Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
The Smoking Trees,
TST

The Smoking Trees are a duo of decidedly psychedelic disposition hailing from the West Coast berg of Los Angeles. Formed in 2001 and whittled down from a five piece, over a decade elapsed before the arrival of their full-length debut. Thankfully its follow-up required a shorter gestation period; druggy but approachable and sunshiny with undercurrents of strangeness, TST improves substantially on its predecessor. It’s out on LP/CD/digital July 10 via Ample Play.

Martin Nunez and Al Rivera are the two halves comprising The Smoking Trees. Their bio portrays Nunez as something of a mastermind, which is appropriate considering his nickname is Sir Psych; producer and home recorder, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, psychedelia expert and professed record collector, it’s all discernible upon soaking up their 2012’s Acetates.

On the other side of this yin-yang is an ex-punk. Rivera aka L.A.AL was part of the burgeoning East L.A. punk scene, cutting albums in the late-‘90s with groups Dial 69 and Homesick. L.A.AL underwent a musical transformation after meeting Sir Psych, and it shouldn’t be a bit difficult to suss out the new direction; mention of The Left Banke, The Zombies, and “Defecting Grey” by The Pretty Things should clarify the scenario, however.

At an earlier point named Velvet Tuesday & the Good Smells, The Smoking Trees initially functioned as a pleasurable sideline, Al continuing to play in his prior band as Sir Psych worked as a hip-hop producer and as part of his own crew Forensics. But recording persisted, Nunez credited with production, drums, vocals, keys, bass, and psychedelics as Rivera lent guitar, bass, percussion, and vocals.

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Graded on a Curve:
Alan Lomax, Music for Work and Play: Carriacou, Grenada, 1962

We’re in the midst of the Alan Lomax Centennial and the achievement of the indefatigable folklorist radiates life-affirming goodness as strongly as it ever did. Global Jukebox is the digital-only imprint of the Alan Lomax Archive, and on July 7 their latest installment Music for Work and Play: Carriacou, Grenada, 1962 will be available for download. Focusing heavily on a cappella groups and string bands with the added enlightenment of interview segments, it adds impressively to the already vast wealth of Lomax’s research and documentation, the sheer value of which is essentially incalculable.

Alan Lomax was a folklorist, ethnomusicologist, archivist, writer, scholar, activist, and more, but less grandly he remains part of a family tradition spanning three centuries; he’s the son of distinguished folklorist John A. Lomax and father to Anna Lomax Wood, who currently runs the Lomax Archive in addition to heading the Association for Cultural Equity.

Founded by her father, the ACE is a charitable organization housed at New York City’s Hunter College. Its objective is to “explore and preserve the world’s expressive traditions with humanistic commitment and scientific engagement.” By extension the Global Jukebox, which Lomax and a team of developers began in 1989, attempts to “organize and synthesize the findings of anthropology and musicology that evoked relationships between expressive style, human geography, and long-standing patterns of subsistence and social life.”

One of the benefits of digital innovation is how it aids in the dissemination of large stores of historical material while simultaneously helping non-profits keep costs at a minimum. This shouldn’t bum-out fans of physical media (of which I am one) and lovers of vinyl (ditto) for it’s become pretty plain digital itself is not an enemy, though soulless streaming sites might be. And yet as a correspondent for this website I would be remiss in not mentioning Global Jukebox’s teaming with a handful of other organizations to utilize a wide array of formats.

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Graded on a Curve: Sonny Knight and the Lakers, Do It Live

2014’s I’m Still Here advanced Sonny Knight to the venerable ranks of rejuvenated soul belters. He was backed on the LP by the Lakers, a young and energetic gang of Minneapolis-based R&B acolytes, and the pairing has reemerged with a four-sided performance bonanza. Captured during a two-night stand last December in front of a hometown crowd, it provides ample evidence of Knight’s aptitude for vocalizing and showmanship; behind him the Lakers are a tight and relentless sonic machine. Do It Live is currently available from Secret Stash, and the first 300 copies of the 2LP are on orange vinyl.

Sonny Knight’s career began in the mid-‘60s; as a teenager he fronted and cut a 45 as leader of the Cymbols, though his musical pursuits were curbed by subsequent US military service in Korea and Vietnam. Upon returning, he spent time in California before moving back to Minneapolis and hooking up with funk/R&B outfit Haze. Disco’s commercial crash reportedly spelled the end of that act; thereafter Knight took up truck-driving as a vocation.

