Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2019’s Reissues, Part Two

As we dive into the part two of 2019’s best reissues and archival releases, a little space gets devoted to what constitutes genuine worthiness in the endeavor. Unsurprisingly, the journey moves pretty far afield from the well-trodden path, although the twists and turns are far from random. They begin directly below.

5. Willie Colón, The Hustler (Craft Latino) & V/A, No Other Love: Midwest Gospel (1965-1978) (Tompkins Square) Partly because there continues to be two major Record Store Day events annually that seem to be going down gangbusters, it’s safe to say that vinyl buying is still very much an endeavor connected to being in a room full of records. This makes the steady stream of reissues emerging via Craft Recordings’ Latin subsidiary a real service, as the plain facts are that original specimens from the Fania Records catalog aren’t common in less metropolitan areas. I mean, you could buy secondhand copies online, but that practice is a few blocks from Nowheresville. Oh, how’s The Hustler sound? It’s a fucking beast…

Grabbing an original Willie Colón LP is unlikely out in the boondocks, and you can forget about the selections on Tompkins Square’s latest African-American gospel volume. As Ramona Stout’s accompanying essay explains, No Other Love’s contents were the direct result of community record canvasing (only one track has been anthologized before, on a Numero Group set). It’s safe to surmise that nobody besides Stout and her partner Kevin Speck heard all these cuts prior to presenting the compilation to others. It’s an amazing LP, with Stout’s notes contextualizing matters far beyond the increasingly trite “pure sounds of religious fervor” concept. You know, things are never so simple.

4. Joe McPhee, Nation Time (Superior Viaduct) & Sounds of Liberation, New Horizons & Unreleased (Columbia University 1973) (Dogtown / Brewerytown Beats) To get back to the idea of rarity, or maybe more appropriately, scarcity, when Atavistic commenced the Unheard Music Series shortly after the turn of the 21st, it was cause for celebration for fans of avant-garde jazz the globe over. I mention it because Nation Time by the great multi-reed man Joe McPhee kicked off the whole shebang. The only real caveat is that the UMS was a CD-only endeavor; Superior Viaduct’s reissue of Nation Time gives folks a new vinyl pressing and inspires hope that further UMS titles will see fresh wax editions in the years ahead.

But you need not wait years to scoop up some truly scant ’70s avant-free-spiritual jazz in reissue form, as two records from the Philadelphia-based band Sounds of Liberation have been reissued by the above labels (interestingly given the remarks over brick and mortar above, Brewerytown Beats is also a Philly record store). The septet’s highest-profile players were saxophonist-flautist Byard Lancaster and vibraphonist Khan Jamal; the other members were guitarist Monnette Sudler, drummer Dwight James, bassist Billy Mills, and percussionists Omar Hill and William Brister aka Rashid Salim. Fans of loft jazz and the Wildflowers volumes in particular will want to grab copies of both. The sound is flowing but potent.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2019’s Reissues, Part One

With the list below, the reissues have slimmed down a bit, though in terms of weight, collectively as well as individually, they are all worth noting. So hey, we did. The second half, even heftier yet just as svelte, follows tomorrow.

10. Lightning Bolt, Wonderful Rainbow (Thrill Jockey) & Robbie Fulks, Country Love Songs (Bloodshot) The general tendency is to refrain from listing straight reissues of stuff that is less than a quarter century old, but occasionally exceptions will be made, and the controlled duo mayhem that comprises Wonderful Rainbow is one of them. That it’s part of Thrill Jockey’s extensive plunge into Lightning Bolt’s discography no doubt added some weight to the consideration; however, taking this baby out for a few fresh spins provides as wild a ride as it ever did before. The rainbow splatter vinyl is going to splendid revolving on the turntable.

Country Love Songs hasn’t hit the 25-year mark either, but, released in 1996, it’s inching nearer by the second, and it’s a record that’s as necessary now as it was upon initial release. Fulks had a few songs out prior, but the set was his full-length debut and it put him solidly on the map, in the process differentiating him from much of the alt-country pack, as listening to his stuff; rich of voice, strong of song, and exquisite instrumentally including pedal steel from Tom Brumley, made it clear that a couple of decades prior he would’ve been a legitimate country hitmaker. That is conjecture of course, but what’s hard to dispute is how at his best Robbie Fulks is timeless. This LP is a prime example.

9. Miles Davis, The Complete Birth of the Cool (UMe) & John Coltrane, Blue World (Impulse!) I can envision the eye rolls from the non-jazz-loving contingent. These guys again? Didn’t they just make yesterday’s list? Hey, maybe we’ll eventually call for a moratorium on Miles and Trane in the annual Best Of tallies, as it seems unlikely that a year will elapse without multiple reissues and/ or archival editions from these two august names. As you can see, no great jazzman ban was undertaken at TVD in 2019, but things have been kept in perspective.

