Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Try the Pie, Rest

Bean Kaloni Tupou is perhaps best known for singing and playing in the San Jose, CA four-piece Sourpatch, but as Try the Pie she additionally offers solo artistry of considerable acumen and growing prominence. Her most recent work in this mode emerged this past April, but those wishing to explore Try the Pie’s beginnings are graced with good luck for the venture’s earliest recordings have been given a fresh vinyl pressing courtesy of the Happy Happy Birthday To Me label. Featuring 13 of Tupou’s songs delivered up close and very personal through guitar and voice, Rest is available now.

Together with her contribution to the San Jose-based Think and Die Thinking Collective, Bean Tupou’s credits include Crabapple, Salt Flat, and Plume, but thus far her highest profile undertaking has been Sourpatch, a sadly defunct outfit (their Bandcamp refers to them in the past tense, anyway) having specialized in a dead-solid expansion of a particular wrinkle of the early ‘90s indie aesthetic.

Specifically, think of the Slumberland and SpinArt enterprises. Diversity and focus worked in Sourpatch’s favor, the group actually offering a broader sound than some of their influences but not so wide-ranging that 2010’s Crushin’ and ‘12’s Stagger & Fade (both released by Happy Happy Birthday To Me) connect like samplers of a bygone era.

Sourpatch also wielded a punkish energy at times somewhat reminiscent of certain chapters in the tale of K Records. By extension they were occasionally described as twee punk, though to these ears this observation continues to seem a little off-target; Sourpatch weren’t childlike, instead proffering guitar pop of a cosmopolitan but still fairly snarly bent.

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Josh Rosenthal’s The Record Store of the Mind: A Consideration

Before founding and operating his consistently rewarding label, Josh Rosenthal worked in the big-time music industry. Prior to that he was in college radio and even earlier was just a budding music junkie, seeds planted in childhood gradually blossoming into Tompkins Square Records. Along the way he’s naturally amassed some stories, viewpoints and favorites, and some of them are corralled in his new book The Record Store of the Mind. Folks with sizable collections should find it a welcome companion, and those just getting the fever will likely have their horizons broadened and want lists substantially increased.

A little over halfway through The Record Store of the Mind, in a chapter simply titled “Jazz,” Josh Rosenthal bluntly states a personal requirement regarding the particular section’s topic; even in traditional jazz, or “inside” stuff to borrow the parlance of the music, a discernible “outside” element still needs to be present or the end result will fail to grab his interest.

Non-jazz buffs might not get it; for one thing, the conventional (received) wisdom is that above all else jazz must “swing.” But Rosenthal’s prerequisite makes total sense and is a fairly common barometer; for instance, this writer adores the titanic outside piano of Cecil Taylor and also loves the inside with undercurrents of out mode of Bill Evans but has hardly ever been swayed by the (at least to these ears) firmly inside style of Oscar Peterson.

Of course, the parameters of “out” will vary by listener; is it enough to experiment, or does there need to be an aspect of friction at play? And like, what’s your take on Ahmad Jamal? But I digress, as digressing is a foible that afflicts music nuts and yes indeed, music writers as well. However, it bears noting that Rosenthal keeps close to the various points at hand throughout his collection.

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Graded on a Curve:
Scott Fagan,
South Atlantic Blues

Scott Fagan’s tale holds a circuitous course of impressive connections, valiant attempts, and unfortunate misses, but it’d be anticlimactic without a worthwhile record in the equation; the fresh reissue of South Atlantic Blues helps provide enduring relevance to the narrative. Originally released by Atco in 1968 to utter consumer neglect, it’s a rediscovery requiring neither qualifications nor special pleading, for nobody else cooked up a progressive stew of folk, pop, and soul quite like this one. It’s out now through Saint Cecilia Knows, the first 1,000 hand numbered copies of the LP featuring 180gm vinyl and a heavy-duty tip-on jacket exclusively reproducing Jasper Johns’ lithograph “Scott Fagan Record.”

Scott Fagan’s father was a musician (reportedly a saxophonist and singer) who kept company with such heavyweights as Dizzy Gillespie and Lester Young, while his dancer mother raised him in an art colony on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. As a teen Fagan played rock ‘n’ roll in an act christened The Urchins and in the mid-‘60s stowed away for Florida, eventually making his way to New York where he immediately scored an in-person audition with Brill Building songwriters Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman.

