Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Tinariwen,
Amassakoul

Before winning a Grammy for 2011’s Tassili, the enduring Malian outfit Tinariwen had already attained a deservingly high profile. International success wasn’t immediate, however; at the point of first album The Radio Tisdas Sessions in ‘01, they’d been active for over 20 years. This week Modern Classics Recordings reissues onto double-vinyl that impressive debut and ’04’s even better follow-up, Amassakoul.

Whether it’s through their latest record Emmaar, the breakthrough of predecessor Tassili, the group’s entry on the ‘10 compilation The Rough Guide to Desert Blues, or any of their four prior discs, Tinariwen has amassed a considerable following including such celebrity aficionados as Robert Plant, Carlos Santana, Brian Eno, Henry Rollins, and Thom Yorke.

Famous fans aren’t unusual, but the variety of these enthusiasts is worthy of note, surely indicative of the breadth of their listenership overall. Hippies, blues nuts, experimenters, punks, Alt/indie mavens, and of course those stereotypical lefties parking a used Volvo in the garage with the stereo tuned to NPR so not to miss the weekly edition of World Café.

Unlike other examples, Tinariwen has managed to conquer broader recording situations and specifically the introduction of outside contributors (Nels Cline, Kyp Malone, Josh Klinghoffer, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Matt Sweeney) without damage to their sound. This ability to bend and adapt is something they share with the great Malian vocalist-guitarist Ali Farka Touré.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mary Lattimore &
Jeff Zeigler,
Slant of Light

Mary Lattimore is a harpist of numerous credits and considerable ability. Jeff Zeigler is a busy recording engineer and capable multi-instrumentalist. On Slant of Light, due out next week via the venerable constancy that is the Thrill Jockey label, these two first-rate Philadelphians come together to produce a worthy duo statement. Abstract yet approachable while expansive and concisely focused, Lattimore and Zeigler’s successful collaboration is a solid effort holding promise for the future.

Ironically for an instrument that can be such a formidable beast to lug around, the harp’s long history has been dominated by delicateness of tone. Many have played it, including the appropriately-named Harpo Marx, naturally to his own tuning, as a few notables have sought to broaden its range; one of the more recent practitioners is Mary Lattimore.

Over the last five years or so Lattimore has been quietly chalking up a heavyweight list of collaborators. Amongst them: Fursaxa, Kurt Vile, Sharon Van Etten, Jarvis Cocker, Meg Baird, and Thurston Moore, whose 2011 solo LP Demolished Thoughts provided my introduction to the harpist. However, it was her membership in The Valerie Project that foreshadowed Lattimore’s eventual musical breadth.

Succinctly, The Valerie Project’s sole ’07 release was an alternate score to Jaromil Jireš 1970 Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, an enduring cult movie derived from the 1945 novel of the same name by Jireš’ countryman Vítězslav Nezval. Comprised of ten Philadelphia-based musicians including Fursaxa leader Tara Burke and directed by Espers’ Greg Weeks, The Valerie Project is accurately assessed as a prime byproduct of last decade’s u-ground folk-rock experience.

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Graded on a Curve:
God Help the Girl, OST

Many song-based soundtracks aren’t much more than just a clump of tunes the director happened to like. The God Help the Girl OST however is impossible to pry from the movie that gave it life, in this case a full-fledged musical crafted by Belle and Sebastian principal Stuart Murdoch. Both the film and its 2LP counterpart are imperfect specimens significantly bettered through stylish daring.

God Help the Girl began in the midst of last decade, an endeavor matching Stuart Murdoch’s songs to female vocalists Catherine Ireton, Celia Garcia, Brittany Stallings, and others as Belle and Sebastian served as backup band. Along with some singles a self-titled LP was issued in ’09; many of those songs figure in Murdoch’s recently released film of the same name, now sung by actors Emily Browning, Olly Andersen, and Hannah Murray.

Talk of God Help the Girl as an exercise in unbridled twee is greatly overstated. To wit, this version of “Act of the Apostle,” like the original found on Belle and Sebastian’s ‘06 LP The Life Pursuit, is nearer to yé-yé and ‘60s TV variety show lushness than to the fragile innocence of twee; amidst boldly arranged strings/horns the guitar and Browning’s voice gradually blossom into a decidedly sophisto-mainstream affair complete with big leg-kick theatrics effectively highlighting Murdoch’s Musical conception.

By contrast, “I Dumped You First” offers acoustic strum and Alexander’s vocal accented by backing shouts and handclaps; it’s a likeably humble little number but more importantly is exactly the sort of ditty, both in style and value, that Alexander’s character would pen and perform in the context of the film (in real life he’s part of the band Years & Years).

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Graded on a Curve:
Bill Barron,
Hot Line

Bill Barron never achieved the profile he deserved. A sax player who worked with pianist Cecil Taylor, drummer Philly Joe Jones, bassist Charles Mingus, and undersung trumpeter Ted Curson, his opportunities to record as a leader, always using his pianist brother Kenny, found wider success eluding him. Much of his finest work was cut in the ‘60s; Hot Line – The Tenor of Bill Barron was his third LP, documented on March 31st, 1962 for the Savoy label.

