Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for February 2019, Part Two

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases—and more—presently in stores for February, 2019. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE PICK: V/A, SLR 30 Singles Subscription Series (Slumberland Records) Back in 1990, I scooped up Slumberland’s single of Velocity Girl’s “I Don’t Care If You Go” and I’ve been a fan of the label ever since. This series (copies will also be available in stores, all with download codes) kicked off back in October and is slated to finish near the end of 2019, and as it focuses on 45s (which have been something of a label specialty) it’s a fitting way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Slumberland’s considerable achievement, while spotlighting artists that aren’t part of the endeavor’s historical or current scheme. Here’s a rundown of the first four, and we’ll keep track moving forward to December.

The Suncharms, “Red Dust” b/w “Film Soundtrack” Formed in ’89, this UK-based quintet knocked out a couple of records shortly after and played a handful of opening spots for notable acts of period (including Television Personalities, The Orchids, Cranes, and Catherine Wheel). This landed them a Peel Session and had Slumberland eager to get them on the roster, though a breakup occurred before that could happen. Due to the positive response to their eponymous 2016 retrospective CD the band reconvened and began working on new material. Here’s the first evidence, with the A-side starting out as nice mid-tempo guitar-pop before the amps kick in and the tempo picks up. The boost might register as inevitable, but it’s far from hackneyed, and the flip is a loud melodic fiesta of solos. A-

Rat Columns, “Sometimes We’re Friends b/w “Astral Lover” & “Waiting to Die” When ponying up for a subscription series or singles club, a definite perk is receiving fresh exposure to previously unheard bands. That’s the case here with me and Rat Columns, though I am familiar with project leader David West’s other outfit Rank Xerox (he was also in Total Control). Diving into indie pop but with a decided Down Under feel (Down Undercurrent?), this is the Perth, Australia lineup of Rat Columns (the group has had US members), and it connects as distinct from his other stuff, with the A-side starting out a little moody with synth and then shifting into high-jangle gear (the synth sticks around). “Astral Lover” is a concise dose of chamber pop and “Waiting to Die” an unflustered, guitar-infused stroll. I dig. A-

David Lance Callahan, “Strange Lovers” b/w “Waiting for the Cut-Off” Another cool aspect of subscriptions/ clubs is getting to catch up with new material from musicians that have made an impact on your consciousness for a long time. I’m that way with Callahan, who was in C86 act The Wolfhounds (their “Anti-Midas Touch” remains one of my favorite songs from the era) and in the ‘90s was part of the quite happenin’ Too Pure band Moonshake (The Wolfhounds reformed in 2010 and have released LPs since). These two cuts are Callahan’s first ever solo recordings ahead of a full LP planned for some time this year. “Strange Lovers,” while not twee, does attain a level of well-mannered sophistication (complete with fingerpicking and chimes) that’s as English as a crumpet. Flip’s a likeable strummer. B+

Dolly Dream, “The Way to Heaven” b/w “Slip Thru Hell” And yet one more nifty facet of the sub/ club scenario is records that divert from expectations, and of these four short-players this one is the most surprising if not the strongest overall. Featuring Meg Remy of US Girls with assistance from members of Fucked Up, “The Way to Heaven” is ’60s throwback gal-pop that’s just off-kilter enough to have drawn comparisons to the dreamy-achy songs familiar to the soundtracks of David Lynch. I can hear that, but the considerably more wacked-out B-side is a bit like music Lynch might’ve used for a short film from around the time of Fire Walk with Me or Lost Highway. Its only shortcoming is that it’s over too quickly. Dolly Dream radiates like a one-off but is engagingly weird enough that I hope I’m wrong. B+

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Graded on a Curve: Kankyo Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990

Once a largely dismissed and often derided genre, New Age music’s critical reevaluation has been a welcome development, in part because it expanded the style’s history while deviating from expectations and in turn enlarging the potential for pure enjoyment. Light in the Attic has been crucial to this shift in perception, and with new release Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990 they remain at the forefront of this continuing reappraisal. Offered in a package of exquisite design, either as a 3LP with Stoughton “tip on” jackets, slipcase and poster, or as a 2CD with a hardbound book, and both with enlightening notes by Spencer Doran, it’s in stores February 15.