Birth of the Cool is total jazz canon stuff to be sure, but UMe’s highly attractive 2LP edition (with LP-sized booklet featuring photos and notes by Ashley Khan) is also the first time the live and studio material has been offered on 2LP. For jazz fans and vinyl aficionados, I’d say it’s a must. As a soundtrack recorded by the Classic Quartet for Canadian director Gilles Groulx, Blue World is simultaneously a major discovery (though one hiding in plain sight) and a minor work. But as it offers the saxophonist revisiting previously recorded tunes in the studio, it’s noteworthy, and definitely of interest.

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Graded on a Curve: The Best of 2019’s Box Sets

As we begin our year’s end Best of coverage, it bears mentioning that this is only a portion of the worthy box sets and expanded releases to hit stores across the last twelve months. Trying to give them all ample consideration is a fool’s errand, which is partly why there are no real surprises here, at least for folks who regularly check out this website’s Graded on a Curve column. But the main reason for the hierarchy unwinding below is that the chosen selections are just really good. So, let’s jump in.

10. Konk, The Magic Force of Konk 1981-1988 (Futurismo) This reissue label, summarized somewhat concisely as being focused on the fringier twists and turns of the New Wave era, has brought out fresh editions of classics from noted New Yorkers James Chance and Alan Vega, so this 3LP collection devoted to this No Wave-affiliated NYC-based proto-dance punk outfit is no surprise. That it goes down so nicely in the here-and-now while spotlighting a vital strain of stylistic hybridization in the 1980s, a decade where a high percentage of punk and post-Wave music became increasingly insular, is a stone treat.

9. Art Pepper, Promise Kept: The Complete Artist House Recordings (Omnivore) The retrospective diligence on the part of Omnivore into the late work of saxophonist Art Pepper continued in 2019 with this 5CD collection of material cut for the Artist House label, originally offered on a string of four albums from the first half of the 1980s (only one, So In Love, actually issued by Artist House), plus 21 previously unreleased takes. Drawn from sessions held in Cali and NYC and with a slew of major players in the bands, Promise Kept is a deep exploration of Art Pepper’s duality; he was a cornerstone West Coast guy but also totally adept in an East Coast context. I mean, there are some major burners on this baby.

8. Chet Baker, The Legendary Riverside Albums (Craft) As West Coasters, Art Pepper and Chet Baker recorded together a few times, perhaps most notably on Playboys, a sextet LP released in 1957 by World Pacific with a big ol’ slice of ’50s cheesecake on the cover. The Legendary Riverside Albums dates from ’58-’59 and corrals some of his most enduring work. In the case of (Chet Baker Sings) It Could Happen To You, it’s also some of his most divisive, as he was iconoclastic as a vocalist but without alienating an audience that, for a while, elevated him to the stature of pop star. More importantly, this collection emphasizes his prowess as a trumpeter and his deep love of standards, a facet shared with Pepper.

7. The Pop Group, Y (Definitive Edition) (Mute) Available either as three LPs and a 7-inch or as a 3CD set, the core of this collection, specifically the debut album from 1979 from these Bristol, UK-based post-punkers, is an absolute must in the scheme of the genre they helped to define. The great news is that the record of additional, previously unheard material, Alien Blood, is way up to snuff, as is the self-explanatorily titled Y Live; the 45 is a repress of the “She’s Beyond Good and Evil” single, and that’s indispensable, too. Standing in the rubble of punk in the late ‘70s, The Pop Group integrated funk, skronk jazz, dub, African influences, and leftist politics into a stew that’s lost none of its potency.

6. Patsy Cline, Sweet Dreams: The Complete Decca Masters 1960-1963 (Third Man) If one were to jot down the biggest names in the history of C&W music, Patsy Cline would figure high upon the list. I’ll add that she achieved this stature in a relatively brief career cut short by a plane crash, and that she was a perfect example of an artist for whom the descriptor of mainstream was not a putdown. With all this said, it’s kind of a stumper how we got all the way to 2010 without her Decca recordings (in short, her finest stuff) being compiled in one set (Hip-O-Select rounded them up on 2CD) and basically another decade before they received the vinyl treatment. Mandatory on any well-rounded country shelf.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for December 2019

The TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for December, 2019.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Shasta Cults, S/T (Important) Canada’s Richard Smith is an electronics technician who for two decades was the go-to repair person for Buchla & Associates, a job that put him in contact with a variety of musicians and institutions. Smith’s work as Shasta Cults, with this LP preceded by the CD Configurations (recorded in 2017 and issued in September), has its roots in demo recordings of rare equipment he’s worked on over the years, with both of his releases thus far derived entirely from one instrument each; for Configurations, it was the Buchla 700, and for this follow-up (recorded in 2018) it’s the Buchla Touché. Records featuring the Buchla are often spacy and swirly, but this outing is more drone-oriented and impressively layered, though Smith’s work is still quite transportive. A

