Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
The Flesh Eaters,
A Minute to Pray,
A Second to Die

Any shelf dedicated to classic California punk requires representation by the Flesh Eaters of Chris Desjardins, aka Chris D. Never a bad record has he made under that moniker, but the finest of them remains the talent-drenched and enduringly brilliant 1981 LP A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die. It’s just been given a welcome reissue by Superior Viaduct of San Francisco.

I first learned of Chris D.’s work in the latter portion of the 1980s, my discovery largely aided by the diligent underground music press of the era, in particular the scribbling of Byron Coley. While numerous zines featured reviews of both the Flesh Eaters and Chris D.’s band of the period The Divine Horsemen, it was really Coley that helped to put Desjardins’ art in proper context.

In fact, Coley’s such a determined champion of the man’s work that his new liners for this reissue aren’t an extra so much as a prerequisite. And the insight was found in more than just reviews, articles, and prior sleeve notes, as Coley and Forced Exposure publisher/writer Jimmy Johnson conducted an extensive interview with Desjardins for issue #12 of their reliably hefty “quarterly” mag. The duo also provided space in the back for “Chris D.’s Video Guide,” an enjoyable and extremely enlightening tour of the guy’s VHS collection.

I’d already sized Desjardins up as a major part of the USA’s roots punk brigade, his output landing in the same rough region as The Cramps, X, The Blasters, The Plugz, and The Gun Club, but the conversation in FE presented him as an uncommonly astute member of the punk community (especially when compared with the average Flipside chat).

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Graded on a Curve: James Blackshaw,
Fantomas: Le Faux Magistrat

Last Halloween, British 12-string guitar wizard James Blackshaw, in collaboration with electro-acoustic composer and sound-instillation artist Duane Pitre, Slowdive drummer Simon Scott, and multi-instrumentalist Charlotte Glasson, delivered the live score for the final installment of master French director Louis Feuillade’s silent film series of 1913. Fantômas: Le Faux Magistrat, Tompkins Square’s 2LP/ CD/ digital issue of the performance’s recording, reveals an ambitious undertaking that succeeds due to a lively combination of respect and invention.

Perusing the details of the centenary celebration of Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas, specifically an event coordinated by Yann Tiersen hosted last year in Paris’ Théâtre de Châtelet (additionally broadcast live on the European ARTE TV channel) that indeed culminated on All Hallows Eve 2013, is enough to inspire Pavlovian levels of salivation in movie buff/music fans. The affair generated scores from Tiersen, Tim Hecker, Loney Dear, Amiina, and Blackshaw for all five parts of an enduring opus by one of cinema’s most talented and intriguing filmmakers.

Naturally a danger accompanies these sorts of endeavors, in particular the belief that the images receiving a soundtrack are somehow lacking in vibrancy and require a boost of modernization. This often results in knuckleheaded maneuvers (e.g. noise hostility, egregious dance beats) or more problematically gestures of shallow commentary or even attempts to subvert the message of the picture.

Of course, the other extreme is inhabited by scores, reliably knocked-off by studious nimble-fingered scholarly pianists, which are well-intentioned but unfortunately burdened with quaintness. At least this tactic eschews arrogance and largely avoids obnoxiousness; in the case of Feuillade though, playing it overly safe is almost as insulting as underestimating his visual skills and undermining his status as a visionary.

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Graded on a Curve: Gramercy Arms,
The Seasons of Love

Since the dissolution of ‘90s indie pop-rockers The Dambuilders, singer-instrumentalist-writer Dave Derby has focused upon a variety of projects, one being Gramercy Arms, a New York City-based outfit whose self-titled ’08 debut established a revolving member, indie all-star affair. Roughly six years has elapsed, and now Derby has coordinated a follow-up. The Seasons of Love features unfussy professionalism and a slightly broadened scope; while not a consciousness-altering record, it does go down smoothly enough, and fans of pop-rock song-craft should take note.

