Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Jonathan Badger,

Yet another exponent of Baltimore’s fertile experimental scene, Jonathan Badger is a guitarist and composer blending elements of electronic music, gestures from the post-rock genre, and the subtle influence of Robert Fripp into a surprisingly fresh sound. His latest album Verse has been available on LP/CD/digital via Cuneiform Records since last September, and this Saturday January 24th he appears at the Velvet Lounge in Washington, DC on a bill with Anthony Pirog and Luke Stewart.

Like many of his peers in the experimental field, Jonathan Badger’s profile is small, though his list of achievements borders on overload. For starters, he was commissioned to write a ballet and an opera while a student at the University of South Carolina. He received his BS and subsequently earned a PhD in political philosophy from Fordham, studied music at Duke and then obtained a multidisciplinary master’s degree from North Carolina State, where he composed a suite for piano quintet with soprano and computer setting texts from Kant, Nietzsche, and the Book of Job to music.

Please add teaching music and philosophy at Annapolis, MD’s St. John’s College, having his book Sophocles and the Politics of Tragedy: Cities and Transcendence published by Routledge Press in 2012, and releasing a series of albums, two studio: ‘06’s Metasonic, ‘10’s Unsung Stories from Lilly’s Days as a Solar Astronaut, and two live: ‘07’s Taps and ‘10’s Summer Electra.

Oh, and there was seven years of study in Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft school. Seriously, the guy’s been busy, and Verse is but the newest notch on his belt. It’s his first for the Silver Spring, MD-based Cuneiform label, and the LP solidly documents Badger’s continued development; all of the prior releases were truly solo affairs, but for this one he’s enlisted a bunch of help.

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Graded on a Curve: Noveller,
Fantastic Planet

Guitarist and filmmaker Sarah Lipstate has been recording under the name Noveller since 2005, first in Austin then in Brooklyn where her talents made a considerable splash. A forward-thinking instrumentalist of distinction, her wordless avant-tinged soundscapes have resulted in a series of esteemed releases and interactions with a noteworthy list of collaborators. Her latest Fantastic Planet finds her back in Texas and in strong form; it hits racks on January 26th via Fire Records.

The credentials chalked up by Sarah Lipstate are striking to say the least. She’s played in Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Army, Ben Frost’s “Music For Six Guitars” group, and Glenn Branca’s 100 guitar ensemble (quite the trifecta), teamed up live and on record with JG “Foetus” Thirwell, Carla Bozulich of the Geraldine Fibbers/ Evangelista, Québécois drone/ambient project thisquietarmy, Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, and David Wm. Sims of the Jesus Lizard. She’s also a former member of One Umbrella, Parts & Labor, and for two months, Wesley Eisold’s neo-darkwave experience Cold Cave.

Additionally, Lipstate’s contributed to soundtracks (including last year’s The Skeleton Twins) and performed live cinematic scores, presented her own frequently hand-painted 8mm and 16mm films, created art installations, composed commissioned work, started her own Saffron Records, and even travelled with the Radiolab podcast tour in a trio with percussionist Glenn Kotche and upright bassist Darin Gray.

But in a happy turn of events, amidst all of this activity she’s managed to avoid neglecting her solo output, Noveller beginning life way back in 2005 as documented on Vasovagal, a limited edition 3-inch CDR issued by the Austin label Green-Ox Sound. Since around the turn of the decade her yield has been fruitful, offering splits (‘09’s Colorful Disturbances with Aiden Baker, ‘10’s Bleached Valentine with David Wm. Sims’ unFact), collabs (Live at Roulette with Ranaldo, Reveries with thisquietarmy, both from ’14, though Roulette dates to ‘11), and of course her own stuff.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Go-Betweens, G Stands for Go-Betweens:
Volume 1 1978-1984

Formed in Brisbane, Australia by Grant McLennan and Robert Forster, The Go-Betweens bloomed into one of the smartest guitar-pop exemplars of the 1980s. Migrating to England and picking up drummer Lindy Morrison and bassist Robert Vickers, by the mid-‘80s their achievements were considerable; G Stands for Go-Betweens: Volume 1 1978-1984 gathers the first five singles and first three LPs on vinyl, harnesses a bountiful mess of rare and live recordings onto four CDs, assembles photos and texts into a 112-page book, and presents all that and more in a hard clamshell gold-debossed case. Definitely a worthy acquisition for longtime fans, those unfamiliar should prepare for a revelation.