The Gonks, Five Things You Didn’t Know About the Gonks (Rocks In Your Head) This is a fine batch of fringy-pop from a San Fran-based combo, first heard by moi on this label’s nifty recent Hot Sick Vile and Fun comp (their tune titled the collection). They cover a range of appealing territory, like the black turtleneck art-angst of “I Hired a Hitman” (like a song from the soundtrack to a Beth B. flick), the gal-voxed melodicism (briefly intruded upon by maleness and roaring engines) of “I’m a Lonely Night Driver,” the vaguely Television Personalities-like “My Glamourous Mother,” the decidedly warped jangle and thump of “I’m a Leaker,” and the sax honk meets indie pop strumming of “I’m Dead.” That’s five tracks. There are five more, including a closing theme song of sorts. Altogether, a 16-minute stunner. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Cecil Taylor, Indent (ORG Music) This label’s Black Friday Record Store Day releases didn’t reach me until right at the cusp of finalizing last week’s column. As RSD selections often linger in the bins for a while, I would be remiss not to mention a few in our final New in Stores of 2019. Along with Silent Tongues and The Great Paris Concert (aka Student Studies), this is ORG’s third installment (all from this year) in what’s hopefully an extended reissue program devoted to this incomparable pianist and cornerstone of the jazz avant-garde. Indent was the first solo Taylor record to hit stores back in 1973 (but not the oldest chronologically; that would be Praxis, a ’68 recording released in ’82), first on his own Unit Core label and then with wider distribution through the Freedom imprint.

For a few reasons, Silent Tongues is perhaps the most celebrated Taylor solo LP; for starters, it was awarded album of the year by Down Beat in ’75, with its arrival coinciding with a gradual change in fortunes (not really commercially, as he’s never been a great seller, but rather just a diminishment of neglect/ increase in respect regarding his creativity). But if Silent Tongues is the most well-known of his solo works, it shouldn’t be considered as encompassing the totality of Taylor alone at the bench. There are certainly common characteristics, amongst them energy and precision with bright rays of beauty shining through. Additionally, the clusters of notes and the overall sound flow is so dense and rich that if the experience proves agreeable it is also inexhaustible. As great as Silent Tongues, maybe better. A+

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Graded on a Curve: Mattias Uneback,
Voyage Beneath the Sea

As the second decade of the 21st century winds to a close and for a handful of perfectly sound reasons, Exotica music isn’t exactly a thriving contemporary concern. However, the form has persevered as a point of historical interest, with a select few even able to conjure up fresh material that’s inextricably inspired by the style’s moods and climes. Right now, it’s doubtful anybody’s doing it better than sharp-dressing Swede Mattias Uneback; he’s had substantial time to hone his skills as part of The Test Pilots and more germane to the genre in Ìxtahuele, but with Voyage Beneath the Sea, he’s debuting as a leader, and per the title, the LP is an underwater delight. It’s out now on Subliminal Sounds.

When I say that Exotica has persevered historically into the present, I’m thinking specifically of the Numero Group label’s Technicolor Paradise: Rhum Rhapsodies & Other Exotic Delights, a multi-disc various artist retrospective deep dive into the style from last year, and additionally Subliminal Sounds’ own Pacific Paradise, which threw a spotlight onto the work of a single artist, the obscure bandleader Paul Page.

The emphasis on blissful states of being and temperate locales elevates those releases to a standard far above that of the associated genre of Cocktail Lounge. Thankfully, this extends to the Exotica impulse as manifested in the recent past by Ìxtahuele (the band’s last album Call of the Islands came out in 2016) and in the here and now by Uneback.

While surely conscious of the imagery and atmosphere that surrounds Exotica, with Voyage Beneath the Sea’s sleeve design radiating like an album rescued from a box moldering in a corner of a dimly lit antique shop (a look it shares with Page’s collection), Uneback is considerably more than some dude sporting a thrift store ascot and guzzling from a pitcher of poorly mixed martinis.

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Graded on a Curve:
J. Graves,

On the debut album by Portland, OR’s J. Graves, it’s Jessa Graves who writes the songs, sings them and plays the guitar, while the bass is handled by Barret Stolte and the drums by Dave Yeager. J. Graves is indeed a band, though the choice of moniker drives home the namesake’s input and sheer commitment. The style can be accurately tagged as a post-Riot Grrl state of affairs, but with strength of songwriting and emotional range that validates the comparisons to Sleater-Kinney and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Another way of putting it is that Marathon isn’t always raging; far from it actually, but the LP is consistently heartfelt, which brings us back to the matter of commitment. The album, self-released, is out now.

