Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
John Coltrane,
The Atlantic Years
in Mono

Sound reads, all summer long.Ed.

John Coltrane’s Atlantic period presents an arresting convergence of circumstances. It was a time of raised profile and of considerable transition, the artist’s confidence audibly growing as he united jazz tradition and experimentation; most of all it was an era of major breakthroughs establishing the saxophonist as a leader in his field. The Atlantic Years in Mono doesn’t include the entirety of his work for the label, but it does ably document a thrilling era that brought Coltrane to a mainstream audience. Don’t be scared by the audiophile angle; Rhino’s 6CD/6LP+7-inch set is a splendid acquisition for both newbies and longtime fans. One gets to hear the thriving mastery as it was originally released.

By the time John Coltrane hooked up with the Ertegun brothers he’d already chalked up a significant list of achievements, serving as a powerful voice in post-bop’s development via the bands of Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, guesting for a track on Sonny Rollins’ Tenor Madness, teaming with Hank Mobley, Al Cohn, and Zoot Simms for Tenor Conclave, and leading bands for Prestige and for one LP Blue Note. Top billing came with Coltrane in 1957, and next was Blue Train for Blue Note, which many consider to be his first great album. John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio followed in ’58 (aka Traneing In for its ’61 reissue), and Soultrane retained the services of the Garland band. As Coltrane’s fame grew Prestige would later release nearly a dozen albums under his name from unissued sessions and elevated sideman dates, in turn possibly lending a false impression of the saxophonist as unusually prolific during ’57-’58.

Coltrane was constantly playing but was nowhere near popular enough to have that many albums produced in such a short span; indeed, his two ’58 records with Wilber Harden as co-leader, Jazz Way Out and Tanganyika Strut, are rarely discussed in spite of their being positioned directly before Coltrane’s move to Atlantic. Well, not quite; the closest correspondent recording to his ’59 Atlantic debut Giant Steps is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, June
2018, Part Three

Part three of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for June, 2018. Part one is here and part two is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Norbert Rodenkirchen / Robbie Lee / James Ilgenfritz, Opalescence (Telegraph Harp) As part of the ensemble Sequentia, Rodenkirchen is a heavyweight medieval music flautist. Lee’s a woodwind specialist who likes bringing early music instruments into contempo settings; amongst others, he’s played with Mary Halvorson and Brian Chase. Ilgenfritz is a bassist, composer, and leader of The Anagram Ensemble; of collaborators and credits, he has a ton. Although flute is a hard sell for me when not played by Eric Dolphy or Roland Kirk, this LP proves to be a non-stop pleasure, largely because it resides in an avant zone where clichés, flute or non, are absent. That doesn’t mean medieval/ early music aspects aren’t perceptible amid the post-jazz thrust, there’s just no grafting. Sweet. A

Arp, Zebra (Mexican Summer) Artist-producer-DJ Alexis Georgopoulos is Arp, and his latest is a consistently engaging and occasionally delightful tour of an instrumental landscape that’s more than slightly reminiscent of the post-Eno/ Jon Hassell progressive-ambient ‘80s, with definite nods toward the era’s global adventurousness. There are elements recalling rainforest New Age, rhythms African and Reich-like, Multikulti jazz, mellow kosmische, Japanese avant-pop, and a boatload of fluttering, burbling, and swirling electronics. Employing a wide array of instruments, maybe the most appealing being double bass, Georgopoulos isn’t merely striving for period synthesis here, with a few moments bringing The Necks and The Books to mind. “Halflight Visions” and “Fluorescences” are amongst the standouts. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: V/A / Hugh Tracey, Listen All Around: The Golden Age of Central and East African Music (Dust-to-Digital) The reports of the compact disc’s demise are greatly exaggerated. While I’m no fan of the format overall, the recent proliferation of CD-books is a cause for great cheer, especially when assembled by the folks at Dust-to-Digital. These 84 pages spotlighting field-recordings made in the titular regions from 1950-’58 is an information trove, and the emphasis on the work of pioneering ethnomusicologist Tracey, a native South African who established the International Library of African Music in 1954, is surely admirable. but it’s the two CDs of wide-ranging and unswervingly beautiful music, all 47 tracks of it, that makes this essential for fans of African sounds. A+

