Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Alexander Tucker,
Guild of the Asbestos Weaver

A native of Kent, England, Alexander Tucker’s musical roots span back to hardcore in the 1990s, but he’s come to prominence through the interweaving of drone, electroacoustic elements, psychedelia, post-industrial ambiance and honest-to-goodness songs. Tucker’s latest solo effort (he’s also part of Grumbling Fur) is Guild of the Asbestos Weaver, his eighth full-length and the fourth to be released by Thrill Jockey. Offering five expansive tracks and a “classic” album runtime, the contents blend focused experimentation and trad tunesmithing to a result that’s as inviting as it is edgy. It’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital August 23.

The title of Alexander Tucker’s new record derives from the underground opposition in Ray Bradbury’s dystopian science-fiction classic Fahrenheit 451, a borrowing that’s representative of the artist’s stated desire to combine his longstanding interest in sci-fi and “cosmic horror” (from comic art, filmic and literary forms) with minimalism, drone and dream music.

To elaborate on that last style, it’s not dream-pop Tucker is tapping into but rather, explicitly stated, the “Dreamweapon” modus operandi of Angus MacLise, a legendary 1960s NYC-based percussionist-composer who was part of La Monte Young’s groundbreaking drone endeavor the Theater of Eternal Music. MacLise died in 1979, and it took roughly two decades for recordings (both under his own name and as a part of Young’s group) to become commercially available.

Still, MacLise’s biggest claim to “fame” (notably a goal he never strived for) is as an inaugural member of the Velvet Underground; that no recordings featuring his contribution survive from this era only adds to his mythic stature. As mentioned above, the impact of MacLise’s aesthetic on Guild of the Asbestos Weaver is right there in Thrill Jockey’s promo text, and it’s worth expanding upon due to Tucker’s similarity, both vocally and compositionally, to MacLise’s associate John Cale.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Animals,
The Animals

In addition to The Beatles and Stones, the British Invasion produced numerous other noteworthy groups, and one of the most successful was The Animals. A serious-minded bunch led by that brawny-throated student of American blues and early rock ‘n’ roll Eric Burdon, they persist in the modern memory mainly for their hit singles. But on the subject of albums, they also had a few very good ones, though differing US and UK editions have frustrated collectors on both sides of the Atlantic for years. Of the two versions of their 1964 debut The Animals, the Brit issue may not be the best, but it does give a deep glimpse into what this no-nonsense, solidly rocking band was initially all about.

Eric Burdon seems like the kind of cat who’d rather keel over dead than quit singing. Nearly fifty years after his first album came out he’s still out there doing it on stages, and like the R&B legends that provided him with his formative inspiration, his continued activity comes without a whole lot of pomp and circumstance. Because he played an enjoyably quirky role in the landslide of ‘60s psychedelic rock by fronting a later incarnation of The Animals and proceeded from that to get his fingers nice and funky on a pair of albums in collaboration with the California groove merchants War, Burdon’s profile has easily transcended the outfit that began in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1962, when he joined up with a group then called The Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo.

In addition to Burdon and organist/keyboardist Price, the other members were Hilton Valentine on guitar, John Steel on drums, and Bryan “Chas” Chandler on bass. Rechristened as The Animals and following the advice of Yardbirds’ manager Giorgio Gomelsky, who obviously saw something in the band’s early stage act that was comparable to the act under his supervision, they moved to London and quickly hit the big time.

Along with some minor rumblings in the US, their first single “Baby Let Me Take You Home” landed at #15 on the UK charts, and deservedly so, for it’s a good one. Though credited to writers Wes Ferrell and Bert Burns (the latter notable for penning such ‘60s warhorses as “Twist and Shout,” “Hang on Sloopy,” and “Here Comes the Night” by fellow Brit Invasion figures Them) it’s basically a rough retooling of the trad folk number “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” then popular for its version on Bob Dylan’s debut LP (as borrowed by the unjustly obscure folk personality Eric Von Schmidt.)

