Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, November 2017

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued wax presently in stores for November, 2017. Part one is right here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Soul of a Woman (Daptone) The passing of Sharon Jones hit hard. A large part of why was purely musical, but Jones’ unlikely rise to fame as a modern vessel of uncut classic soul verve was also enduringly inspirational. Essential to her sustained success was a union with the Dap-Kings, the vitality of which is undiminished here as the disc’s contents continue to emphasize Jones’ versatility. Too often defined by her aptitude for belting, an ability to cover a range of emotions is on full display, with self-penned finale “Call on God” packing a wallop. A-

Mavis Staples, If All I Was Was Black (Anti) As the third collaboration (in four albums) between Staples and producer Jeff Tweedy, the comfort level is high, enough so that the Wilco leader wrote all ten songs with the veteran vocalist in mind; she immediately makes them her own, with social commentary ringing out loud and clear. Staples’ gospel-based positivity has been long-noted, but reflective of the times, the mood here is darker and angrier yet not hopeless, and the songs flourish in a cohesive small group setting descended from but never imitating socially conscious Mayfield-ish soul-funk. A-

REISSUE PICKS: Willie Nelson, Spirit & Teatro: The Complete Sessions (Modern Classics) Two underrated and contrasting ’90s efforts: the self-produced Spirit is scaled-back to the guitars of Nelson and Jody Payne, piano from his sister Bobbie, and occasional fiddle by ace Johnny Gimble. It magnifies Nelson as a songwriter of rich tradition. Teatro was cut with an expanded lineup in an old movie theater in Oxnard, CA with producer Daniel Lanois. If less intimate, the strength of the writing, playing, and singing remains high. Spirit is on wax; Teatro is on CD with a performance DVD directed by Wim Wenders A/ A

Sonny Clark Trio, The 1960 Time Sessions (Tompkins Square) The title differentiates the contents, originally issued as a self-titled LP, from an also eponymous and more well-known trio date for Blue Note three years prior. That one had Paul Chambers and Philly Joe; this expanded set features George Duvivier and Max Roach, so there’s no drop off in personnel quality. Ben Ratliff’s notes (augmenting Nat Hentoff’s original words) do a fine job of placing this record in the context of Clark’s career as a leading light in the hard-bop movement. Is it the pianist’s best? No, but the interaction is sterling throughout. A-

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Graded on a Curve: MERCH,
Amour Bohemian

MERCH is headed up by San Franciscan Joe Medina, and Amour Bohemian is the project’s latest album. Best described as ambitious symphonic pop-rock, roughly 65 musicians had their hands in its creation, yet it’s unequivocally an auteur-driven work, and one that thrives on discipline. Even more so, it benefits from concision; a whole lot of new music is getting pressed onto vinyl these days, but little of it radiates like a nugget from the heyday of the long-playing record quite like this specimen, while still connecting as contemporary. Buyers will surely load these nine songs onto their devices, and they work well in that context. However, this one sounds best in the listening room. It’s out now through Sassafras Records.

When I first glimpsed the sleeve of MERCH’s 2012 LP This Betrayal Will Be Our End, I did a double take, for that album’s cover photo and the snapshot adorning the jacket for Undercurrent, the classic 1962 duo set from pianist Bill Evans and guitarist Jim Hall, are one and the same. The gesture immediately registered as homage, but even as jazz fits into Joe Medina’s teeming bag of influences, soaking up the record drove home my assumption as off-target.

Before its usage by United Artists for the Evans/ Hall disc, Toni Frissell’s photograph, Weeki Wachee Spring, Florida was well-known, appearing in Harper’s Bazaar in ’47 and Sports Illustrated in ’55. For Undercurrent, the image is eerie but tranquil; when the sharp black & white is combined with Medina’s album title and songs, the mood becomes considerably more noir, adding a distinctively dark spin to what’s been categorized as a breakup record.

