Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Cream, 1966-1972

Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker are the trio collectively known as Cream. Extant for only a fraction of the ‘60s, they still managed a bountiful recorded legacy. This week USM adds to the recent resurgence of LP box sets by collecting all six entries from their first formation, two studio, two live, and two hybrids of both, onto 180gm vinyl, making the contents of 1966-1972 heavy in dual senses of the word.

Full disclosure: for this writer this one-stop-shop of the original UK supergroup’s half dozen albums holds very little appeal, seeing as everything represented herein was relatively easy to obtain on LP throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, inexpensively and in good condition; personally, there is simply no reason to upgrade. But considering the needs of younger classic rock obsessed vinyl lovers, this collection does handily amass nearly everything from a trio that proved very influential.

Over the years, Cream has been both overrated and unfairly maligned. For starters, this is a highly productive if uneven period in Clapton’s artistic trajectory. The guitarist was creatively budding; if no longer a stern blues-disciple hounded by notions of purity, he was decades away from his transformation into an ultra-bland elder statesman after years of Middle-of-the-Roadism.

Since his ascendency to the Mt. Rushmore of blues-rock string-slingers Clapton has always inspired a pocket of detractors, and while these lobes are amongst those ranking his output post-Derek and the Dominos/George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass as uninteresting or worse, his prime work has persisted in worthiness.

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Graded on a Curve: Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton

Singer-guitarist-banjoist Karen Dalton holds special significance for many discerning folk fans. A rare example of beauty captured without undue premeditation, she managed only two studio albums before passing in 1993. A song collector and interpreter of unique but captivating voice, her skills were deeply admired by Bob Dylan as she befriended folk scene luminaries Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, and the Holy Modal Rounders. Now through Peter Walker and Josh Rosenthal, her uncovered lyrics have been transformed by a wide range of female artistry. The magnificent Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton is out May 26th on LP/CD/digital through Tompkins Square.

All it takes is one listen to It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best to absorb the prodigious talent that shaped it. Cut in ’69 for Capitol, due to Dalton’s difficulties with studio recording it reportedly had to be massaged into existence by producer Nick Venet. Akin to numerous folk counterparts, her main strength was live performance, but unlike many debuts, Dalton’s wasn’t hindered by the typical rookie issues.

It basically arrived too late in the folk cycle and surely received next to bupkis in promotion. Its reissue in ‘96 cemented her cult status for a younger generation, but for deep folk heads she was already justifiably legendary; a 12-string guitarist and banjo slinger (her photo made the cover of the Ode banjo catalog) with a memory full of ditties reaching back to her childhood in Oklahoma, she had pipes recalling Billie Holliday and a real aptitude for the blues.

Dalton was pretty far afield of the usual hootenanny stuff; for evidence see Cotton Eyed Joe (Live in Boulder 1962). However, she wasn’t as acquired a taste as has been claimed, and In My Own Time, her ’71 studio follow-up on Michael Lang’s Just Sunshine label, is a folk-rock gem. Reissued and still available through Light in the Attic), it finds her in the company of a crack band as she tackled diverse sources, amongst them George Jones, Holland-Dozier-Holland, and her friend Richard Manuel of The Band (Dalton’s often cited as the subject of The Basement Tapes’ “Katie’s Been Gone”).

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Graded on a Curve:
Circuit des Yeux,
In Plain Speech

Circuit des Yeux is Haley Fohr, a Windy City-based musician who swiped her moniker from the name of the nerve that powers the act of seeing. Early on Circuit des Yeux was the byproduct of Fohr alone, but a few years back that began to change. Her new album enlists five fellow Chicagoans in the intensification of her already potent vision. It’s out this week on CD, digital, and virgin vinyl housed in an old-school tip-on jacket through the auspices of Thrill Jockey.

Haley Fohr’s inaugural ripples of note came in 2007 via Cro Magnon, a fascinating and short-lived duo with her friend Katie Leming. They issued a 7-inch in ’08 on Bruit Direct Disques; crudely captured, its two a-side tracks land approximately halfway between discernible tunes and squall while the flip explored a longer drifting milieu.