Though they released seven full-lengths across a near decade of existence, Boston via Honolulu’s The Dambuilders received their highest profile as a four-piece in the mid-‘90s. Part of the era’s indie deluge, the first three LPs came out through German imprint Cuacha! NYC’s SpinART issued the Tough Guy Problem 10-inch/CD EP in ’94 shortly prior to the group’s emergence on the roster of EastWest Records.

That Atlantic-subsidiary funded The Dambuilders’ best work, ‘94’s Encendedor and the next year’s Ruby Red. As was the case with many of their indie-to-major contemporaries, the band’s last statement, ‘97’s transitional Against the Stars, was a disappointment. Subsequent to breaking up in ‘98, guitarist Eric Masunaga went into film, opening a studio specializing in post-production, drummer Kevin March continued beating the skins, most prominently in one of Guided by Voices numerous lineups, and violinist/vocalist Joan Wasser embarked solo under the name Joan as Police Woman.

Bassist/lead singer Derby has kept himself quite occupied as well, initiating the side-project Brilliantine, hooking up with Lloyd Cole in the cult Brit’s post-Commotions ensemble the Negatives and completing two solo albums, ‘03’s solid Even Further Behind and ‘07’s borderline excellent Dave Derby and the Norfolk Downs. He commenced Gramercy Arms not long thereafter.

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Graded on a Curve:
Craig Leon,
Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1

Craig Leon is deservedly lauded as a key record producer from the fitful days of first wave New York punk, but over the last few years his output as a musician has gathered increased attention. His two early-’80s electronic LPs Nommos and Visiting, each terrifically remastered by Leon, assembled to his original intentions and packaged with care by the RVNG Intl label under the suave title Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1, form an outstanding addition to 2014’s stream of necessary reissues.

The name Craig Leon might ring personal bells of recognition, and for numerous reasons. Classical music aficionados possibly know him as a producer, as that’s been his steady gig for quite some time. However, punk fans conversant with album credits likely identify him as a guiding force behind three of the style’s defining LPs; Ramones, Blondie, and Suicide.

Nommos, a record Craig Leon made after being inspired by a ’73 Brooklyn Museum exhibit featuring the ancient art of the Malian Dogon tribe, first appeared in a low press run back in 1981 as one of the last items on the late John Fahey’s Takoma imprint. If the title is triggering buzzers of recollection, this could be due to prior knowledge of the amphibious, hermaphroditic, extraterrestrial, and indeed mythological creatures worshipped by the Dogon that it references. But familiarity might simply relate to Nommos’ rerelease on LP/CD in 2013 by San Francisco’s Superior Viaduct label.

I liked it then and I like it even more now that it’s been combined with ’82’s Visiting, Leon’s long-delayed desire that the disc’s be taken together as the first volume of a set named Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music finally achieved. If that title is causing a bout of remembrance it’s surely because of the sly reference to the inexhaustibly brilliant Harry Smith-compiled Anthology of American Folk Music.

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Graded on a Curve:
Ela Stiles,
Ela Stiles

The self-titled debut solo LP of Australia’s Ela Stiles is a brutally concise, consistently interesting and fleetingly beautiful a-cappella affair. Available on her home turf for a few months now, it’s freshly out all over the globe via Fire Records’ nifty distribution deal with the appealing Down Under imprint Bedroom Suck. Even those possessing knowledge of the singer’s prior work in the groups Songs and Bushwalking will likely find Ela Stiles intriguing, for the highly eclectic contents rise to the level of agreeably arcane.

It didn’t take long for Ela Stiles to bring the output of certain very specific artists into this writer’s mind. Since she doesn’t sound like any of them it is safe to assume that none actually serve as an influence on her new record. One was an assumption, or better put it was a conclusion prematurely drawn. The other two surfaced after hearing; both help to illuminate an album that can initially be somewhat baffling.