V/A, Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris (Dust to Digital) Dipping into the substantial life’s work of audio recordist, filmmaker, folklorist, and professor William Ferris, this offers a 120-page hardcore book teeming with insights and photos illuminating African-American art and culture, a DVD of his documentary films (one of which covers the fife and drum master Othar Turner), and three CDs, the first focused on a wide variety of blues, the second offering a wonderful serving of gospel, and the last loaded with storytelling from an array of voices including a handful of the contributing musicians (plus B.B. King and Pete Seeger) as well as authors Barry Hannah, Alice Walker, Alex Haley, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Penn Warren. The cumulative effect is staggering. A+

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Graded on a Curve:
The Room in the Wood, The Room in the Wood

Liverpool’s The Room in the Wood features vocalist Dave Jackson and guitarist-bassist Paul Cavanagh, and their project’s self-titled debut marks the first time they’ve worked together since the breakup of their noted post-punk outfit The Room back in 1985. Both have been musically active since, so the limited vinyl’s 11 songs (a dozen on the CD) show no traces of rust as the contents imbue a mature post-punk-descended melodic rock with folk and acoustic blues influences. Altogether, it’s a winning combination, and it’s out June 22 through the reignited A Turntable Friend Records.

I first heard The Room long after they’d called it a day, during one of my periodic dives into the labyrinthine nooks of the post-punk wave, with my lingering impression of a solid band with a handful of great songs (maybe the greatest being “Things Have Learnt to Walk that Ought to Crawl”) and a few characteristics in common with their country’s indie pop impulse.

If critically adored while extant (at least reportedly so), in the years since they’ve become somewhat underrated, though far from forgotten; the high-volume discography of the post-punk retrospective label LTM holds two CD collections of The Room’s work, one a Best of (No Dream) and the other an LP/ mini-album combo (In Evil Hour/Clear!)

After the breakup Dave Jackson went on to sing and write songs in Benny Profane along with a bunch of other bands and projects, while Paul Cavanagh took part in a slew of activities as well, amongst them recording solo as Cabin in the Woods. The Room in the Woods finds them rejoining forces, but in a positive development, not attempting to fall back into the motions of their former band.

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Graded on a Curve:
Chris Crofton,
Hello It’s Me

Rock musician, stand-up comedian, actor, comedic advice columnist: Nashville’s Chris Crofton wears many creative hats, but with Hello It’s Me he dives wholeheartedly into singer-songwriter pop with an emphasis on serious, complicated love songs. Crisply produced by Kevin Ratterman and with sharp instrumental assistance from like likes of Jim James and Scott Moore of My Morning Jacket and Matt Rowland from the bands of Bobby Bare Jr. and Caitlin Rose, the star of this bright and at-times surprising ten-song set is undeniably Crofton, and he’s delivered a pop-lover’s delight but with an undercurrent of subtle unusualness. It’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital June 22 through the Arrowhawk label.

Every record has a backstory, but Hello It’s Me’s is especially interesting. Much of it derives from the breadth of Chris Crofton’s pursuits, having kicked out heavy punkish rock in the Alcohol Stuntband, acted in the sitcom Still the King on the CMT Network, and Harmony Korine’s faux found-VHS mindfuck Trash Humpers, performed edgy stand-up all the way out in Los Angeles (running in the same circles as Bob Odenkirk and Neil Hamburger), and back home serving as the Advice King for the weekly Nashville Scene.

Much of this activity was fueled by booze, an unsurprising fact given the name of his band, but a few years ago Crofton made the decision to get sober, and while sticking with it he wrote and recorded a striking batch of tunes that register as an ode to the soft rock side of the classic singer-songwriter experience.