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Graded on a Curve:
Redd Kross,
Beyond the Door

Led by siblings Jeff and Steven McDonald, Redd Kross is a byproduct of the original Los Angeles punk scene. Having been through myriad changes and periods of inactivity across the decades since, that they are releasing quality music in 2019 is a circumstance worth celebrating. That is to say, the McDonald’s latest is a beacon of inspired punk-edged pop-rocking, a record brought to fruition with guitarist Jason Shapiro and Melvins drummer Dale Crover (this duo part of the recording process for the first time). A tidy and consistent slab of muscular catchiness, Beyond the Door is out digitally, on CD in a 4-panel digipak, and on black or opaque purple vinyl August 23 through Merge Records of Durham, NC.

Researching the Blues, which marked a return to activity for Redd Kross, was one of 2012’s most pleasant surprises. ‘twas such because the band didn’t exactly cease operations on a high note in the ’90s (though I do rate ’96’s Show World, their third and final album before the long break, as their best of the decade). And let us face it; by 2012 the brothers were frankly getting up there in years, and while this 48-year old doesn’t want to come off as ageist, older folks dishing out shit-hot rock ‘n’ roll is still very much the exception and not the norm.

Crover and Shapiro (who was in ’80s punk-glamsters Celebrity Skin and before that San Fran hardcore act Verbal Abuse) are no spring chickens either. As the McDonalds’ pop-rock elder status intensifies, their ability to deliver lively hard-pop hasn’t diminished, perhaps because they’ve resisted the formulaic, and not only by opening up the recording process to the current live band; it’s made plain in the promo text that Steven is more involved in the songwriting process than ever before.

Opener “The Party” underscores the collective engagement in the process as the track outlines the band’s “total commitment to having the best fucking time we can have while we’re all still here.” This might radiate vibes similar to Urge Overkill in smoking jackets with cigars and brandy snifters, but the band has resisted any impulse to direct the above mission statement into a retro-sophisto-livin’-the-high-life costume trip, and for that, I’m glad.

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Graded on a Curve:
Jeff Beck, “Hi Ho
Silver Lining” b/w “Beck’s Bolero”

If ever they mold a Mt. Rushmore of Classic Rock guitar wizards, it will surely include the chiseled mug of Jeff Beck, his career so lengthy and varied that it’s basically a bottomless reservoir of inspiration for articles in Mojo magazine. Along with his work in The Yardbirds, rock listeners persist in celebrating him for the two distinct Jeff Beck Groups and for his many solo albums. Sometimes overlooked is the pair of singles Beck recorded in ‘67, and “Hi Ho Silver Lining” b/w “Beck’s Bolero” is the better of the two.

For a certain breed of rock fan, the various permutations of The Yardbirds are a gift that keeps on giving. Whether it’s the early blues purist period with Clapton and the smash “For Your Love” (which sent Eric reeling into the tastefully bluesy embrace of John Mayall), the copious top-notch material and numerous hits produced by the post-Beck rave-ups and experimentation, and the brief pleasures to be had from the short-lived Beck/Page lineup; really, it’s only the culminating quartet that’s patchy, though there’s more quality to be found there than many think.

Of course, scores of folks only recognize The Yardbirds as the group that begat Led Zeppelin, since it was the four-piece fronted by Page that was contractually bound to tour and slowly transmogrified into what we now know as Zep. Similarly, there’s a smaller but significant number of ears that neglect the 45s Beck cut directly after departing the ‘birds. This omission is either purposeful, due to the a sides’ unabashed pop ambition (i.e. the discrete odor of Mickie Most) or purely accidental; for decades, they were most easily discovered in Best of Beck packages. I don’t recall hearing them on the radio.