Jessa Graves’ story includes a prior outfit, Hellokopter, who worked hard and made progress and just at the brink of a major breakthrough and reward, fell apart as bands often do. If a not uncommon occurrence, the fallout from this situation can still be devastating to those involved, which is exactly what happened with Graves; the result was that she didn’t play, write songs or sing for three years.

But in 2016 she wrote “Leap Year,” which after three more years is one of Marathon’s ten selections. The trajectory from that initial song to this finished album wasn’t easy, however. There were serious health issues in 2017, with the chest x-ray adorning the record’s cover deriving from that very situation. Those difficulties necessitated major life changes, as she quit smoking and in 2018, ran a marathon.

Hence the record’s title, though there is a deeper significance; in an article in the Portland-focused website Vortex, Graves described the completion of this album as her second marathon. And there is an additional layered meaning, as the same article refers to the video she made for the record’s Kickstarter where she observed how the x-ray showed her insides and then added that “my music is everything that is inside of me.”

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for November 2019, Part Five

Part five of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for November, 2019. Part one is here, part two is here, part three is here, and part four is here.

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: V/A, Land of 1,000 Dances: The Rampart Records Complete Singles Collection (Minky) Here are four compact discs tucked snugly into pockets inside an essay and picture-packed hardcover book spotlighting the label that gifted unto the world the Los Angeles-based ’60s Mexican-American rock impulse, aka the “West Coast East Side Sound.” The larger intention of owner-producer Eddie Davis (who’s also credited with stewarding into existence the all-time classic “Farmer John” by The Premiers via his other label Faro) was to build an equivalent to Motown for Chicano performers, and if he didn’t reach Gordy’s levels of success, his company did carry on into the ’90s while adapting stylistically to the times.

That means there’s disco from Eastside Connection and even a cover of Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting,” in English and Spanish by Didi Scorzo. I’ll confess to having no use for that one as the later stuff is hit-and-miss, but roughly half of the set derives from the ’60s and is a stone blast of R&B instrumentals, vocal group sounds, Chicano soul, and yes, Mexican-American rock, of which Cannibal and the Headhunters’ cover of Chris Kenner’s “Land of 1000 Dances” is a prime example. Other highlights include The Blendells’ cover of Stevie Wonder’s “La La La La La,” and The Village Callers’ killer “Hector Parts 1 & 2.” The background info is welcome, and the photos are pretty special, including previously unpublished shots the Headhunters’ ’65 tour as openers for The Beatles. A valuable thing. A-

New Riders of the Purple Sage, Thanksgiving in New York City (Live) (Omnivore) Captured at the Academy of Music in NYC on November 23, 1972, this is six sides of country-rock hippie style for Black Friday, though the 2CD and digital aren’t available until 12/6. In their hippie comportment the New Riders (by this point sans Jerry Garcia on pedal steel, replaced by Buddy Cage) could get a little eccentric, but mainly through vocalist John “Marmaduke” Dawson and a few of his song selections (like R.B. Greaves’ “Take a Letter Maria,” which they later cut in the studio). The rest of the members; alongside Cage, that’s guitarist David Nelson, bassist Dave Torbert, and drummer Spencer Dryden (Nelson and Torbert also sang), were busy being crack instrumentalists. The pleasure offered here never ebbs. A-

Edan, Beauty and the Beat (Lewis Recordings) Edan’s 2002 debut Primitive Plus endures as a mainstay of alt-underground-indie hip hop, but his ’05 follow-up is even better as it enters into psychedelic realms without the negative connotations that frequently emerged when druggy expansiveness mingled with rap’s intensity and forward momentum. Indeed, Edan continues to explore the classic structural launching pad of late ’80s-’90s hip-hop in a manner that’s far deeper than the typical cred-establishing nods to the past (making this a true extension of his first album), but more importantly, his approach to psychedelia is never shallowly, stereotypically trippy. Truly bent, there are more ideas in the consecutive “Rock and Roll” and “Beauty” than in many hip-hop records twice this one’s length (a tidy 34 minutes). A

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for November 2019, Part Four

Part four of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for November, 2019. Part one is here, part two is here, and part three is here.