As the title to this set makes plain, part of the reason for Light in the Attic’s success in rehabilitating New Age music is directly related to an inclusive approach that branches into the more reputable associated styles of Ambient and Environmental. However, I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America 1950-1990, the box set that kicked off the label’s dig into the vaults back in the autumn of 2013, was a pretty specific undertaking. It boldly proclaimed its New Age orientation and said enter if you dare.

What initially sparked my interest was the term private press, which suggested that the contents might deliver something better than expected. Bluntly, it was unlikely to be worse. The second intriguing thing was the timeframe, which largely predated the ’80s popularity of New Age and by extension my lived experience with the form. Well, that collection not only exceeded my hopes, but in deflating stereotypes and uncovering a wealth of unheard artists (G. I. Gurdjieff, Wilburn Burchette, and Laraaji being the main exceptions), it delivered one of the sweetest multi-disc releases of its year.

In late 2016, (The Microcosm): Visionary Music of Continental Europe, 1970-1986 saw Light in the Attic dropping the New Age tag entirely, though it was clearly a sequel (indeed promoted as such), and it did a fine job of linking the New Age goings-on documented throughout I Am the Center to Kosmische, a style many mosey sorta sideways into appreciating due to its link to Krautrock.

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Graded on a Curve:
bill bissett &
Th Mandan Massacre,
Awake In Th Red Desert

Although it fits with the terminology, to consider the underground as an expansive basement only works so well. It’s perhaps more beneficial to describe the u-ground as a hulking, organically cultivated and mysteriously regenerative onion of uncommon deliciousness and diversity of flavors. As the layers get peeled away, the tastes frequently become more intense, initially intriguing and especially when historically situated, revelatory. Such is the case with Awake In Th Red Desert by Canadian poet bill bissett & the gang of Vancouver outsiders named Th Mandan Massacre. Not a lost record but surely too-little known, Feeding Tube’s first-time vinyl reissue in an edition of 500 should help change that.

If you think music holds vast stores of subterranean obscurity (hey, it does!), you should try literature on for size. Naturally, a high percentage of u-ground writing is located in the poetry section of the used bookstore, in part because the form frustrates the nagging belief that the essence of literature resides somewhere in the neighborhood of “a great story artfully told.” Additionally, poetry largely isn’t writing meant to be quickly grasped by the reader. Instead, it stymies the attempts to conquer its totality, or to employ a contemporary phrase, the need to “get it.”

And thus, bill bissett (deliberately lowercase, and we’ll get to that) remains largely unknown outside of hardcore poetry circles, even after being rated as a “great poet” by Jack Kerouac, a figure who still stands as one the kingpins of the whole grand countercultural experience, even if he’s currently somewhat out of vogue.

Part of the reason Kerouac’s praise hasn’t carried more weight might be due to its coming from deep in the man’s grumpy, boozy Florida-based late period as part of an interview conducted for The Paris Review by New York School poet Ted Berrigan. I do believe the occasion of this chat brought Kerouac exposure (courtesy of Berrigan) to the work of a young Jim Carroll, writing that Jack also praised, but I digress. Poetry’s good for sideroads of thought, y’know?

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Graded on a Curve:
The Bureaucrats,
“Feel the Pain” b/w “Grown up Age”

Amongst other things, Canada is renowned for producing comedians and playing a whole lot of hockey, but they also have a worthwhile punk rock lineage. One of the lesser-known twigs on that leafy tree was Ottawa’s The Bureaucrats, a band that knocked-out a spectacular 7-inch in 1980 with “Feel the Pain” b/w “Grown up Age.” That record was once the domain of big-dollar spenders, but the Ugly Pop label has given it a much deserved repressing, and anybody with a deeply personal relationship with The Jam’s All Mod Cons or The Buzzcocks’ Another Music in a Different Kitchen should investigate its contents with due haste.

