Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2014’s New
Releases, Part Two

It bears repeating that this list is in no way based on a comprehensive assessment of the 2014’s deluge of new music, but rather personal highs in a year’s worth of listening. A whole lot of listening; all said it was a great 12 months, and after consideration these final five offered the most pleasure.

5. Mary Halverson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara, Thumbscrew

Three improvisers in a leaderless trio (Thumbscrew effectively serves as the name of the group) with energies focused on composition; the result will certainly appeal to fans of all three players and those into adventurous jazz and rock in general (it’s fittingly released by the Cuneiform label of Silver Spring, MD).

Bluntly, these are heavyweight players. My first exposure to guitarist Halvorson came via Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant, and once I discovered she’d studied and performed with Anthony Braxton, I began seeking out the work of her trio; ‘08’s Dragon’s Head remains a favorite. Bassist Formanek has a bunch of impressive “inside” credits and a ton of avant-garde session work, and along with his own high-quality quintet he was in Tim Berne’s Bloodcount. Drummer Fujiwara has worked at length with Halvorson, in a duo with cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and as leader of Tomas Fujiwara & The Hook Up.

Thumbscrew is not a guitar trio, though Halvorson does shred early and often. As said Thumbscrew is a unit of equality and their communicative sparks can be startling; Formanek and Fujiwara are constantly throwing ideas into the fray with nary a rhythm section trope in the duration. And a few of the track titles make me smile, particularly “Goddess Sparkle,” which could be about either Aurora of the dawn or drag shows, and “Still…Doesn’t Swing,” a nutshell encapsulation of the resistance creative musicians of this caliber routinely contend with, malarkey that doesn’t seem to be keeping them down.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2014’s New Releases, Part One

Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the general quality of fortune cookies, specifically the fortune part of the package, has deteriorated considerably, shifting from the old-fashioned vague predictions to advice reeking of platitudes cribbed out of hackneyed self-help books. I mention this because while noshing out the other day I happened to crack open a wild one.

It read as follows: “Those who take year-end best lists too seriously are destined to die miserable and alone.” And hey, on each side of this portent was a smiley face. Yeah, I’ll admit it freaked me out a little.

10. Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Blue

Placing a record I’m not likely to play a dozen more times in my life in the No. 10 spot? Why yes indeed. Not a tribute to Joni Mitchell’s fourth album, nor is it to my knowledge related in any way to the final film of the late Derek Jarman (the cover might lead one to this conclusion), Blue is a “note-for-note copy” of Miles Davis’ ’59 masterpiece made by an interesting and divisive group (and with this release, increasingly so).

Quotations are used in the sentence above for a fairly obvious reason; a note-for-note reproduction of such a complex work is an absurdity if not an impossibility, though MOPDTK get so close (I mean at times they get REALLY close) that accusations of plagiarism have been lobbed against Blue. Those charges are off base; but then what exactly is on target?

It’s less an elaborate prank, but as the inclusion of the typically amazing Jorge Luis Borges story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” makes clear (well, kind of), humor is part of the strategy; namely, satire concerning worship of the masters, but also a postmodern playfulness that’s proven to be like sandpaper rubbing on scores of folks’ nerves. They needn’t get so upset. Kind of Blue is indestructible and its essence will never be replaced or replicated; but of course, that’s not really the intention of the sticky can of worms that is Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s Blue.

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Graded on a Curve: The Best of 2014’s Reissues, Part Two

Box sets are by their very nature a time intensive undertaking; as other year-end lists have made plain, there are quite a few from 2014 waiting to be investigated, and if the reader discovers a suggestion below leading to personal satisfaction, than all this fussing over hierarchy has been worth it.

5. Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock and Country 1966-1985 and When I Reach That Heavenly Shore: Unearthly Black Gospel 1926-1936

Light in the Attic’s illuminating spotlight focuses almost entirely on artists hailing from Canada, a geographical factor making its sustained level of quality all the more impressive.

Consisting of previously released but long unavailable recordings, the three genres listed in the title frequently overlap, with country-rock well represented. The enriching presentation, including comprehensive notes, is the result of diligent, respectful research, and again, it’s consistently listenable from start to finish.

Also a reliably gripping if not necessarily breezy experience, Tompkins Square’s latest gospel collection uncovers a wealth of fervent and sometimes bluesy material, places it onto three discs (the vinyl will arrive in spring of 2015) and adds Bible verses thematically selected for each track by compiler Christopher King. Then it leaves the listener to draw their own conclusions, or at least scurry to the nearest internet connection or appropriate reference books for assistance.

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Graded on a Curve: The Best of 2014’s Reissues, Part One

Hey, it’s that time again. Because it went so swimmingly, this list of 2014’s best reissues will retain last year’s motif of loosely themed pairs. This installment sticks close to pop and rock, a situation that will change with the focus on box sets in the second half.