This Betrayal Will Be Our End isn’t MERCH’s debut, but even as nothing the outfit released prior appears to be easily obtainable, the album still strikes the ear as a major artistic stride, and as such, presented a difficult act to follow. But through the participation of the Prague FILMharmonic Orchestra, a Latin jazz band, opera singers, and a rack of psych, garage, and jazz players out of San Fran and L.A., Medina has pulled it off.

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Graded on a Curve:
Dub Syndicate,
Ambience in Dub
1982–1985

The early work by African Head Charge was reissued by On-U Sound last year, and now the first four albums from Dub Syndicate are getting the vinyl treatment. That means debut The Pounding System, the full-band dub of One Way System, the team-up with melodica player Doctor Pablo on North of the River Thames, and the assured advancements of Tunes from the Missing Channel. Additionally, there’s the compilation of unreleased versions Displaced Masters, and for those still luxuriating in compact discs, everything’s included in the 5CD + 24-page book Ambience in Dub 1982-1985; it and the LPs are out now.

Dub Syndicate is often simply credited as the joint endeavor of Adrian Sherwood, justly celebrated as a dub-obsessed studio wizard and the chief operator of On-U Sound, and Style Scott, previously noted as a drummer for Roots Radics and Creation Rebel, but alas, it’s far from that simple. 1982’s The Pounding System was completed prior to Scott’s involvement with Sherwood assisted by members of Creation Rebel, African Head Charge and Jamaican saxophonist “Deadly” Headley Bennett.

In the liner notes to that set’s 1998 CD reissue, Steve Barker quotes Sherwood’s assessment of The Pounding System as “one of those quick ones.” The album emerged early in the label’s existence, cataloged as On-U LP 18, and as such, was shaped by non-musical factors, prominent amongst them a lack of money; rhythm tracks were laid down at The Manor (owned by Richard Branson), where the time was either cheap or free, and the mixing was done in a single day at the Berry Street studio run by Dennis Bovell.

However, The Pounding System doesn’t sound rushed or scattershot, instead just connecting like a solid slab of dub reggae, and from the opening title track forward, there are flashes of weirdness that assist the LP in standing out. Dub and weirdness are no strangers of course, but the blending here is noticeably distinct from the Jamaican template that served as Sherwood’s inspiration, even as Headley adds beneficial flavor to what’s essentially a bass and drum foundation.

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Graded on a Curve:
Friendship,
Shock Out of Season

Friendship hail from Philadelphia, and on their second full-length they’ve made considerable strides, in part by enhancing their alt-country bedrock with electronic instrumentation. If that tactic reads as suspect, the results are strikingly effective, but just as important is the heightened sharpness of Dan Wriggins’ vocals and lyrics. On their prior output his stuff was solid; these eight new songs strongly suggest he has greatness in him. Shock Out of Season is out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Orindal Records.

Conversational as a descriptor for recorded vocals can encompass numerous bushel-baskets full of talkers talking, but the term is especially appropriate to Friendship’s Dan Wriggins. It’s all right there on Shock Out of Season’s opener “If You See My Beloved”; not only does he favor a speaking, or better said, relaxed oratorical style, over a conventional singing approach, but he enunciates with such natural clarity that it was essentially impossible for this listener to not absorb every line.

In addition to Wriggins’ voice and guitar, Friendship includes Peter Gill on pedal steel, Mike Cormier on drums and drum machine, Evangeline Krajewski on synthesizer and flute, and Jon Samuels on percussion and drum machine. This unique blend of instrumentation makes the foregrounding of Wriggins’ manner of address doubly impressive.

The blending of trad instruments and electronics is nothing new, and when it’s done well it can bring a caboodle of good strokes, but too often, once the novelty wears off, the combination is beset by shallowness. By avoiding overplayed tropes, wielding a collective light touch and radiating the impression of being more interested in pleasing themselves than straining to impress others, Friendship succeeds.