In the annals of punk rock, the coverage of the movement’s Canadian division frequently devotes prominent placement to Vancouver’s D.O.A. And that’s not without good reason, since that group stampeded forth as one of the earliest and finest in Hardcore’s first wave of pissed-off tumult. Indeed, their second album Hardcore ’81 is the meat in a highly tasty and unusually nutritious three album sandwich, with the bread being the 1980 LP Something Better Change and ‘82’s 12-inch EP (later expanded to album length) “War on 45.”

It was D.O.A., and to a lesser extent their hometown cohorts The Subhumans (responsible for the killer ’83 album No Wishes, No Prayers amongst other worthy material, and not to be confused with the Brit anarcho-punks of the same name) that really put Canada on the map for a generation of younger punk fans. And through relentless touring and unflagging political commitment, D.O.A.’s rep really persevered. In fact, it’s continued to linger even as their most productive musical period grows ever more distant in the rear-view mirror of history.

But the truth of the matter is that D.O.A. and The Subhumans were kicking up dust in a country with considerable punk rock achievements already under its belt. Three of the earliest and most notable bands in the land were Teenage Head, The Diodes, and The Viletones, all formed in Toronto during the formative and formidable ’75-’77 period. And part of the reason for this trio’s enduring profile relates to a four-night stand the three bands undertook at New York’s CBGB in July of 1977, with the late Lester Bangs giving them a write-up in The Village Voice.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for February 2019, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases—and more—presently in stores for February, 2019. 

NEW RELEASE PICK: Xiu Xiu, Girl With a Basket of Fruit (Polyvinyl) It’s been 17 years of existence for Xiu Xiu with no lengthy gaps in activity, as this is the 11th album from the group formed by sole constant member Jamie Stewart, and what’s immediately impressive upon listening is the lack of creative fatigue. More to the point, Girl With a Basket of Fruit is an intense, at times in-your-face record, but unlike a lot of music of this temperament that ends up ringing hallow, Xiu Xiu’s latest (co-produced by member Angela Seo and Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier) is distinguished by its depth. Like a lot of experimental music, the LP’s contents can initially feel messy, but that’s just it; the record just feels messy. Art-rock with an abundance of emotion, of humanity, and maybe the best description that it’s just wonderfully poetic. A

REISSUE/ ARCHIVAL PICKS: Sun Ra, Monorails & Satellites: Works for Solo Piano Vols. 1, 2, 3 (Cosmic Myth) Like Duke Ellington, Sun Ra has often been underrated as a pianist, with the largeness and vividness of the Arkestra’s endurance somewhat obscuring his brilliance as a player, though excursions into smaller groups, duos and solo settings did offer up evidence; it’s just that they could be obscured by the vastness of the overall discography. This 2CD/ 3LP set, fully authorized by the Sun Ra estate, collects two LPs of the man alone at the keyboard, originally issued on Saturn, Vol. 1 from ’68 and the follow-up from the next year, and adds a third album of previously unreleased material. The playing is consistently intense but also compositionally rich, blending beauty moves and thunder throughout. A

Alex Chilton, From Memphis to New Orleans & Songs from Robin Hood Lane (Bar/None) If you’ve already burrowed deep into Chilton’s solo career, From Memphis to New Orleans offers no surprises, corralling material from the man’s ’80s comeback releases Feudalist Tarts, High Priest, the “No Sex” 12-inch, and Black Rain, but it is a solid overview of what the guy sounded like once he reemerged after his surly, boozy, wilderness period. Back in the day this era was regularly bagged on due to its relative togetherness, but I’ve always kinda dug it (as some of it was amongst the first solo Chilton I heard), and for casual fans who don’t need to own every album he ever did, this is a solid single LP overview this portion of Alex’s trajectory. I do miss “Tee Ni Nee Ni Noo/Tip on In,” though. A-

In the early ’90s, Chilton took an unexpected turn toward the interpretation of pop standards with the album Clichés. I was underwhelmed at the time, even as the spare setting, just the man and his guitar, kinda safeguarded against schmaltz. I’ve enjoyed it more with subsequent listens, though never totally fell in love with it, so I consider it a plus that Songs from Robin Hood Lane cherry-picks five tunes from the set and combines them with three Alex-sung cuts from Rough Trade’s ’91 Chet Baker tribute Imagination, credited to Medium Cool, which also featured No Wavers Adele Bertei and James White, but in total inside jazz mode, like they were recording for late ’80s Verve or something. Four unreleased tracks seem to derive from the same session. Something of a curio, but the chutzpah levels are high. B+

