Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, May 2016

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new or reissued wax presently in stores for May, 2016.

NEW RELEASE PICK: Orchestra of Spheres, Brothers and Sisters of the Black Lagoon (Fire) A historically-rich but forward-thinking sonic bouillabaisse from Wellington, NZ and pretty damned swell; at moments retro-futurist, dance-inducing, psychedelic, folky; there’s even a segment bringing Konono Nº1 to mind. Perhaps most beneficial is a playfulness that’s occasionally humorous and at other times darkly surreal. Their cover of Sun Ra’s “Rocket #9” sounds like a collab between ESG and Ari Up produced by Adrian Sherwood and it clinches this album as a success. A-  

REISSUE PICK: Steve Reich, Four Organs/ Phase Patterns (Superior Viaduct) This repressing of a 1971 Shandar LP is simply mandatory for any collection of 20th century experimental music. Listening now to these two side-long pieces, “Four Organs” an uncompromising immersion in note suspension and “Phase Patterns” a wild plunge into the unity and discord of cycles and repetition, it’s strange to recall a time, specifically the later ‘80s, when some considered Reich to be safe and even passé. The artist may have softened and gained acceptance over time, but the man’s early work endures as remarkable. A+

50 Foot Wave, “Bath White” (HHBTM) Pretty terrific art-tinged power trio rock stuff from Kristin Hersh (guitar-vocals), Bernard Georges (bass), and Rob Ahlers (drums). Described on occasion as math-like, while that’s not off target it doesn’t adequately convey the high quality of the group’s songs, and does nothing to relate the value of Hersh’s lyrics and the mature strength of her voice. As befitting their lean orientation, the instrumentation is strong throughout, and I’m reminded just as much of Mike Watt’s recent output as I am of Hersh’s and Georges’ work in Throwing Muses. A-

Rez Abbasi & Junction, Behind the Vibration (Cuneiform) Pakistani-American guitarist-composer Abbasi is a veteran with credits ranging from Ruth Brown to Tim Berne to Tinariwen; this is the debut CD of his jazz-rock quartet Junction, and lovers of Fusion should investigate without delay. At its worst, the style on offer here was responsible for blatant chops-braggarts and proto-smooth jazz atrocities, but it also produced high quality stuff. Thankfully, Junction leans to the positive side of the spectrum; improv sparks do fly, noodling is sidestepped, and I dig Mark Shim’s post-Trane/ Henderson tenor sound. B+

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Graded on a Curve:
Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian
Rock, 1972–1977

Discussions of 1970s Nigerian music were once dominated by the Afrobeat achievements of Fela Kuti, but over the last 25 years a steady flow of releases have highlighted the country’s energetic and imaginative sounds. However, as the reissues amassed a newbie could end up at wit’s end over exactly where to start; happily, the two volumes comprising Now-Again Records’ Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock 1972-1977 offer a splendid overview of its subject, combining wise choices with a wealth of info presented in two 100-plus page books, hardbound with the CD editions and softcover alongside the 2LPs. Novices rejoice, for both are out now.

It was directly following the Nigerian Civil War that a blend of R&B, funk, and rock briefly flourished in the country. This is no startling newsflash as labels like Strut and especially Soundway have been doing an admirable job in compiling the region’s output from the era for quite a while. Nigerian writer and musicologist Uchenna Ikonne has been at the forefront of this tide as a researcher and producer; amongst his recent credits is a marvelous 2013 showcase for his countryman William Onyeabor on Luaka Bop.

The dual platform Now-Again provides via Wake Up You! allows Ikonne to thoroughly relate the post-war landscape of Nigerian Rock, covering the bands, their regions and differences in style while highlighting the labels, the most productive of which was EMI, that distributed these recordings during their short window of popularity.

