Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
The Pop Group,
Cabinet of Curiosities

The Pop Group stands as one of our persistently vital and truly prescient post-punk units. This week their slim discography increases by one full-length release, specifically a collection of alternate, live, and unreleased material titled Cabinet of Curiosities. Offered in multiple formats by the Freaks R Us label (as is the smoking 1980 comp We Are Time), it’s not the best destination for a newbie, though fans of the outfit will definitely want to investigate.

Every listener has their own barometer when approaching the intersection (some would say the minefield) of the musical and the political. The yardstick of this writer is to proceed with caution while keeping cynicism at arm’s distance, prudence being necessary because, simply through the laws of qualitative averages, most political music is to varying degrees subpar.

Just as important is to not succumb to the bugaboo of sarcastic pessimism. This can be problematic since the majority of the politico-musical discourse is devoted to the lofty yet weak efforts of pop/rock stars. This isn’t to suggest the status of these individuals somehow denies them the right to have a voice in such matters, but rather that a confluence of factors regularly softens or negates the message.

Beyond the basic need to walk it like one talks it, those earning a substantial living through music frequently either purposefully or sub-consciously finesse their messages to avoid alienating all but the most egregious members of the audience, this reasoning likely selfish (don’t want to turn off those buyers) but also conceivably and wrong-headedly intended to just reach as many people as possible. This is of course a generalization, but the result reliably finds the pleas and protestations of the pop/rock star becoming as ineffectual as those of punks in a suburban garage ranting about the obvious.

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Graded on a Curve:
Various Artists,
5 Years of Bedroom
Suck Records

Down Aussie way there’s a record label, and its name is Bedroom Suck. Small but diligent, the imprint has been in operation now for half a decade; to celebrate, a 2LP compilation has appeared sporting a plain but aptly descriptive title. Collecting rare and exclusive tracks from a wide spectrum of acts, 5 Years of Bedroom Suck Records is available worldwide this week through the label’s fruitful partnership with Fire Records of the United Kingdom.

Whenever an independent label withstands the frictions and complications (the arguments, eccentricities, mishaps, disappointments, etc.) that will inevitably arise upon conspiring to add an indeterminate number of releases to an already huge and ceaselessly accumulating mountain of sound, the endeavor deserves a tip of the cap.

In this case “independent label” refers to the grassroots kind; those started by one, two or a handful of individuals and run, at least initially, out of apartments, dorms, garages, or yes indeed, even bedrooms. As these ventures manage more than mere survival, prospering far beyond expectations and immediate geography (though it’s difficult to think of a substantial independent success story that didn’t begin with a predominant or partial regional emphasis), upon attainment of a milestone a little festive commemoration is surely appropriate.

Bedroom Suck began in March of 2009 when Joe Alexander and Sam McCabe whipped-off a few cassette copies of their band’s demo and handed it out at an event that according to Alexander “might have been a fashion show.” That was BSR001; between it and BSR050 Bedroom Suck has taken the lead in documenting a reliably interesting Australian musical movement and in a manner fostering occasional comparisons to the Flying Nun label of neighboring New Zealand.

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Graded on a Curve:
3rd Bass,
The Cactus Album

Released a quarter century ago by the Def Jam label, Brooklyn trio 3rd Bass’ The Cactus Album stands as a hip-hop classic. Due to this stature one might assume the full story behind its creation has long resided in the historical record, but that’s not the case. To get the complete scoop on this and assorted other hip-hop achievements one needs seek out the books of Brian Coleman. Aptly subtitled “more liner notes for hip-hop junkies,” Check the Technique Vol. 2 is freshly available from Wax Facts Press.

Anybody having spent hours inspecting the treasures in a jazz-centric record shop knows LPs in the multifaceted style regularly came adorned with notes (Hentoff! Williams! Jones!) on the back of the sleeve. And folks devoting time, energy and dollars to keeping up with deluxe reissues and box sets in multiple genres understand that extensive annotation of and commentary upon background specifics was/is an expected component in the retail price.

As a relatively young art form, hip-hop has suffered from experiencing its burgeoning stylistic era(s) in a business setting that wrongly assumed buyers of contemporary music (as opposed to those dropping cash on older material) cared about little more than the sounds, the labels mostly throwing context and packaging to the wayside.