Consequently, Fagan was signed to Pomshu Productions, receiving two years of mentoring from the duo as he and Pomus wrote “I’m Gonna Cry Till My Tears Run Dry,” a hit for Irma Thomas later waxed by Linda Ronstadt. Pomshu additionally secured deals for Fagan, first with Columbia, where he cut an unreleased single, and then via Bert Berns’ Bang Records, the association producing ‘66’s “Give Love a Chance” b/w “Tutsie.”

The story takes a wild turn as Fagan almost became an Apple signing, South Atlantic Blues amongst the candidates to be the first non-Beatles-related album issued by the label (a distinction belonging to the self-titled debut of James Taylor, though the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Under the Jasmine Tree is documented as sharing the same release date in the UK and US.)

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Graded on a Curve: Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, Whipped Cream & Other Delights

Herb Alpert is often praised as a veteran bigwig of the record industry who possessed a measure of taste alongside his business acumen. He’s even more notable for his trumpet playing and leadership of a crucial if not necessarily hip 1960s outfit; Whipped Cream & Other Delights is the most popular LP from Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass; it’s also their best, and it sees 180gm vinyl reissue on November 20.

Let’s get it out of the way right up front; nobody in the Tijuana Brass was from Mexico. They were in fact a purely studio concoction at the outset with Alpert overdubbing his trumpet for increased vibrancy. Naturally, these realities have led many to rashly assume the (largely) instrumental venture effectively putting A&M Records (stands for Alpert and Moss, as in executive Jerry Moss) on the map was an exercise in total squaresville.

The theory ain’t necessarily wrong, as the Tijuana Brass albums remain amongst the highest profile artifacts produced in the Easy Listening era. Make no mistake; beginning with 1962’s The Lonely Bull and continuing well into the ‘70s, Herb Alpert strenuously avoided grating upon even a single human nerve. The objective was to sell a ton of records, which he and A&M did by undertaking a generationally inclusive approach and by appropriating a neighboring culture in a manner that, while surely dated today, was far less contemporaneously niche-driven than Alpert’s stylistic relatives in the Exotica field.

But like Les Baxter, Martin Denny and their ilk, there seemed to be a point where the consumers of Alpert’s records arrived at the conclusion that his stuff was either old hat or all of a sudden utterly out of step with their lives. The abovementioned heap of records was unloaded, though not necessarily into the bins of used record stores; instead, the Tijuana Brass was a staple of the antique shop, the consignment store, the Goodwill, the flea market, the yard/garage sale, and the Salvation Army.

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Graded on a Curve: Mikael Tariverdiev,
Film Music

It seems fair to remark that outside of Russia Mikael Tariverdiev is as known by feverish cinephiles as heavy-duty record collectors, though a superb new collection is set to boost awareness of the composer’s work. Culling material from a distinguished career spanning over a quarter century, for those with a deep interest in the crossroads of music and movies it’s a revelation; folks merely curious about international sounds are still likely to find it a highly satisfying listen. Film Music is available on 3LP/3CD from Earth Recordings on November 20.

“Listen up guys, we’re all geniuses here, aren’t we? Let’s make genius films. I’ll help you!”
Mikael Tariverdiev

Obscurity is of course relative, just as recognition and anonymity are often fleeting and for that matter subject to region. Mikael Tariverdiev is described as famous in his Russian homeland; in addition to extensive film scores he’s composed operas, suites for organ, and vocal cycles pairing poetry and music. Reinforcing his artistic emergence in the mid-20th century (born in 1931, he passed in 1996), Tariverdiev stylistically straddled classical, jazz, and the avant-garde.

But there are differing facets to fame. Upon introduction to the soundtrack to Mikhail Kalik’s 1964 film Goodbye, Boys!, Film Music’s producer Stephen Coates (founder of The Real Tuesday Weld) was simply informed by the Moscow café’s waitress that it was “something from the old times.” For many, Tariverdiev’s compositions for film and television had apparently been absorbed by the culture at large, and yet others surely knew his name and occupation without necessarily being able to associate him with a specific piece or score.

The relativity of obscurity certainly applies to cult film; Goodbye, Boys! has been described in such terms, but in the West cult items like A Clockwork Orange and Blue Velvet (to say nothing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) tower over it like summer blockbusters. For starters, Kalik’s film is essentially unavailable for viewing.