Those songs were available elsewhere, however. In fact, I first heard “Hi Ho Silver Lining” in the ‘80s on a 2LP import various artists compilation titled Formula 30, and I’ll acknowledge the initial taste proved a tad befuddling, mainly because Jeff Beck was considered, with Clapton, Page, and the departed Hendrix (the only one insured not to fuck up his own legacy), as a true deity of Rock Guitar. And of the three still living, Beck has displayed the greatest ambivalence over the commercial expectations of hard rocking power blues.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
August 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 August, 2019. Part one is here and part two is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: loscil, Equivalents (Kranky) For his latest, Canadian composer Scott Morgan takes inspiration from a series of photographs by Alfred Stieglitz. The objects in the photos were clouds, but the subject of the series was abstraction, or better said a freeing of the photographed from direct interpretation. Morgan borrows the title of Stieglitz’s series for his 12th LP and its eight tracks, though they are sequenced out of order. If you’re new to the work of loscil, don’t get stuck in the clouds and draw a connection between ambient music and drifting, vaporous insubstantiality, as what Morgan has achieved here is often quite intense and in fact eschews expectations (clichés and stereotypes) over what ambient music sounds like. One could simply call it experimentation, abstract yet focused. Do it. A

Oh Sees, Face Stabber (Castle Face) When I first glimpsed the cover of these San Franciscans’ umpteenth full-length (this one a double), I immediately thought of Frank Frazetta. And it’s indeed credited as being a ’70s van airbrush of Frazetta’s “Swamp Demon.” Recognizing the artist was no great accomplishment on my part; I don’t know Frazetta’s work well, but it is highly distinctive, as anyone who’s seen it is likely to concur. I’m considerably more familiar with the Oh Sees’ steadily growing body of work. Their blend of heavy psych, Krautrock, experimental punk, and in a recent twist, organ-driven prog, is nearly as recognizable as ol’ Frank. And the mention of prog might seem to fit with the cover artist, but it’s never a hackneyed trip. Things even get a little funky. How am I feeling? Pretty fucking fine, my friend. A

Blanck Mass, Animated Violence Mild (Sacred Bones) When an artist I primarily know through another outfit or endeavor has a “solo electronic project,” I can get a little fidgety, mainly because the results can sometimes be, to put it charitably, less than stellar. My knowledge of Benjamin John Power comes via Fuck Buttons, though I’ve known of the existence of Blanck Mass for a while now and have indeed heard them/ him while watching Ben Wheatley’s drug film freakout A Field in England. That didn’t really prepare me for these large-scaled and highly danceable electronic tracks which often stretch out into cinematic territory, and more appropriately hit the emo-rush/ high-five-isms suitable as a soundtrack for live sports/ group catharsis. Well, except for the post-industrial aggro. Which is plentiful. A-

Prana Crafter / Tarotplane, Symbiose (Beyond Beyond is Beyond) As this label is hitting an impressive qualitative stride, here’s a very cool split album with one long track per side featuring two one-man acts. Prana Crafter is William Sol from the woodlands of Washington State and Tarotplane is PJ Dorsey from Baltimore. The stated objective was to platter up some complementary kosmische, and they’ve achieved this goal rather nicely through appreciable levels of edge, intensity, and of course drift and glide. And there is distinctiveness, with Prana Crafter’s “Jagged Mountain Melts at Dawn” sliding in all sorts of directions; a little San Fran, a smidge of Can, some Eastern burn, while Tarotplane’s “We Move Slowly Through the Past” connects in a big long stretch like Popul Vuh crossed with Pompeii-era Floyd. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection

As evidenced by the threads he’s sporting in the cover photo above, Narvel Eatmon, better known as Cadillac Baby, was a colorful character. Having made the trip from Mississippi to Chicago, by the 1950s he was a smooth operator who ran his own club; by decade’s end he was trying his hand at releasing records. Commercially, the results were modestly successful at best, but the contents of the 4CD + 128pg hardback book Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection documents a layer of the Windy City’s blues experience that ran alongside the dominant sound of Chess and fortifies the years between Cobra Records and the Delmark label. It’s out August 16 through Earwig Music Company.