This was an easy assumption to arrive at if one’s only concern was making money. But those spending it were reliably left at mysterious loose ends. Producer credits, thank you lists, and cleared samples were a start, and interviews and articles in Spin, Vibe and The Source brought a modicum of enlightenment, but the deep investigation, which often simply entails sincere interest and respect for the subject, becoming comfortable with the artists and then asking the right questions, was lacking for years.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Primitives,
Spin-O-Rama

For a US lad of the late-‘80s, the indie pop of The Primitives was a welcome pleasure. Most folks know them for ’88’s Lovely and its accompanying hit single “Crash,” but after breaking up in the early-‘90s the band reformed roughly half a decade back. The group’s latest LP Spin-O-Rama is out this week via the Elefant label; if it doesn’t reach the heights of their best material it also doesn’t fall short by much, the record’s 11 tracks continuing to vindicate the rekindling of the whole endeavor.

Naturally the point is arguable, but of all the ‘80s indie pop acts to have missed the original cut for the New Musical Express’ genre-defining C86 compilation, The Primitives are a very likely candidate as most deserving of inclusion. As evidence, earlier in 2014 the Cherry Red label assembled a 3CD expansion of that release, and three tunes into the second disc one can find The Primitives’ nugget “Lazy” standing proud.

Not that one needs to buy the set to hear it. The group’s pre-RCA period as self-documented on Lazy Records has been collected and reissued numerous times and is currently in print through, wouldn’t you know it, Cherry Red. And for this writer’s money, the Lazy stuff, which contains the dandy singles “Thru the Flowers,” “Really Stupid,” “Stop Killing Me,” and a bunch more (a double CDs worth, including demos and an ‘87 live show from London’s ICA) is their strongest work.

But I will readily declare that Lovely is a fine LP in a style/scene where excellent long-playing records are, if not exactly rare, then far from common (the concept of the indie pop compilation as a spotlight for a succession of individual highpoints has endured up to the nonce). Plus, the band’s classique thrust once Aussie Tracy Tracy (born Tracy Cattell) was fully established as lead singer (replacing Keiron McDermott) made them palatable to US listeners, particularly those with an undying jones for prime-era Blondie.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bing & Ruth,
Tomorrow was the Golden Age

Formed in the middle of last decade by music students attending New York City’s New School, the minimalist ensemble Bing & Ruth is led by pianist-composer David Moore. Possessing compositional breadth and instrumental sturdiness to potentially engage fans of Steve Reich, Brian Eno, and even assorted post-rockers, Tomorrow was the Golden Age, their second full-length and first for RVNG Intl. features the group executing Moore’s album-length piece across four sides of vinyl (CD and digital options are also available).

Even if one lacks familiarity with Bing & Ruth (and please don’t confuse them with Big & Rich), numerous other avenues do exist for listeners to make the acquaintance of David Moore. Most recently there’s the indie-Americana of Pepper Johnson, a solo project responsible for last year’s digital-only collection Flat Country, and The Piledrivers, a hot-burning string-band trio where Moore plucks banjo, their self-titled CD also appearing in 2013.

Both are available through Moore’s Happy Talk Recordings, the label additionally issuing a pair of his solo piano titles, ‘05’s Book of Days (initially circulated privately) and ‘07’s Neighborhood Shifts; between them sits Bing & Ruth’s self-titled ’06 debut, its follow-up Kenitle Floors appearing later in ’07. On top of this activity he has scored for film, theater, and instillation and plays live in a variety of contexts ranging from NYC’s New Music/avant-garde haunts to lending his banjo/keyboard to the band of Scott Scolnick aka Langhorne Slim.

While Bing & Ruth and Kenitle Floors are categorized by Moore as EPs, they are in fact lengthier than the format’s norm, offering durations complemented with unstrained ambition to raise the overall value considerably. Amongst other qualities, elements aptly assessed as Reichian combine with contemporary vigor as a highly versatile wordless vocal component is utilized to powerful effect.