10. The Pop Group We Are Time and Swans Filth

Reissued concurrently with Cabinet of Curiosities, the 1980 comp We Are Time has aged exceptionally well. Given how vociferously some folks’ have derided The Pop Group, this is a tad surprising; they were amongst the last of the UK’s post-punk acts to garner wide acceptance as an indispensably prescient musical entity instead of being simply dismissed as an upping of The Sex Pistols’ provocational ante.

The Pop Group’s defiant merger of unapologetically leftist political perspective and aggressive, cross-genre skronk will perpetually rub some the wrong way, but as 2014 winds down it has become utterly apparent We Are Time has lost none of its necessity. Ponder the actions of the Central Intelligence Agency, listen to this record with particular attention paid to “Amnesty Report,” and tell me I’m wrong.

Filth sits with the handful of discs essaying the severity residing in the anti-pop margins of the 1980s. In a manner similar to The Pop Group, the over-the-top nature of early Swans’ gets frequently cited as a fault, but to my ear Michael Gira’s tightly calibrated brand of New York City misanthropy is worthwhile precisely because it’s so unbridled.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Safe Distance,
“Songs” EP

Run by husband and wife team of Stewart Anderson and Jen Turrell, The Flagstaff, AZ-based label Emotional Response flies the flag of punkish indie pop and specializes in the tried-and-true format of the 7-inch EP, with much of the focus on the projects of the operators including Hulaboy and Boyracer. Of particular interest is “Songs” by The Safe Distance, a group featuring Anderson in tandem with Crayola of the UK band Sarandon and David Nichols of Australia’s Cannanes.

Whether it spins at 45 or 33 1/3 RPM, comes enclosed in a designed sleeve or one made of plain paper, or has a large or small hole drilled in its center, there’s nothing quite like the charge inspired by a worthwhile 7-inch. ‘twas once the dominant vessel for chart hits, countless misses and a surfeit of regional obscurities, but even after the advent of the compact disc, subscriber-based singles clubs flourished, as did a few labels specifically devoted to the short form.

The trend continues with Emotional Response, a 7-inch enterprise (though a flexi-disc does lurk in its background) co-managed by a guy who as the sole constant member of Boyracer played no small role in the ‘90s singles boom, his band releasing platters through the auspices of such esteemed imprints as Slumberland and Sarah plus his own Red Square and 555 Recordings.

While certainly connected to Anderson’s prior achievements, Emotional Response doth waft a distinct aroma, combining varying degrees of punk weightiness and humor with indie pop invention and a smart approach to the combination of physical product and technological advancement; over half the discography contains supplementary downloadable material.

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Graded on a Curve: Cannonball Adderley, Somethin’ Else

Blue Note Records is celebrating 75 years of existence by giving numerous key titles from their incomparable catalog high-quality vinyl reissues, and it’s fitting that we begin our tribute to the label’s longevity with a look at one of their very finest releases, the great alto saxophonist Julian Cannonball Adderley’s 1958 masterwork Somethin’ Else.

The LPs of Blue Note’s classic-era are aptly described as an embarrassment of riches. Along with loads of amazing music, there is of course the surrounding context, and engaging with the fruits of the imprint’s labors offers a truly enlightening historical narrative. Naturally, it’s only part of jazz’s larger story, but it’s also a highly valuable component since Blue Note is an example where respect for the music trumped pure capitalistic desire.

That respect extended to the amount of studio time given to the musicians, but it also concerned other vital aspects of record production, beginning with the use of engineer Rudy Van Gelder and ending with the company’s justly celebrated graphic design. Blue Note didn’t have the market cornered on either the Van Gelder touch or the manufacturing of handsome album jackets, for it really was a fantastic era in terms of both fidelity and sharply conceived presentation, but throughout the salad days of Modern Jazz (and for a good while afterward) the label was at the forefront.

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Graded on a Curve:
Aztec Camera,
High Land, Hard Rain

While technically a band, Aztec Camera was always the creative brainchild of Scotsman Roddy Frame. On the debut LP High Land, Hard Rain, released in 1983 through Rough Trade in the UK and via Sire in the US, he made an outstanding case for himself as one of the decade’s great pop music auteurs. The album embraced intelligence and sophistication as it abandoned any pretense to a rapidly aging punk standard that spawned it, and if it isn’t perfect, 30 years after High Land, Hard Rain’s making it wears its minor flaws very gracefully.

High Land, Hard Rain opens with “Oblivious,” one of the record’s more famous tracks, though in hearing it with fresh ears after a very long absence I was struck by two elements. The first was the heights of Roddy Frame’s pop ability and at the tender age of 18; where much pop climbs to greatness in the details, “Oblivious” can be accurately assessed as an exceptionally written tune. It attains its success through sublime construction around a foundation that many well-respected songwriters twice his age had never managed to build.

The second element was Aztec Camera’s sheer level of dedication to an unabashedly erudite sensibility. This was maximal, accessible, unabashedly sophisticated Pop Music not only shirking off any tangible debt to punk but also steering far clear of the swelling tide of the synth-wave. And this relates directly to my third thought; in the bass line to “Oblivious” lays the key to so much of High Land, Hard Rain’s essence.