Along with a comparatively down-to-earth live performance for radio station WFMU that’s available from the Free Music Archive, Cro Magnon’s slim discography contains the opening cut on the Die Stasi label’s ’08 compilation XXperiments, the outfit sharing space with Zola Jesus, Buckets of Bile, Luxury Prevention, and U.S. Girls.

The LP additionally gathered selections from Leming’s solo endeavor Bird and Fohr’s Circuit des Yeux, the side projects arising before Cro Magnon even made a recording. In the case of Fohr, her own oeuvre has eclipsed the duo by a wide margin, Circuit des Yeux continuing with ‘08s Symphone; pressed in an edition of 150 copies by De Stijl, it’s utterly scarce today.

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Graded on a Curve: Mastodon,
Blood Mountain

Over the last fifteen years, Atlanta, GA’s Mastodon has grown into one of the leading lights in contemporary heavy metal. As intelligent as they are massive, they took a significant step forward with their third album and major label debut. Recently reemerging on wax as the first in a yearlong vinyl reissue program of the band’s four efforts for Reprise, 2006’s Blood Mountain still holds up nearly a decade later. And for those itching for live music of the metallic persuasion, Mastodon is currently on tour; they play Baltimore’s Pier Six Pavilion on Saturday May 16th.

Mastodon is Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher on guitars, Troy Sanders on bass, and Brann Dailor on drums. All the members contribute vocals, though on the LP considered here Hinds and Sanders deliver the lead work as Kelliher and Dailor provide the backing. They formed early in 2000, Kelliher and Dailor moving to Atlanta from New York and meeting Hinds and Sanders, the four bonding over the potent trifecta of Melvins, Neurosis, and Thin Lizzy.

The quartet has occasionally been mislabeled as a sludge outfit; there are fleeting elements fitting that description on Call of the Mastodon, the ‘06 compilation of the band’s formative stuff, but they are aptly ranked as a cornerstone in 21st century progressive metal. The trajectory begins in earnest with ‘02’s Remission.

It continued two years later with Leviathan, an outstanding record partially inspired by Herman Melville’s masterpiece of 1851 Moby-Dick, a connection easy to corroborate due to a song titled “I Am Ahab” and the cover drawing of a huge whale and a beleaguered boat in choppy seas. Up to that point Mastodon’s discography was issued in agreement with metal standby Relapse Records, but before Blood Mountain they paid a visit to the offices of Reprise.

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Graded on a Curve: Banditos, Banditos

Formed in Birmingham, AL but currently receiving mail in the hub of chords and notes that is Nashville, the six-piece Banditos offer an ample and broad study in Southern roots on their self-titled debut for Bloodshot Records. Rock, C&W, assorted strains of blues, and a little bit of soul gets an infusion of punkish distortion, strong songwriting, and instrumental precision; even with banjo present and the Stars and Stripes prominent on its cover, Banditos sidesteps the overly polite regions of many contemporary Americana acts to reside in the territory of hi-test bar rock. It’s out now on LP/CD/digital.

The front of Banditos’ sleeve sports so much hair, denim, and leather that it’s easy to lose track of their collective youth. Comprised of members all residing somewhere in their 20s, in roots terms they are basically a brood of spring chickens, and when youngsters attempt to tackle sounds of history and potency they often blunder with disastrous results.

The scoop is that Banditos convened while taking part in Birmingham’s all-ages DIY scene, singer-guitarist Corey Parsons and singer-banjo slinger Stephen Pierce recruiting drummer Randy Wade, guitarist Jeffrey Salter, and vocalist Mary Beth Richardson to fulfill the invitation of a bar gig. After going down a storm, bassist Danny Vines joined, and the group was complete.

Most assuredly wielding a punk streak, Banditos have smartly not skimped on practice or performance, with Salter and Wade music school classmates and the outfit reportedly chalking up 600 shows in the last three years. And it’s in this diligence that the band remains true to the roots-standard of instrumental proficiency through hard work while steering clear of the slavish adherence to purist notions.