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: V/A, No Other Love: Midwest Gospel (1965-1978) (Tompkins Square) This label has a fine track record in the documentation of 20th century African-American gospel sounds, with the contents offered in multi-disc sets that have been amongst my favorite releases of the last few decades. However, as cathartic as those sets can be, they don’t pack the emotional wallop of this single LP of recordings uncovered in and around Chicago and compiled by Ramona Stout. The punch is surely musical, as the contents derive from preachers, congregations, family bands, and children’s choirs, but the impact gets intensified by Stout’s accompanying essay, which is frankly some of the best writing I’ve read on the American Experience in a long time. More from me on this one in a few weeks. A

Chet Baker, The Legendary Riverside Albums (Craft) Trumpeter and sometimes singer Chet Baker has long been a divisive figure in the annals of jazz, and this box set exemplifies the reasons why; in a nutshell, these LPs, five in all, with one a collections of outtakes, were cut because the artist was young, good-looking and Caucasian, with the album covers really amplifying those qualities and validating the cliché of Baker as the matinée idol of ’50s jazz. It’s not hard to understand why some would (and still do) take issue with the guy’s success, and we haven’t even mentioned his heroin addiction and the second chances and comebacks he was allowed when others surely were not. These observations may seem odd in relation to an artist’s pick, but it’s all an inextricable part of Baker’s story.

Sometimes that story overshadows the talent. As this collection offers some his strongest and most distinctive recordings, it provides a well-rounded portrait and serves as a solid corrective to those who insist on denying his abilities. (Chet Baker Sings) It Could Happen To You (A) (available as a standalone reissue for RSD) wasn’t Baker’s first vocal outing, but it’s his best as it emphasizes the unruffled unusualness of his style. Even today, as he sings, one can easily envision the slowly tightening fists of macho jazzbos. Chet Baker in New York (A-) is a record much more suited to their tastes, as it features tenor saxman Johnny Griffin and two thirds of Miles Davis’ famed ’50s rhythm section in bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. Pianist Al Haig completes the band.

What the album, and all of the trumpeter’s Riverside material (and beyond), shares with Chet Baker Sings is a sincerity in its approach to standards. Chet (A) is loaded with tunes from the Songbook and has the added value of an interchanging all-star lineup, with Chambers and Jones back along with pianist Bill Evans, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, drummer Connie Kay, flute and tenor sax from a pre-shirtless Herbie Mann, and two cuts with guitarist Kenny Burrell. Everyone sounds sharp throughout, and I prefer this one to Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner and Loewe (B+), which is a little stuffy in its tribute concept, even as saxophonist Zoot Sims makes the scene. Outtakes and Alternates (A-) is exactly that, with all the songs having featured on previous CD reissues of these LPs. Overall grade; A

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for November 2019, Part Three

Part three of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for November, 2019. Part one is here and part two is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Oiseaux-Tempëte, From Somewhere Invisible (Sub Rosa) Described as an evolving collective rather than a band, Oiseaux-Tempëte (translates as Storm Petrels) was formed in 2012 by multi-instrumentalists Frédéric D. Oberland and Stéphane Pigneul. This recorded incarnation features vocalist G.W. Sok formerly of The Ex, electronic producer Mondkopf, drummer Jean-Michel Pirès of Bruit Noir, violinist Jessica Moss of Thee Silver Mt. Zion, and multi-instrumentalist and producer Radwan Ghazi Moumneh of Jerusalem In My Heart. It was Moumneh who initiated this lineup by inviting the quintet of Oberland, Pigneul, Mondkopf, Pirès and Sok to Canada for live shows, with Jerusalem In My Heart reforming to play alongside them.

This is presumably how Moss, who’s based in Canada, got involved. She’s a welcome addition to an ensemble sound that covers a wide range of possibilities as the tracks, a few of them lengthy, unfurl. To call From Somewhere Invisible experimental is fitting, but the collective’s thrust is also quite structural, but with a looseness that never quite tips over into spark-of-the-moment improvisation. Horns emerge, as do electronics, and the way Sok speaks rather than sings really reinforces this as an intellectually vibrant art-rock shebang. We could also call it a post-rock throwdown, but in doing so I feel it’s necessary to specify that this record, had it not been issued by Sub Rosa, could’ve easily fit on the roster of Constellation Records (Moss and Moumneh obviously help promote this observation). A

Dopolarians, Garden Party (Mahakala Music) A spectacular CD of avant-jazz from a new label, with an undercurrent of sadness, as it documents the final studio recording of percussionist Alvin Fielder. He’s joined here by tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan, alto man Chad Fowler (who also plays a little saxello), bassist extraordinaire William Parker, pianist Christopher Parker, and vocalist Kelly Hurt. As said, Garden Party is inextricably tied to the avant-garde, but don’t get the idea that this is a big group exhale of freedom’s breath (worry not, there are a few sweet blasts). This is a compositionally rich batch of music (totaling just over an hour), with three of the six selections credited to Fowler. Everything maintains a high level of quality, but Hurt’s title track, complete with warm storytelling, nearly steals the show. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: The Springfields, Singles 1986-1991 (Slumberland) Part of Slumberland’s lasting appeal is in how they thrived as part of an indie pop trajectory that continues right up to now, with the label, as listed below, making worthy contempo contributions to the style. The imprint is also psyched to share influences and enthusiasms, which is what’s happening with this comp. The Springfields were Chicago based and featured Ric Menck and Paul Chastain, two dudes likely better known for the band Velvet Crush. The glorious post-Byrds jangle pop collected here was released by labels including Sarah of the UK, so take that as a sign of quality. Also cool is that the comp opens with both sides of the “This Perfect Day” 45 by pre-Springfields Menck/ Chastain outfit Choo-Choo Train. A