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Graded on a Curve: When I Reach That Heavenly Shore: Unearthly Black Gospel 1926-1936

Tompkins Square’s excavation and compiling of 20th century American gospel continues with When I Reach That Heavenly Shore: Unearthly Black Gospel 1926-1936, 3-discs selected by esteemed record collector and producer Christopher King. Containing assorted vocal groups, guitar players, small bands, and ardent preachers with responsive congregations, the assembly is extensive and details one aspect of the post-slavery pre-Civil Rights black experience in America. The 3CD is out now; gospel loving vinyl nuts mark your calendars, for the 3LP hits select indie shops on Record Store Day this coming April.

When I Reach That Heavenly Shore is the fourth multi-disc various-artist gospel comp released by Tompkins Square, and when sets devoted to Bessie Jones and Arizona Dranes get factored into the equation, (with respect to Dust-To-Digital) the label sits at the head of the African-American gospel reissue class.

It’s definitely not a growth industry. This collection in particular is at a remove from the contemporary religious mainstream, and as the title of this and previous Tompkins Square gospel items show, the enterprise targets their product to the intersection of the musical and the historical (which is where this writer has a small but personable residence).

Well maybe not entirely, for Christopher King has chosen to forego the expected scholarly notes, instead including appropriate thematic verses of scripture from his father’s 1939 King James Bible. While dispensing with variations upon the phrase “very little/nothing is known about” probably made King’s decision easier, his approach is worthwhile in its reinforcing how these selections weren’t created for fringe music aficionados and that many of these pieces exist outside prevalent notions of artistry if not necessarily entertainment.

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Graded on a Curve:
Glenn Branca,
“Lesson No. 1”

“Lesson No. 1” is Glenn Branca’s first release as a composer, originally issued in 1980 as a mini-LP on the 99 Records label. Not only does it stand as an avant-garde debut of remarkable assurance, it’s also a strikingly prescient document, sounding in retrospect like a harbinger of indie rock to come. Subsequently expanded with a bonus track, Superior Viaduct’s new double 12-inch vinyl edition is befitting of Branca’s masterful blending of tough-minded modern compositional methods with heavy and expansive rock concepts, and it easily reinforces his status as a vastly important musical figure.

It was during the late-‘80s that many young underground rock listeners first encountered the name Glenn Branca, in large part due to the composer/guitarist’s association with Sonic Youth. For folks under the sway of Evol, Sister, and Daydream Nation, those LPs served as a gateway into a subterranean, art-drenched New York City that was extremely alluring, especially to suburbanites who perceived their immediate surroundings as being conspicuously lacking in worthwhile cultural activity.

Those residing in other large US cities often decried NYC’s significance as the country’s art Mecca, but for thousands of young people stuck in towns devoid of an extant scene, reading about and hearing the recorded evidence of the city’s defiant underbelly proved a fascinating antidote to the nagging strains of ‘80’s conformity.

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Graded on a Curve:
Blondie, Blondie

Any discussion of ‘70s-era pop-rock is incomplete without due time spent on Blondie, and vinyl mavens unversed in their essence can now play catch-up in one fell swoop for Universal has just reissued as a box set the six LPs from the group’s original run. As no-frills as its title, Blondie offers exact reproductions and absolutely nothing extra; the totality captures the heights and depths of a highly successful and influential band.

If the most commercially solvent entity to emerge from the ‘70s New York City punk/new wave scene, Blondie’s style, at least for a significant portion of their ’75-’82 existence, is most aptly compared to the Ramones. Purists may balk, but honestly I’d be perplexed if by this date on the calendar there are more than a handful of bitter goats clinging to the notion that Blondie were hangers-on or sellouts.

Spearheaded by vocalist Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein and after early personnel changes solidified through keyboardist James Destri, bassist Gary Valentine, and drummer Clem Burke, in December of 1975 Blondie’s self-titled debut appeared via fly-by-night independent Private Stock Records. It didn’t shift many units, but their popularity surged once Chrysalis scooped them up, releasing Plastic Letters in the fall of ’77 and reissuing Blondie in the bargain.

There were lineup adjustments, with Valentine out and replaced by Frank Infante, who promptly switched to guitar upon addition of bassist Nigel Harrison. The membership remained stable until ’82, when disappointments revolving around The Hunter inspired a breakup. This collection doesn’t include everything; missing are the five illuminating ‘75 demos cut with Alan Betrock and the ’80 Giorgio Moroder collaboration “Call Me” from the soundtrack to Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo; instead it simply boxes-up the half-dozen long-players devoid of editorializing.

All of these platters were once extremely cheap and relatively easy to pick up used (though I’ve never glimpsed a Private Stock edition of Blondie), and I can’t imagine the situation has changed. But I realize there’s a breed of vinyl connoisseur equivalent to those licensed drivers who wouldn’t stoop to buy a second-hand car; bluntly, this set is for them.

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