His reemergence is directly related to a budding relationship with the Minneapolis-based Secret Stash label. Devoted to soul, funk, African, and Latin recordings predominantly of ‘60s and ‘70s vintage, Secret Stash is run by Eric Foss, who also plays in the enterprise’s house band the Lakers. Amongst the imprint’s worthy reissues is 2012’s Twin Cities Funk & Soul: Lost R&B Grooves From Minneapolis/St. Paul 1964-1979, a dilly of a geographical comp offering selections from The Valdons, Wanda Davis, the Prophets of Peace, Morris Wilson, Willie Walker, and more.

Secret Stash additionally booked studio-time for Wanda Davis and The Valdons as assorted gigs were scheduled; amidst the activity the call was made for Knight’s abilities. As the frequency of these assists increased, little time was wasted in devising a scheme to combine vocalist and band, an entity comprised of Foss on drums, Sam Harvey-Carlson on organ, Blair Krivanek on guitar, Casey O’Brien on bass, Bryan Highhill on trumpet, Cole Pulice on sax, and Tony Beaderstadt on trombone.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Small Faces,
From the Beginning

The Small Faces stand as one of the very finest groups of the 1960s, though many know them mainly for Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, their most ambitious and final album before Steve Marriott’s departure effectively ended their diminutive phase. The scoop is that all of the Small Faces’ ‘60s records are worthy of ownership, even the mercantile odds-and-ends collection From the Beginning. That disc and its self-titled predecessor are currently available as 180gm replica LPs. Are they cut to lacquer from the original quarter-inch production masters with front-laminated sleeves? Why yes indeed.

One gauge of the true greats is that the music manages to get better, or at least maintains a high standard of quality, as the discs take their place in the racks. So it is with the Small Faces. With this said the Decca period offers distinct and enduring appeal; more so than The Who, the Small Faces circa-’65-’66 are the true ambassadors of Mod. Utterly Brit in orientation, it wasn’t until the fourth LP that the group entered the US market.

The Small Faces consisted of Steve Marriott on vocals, guitar and harmonica, Ronnie Lane on bass, Kenney Jones on drums and percussion, and initially Jimmy Winston on keyboards. Upon signing to Decca through the efforts of manager Don Arden, they released two singles in ’65. The first “What’cha Gonna Do about It” charted, hitting #14, while the second “I’ve Got Mine” didn’t. Shortly thereafter, Winston was replaced by Ian McLagan, the new keyboardist assisting 3rd 45 “Sha-La-La-La-Lee” in reaching the #3 spot. A full-length followed a few months later.

Sporting the brass to open with “Shake” in Sam Cooke’s tempo, ’66’s Small Faces starts out strong and never really falters, which is impressive for a debut comprised roughly equally, as was the norm of the time, of originals and borrowed/cover material. Neither tentative nor betraying instrumental greenness, the Small Faces were also unburdened by conflict over what they wanted to be.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bali High OST

The Western Hemisphere has just entered prime beach season, which of course means swimming, soaking up rays in the sand, sipping upon cold beverages to help counteract the swelter, and for beings of adventuresome and athletic nature, the riding of major waves. But if one is faced with landlocked circumstances a perfectly acceptable alternative is cranking up Anthology Recordings’ reissue of the OST to Stephen Spaulding’s surf film Bali High. Gills-drenched in appropriate vibes, it also spotlights the ingenuity of musician-composer Michael Sena. It’s out now on 2LP/CD/digital.

Whilst enduring my teenage years a steady rise in clumsiness unfortunately became tangible, and thusly skateboarding, skiing, and surfing essentially got lumped together as activities best avoided in the safeguarding of physical health. However, I did enjoy skate and surf rock (I know not of a corresponding mountain genre of the slopes), though gradually clear was that a lot of surf music didn’t actually impact the listening diets of those having shaped up the subculture.

A whole bunch of real estate spreads out between the coasts of the United States, and a significant portion of surf rock served that market in a manner kinda similar to Exotica; residing closer to the root of true surf was Dick Dale, The Ventures, The Chantays, The Surfaris, and more so scads of obscure regional acts, a high number of them hailing from Southern California, but surf music’s reality was undeniably somewhat messy. For instance, many quickly adapted to hot rod themes in hopes of expanding audiences instantaneously snatched away by the tsunami of the British Invasion.