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Graded on a Curve:
Marisa Anderson,
Traditional and Public Domain Songs

The upcoming record from Portland, OR-based guitarist Marisa Anderson is slated to hit stores through the auspices of Thrill Jockey, but hey, don’t let’s overlook the nonce. Her 2013 LP Traditional and Public Domain Songs is getting a worthy reissue, available digitally on November 17 with the LP to follow on December 10. Initially released by Grapefruit Records, this vinyl edition comes courtesy of her frequent partners at the Mississippi label; they’ve given it a new sleeve, a fresh sequence, and two additional tracks.

Although Anderson had played and recorded prior, notably in the Dolly Ranchers, her full-length solo debut emerged in 2006. Holiday Motel is diverse, indeed featuring appealing slices of contempo folk and even a cut mildly reminiscent of the Georgia-sung moments of Yo La Tengo, but even at this early juncture, the focus is on guitar prowess that’s already substantial.

Some sources date her follow-up to 2009, others to 2011, but whenever it came out, the contents document a major stride forward. Alongside the abovementioned qualities, Holiday Motel resides comfortably in a post-coffeehouse zone, but The Golden Hour’s solo guitar sans vocals approach is a considerably deeper affair. Both discs share elements connected to John Fahey, but as demonstrated by the plugged-in, expansive atmospheres of The Golden Hour, she was in no way a mere copyist.

2013’s Mercury retained the solo no vox method, and like its predecessor, was issued on wax by the Oregonian label and record store Mississippi (the CDs came out via Important). This connection, clearly geographical, is only strengthened by the trend-averse, historical inclination they share, and of all the records in her discography, Traditional and Public Domain Songs fits easiest into Mississippi’s highly appealing mode of cultural excavation. This makes its delayed entry into their catalog all the sweeter.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, November 2017

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued wax presently in stores for November, 2017.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Barry Altschul and the 3Dom Factor, Live in Kraków (Not Two) Altschul has drummed with Paul Bley, Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers, and with Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea and Dave Holland in Circle; his third release with bassist and fellow Braxton associate Joe Fonda and the young, masterful saxophonist Jon Irabagon is a start-to-finish delight. Monk’s “Ask Me Now” and an original paying tribute to three cornerstones of jazz rhythm cement the importance of earlier traditions, but it all launches from a ’60s small ensemble NYC avant-garde platform. They make a beautiful sound. A

Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas, The World of Captain Beefheart (Knitting Factory) Not just anyone can successfully navigate the vast essence of Don Van Vliet, but this team-up, which began through participation in a live symphonic Beefheart trib in Amsterdam, handles the task with aplomb. Having assembled a small, sharp band, world-class guitarist (and former member of the Magic Band) Lucas is in typically fine form, and Hendryx, once of LaBelle and a noted solo artist, continually impresses; she’s crucial to relating the adaptability of the material, and handles the wilder moments like a champ. A-

REISSUE PICKS: Men & Volts, A Giraffe Is Listening to the Radio: Men & Volts Play Captain Beefheart (Feeding Tube) This terribly underrated band, featuring David Greenberger of Duplex Planet fame, sprang to life playing the music of Van Vliet to the exclusion of all else, but unless one was a clued-in Bostonian, this fact was essentially just lore. Until now. Consisting of practice tapes from ’79, the lo-fi aura never obscures how deep (How deep? WAY deep) they got into Beefheart’s thing. Indeed, this could be mistaken as a Captain boot, which means it never reverberates as a mere tribute. A-

Little Richard, Here’s Little Richard (Craft) Fats Domino has left us, but the other two greats of first-wave rock ‘n’ roll piano are still kicking, and their prime stuff can still demolish most contemporary competition. Going back to Little Richard’s first LP after a lengthy absence invariably reinforces it as even stronger than memories situate; that’s one reason we return to records instead of just remembering them. That Craft’s 2CD reissue offers previously unreleased material from the sessions for this historic and essential set is gobsmacking. Inquiries into the necessity of the extras will be taken as rhetorical. A+

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Graded on a Curve:
Gunn-Truscinski Duo,
Bay Head

Of the two halves comprising the Gunn-Truscinski Duo, guitarist Steve Gunn holds the higher profile, this stature gained largely through a handful of records showcasing his considerable talent as a singer-songwriter. Drummer John Truscinski has been crucial component in those albums, with the extensiveness of the relationship bringing their work as a duo a heightened vitality. The latest fruit of the partnership is Bay Head, which offers ten tracks intermingling roots, rock, psych, and fuzz. Like the pair’s two prior full-lengths, it’s out on vinyl and digital through Three Lobed Recordings.