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Graded on a Curve:
Carlo Ditta,
What I’m Talkin’ About

He’s played a vital role in the New Orleans music scene for well over a quarter century, but as a performer Carlo Ditta’s flown under the radar due to a lack of retail product. Split between originals and covers, drawing upon the traditions of his city and distinctly conjuring roots-infused erudition, his What I’m Talkin’ About has been in the racks for nearly a year without reaching the listenership it deserves. It’s available on LP, CD, and digital via Ditta’s own Orleans Records.

Carlo Ditta has done a fair amount of moving around in his life, spending time in New York City, residing for a year in Nashville, and undertaking two different California stays, specifically in Los Angeles and Santa Cruz, but even in its absence New Orleans remained central to the activities of the singer-songwriter, guitarist, producer, and label operator.

Those last two credits have resulted in Ditta becoming a New Orleans fixture as he’s helped to document and shape the city’s modern musical history. The label is Orleans Records, and amongst the artists to have flourished through its auspices are gospel-tinged soulster Mighty Sam McClain, resuscitated Ace Records R&B figure Roland Stone, and a diverse slate of bluesmen including Guitar Slim Jr., Little Freddie King, Robert Lowery, and Ironing Board Sam.

Orleans’ discography additionally holds the indigenous stylings of the Original Pin Stripe Brass Band and entries by the great Danny Barker and his wife Blue Lu. Along the way Ditta played some terrific guitar behind Dorothy Goodman on her song “Born with the Blues,” as Marva Wright’s version of the tune later provided the title-track to her Ditta-produced album for Sky Ranch/Virgin. The same company issued New Yorker Willy DeVille’s Victory Mixture to a receptive European audience; produced by Ditta and featuring the contribution of Allen Toussaint on piano, it gave Orleans Records a gold disc.

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Graded on a Curve:
Panda Bear,
“Crosswords” EP

Well-known as an integral component in the sonic equation of Animal Collective, it’s also no secret that Noah Lennox has amassed an impressive solo discography under the name Panda Bear. His fifth solo full-length emerged in January and garnered widespread positive response, but the accolades haven’t been as strong for the five-song follow-up. If smaller of scale and lesser of impact, the music is still a largely worthwhile experience; more than just a prerequisite for committed fans, its unruffled nature could easily recruit some new ones. Out digitally since August, the “Crosswords” EP hits vinyl and compact disc on November 13 through Domino.

Seven inches, ten inches or a foot long; no matter the diameter there exists a substantial shelf-load of Extended Play records with quality ranging from solid (Big Black’s “Headache”) to outstanding (The Troggs’ “Trogg Tops Vol. 1”) to downright masterful (Buzzcocks’ “Spiral Scratch,” Mission of Burma’s “Signals, Calls, and Marches,” The Clean’s “Boodle, Boodle, Boodle”).

However, as the 1960s evaporated in the rear-view mirror the EP format was persistently employed by myriad acts (or more accurately the labels that signed them) as a depository for leftovers or stray material. Additionally, it was utilized as a reward for the faithful and as a vessel ramping up anticipation between proper full-lengths.

That’s not a dismissal. Far from it; the unfussed over EP has frequently held a quiet appeal, a lack of ceremony frankly refreshing in this era where an extremely high number of releases get encompassed in a miasma of hubbub. For those hooked on such commotion, “Crosswords” can seem a bit anticlimactic after the attention paid to Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper earlier in 2015.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mark Van Hoen,

Electronic music is often judged on the breakthroughs reliably brought to the turntable by fresh voices. Although focusing on newcomers is surely understandable, the worthwhile contributions of veterans shouldn’t be misplaced, and the latest release from UK born and current Los Angelino Mark Van Hoen is an excellent example. Nightvision finds the longstanding solo artist and deft collaborator exploring familiar territory and avoiding redundancy; it’s out November 13 on LP/CD/digital via the Saint Marie label.

Prominent on Mark Van Hoen’s résumé is his series of recordings as Locust, the tally accruing a mess of EPs and a half-dozen full-lengths beginning with 1994’s Weathered Well on the R&S Records ambient subsidiary Apollo. After the following year’s Truth is Born of Arguments and ’97’s Morning Light, Locust shifted to the Touch imprint for ‘01’s Wrong, a pair of CDs intended to be played simultaneously.