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Graded on a Curve:
New York United,
New York United

New York United is saxophonist Daniel Carter, electronic specialist Tobias Wilner of the Danish duo Blue Foundation, bassist Djibril Toure, known for his work with Wu-Tang Clan, and drummer Federico Ughi. New York United is a collaboration blending jazz of the progressive/ avant-garde variety with contemporary, often beat-driven electronic sounds; at their best, which is often, they connect with the vitality of a well-seasoned band. New York United is their debut album, recorded in 2016 and belatedly released right about now, on vinyl in an edition of 300 copies and digitally with a bonus track. It’s in stores February 8 via 577 Records.

For a style that some are eager to declare as being moribund if not altogether dead, jazz is a wonderfully resilient and multifaceted thing, in part because, purists be damned, a portion of its makers have reliably strained against the music’s supposed boundaries. This pursuit for fresh possibilities often included engaging with forms outside the realms of jazz, and with the expected critical blowback, whether it be pop, classical, R&B, or rock.

Yeah, the blowback. One of the nicer developments in the last quarter century (or thereabouts) is the decrease in opprobrium over crosspollination (to be followed by varying degrees of reevaluation), meaning that one need not shake off the burden of somebody else’s vented spleen (or conversely, uncritical enthusiasm), the better to absorb the music on its own merits, good or bad.

New York United land securely on the positive side of the landscape as they have direct ties to precedent, specifically the intersection of the jazz avant-garde, electronica and hip-hop that comprises a significant portion of the Thirsty Ear label’s Blue Series. Indeed, alongside pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker, both Blue Series mainstays, Daniel Carter was a contributor to some of that initiative’s most crucial entries.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sarah Louise,
Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars

The musical profile of Ashville, NC’s Sarah Louise Henson initially derived from her skills as a fingerpicker in the American Primitive style, but membership in the duo House and Land (with Virginia fiddler Sally Anne Morgan) and 2018’s Deeper Woods established a desire to tap into broader sonic realms. Both were natural, fully realized efforts, and the same is true for her considerably bolder move into expansive avant-garde territory Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars. While surely a major development in Louise’s artistic trajectory, it’s not as radical a departure as a casual listen might suggest. It’s out now on pink vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Thrill Jockey.

In terms of musical growth, Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars certainly fits onto the category of Giant Steps (capitalized but not italicized, though in terms of spirituality, there is an affinity with John Coltrane), but it’s not as if it came out of nowhere. Indeed, it seems probable that a significant portion of her fanbase will be fully receptive to the path she’s taken.

That’s because House and Land’s self-titled effort, while thoroughly informed by Appalachian tradition, was intense and restless rather than well-mannered and quaint. To the ears of this writer, it was one of the best records of 2017, with Deeper Woods gathering a similar level of esteem last year as the first of her solo albums to integrate her voice into an already robust instrumental equation.

In so doing, it was a substantial enlargement of Louise’s approach, one as likely to attract lovers of psych-folk as those smitten with her prodigious talent on guitar. But Deeper Woods, like House and Land, was a song-based collection, and the major difference here, along with a partial receding of vocals in the overall thrust, is that her prior LP was consonant with the avant-garde while Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars is a full-on expression of an experimental sensibility.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for January 2019, Part Five

Part five of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases—and more—presently in stores for January, 2019. Part one is here, part two is here, part three is here, and part four is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Maurice Louca, Elephantine (Sub Rosa – Northern Spy) Cairo-born and based, pianist-guitarist-composer Louca has cut a prior LP under his own name, 2014’s Salute the Parrot, in addition to playing in Bikya, Alif, Lekhfa, Kharkhana (praised in this space a couple of weeks back as part of the Unrock split LP Carte Blanche), Orchestra Omar and Dwarves of East Agouza, the latter a trio with Sam Shalabi (of Shalabi Effect) and Alan Bishop (of Sun City Girls). Being hip to those two can provide a starting-point for what Louca achieves across Elephantine’s six tracks (totaling a gripping 38 minutes), but the whole is a highly distinctive blend of compositional fortitude and free jazz exploration. An instrumentally massive set, “The Palm of a Ghost” features exquisite vocals from Nadah El Shazly. A