Steve Gunn is a helluva good guitarist, and when he sings, the results are more than just pleasant. But the combination of the two, as heard on 2013’s Time Off and the following year’s Way Out Weather, both for the Paradise of Bachelors label, and ’16’s breakout Eyes on the Lines for Matador, transcends the standard template of a guitarist singing songs.

No, Gunn’s greatest strength is as a collaborator, though the point is perhaps debatable; when he’s really clicking, “helluva good guitarist” underestimates him. But the list of his associates on record is substantial, including fellow Pennsylvanian Kurt Vile, harpist Mary Lattimore, members of Hiss Golden Messenger, Marcia Bassett and Pete Nolan in GHQ, and Cian Nugent in Desert Heat, plus the Black Twig Pickers together and the band’s Mike Gangloff alone on Melodies for a Savage Fix. Topping it off are discs shared with veteran NYC folkie Ed Askew and the esteemed Brit guitarist Mike Cooper.

Maybe the best is the Gunn-Truscinski Duo. It’s certainly been the most fruitful, beginning with Sand City in 2010, continuing with Ocean Parkway two years later, and after a significant break, recommencing with Bay Head. But as stated up top, Truscinski has been a valued contributor to Gunn’s solo efforts, playing on the three discs listed above, and additionally filling out Desert Fire and stepping into Nolan’s spot in GHQ.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mr. Lif and Brass Menazeri, Resilient

Mr. Lif made his mark in the early ’00s with a string of swell releases, mostly for the Definitive Jux label, that were part of a welcome surge in underground hip-hop. But if the rate of his output has slowed, his latest album shows no decrease in creativity; to the contrary, Resilient is a team-up with Brass Menažeri, a Balkan Brass Band from the San Francisco Bay Area, and its stylistic merger is streamlined, inviting, and quite distinctive. Benefiting from an unhurried and close-knit collaborative process, the record is out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through the fledgling artist-focused label Waxsimile Productions.

Definitive Jux, initially just Def Jux, was co-founded in 1999 by El-P, now widely known as half of Run the Jewels, and Amaechi Uzoigwe, the duo’s current manager. How integral was the label to the rise of u-ground hip-hop, aka “backpack rap?” A partial list of its output includes Aesop Rock, Company Flow, RJD2, Cannibal Ox, Mike Ladd, Cage, and Murs. Amongst all the productivity, Mr. Lif was reportedly the first rapper they signed.

That all transpired last decade. Definitive Jux went on hiatus in 2010; Lif’s ’09 effort I Heard It Today came out on Bloodbot Tactical Enterprises, and then a long gap in recordings was remedied last year by a pair of releases, Don’t Look Down and The Life & Death of Scenery, the latter co-billed with producer L’Orange, both for the Mello Music Group. The genesis of Resilient significantly predates those albums, as it came to life through an appearance at the Seattle Folk Festival in the winter of 2011.