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Graded on a Curve:
Jake La Botz,
They’re Coming for Me

Hot on the heels of his 51st birthday, Jake La Botz has packed a lot of living into that half century, acting in films and on stage, learning the blues from Chicago legends Honeyboy Edwards and Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis, teaching meditation to prisoners and kicking drug addiction. Navigating through the ’80s punk scene, landing in Nashville and returning to Chicago to cut his ninth full-length, the results reflect his range of experience. Rootsy with a theatricality that avoids faltering into minstrelsy and with strong singer-songwriter bona fides, in an earlier era, he would’ve been a cult artist struggling on a major label, but in 2019 he’s releasing They’re Coming for Me on Jimmy Sutton’s Hi-Style Records. It’s a good fit.

Jake La Botz has a whole lot of records out that I’ve somehow managed to not hear since he debuted in 1999 with Original Soundtrack to My Nightmare. The extensive background is palpable on his latest, as They’re Coming for Me is not the album of a fresh-faced newbie, though it still has the spark that I often associate with more youthful performers.

The artist successfully walks a dangerous line as the album progresses, in that he successfully tangles with the roots impulse without straining for a weathered effect and simultaneously doesn’t impact the ear like some anachronistic relic. Contemporary touches are frequent as the disc progresses, with the opening title track settling into a country-tinged rockish singer-songwriter zone.

There’s enough blues in the cut’s equation to drive home that La Botz isn’t a replicator; instead, he’s productively absorbed the stuff. With that said, the next track “Johnnybag the Superglue” radiates some Calexico similarities, like if they were enlisted to back up Tom Waits, which brings us to how La Botz effectively conjures a likeness to that troubadour of bent Americana but without sounding like a copyist.

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Graded on a Curve: Robert Ashley,
Automatic Writing
and Improvement
(Don Leaves Linda)

Earlier this year, the label Lovely Music, Ltd. reissued composer and avant-gardist Robert Ashley’s Private Parts on vinyl and compact disc. Getting a new pressing of that ’78 classic was a terrific turn of events, and on November 22 the same imprint is bringing out a fresh wax edition of Ashley’s ’79 album Automatic Writing. It provides a sharp contrast with the October arrival of a contemporary performance (from February of this year at NYC’s The Kitchen) on double CD of the composer’s 1991 opera in two acts Improvement (Don Leaves Linda). If wildly different, both sets illuminate complementary sides of the same wonderful mind, and they help to shape one of the best release programs of 2019.

Even from within an oeuvre known for its qualities of eclecticism (partly detailed in my long review of Private Parts in this space earlier this year), Robert Ashley’s Automatic Writing is something of an outlier. While it postdates Ashley’s transition to text-based compositions, the record’s focus on involuntary speech, and specifically, Ashley’s self-described mild form of Tourette’s Syndrome, lends it stature that’s certainly distinctive but not especially divergent from the releases surrounding it in the man’s discography, in large part due to the focus on the human voice.

It required two attempts to record his involuntary speech, but Ashley succeeded, though the finished record offers more than this component. There are four intertwined parts, in fact: there is Ashley’s speech, a reading in French by Mimi Johnson of a translation of Ashley’s speech by Monsa Norberg, electronics and Polymoog as played by Ashley, and trad organ played by I’m unsure who (Paul DeMarinis designed and built the switching circuit that was crucial to the whole process). Actually, there is a fifth element, but we’ll get to that shortly.

Automatic Writing has been described as an ambient album, and as it’s a really quiet experience (best absorbed on headphones for maximum reward), that designation makes sense. It’s also, to my ear, the Ashley record that best fits the bill of minimal (although I haven’t heard everything he’s done). However, maybe the better categorization, if somewhat vague, is simply Experimental.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for November 2019, Part Two

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for November, 2019. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Fea, No Novelties (Blackheart) Hailing from San Antonio, TX, Fea is Latina punk with ties highlighting the band’s relationship to the style’s classicism; specifically, No Novelties is released on Joan Jett’s label with production by Alice Bag (Iggy Pop is also a fan). The music has been compared to Bikini Kill and The Gossip, and yeah, as this LP unwinds it does implant into the brain a similarity to the gal side of the ’90s-’00s Kill Rock Stars shebang (Riot Grrl central, essentially), but Fea has also been likened to Priests, which is nice shorthand in expressing that the band effectively carries this sound and screamingly relevant perspective into the present rather than just delivering a carbon copy. For example, Fea’s music is bilingual, and that’s fucking great. “Pelo Suelto” kicks major ass. A-