So many tenors were on the scene in the early ‘60s that the fate of jazz-buff fandom was far from exclusive to Bill Barron. The good news? Extensive work as an educator allowed the man to be selective in the circumstances surrounding his studio legacy, so it’s only a sad tale in that his discography isn’t more bountiful.

In the notes to Hot Line, Barron describes its contents as a blowing date, and he’s surely correct. It’s an uncommonly strong one, with a smartly assembled group employed in service of an objective at once laid back and intense. It’s a two tenor and rhythm section setup, the quintet consisting of tiptop players; Booker Ervin is the other horn, sibling Kenny warms the piano bench, the always solid Larry Ridley is on bass, and Andrew Cyrille (credited here as Andy) takes up the drum position.

However, unlike many blowing sessions, the focus here weighs more toward originals; they win 5-2 over standards (5-3 on some later CDs), the saxophonist programming four of his tunes and one written by frequent playing partner Ted Curson. With this said the pieces are conducive to an upbeat atmosphere, so if blowing is what one wants, the program won’t disappoint.

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Graded on a Curve:
Paul Collins,
Feel the Noise

In a truly just world Paul Collins would require no introduction. Sadly, a globe of perpetual unfairness spins around the sun, so it bears mentioning that as a member of The Nerves he helped shape the original “Hanging on the Telephone” and subsequently helmed The Beat. In 2010 Collins issued the LP King of Power Pop! and now he’s back with the swell Feel the Noise, a 12-song effort pressed onto vinyl by Alive Naturalsound Records of Burbank, California.

As a young mid-‘80s pup in short pants, I first heard of power pop in relation to accusations of faddism, specifically to the fleeting if massive chart dominance of The Knack. From the svelte dudes at the mall to the crustier counter jockeys of the mom-and-pop shops, the band fronted by Doug Fieger was decidedly unpopular with store clerks in my berg, and this train of thought seemed to extend all over hill and dale.

However, a perusal of voting trends shows how off-target opinions of the ‘80s could get. The brass tacks of the matter is that power pop is an essential rock ‘n’ roll flavor; spawned in the guts of ‘60s by The Beatles, The Byrds, and The Who, their torch of melodic crunch was carried into the early-‘70s by The Raspberries, Badfinger, and cult cornerstone Big Star. Later in the decade it was healthy and highly prolific, encompassing Cheap Trick, The Cars, Blondie, even Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and that’s just in the USA.

Arguably, the true essence of power pop is an obscure 45 plucked out of a dollar bin in a wrinkled sleeve adorned with at least one, preferably two, band photographs. The single is taken home and promptly put on the turntable to kick the listener’s ass in a quick and tidy fashion. Over the years a whole lot of music matching this description has been discovered and anthologized, and that’s a grand circumstance.

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Graded on a Curve:
Pere Ubu,
Carnival of Souls

Born in mid-‘70s Cleveland and led by one of rock’s few truly inimitable voices, David Thomas and Pere Ubu add to an already impressive discography with Carnival of Souls. Once celebrated as the originators of avant-garage, the group is still restless and bursting with ideas; if not operating at absolute peak level they aren’t that far away, confidently demonstrating strong form on their 18th studio album.

Herk Harvey directed many films, specifically industrial and educational works for the Lawrence, KS-based Centron Corporation, but he only helmed one fiction feature, the independently made ’62 cult essential that lends a title to Pere Ubu’s latest. In fact, the band created a live score for Harvey’s one-of-a-kind flick, complimenting it in performance on July 13th of 2013 as part of London’s East End Film Festival.

The music from that evening is not what’s on this record, though a number of Carnival of Souls’ songs did evolve from the show, which was Pere Ubu’s third realization of a live underscore for a mid-20th century American movie, the others being Jack Arnold’s ’53 B&W 3D entry It Came From Outer Space and Roger Corman’s ’63 color Ray Milland-starrer X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes.

Today, these modestly-budgeted sci-fi/horror pictures share generally positive critical reputations, but in the period leading up to Ubu’s emergence on the US punk radar screen they were most likely to be caught on television, often in late night programming riddled with commercials and edits and occasionally featuring a host; Cleveland’s was the subversively influential Ghoulardi.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Animals,
The Best of The Animals

No single album can encompass the range of The Animals’ ’64-’65 run, but ABKCO’s recent vinylization of the ’88 compact disc The Best of The Animals comes pretty close. Gathering all the early hits without neglecting the enduring appeal of their R&B core, it sports the same cover photo as MGM’s 11-track ’66 LP while slightly modifying and significantly expanding the contents. Pressed on 180gm vinyl, those desiring an upgrade for a nearly half-century old and surely highly-worn compilation are unlikely to find a better opportunity.

The pop success of great rock bands, and the one formed in Newcastle upon Tyne when Eric Burdon joined the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo definitely qualifies, often gets belittled as concession, cash-in, or more likely some combination of the two. The reality is that music and commerce, particularly in the middle of last century, weave together like amorous but argumentative vines.