Some of the names included in this set are obscure, but there is a high number of contributors who will be immediately familiar to blues fans; right off the bat, or more accurately immediately after the opening track “Welcome to Cadillac Baby’s Show Lounge,” which comes from Bea & Baby’s sole LP, 1971’s Colossal Blues (marketed as a live recording but obviously concocted from studio-originated songs and “club atmosphere”), there’s Eddie Boyd, he of 1951 R&B chart #1 “Five Long Years.”

Across the four discs, he’s followed by such notables as Earl Hooker, Hound Dog Taylor (making his recording debut), James Cotton, Sunnyland Slim, Homesick James, and in contrast to the prevailing currents of electricity, the acoustic folk-blues styling of Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon, the duo offered up via four cuts, all previously unreleased.

And to clarify, Bea & Baby wasn’t strictly about the blues. There are dips into R&B, courtesy of the sprightly pop-tinged gal group action of The Chances, deep smooth crooner Phil Sampson, and the late Andre Williams even making an appearance, though the doo-wop-tinged work of the Daylighters is a bit more prevalent through their own stuff and overdubbed onto a revamped Eddie Boyd single in hopes of increased market appeal. But 11 Year Old Faith Evans & the Sweet Teens, with their symphonic heart tug A-side backed with up-tempo doo-wop nugget nearly steal the non-blues show.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Frogs,
It’s Only Right and Natural

Simply put, The Frogs’ It’s Only Right and Natural is one of the most deliriously bent records to have emerged from the 1980s underground scene. The handiwork of brothers Jimmy and (the late) Dennis Flemion and originally issued on the Homestead label, the album’s 14 songs wedded over-the-top homoerotic subject matter to a twisted, druggy folk-rock approach, and like the best of satire could inspire miscomprehension and even downright hostility. But the true root of the LP, which is being reissued for the first time in stereo August 16 by The End of All Music, is a stealthily sturdy batch of tunes. Not everyone’s gonna like it, but that’s exactly how it is with many great, singular things.

There are parts of It’s Only Right and Natural, (okay, most if it), that in 2019, can be accessed as “problematic.” The record, which plunges deep into gay stereotypes in a way that has always connected to me (and many others) as lampooning the fevered imaginations of the sexually intolerant, lacks the “here’s a lesson” didacticism of so much lesser satire and instead embraces the juvenile, which is why it’s sometimes assessed as a mere joke.

Obviously, it’s that decided lack of maturity (i.e. tastelessness) that will make this alb a take it or leave it proposition. But really, it’s always been that way with The Frogs, an act who not only persevered but became a subject of Alt-rock celebrity championing in the ’90s: they were on Cobain’s top 50 albums list, they were loved by Billy Corgan, “I Don’t Care If U Disrespect Me (Just So You Love Me)” was sampled by Beck, and they secured fans in Pearl Jam, Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach, filmmaker Harmony Korine, and the Blake Babies, who named their “Rosy Jack World” EP after a song from this LP.

I bought my CD copy before all this, based on a terse description that was making the rounds that The Frogs were a “gay supremacist duo.” Coupled with the disc’s cover, a certain will to provoke became apparent. I had to hear it. Back then, I was surely hit by that juvenile aspect, but along the way, The Frogs tangled with those stereotypes in a manner that was so ridiculous, perhaps attaining an apex (or nadir) with “Baby Greaser George,” that it became impossible to take the sentiments seriously (the music is no joke, though).