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Graded on a Curve: Bernard Fèvre, “Black Devil Disco Club” EP

For years, Frenchman Bernard Fèvre’s output basically hung in purgatory between obscurity and the enigmatic, but last decade he began coming into sharper focus; amidst a handful of appealing library music albums, his true claim to fame is “Black Devil Disco Club.” Originally released without fanfare, the EP’s long-belated reemergence brought doubts of authenticity alongside deserved kudos. Anthology Recordings’ fresh reissue, a worthwhile acquisition for fans of disco and electronica, is the first time the complete record has been available since 1978.

The small but devoted followings earned by many rediscovered musicians essentially stem from the existence of one record, and in the case of Bernard Fèvre the disc is “Black Devil Disco Club.” Though as a glance at its cover illuminates, its initial release, in France via RCA and in Italy on Out, was credited not to the composer but to Black Devil, Fèvre and his producer Jacky Giordano using the respective pseudonyms Junior Claristidge and Joachim Sherylee, with the EP named “Disco Club.”

If the titles have become somewhat interchangeable today, it’s no secret Fèvre is the creative mastermind (Giordano/Sherylee received his co-writing credit as a way of recouping an investment), and the same goes for the two library music LPs he cut for the Musax imprint, ‘75’s Suspense and ‘77’s Cosmos 2043. Reinforcing a former sense of anonymity, neither disc’s front cover sports Fèvre’s name.

The Strange World of Bernard Fèvre appeared on the L’Illustration Musicale label during this period, and at least in this instance getting cited in the title elevated his artistry to more than a back cover footnote. However, this shouldn’t infer a grave injustice in the downplaying of authorship, for this is library music after all; Fèvre has commented that composing for licensing purposes imposed no rules as he developed a suitable personal style.

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Graded on a Curve: Dominatrix, “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” EP

Masterminded by Stuart Argabright, the New York project Dominatrix managed to score a mid-‘80s dance club smash, though the conservatism of the era curtailed its full potential. The story of “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” is loaded with cutting-edge Gothamites, budding pop luminaries, crucial early rap figures, legendary producers, lingering fumes from the No Wave and even the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America. It’s all detailed by Dave Tompkins in the excellent 16-page booklet included with Get On Down’s expanded reissue on hot pink 12-inch vinyl.

Outside of the cavalcade of personalities, a large part of Dominatrix’s appeal is how this one-shot straddled so many different aspects of its period, most prominently the rapidly evolving dance music of the decade; “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” was released on Street Wise Records, the label of Arthur Baker, noted as remixer and collaborator with Pet Shop Boys and New Order.

He also produced Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s exquisite “Planet Rock,” Baker’s rap connection mirrored by Dominatrix’s playing the 1984 New Music Seminar with Run DMC and more importantly, the pairing of Argabright (aka Arbright) with the late hip hop pioneer Rammellzee in the Death Comet Crew.

Dominatrix also connects to the No Wave movement’s progression away from sheer severity and toward the progressive linking of body and mind. A whole lot of this activity is documented on Soul Jazz Records’ three New York Noise compilations, and the most germane to the topic of this review is Vol. 3, its contents selected by Argabright and including both Dominatrix and his prior band Ike Yard.

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Graded on a Curve: Crown Larks, Blood Dancer

Since forming late in 2012, Chicago’s Crown Larks have busied themselves honing a combination of punkish psychedelic grit, non-grandiose prog/art-rock flourishes, and significant borrowings from the fount of jazz. It’s a heavy, jamming, ambitious stew, and they are currently on the road with a full-length debut under their collective belt. Blood Dancer features seven selections that should attract the interest of folks providing shelf space to electric-period Miles, Soft Machine, and post-punk’s experimental wing; it’s out now on LP/CD/digital through Spacelung / Landbreathing, and for those fancying a cassette, one can be obtained through Already Dead Tapes.

Upon first encountering the name Crown Larks, my mind instantly conjured up an image of a garage band, specifically the kind wearing matching, tight-fitting suits as their frontman very likely brandishes a wooden painted maraca. Once heard however, I was just as rapidly confronted by my initial vision being completely off-target.