Along with a quickly discernable writing talent, the key to the album’s success is its seriousness. Hello It’s Me is not a tongue-in-cheek thing; Crofton is an open admirer of John Denver, Bread, and Gordon Lightfoot because to quote him, “the melodies are strong as shit.” It’s hard to argue with that. But if respect is vital, Crofton’s personality keeps this set from becoming an exercise in mere imitation or homage.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, June
2018, Part Two

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for June, 2018. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Eartheater, IRISIRI (PAN) New Yorker Alexandra Drewchin is Eartheater, and this is her third release and first for Pan after a couple for the Hausu Mountain label. As she possesses a three-octave vocal range, you might assume she’d place this ability front and center and then leave it there, but for a fair amount of IRISIRI an intriguing instrumental blend of experimentation and digital textures (sometimes leaning toward the ambience of electronica) basks in the foreground. However, it’s not like Drewchin’s elected to subvert her strength as a vocalist; when those pipes get asserted, the results are a powerful and integral component in an oft-surreal cascade of newness. And yet subtle. Additionally, poetical contributions from guests Odwalla1221 and Moor Mother fit right into the advanced weave. A

Patrick Higgins, Dossier (Other People) Composer-producer Higgins is noted for his guitar presence in the New York ensemble Zs, an outfit he joined in 2012, at the same time as Guardian Alien’s Greg Fox. But hey, the gent has a slew of his own credits, including the String Quartet No.2 + Glacia 2LP (2013) and the Social Death Mixtape cassette (2015). This combo of guitar and live custom electronics is his latest, and it’s a doozy. All of the four-part work’s programming is original and performed live with no overdubs, as the samples, conceived specifically for this project, are executed with midi triggers mapped to the guitar. Other People’s press release calls the results post-apocalyptic, and I’m with it. The 18-minute final section, loaded with string-wiggle, soaring tones, and vocal samples, is an utter delight. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Gene Clark, Sings for You (Omnivore) After Clark left The Byrds in ‘66, he recorded the very cool Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers for Columbia. It fell far short of commercial expectations and the company lost interest, which prompted the man to cut some demos intended to spark the curiosity of labels. Those sessions are the first eight tracks on this CD/ 2LP set, and it’s an especially valuable unveiling, as Clark’s profusely flowing song fount during this period meant that none of this material turned up on his subsequent album for A&M. Plus, even more goodness comes through the rediscovery of an acetate of his songs from the same period given to the band The Rose Garden (more on them down below). Altogether, a glorious new gulp of Clark, and in prime form. A

Mouvements, S/T (Mental Experience) Originally released in 1973 in a boxed edition of 150 with inserts and lithographs by artist Richard Reimann and sold only in art galleries, this Swedish hybrid of avant-garde, out jazz and art-psych-prog rock was organized by guitarist Christian Oestreicher. It’s an eye-opening pleasure in its reissued LP form (minus box and lithos for affordability, though there is an informative interview with Oestreicher) and loses no creative steam across the five CD bonus tracks or the four digital-only extras (worry not, everything’s downloadable with purchase of the vinyl). Considering the nearly 100-minute running time, this is impressive. The prevalent violin of Blaise Català can bring Hot Rats to mind, but much more is happening here, including a cool Soft Machine vibe. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Wire,
Chairs Missing

While the punk genre has its share of great albums, and the same can surely be said for the refinements, expansions, and disruptions in post-punk’s playground, the list of those having excelled at both is short indeed. If any outfit makes the cut, it’s Wire. Having delivered the UK class of ’77 a cornerstone LP, their next two full-lengths helped to define the sound of post-punk; they remain amongst the finest records the styles ever produced. Out now through the band’s label Pinkflag are special edition CD books of all three, 80 pages each and sized like 45s, featuring text by Jon Savage and Graham Duff plus additional tracks. The standalone vinyl and no-frills CDs arrive July 6. Here’s our look at 1978’s Chairs Missing.

The enduring stream of adulation awarded to Wire’s debut Pink Flag can mask the fact that the esteem wasn’t instantaneous. As the printed observations in these CD books helps to clarify, the band was strikingly distinctive as part of the whole ’77 punk shebang, as they garnered a pocket of fervent advocates, including then Sounds writers Jon Savage and Jane Suck, but overall, Wire existed as just one outfit amongst many, and this lack of a microscope of expectation surely allowed for creativity to flourish without the hinderance of unnecessary pressures.