Locust then undertook a long hiatus as Van Hoen remained highly active. In fact the output under his own name actually spans back to ’97’s The Last Flowers of the Darkness on Touch and prior to that ‘94’s Aurobindo: Involution, a duo work with his Seafeel/Scala colleague Daren Seymour issued on Ash international.

Alongside extensive production credits additional creative partnerships have accumulated; early on there was the trio Autocreation in cahoots with Tara Patterson and Kevin Hector, their album Mettle hitting racks in ’94 through Inter-Modo, a fleeting imprint run by the Orb’s Alex Paterson. More recently Black Hearted Brother, Van Hoen’s duo with Slowdive/Mojave 3 guitarist Neil Halstead has emerged, releasing Stars Are Our Home through Sonic Cathedral Records.

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Graded on a Curve: Legends of Old-Time Music, Fifty Years of County Records

Initially committed to the compiling of Old-time material cut early last century in the southeastern United States, County Records transitioned rather quickly into fresh documentation of the style’s thriving exponents. The impulse spanned across decades and the results help to shape Legends of Old-Time Music: Fifty Years of County Records, an absolutely stunning new 4CD set co-produced by Grammy winner Christopher King. Available now, those with an interest in the USA’s fathoms-deep rural roots will not want to miss it.

Started by Dave Freeman in 1963, County Records belongs in the same company as Moses Asch’s Folkways, Chris Strachwitz’s Arhoolie, Nick Perls’ Yazoo, and Arnold S. Caplin’s Biograph, all labels with shared interests but diverse personalities. County’s devotion to retrieving sounds grooved into shellac by companies like Brunswick and Gennett resonated somewhat like the Mountain music counterpart to Yazoo’s blues-focused endeavors as they emerged later in the ‘60s.

Once Charlie Faurot and Richard Nevins entered County’s scenario the combination of reissues (therewith the label’s 500 series) and contemporaneous output (given the 700 designation) became mildly reminiscent of Arhoolie’s mode of operation, though as this expansive yet thoughtfully assembled collection illuminates, Freeman’s focus largely remained on the hill music of Virginia, North Carolina, and to a lesser extent Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

A large portion of Legends of Old-Time Music was collected and recorded by Faurot; he gets the co-producer’s credit alongside King, and having passed in 2013, the set is dedicated to his memory. Freeman and Nevins were also involved in production, as were archivist Bobby Fulcher and Barry Poss on the majority of the selections sourced from Kentucky and Tennessee.

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Graded on a Curve:
Led Zeppelin,

Few bands are in less need of an introduction than Led Zeppelin. For roughly a decade they reigned, helping to establish hard rock as a profitable genre as they trashed hotel rooms, gallivanted with groupies, and impacted heavy music right up to the nonce. Mothership is less of an intro than stardom’s inevitable career summary and exercise in remastering; it’s no substitute for their great albums, but it does glean two dozen selections from the corpus, many of them excellent, and spreads them across a pair of CDs or four 180gm LPs. It’s rereleased on November 6.

Anthologizing a onetime rock radio fixture and by extension youthful music hound’s rite of passage, it can seem Mothership’s contents generally resist commentary. And yet the notion of nothing left to say is simply a falsehood; love, hate, ambivalence, or indifference, no matter the viewpoint Led Zeppelin remain indisputably important, and on 20 days their oeuvre can be approached from 20 different if not wholly distinct angles, making these 24 tracks quite useful as an impetus for observations.

“Good Times Bad Times” and “Communication Breakdown” (their debut US single!) succinctly emphasize Zep’s crucial hand in the formulation of hard rock and do so without really highlighting the essential blues component in their personality. But don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves; the Jake Holmes-lift “Dazed and Confused” (a.k.a. Drum Fill 101) does illustrate their adeptness in swiping preexisting, and to put it politely, often unacknowledged sources.

So too does “Babe I’m Going to Leave You,” written by Anne Bredon (the version found on Joan Baez in Concert, Part 1 is reportedly the inspiration) and not traditional as it was credited for years (in fairness by Baez as well as Zep). It provides adequate early representation of the band’s folky aspects and rounds out Led Zeppelin’s entries rather nicely.

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