Had they disbanded after two 7-inchs, The Go-Betweens would basically be remembered as one of myriad acts to get their wick lit by the combustion engine of fellow Aussies The Saints. But Robert Forster and the late Grant McLennan’s initial efforts, featuring Dennis Cantwell of The Riptides on drums, didn’t sound like The Saints, and in fact the music The Go-Betweens made circa-’78 is expectedly pretty far afield from their biggest-selling and most critically-acclaimed LP, ‘88’s 16 Lovers Lane.

As this box’s The First Five Singles makes clear, the group was in constant evolution; wisely sequenced with a-sides on side one and their corresponding numbers on the flip, the slab establishes rapid fire growth from the modestly-scaled roots of guitar-based new wave. “Lee Remick” is a truly swank mixture of bubblegum wittiness and an incessant melody, while the plainly Modern Lovers-derived “Karen” succeeds by not skimping on the VU and then conjuring up a narrative of sizeable depth.

Those songs complete the ’78 debut, the first of two 45s pressed on their own Able Label. Its follow-up from a year later lands much closer to a neo-‘60s statement as the blend of guitar and organ shaping “People Say” gets combined with the emphatic jangle and harmonica break that comprises the appealing (and almost Bats-like) “Don’t Let Him Come Back.”

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Graded on a Curve: Versus,
The Stars Are Insane

From the point of their arrival in 1992, New York City’s Versus excelled as one of the decade’s stronger melodic rock units, shaped but in no way constrained by the sounds of North American indie precedent. They released an impressive series of discs on a succession of labels, and amongst the best is the ’94 full-length The Stars Are Insane.

Amidst the ‘90s indie flood Versus stood out as a reliable breath of fresh air both on recordings (of which there are quite a few) and through a steady flow of live gigs. A large part of the group’s lasting appeal rests on how they didn’t easily fit into any of the tidy indie subcategories that thrived during the period.

Like some of the most rewarding convulsions in ‘90s indie, Versus had direct ties to the previous decade, specifically through Flower, a band formed in ’86 NYC by Richard Baluyut, Rob Hale, Yosh Najita, and Ian James (later of Cell); subsequent members included Andrew Bordwin (also of Cell and Ruby Falls), plus Baluyut’s brothers Ed and Jim. Between ’87 and ’90 they put out a 45, the 12-inch EP “Crash” (produced by Kramer) and a couple LPs, Concrete and Hologram Sky.

Through all this activity Flower remained solidly underground, this writer knowing not of their existence until the Bear and Simple Machines labels gathered the albums onto Concrete Sky, a ’94 compact disc highlighting considerable influence from Sonic Youth (no surprise given the choice of moniker), a factor that extended onward into the formation of Versus.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mind Brains, (s/t)

Based in Athens, GA and featuring membership drawn from over a half dozen prior units of shared geography and stylistic traits, Mind Brains combine psychedelia, low-tech electronics, a healthy experimental streak, and a moody approach to songwriting. This intriguing concoction shapes their self-titled first album, which is out on January 20th via hometown label Orange Twin.

Much of Mind Brains’ creative personality can be deduced by the sleeve of their debut. For starters, the oversaturated range of color definitely infers a psychedelic sensibility. Secondly, the lack of clear authorship, at least on the front of the jacket (the back finds the name ominously carved into a picture of a young woman agape) lends an air of the ambiguous that’s heightened by a sense of danger, partially through the employ of the skull and crossbones.

Indeed, Mind Brains do explore decidedly druggy environments from an atypically mysterious angle, though they’re pretty up-front in crediting influences; there’s the underutilized early electronic trinity of New Yorkers Silver Apples, Gary Numan’s recordings under the moniker Tubeway Army, and Damon Edge and Helios Creed’s work as Chrome, plus a stated preference for the neighborhood where Brian Eno hung out with Krautrockers.