Hedvig Mollestad Trio, Smells Funny (Rune Grammofon) If you always felt Mahavishnu needed an injection of Black Sabbath-like oomph scorch, this is an asteroid of chocolate plunged into your personal store of peanut butter (the group has notably shared stages with McLaughlin and Sab). Mollestad’s the guitarist, and she tears into complex runs without sacrificing forward motion as bassist Ellen Brekken and drummer Ivar Loe Bjørnstad deliver much more than a rhythmic bedrock. ‘tis a true power trio thing. The Sabbath reference shouldn’t imply the doom-laden but rather just heaviness, with the record (their sixth in seven years) a fine locale for headbangers and jazzbos to joyously congregate. The title brings Zappa’s comment on jazz to mind, but Smells Funny makes plain that rock ain’t dead, either. A

REISSUE/ ARCHIVAL PICK: Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound You Never Heard (A-Side) Along with teaching at the New England Conservatory in Boston for over 50 years, the great pianist Ran Blake has a voluminous discography; my introduction came through his sublime ’65 ESP Disk Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano. Four years prior, he debuted on record in duo with his Bard College classmate, the vocalist Jeanne Lee (and for two tracks bassist George Duvivier) on the RCA Victor LP The Newest Sound Around. Opening with “Blue Monk,” it stands amongst the most underrated of vocal jazz records, Lee not only impacted by but extending the grandness of Billie Holliday, Dinah Washington, and Abbey Lincoln as Blake, already more than just an accompanist, often recalled the sensitivity of Mal Waldron.

The title and the cover design of this 2CD collection directly reference the RCA LP, which is wholly appropriate as the contents are an ample serving of the duo in majestic form at the studio of what was then BRT (Belgium Radio and Television) and live in Brussels in ’66-’67. However, these recordings are also a spotlight on maturity and a widened sphere of interest, and right away; the opening “Misterioso” features words taken from a Gertrude Stein poem. Loaded with standards that ooze assurance and taste (in the best sense), they also dig into Ray Charles and Ornette and Duke, revisit “Blue Monk,” and in an unexpected but sweet left turn, interpret The Beatles and Dylan. Two tracks offer Blake in prime solo form, while Lee delivers a wonderful a cappella “Billie’s Blues.” Overall, outstanding and revelatory. A

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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.

Bothersome is the pesky seriousness of those who abjure Burroughs’ celebrity as an obscurant to his worth as a writer, but trust me, they’re less obnoxious than folks who champion his reputation as a badass while deeming it needless to crack a spine. If the notoriety is unavoidable and oft-captivating, the importance of William Burroughs is primarily literary; as one of the Beat’s big three, he was a wily conduit between pulp and the postmodern.

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Graded on a Curve:
Robert Ashley,
Private Parts

It’s been nearly five years since the American composer Robert Ashley passed at age 83. Noted if underrated as a groundbreaker in the field of 20th century opera, he’s just as appropriately described as a leader in the modern avant-garde. But where many of his contemporaries were minimal, Ashley was labyrinthine. This may lead a novice to conclude that his work was formally rigorous or even downright severe, but in fact his mature work can be quite accessible while possessing depth that’s effectively inexhaustible. Private Parts is a crucial serving of the man’s brilliance, and on February 1 it’s getting reissued on vinyl by the folks who put it out way back in 1978, the aptly named Lovely Music, Ltd.

In chronological terms, Robert Ashley’s recording career dates to the 1957 piece “The Fox,” a five-minute hunk of vocals and early electronic manipulation inspired by a Burl Ives song. This is followed by “The Bottleman” in 1960, a much longer tape composition utilizing contact mics, loudspeaker, voice and other found sounds that was conceived to accompany the film of the same title by George Manupelli.

