Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Descendents,
Milo Goes to College

Though it seems they perennially garner fewer accolades than their Cali cohorts Black Flag and the Minutemen, coffee-fueled Los Angelinos the Descendents’ full-length debut Milo Goes to College stands as one of the ‘80s indispensable punk documents. Its grooves are teeming with furious catchiness and what it lacks in good manners it more than makes up for in sheer gusto.  

I’ve fond memories of and considerable good will for the Descendents, namely the incarnations of the group that recorded up to and including the Enjoy! LP, but must say that from my viewpoint they can be easily underrated. Or maybe more appropriately, they often slip through the cracks, in large part due to the non-flash nature of their music and image. First and foremost about focused energy, they wrote tunes that joined musical and lyrical concerns triumphantly seeking to shirk the concept of the punk as a metal-studded casualty with a tube of Testors stuck up his/her nostril.

Occasionally described as “nerd-core,” their songs tackled topics like fishing, hanging out in nature, the joys of junk food, loyalty to friends, bodily gasses, the desire to not be a fuck-up, coffee, friction between cliques, and quite frequently late-adolescent struggles with the opposite sex. Many of these concerns have been addressed by other bands, but frankly a few haven’t, and certainly not with the appealingly direct (again, focused) musicality and no-frills sincerity that basically stands as their enduring legacy.

They began in ’79 with a 45 of surfy, poppy guitar rock “Ride the Wild” b/w “It’s a Hectic World.” While a nice enough first effort, it’s unrepresentative of where they would head after the addition of lynchpin vocalist Milo Aukerman on 1981’s “Fat” EP. The six songs grooved into that disc are characterized by short, sharp blasts of youthful punk action; some are melodic, others breakneck and spastic a la Hardcore, but they all still sound worthwhile as they creep up on thirty years of existence. Additionally, they serve as the template the band would refine on their next three releases.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, September 2016

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

NEW RELEASE PICK: Shield Patterns, Mirror Breathing (Gizeh) As the latest by this Manchester duo (and the first to make this writer’s acquaintance) plays, vocalist Claire Brentnall definitely brings Kate Bush to mind. That’s cool; even cooler is how she and Richard Knox rewardingly alter a trip hop-ish foundation, adding ambient/ ethereal elements and experimentation. Along the way the thud-echo of many of the drum beats insinuate they’ve been listening to Coil or something similar, the post-industrial quality also infusing the avant-jazzy standout “Balance & Scatter.” Julia Kent guests on cello. A-

REISSUE PICKS: Normally it’s not at all difficult to choose a pick from releases of roughly equal quality, but these two are so complementary that selecting one over the other just seemed wrong.

The Quick, Untold Rock Stories (Burger) This legendary LA band’s stuff finally on 2LP. The contents range from early Who/ Move motion (opener “No No Girl”) to raw glam-tinged power pop action (“Teachers Pet”) to a sprinkling of killer covers (The Four Seasons’ “Rag Doll,” The Beatles’ “It Won’t Be Long,” and a deeper glammy dip via “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”). Split between demos for Mercury and Elektra and wrapping up with bonus tracks exclusive to the vinyl (alt versions of “Poison Polly” and “My Purgatory Years”), the quality never lessens. “Pretty Please” is a standout. Get it before it’s gone. A

Dow Jones and the Industrials, Can’t Stand the Midwest: 1979-1981 (Family Vineyard) Those seeking insight into the widespread nature of the whole punk impulse need only soak up this deserving and lovingly deluxe compilation. From West Lafayette, IN, the herky-jerky, technology-infused personality will surely remind some of early Devo, but Dow Jones frequently rocked up a storm (for evidence, please check the title track) and possessed strong songs amongst the rawness, ranting, and alienated tension. This 2LP holds 29 tracks and comes bundled with a 7-inch and DVD of a complete 1980 show. A

The Album Leaf, Between Waves (Relapse) Jimmy LaValle has amassed a large discography, but this is the first LP since 2010; in the interim he’s been busy with soundtracks. Migrating from Sub Pop to Relapse positions this album, which comes in standard and deluxe editions, as something of an outlier amongst metallic happenings; as The Album Leaf’s electronic post-rock has its own established base of support this shouldn’t be an issue, with fans not likely to be disappointed. Between Waves thrives on group interaction, and the handful of Pet Shop Boys-esque vocal pop moments are very welcome. B+

Alsarah and the Nubatones, Manara (Wonderwheel) Sophomore album of what Sudanese-American vocalist, lyricist, and bandleader Alsarah describes as East African Retropop; along with her assured and engaging voice, the main ingredients are the oud and ngoni of Brandon Terzic and the rhythmic foundation of percussionist Rami El Aasser and bassist Mawuena Kodjovi, a core nicely accented with accordion, violin, keyboard, and on the title track, Kodjovi’s trumpet. Winningly contempo in nature, this compares well to the recent output on the Glitterbeat label; “3roos Elneel” is a standout. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Itasca,
Open to Chance

Currently residing in Los Angeles, Kayla Cohen records and performs under the moniker Itasca. Known for acid-folk of an uncommonly rich variety, her success derives from high-quality songs, beautiful vocals, and most strikingly, considerable acumen on guitar. Far from a typical strummer, she’s also no showboat; folks equally into Judee Sill and Bert Jansch should find Open to Chance to be a treat as she’s joined by a full band for the first time. It’s out September 30 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Paradise of Bachelors.