So the story goes, anyway. In 1966 The Endless Summer appeared, giving voice to a legitimate way of life amid the death throes of faddishness. Scored by The Sandals (or Sandells, who curiously went on to contribute the soundtrack to Dick Barrymore’s ’67 skiing doc The Last of the Ski Bums), Bruce Brown’s documentary is the obvious starting point of any tour through surf culture’s audio-visual component.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bob Collins and the
Full Nelson, Telescopic Victory Kiss

Medway Towns UK-based Bob Collins is most prominent as part of the increasingly revered and long defunct ‘80s band The Dentists, but in contemporary terms he fronts the Full Nelson, a trim pop-rock unit radiating a classique vibe without faltering into throwback. Loaded with melodies and riffs, Telescopic Victory Kiss is bold in its dedication to the basics; it’s available now on CD via Jigsaw Records.

Formed in 1984 and extant for roughly a decade, The Dentists were but one thread in indie pop’s magnificent weave. Occasionally aligned with the C86 uprising, The Medway group wasn’t part of that compilation’s original sequencing, though “Peppermint Dreams” was included on Cherry Red’s expanded NME C86 Deluxe set from last year.

Like many yanks, this writer made his acquaintance with The Dentists through Dressed, the 1992 CD issued in the States by Homestead Records. 23 tracks deep, it culled material from inaugural ’85 7-inch “Strawberries Are Growing in My Garden (And It’s Wintertime),” the Some People Are On The Pitch They Think It’s All Over It Is Now LP from the same year and three EPs: ‘85’s “You and Your Bloody Oranges,” ‘86’s “Down and Out in Paris and Chatham,” and ‘87’s “Writhing on the Shagpile.”

After an admirable run they called it a day in ‘95. Individual members have remained musically engaged since, though nothing thus far has managed to equal The Dentists’ gradually rising stature. Regarding Collins, as early as ‘92 he was helping to comprise the three-piece side-combo Ascoyne d’Ascoyne; their fine 3-song slab of melodic garage punk “Just the Biggest Thing” was issued on producer and Medway vet Wild Billy Childish’s Hangman Records.

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Graded on a Curve: Spinning Motion, Confidence in the Future

In the winter of 1980, in the midst of punk’s fallout and the momentary ascendance of the new wave, five guys gathered in a German studio to casually make some recordings. The music didn’t fit the prevailing sonic norms in the slightest, and while a small quantity of vinyl was pressed, there was never any concerted effort to release it…until now. The reissue label Notes On A Journey commences operations with the intriguing folk-prog-pop-jazz blend of Spinning Motion’s Confidence in the Future. It’s out on LP June 26 in a very attractive package.

Spinning Motion’s story could serve as the basis for one hell of a movie, and I formulate the observation because the circumstances lack the hazards of an obnoxiously uplifting ending. However, the emergence of Confidence in the Future does provide the tale with a sense of closure; it seems the band, perhaps more properly described as a project, didn’t devote much energy toward making the big time. Instead, the objective was simply to shape and document the eight songs comprising these January 1980 sessions.

Spinning Motion’s driving personalities are Achim Hirsch and Manfred Tappert, childhood friends and classmates who shared a love of the Pretty Things and formed a student group named Busstop 4. Later, Hirsch’s trip to Denmark inspired him to attempt working his raised consciousness into an album; when asked, multi-instrumentalist Tappert was chuffed to oblige.

Filling out Spinning Motion is a profusion of diversity; there’s Stefan Thimm, a drummer reportedly in the founding lineup of German heavy metal behemoths Accept (though he was long gone by the recording of their debut, much less “Balls to the Wall”), Joe Kucera, a saxophone blowing branch of Czech unit Framus 5’s family tree prior to fleeing Vienna for West Berlin after the Prague Spring, and Eddie Hayes, a Boston, MA-based trumpet/flugelhorn player who honed his chops in the jazz scene.

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Graded on a Curve: Tropical Disco Hustle Volume Two

Soul Music of All Diasporas! That’s the calling card of Cultures of Soul, a label operated by Deano Sounds out of Boston, MA, and a large portion of his venture’s output is devoted to international surveys of original disco. Illuminating an earlier era of idea exchange amidst distinct geographical flavors, the sum has been listenable as well as informative; available now on CD and 2LP is Tropical Disco Hustle Volume Two.