Reading about the a-cappella nature of this LP and the capsule description of Stiles as an indie artist caused me to quickly, indeed lazily, think of the vocals-only work of Petra Haden (Imaginaryland, Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, the majority of Petra Goes to the Movies). It took one spin to realize the error. To elaborate, Haden can be described as striving for the maximal in a stripped-down setting; using just the human voice, she frequently crafts seamless reproductions of instrument-laden and even lavish material.

By contrast, the six pieces comprising the first side of Ela Stiles are minimal to the extreme. Utterly lacking in the superfluous, four of the selections clock in at a minute or less, her layered vocals exuding a folk ambiance and specifically the sound of captured field recordings. This element is only enhanced by the brevity of the tracks, almost as if an ethnomusicologist was diligently cataloguing sources with a tape machine and absolutely no interest in embellishment.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sam Cooke,
Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964

Sam Cooke is one of the prime architects of 20th century music. Concise accolades frequently falter into overstatement, but in this instance the praise is offered sans hyperbole. The easiest way to test this claim is through ABKCO’s Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964; initially released on compact disc in 2003, it immediately vaulted to the forefront of Cooke compilations, and that it’s now available on double vinyl in a gatefold sleeve retaining Peter Guralnick’s splendid liner notes is cause for celebration.

With due respect to Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Sam & Dave, and other worthy belters, the indispensible Soul Gang of Four, Male Division is constituted by Ray Charles, James Brown, Otis Redding, and Sam Cooke. It’s a quartet as firm as Gibraltar, but if a member of this group occasionally receives a nagging quibble, it’s the man born January 22, 1931 as Samuel Cook.

Right now some might even be openly questioning Cooke’s importance as an essential builder of modern music, mainly because much of his discography lacks both the immediate brilliance of invention and sheer virtuosity found in Charles’ best material and the grit and fervor that still partially defines the reputations of Brown and Redding.

All four have been described as soul’s rightful ruler, but Cooke’s the only one who doesn’t also possess an instantly recognizable sobriquet. The Genius of Soul, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, The Godfather of Soul, Mr. Dynamite, The Big O, and Mr. Pitiful are nicknames of specificity; anybody with a basic knowledge of the genre will know exactly to whom they refer. Mention The King of Soul in a crowded bar after a few rounds of drinks and the debate on who most deserves that title could stretch beyond last call.

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Graded on a Curve:
Tropical Disco Hustle

The disco reissue program instigated by Deano Sounds and Boston’s Cultures of Soul label continues with Tropical Disco Hustle, a swell 2LP/CD compilation focusing on the crosspollination of Caribbean styles and a genre that for a few years took not just the USA but much of the globe by storm. Focusing heavily on Trinidad with asides into the Bahamas and Jamaica, this release is worthwhile for both armchair musical archeologists and those looking to showcase some moves on the dance floor.

Tropical Disco Hustle is well-assembled, informative, and largely about stylistic hybridization. Sticklers over the genre may regard the numerous blends offered here to varying degrees disappointing as others evaluate the songs as rampant opportunism. Both considerations are understandable, but the best of this comp doesn’t exploit trends as much as it decorates a bandwagon for a celebratory Carnival parade; finding vibrant hunks of pure disco outside of the country of its birth wouldn’t be likely at this late date, anyway.

The name of Trinidadian studio group Odessey One was a play on words based on the title of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the naturally highly rhythmic “Dance with Me” features washes of synth that would nicely accompany the credits sequences to any number of ‘80s direct-to-VHS low-budget action flicks. These elements are interestingly weaved into further keyboard-derived techno-textures that almost seem to be aurally degrading as they ooze from the speakers, the decay forecasting certain “hypnagogic pop” moves by many years.

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Graded on a Curve: Ruthann Friedman, Chinatown

Over the last decade the California-based singer-songwriter Ruthann Friedman has enjoyed a deserved increase in profile, her good fortune deriving from the reissue of material now more than 40 years old. But with the arrival of Chinatown that circumstance changes. Released by Wolfgang Records and distributed by the folks at Light in the Attic, this welcome new disc, featuring guest piano and accordion from Friedman’s longtime friend Van Dyke Parks, collects 11 selections firmly establishing her folky and warmly eclectic talent as undiminished.