Juliana Hatfield, Sings The Police (American Laundromat) Although I do like some of their songs, mostly early stuff, I’ve no special esteem for The Police. In fact, in my personal hierarchy, I value Juliana Hatfield a whole lot more, in part because Blake Babies were an often-terrific band. So, you might think this tribute project (obviously, she holds a much higher opinion of The Police) would be somewhat up my alley. But I’ll confess that tributes of this stripe only pull my chain on occasion; I mean, I’ve yet to even listen to Hatfield’s prior set doffing the hat to Olivia Newton-John. But that’s also because my interest in ON-J is basically nil. What can I say, I can be a fickle motherfucker sometimes. All this didn’t bode particularly well for this album of interpretations of tunes by Sting, Summers and Copeland.

Well, Hatfield emerges creatively victorious, for a variety of reasons. First off, her long-extant likability has diminished not even a little. She’s in strong voice and is clearly engaged with the concept (as she should be, as she initiated it), but Hatfield also plays nearly everything herself, which works in relation to a production style that is both stripped-down and vivid. The way her tough guitar sound mingles with the choice of occasionally rudimentary drum programming and additional modest tech is also a plus. All this counteracts a frequent problem with The Police’s later stuff, which is that even when the songs were okay (or a little better) the whole ultimately reeked like bags of money. In contrast, Hatfield’s Sings the Police registers as an act of love thriving on inspiration rather than inflated or propped up by cash.

We’re nearer to the spirit of The Police’s initial handful of singles and Outlandos d’Amour, and that’s swell. Other smart decisions: Hatfield stays fairly close structurally to the sturdier of the band’s songs (like “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”) while giving others a punky kick in the pants (“Murder By Numbers”). She also doesn’t simply up the reggae quotient, which would frankly be a pretty lazy thing to do. But maybe her most unlikely achievements are in revitalizing overplayed warhorses “Roxanne” (a true highlight here) and “Every Breath You Take,” and back-to-back, even. Amongst all this success, I can even forgive a few spots that remind me of Sheryl Crow. Hey, maybe I should check out that Newton-John thing after all. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Ben Bryden,
Figure Of Eight

On Figure Of Eight, Scotland-native and NYC-based tenor saxophonist Ben Bryden leads a band featuring the guitar of fellow UK-to-NYC transplant Phil Robson, the bass of Desmond White, and the drums of Rajiv Jayaweera, the rhythm section current New York residents both originally from Australia, with Bryden’s horn flanked on two tracks by fellow tenor and long-time collaborator Steven Delannoye. The record has moments of accessible warmth that can harken back to the heyday of post-bop but with sustained passages that are undeniably new in conception. It’s out now on compact disc and digital through Circavision Productions.

Along with Figure of Eight’s generally inviting comportment, the chosen instrumental configuration of tenor, guitar, bass and drums only serves to deepen ties to modern jazz’s classic era, though in reality, this specific lineup, with guitar sans piano or organ, isn’t as historically common as one might think. However, it was the set of axes featured on Sonny Rollins’ comeback classic of 1961 The Bridge (with Jim Hall on guitar, Bob Cranshaw on double bass and Ben Riley on drums), and as Ben Bryden’s latest plays, a certain compatibility with the Rollins album does become discernible.

These qualities are far from overwhelming, though. Much more prominent are elements that are decidedly non-jazzy, and immediately so, as “Luskentyre,” named after a beach in Scotland, delivers a brief opening prelude that also stands as a bookend with the record’s outro “Bostadh,” which is also titled after a Scottish beach. The promo text mentions post-rock, and while that’s not off-target, please don’t get the idea that Bryden and company have navigated into Tortoise territory.

We are somewhat nearer to the work of Sigur Rós, and yet fleetingly so, as “Cold Shoulder” instead flows with a jazziness that’s distinctly urbane; Bryden’s playing is lyrical, Robson establishes his deftness with clean, ringing tones and note runs, and the rhythm section is crisp but unperturbed, though the atmosphere thankfully withstands getting too velvety.

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Graded on a Curve: Ryuichi Sakamoto,
Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto

As a composer, vocalist, songwriter, producer, keyboardist, and electronic music pioneer, Ryuichi Sakamoto has accumulated a substantial list of achievements since emerging as part of the 1970s Japanese scene. A member of the Yellow Magic Orchestra, all of his solo recordings postdate the release of that outfit’s debut except one, which came out in 1978 a month prior to YMO’s eponymous first LP. It delivers an occasionally fascinating look at the artist before his ’80s rise in profile, but Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto has never been an easy find in stores; in a sweet turn, Wewantsounds has reissued it on LP and CD, the first time in decades that it’s been available physically outside Japan.