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Graded on a Curve: Vashti Bunyan,
Heartleap

After a break of nine years, crucial Brit-folk figure Vashti Bunyan is back with Heartleap, her third and in all likelihood final LP. As beneficiary of a truly warranted resurgence of consumer interest in the early moments of the new millennium, Bunyan hasn’t squandered her good fortune; next to the album that stirred the belated fuss, Heartleap is her finest work. It’s out on vinyl/ CD/ digital via her longtime supporters DiCristina Stair Builders in the US and Fat Cat Records in the UK.

As the 20th century drew to a close, Vashti Bunyan’s name was just as likely to ring bells due to a connection to Andrew Loog Oldham and the recording of a Jagger/Richards composition “Some Things Just Stick in your Mind” as it was through the slowly increasing cult status of her debut LP Just Another Diamond Day.

Cut with lauded Brit-folk producer Joe Boyd and barely issued by Philips in 1970, Just Another Diamond Day is a masterful document, one that not only brought her very long-delayed and fully-deserved attention but also helped to shape a significant portion of what came to be known as the Freak Folk scene. As evidence Lookaftering, Bunyan’s quite strong LP from 2005, received assistance from such relevant names as Banhart and Newsom. But the personnel ranged wide; alongside the return of arranger Robert Kirby from her debut could be found neo-classical composer Max Richter.

Present and future converts to her achievement have and will persist in seeking out Some Things Just Stick in your Mind, Fat Cat’s double-LP/CD collection of her fairly Marianne Faithfull-informed ‘60s material. Including the aforementioned Oldham-aided Mick/Keith ditty that Decca put out as a single in ’67 under the singular Vashti, amongst other stuff the comp corrals “Winter is Here,” Bunyan’s appearance on the soundtrack to Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, Peter Whitehead’s sorta-documentary about the UK swinging hippie movement.

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Graded on a Curve:
Luke Winslow-King,
Everlasting Arms

Singer-songwriter-guitarist Luke Winslow-King’s been on the scene for a while now, and Everlasting Arms is his second LP for the venerable folks over at Bloodshot Records. Featuring a crack band and additional vocals from wife Esther Rose King, its 14 tracks illuminate considerable breadth based in a deep and rewarding knowledge of music history.

Admirable stylistic range, undeniable instrumental ability, and an uncommon understanding of what will and won’t work; it all applies to world traveler and scholar Luke Winslow-King. When he’s really digging into the pre-WWII stuff he can resonate like a rootsier, less persona-driven Leon Redbone, and when dishing more modern he lands securely in the vast realms encompassed by Americana.

Winslow-King’s self-titled self-released debut materialized in 2008, and a year later came Old/New Baby. The first for Bloodshot was 2013’s The Coming Tide, the record also crediting his then fiancée Esther Rose on its cover. Across the three, the acumen and execution have become increasingly hard to question. The quibbles generally seem to be over the nature of Winslow-King’s voice.

I tend to view his singing as integral to the whole experience. While a vocalist far from amazing, he does get the job done, in large part due to the thankful eschewal of attempts to replicate the cadences of hard living. Winslow-King is the byproduct of extensive higher education, and as too many descendants of Waits have sadly already discovered, there’s basically no way he can effectively sound like he just crawled out of a drainage ditch somewhere. Sincere emotional intent will suffice.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Young Sinclairs, This is the Young Sinclairs,

Roanoke, VA’s The Young Sinclairs have been busy; according to reliable reports, since forming in 2005 they’ve issued two LPs, seven CDs, three 7-inches, two cassettes, and made numerous compilation appearances. On 10/13 the Ample Play label is releasing the band’s latest This is the Young Sinclairs. It finds the quintet continuing to sharpen an already well-honed blend of ‘60s-derived garage-based melodiousness across 15 strong tracks.

The Young Sinclairs’ success rests upon two main attributes. The first is consistency of songwriting, with the majority of the outfit’s tunes penned by multi-instrumentalist Samuel J. Lunsford. The second comes via engineer John Thompson’s all analogue execution, a maneuver bringing their recordings meticulous vitality.

It’s hot but not overcooked, and if there’s a third agent in the Sinclairs’ good fortune, it’s that the band is completely at ease in a cloak of assorted influences. The sound is profoundly ‘60s, but unlike many acts attached to a retro sensibility, these guys aren’t striving too intensely to sell a package. Conversely, a lack of neurosis is on display, the group seemingly unconcerned with being perceived as trying too hard and subsequently not trying hard enough.

