Back in the ‘90s, if a listener desired to hear some uncut soul, they almost certainly turned to recordings at least two decades old. But as Daptone Records’ fresh compilation of The Poets of Rhythm makes clear, it didn’t have to be that way. Anthology 1992-2003 corrals eighteen tracks of raw Soul/R&B/Funk exuberance of Clinton-era vintage and intriguingly Germanic origin, and as it plays it’s frequently outstanding. That it also serves as the impetus for this music’s contemporary resurgence brings the record sizeable historical élan.

Unsurprisingly, this set’s excellent liner notes open with a succinct background study into The Poets of Rhythm that also stands as a testimonial on their behalf, and what’s immediately notable is how this combination of info and enthusiasm offers a perspective of substantial worth. Therein, the writer opens by relating his first exposure to the band in 1995 and a few lines later sums up this discovery as providing him with the evidence that soul music “wasn’t dead.” But it’s really the name at the bottom of text that drives its importance home; it’s signed by none other than Bosco Mann.

Many will recognize that nom de guerre as belonging to one Gabriel Roth, for as the Grammy winning producer for Booker T. Jones and Amy Winehouse, bassist/bandleader for Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, and just as notably, as co-founder of Daptone Records, Mr. Roth has been at the forefront of Soul/R&B/Funk’s renaissance as a thriving, “living” music for the 21st century. And quite striking is how a figure so instrumental in the revitalization of this aesthetic once considered the source of his passion to be located completely in the grooves of decade’s old records.

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