By my count Cultures of Soul’s disco comp tally is up to five; one Brazilian, two Hindi, and now two from the Caribbean region. Never did I think I’d be inundated with the impetus of so much ‘70s rump shaking, and the endeavor has proven surprisingly successful. That’s in part due to a sustained curatorial point of view highlighting subtle detours from formula while documenting a worldwide dance imperative. I’ve no idea how much more is in the pipeline, but the series has yet to falter.

Wild Fire, Trinidadian stars of the first Tropical Disco installment, open Volume Two. “Try Making Love” gathers a standard disco template, deepens it with a killer bass line, and lends uniqueness through crisp hand drums and ample spacey guitar. The lyrics take the titular advice and kinda drive it into the ground (or deep into the mattress, as it were), but that’s not really a weakness in dance floor-inclined stuff; “Try Making Love” topped the chart in Trinidad for six weeks.

The funkiness of “The Dealer” is more lyrically elaborate, presenting a storyline of an itinerant character hustling to make ends meet by acquiring and selling materials big and small. An interesting portrait, but closer to the disco norm is “Dance with Me,” a fairly typical gyration motivator loaded with electric keyboards and a dash of synthetic strings.

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Graded on a Curve:
Rob Mazurek / Exploding Star Orchestra, Galactic Parables: Volume 1

Groundbreaking cornetist, composer, improviser, and bandleader Rob Mazurek is busy amassing one of the most impressive discographies of the 21st century, and a main thread in that value belongs to his consistently evolving Exploding Star Orchestra. Galactic Parables: Volume 1 is an expansive, beautifully designed 2CD/3LP set marking the Orchestra’s 10th anniversary and corralling a pair of live performances of the titular science-fictive suite. In detailing the boldness of Mazurek’s vision it’s likely his best to date; it’s out now on Cuneiform Records.

As many of last century’s noteworthy artists reach their autumnal years, the flow of announcements and obits of their passing has increased in frequency; last week we lost one of the very greatest in the Texas-born sax-theorist Ornette Coleman. Obviously, it can be easy to lose track and not properly absorb individual significance as these notices pile up.

On the other hand, a person can become overwhelmed with the belief of golden days slipping away and therefore neglect to keep tabs on contemporary strides in respective fields. In a fit of frustration or bout of depression, a mind might declare a once esteemed genre as effectively dead; this is a regular occurrence in jazz, an art form that’s contended with accusations of decline since the 1930s, if not earlier.

Rob Mazurek undercuts the notion of jazz’s expiration by working so diligently he makes busy musicians look like a bunch of lazy shits. He emerged in the mid-‘90s, first as leader and shortly thereafter as founder of the Chicago Underground Collective with guitarist Jeff Parker and drummer Chad Taylor, an entity debuting on record as an Orchestra but more common in Duo and Trio configurations that stretched into the current decade.

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Graded on a Curve:
ZNR, Barricade 3

In rock terms, 1976 is sometimes synopsized as the year before sweet musical hell broke loose, but in more progressive realms plentiful events were transpiring. For one example, there’s the debut album by the French duo ZNR. Notable for the use of synthesizers, multilingual and theatrical vocals, and borrowings from classical, jazz, rock, and the avant-garde, it’s a lovely thing to hear, and part of its appeal is that it isn’t easily pinned down. An enticing facet is the illustration in the gatefold design by Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart); Barricade 3 is available now on LP through Superior Viaduct.

Preceding ZNR, Hector Zazou and Joseph Racaille were in Barricade, a group formed in the latter portion of the 1960s. Based on the tracks I’ve heard Barricade was a potent mix of psychedelia, experimentation, and heaviness; a tad similar to Amon Düül II, Beefheart was also an influence. The 2005 CD Le Rire Des Camisoles on Futura compiles performance output from ’69 to ’74, but it doesn’t appear easy to find these days.

The subsequent activity of Zazou and Racaille (or ZNR for short) is much easier to hear, in part due to ZNR’s inclusion on the deservedly ballyhooed Nurse with Wound list, an assembly of names inserted in copies of Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella, Nurse with Wound’s ’79 debut; expanded lists were placed in To the Quiet Men from a Tiny Girl, their follow-up from 1980.

Compiling an avalanche of outsider sound in an era when tracking down many of the entries was a certifiable pain in the ass, a few were so obscure it was wrongly assumed (and mischievously fabricated by Nurse with Wound’s Steven Stapleton) that some were indeed fake. The list has long served as a buyer’s guide/checklist for a diligent subset of discerning experimental/underground collector.

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