Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Big Star,
Nothing Can Hurt Me

The Memphis group Big Star has long been a favorite of folks who love smartly conceived guitar-based pop-rock, and while few bought their records when they were hot off the presses, their status as an enduring cult staple is undeniable. After a long relationship with discerning turntables everywhere, Big Star are getting the Big Screen treatment with a documentary titled Nothing Can Hurt Me, and the soundtrack collects unique mixes of material long-considered classic. That the songs included here could easily slay a busload of Big Star newbies is testament to not only the band’s everlasting importance but also to the admirable ambitions that made this 2LP set and its accompanying film possible.

Over the last few decades the music documentary has really become one of the steadiest (some might say unrelenting) currents in the whole vast field of non-fiction filmmaking. And this shouldn’t be any kind of surprise. For everybody loves music, or so it’s often been said. But this doesn’t change the fact that some musicians/bands are far more deserving of having their story represented on film than others.

Simply stating that a very few groups are more worthy than Big Star of having their existence outlined through the medium of the film doc can initially smack of extreme devotion and perhaps even flat-out hyperbole. For just like the old saw that everybody loves music, it’s just as often been said that everybody has a story, and even, nay especially, in the non-fiction field the plain facts of the narrative ultimately aren’t as important as the way the events get told.

But if we dig a little deeper, the documentary’s inherent connection with the “real world,” or specifically the manner in which things don’t always work out the way we’d like them to, is especially resonant to the tale of Andy Hummel, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Alex Chilton. For unlike the life of Ray Charles or the early years of The Beatles, Big Star is far from a good fit for the Hollywood treatment, or at least for the situation as it currently stands in the movie-making industry.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, May 2017

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued wax presently in stores for May, 2017. Part one can be found here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Grandpa’s Ghost, The Carnage Queen (Transduction) Pocahontas, IL’s Grandpa’s Ghost have been active since the ’90s, garnering beaucoup accolades and a too-small following, which is to be expected when roots and experimentation intersect. Impossible to imagine without the precedent of Neil Young in and outside of Crazy Horse, but boy howdy do they transcend that template on this 2LP (+ bonus digital set Country of Piss). “I Am a Specimen” is a highlight of raucous out-rock leading into “Come Here, Come Here,” which hits like a midwestern Lungfish crossed with Peter Jefferies. A

Jason Rigby, One (Fresh Sound) Inside-outside trios are a personal favorite, and this disc, which features Rigby on tenor and soprano sax with Cameron Brown on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums, maintains a consistently high standard. Evenly split between strong Rigby originals and a diversity of borrowed material, the decision to tackle “You Are Too Beautiful” was inspired by Coltrane and Rollins; Rigby’s playing combines elements of both but isn’t the slightest bit derivative. His soprano is a pleasure, and so’s his going it alone on “Embraceable You.” Brown and Cleaver reinforce their heavyweight reps. A-

REISSUE PICKS: OST, Blue Velvet (Varèse Sarabande) David Lynch’s ’86 cult behemoth is eminently quotable (“yes, that’s a human ear, alright.” “I’LL FUCK ANYTHING THAT MOVES!”), so I’m guessing there was temptation to pull a Tarantino and expand the reissue with dialogue snippets. If so, then kudos for resisting the urge, as Angelo Badalamenti’s classically orchestral score deserves to be front and center. The sound effects suite is also cool, as is “Honky Tonk Part 1,” “Love Letters,” Julee Cruise singing “Mysteries of Love,” and of course, the candy-colored clown they call the sandman. A

Swans, The Great Annihilator + Drainland (Young God) By ’94 Swans were solidly back on sure footing, but upon Annihilator’s initial release, I can distinctly recall being struck by its power, cohesiveness, and maturity. Michael Gira has recently professed displeasure with the original mix, but I was never so bummed; nonetheless, this remastering from the original tapes does strike the ear as fuller, and folks lacking this set on vinyl (which is most people, I’m guessing) can scoop it up now with Gira’s signature and get a bonus download of the man’s rather nifty ’95 solo joint Drainland. ‘tis a good ‘un! A- / A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Man Forever,
Play What They Want

John Colpitts, aka Kid Millions, first emerged on the scene back in the 1990s as a member of Oneida, but more recently he’s been steppin’ out as the leader of Man Forever. His project’s latest features guest contributions from Mary Lattimore, Yo La Tengo, Laurie Anderson, and others, these additions enlarging the music’s already sizeable template without sacrificing the constant rhythmic thread in Colpitts’ work. The result is a major statement, and one as approachably expansive as its jacket photo is suave. Play What They Want is out now on LP, CD and digital via Thrill Jockey.