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
August 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 August, 2019. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE PICK: YUNGMORPHEUS and Fumitake Tamura, Mazal (Leaving) This hip-hop collab, with YUNGMORPHEUS the Los Angelino rapper and Tamura the Japanese-based producer, is distinguished by a persistent druggy aura. Bent and hazy, nothing here registers as fast (even the tracks with prominent jazz samples/ loops), which isn’t the same as a lack of urgency. YUNGMORPHEUS’ vocal delivery can be described as heavy-lidded, though I kinda prefer the descriptor of monotone; it contrasts productively with subject matter that touches on getting high but is just as concerned with the current nightmarish reality that is the USA and surviving as a black man within it. Mazal is dark, but I wouldn’t say it’s bleak. Its ten instrumental tracks add to its wonderfully twisted sum, and it’s all right up my alley. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: The Strangeloves, I Want Candy (Real Gone) Now this vinyl reish is very useful, as the only copies I’ve ever laid eyes on were badly battered and beaten, indeed essentially unplayable; this edition of 1,000 is sure to go quick. The Strangeloves are the story of music biz cats Richard Gottehrer, Jerry Goldstein, and Bob Feldman cravenly striving for hits and coming up with a few, most notably the title-track here, but also “Cara-Lin” and “Night-Time” (both included, as well). They also cut the original “Hang On Sloopy” (here, also) and were directly involved in the rerecording by The McCoys (that version is absent). One way to inaptly describe this LP is as authentic (they faked it as Australians, for one thing), but it is a fine dose of pre-Sgt. Pepper’s stoopid-doopid pop-rock. A-

Jefferson Airplane, Woodstock Sunday August 17, 1969 (Real Gone) Last week it was Creedence Clearwater Revival’s concise Woodstock set getting the vinyl treatment and the archival pick. This week it’s the Airplane’s comparatively sprawling (well, an hour and 40 minutes, anyway) Sunday morning set spread across three LPs and released in its entirety for the first time (only one tune was on the original 3LP), though I’m certain it’s also included on Rhino’s upcoming Woodstock box set, which totals 38 CDs, and purports to offer nearly every note played at the festival, even the shitty ones. There aren’t many, or in fact hardly any, shitty notes in the Airplane’s performance for the early morning risers; 7 a.m., it says. Nicky Hopkins even roused himself out of slumber (if ever he went to sleep) to join them.

However, the band was right on the cusp of releasing Volunteers, which isn’t my favorite album from the band. Not even close. Still, after an intro from Grace, they give Fred Neil’s “Other Side of This Life” a nice rocking out, which instills a positive forward motion that helps to offset a few of the weaker moments. There may have been hardly any bum notes, but there are peaks and valleys of quality throughout. Fortunately, there are more ups than downs (there’s also a little audio roughness early on). “Wooden Ships” starts out…well, it starts out like “Wooden Ships,” and then morphs into something special. After 21 minutes, it’s over. But really, this takes the morsel once provided of Jefferson Airplane at Woodstock and with a snap and a bang turns it into a deluxe picnic-style spread. B+

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Graded on a Curve:
Purple Pilgrims,
Perfumed Earth

Sisters Valentine and Clementine Nixon are Purple Pilgrims, a New Zealand-based act with a penchant for experimentally tinged dream-pop, a sound that’s beautifully realized on their sophomore full-length Perfumed Earth. They enlist a fair amount of assistance in the making of the album, but let’s leave that for below; from the gorgeous vocals to the depth and warmth of the songs, this is very much the Nixon’s record and much more than a standard excursion into the ethereal. Indeed, in textural terms, these nine selections climb a few notches above the norm. It’s out on vinyl (either lilac-colored and black), compact disc and digital August 9 through Flying Nun Records.

Purple Pilgrims emerged in 2011 with an 8-inch lathe cut in an edition of 50. It held two untitled tracks with a cover photo swiped from the poster for the Wes Craven-directed 1981 cult horror movie Deadly Blessing and was accompanied by a hand-sewn 12-page zine. Checking out the tracks on Bandcamp (via the PseudoArcana label), they radiate like a mixture of environmental field recordings and pop that’s as psychedelic as it is dreamy; that it was mastered by Brian Crook of the Renderers provides a clue as to where it’s all situated.

From there, Purple Pilgrims shared a 2013 split LP with the US-based twisted synth psych sculptor Gary War on Upset! The Rhythm and they followed that in 2016 with their proper full-length debut Eternal Delight on the Not Not Fun label. The songs on the split lessened the hazy drifty quality that could make ‘em seem like a byproduct of the Xpressway label in favor of dreamy glisten-glide, and all was well.