But the public at large didn’t get to opportunity to experience these pieces until 2003, when the Italian label Alga Marghen issued them on the CD Wolfman, where they were combined with the title track, an 18-minute blast of feedback, drone and vocals performed at Charlotte Moorman’s Festival of the Avant-Garde that’s been called the most extreme thing Ashley’s ever done.

A 15-minute “Wolfman” from ’67, performed as part of the University of California at Davis’ First Festival of Live-Electronic Music, hit wax as side-A of the 2×10-inch compilation/ magazine combo Source: Music Of The Avant Garde Issue Number 4, but that wasn’t Ashley’s debut on record, as his “In Memorium Crazy Horse (symphony)” was part of the ’66 comp Music from the ONCE Festival.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for January 2019, Part Four

Part four of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases—and more—presently in stores for January, 2019. Part one is here, part two is here, and part three is here.

BOOK PICK: Mary Lee Kortes, Dreaming of Dylan: 115 Dreams About Bob (BMG) Upon first learning of this collection, in which musician and Dylan-aficionado Kortes assembles the number of dreams cited in the book’s title, dreams that in some way include Bob, dreams as remembered and written down by individuals ranging from the anonymous to laborers to lawyers to fellow musicians, a few of them notable, my worry was that it would be hampered by an overabundance of whimsy, or if not that than the zany, or possibly even a lethal combination of the two. The first thing that steered me in a more hopeful direction was a casual flip through. In doing so, I was immediately struck by the colorful and inventive design, its pages loaded with photos, art, and repurposed materials and objects.

While quirkiness and zaniness are both in evidence, that’s to be expected as dreams are rarely normal. But hearing people relate their sleep scenarios, particularly in groups, can sometimes register like a contest for who had the kookiest night before. Kortes keeps these qualities in check mainly through a non-sequential ordering of the dream entries, the lengths of which range from a few words to a few hundred (but mostly on the shorter side), so that uneventful unusualness offsets the more truly strange scenes. The next thing you know, many pages have turned, with Bob consistently enigmatic, sometimes pleasant, at other moments aloof; at a few spots, he’s even a little dickish. It’s not a mindblower of a read, but I laughed out loud and amazingly, was never annoyed. It’d make a terrific coffee table item. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Knud Viktor, Les Éphémères (Institute for Danish Sound Archaeology) Born in Denmark and a resident of Southern France for nearly 50 years, the late Knud Viktor (1924-2013) didn’t set out to create in the field of music, having instead studied at the Royal Art Academy in Copenhagen. In fact, Viktor didn’t consider himself a musician at all, but rather a sound painter; only two records of his work were issued in his lifetime, Images and Ambiances from 1972, reissued by the label above as a 2LP set in 2017. The material here was intended for release in ’76, but that didn’t pan out. However, the master tape and cover design layout for Les Éphémères were discovered in Viktor’s archives after his passing, so here it is now on 180-gram vinyl with a 20-page booklet and an essay by Magnus Kaslov.

After graduating, Viktor moved to Provence with his wife so they could both subsist as painters (he met her at Academy), but directly due to the incessant sound of cicadas around their residence his energies were refocused toward sculpting with audio; insects, animals and nature was his domain, and by the mid-’70s via tape recorders, homemade parabolic microphones, and audio effect processing machines (also homemade) he was creating in quadraphonic sound. On Les Éphémères, which like Ambiances consists of two side-long pieces (here specified as parts of a whole), the sounds of the living creatures of Viktor’s surroundings are easy to discern, especially birdsong, though other passages are harder to peg; a distinctive aspect is poetry spoken by the artist. Altogether an immersive, delightful listen. A

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Graded on a Curve:
Lead Belly,
Easy Rider: Leadbelly Legacy Volume Four

Of Lead Belly records, there are a ton, and the reasons why are simple. Foremost, this titan of American music possessed a deep reservoir of songs, but he was also something of a crossover artist, robust enough in style to appeal to subsequent generations of blues fanatics as diversity of subject matter and musical approach ensconced him as a godfather-cornerstone to the burgeoning mid-20th century folk movement. Smithsonian Folkways’ fresh reissue of Easy Rider: Leadbelly Legacy Volume Four is a tidy encapsulation of the man’s aptitude for social commentary, its arrival welcome in this period of severe tumult. It’s available now in the label’s signature tip-on jacket, remastered and with the original notes.