Although Kayla Cohen is far from the standard underground folkie, Itasca’s discography does begin in a manner that sorta harkens back to the genre’s boom years. Specifically, her self-released 2012 debut Grace Riders on the Road was offered on cassette in a miniscule run of 50 alongside a more substantial CDR edition of 300. Next came her 6-song “Proto” cassette from 2013, its number bumped up to 80 as circulated by the Belgian label Sloow Tapes. Naturally, it’s physical manifestation is scarce today and sadly, it doesn’t seem to be available digitally at the moment.

That’s not the case with Grace Riders on the Road, which is found on Itasca’s Bandcamp page. It captures the sound of one woman in a room with six strings as a touch of tape hiss emphasizes the modest but competent nature of the recording. Cohen’s playing is already very impressive here, the fingerpicking just weighty enough to keep her gently and occasionally airy songs from dissipating like plumes of incense smoke.

Her follow-up full length and vinyl debut arrived in ’14 on Ducktails dude Matthew Mondanile’s New Images label, and it documents a major step forward. Where her previous effort basically connected as an exponent of the 21st century u-ground folk impulse, Unmoored by the Wind deepened the scenario considerably; instead of simply being informed by the long solo folk chanteuse tradition, Cohen’s personality and ability shined so brightly that the disc could easy be passed-off as a reissue of a rare and high dollar artifact from the late ’60s-early ’70s.

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Graded on a Curve: Richard Pinhas / Barry Cleveland, Mu

France’s Richard Pinhas first came to prominence as the leader of the cult prog outfit Heldon, but since the unit’s disbandment in 1979 the composer, guitarist, and electronics specialist has amassed a striking number of solo and collaborative efforts. Comprising the more positive half of a recent discographical spurt, Mu is a joint venture in tandem with fellow guitarist Barry Cleveland; featuring the talents of bassist Michael Manring and drummer Celso Alberti, it’s out now on CD and digital through Cuneiform Records.

The early entries in Richard Pinhas’ solo discography actually coincide with the existence of Heldon. Rhizosphere, Chronolyse, and Iceland emerged during the years ’77-’79, and all three recordings have since been returned to print by the persevering Silver Spring, MD label Cuneiform; they’ve done the same with Heldon’s oeuvre and the vast majority of Pinhas’ productivity since, both solo and in collaboration.

Over the decades Pinhas has proven adept at creative partnerships, with his counterparts including countrymen John Livengood, Pascal Comelade, and Noël Akchote, Australian Oren Ambarchi, Detroit noise act Wolf Eyes, and Japan’s Tatsuya Yoshida and Masami Akita aka Merzbow, who join Pinhas on Process and Reality, Mu’s darker and heavier correlative, also out on Cuneiform (watch this space for a review). With Mu, the San Francisco-based guitarist Barry Cleveland expands the list.

While Pinhas is far from a household name, his reputation as a progressive-minded yet consistently edgy instrumentalist is secure. Initially quite taken by Robert Fripp’s numerous innovations both solo and as part of King Crimson, Heldon’s underground stature buffered against any punk-related fallout as the ’70s roared to its conclusion; esteemed as a forward-thinking experimentalist concerned with sonic textures over proficiency, avant-prog was his niche as he sparked interest from discerning fans of electronic music and even industrial (think Throbbing Gristle and Nurse with Wound rather than Wax Trax!).

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Graded on a Curve: Camberwell Now,
The EP Collection,
The Ghost Trade

Rising up from the dissolution of This Heat, Camberwell Now featured the vocals and drums of Charles Hayward, the field recordings and tape manipulations of Steve Rickard, and the bass, vocals, and ukulele of Trefor Goronwy. Extant from ’83 to ’87, the group delivered a consistently stimulating blend of avant-garde tendencies, progressive rock practices, and astute social awareness on two EPs and an LP; in a splendid turn Light in the Attic subsidiary Modern Classics is offering “Meridian” and “Greenfingers” as The EP Collection alongside The Ghost Trade on September 23. For those blown away by Modern Classics’ This Heat reissues from earlier in 2016, here is the next step.