With Eternal Delight, the sound blossomed even more, all while retaining tangible but subtle edge in the delivery, so that folks who gravitated toward the lathe-cut debut could continue to relate. There was also an increase in attention to synth ambiance that underscored the association with Gary War. On Perfumed Earth, this connection persists, as War contributed bass and synth lines to the record from various US hotels while he was out touring with John Maus.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Art Ensemble
of Chicago,
We Are on the Edge

The cover of The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s We Are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration states that it is dedicated to departed members Lester Bowie, Shaku Joseph Jarman, and Malachi Favors Maghostut, so one could be forgiven for anticipating that the atmosphere would be an inviting but relatively safe blend of celebration and tribute. However, that’s not how surviving members Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye operate. Released on 2CD in April by Pi Recordings, the essence of the two hour-plus runtime is effectively explicated in its title. A 2LP with the studio half of this set hit racks on July 26 via Erased Tapes. On August 9, the 4LP box arrives, and for fans, it’s the one to get.

The work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago was, alongside that of saxophonist-composer Anthony Braxton, pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith, and saxophonist-composer Henry Threadgill, the highest profile byproduct of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, or AACM, an organization formed in Chicago in 1965 that continues to exist to this day.

After percussionist Famoudou Don Moye joined in 1970 (during the group’s stay in Paris) the Art Ensemble’s lineup remained essentially static (with occasional additions) for over 20 years, up to Jarman’s temporary retirement 1993. Bowie passed in 1999 and Favors in 2004. Jarman returned to the group the previous year and plays on Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City: Live at the Iridium, which came out in 2006.

We Are on the Edge was recorded from October 16-20 of 2018 as part of the annual Edgefest in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Jarman died on January 9 of this year. That he does not appear on these recordings initially deepens the sadness stemming from the loss of another brilliant improvisor, but this reality is ultimately offset by the assured vision articulated by the personnel assembled by Mitchell and Moye.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
August 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 August, 2019. 

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Werner Durand with Amelia Cuni and Victor Meertens, Processions (besom presse) Here’s the first record, a double LP, from a new label based in Los Angeles that’s devoted to experimental sounds, with the focus, at least thus far, on the eternal drone (their second release is covered directly below). Durand is a composer, performer, and instrument-maker, his partner Cuni is a dhrupad singer, and Meertens is a visual artist, though he’s an instrumentalist here; specifically, he hammers a guitar (think dulcimer) on these four side-long tracks in just-intonation. Long passages are like the guitars of Sonic Youth in abstract/ outside mode mingling with the potent extendedness of La Monte Young. But Cuni’s voice and Durand’s horns instill substantial uniqueness to this stellar collab. A

David Watson and Tony Buck, Ask the Axes (besom presse) Buck is percussionist for Aussies The Necks, here joining experimental Highland Bagpiper Watson in a duo of striking intensity and distinctiveness. Like the above LP, it should bring drone lovers much joy. Watson begins the 22-minute A-side “Beating” with a deep bedrock tone and matters just gradually get thicker and richer from there. Rather than strive for elongated sounds himself, Buck’s contributions are recognizable as percussion, but often cyclical, which is as cool as kittens. It’s Buck’s snare that commences the 19-minute B-side “Exhale,” and I’m tempted to say he’s the dominant presence on the track, though Watson’s playing wiggles and hangs in the air quite beautifully. The conclusion is wonderful. This is quite the way to start a label. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Live at Woodstock (Craft) I don’t know about you, but when I think of Woodstock (which admittedly isn’t all that often, though as the festival nears its 50th birthday, it’s been entering my mind a bit more frequently of late) I don’t think of CCR. This general non-association is due to the band not being included in the film or on its soundtrack, by their (or we should clarify, John Fogerty’s) choice. But in fact, they were top billed on the fest’s Saturday night, though they didn’t hit the stage until after midnight due to the Grateful Dead playing an extra long set (of course they did). While the appearance of the group’s complete performance on 2LP, CD and digital isn’t a revelation, I, like nearly everybody else, am just getting to hear it all, and it’s a sweet earful.