Mind Brains can also be considered as a contempo Athens supergroup, Andy Gonzales a contributor to of Montreal, Marshmallow Coast, and the Music Tapes, Eric Harris involved with the Olivia Tremor Control, Major Organ and the Adding Machine, and Elf Power as well as the Music Tapes, Hannah M. Jones playing roles in Circulatory System, Supercluster, the Instruments, and New Sound of Numbers, and Kris Deason a part of Dark Meat.

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Graded on a Curve: Animal Daydream,
“Easy Pleasures” EP

The duo Animal Daydream hail from Gothenburg Sweden and their “Easy Pleasures” EP connects a bit like a hypothetical Teenage Fanclub that’s more smitten with the machinations of Mick Fleetwood than the artistry of Alex Chilton. It’s a nice ride, and those desiring the vinyl should act fast, for only 300 7-inch platters in a striking photo collage sleeve have been pressed up for consumption by Jigsaw Records of Seattle, WA.

It’s easy to succumb to the faulty notion of the USA and the United Kingdom having the market cornered on the architecture of primo contemporary guitar pop. Happily, proof does occasionally appear to reinforce string driven melodiousness as a global impulse, and “Easy Pleasures,” the first effort from Animal Daydream adds to this sum with panache.

Consisting of Daniel Fridlund Brandt and Alexander Wahl, Animal Daydream has cultivated a fully-developed band-oriented sound that’s quite impressive. In fact, upon giving these songs a blind listen this writer mistakenly assumed the gist, vibrant, layered, and even lush, derived from the input of three or more participants.

Append confidence and intelligence to Animal Daydream’s list of traits. Specifically, debuting with an EP is a canny choice to say the least; the immersive tunes of “Easy Pleasures” concisely stir the listener’s appetites without sating them and simultaneously provide ample evidence of range, songwriting ability, and overall execution.

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Graded on a Curve: William S. Burroughs,
Call Me Burroughs

Drug addict, gun enthusiast, Harvard graduate, cat lover, convict, accused conjurer of smut, and a distinguished member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; the late and very great William Seward Burroughs II’s transformation from a consummate flouter of norms into an enduring icon of the counterculture didn’t transpire overnight. Most important were his writings, but the recordings played a large role as well; 1965’s Call Me Burroughs was first, and a half century after it helped to define post-Beat pre-Hippie underground cool, it remains amongst his best.

Barry Miles’ biography of William S. Burroughs, which just happens to share a title with the singular litterateur’s first LP, came out early last year. I’ll admit I’ve not read it, a circumstance pertaining far less to the tome’s 718 pages than it does to the simple fact that I’ve carried Burroughs’ writing and knowledge of his struggles, failings, and accomplishments with me for the entirety of my adult life.

I do look forward to eventually inspecting its contents, however. I’ve only engaged with a small portion of Miles’ stuff, but in my experience he does sturdy work on subjects of interest to him, specifically musicians, writers, and the counterculture; if disinterested in hatchet jobs or salacious gossip, he’s also not a sycophant or a shill, and it’s possible to disagree with a conclusion Miles might make and yet want to continue reading.

I discovered Burroughs in my teens, so my own observations on the man and his achievements are solid if still open to change. But it occurs to me that a younger generation knows of him as just one in the myriad ranks of Great Dead Artists, which stings a bit since even in late age the guy was larger than life. Frankly, I’m totally chuffed a hefty Burroughsian study has recently appeared.

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Graded on a Curve:
Ruth Garbus, “Joule EP”

The five songs comprising Vermont resident Ruth Garbus “Joule EP” have been available for close to a year now, but the set entered the physical realm only recently, pressed up on 7-inch by OSR Tapes as part of a batch of wax foreshadowing operator Zack Phillips’ decision, as of January 1, 2015, to take his still very much extant label offline. OSR’s other wax offerings (and many of the cassettes) are certainly of interest, but right now it’s Garbus’ folky compositions for vocals and guitar that are proving especially rewarding.

Due to timing, Zack Phillips’ desire to cut the internet cable to OSR Tapes perhaps suggests a New Year’s Resolution of unusual severity, but after examination his choice to go offline is far from kneejerk; it’s been in the cards for some time and while the circumstances can’t help but tempt a Luddite verdict, Phillips’ actions possess seriousness concerned with moving forward instead of retreating back.