As detailed by Charles Hayward’s notes for The EP Collection, the music that sets Camberwell Now’s chronology into motion was initially intended for a revived This Heat; this is why Charles Bullen plays bass on “Cutty Sark,” the piece taking shape as part of an intended song cycle on “imperialism, trade, and global exploitation.”

The desire to rekindle This Heat foundered, but Hayward’s aim for cultural commentary was much more successful; “Meridian,” issued in 1983 on the Duplicate label in what seems to be its sole release, stands as one of the stronger instances of socially engaged music to have flown under its decade’s radar. It also sets into motion one of its era’s most distinct entities; by extension, Camberwell Now remain amongst the freshest.

This is in part due to a non-didactic approach avoiding simple sloganeering as it shines a light on the past from the vantage point of the present; Hayward’s opening lines: “I dream of empire, I dream of sailing in ships/ A fortune beneath their decks/ Heavy with cargo, copper and ivory.” Leaning closer to literature than to the protest rally, “Meridian”’s aforementioned tryptic encourages contemplation as middle section “Trade Winds” lacks a lyrical component entirely.

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Graded on a Curve:
So Cow,
Lisa Marie Airplane Tour

So Cow began over a decade ago as the project of one man and his songs. That man was Brian Kelly, and as time unspooled and recordings amassed his profile increased and the scenario transformed into a trio. Now Kelly is back to doing everything on his own, but rather than a troubling backslide Lisa Marie Airplane Tour is an inspired effort reinforcing its maker as a contemporary UK indie pop auteur of note. It’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through the combined efforts of Seattle’s Jigsaw and Chicago’s Tall Pat Records, with the cassette edition produced by Jigsaw’s Emerald City cohorts Lost Sound Tapes.

Although geographically situated as Irish, Brian Kelly began So Cow while working as a teacher in South Korea. By 2006 he had the “Best Vacation Ever” EP out via the Rusted Rail label, followed by a couple self-released CDRs, a batch of singles, and a pair of splits, one a 12-inch alongside Squarehead on Inflated Records and the other a 45 shared with Image Makers on the Boston Pizza imprint.

A percentage of this material was collected on the 2009 self-titled LP/ CD issued by Tic Tac Totally; a year later the same label offered Meaningless Friendly as Kelly’s talent continued to blossom; specifically, the emphasis was firmly on ‘60s-ish indie pop songwriting rather than So Cow’s nature as a one-man project, a circumstance making the transition to a three-piece (featuring bassist Jonny White and drummer Peter O’Shea) a smooth one.

That shouldn’t suggest the change isn’t tangible; The Long Con, released in 2104 by Memphis label Goner, features the dynamic fluidity that marks it as the byproduct of a full band. Prior, So Cow wedded Kelly’s melodic sensibility to post-punky stomp, strum, and clamor as the results brought occasional comparisons to fellow UK act Television Personalities.

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Graded on a Curve:
Lady Wray,
Queen Alone

At 19 years of age in 1998, Nicole Wray hit the scene with a CD and #5 single in connection with hip hop/ R&B sensation Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. After auspicious beginnings a long period of artistic struggle followed, although along the way she added value as a contributor to a variety of projects. In 2012 she teamed up with fellow vocalist Terri Walker and released one LP as Lady, and now her second album Queen Alone hits racks under the sobriquet Lady Wray; loaded with superb neo-soul bedrock and a confident and consistently expressive vocal presence, it’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital September 23 through Big Crown Records.

Like Missy Elliott, Nicole Wray was from Portsmouth, VA, a link that certainly assisted in the creative relationship of the two. However, the biggest factor in the association is Wray’s considerable talent; the story goes that Elliott paid a visit to her home for an on the spot audition and signed Wray to a recording contract immediately afterward.

Indeed, they left Portsmouth together that same night, with Wray soon figuring as a guest on Elliott’s smash Supa Dupa Fly; shortly thereafter she recorded her debut Make It Hot as Nicole. Very much a byproduct of its era and particularly the influence of Elliott, who partially defined the record by contributing to three tracks and leading a gang of production wizards including Timbaland, Make It Hot and its gold-selling title cut nevertheless confirm Wray’s vocal skills as the disc’s less guest-spot studded second half found her personality shining through.

The “I’m Lookin’” single announced the arrival of follow-up Elektric Blue, but it sadly never materialized, and after amicably parting way with Elliott’s label The Goldmind, Wray was without a deal for a few years. Signing with Roc-A-Fella under the auspices of Damon Dash, her “If I Was Your Girlfriend” single gathered some traction as the preamble to the release of LoveChild, but then Roc-A-Fella temporarily halted operations and again her second album was shelved.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Funkees,
Now I’m a Man

Although based in London for much of their existence, The Funkees are a prime example of ’70s Nigerian Afro-rock potency, the unit dishing out well-calibrated rhythmic intensity fortified with equally focused guitar, keyboard, and vocals. A 2LP set from four years’ back made the titular claim of corralling their best stuff, but it’s hard to come by on wax these days; happily, the Austrian label Presch Media GmbH has recently reissued The Funkees’ second full-length Now I’m a Man on LP and CD. While not as goodness-packed as the comp, its contents will still be of interest to Afro-rock fans.

