Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Glenn Mercer,
Incidental Hum

Glenn Mercer is a key figure in guitar-pop history, with his most important roles being vocalist, string-bender, and songwriter in New Jersey titans The Feelies. He’s also been a factor in numerous related projects across the decades, and on October 9th Bar None Records doubles his solo discography through the release of Incidental Hum, an all-instrumental affair featuring twelve originals and three covers. It’s available on LP, CD, and digital.

Way back before the beginning there was the Out Kids, the group’s membership including Mercer, drummer Dave Weckerman, and later bassist Bill Million. Initially specializing in versions of ‘60s garage rock, they eventually transitioned to originals and played gigs in late ‘70s NYC; after an irate lead singer ushered the Out Kids to an end, a few adjustments were made and The Feelies were born.

Released in 1980, Crazy Rhythms stands as their essential document and one of the finest albums of its decade, gleaming like a beacon at the historical intersection of Velvets-derived post-punk and the ensuing college radio aided jangle-pop explosion; head and shoulders above the legions of bands they influenced, if Mercer had contributed to nothing else his placement in the annals of recorded music would be secure.

The Feelies went on to cut three more LPs before breaking up in the early ‘90s, and along the way Mercer took part in offshoots the Trypes (Acute Records’ retrospective Music for Neighbors is excellent), Yung Wu (who left behind ‘87’s nifty Shore Leave) and the Willies; post-dissolution (they’ve since reunited) he formed Wake Ooloo for a series of discs, played in True Wheel and Sunburst, and in 2007 issued his debut solo effort Wheels in Motion on the Pravda label.

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Graded on a Curve: Funeral Horse,
Divinity for the Wicked

As the name suggests, Funeral Horse prefer it dark, pummeling and raw, though the Houston-based trio’s thrust is more inclined toward stoner-riff velocity than the oft-gradual density of experimental doom. Extant since 2013 and no strangers to a touring van, they’ve recently released a sophomore full-length, and it expands their sonic template in interesting ways. Divinity for the Wicked is out now on virgin black vinyl in an edition of 400 copies through hometown label Artificial Head Records, and with exclusive artwork by the notable Brit scribbler Savage Pencil.

Make no mistake, Funeral Horse specializes in the heavy; Jason Argonaut plays the bass, Paul Bearer wields the guitar and spouts the syllables, and Chris Bassett thumps the cans, but with a couple of obviously bogue monikers in place the band makes it clear they don’t regard their collective endeavor too seriously.

And as one might guess, the basis for their sound is the work of Black Sabbath, particularly the four groundbreaking and enduringly influential albums the quartet cut in the early ‘70s, but perhaps just as enlightening is the trio’s open appreciation of such bastions of the style as Kyuss, Sleep, High On Fire, Harvey Milk, and the Melvins.

Funeral Horse debuted in July of 2013 with the six-song “Savage Audio Demon” EP. Self-released on extremely limited cassette (sold out but available digitally via Bandcamp), its contents are revealed as muscular yet energetic with a caustic guitar tone and agitated, low-mixed vocals; along the way atmospheres of psychedelia are interspersed with tribal bombast.

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Graded on a Curve:
The City, Now That Everything’s Been Said

Celebrated as one of the prime pop tunesmiths of the 1960s, Carole King’s greatest fame is as a recording artist, her output helping to establish the phenomenon of the Adult-Oriented Singer-Songwriter. A mixed accolade perhaps, but a key development in King’s transition from Brill Building to Billboard #1 is the sole album by The City. Given her enduring reputation and achievements, the neglect of Now That Everything’s Been Said remains a stumper; possessing an amiable and unruffled temperament, it’s been remastered from the original tapes and freshly reissued on LP/CD through Light in the Attic.

Released in ’68 to no fanfare, The City’s solitary platter resulted from collaboration by a trio of NYC transplants; alongside King was guitarist Daniel “Kootch” Kortchmar, an associate of the Fugs who headed west to join undersung Elektra outfit Clear Light, and bassist Charles Larkey, also a former Fug whose previous band the Myddle Class cut a handful of 45s for Tomorrow Records, the label run by King and her co-writer-husband Gerry Goffin.