Lif lacked a band for the show, which prompted festival organizer Devon Léger to suggest Brass Menažeri, postulating that the outfit’s horns and agile execution would complement Lif’s non-standard word flow. While the emergence of the Balkan brass sound has become, if not commonplace, then something more than novel, Brass Menažeri preceded the apex of the wave, with releases dated to ’07 (Brazen) and ’08 (Vranjski San), which is the year the SF Weekly anointed them “Best International Live Band.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Saz’iso, At Least Wave Your Handkerchief
at Me: the Joys and Sorrows of Southern Albanian Song

Over the last half century, certain geographical regions have become consistent sources for global musical enlightenment. Albania however, has remained largely absent from the record racks. At Least Wave Your Handkerchief at Me: The Joys and Sorrows of Southern Albanian Song is a major step in remedying this absence. Produced by Joe Boyd (Shirley Collins, Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention), engineered by Jerry Boys (Buena Vista Social Club, Ali Farka Touré, Orchestra Baobab), and performed by the group of powerhouse vocalists and deft instrumentalists known as Saz’iso, it’s a vibrant and enriching listen out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Glitterbeat.

Saz’iso excel at a style known as Saze. At its root it is an iso-polyphonic music, meaning it features no less than two melodic vocal lines combined with a third multi-voiced drone or iso. Once performed a cappella, the introduction of manufactured instruments to the region in the late 19th century resulted in a mingling of East and West as Saze ensembles were formed.

Joe Boyd’s involvement here is a sure sign of quality, but it’s important to note his co-producers Edit Pula and Andrea Goertler, and the advisory role of Vasil S. Tole, described as a leading expert on iso-polyphony in Glitterbeat’s promo text, where he’s quoted establishing Saze’s continued stature as the musical language of Southern Albania’s cities.

Tole’s claim is easily verified by At Least Wave Your Handkerchief at Me, it’s contents clearly a living, thriving music and not a relic, but with attentiveness to tradition that increases emotional power. The singing, with Donika Pecallari and Adriana Thanou the lead voices and Robert Tralo contributing occasionally, is exquisite, and is the playing of Aurel Qirjo (violin and voice), Telando Feto (clarinet), Agron Murat (lute), Agron Nasi (frame drum), and Pëllumb Meta (flute and voice).

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Graded on a Curve:
The Jazz Butcher,
The Wasted Years

As the project of Pat Fish, The Jazz Butcher has endured through myriad changes in the UK music scene. The outfit’s early output, namely debut Bath of Bacon, A Scandal in Bohemia, Sex and Travel, and Distressed Gentlefolk, offers endearing eccentricity and when absorbed chronologically, increasingly sharp songcraft. With the new reissue The Wasted Years, ordered listening is made easy, the set gathering these four albums, originally cut in ’83-’86 for the Glass label, onto four CDs and tucking them into a slim hardcover book with notes from Fish; it’s all assembled by Fire Records, who’ve become deft hands at assembling retrospectives of ’80s post-punk material.

The Jazz Butcher has evolved quite a bit over the decades, but right from the beginning, sullen they were not. In Bath of Bacon, which dropped one of its prepositions at some point after its release in 1983, is infused with humor from the start, with “Gloop Jiving” a plunge into faux-cabaret finger-snap tomfoolery. Announcing himself as The Jazz Butcher and coming of like a highball-in-hand smoothie, guitar and sax help set the mood behind him.

It leads into an R&B revue styled theme song (think “Land of 1,000 Dances”) that’s somewhat anemic compared to its inspiration. But in large part due to guitarist Max Eider, there’s a musical sharpness that eventually shares the spotlight with said humor (due to the Brit nature of it all, that should be humour, I suppose), a circumstance further aided by Fish’s budding acumen as a songwriter; his strongest are “Playtime,” “Sex Engine Thing,” and “Zombie Love.”

Non-serious subject matter is often indicative of a lack of ambition, but not Bath of Bacon, which as it unwinds sorta connects like post-punk upstarts in an Orange Juice or Style Council mold striving to be the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band of their generation. The sheer range, from French pop imitations (“La Mer”) to pop exotica nods (“Chinatown”) to a Normal nick (“Grey Flannelette”) to an ode to young felines (“Love Kittens”) help counterbalance inconsistency as bold swipes of the Modern Lovers (in “Sex Engine Thing”) and Steppenwolf (in “Poisoned by Food”) reinforce the not-yet-pro nature of it all.

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