Born in January of 1888, Huddie William Ledbetter was a performing musician prior to the 1920s commercial boom for the blues, which party explains the breadth of his talent beyond the form. Like many early blues players, he’s just as aptly described as a songster (versatility allowing a player to become something of a one-man show in those days), and while an effective multi-instrumentalist, his excellence on the 12-string guitar was matched by the strength of his voice and an ability to consistently communicate the essence of his songs, many of which were handed down from oral tradition.

All of these attributes found Lead Belly fitting nicely into the early US folk scene, but it was probably his relationship to the pre-recording industry roots of folk tradition (he was an eight-year elder of Blind Lemon Jefferson) that sealed the deal. This places him historically in strong and varied company; think Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and Lightnin’ Hopkins for starters, but with the crucial difference that Lead Belly wasn’t a subject of rediscovery after an earlier dalliance with commercial record makers.

He was discovered, however. Like many others of his circumstance in Jim Crow USA, it was during a stay in prison, with Lead Belly first recorded in 1933-’34 by John and Alan Lomax while serving a term in Angola. These songs weren’t commercially released until the ’60s, but once he’d been given early release in ’34, the man took the ball of interest in his music and ran for a career-securing touchdown.

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Graded on a Curve:
David Vassalotti,
Guitar Dream

David Vassalotti is the guitarist in Florida’s 4AD-signees Merchandise. If you’re hip to that band’s amped-up post-punkish pop, you might think you have a rough idea what’s in store on the man’s latest solo LP, but hey, slow down there, partner. Even those who scooped up Vassalotti’s 2016 solo set should be prepared for fresh developments, as Guitar Dream is a pop auteurist statement recalling the boom in singing and songwriting that sprang forth during the original wave of indie pop while sidestepping mere emulation of those glories. A remarkably assured effort that’s vivid without faltering into the grandiose, it’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital January 25 through Wharf Cat.

There’s been a steadily increasing Anglo-ist vibe to the work of David Vassalotti’s main gig that attained a level of refinement with their 2016 effort A Corpse Wired for Sound; had that record served as my introduction to Merchandise, it seems likely I would’ve been, if not shocked, then at least mildly surprised that the band are a byproduct of life in the Sunshine State.

This statement unquestionably reinforces my upbringing in an era where geography’s relation to individual/ group dynamics played a much bigger role than today. Fittingly in the context of the considerably more wide-open and connected nature of our current cultural landscape, it’s worth stressing that Merchandise aren’t indulging in a simultaneously highfalutin and low-stakes brand of mimicry. This is also the case with Guitar Dream.

The major diff is that the ten songs shaping up his latest sharpen the focus onto a decidedly indie pop state of affairs. Well, except for one thing; the original UK indie pop wave was populated by bands. Just peruse the participants on the New Musical Express’ C86 tape for evidence. After a few acquainting spins, Guitar Dream registers as descended from the roughly concurrent ’80s wave of pop auteurs but with attention paid to the impulse’s overlap with indie pop. Most immediately, I heard The Smiths.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for January 2019, Part Three

Part three of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases—and more—presently in stores for January, 2019. Part one is here and part two is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Lisa/Liza, Momentary Glance (Orindal) Portland, ME’s Liza (pronounced Lisa) Victoria has a prior record out on Orindal, Deserts of Youth, where she goes it completely alone via acoustic guitar and vocals. On this follow-up she switches to electric and enlists some instrumentalist friends, though Victoria’s front-and-center presence is only intensified on a half-dozen selections (totaling 42 minutes) that radiate a magnificent late-night psych-folk vibe. Recorded and mixed by Efrim Manuel Menuck of Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra during a brutal Montreal winter, the suicide of a friend greatly impacted Victoria’s creative process. My learning of this surely deepened the emotional heft, which hits its apex with the massive “Tea Kettle.” A