Now That Everything’s Been Said is additionally notable for the drumming of Jim Gordon. Having played on Pet Sounds, he was later recruited for Delaney & Bonnie & Friends and Joe Cocker’s group for Mad Dogs & Englishmen, and as a member of Derek & the Dominos he wrote the exquisite keyboard coda for “Layla.” There are also lyrics courtesy of Larkey’s Myddle Class bandmate David Palmer, a name some may recall from Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill; the singer on “Dirty Work,” post-Dan he went on to pen the words to King’s ’74 hit “Jazzman.”

By ’68 King and Goffin were divorced and she’d moved west. Casual jamming with Larkey and Kortchmar in her Laurel Canyon digs spawned this LP, their efforts produced by Lou Adler for his Ode Records. Amongst others Adler worked with the Mamas & the Papas, the Grass Roots (both on his prior imprint Dunhill), Scott Mackenzie and Spirit; eventually through a deal with A&M, Ode released King’s chart conquering cornerstone of grownup listening Tapestry.

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Graded on a Curve: Tommy Keene,
Laugh in the Dark

In guitar pop circles Tommy Keene is an utter fount of reliability. On the radar since the late ‘70s, he grew from underground beginnings and briefly landed on a major before transitioning into an unimpeachable elder of melodic rock, and one still active over three decades hence. Make that active and undiminished, for Laugh in the Dark finds Keene in excellent form. Featuring typically sturdy songwriting and the bold production values associated with musicians who came of age when rock radio truly mattered, and it’s out now on LP/CD/digital via Second Motion Records.

Prior to his solo career, Bethesda, MD-born Tommy Keene was in Blue Steel (with Nils Lofgren’s brother Mike), Rage (with Richard X. Heyman), and most notably the Razz, just one of the numerous groups defining Washington, DC’s late ‘70s rock scene. Releasing a pair of 7-inches and a comp track on Skip Groff’s Limp Records, the Razz scored plum opening slots for national acts on tour (reportedly Devo and the Ramones) but they never branched out beyond the local.

Keene’s solo debut was the swell Strange Alliance, the LP initially slated for Limp but ultimately self-released on Avenue in ’82 (it received a new vinyl pressing in 2013). Copious accolades stemmed from the “Places That Are Gone” EP for Dolphin (later compiled by Alias on The Real Underground CD), and after the follow-up “Back Again (Try…)” EP he was nabbed by Geffen for ‘86’s Songs from the Film and ‘89’s Based on Happy Times.

Ears ripening in the ‘90s may know the platters Keene cut for Matador, namely ‘92’s “Sleeping on a Rollercoaster,” ‘96’s Ten Years After and ‘98’s Isolation Party. More than a random signing reflecting the free-for-all atmosphere of the period (far from it, the Strange Alliance reissue came out on Matador exec Gerard Cosloy’s 12XU label), the results reinforced his veteran status, with a harder edge making clear he wasn’t creating in a vacuum.

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Graded on a Curve: Suburban Lawns, S/T

To gather a full understanding of the new wave era requires cognizance of Suburban Lawns. A Long Beach, CA outfit wedding spastic energy to an art-school approach, they scored modest success in the upside-down musical environment of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. The group’s fortunes were momentary however, and they’ve subsequently lingered on the edge of obscurity in part due to a lack of exposure. In a positive turn, Futurismo’s remodeled expansion of their eponymous 1981 full-length returns the vast majority of Suburban Lawns’ discography to print; it’s available now on LP/CD.

Suburban Lawns were formed in 1978 by bassist William Ranson and vocalist-keyboardist Sue McLane. Students at the California Institute of the Arts, they adopted the monikers Vex Billingsgate and Su Tissue and promptly hooked up with drummer Charles Rodriguez aka Chuck Roast and guitarists Richard Whitney and John McBurney, the pair adopting the handles Frankie Ennui and John Gleur.

That Suburban Lawns partially sprang from the fertile creative environs of CalArts is quickly apparent; unabashedly smart in a field often valuing submerged intellect, their focus was as much on ideas as musicality. It’s frankly an unsurprising scenario for an act riding the new wave, though the Lawns’ instrumental adeptness was quite clear and over the years has sporadically been assessed by some harsh sticklers as a fault.