In the promotional text for Becoming Peter Ivers, the RVNG Intl. label’s fresh archival release of demos from the late singer-songwriter, the subject gets quoted: “Demos are often better than records,” with Ivers adding, “More energy, more soul, more guts.” It’s a sentiment in which I am in accord, and I mention it as this idea can easily be adjusted and applied to an artist or band’s debut recording, in part due to a lack of streamlining that can result from the desire to expand upon early success.

Conversely, first albums (or EPs, or 45s even) can sometimes be formative, modest, and even generic affairs that do little or nothing to portend what is on a musician’s discographical horizon. Occasionally, the opportunity to record comes too early, but artists are unlikely to turn down the chance, either because they think the time is ripe, or they realize that the option may not arise again.

Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto follows a more productive path, as its motions of creative growth, while surely not eclipsing Sakamoto’s later recordings in worth, are quite pleasurable in how they help inject color into a portrait of the young artist. Additionally, the LP directly connects to Haruomi Hosono’s Paraiso, which was issued in April of ’78.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for November 2019, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for November, 2019. 

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Jumpstarted Plowhards, Round One (Recess) Bassist Mike Watt is, with no hyperbole, indefatigable. In the recent past, he’s been out on the road as part of Tav Falco’s band, assisted (along with singer David Yow) in a bunch of shows with Flipper, and has just wound down a tour with his own outfit The Missingmen. Recordings have been prominent as well, with this set a back-and-forth project with singer-guitarist Todd Congelliere of Toys That Kill and a rotating cast of drummers including a few with long associations with Watt, namely George Hurley, Raul Morales, and the youthful Nick Aguilar. Toys That Kill is a San Pedro-based outfit, so this is all literally close to home for Watt, with the foundation of the songs beginning with his bass parts as recorded to click tracks.

They were then passed on to Congelliere, who fleshed out the tunes and finally picked the drummers as he felt appropriate; amongst the contributors is Patty Schemel of Hole. Not being super-familiar with Toys That Kill, the results are pretty surprising as the concise set begins in what I’ll call a late ’70s-early ’80s UK art-punk zone that borders on that era and that nation’s subterranean DIY explosion. As the next seven tracks unwind, the general aura of Britishness remains but without ever slipping into the territory of a best-accent contest. The whole is cohesive as fuck (this bodes well, as there are five more prospective installments of Jumpstarted Plowhards material) and rocks like a mofo, which given the participants, isn’t the least bit surprising. It all syncs up very nicely with the below. A-

Fitted, First Fits (ORG Music) If Jumpstarted Plowhards is near to Mike Watt geographically, Fitted connects to the Minutemen (the bassist’s most high-profile endeavor, as ever it will be) pretty solidly, as amongst the participants is founding member of Wire, bassist-vocalist Edvard Graham Lewis; rounding out the band is later and current Wire member Matthew Sims on guitar and Bob Lee (Fearless Leader, Claw Hammer, The Freeks) on drums, with Watt on bass and spiel. Lewis adds synth and sampler, while Simms brings modular synth and organ to the studio. Well, five studios, as this was cut in various locations in Cali, the UK and Sweden in 2017-’18. Amazingly, Fitted practiced once, on March 30, 2017. The music is sharp-edged post-punk and expansive; at six tracks, it’s twice the length of Round One. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Peter Ivers, Becoming Peter Ivers (RVNG Intl.) Peter Ivers is far from forgotten, but along with the mysterious circumstances of his death in 1983, he’s probably remembered mainly these days for writing “In Heaven,” which was featured in David Lynch’s Eraserhead as sung by Laurel Near (it has since been covered many times, including by The Pixies). He was also the host of Los Angeles-area public access show New Wave Theater, which benefited from wider exposure on Night Flight and last decade by making the internet rounds. But as a recording artist, Ivers debuted all the way back in ’69 for Epic with Knight of the Blue Communion. Neither it nor his epic follow-up Take It Out On Me sold much, but he still ended up signed to Warner Brothers, where he cut two more albums.

Ivers’ role on New Wave Theater might position him on the surface as an early punk-era oddball personality, which he certainly was, but as the above should highlight, he was much more than that. His ’74 album Terminal Love was produced by Van Dyke Parks, who appears on one selection on this collection, “Window Washer.” Five years in the making and collecting mid-’70s demos, four of them of songs from Terminal Love, Becoming Peter Ivers really underscores Ivers’ talent as a songwriter, his solid harmonica playing (he was mentored by Little Walter) and the kind of ’70s presence that didn’t fit in to the decade’s scheme, a la Tom Waits, though the music here, often in the singer-songwriter mode with a funky undercurrent, is distinct. While demos, these aren’t song skeletons. A valuable eye-opener. A-

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