If somewhat ambivalent to the punk tag at the time and in retrospect, it’s pretty apparent now that Wire benefited from their emergence in connection to the sheer tumult of the time. Just as importantly, they weren’t anointed the saviors of its essence, the crucial destabilizers of convention, or the inevitable deliverers of what comes next.

Simply put, making rock music is hard. Making rock music that will produce an immediate audience reaction (and critical response) is harder. And making rock music under outsized expectations has been the end, literal and figurative, of many a band, resulting either in breakups or a nosedive in quality. At the very least, the avalanche of attention will irrevocably change the music.

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Graded on a Curve: Joshua Abrams, Excavations 1

Bassist Joshua Abrams’ discography is loaded, and with accumulated credits considerably more diverse than the norm. As a young Philadelphian, he was a member of The Roots, and after relocating to Chicago, he’s played with, amongst others, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Tortoise, and Jandek. As a jazz explorer, his connections include Roscoe Mitchell, Fred Anderson, Peter Brötzmann, Hamid Drake, Kidd Jordan, and Nicole Mitchell, but he’s probably most noted for forming the beyond category Natural Information Society. Abrams’ latest release presents him solo, and for lovers of advanced abstraction, it’s a killer; Excavations 1 is out June 15 on vinyl through Feeding Tube.

While not a native of Chicago, Joshua Abrams carries forward the city’s jazz tradition exceptionally well. Although he’s released one CD as leader of the Joshua Abrams Quartet (2013’s Unknown Known on Rouge Art), his name has been established through steadfast collaboration and the sturdy output of groups. First there was Town and Country (five albums, all but the first for Thrill Jockey, between ’98 and ’06), and beginning in 2010 (with four releases and a joint disc with Bitchin Bajas) there is now the Natural Information Society.

This is not to suggest that Abrams is a diligent adherent to the precedent set forth by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Air. To the contrary, he’s clearly the leader of NIS (in fact, many of the records are credited to Abrams, though, interestingly, all except the debut Natural Information and the Bajas collab feature textless front covers), and of the comparisons I’ve run across, the one to Don Cherry feels quite right, in large part through a persistent disinclination to adhere to a single stylistic path.

As anyone familiar with NIS knows, they utilize instrumentation both trad (frame drum, tabla, gongs, bells, harmonium, dulcimer, and Abrams’ guembri) and electric in a blend of psychedelia, minimalism, drone, Krautrock, and yes indeed, jazz. All with a refreshing eschewal of hierarchy, with Abrams less a leader than a shaping coordinator, which brings me back to thoughts of the Windy City.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, June
2018, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for June, 2018. 

NEW RELEASE PICKS: OST, Hereditary (Milan) This is the score to the latest in the “I know you like horror movies, but THIS ONE is shit-your-pants scary” line of contempo fright flicks; most often it’s hype, occasionally the film delivers, and in this instance, we shall see (it arrives in theaters on Friday). Getting Canadian experimental saxophonist Colin Stetson to provide the music is a promising development, one substantially deepened after time spent with this 71-minute set. There are certainly elements of newness in Stetson’s scheme, but the palpable and deft sustainment of ominous atmospheres is in keeping with the lineage of great horror soundtracks. There’s also a nice repeated (sorta techno-ish) motif as things get progressively more intense and, even better, mysterious. Buy your tickets now. A