Instead of paraphrasing Ikonne’s work, this review will simply laud his impeccable scholarship and comment upon the sounds corralled in each set. Vol. 1 begins with the Formulars Dance Band’s “Never Never Let Me Down,” its soul/R&B base fortified with jubilant choruses and plentiful guitar wielding just a touch of psychedelia. The obvious Western influence continues in The Hygrades “Keep On Moving,” an undisguised James Brown rip complete with raw exclamations courtesy of Elvis Ato Arinze, though as it progresses the atmosphere is also a tad reminiscent of the Archie Bell & the Drells classic “Tighten Up.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Marissa Nadler, Strangers

A whole lot of singing and string picking transpired in the midst of the 2000s, but few of the those leading last decade’s indie folk pack have flourished like Marissa Nadler. Continuing the progression away from the guitar and vocal-based template the Massachusetts-based artist utilized roughly a dozen years ago, her latest LP finds her in typically strong form and with an abundance of inspired ideas; Strangers is out May 20 on Sacred Bones in the USA and Bella Union in Europe.

The above shouldn’t suggest Marissa Nadler’s early work was an example of generic strumming and vocalizing; 2004’s Ballads of Living and Dying was unusually mature for a debut, dominated by original songs that frequently registered as traditional material and delivered in a voice reminiscent of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval minus the chanteuse allure.

If decidedly more folk oriented, Nadler inhabited the discerning regions of the stylistic spectrum, adapting words by Edgar Allen Poe and Pablo Neruda on her first album and tapping into relationship breakup territory for inspiration as she produced her sophomore effort, ’05’s The Saga of Mayflower May. While her development was part of the indie folk surge, she didn’t connect as Freaky or Weird, her mezzo-soprano revealing affinities with Kate Bush but without mimicking her ethereal qualities. Nadler has been classified as “dream-folk,” however.

The aftermath of said breakup persisted in shaping the Espers-assisted Songs III: Bird on the Water, the first of two for the Kermado label (her prior records were issued on the Eclipse imprint). But if derived from rocky subject matter, Nadler wasn’t a wrung-out dishcloth of emotion and she consistently sidestepped overly fragile modes right out of the gate. Furthermore, ’09’s Little Hells significantly broadened the music’s instrumental scope, though she had been subtly distinguishing herself from the standard folky thing all the way back to the beginning.

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Graded on a Curve:
Red Square,
Rare and Lost 70s Recordings

The second half of the 1970s is accurately regarded as a time of tumult; in musical terms this typically pertains to the global punk uprising, but there were other surges of discontent against the period’s norms, and a highly interesting example has just received reissue. Rare and Lost 70s Recordings by the free improvising UK trio Red Square pairs a ’76 live set with a ‘78 studio session; considerably ahead of their time, the group expanded upon free jazz at its wildest and predicted the often uncompromising nature of underground experimental rock to come. The album is out now on vinyl and compact disc through Mental Experience, a subsidiary of the Spanish Guerssen label.

From ’74 to ’78 Red Square specialized in a merger of Fire Music and avant-rock so massive it basically insured a response dominated by ambivalence and drifts into hostility. Consisting of Jon Seagroatt on saxophones and bass clarinet, Ian Staples on guitars, and Roger Telford on drums and percussion, as related in Seagroatt’s liners for this archival release they were a byproduct of a healthy Brit underground scene where psychedelia, prog, and experimentalism were known to overlap.

The notes describe Staples’ guitar as drawing on the influence of Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart, British avant string bender Derek Bailey, and German experimental titan Karlheinz Stockhausen, a combination that’s not as unusual as it might seem given the late ’60s pairing of pioneering free improvisational unit AMM and Pink Floyd at the UFO Club. Seagroatt lists his inspirations as Soft Machine, Faust, and Can alongside heavy doses of outside jazz.

That means Coltrane obviously but also Albert Ayler, countryman Evan Parker, and the now somewhat undersung Danish saxophonist John Tchicai; broadening beyond fire-breathers is the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Weather Report. Initially a duo determined to improvise all of their music, their arsenal included prepared guitar, tape, multi-tracking, and toys in combo with standard instrumentation, voice, violin, and percussion; the arrival of Telford, referred to by Seagroatt as an early adopter of the free drum styles of Milford Graves and Sunny Murray, completed the lineup and refined their direction.

