Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Charles Mingus,
The Black Saint and
the Sinner Lady

Bassist-bandleader-composer Charles Mingus remains one of the most important figures in the history of recorded sound. A jazzman of uncommon versatility, his extensive achievement is deeply linked to a voluminous personality and an occasionally volatile temper. In 1963, as part of a brief, fertile association with Impulse! Records, he waxed The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady; it’s widely rated as the apex of his career, which in turn awards it placement amongst the great moments in 20th century music. A vinyl reissue is out now courtesy of Superior Viaduct.

Please forgive me if I’ve fallen egregiously behind the times, but I continue to perceive the goal of education as more than a factory churning out highly efficient producers brandishing economically useful skills, a mass of graduates left to dodge underemployment in hopes of spending decades in the modern workplace’s existential ditch. But maybe I’m just frightfully naive in considering higher learning as the valiant endeavoring to intellectually engage with generations of individuals, hopefully leaving them at least somewhat prepared for the ups and downs of existence, and potentially armed in adulthood with the knowledge to utilize portions of history’s immense landscape to their advantage.

And not only history but art, which is easily the most disrespected component in contemporary academe. This may come as a shock to anyone aware of the number of art schools, conservatories, and Liberal Arts institutions taking up residence from sea to shining sea, but my observation concerns quality rather than quantity; to get down to the matter at hand, while Charles Mingus’ life and music are far from absent in the educational curriculum, I know of no school offering an extended, intensive course in Mingus Studies.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, July 2016

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

NEW RELEASE PICK: Inter Arma, Paradise Gallows (Relapse) This Richmond, VA five-piece breaks the 70-minute barrier without losing points at the finish line; along the way the sound is about as heavy as metal gets, combining doom, crunch, growl, and pummel with surprising attention to songwriting. They also resist clichés, impressively so given the duration, and consistently broach the unexpected; there are soaring guitar motifs, stately piano, and in the midst of “Primordial Wound” agitated, higher pitched vocals, delivering a highlight to this remarkable whole. A

REISSUE PICK: V/A, Tanbou Toujou Lou: Meringue, Kompa Kreyol, Vodou Jazz, & Electric Folklore from Haiti 1960 – 1981 (Ostinato) Producer-researcher Vik Sohonie adopts the generosity of a DJ alongside his scholarly approach (he also penned the liner notes) and like a record spinner he favors the impulse to dance, but his finds are so instrumentally rich and varied, spanning from small groups to big bands and urban sophistication to rural gusto, that the program should easily please those afflicted with two left flippers. Available on CD and gatefold 2LP with a 20-page booklet, this is a stone winner all around. A    

Glenn Branca, Symphony No. 13 (Hallucination City) for 100 Guitars (Atavistic) Plus one drummer (Virgil Moorefield). Documenting a Feb 28, 2008 performance from the Auditorium Parco Della Musica in Rome, in terms of massive scale the sounds on this CD really deliver, but even more impressive is the litheness and the complete non-gimmickry on display throughout the piece’s four sections; that is, the heaviness, which again is substantial, never falls victim to grandiosity and just as often exudes subtlety backing up the claims (for any doubters lingering out there) of Branca as a major composer. A

William Burroughs, Let Me Hang You (Khannibalism/Ernest Jenning Record Co.) This finds Hal Wilner pulling 20-year-old tapes of Burroughs reading from Naked Lunch off the shelf and having King Khan finish them; mingling the original backing of Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz, Eyvind Kang, and other NYC-based musicians with Khan’s rougher rock-based input, the results are surprisingly cohesive, but the real treat is how Burroughs’ glorious croak reintroduces him as one of the 20th’s great smut peddlers; if you didn’t know Steely Dan was named after a Burroughsian dildo, well, you certainly will after hearing this. B+

John Cage with David Tudor, Variations IV (Modern Harmonic) From a 1965 performance at the Feigen/Palmer Gallery in LA, this captures Cage’s chance compositional period; originally on budget label Everest, this was one of the few Cage LPs intermittently turning up used (at least in my neighborhood) and was also high-test fuel for those rating the man as a provocateur-charlatan rather than a “serious” composer. Briefly, the randomness of this sonic collage brings real uh, variations in quality, but this is a historically important recording and it remains an involving listen over a half century later. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Mendrugo, More Amor

Earlier this year Fire Records released Josephine Foster’s No More Lamps in the Morning, a fine LP further detailing her prowess of song and voice in fruitful collaboration with the band led by her guitarist husband Victor Herrero. Choosing not to dally in following it up, More Amor hits the racks on July 29; credited not to Foster but to Mendrugo, the 11 tracks present a richly casual Spanish folk-imbued collective framework that’s simultaneously deep in roots and deliciously non-trad in constitution. It’s available on vinyl, compact disc, and digital.