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Graded on a Curve: Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators, Happiness in Every Style

Aficionados of contempo soul in the classique mode may already know of Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators. The Brooklyn-born vocalist has resided in Helsinki for roughly a decade, and her association with the Finnish instrumental unit commenced in the early 2000s. Some may persist in making quick-trigger comparisons to Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, but within the parameters of neo-soul Willis’ blend of the sophisto and the funky persists in bearing a distinctive stamp. Happiness in Every Style is the third album from this union, and it’s out October 2nd on LP and CD via Timmion Records.

Nicole Willis’ status as a veteran spans back to the 1980s. Beginning her career in the New York groups Blue Period and Hello Strangers, in mid-decade London she took part in Washington Week in Review (alongside future members of Brand New Heavies). Back in NYC Willis was in an early lineup of fleeting dance-pop titans Deee-Lite and in ’89 was a vocalist on The The’s Mind Bomb tour.

Heading into the ‘90s she helped comprise the acid jazz/soul outfit Repercussions. Amongst their recordings: the ’92 club hit “Passion,” ‘94’s collaboration with Curtis Mayfield “Let’s Do it Again,” and a pair of full-lengths, ‘95’s Earth and Heaven and ‘97’s Charmed Life. In ’98 Willis contributed to UK electronic act Leftfield’s track “Swords” and entered the new millennium with a solo album.

2000’s Soul Makeover and its ‘04 follow-up Be It explore electronic funk-R&B with assistance from her musician-producer-arranger husband Jimi Tenor. A musically prolific couple, they’ve recently completed two records of house music as Cola & Jimmu. All this background contrasts somewhat with her work with the Soul Investigators, a team-up that announced its presence on the ‘03 single “You Better Change” b/w “Raw Steaks,” the a-side also appearing on Be It.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Brokeoffs, “Brain Damage/Eclipse” b/w “House of the Rising Sun”

Some may know The Brokeoffs as the backing “band” co-credited on the recent records of veteran Brit singer-songwriter Holly Golightly. The quotation marks above relate to The Brokeoffs’ existence as one gent, namely Lawyer Dave, and he’s just getting around to releasing his first single. It sports two covers; one surprising and triumphant and the other an attempt to conquer a seeming ubiquity. A 10-inch picture disc, it’s out September 25 in an edition of 250 via the UK label Damaged Goods.

Up to this point The Brokeoffs’ name has been noted almost exclusively in connection with a geographical/stylistic turn in the career of Holly Golightly. In the midst of last decade the ex-member of The Headcoatees and prime solo exponent of the ‘90s garage scene moved to the States, cultivating a partnership with the Texas-bred multi-instrumentalist known as Lawyer Dave while taking a detour into the Americana field.

The duo’s eighth album Coulda Shoulda Woulda is out next month, denoting the relationship with Lawyer Dave as a fruitful one. It should be no shock to folks familiar with Golightly’s beginnings that her immersion in the rural musical richness of the USA preserved her grit and sass, but Lawyer Dave’s input more than backup; blending honky-tonk and back-porch blues, they could sometimes come off like Wanda Jackson hooking up with C&W-era Hasil Adkins in a wood-paneled dive bar in the hills of West Virginia, the duo intermittently possessed by the disembodied spirit of Joe Hill Louis.

Golightly recently visited the UK and the byproduct was Slowtown Now!, her first full-band album since 2004, so it only makes sense that Dave gets to do a little branching out as well. Serving as The Brokeoffs’ solo debut, the picture disc sports a photo substantially intensifying the aura of one-man band-ism as its grooves present a wrinkle; specifically, while Golightly and Dave were not averse to adapting tunes, they did generally focus on their own material.

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Graded on a Curve: Golden Void, Berkana

Hailing from the Bay Area of sunny California, the fittingly named Golden Void specializes in hard rock of an early ‘70s vintage. Incorporating a druggy glow and emphasis on flowing cohesion, they’re neither too loose nor too tight, stomping up dust clouds while expanding outward on their sophomore effort. Listeners pining for a dose of old school organ-infused guitar-heavy thud should investigate Berkana; it’s available now on LP/CD/digital through Thrill Jockey.