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Graded on a Curve:
Terry Allen, Juarez

To introduce Terry Allen as a ’70s country outlaw and progenitor of the alt-country uprising is to do him a considerable disservice, for he’s really in a class by himself. A recipient of Guggenheim and NEA grants as a visual artist, his work resides in the collections of the Met, MOMA, and Hirshhorn museums (amongst numerous others), and his music defies easy categorization as it uses his home state of Texas and the American West as a canvas to explore the drama and humor of existence. His 1975 debut Juarez endures as one of the great concept albums and underlines Allen’s value as a true original; its vinyl and compact disc reissue by Paradise of Bachelors is cause for celebration.

The sounds comprising Juarez were originally intended to accompany a collection of Terry Allen’s lithographs; initially released by Landfall Press in an edition of 50, that miniscule run was followed shortly after by a pressing of 1,000 copies minus the art. However, the results, subsequently released on Allen’s Fate label and last decade on Sugar Hill, provide a highly cinematic experience, and that a screenplay figures in the ensuing artworks inspired by the Juarez concept is unsurprising (others include an NPR radio play, a sculpture series, and a musical theater collab with David Byrne).

Often when a record is described as cinematic it pertains directly to its qualities as a mood piece and potential soundtrack, but Juarez’s filmic attributes are narratively driven, with Paradise of Bachelors’ ample promotional text situating the album beside Terrence Malick’s Badlands and a predecessor to David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.

Notably, all three concern the intersection of passions and violence. Allen’s story features two couples; there’s Sailor, who meets prostitute Spanish Alice in a Tijuana bar while on Naval leave, and there’s Jabo, a Los Angeles-based pachuco who convinces Chic Blundie, his eccentric (and possibly imaginary) “rock-writer” girlfriend (not a music journalist thankfully but rather someone who like scrawling on rocks) to go with him on a road trip to his hometown of Juarez.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Twinkeyz,
Alpha Jerk

Once diminished as a momentarily convulsion on the path toward increased aural sophistication, punk rock has endured as a vital development in the annuls of modern music. It’s a style too often debased today, but in a swell turn of events Sacramento’s Ss Records offers a corrective to the defilement by reissuing the sole album from their hometown brethren The Twinkeyz. Infusing a modestly scaled and vibrant garage package with knowledge of the era’s fringe, the enlightening and appealing Alpha Jerk stands as a worthwhile instance of pre-codified punk form; featuring the corrected mix and opening with a stone beauty of a tune, it’s out on vinyl now.

“Aliens in Our Midst” might’ve been released in 1977, but the A-side to The Twinkeyz’ first single is simply dripping with the wide-open spirit of ’76. Formed in the summer of that year, the band was certainly impacted by familiar touchstones, most obviously the output of proto-punk mainstay the Velvet Underground, yet these tangible qualities are interspersed with the atmosphere of a bunch of guys getting it all down on wax before the rulebook was chiseled into granite.

Underscoring the breadth of influence, The Twinkeyz’ name derives not from the junk food staple but is a tribute to Twink, the drummer for UK group Pink Fairies. Donnie Jupiter was the constant member as Steve Bateman and Wit Witkowski exited fairly early; Marc Bonella, Walter Smith, and Keith McKee were involved as well. Tom Darling was around from beginning to end but didn’t fully join until after the session that produced their best known song.

And what a song it is; “Aliens in Our Midst” unfurls a glorious recipe, a few of the ingredients having fallen to the wayside as punk grew far more focused on the intersection of surliness and speed; those VU attributes, specifically a Reed-like vocal approach and Loaded-era hook, get introduced to a decidedly garage template as a downright catchy melodic sensibility emerges complete with backup singing.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, May 2016

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new or reissued wax presently in stores for May, 2016.