The solo career, at least in pop-rock terms, usually represents a sustained iris-in on a performer theretofore largely considered as a member of a group. Other musicians frequently assist in these intensified spotlights, but the scenarios generally work best when the artists with their name on the sleeve don’t get lost in a shuffle of personalities. Or to put it another way; “all-star” situations rarely deliver on the promise they portend.

As part of Oneida, John Colpitts comes from a rock background, though said outfit helps to shape his evolving experimental reality, and up to this point Man Forever has connected not as a move into the “solo” sphere but rather as one chapter in a book documenting seemingly constant activity; alongside Oneida and Man Forever, Colpitts’ most prominent gigs have been People of the North (with his Oneida bandmate Bobby Matador) and the Fox Millions Duo (with Greg Fox of Guardian Alien).

Collaboration is clearly key to the guy’s artistic thrust, but partially through a prestigious credits list, this new album initially connects as something of a departure from what’s came before. Specifically, Play What They Want registers as an undisguised attempt to reach a wider audience, and yet the contents remain true to the title; the set is concise, the experimentalism is accessible, but nothing is diluted.

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Graded on a Curve:
Alan Vega, Alan Vega

Although he departed this mortal coil last July, the spirit of Alan Vega remains vital to contemporary music, mainly through his work as the vocal half of the groundbreaking unit he formed in the early ’70s with keyboardist Martin Rev. Today, Suicide is justly celebrated as one of punk’s most beautifully twisted and truly sui generis outfits, but the appreciation hasn’t really spilled over to the solo careers of either member. Out of print for decades, the contents of Vega’s self-titled 1980 debut highlight a ’50s rockabilly-ish approach that’s loose, non-studious, and yet thoroughly sincere; its welcome vinyl reissue is out now courtesy of the Futurismo label.

Solo albums generally work best when they provide some sort of departure from the artist’s main gig, and Alan Vega surely fits that bill. Suicide’s second album (titled Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev), illuminates the duo’s connection to synth-pop and electronica; Alan Vega was released shortly afterward, and is succinctly described as an off kilter early rock ‘n’ roll experience, landing halfway between revamp and throwback.

How so exactly? Well, the record’s opener gets right down to business, with “Jukebox Babe” clearly indebted to the hip-swiveling swagger and vocal affirmations (i.e. a whole lot of “uh-huh”s) of Elvis in his spring chicken days. Overall, the results sport an unserious vibe, and it’s easy to imagine it pissing off more than a few purists, but simultaneously, the formally recognizable nature of the tune scored Vega an unlikely hit in France. Or maybe not so unlikely, as the region has been a reliably enthusiastic locus of rockabilly and roots fandom for a long fucking time.

The distaste of those purists was possibly deepened by the slimmed-down nature of the proceedings, with Phil Hawk playing the guitar and Vega orchestrating everything else. The study in minimalism doesn’t subside, with “Fireball”’s strategic repetition (and the vocals, natch) obviously recalling Suicide, but with a flavor that’s ultimately distinct. The spurts of reverbed keyboards throughout the track accentuate the contempo angle, but its more interesting how Vega simultaneously toys with and remains true to the essence of early rock ‘n’ roll; born in 1938, he saw the stuff unfold firsthand.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Monkees,
Headquarters

The once-heated discourse over the musical talents of The Monkees has thankfully been largely relegated to history, and in these enlightened times far more productive debates can take place. For instance; which Monkees’ album is the best? Tough question, but one certain contender is 1967’s Headquarters.

For a brief period in my teenage years of musical discovery I passed through a phase of brutally intense ‘60s worship. It was all Beatles and Stones and Hendrix and Dylan and San Francisco and Woodstock, a circumstance unsurprising for a lad of the ‘80s, as that decade saw a significant amount of nostalgia for the times of twenty years before. But when reruns of The Monkees’ TV program first hit MTV in 1986, I really didn’t know anything about them.