What I have heard, is a LOT of CCR in my life; in fact, other than The Beatles, there may not be a band I’ve heard more. This is largely because they are (arguably, though I don’t know how many counter examples could be reasonably broached) the most adaptable of the classic rock acts. I like ‘em. Chances are good you like ‘em. And you, and you. Hippies like ‘em. Punks like ‘em, too. My Mom likes ‘em. Surely there are folks who don’t like ‘em, but that contingent doesn’t seem to be very vocal in their opposition. The thing that makes Live at Woodstock such an immediate treat is the fresh twists on songs that are branded into my (and likely your) memory banks, plus a few surprises, like “The Night Time is the Right Time” from Green River, and very productive stretch-outs of “Keep on Chooglin’” and “Suzie Q.” A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 Vols. 1 & 2

The chances are good that anyone reading this site knows about a certain three-day music festival held in August of 1969. Well, this review delves into the other major musical gathering from that month of that year; it occurred from Aug. 1-3 at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium, and it was dedicated to the blues. For half a century, the occasion has been a part of the genre’s lore rather than an interactive milestone, but Third Man’s release of Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 Vols. 1 & 2 changes this situation across two double LPs offering a multiplicity of approaches from names big and small and just in time for the 50th anniversary of the whole affair.

Organized by a handful of blues-nut attendees of the University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor Blues Festival is notable as the first musical event held on US soil devoted solely to blues music. Scoping out the names that comprise these eight sides of vinyl, it’s remarkable how they excelled without much of a specific template, though of course there were folk and jazz fests a la Newport that served as a sort of rough guide.

While the lineup is loaded with titans, it’s diversity that’s the vital organizational tactic, interspersing acoustic country blues, with obvious nods to the Delta, into a landscape of electrified urbanity. The guitar is unsurprisingly favored, but there is room made for pianists, harp blowers, horn sections, and even some accordion.

The co-rulers of amplified Chicago, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, are here, both in strong form, with B.B. King joining them on the fest’s marquee of post-WWII blues mega-names, but it all kicks off with the indefatigable and highly adaptable pianist Roosevelt Sykes, whose skill on the keys is matched (indeed surpassed) by his ability to work a crowd as he dives with relish into the risqué smack-talk of “Dirty Mother For You.” As Sykes mentions, he cut it in ’34 for Decca, and it establishes a lineup spanning considerably wider than the cravings of a typical rocker turned budding blues aficionado.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Giraffes,
Flower of the Cosmos

Heavy rockers The Giraffes formed in mid-’90s New York City and released a slew of records through the aughts of Century 21. They’ve put out a few this decade as well, though there was also a hiatus from 2011-’14. Flower of the Cosmos is their latest; featuring co-founders Damien Paris and Andrew Totolos on guitar and drums respectively, longtime vocalist Aaron Lazar and bassist Hannah Moorhead, the sound is powerful and punky with touches of technical flair and inextricable ties to the harder side of the 1990s-2000s Alt-rock shebang, though as the ten songs unwind, they avoid succumbing to the less appealing aspects of that era/ sound. It’s out on vinyl and digital August 2 via Silver Sleeve Records.

The Giraffes are described as a cult band, and I won’t argue, though it seems to me that their sound, if not the stuff of massive popularity, was and remains a commercially viable proposition. And they’ve certainly sold some records across the last couple decades, along with touring and sharing stages with such noteworthy acts as Eagles of Death Metal, Gogol Bordello, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, The Strokes, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and…Blowfly.

But alas, while I’ve been cognizant of The Giraffes’ existence over the years, I’ll confess to having spent very little time with their stuff. In fact, Flower of the Cosmos is serving as my proper introduction to the band, whose sound has been likened to Queens of the Stone Age, Mars Volta, Big Business, Fu Manchu, and Black Sabbath. Additional contrasts have been made, but these are the ones that stuck out to me after a casual listen.