NEW PICK | Those Pretty Wrongs, s/t (Ardent/Burger) Comprised of Jody Stephens of Big Star and Luther Russell of The Freewheelers, this full-length debut handily quashes any fears over middling nostalgia gestures. Instead, its ten songs shape a highly satisfying excursion into the sort of elevated guitar-pop that just as often reminds these ears of ‘80s college radio as it is does Big Star. Of course the sounds of Reagan-era Athens and Hoboken (and elsewhere) were deeply impacted by Stephens’ former band, so the breadth is no shocker. The goosebumps-inducing harmonies of closer “The Heart” are sublime. A-

REISSUE PICK | Sheila Jordan, Portrait of Sheila (Blue Note) Alfred Lion’s label hardly ever cut LPs by vocalists, a smart decision that only adds allure to this 1963 date, Jordan’s debut as leader and an utter masterpiece resurrected in this year’s Blue Note reissue slate (the others are below). While the group assembled, namely guitarist Barry Galbraith, bassist Steve Swallow, and drummer Denzel Best, deserve much praise, it’s the leader’s composed individuality as she instills freshness into a dozen selections, many of them standards, that endures as such a treat, transcending cliché for nearly 40 minutes. A+

B Boys, “No Worried Mind” (Captured Tracks) Released in March, this Brooklyn unit’s 8-song debut makes a strong enough impression to warrant an addendum, though one shouldn’t get the impression this tidy plunge into late ‘70s art punk is a mindblower. It is pretty refreshing however, in part because B Boys (Brooklyn Boys? Not a great handle) don’t register as especially pleased with themselves; instead, it just seems Chairs Missing bowled them over so heavily they had no choice but to start a band. B

Blue Jeans, Songs Are Easy (Jigsaw) Formerly Santa Monica Swim and Dive Club, these ’60s-leaning co-ed indie poppers feature Tim Sendra of ’90s act Veronica Lake. Fred Thomas of Saturday Looks Good to Me produced/ lent instrumentation and ex-Black Tambourine/ Velocity Girl Archie Moore engineered, so this is quite the All-Star affair; a few spots recall the elevated pop science of Thomas’ oft-lauded outfit, particularly when bassist Heather Phares is singing, but the stated influences of Del Shannon, The Modern Lovers, and The Go-Betweens (amongst others) register as more than name-dropping. B+

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Graded on a Curve:
Bob Brown,
The Wall I Built Myself, Willoughby’s Lament

Based in the Washington, DC area (Clinton, MD to be exact), Bob Brown was one of many ‘60s folk acolytes; by his sophomore year in high school he’d hit coffeehouse stages, but it was his pilgrimages to the ‘65 and ‘66 Newport Folk Festivals that really set the course for an eventual pair of early ‘70s albums, neither of which dented the charts. Inspection of their contents reveals both deserved better, and on May 13 Tompkins Square will reissue 1970’s The Wall I Built Myself and the following year’s Willoughby’s Lament on vinyl, compact disc, and digital.

Upon consideration, Bob Brown’s background isn’t particularly remarkable. Formative exposure came through the performances of Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, and Peter, Paul & Mary, their impact easily evident in Brown’s unruffled vocal manner. Far from any kind of roughneck, after he was blown away by Dylan at Newport ’65 his deeper influences were Tim Hardin, Eric Andersen, and Richie Havens; fortuitously, he made the acquaintance of the latter at Newport ’66.

By 1970 Brown’s music had progressed as he studied creative writing at the University of Maryland. Seeking the advice of Havens on a prospective deal with Mercury Records, Brown instead ended up on his friend’s Stormy Forest label, an enterprise stemming from the mainstream success Havens reaped through his opening slot at the ’69 Woodstock Festival.

Havens is known to many primarily as a folk interpreter of Beatles (and to a lesser extent, Dylan) tunes, and for those holding that limited viewpoint Stormy Forest could seem like an attempt to follow in the footsteps of the Fab Four’s entrepreneurial Apple Records venture. If this was Havens’ intent, Stormy Forest ultimately embodied a much smaller scale; other than the man in charge it appears five artists comprised the roster, a total including Brown.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mr. Stress Blues Band, Live at the Brick Cottage 1972-1973

Smog Veil Records has been dishing subterranean Ohio-related sounds for 25 years now, and the recent Platters du Cuyahoga initiative makes clear there’s no slowing the label down. Live at the Brick Cottage 1972 – 1973 by Mr. Stress Blues Band is the second volume in the series, offering a potent portrait of a Cleveland institution serving up no frills bar band blues, with rock flourishes kept largely in check, during a long residency at a rugged but well-remembered neighborhood joint. It’s a choice discovery for those passionate for the Buckeye u-ground and for lovers of early Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, and their ’60s Chicago blues inspirations as well. It’s out on vinyl and compact disc May 13.