Modern Studies, Welcome Strangers (Fire) Via their debut Swell to Great (self-released in 2016 and reissued by Fire last year) I had this Scottish group pegged as chamber pop-Brit folk, and while the left side of that hyphen does persist here, the scale and ambition is much larger, incorporating a full-blown chamber orchestra (secured through a Creative Scotland grant), with rhythmic motion and general ambience confirming the promo text’s mentions of kosmische and Krautrock (think of a more rural Broadcast, perhaps). But that’s only a small part of the equation, as the value is raised considerably. “It’s Winter” underscores the influence of Van Dyke Parks, “Young Sun” begins in a fab chamber-folk place, and the harmonies of Emily Scott and Rob St. John are delightful throughout. A wonderful surprise. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: DJ Spooky, Presents Phantom Dancehall (VP Records) I received this Record Store Day item just after the big event went down and subsequently sat on my hands. The good news is that copies are still available, and as it gets a digital release on June 22, procrastination over grabbing the wax is inadvisable. If you know the dancehall style, which combines the foundation of reggae (and sometimes the weirdness of dub) with hip-hop, electronic, and even flashes of pop, then you know the root of what’s in these grooves, but in DJ Spooky’s hands it all ranges from a little zonked to a whole lot more, and all without undermining the essence of the subgenre’s appeal. It’s a sound that can sometimes wear thin in large doses, but Phantom Dancehall closes with the highlight “Jah Dub.” A-

Zuider Zee, Zeenith (Light in the Attic) As a lad, I recall bypassing this ’70s Memphis band’s sole ’75 Columbia album in the cut-out and second-hand bins. Years later, upon hearing a friend’s copy, I wasn’t too stressed over the lack. In obscure power-pop terms, it had moments but was far from great, though apparently Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen felt differently. This is not that LP, but a tidy batch of unreleased songs cut between ’72-’74, and I like it a whole lot more. Unsurprising, as the major label transition (after years of practice and gigs, which shows here) was the undoing of many a band. This doesn’t reach the possible heights of the cited Big Star-T. Rex hybrid, but the comparison does makes sense, and ditto the Beatles influence. Amid some dated elements, the songs here aren’t hindered by the execution. B+

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Graded on a Curve: Lithics,
Mating Surfaces

The homemade quality of the cover to the Lithics’ second album recalls the heyday of DIY post-punk, and it’s an adequate tip-off to the nature of their sound. Many have done it over the years, and it can seem like just as many are doing it right now; and so, it’s necessary to spotlight the good stuff. Across a dozen tracks, the Portland, OR four-piece make clear they didn’t stumble onto the genre last week, but neither do matters unfold as premeditated. Mostly, Lithics connect as confident and inspired, and the songs place Mating Surfaces securely in the keeper column. It’s out now on LP, CD, cassette and digital through Kill Rock Stars; this month, the band will be playing shows with Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks.

A lot of neo-post-punk, particularly the bands displaying an inclination for the early stuff, gets all (too) caught up in the defining aspects of execution, e.g. the stuttering rhythms, the needling guitars, the structural angularity, the skeletal and/ or the shambolic, the whole non-pro yet non-workmanlike nature of it all.

Lithics, who consist of vocalist-guitarist Aubrey Horner, guitarist Mason Crumley, drummer Wiley Hickson, and bassist Bob Desaulniers, don’t skimp on the formal qualities. In fact, any of the cuts from this, their second full-length and first for Kill Rock Stars (the pairing a comfortable fit) could be slipped onto a mixtape of the original impulse made for the curious novice with nary a snag. But what immediately struck me, an experienced post-punk listener, was how well Mating Surfaces’ “Excuse Generator” engaged with those conventions as the song appealingly flowed amongst the jagged.

This can partly be chalked up to practice, but it’s just as attributable to intent, and it’s the combination of attentiveness, diligence, and taste that pushes this effort to the front of the current post-punk class. Horner’s alienated Euro delivery is wholly appropriate for their chosen style, but it nicely avoids the feigned, and the way she rides atop the disjointedly melodic instrumental attack of “Still Forms” is impressive and indicative of the record’s whole.

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Graded on a Curve: Technicolor Paradise: Rhum Rhapsodies & Other Exotic Delights

It’s doubtful that a new exotica compilation, 18 years into century 21, is going to result in the en masse dropping of jaws, though this observation isn’t a slight; in fact, it lines up rather well with a musical style that from its very inception was much more about setting the mood than leaving listener’s agape. However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t new insights to be had while enjoying the tiki torch, luau, and lounge ambience offered by Numero Group’s extensive survey of the form. Technicolor Paradise: Rhum Rhapsodies & Other Exotic Delights is a well-ordered and meticulously researched plunge into an often unfairly disrespected genre, out now on exquisitely designed and info-drenched 3LP and 3CD.