Guitarist-vocalist Isaiah Mitchell (also of Earthless), keyboardist-vocalist Camilla Saufley-Mitchell (of Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound), bassist Aaron Morgan, and drummer Justin Pinkerton comprise Golden Void. A relatively new act on the scene, the band’s interpersonal musical connections span back to middle school days, with Morgan and Pinkerton playing together in both Roots of Orchis and Eyes.

As can be gathered by their surnames, the guitarist and keyboardist have formed a marriage bond, and all this familiarity is borne out in Golden Void’s well-practiced thrust. Unequivocally hard rocking, the results aren’t accurately summed-up as stoner inclined; biker rock is nearer to the gist, but they frankly don’t sound much like the Blue Cheer, nor do they strive for an overwrought debasement of the 12-bar template, though the blues-rock of yore is definitely a shaping influence.

A clue comes in the choice of moniker, which derives from a tune on Warrior on the Edge of Time, the 1975 release by space rock cornerstone Hawkwind. This places a few of Golden Void’s appendages into a psychedelic bag, but their general reality is closer to Black Sabbath and especially Deep Purple, with nods to Pentagram, Uriah Heep, and the numerous supergroups branching out from Cream, Jeff Beck Group, and Mountain.

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Graded on a Curve: Marian McLaughlin, Spirit House

Based in Washington, DC, Marian McLaughlin is a guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter specializing in progressively inclined indie/chamber folk; well-versed in string technique and keen on boundary-pushing collaboration, her music is a multifaceted pleasure. Possessing a slim discography detailing a growing relationship with double bassist-arranger Ethan Foote, McLaughlin’s second full-length Spirit House arrives on CD September 23rd. Due to the frustrations of mobility certain to occur during this week’s papal visit to the Nation’s Capital, her record release show at the Logan Fringe Arts Space has been moved to November 21st.

Marian McLaughlin’s acumen on guitar is considerable. One need only listen to understand, but her background of master classes with Larry Snitzler, a pupil and friend to cornerstone of the classical axe Andrés Segovia, is worthy of note. Additionally, McLaughlin was one of six chosen by the Bethesda, MD arts center Strathmore for their 2014-15 Artist in Residence program.

Live performance figures prominently in her approach; running the gamut from house shows to events in larger venues, she’s warmed up the room for Ryley Walker, Daniel Bachman, Marissa Nadler, Arborea, Six Organs of Admittance, and others, but her largest audience surely came via NPR’s online shindig Tiny Desk Concert in June of 2014.

In his introduction to the 3-song set, Tiny Desk producer/host Bob Boilen praises her as a unique musician, though he does provide context by citing similarities to Joanna Newsom and Diane Cluck. These are apt comparisons; as said, McLaughlin impacts the ear as a direct descendant/exponent of last decade’s blossoming of indie folk, and with special emphasis on the side of the scene promoted by periodicals such as Arthur and Galactic Zoo Dossier.

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Graded on a Curve:
Close Lobsters, Firestation Towers:

The currently active Scottish act Close Lobsters emerged in the guts of the 1980s as one of the earliest signings to Fire Records. Said label is also still in existence and having a boffo 2015, with part of their continued success stemming from due attention to back catalog. To elaborate, Firestation Towers: 1986-1989 is Fire’s expansive assemblage of Close Lobsters’ initial output, matching two full-lengths with a singles collection. Copies of the Record Store Day 3LP remain available and the CD edition is out September 18th.

Close Lobsters formed in 1985 with Andrew Burnett on vocals, Tom Donnelly and Graeme Wilmington on guitars, Andrew’s brother Robert on bass, and Stewart McFayden on drums. The next year they earned a spot on C86, the movement-defining comp issued by the weekly UK periodical New Musical Express.

“Firestation Towers” is the track, a sub-two minute spurt of urgent jangle and slightly lethargic voice landing squarely within the parameters of what constitutes the C86 sound. Quickly signed to Fire, the two sides of their debut ’86 single, “Going to Heaven to see if it Rains” and “Boys and Girls,” possessed a level of energy certain indie pop associates lacked and evidenced substantial writing ability.

1987 was a fertile period. The “Never Seen Before” EP’s title cut sports Postcard-style chime swagger with complementary bouncing bass notes and on 12-inch includes “Firestation Towers” and “Wide Waterways,” the latter a shrewd cover of a song by Peter Perrett’s Velvet Underground-infused pre-Only Ones band England’s Glory.

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