After two releases, the immediate impression given off by Platters du Cuyahoga is of considerable range in the excavation; volume one is Albert Ayler’s Ghosts Live at the Yellow Ghetto by X__X, a Cleveland punk unit featuring John D. Morton, a name surely familiar to some through his participation in one of the city’s finest and most uncompromising bands, the Electric Eels.

X__X spat out a pair of massive 45s on the Drome imprint back in ’78-’80, with the spastic, abrasive, and surly contents roped onto 2014’s X Sticky Fingers X comp LP. The Platters du Cuyahoga bow followed shortly thereafter; cut in August of ’14 and January of ’15, its concentrated intersection of punk and freedom clocks in short of 18 minutes with a beautifully hairy plunge into Cleveland-born saxophonist Albert Ayler’s signature tune as a centerpiece. Even with a municipality as a unifying factor, the distance between it and Live at the Brick Cottage can appear quite wide.

Deeper inspection proves otherwise however, for early in the Mr. Stress Blues Band’s Brick Cottage run the frequently shifting lineup included eventual Rocket from the Tombs/ Pere Ubu guitarist Peter Laughner, though it’s important to understand the outfit’s importance lay not in connections to punk/ new wave (Anton Fier, the common denominator with X__X, and Chrissie Hynde make a long list of participants) but as the creative vehicle for a man bowled over by the blues.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, April 2016

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new or reissued wax presently in stores from April, 2016.

The Bevis Frond, Miasma and Inner Marshland (Fire) Through sheer prolificacy and erudition Nick Saloman’s psych unit became a fixture in the review sections of a formidable stack of late ’80s-early ’90s zines. During the period others deliberately replicated vintage ’66 (or thereabouts), but Saloman blended classicism and non-trite psych weirdness without sounding like a standard update. These ears aren’t familiar with the full Frond spectrum, but nothing meeting my acquaintance has been underwhelming; these reissues of the debut and follow-up, both from ’87, are amongst the best. A-/ A-

DNA, “You & You” b/w “Little Ants” (Superior Viaduct) The three acts comprising Superior Viaduct’s 2016 punk singles roundup, Suicide, The Fall, and DNA, all embraced the fringes over formula and represent the kind of uninhibited norm-destruction that many were (are) all too eager to dismiss or ignore. Of the three it’s the trio of Arto Lindsay (guitar-vocals), Robin Crutchfield (keys), and Ikue Mori (drums) that have retained the strongest aura of extremity. Recorded shortly before No New York this debut 45 is an undiluted hunk of No Wave racket with a barking Lindsay wrangling his axe like a champ. A

The Fall, “Bingo-Master’s Break-Out” 3-song EP and “It’s the New Thing” b/w “Various Times” (Superior Viaduct) As punk rock was expanding, straining and convulsing amid sneers, jeers, and cheers, The Fall’s debut EP and follow-up single offered an inkling of what was going to happen next. Outbursts of divergence (“Psycho Mafia,” “Bingo-Master,” “It’s the New Thing”), a manifesto (“Repetition”) and a harbinger of what was to come (“Various Times”) are now integral components in the narrative; these reissues give newcomers the opportunity to discover the essentiality as the band’s initial fans did. A+/ A

Robbie Fulks, Upland Stories (Bloodshot) Fulks’ follow-up to last autumn’s enjoyable collab with members of the Mekons (Jura, also on Bloodshot) is an absolute gem of a record. Infused with gentleness and spiked with moments of gripping intensity, this consistently beautiful document weaves country, folk, bluegrass, and even a touch of soul (hey, that’s Americana in a nutshell) into a rewardingly personal whole. Easily wipes the floor with country music’s recent pack of supposed saviors, though that’s obviously not Fulks’ intent. A

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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