While certainly not erased from the history books, they were however reduced to a derisive footnote or a mild curiosity, one that inquisitive young minds might need to stumble over to gain discovery. Once hiding in plain sight, they suddenly acquired a cultural cache that while not über-cool was definitely amiable to the climate of the era.

I scored a badly beaten copy of More of the Monkees for next-to-nothing from the Salvation Army and aside from copious crackles was quite impressed. Asking the bearded owner of my local record shop about them shortly afterward, I was told in no uncertain terms they were a “fake band,” a statement that had a far different effect then was clearly intended. My ‘60s adulation took on a whole new wrinkle; how great was a decade where even the fake bands made awesome records?

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Graded on a Curve:
The Clean,
Compilation

Over the decades there have been many bands in the post-Velvets guitar-rock sweepstakes, but none better than The Clean, New Zealand’s on-again off-again kings of post-punk/DIY string splendor and one of the cornerstones of the whole Flying Nun sound. In 1988, the generically titled Compilation LP helped introduce to world to their brilliance.

In the world of heavy-duty record collecting, single artist compilations are often viewed like a small army of redheaded stepchildren. The words Best Of and Greatest Hits are the tip off to a certain type of casual abbreviation, a CliffsNotes or Condensed Classics treatment for careers that obviously encompass much more than can be adequately summarized through the cherry-picking of chart-toppers or the most noteworthy tunes of an artist or act.

But sometimes these comps provide a valuable service in the procurement of music that was originally released on 78 RPM discs or vinyl 45s, records that would be tremendously difficult to obtain in their original form. Indeed, there is a big difference in perception between a lowly Best Of cash-in and a well-ordered anthology presenting often scarce and forbiddingly pricey material.

You want the easiest route to The Falcons, a ‘50’s-‘60s R&B group with members that included Eddie Floyd, Sir Mack Rice, Joe Stubbs, and Wilson Pickett? Well, that would be You’re So Fine and I’ve Found a Love, a pair of far from perfect yet basically indispensible LPs chronicling this historically titanic acts’ progress for the Lupine and Flick labels. You want to taste the root of jazz via New Orleans in the ‘20s? Any physical format other than shellac that holds Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens is a comp, some obviously better than others. You want the full picture on the early belladonna-whacked work of Siouxsie and the Banshees? Then please don’t neglect Once Upon a Time: The Singles.

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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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Fire Records at Thirty Three and a Third: A Canon of Sorts, Part Two

And so, here is a second dose of Fire Records’ defining highlights as we culminate this doffing of the cap to a fine enterprise’s truly deep catalog; hey, we could’ve easily done 33 1/3 more!

Bardo Pond, S/T (2010) By the point of this release, which served as Bardo Pond’s full-length debut for Fire, the band had existed for nearly 20 years. Placing this in the “canon” might seem a questionable move, but that’s where the “of sorts” comes in, though I do rank this 70-minute, 2LP set quite highly, considering it a prime example of Fire’s range of output and a highpoint in the discography of the band.

Yesterday, in describing their latest Under the Pines, I stated that the Pond program hadn’t been altered, but please don’t mistake that as meaning their records are interchangeable. No, the loose trance-bluesy opening of “Just Once” lends immediate distinctiveness to this effort, which won’t be confused with the outfit’s other releases. “Don’t Know About You” carries them into stoner/ doom territory (Isobel Sollenberger’s ominous vocal drives it sweetly home), and the 21-minute “Undone” is a showcase of inspired extendedness. Bardo Pond is a gem illuminating psychedelia’s true potential.

Television Personalities, The Painted Word (1984/1990/2017) The early LPs by this crucial post-punk act were first reissued by Fire in 1990; there have been additional pressings, with the catalog deservedly coming out again this year. An early, thoroughly British example of neo-psychedelia with a dash of Mod and a helping of twee, Television Personalities have been led since formation in 1978 by the inspired eccentric Dan Tracey.

Those only familiar with “Part Time Punks” and debut album …And Don’t the Kids Just Love It might be surprised by the change; the cover photo is indicative, as much of The Painted Word enhances the blend of Swinging London, Pop Art, Ray Davies and Syd Barrett with Velvets-derived edge. Early members Ed Ball and Mark Sheppard are absent, but Joe Foster is still around, and the record does retain ties to prior efforts; “Someone to Share My Life With” is audibly post-Jon Richman, while “Happy All the Time” effectively hits that twee button. “Back to Vietnam” caps a dark set that’s gotten better with age.