One of the immediate qualities arising from More Amor is a ’60s feel, though that shouldn’t be construed as a deliberate attempt to tap into the essence of the decade. No, the similarity basically comes down to a sustained pursuit of expanded possibilities stemming from a folk milieu, a type of non-labored ambience that extends to Foster’s solo work.

To be fair, the same could be said for many in the New Weird America/ freak-folk realm. That’s the scene from whence Foster established her name; first surfacing in 2000, she rose to higher prominence mid-decade through a handful of discs on Locust Music and Bo’Weavil before hooking up with Fire in ’09 with Graphic as a Star.

Through a combination of tastefulness and verve Foster’s work is a cut above the Weird/ freaky norm, and in turn she’s thrived where numerous ’00s cohorts have fallen by the wayside. And if pegging her as channeling the ’60s rubs one the wrong way, she can alternately be described as a bohemian soul more interested in the work of great poets from prior centuries than what’s currently trending on social media.

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Graded on a Curve:
Pylon, Live

Although performance recordings have a tendency to be of primary interest to heavy-duty converts of the acts in the grooves, there are certainly exceptions, and a new edition to the list captures a December 1, 1983 show by the Athens, GA band Pylon. As the group’s highly regarded discography has yet to maximize its audience, this lengthy set representing their final gig at the Mad Hatter club serves a useful purpose, spotlighting the band in front of a sizeable and appreciative hometown crowd. Live is out on double vinyl now via Chunklet Industries.

Forming in 1978 and playing their first gig the following year, Pylon eventually received national prominence and widespread acclaim, achievements reaped through perseverance and an output of substantial quality. The band has remained relevant, with their first two albums reissued in expanded editions by DFA in the latter half of last decade; the dominant aspect of this enduring significance pegs them as one of the great regional bands of the 1980s.

Indeed, any retrospective article or review devoted to the outfit will allot space to recount their impact on the Athens, GA scene. If the B-52’s and R.E.M. are the highest profile byproducts of the locale’s surge in productivity, Pylon are arguably the epitome of what Athens represented as a distinct geographical phenomenon, and like a lot of folks coming of age as the ’80s neared its close, this writer discovered the group through the soundtrack to the documentary film Athens, GA – Inside/Out.

The song was “Stop It,” borrowed from ’80’s Gyrate, which alongside ’83’s Chomp gets roughly equal representation on Live, a totally logical maneuver given that the crowd assembled would be more familiar with the first album than its follow-up. The set kicks into high gear with Gyrate’s “Working is no Problem” into “Driving School” and then whips off two from Chomp, “No Clocks” and “Altitude.”

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Graded on a Curve: The Garbage and the Flowers, The Deep Niche

The musical terrain of the 1990s is often related as a series of indie acts making unexpected splashes in the big corporatist pond, but there was a steady concurrent supply of entities disinterested in becoming the Next Big Thing and instead choosing to thrive in the underground. One example is The Garbage and the Flowers; coming together in Wellington, New Zealand in the late ’80s, the unit’s output is crowned by 1997’s brilliant study in Kiwi lo-fi Eyes Rind as If Beggars. 19 years hence and it’s complemented with The Deep Niche; consisting of tracks cut prior to Eyes Rind, it’s an engaging listen standing easily on its own, available now on vinyl and compact disc through Grapefruit Records.

Taking their name from a line in Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” The Garbage and the Flowers formed when guitarist and songwriter Yuri Frusin teamed up with violist and singer Helen Johnstone. Torben Tilly and Paul Yates entered the picture in time for “Catnip” b/w “Carousel,” the debut 7-inch emerging through Twisted Village of Cambridge, MA in 1992.

Inhabiting the post-Flying Nun underground wing of the ’90s New Zealand experience alongside such names as Dead C, Dadamah, and Alastair Galbraith, The Garbage and the Flowers’ relationship with Twisted Village further cemented their subterranean status in league with such US-based acts as Vermonster, Tono-Bungay, Luxurious Bags, Fuzzhead, Magic Hour, and B.O.R.B. (stands for Bongloads of Righteous Boo).