Upon digging in more intently, they put their best collective foot forward with album opener “Can’t Do This in Your Head,” pairing heaviness commencing with a thunderous bass line to cooking velocity. It’s a combination supporting the reported mayhem of their live shows. It’s undeniably Lazar’s vocals that put me in a ’90s frame of mind, but his heavy rock soul-wailing connects as non-noxious by hanging in proper balance with the instrumental ripping throughout the record.

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Graded on a Curve: Charlie Musselwhite, Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s South Side Band

Though their number continues to gradually dwindle, a few severe sticklers do persist in maintaining that the blues up and died when its essence got plugged into an amplifier. This hard-line stance is an easy one to shrug off, but there is also larger numbers of folks subscribing to the notion that the 1960s initiated the electric blues’ long slow decline. A quick fix for this faulty line of thinking is to cozy up to a copy of Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s South Side Band.

By 1967, deep Chicago blues was in a dual position of having established an inextricable connection to the popular sounds of the day (student Stones sitting at the feet of teacher Howlin’ Wolf on Shindig, assorted garage rock covers of “Baby Please Don’t Go,” the growing popularity of Eric Clapton) while simultaneously being in commercial remission, with the blues’ core audience ditching the stuff in droves and heading for the climes of increased sophistication. At least that’s what some music history books tell us.

To clarify a bit, the Chicago blues continued to thrive as live club music, and where a national company like Chess was scrambling to contemporize their marquee stars Wolf and Muddy Waters for the swelling consumer market of the rock generation, there were also far more humble and sensible labels like Chicago’s own Delmark and the wide-ranging folk-oriented imprint Vanguard, with both stepping up to promote the undying oomph of unadulterated Windy City sounds.

Still a few years away was Alligator Records’ unleashing of the amazing Hound Dog Taylor, but in 1967 (some reports insist 1966) Vanguard was wise enough to wax up Stand Back! It serves as the long-playing debut from Memphis’ Charlie Musselwhite and also as one of the most fully formed first efforts of its decade; along the way the label roped in blues scholar Sam Charters as producer, commissioned liner notes from the estimable Pete Welding, and then made sure to misspell Musselwhite’s first name on the cover. And it’s a bummer that far too few current listeners know the guy by either variation.

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Graded on a Curve:
Son of Bazerk
Bazerk Bazerk Bazerk

Son of Bazerk suffered the double whammy of arriving too late and also too early. Instead of the success they deserved for their enduringly brilliant debut Bazerk Bazerk Bazerk, they had to settle for cult status.

Production by Hank Schocklee and The Bomb Squad insured that the group was in no way behind the times on a musical level, but in terms of presentation and content, they unfortunately fell outside the zeitgeist; savvy in conception while also possessing the requisite intensity, this still underappreciated classic fits rather snuggly into the niche of rap as extroverted, highly social party music. Problem was, by 1991 the hip-hop tide had changed toward socially relevant, politically conscious, often angry tracts as exemplified by Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and Ice Cube’s Amerikka’s Most Wanted, both released the previous year and both notably produced by The Bomb Squad. Instead of righteous platforms of truth-telling and uncensored depictions of ghetto existence, Son of Bazerk was a crew dedicated to elevating and extending the time honored tradition of rocking the block and the club with finely tuned precision.

Comprised of MCs Son of Bazerk (Tony Allen), Almighty Jahwell (Jeffery Height), Daddy Rawe (Gary Staton), and Half Pint (Cassandra Jackson), the group mingled their contrasting styles into a seamless whole; Jahwell and Rawe both possessed strong straight-ahead microphone methods respectively accented by reggae and R&B inclinations. Half Pint brought in a unique high-pitched hype flavor, and Bazerk’s barking Bobby Byrd-esque vocal technique led (but didn’t dominate) the show.

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