The four largest hits of The Animals’ first two years are all represented on this fresh reissue, which places onto vinyl the contents of a CD designed to usurp an LP not all that hard to locate in used bins at the time, at least in my neighborhood; this sequencing of The Best of The Animals (there have been others) includes the A-sides from the first nine 45s.

“House of the Rising Sun,” easily The Animals’ biggest commercial success, also endures and by a wide margin as their most famous recording. Indeed, sans exaggeration it can be described as one of the defining singles of the 1960s. A few may balk, but the sheer seriousness, ambition and intensity was unusual for ’64.

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Graded on a Curve:
Gareth Dickson,
Invisible String

Though he’s worked with Max Richter, Juana Molina, and David Byrne, Glaswegian Gareth Dickson is probably best known as live accompanist for UK folkster Vashti Bunyan. His latest might change that situation, however. A guitarist nimble of finger and teeming with ideas as his vocals inevitably draw comparisons to Nick Drake, Dickson’s Invisible String provides a generous gateway into a fully realized sound-world.

Hmm, it seems like just last month I was remarking over the generally underwhelming nature of live records. Actually, it was just last month; jeepers creepers. I stand by my assessment, but of course must add that an especially appealing characteristic in the whole artistic shebang is the frequency of exceptions; Gareth Dickson’s Invisible String is one of those.

I’ll confess that Dickson’s newest has served as a personal introduction, and the impact of its 17 songs, captured in Istanbul and various French cities including a Paris rooftop, has been substantial. I’ve since caught up with his studio output, specifically ‘09’s Collected Recordings (which gathers unreleased tracks and selections from ‘05’s Spruce Goose and Solina Sea), the following year’s The Dance and ‘12’s “Noon” EP and Quite a Way Away.

Any review of Gareth Dickson that doesn’t mention Nick Drake is being disingenuous, for the singer-guitarist openly admits to the influence, and the revelation is readily apparent. But it’s far from his only point of reference; he also cites the less obvious but easily believable inspirations of Robert Johnson and Glenn Gould.

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Graded on a Curve:
Joe Jack Talcum,
Home Recordings
1993-1999

Joe Jack Talcum’s most well-known for his long tenure in those funny-punk Philadelphians The Dead Milkmen, but over the years he’s cultivated a productive if somewhat under the radar backlog of low-tech solo work initially released on cassette. The efforts of the Happy Happy Birthday To Me label in compiling this productivity continues with Home Recordings 1993-1999; volume two details Talcum’s improvement in his second decade as a musician.

For anybody coming of age in late-‘80s USA that harbored curiosity into left of center sounds, making the acquaintance of The Dead Milkmen was basically inevitable. Popular with skate rats, lovers of college-rock, scores of MTV junkies, the surly backpack/trench coat brigade and even the occasional metalhead, they were truly a boundary-crossing outfit.

In general, the Milkmen achieved this circumstance through a punk-derived disdain for seriousness that engaged but didn’t overplay the snotty. Specifically, they delivered sarcastic, sophomoric and low-brow humor, and if there’s a crowd reliably resistant to their charms it’s those with a low tolerance for the zany.

I don’t really belong to that group but also can’t deny that most humor-based music simply fails to move me. However, I’ll openly fess up to a personal Milkmen phase, in part due to the aforementioned ubiquity. And to put a finer point on it, they’re a band with a built in audience; teenagers. As a member of this demographic I was a fan, considering their thing to be refreshingly unstuffy and flippant. Time passed and then one day, the appeal had essentially abated.

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Graded on a Curve:
Herman’s Hermits,
Their Greatest Hits

Amongst the insults lobbed at Herman’s Hermits over the decades: fabricated, shallow, calculatedly commercial, utterly safe, disposable. At home they scored hits and in the US became one of the most popular imports of the mid-‘60s, though for many they are simply a Brit Invasion phenomenon connecting the Frankie Avalon/Fabian ‘50s scene and the eventual rise of bubblegum. Any folks curious as to what the fuss was all about might want to look into ABKCO’s LP reissue of Their Greatest Hits.

Herman’s Hermits can be considered the UK equivalent of and predecessor to The Monkees, though they had to fight longer for a redemption that is still in progress, as many persist in evaluating them as eternal inhabitants of Squaresville, damned to never ascend phoenix-like from the circumstances thrust upon them by their era.

The ever-growing legion of Pop scientists will chalk this up to plain Rockism, but it’s a little more complex than that. Prior to getting captured in the viselike clutches of Mickey Most, Herman’s Hermits were a highly amiable small-time gigging Manchester-based band, one initially shouldering the rather unimaginative moniker of the Heartbeats; it was subsequent to Peter Noone’s arrival that a name change, reportedly inspired by managers Harvey Lisberg and Charlie Silverman, occurred.

Herman’s Hermits is a sly appellation; unlike the Heartbeats, it stuck in the memory, and it straddled the lingering and soon to resurface pop idol angle while acknowledging if not fully succumbing to the post-Beatles vogue for leaderless units. Once in league with Most the only member of the act to unfailingly appear on their studio efforts was the gent some mistakenly thought was Herman; the front-man, or in the parlance of a certain UK group called the High Numbers, The Face.

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