Unsurprisingly, the blend of psych, prog, punk, and jazz Crown Larks offer doesn’t easily fall into one sonic camp, which makes describing their sound a little complicated. But the difficulty in categorization doesn’t carry-over to the listening; accurately, Crown Larks dish out raucous, expansionist rock drawing from a wide range of precedent while connecting to the nonce; headbands and patchouli can be envisioned, but there is a tangible correlation to indie happenings, notably in the vocals of Jack Bouboushian and the electric piano of Lorraine Bailey.

For Blood Dancer, Bouboushian is additionally credited with guitar, bass, pedals, and sleep machine. Bailey adds vocals, organ, clarinet, and synths, and Bill Miller is anchored to the drum chair. They comprise the core of Crown Larks, at least for this LP, though it also includes trumpet and flugelhorn from Peter Gillette, the saxophone and flute of Kevin Ohlau, and on two cuts sax and piano courtesy Chris Boonenberg.

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Graded on a Curve:
Death and Vanilla,
To Where the Wild Things Are

Formed in Malmö Sweden in 2007, Death and Vanilla largely reside at the intersection of post-rock and dream-pop, and in wielding a broad and savvy vocabulary of influences and a wide array of vintage equipment they’ve developed an engaging sound across a tidy discography. Their latest and first for Fire Records is To Where the Wild Things Are, out this week on LP/CD/digital. Sporting an excellent cover design, its use of Helvetica font recalling the ‘70s paperbacks of Penguin Books, it stands as Death and Vanilla’s best yet.

Death and Vanilla expand to a five-piece for the purposes of live performances, but for most of their existence they’ve been composed of Marleen Nilsson and Anders Hansson; with the recent addition of Magnus Bodin they are currently a trio. Ornate yet vibrant, Death and Vanilla are ripe with the sort of historically knowledgeable but forward-looking sonic construction that began emerging in the 1990s, particularly on the roster of the Too Pure label.

As stated, they transcend the standard influences; there’s psychedelia from the discerning end of the spectrum, e.g. the United States of America and Silver Apples, soundtrack material a la Morricone and Pink Floyd’s OST for Barbet Schroeder’s More, and electronic Library Music experimentation like the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop.

They also profess affinity with Krautrock, Sun Ra, Scott Walker, the ethereal drifting of Angelo Badalamenti and Julie Cruise, and yé-yé gals in full-on art mode; these last few elements reinforce a consistent, skillfully expressed pop inclination. Again, the overall thrust is very much in the tradition of ‘90s acts such as Stereolab, Pram, and Broadcast, though Death and Vanilla are far from copyists.

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Graded on a Curve: Michael Angelo,
Michael Angelo

Deep and wide are the realms of self-produced obscurities; just when it seems every attic, garage and barn has received inspection for test pressings, acetates, and undistributed editions, another doozy turns up. In this context, the self-titled ’77 effort of Michael Angelo isn’t amongst the rarest, as 500 were pressed. But originals can go for four figures, indicating it’s not an ordinary rediscovery. Those lacking four figures worth of spending money should, if not rejoice, than at least smile with satisfaction over Michael Angelo’s legit reissue by Anthology Recordings. A bonus 3-song 7-inch is icing on the cake.

The neighborhood of the unearthed obscurity is populated by more than a few fringe characters, especially on the private press side of the tracks. However, Michael Angelo Nigro comes off as a pretty well-adjusted dude, and if his lyrics can get a tad spacey, that’s indicative of ambition and not an inability to curb excessive errors of taste.

Michael Angelo is a retrieval possessing not only restraint but palpable perceptiveness into how to craft an album, though none of that would really matter much if the guy lacked songwriting talent. It helps greatly that Angelo’s Influences, noticeably derived from the second half of the ‘60s, were as attentive to melodicism as self-indulgence.

Another huge factor is Angelo’s instrumental skill; except for the drumming of Frank Gautieri all the sounds came from his hands and throat. Indeed, Angelo was sharp enough to work as a full-time session musician, and in Kansas City, MO no less (how times have changed), his LP crafted in the off-hours at employer Liberty Recording in 1976.

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