Completely removed from the above context, their fringe dwelling sensibility can be rather quickly ascertained through a tangible Velvet Underground influence nixing the typical Reed worship to flutter like lo-fi moths around the avant string-screech candlelight of Mr. John Cale. And while many of the abovementioned cohorts amassed sizable discographies, other than a few compilation appearances it took The Garbage and the Flowers roughly five years to complete a full-length record.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Fireworks,
“Black and Blue” EP

The Brighton, UK-based quartet The Fireworks specializes in unaffected heavy melodicism halfway betwixt indie pop and shoegaze with just the right amount of punkish seasoning thrown in. Releasing an unusually assured full-length debut last year with Switch Me On, they’ve wasted no time in returning to the retail scene with the “Black and Blue” EP; getting louder and more driving while keeping tabs on catchiness, the four songs retain the high quality of its predecessor while keeping matters fresh. It’s available now digitally and on a limited blue vinyl 10-inch through Shelflife Records.

Although they have occasionally diverted into reflective strum territory, The Fireworks are inaptly described as a quiet band. Indeed, raucousness and volume was brought right from the outset, specifically a self-titled four song 7-inch in 2013. It was a solid showing from a group with noted prior experience in their ranks; vocalist and tambourine rattler Emma Hall was/ is part of London’s Pocketbooks and Stuart Charman spent time beating the skins in The Popguns and The Wedding Present.

Their bandmates weren’t exactly sitting on the sidelines; vocalist-guitarist Matthew Rimell had previously booked shows and ran a label while bassist Isabel Albiol wielded an extensive art background. Through the diversity of activity, The Fireworks achieved creative equality that turned the title-track to their follow-up three song 7-inch (also from 2013) into a total gem of distorted velocity.

“Runaround” sorta connects like a highly caffeinated Primitives in pop-pogo mode, and alongside “With My Heart” it established Hall as a terrific vocalist. So the inclusion of both on Switch Me On made total sense, but let’s not neglect 2014 please; the year saw the release of a nifty one-sided postcard flexi adorned with attractive artwork by Ceal Warnants and holding in its grooves The Fireworks’ very strong cover of “Going Nowhere Fast” by Girls at Our Best!

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Graded on a Curve: Alan Vega, Alex Chilton, Ben Vaughn, Cubist Blues

Star-studded collaborations have a tendency of failing to meet expectations, but in a positive twist that’s not the case with the union of Alan Vega, Alex Chilton, and Ben Vaughn. Blending twisted roots and lopsided retro-pop into a surprisingly agreeable result, it’s something of a head-scratcher this summit meeting of high-test Americana hasn’t found wider listenership. On December 4 Light in the Attic and Munster Records give the public a fresh chance, reissuing Cubist Blues on double vinyl and compact disc; both are accompanied by digital downloads, with the latter including a live show from Trans Musicales, France on Dec. 7th, 1996. Pick your format wisely.

Alongside Martin Rev, Alan Vega has secured lasting fame through his participation in Suicide, a duo comprising one of the finest examples of punk’s first wave. Helping to shape the non-commercial side of the New York City scene, Suicide’s breakout material is accurately assessed as a crucial early wrinkle in the upswing of electronic music while essentially thriving as a wily mixture of garage rock and Detroit proto-punk; the distillation was a potent and borderline threatening new beast. Though it’s not immediately detectable, an element of classicism was threaded into Suicide’s attack, as noted fan Bruce Springsteen has covered the group’s “Dream Baby Dream” on numerous occasions. Thusly, Vega crossing paths with Alex Chilton isn’t as unlikely as it might seem. Not a bit, in fact; Suicide shared the stage of Max’s with The Cramps, a band produced by Chilton.

The departed Alex Chilton stands amongst the great and irrefutably complex treasures in rock’s annals. From the blue-eyed soul of the Box Tops to the cornerstone power pop of Big Star to the aural wilderness of the ‘70s solo stuff and connections to punk’s uprising to his impact on ‘80s alt-college radio and a late-career resurgence of unusual vitality, the guy is simply a rough diamond in American Music’s glorious mineshaft.

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Graded on a Curve: Suicide, Suicide and
Alan Vega Martin Rev

Alan Vega has departed this realm, but the music he made in partnership with Martin Rev in a union known as Suicide will long endure as a beacon at the crossroads of defiant individualism and fascinating leftfield imagination. Earlier this year Superior Viaduct reissued the duo’s first two classic singles on vinyl and now they’ve done the same with their stunning debut album and its underrated follow-up; Suicide is a sui generis cornerstone of punk’s grand 1977 convulsion, as alien as it is eventually incendiary, while Alan Vega Martin Rev explores refinement without marketplace capitulation at the dawn of the 1980s.

On September 19, 1981 Alan Vega and Martin Rev played a tenth anniversary concert at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN. The show is documented on Ghost Riders, just one of numerous authorized, grey market, and bootleg Suicide live recordings; cult status has since been established, but jump ahead ten years from that night at the Walker Art Center and the jury was still deliberating the pair’s artistic success rate and overall value.