Even if her name rings no bells, unless one has resided in a bunker and subsisted on a massive supply of canned goods since the days of the Kennedy administration, then contact has likely been made with the music of Ruthann Friedman. That’s because she wrote “Windy,” a tune her pals in The Association turned into a smash hit in 1967.

In ’99 BMI unveiled a list designating the tracks most played on TV and radio in the 20th century, and “Windy” landed at the 61st position. What’s more, the single was only the third time a female songsmith attained a #1 hit without a male co-writer. Adding to the mystique, Friedman reportedly composed it while hanging out at David Crosby’s joint.

“Windy” is only part of the story, though its success surely assisted in Warner/Reprise pressing up Friedman’s debut LP back in ‘69. Decades later, Constant Companion’s CD reissue by the San Francisco label Water helped to shape her role in a resurgence of smart and disparate performing women from the late-‘60s/early-‘70s.

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Graded on a Curve: Eureka California, Crunch

Eureka California, an outfit formed in 2007 by guitarist-vocalist Jake Ward, resides not in the West Coast municipality of their moniker but in the Peach State town of Athens, GA, a college berg long-noted as a locale where folks ditch class and even drop out to make music. The records Ward and drummer Marie A. Uhler create there imbue tangibly punkish spirit with spurts of ‘90s indie rock; their very solid new album Crunch trumps stagnation by raising the energy and paring down the sound to bare essentials.

Eureka California is unlikely to win awards for originality, though it’s clear that deliberately striving for uniqueness isn’t high on Jake Ward’s list of artistic goals. However, this isn’t to suggest the songs he conjures with longtime cohort Marie Uhler are lacking in personality or beholden/inferior to the music that shaped them.

A group with numerous former third members and currently a fully-functional duo of Ward and Uhler, Eureka California does a nice job avoiding the elements of any one particular stylistic predecessor. Frequently cited influences such as Pavement and Guided by Voices are thankfully implicit instead of blatantly telegraphed; in fact, some may not hear them at all. That’s the case between this writer and the oft mentioned impact on Eureka California from The Replacements.

I’ll add that both of these lobes are familiar with the vast majority of Ward and Uhler’s oeuvre. The story begins in 2011 with a likeable 4-song 7-inch “Modern Times,” but a greater splash was made via Big Cats Can Swim, that LP issued the following year alongside a split cassette with NJ/NY band Lame Drivers. Then in ’13 arrived a single shared with Liverpudlians Good Grief featuring different versions of two tracks from the tape.

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Graded on a Curve: OOIOO,

Japanese multi-instrumentalist Yoshimi P-We is the longstanding drummer in the Japanese group Boredoms, one of the more consistently rewarding rock outfits to have emerged during the last 25 years. Since the late-‘90s she’s also led OOIOO, and after the absence of over half a decade they’re back with the excellent new album Gamel.

In the upside-down milieu of the ‘90s music scene, Boredoms’ singular amalgamation of noise rock and Carl Stalling-inspired genre slice-and-dice (this aptly describes only a portion of their discography) managed an unusually high profile due to a contract with Warner Brothers and appearances on the big stage of the era’s summer tour juggernaut Lollapalooza.

Of course, lots of folks probably recognize Yoshimi’s name from the title of a certain highly popular release by the Flaming Lips. She’s also a contributor on that 2002 LP, though the connection isn’t an especially enlightening one; it does underscore Yoshimi as a well-liked figure in terms of both personality and collaboration.

In addition to her long tenure in Boredoms, OOIOO, and that titular guest-spot for the Lips, the list of her associates includes Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda (as the duo Yoshimi and Yuka), Ween (in the ‘90s one-off Z-Rock Hawaii), and Sean Lennon (adding vocals to OOIOO’s Gold and Green); his presence tightens the link between Yoshimi and the woman Thurston Moore proclaimed as the “queen of noise.”

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