Machinefabriek, With Voices (Western Vinyl) Dutch composer Rutger Zuydervelt is Machinefabriek, and his work essentially resides in a neighborhood shared by ambient, drone, minimalism, modern classical, noise, field recordings, electronics, and a general spirit of avant-experimentation. The man wields an insanely loaded, completist-defeating discography, but With Voices is destined to be one of the gems in that expansive body of work, in part because it finds him collaborating with a variety of vocalists across eight Roman numeric tracks, including Chantal Acta, Peter Broderick, Marianne Oldenburg, Richard Youngs, and Marissa Nadler. Eschewing lyrics, with a high percentage of the utterances effectively wordless, the results are wildly varied and in the case of the Nadler-sung finale, quite beautiful. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Caspar Brötzmann Massaker, The Tribe & Black Axis (Southern Lord) Originally released by Zenzor in 1988, The Tribe was the debut by guitarist Brötzmann’s trio with Eduardo Delgado Lopez on bass and Jon Beuth on drums, and it delivered a noisily intense yet rock solid heart punch and a wakeup call; the possibilities of amplified string mayhem had been broadened and the roster of u-ground guitar heroes deepened. Coming off at times a bit like Hendrix at his wildest if he’d lived and largely set aside bluesy grooving for Germanic Industrial pummel, the Massaker were a formidable beast, and that they didn’t make as may waves as the Experience ultimately speaks to the conservative atmosphere of the era from which they sprang. A few slightly lesser tracks do emerge. A-

Caspar was the son of the German free jazz saxophone titan Peter Brötzmann (who designed The Tribe’s cover), which led to some speculation prior to hearing that the Massaker was going to be an excursion into skronk-rock fusion (like Last Exit, Jr., maybe). That wasn’t the case, though The Tribe and ’89’s follow-up Black Axis (originally on Marat Records) were both cut at FMP studio in Berlin, where many of the greatest German avant jazz recordings were made. Part of the reinforcement of a rock sensibility comes through the use of vocals, which serve roughly the same function as they did in the Experience. Black Axis finds the band (with fresh drummer Frank Neumeier) tapping into grooves a bit more (some near funky), but also kicking up clouds of pungent cacophony and launching into the stratosphere. A

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Graded on a Curve:
The Flesh Eaters,
I Used to Be Pretty

Shifting of size and shape across the decades yet always recognizable, The Flesh Eaters endure as one of punk rock’s very greatest bands. Since the early ’90s, this beast has sprung to life only intermittently, with the constant and essential element being vocalist-lyricist Chris Desjardins, better known as Chris D. The good news is that the most star-studded Flesh Eaters lineup, featuring members of X, The Blasters, and The Plugz has reassembled and been roaring for some months now, playing live dates and then hitting the studio. I Used to Be Pretty is the result, a strikingly worthwhile and expectations-bypassing effort out January 18 on double vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Yep Roc.

Back in the day, the roots-horror-pulp brilliance of The Flesh Eaters simply oozed too much weird personality to gain major popularity from inside the confines of the US punk scene, but it’s not like they were unknowns. To the contrary, two of their first four LPs, through the subsidiary Ruby, were issued by Slash Records. Furthermore, by the late ’80s, when Chris D. was helming The Divine Horsemen (and for one LP, Stone by Stone), the entirety of early Flesh Eaters output was highly respected by those who valued punk as something other than a downward spiral into the genericism wrought by hardcore.

It remains thus. Based purely on recordings, I Used to Be Pretty is likely to be chalked up as a reunion album, and that’s not wrong, but it’s important to make the distinction that the set’s 11 songs are a document of the sparks that flew after reconvening this storied lineup for live shows, first back in 2006 as part of All Tomorrow’s Parties and again in 2015 and last year.

While I Used to Be Pretty features two new songs that open and close the album plus three covers, the rest is made up of tunes already found in The Flesh Eaters’ ample discography. If that worries you, don’t let it, as the decision isn’t a retracing of steps by a bunch of utility players. Instead, it’s the greatest Flesh Eaters lineup (widely regarded as such, whether or not you consider ’81’s A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die to be the band’s recorded apex) diving into songs they never had the chance to play or record (at least not as a complete unit).

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