By 1991 all of Suicide’s proto and first wave NYC cohorts were pretty easily categorized. The Dictators were smart-aleck celebrators of trash culture, Patti Smith and Richard Hell rough bohemians mingling rock and poetics, the Heartbreakers glam graduates brandishing Stones-like edge, Talking Heads essentially art-rockers helping to define the parameters of new wave and paving the exit ramp of post-punk, Television expansionist jammers in punk threads, and Blondie and The Ramones swipers and solidifiers of classic pop and rock moves into fresh and groundbreaking territory.

However, two decades after their formation exactly what Suicide was up to was still difficult to parse. Vega surely exuded an abundance of rock attitude, but thanks to Rev’s one man wrangling of his musical rig (the “instrument”) they landed outside of the genre in formal terms; this blend of rock attitude and non-rock execution is at the root of why quite a few (rockist) listeners continue to disdain their work.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, July 2016

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

NEW RELEASE PICK: 75 Dollar Bill, Wood / Metal / Plastic / Pattern / Rhythm / Rock (Thin Wrist) The second LP from guitarist Che Chen and percussionist Rick Brown is an absolute stunner; incorporating influences ranging from Arabic and Indian music to Mississippi blues, the sound is forcefully hypnotic as saxophones, trumpet, bass, and viola augment the core. Featuring a short piece, one of medium length and two longer numbers, the grooves are psych-inclined but never meandering. Fans of desert blues, Sun City Girls, Endless Boogie, and RL Burnside take note. A

REISSUE PICK: Charles Mingus, Blues & Roots (Atlantic) The first of three straight masterworks the incomparable bassist-bandleader cut in ‘59 gets a 180gm mono edition. Embedded lore situates this was cut in response to nagging assertions of Mingus not swinging enough; hey, so much for never answering one’s critics! Along with Mingus Dynasty, this didn’t actually see release until 1960, by which time Mingus Ah Um had emerged, so it would seem the charges of non-swing, if not quashed, were greatly lessened; loaded with a head-shaking cast of contributors, this swings like a beast. A mandatory item. A+

Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra, (S/T) (Glitterbeat) A lot of this label’s output has been assessed as (too) slick, but this LP, which documents recordings made during the five days’ worth of rehearsal for a live concert by a large band featuring central Afrobeat figure Tony Allen in creative dialogue with numerous Haitian musicians including Erol Josué and Sanba Zao, is better described as possessing decidedly modern warmth. Although the rhythmic heat keeps the proceedings from ever getting too out, there is a fair amount of eclecticism on display, particularly the recurring electronic elements. B+

Agitation Free, 2nd (Made in Germany) These atypical Krautrockers get nowhere near enough love, though they are certainly familiar to fans of the Nurse with Wound list. The main question would seem to be which of their initial albums is the best, the Middle Eastern-infused debut Malesch from ’72 or this decidedly more Grateful Dead-like follow-up from the next year. I’m still undecided; there is as much proggy experimentation and kosmische as psych in 2nd’s equation, so those looking for a varied listen won’t be disappointed. Borrowing words by Poe, “Haunted Island” is a pretty nifty closer. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Typical Girls

Scouring the web for worthy female fronted contemporary punk is far from a bad way to while away one’s hours, but for those lacking in the spare time there’s a new compilation available. Rounding up 16 examples of the form for rapid-fire consumption and considerable satisfaction, Typical Girls might take a few inspirational cues from previous models, but its contents cohere without a hitch into a statement that’s very much of the moment. Touching upon numerous stylistic angles, it’s out now on clear vinyl LP, CD, and digital.

As an avid follower of female rock history is likely to know, Typical Girls borrows its title from a track on The Slits’ classic 1979 LP Cut, with Emotional Response’s cap tipping gesture only the most recent acknowledgement of the band’s gender trailblazing. Indeed, when inhabitants of the ’00s sought a web-based discussion group devoted to female punk knowledge and conversations, they turned to an email list named Typical Girls.

Still active if less busy today, in addition to the info and general good energy in its archives, the Typical Girls list inspired Rebuilding the Bridge, a swell various-artists covers CDR paying tribute to the enduringly striking compilation Wanna Buy a Bridge? Although its initial function was as a UK-centric roundup of the Rough Trade’s releases circa 1980, the set has grown into one of the defining records in the whole post-punk shebang.

Wisely, Emotional Response doesn’t attempt to match its gradually accumulated sense of scale. In fact, the internationally focused Typical Girls is onto something quite different; instead of getting sidetracked in an attempt to deliberately document broken ground (newness being a major attribute of Wanna Buy a Bridge?) the results here are refreshingly unburdened with anxiety over influence as they simply and effectively establish contempo continuity.

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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