Various similar entities emit vibes more colorful, a few are even downright flamboyant, but ultimately most inhabit a two-dimensional realm. The Young Sinclairs instead produce an immersive 3D experience. In addition to Lunsford and Thompson, they consist of bassist-guitarist-vocalist Daniel Cundiff, drummer Joe Lunsford (Samuel’s bro, taking over the chair vacated by Thompson, who now plays the six-string), and bassist-guitarist Kyle Harris, whom some will know by his work in the Athens, GA to Texas to Richmond, VA band The Diamond Center.

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Graded on a Curve,
Jerry Lee Lewis,
The Knox Phillips Sessions

Placing Jerry Lee Lewis in a studio with a working piano and rolling tape machine is a recipe for interesting results. Deep at night in the midst of the late-‘70s that’s just what happened; after nearly four decades in the can, The Knox Phillips Sessions: The Unreleased Recordings documents the Killer colluding with Sam’s son. The finished product, grooved into 180gm wax by the Saguaro Road label, is an at-times fascinating historical curiosity falling significantly short of Lewis’ finest moments, though flashes of brilliance are in evidence.

By now, the amount of combined ink and bytes employed to describe, discuss, and evaluate Jerry Lee Lewis is immense. A truly bedrock rock ‘n’ roll figure, when Lewis exploded out of Sun Studios in 1957 with “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” Elvis suddenly seemed considerably less threatening.

Attaining status as a rockabilly crossover with a ten ton personality substantially wilder than Presley’s is enough to ensconce one in the tomes of history, but inspection of Jerry Lee’s ‘50s sides, and there are many, reveals deeper substance. For starters, the piano; along with his partner in pounded-ivories Little Richard, Lewis embodied a legitimate lead-instrument alternative in the years when R&R’s fate was uncertain.

No doubt Lewis will bristle at getting lumped in with Richard Wayne Penniman. Even casual fans of the Killer know that he self-assesses into a class, if not by himself, then including only a select few. Specifically cited on this LP; Stephen Foster, Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, and Hank Williams. But in truth, outside of a pure oldies context, there are hardly any casual Jerry Lee Lewis fans, in part due to his oversized ego; many simply can’t accept the man’s arrogance, a manner that has frequently bypassed swagger to reach a level of borderline hostility.

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Graded on a Curve:
Alice Gerrard,
Follow the Music

A key figure in the history of bluegrass, 80-year old singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Alice Gerrard has just issued her latest LP. Produced by longtime admirer M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger and pressed up via the Tompkins Square label, Follow the Music finds Gerrard in strong voice and wielding focused intensity across 11 tracks.

To describe the ‘60’s bluegrass scene as male dominated shouldn’t imply the milieu was in any way unusual in the grand musical scheme of the period. Alice Gerrard and her departed playing partner Hazel Dickens were amongst the high lonesome exceptions. Gerrard (then known as Alice Foster) and Dickens cut their ’65 Verve Folkways debut Who’s That Knocking for 75 bucks in Washington, DC’s First Unitarian Church with the worthy assistance of Dave Grisman on mandolin plus Bill Monroe sidemen Chubby Wise on fiddle and Lamar Grier on banjo.

Today the Smithsonian Folkways CD Pioneering Women of Bluegrass collects that LP and Won’t You Come Sing for Me?, its ’73 follow-up. Gerrard and Dickens continued to make records together into the mid-‘70s, producing two more discs for Rounder, though just as important to Gerrard’s background is her participation in civil rights activists Anne Romaine and Bernice Johnson Reagon’s race and gender inclusive ’68 Southern Folk Festival tour, the lineup including Roscoe Holcomb, Elizabeth Cotten, Dock Boggs, Bessie Jones, and the New Lost City Ramblers.

Gerrard’s second husband was the late Rambler Mike Seeger. In 1980 they completed an eponymous album for Greenhays Recordings; it’s currently in print on a CD titled Bowling Green with extra stuff from a ’71 Japanese visit. And while she’s dished three prior solo efforts and played in the awesomely-named Back Creek Buddies with the also deceased clawhammer banjoist Matokie Slaughter (I’d love to hear their ’90 cassette release Saro) Gerrard remains most well-known for her work with Dickens.

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