The Funkees were originally intended as a vehicle for guitarist Harry Mosco Agada, then a member of Celestine Ukwu’s Music Royals. Commencing activity near the end of the Nigerian civil war, they surrendered to military forces not long after and were subsequently sent to Owerri with the task of entertaining both the victorious Nigerian army and musically soothing the fears of their fellow Biafrans.

Frequent lineup changes occurred, but after transitioning to the city of Aba, stability emerged largely due to the wild popularity engendered by their club performances. As The Funkees became major stars in Nigeria’s Igbo region, their success was but one part of an Afro-rock flourishing most recently documented by Wake Up You!, the Now Again label’s terrific pair of Uchenna Ikonne-compiled CD + book volumes dedicated to the subject.

The Funkees’ cover of War’s “Slipping into Darkness” landed on the second installment of Wake Up You!, and it easily reinforced the appropriateness of their name. This wasn’t a new discovery; prime Funkees selections had been regularly popping up on multi-artist retrospectives since Strut brought out Nigeria 70: The Definitive Story of 1970’s Funky Lagos in 2001. Soundway eventually devoting an entire release to the band’s output, and in particular their early singles, was a very shrewd decision.

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Graded on a Curve: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani, Sunergy

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith has been busy of late; earlier in 2016 the synthesizer specialist released her third album in two years, and by way of fruitful collaboration she’s wasted no time in adding another entry to her discography. Smith is the upstart and fellow synth expert Suzanne Ciani the groundbreaker, but on Sunergy these lines of experience become appealingly blurred, their interaction illuminating equality rather than hierarchy; the results comprise the 13th entry in RVNG Intl.’s FRKWYS series and it’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital September 16.

The intention of RVNG Intl.’s FRKWYS series is to celebrate “intergenerational collaboration,” or put another way, to present complementary team-ups of veteran artists and comparative newcomers, with most of the groupings falling under the large and loose categorization of “electronic music.” Extant since 2009, the subsidiary really hit its stride in 2011 with Vol. 6’s pairing of Julianna Barwick and Ikue Mori.

FRKWYS sustained level of success can be attributed to its collaborative sensibility never deteriorating into the gimmicky or trite as the accumulated material gets heightened rather than constrained by stylistic parameters. This state of affairs continues with Sunergy, its two tracks (plus a CD/ digital bonus) finding Smith and Ciani in duet on a pair of Buchla synthesizers, the warm analog devices named after their pioneering creator Don Buchla.

There are differences in model, with Ciani playing the Buchla 200 E and Smith helming the Buchla Music Easel, one of numerous synthesizers she’s used to productive effect across her solo output; in April of this year Smith reached an apex of both quality and profile with the release of EARS, her fifth full-length collection and third for Western Vinyl after 2014’s digital only Tides (featuring ten pieces designed to accompany yoga classes) and ’15’s multi-format Euclid (which has been described as her first “official album”).

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Graded on a Curve: Imaginational Anthem Vol. 8: The Private Press

Aficionados of acoustic fingerpicked solo guitar are likely already clued-in to Tompkins Square’s Imaginational Anthem series; last year brought the seventh installment’s focus on a wide range of contemporary players and on September 16 its follow-up The Private Press is available on LP, CD, and digital. The latest survey offers an illuminating look at instrumental guitar’s DIY impulse from the ’60s to the ’90s, and its contents are both refreshing and revelatory.

In large part through its instrumental makeup, Imaginational Anthem Vol. 8 helps to bury a couple of infrequently intertwining stereotypes regarding private press recordings, specifically that they either offer excursions into outsider or similarly oddball-ish realms or are more plainly just amateurishly inferior responses to well-known record company financed models. Reading through a catalog dealing in original or reissue merchandise of this sort often turns up hyperbole of varying shades of nuance; the recurring phrase “holy grail” is a definite trigger to arouse suspicion.

Tompkins Square’s latest laudable effort has nada to do with the above, and as its 14 tracks unwind over four vinyl sides the collection instead provides considerable strength to an increasingly common supposition, explicitly that the wellspring of record history, in this instance spanning 1968-1995, still holds many unheard jewels. Simultaneously, The Private Press illustrates just how deep an impact the ’60s emergence of Guitar Soli actually had.

That’s because the influence of John Fahey and his contemporaries, if not all-encompassing, is quite tangible here. What ultimately makes this compilation such a treat is the lack of the aforementioned stylistic inferiority as the sequencing delivers a handful of unexpected turns including one right out of the gate via the succinct bluesy-raga tension of Perry Lederman’s “One Kind Favor.”

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