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Fire Records at Thirty Three and a Third: Lasting Relationships

A label’s identity is partly established through the company it keeps. The records below expand on the matter.

Bardo Pond, Under the Pines (2017) Philly’s bastion of heavy psych has been part of the Fire roster for only a portion of their existence, but based on this record, the band’s third long-player for the label (fourth if Acid Guru Pond, their 2016 studio summit with Germany’s Guru Guru and Japan’s Acid Mothers Temple is counted), the association has been a fruitful one. As the six tracks unwind it becomes apparent they haven’t lost a thing, and have further been disinclined to alter the program, so newbies with a love for prime Bay Area sweetness and post-Detroit amplifier gristle can step right up to this one.

The heavier psych gets, the more difficult it can be to effectively expand, but Bardo Pond doesn’t have that problem, mainly because they don’t really thud, but rather burn and move methodically forth, their power building incrementally in settings of subtle complexity and a preferred slow pace (the name of a collab with ace Kiwi guitarist Roy Montgomery was Hash Jar Tempo). Isobel Sollenberger’s vocals continue to add distinctiveness, shining on Under the Pines’ title track, and her flute, which is given the spotlight during instrumental closer “Effigy,” provides an unstrained link to the ’60s root.

Guided by Voices, Let’s Go Eat the Factory (2011) No one label can harness the seemingly incessant flow of creativity that springs from Dayton, OH’s songbird and rocker Robert Pollard, but since 2011 Fire’s done a solid job of corralling the return of his highest-profile band. This was not only the comeback of Guided by Voices, but the reunion of the “classic lineup” (that’d be Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell on guitars, Greg Demos on bass, Kevin Fennell on drums, and Pollard at the mic, natch) making it something considerably more than a recommencement from whence GBV’s 2004 farewell victory tour left off.

Let’s Go Eat the Factory didn’t disappoint. Like the records that solidified GBV’s reputation in the mid ‘90s, it’s stuffed with songs, many of them short but satisfying in the manner unique to Pollard, as the album added to the guy’s near-gobsmacking level of songwriting prolificacy. Yes, that means not every tune is a gem, and some of it (like a pair of Sprout’s tunes) borders on bizarre, but as on the most noteworthy of later-period Pollard related product, the pieces all fit, and the whole isn’t something a fan would want to miss.

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Fire Records at Thirty Three and a Third: Enduring Relevance

Of course, a label must not rest on its laurels. Here’s seven strong ones from the last year.

Scott & Charlene’s Wedding, Mid Thirties Singles Scene (2016) Fire has a solid connection Down Under, both Kiwi and Aussie, and this is amongst their best signings. Featuring the vocal, guitar, and songwriting talents of Craig Dermody, Melbourne’s SACW dish out an extension of indie rock at its slam-bang best, raise it up with subtly sharp tunes, and drive it home with a working-class comportment. In this case, the mood is resigned with an undercurrent of melancholy rather than defiant or angry.

Impossible anywhere but Australia, at times SACW’s sound harkens all the way back to the Velvets, but the way they infuse the Loaded moves with wah-pedal smudge manages to sound fresh against the odds. Folks have also mentioned Pavement; I hear more of their countrymen Eddy Current Suppression Ring, but minus that band’s post-punk angle. I once thought nothing here equaled the combo punch of opener “Maureen” and the insta-classic “It Don’t Bother Me,” but having just went back to check, the album’s later songs have gained substantial ground. I love it when that happens.

Mendrugo, More Amor (2016) Mendrugo’s core is represented by Josephine Foster, her husband Victor Herrero and his brother José Luis. With a bit of help, they offer a delightful serving of Spanish folk hitting the sweet spot where tradition, intensity, and imagination meet; the record unwinds like a series of colorful, unusual tales told by a group of close friends. Part of the enjoyment of More Amor is in hearing these expert musicians spin something utterly fresh out of the rudiments of convention.

While there is never a shortage of verve, the results are emotionally rich and deftly eccentric rather than flashy; when electric bass emerges in the mix, it does so seamlessly, its presence clearly for the betterment of the whole. The pleasure in More Amor’s making is obvious, and it spills over into the listening.

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