OSR Tapes dates to 2007. That might not seem like a particularly long time, but it does connect to a period when small labels dedicated to the production of physical releases thrived in the underground. And as the name makes plain, analogous to numerous imprints from the period Phillips devoted energies to the proliferation of cassettes, a format filling this writer with very little love.

Bluntly, OSR’s roster is so chocked full of goodies that my prejudice against cassettes is hard to maintain. For a few examples, there’s Send Away, a reissue of a tape Robert Scott (of The Clean and The Bats) recorded under the pseudonym Gordon Wallace way back in ‘87, Navajo Rag from Neil Michael Hagerty’s The Howling Hex, Rainbow Bridge by veteran ESP Disk folker Ed Askew, and Termite Music from Phillips’ and Sarah Smith’s outfit Blanche Blanche Blanche.

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Graded on a Curve:
Thee Goochi Boiz,
Fast Food for the Teenage Soul/Ooops!

Thee Goochi Boiz specialized in amped-up punked-out catchiness, and when done well it’s a fabulous sound. Prior to moving on to other projects Francis, Trevvor, and Thomas produced Oops! and Fast Food for the Teenage Soul; both are mighty fine, and the only real quibble was the existence of the pair as limited editions issued exclusively on cassette. Well, nitpick no more, for Windian Records has corralled them onto a single LP, its 22 cuts illuminating the group’s multifold strengths while emphasizing the undying vitality of the garage impulse.

Just a few days short of a year ago we lost Travis Jackson. But Windian Records, the label he started in 2009 to release a 45 by his band The Points, has persevered in its founder’s name and honor with Jackson’s friend Eric Brady now at the reins. In fact, 2014’s output was truly impressive, much of it being grooved into slabs of 7-inch vinyl.

Amongst the highlights dwells a repressing of the Killer Bees’ nifty “Buzz’n the Town” EP from ’79, the five singles included in the Windian Subscription Series #2 (featuring such acts as Mrs. Magician, Overnight Lows, and The Apes), the glam-trash-punk of Madison, WI duo The Hussy’s “EZ PZ” and the hard-garage science of Richmond, VA’s The Ar-Kaics’ “Why Should I?”

And for a while it seemed Windian’s sweetest move in 2014 was putting out The Ar-Kaics’ self-titled debut full-length. Indeed, anybody harboring a deep appreciation for undiluted Back From the Grave-styled ‘60s-punk action should inspect its 13 songs with due haste. But giving The Ar-Kaics a serious run for the money is this very necessary collection from Boulder, CO’s Thee Goochi Boiz.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2014’s New
Releases, Part Two

It bears repeating that this list is in no way based on a comprehensive assessment of the 2014’s deluge of new music, but rather personal highs in a year’s worth of listening. A whole lot of listening; all said it was a great 12 months, and after consideration these final five offered the most pleasure.

5. Mary Halverson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara, Thumbscrew

Three improvisers in a leaderless trio (Thumbscrew effectively serves as the name of the group) with energies focused on composition; the result will certainly appeal to fans of all three players and those into adventurous jazz and rock in general (it’s fittingly released by the Cuneiform label of Silver Spring, MD).

Bluntly, these are heavyweight players. My first exposure to guitarist Halvorson came via Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant, and once I discovered she’d studied and performed with Anthony Braxton, I began seeking out the work of her trio; ‘08’s Dragon’s Head remains a favorite. Bassist Formanek has a bunch of impressive “inside” credits and a ton of avant-garde session work, and along with his own high-quality quintet he was in Tim Berne’s Bloodcount. Drummer Fujiwara has worked at length with Halvorson, in a duo with cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and as leader of Tomas Fujiwara & The Hook Up.

Thumbscrew is not a guitar trio, though Halvorson does shred early and often. As said Thumbscrew is a unit of equality and their communicative sparks can be startling; Formanek and Fujiwara are constantly throwing ideas into the fray with nary a rhythm section trope in the duration. And a few of the track titles make me smile, particularly “Goddess Sparkle,” which could be about either Aurora of the dawn or drag shows, and “Still…Doesn’t Swing,” a nutshell encapsulation of the resistance creative musicians of this caliber routinely contend with, malarkey that doesn’t seem to be keeping them down.

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