I was around for the initial exotica retro-wave, which played out as part of the larger ’90s lounge craze, and at the time I dug into reissues of material by Juan García Esquivel, Martin Denny, Yma Sumac, and even a little Les Baxter. As covered in this set’s outstanding notes by producer/ compiler Ken Shipley, it’s the last three of those names who prove the most germane to the copious material spotlighted here.

It’s not that Esquivel isn’t exotica exactly, though his stuff is probably best described by its promotional catchphrase of Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music. The major diff is that Esquivel was a bandleader, with the size of his group big as he reliably utilized then cutting-edge studio technique to results that are often enjoyably zonked. While there are moments on Technicolor Paradise that can get a little out-there, overall the contents are far more modestly scaled, a tendency that hits the sensibility of exotica right in the bull’s-eye.

It also sticks to Numero’s working program of uncovering underheard and obscure sounds, a la their long-running Eccentric Soul series (spotlighting regional independent ’60s-’70s soul and R&B), the Yellow Pills and Buttons collections (digging into the rich underbelly of the power-pop wave), and the Wayfaring Strangers (folk), Warfaring Strangers (hard rock & metal), and most recently Seafaring Strangers (yacht rock) compilations.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, May
2018, Part Four

Part four of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for May, 2018. Part one is here, part two is here, and part three is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: The Dreebs, Forest of a Crew (Ramp Local) Adam Markiewicz (vocals/ violin), Jordan Bernstein (prepared guitar), and Shannon Sigley (drums) are connected to fellow NYC act PC Worship (they all contribute to 2017’s Buried Wish), but on this 15-track effort, which alternates eight songs with vocals (at times productively engaging with the operatic) and seven instrumentals, The Dreebs exist far outside the shadow of any other band. They hone an avant sensibility, in part through the guitar and violin, that strengthens ties to their city’s earlier underground eras, while the drums gesture towards rock. Prior associations with No Wave aren’t wrong, but the whole connects like something that emerged a decade after No New York with ties to both Downtown and the Bowery. A-

Carlos Giffoni, Vain (iDEAL) Giffoni is an electronic musician, experimentalist, improvisor, collaborator (amongst others, he’s created in tandem with Nels Cline, the guitarists of Sonic Youth, Chris Corsano and John Duncan), and coordinator (of the noteworthy No Fun Festival and its associated label). Having amassed a sizable discography, this is only his fourth non-collab full-length, and it’s a varied, focused, and (at 42 minutes) succinct delight. Described as the soundtrack to the movie transpiring in Giffoni’s head, the LP, his imagined flick, and its psychokinetic-powered California-prowling answer-seeking main character all share the same name. Surely, that’s her on Vain’s custom van-worthy sleeve (a painting by Wiley Wallace). Amid all this leftfield surreal background, Giffoni’s music stands on its own. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Pierre Sandwidi, Le Troubadour De La Savane – 1978/1982 (Born Bad) This set throws a deserved spotlight onto the slim discography of Sandwidi, a singer-guitarist who hailed from Burkina Faso, the African country formerly known as Upper Volta. Considered part of the Francophone African elite amongst such artists as Francis Bebey and G.G. Vikey, Sandwidi’s music is sprightly, with the band at times effectively turning up the heat, as much of this LP is clearly designed for dancing. And yet, the deeper impression is made by the budget keyboard and guitar-inflected glide, its temperament frequently gentle in its infectiousness and by extension often quite pretty. Sandwidi’s vocals are just as inviting, and the breadth of influence, including a few Western elements, deepens enjoyment. A-

Sensation, S/T (Folk Evaluation) That the vinyl resurgence has proven healthy enough to see once scarce and prohibitively expensive private press items getting reissued with some regularity is just dandy. Take as evidence this ’76 LP from Wisconsin songwriters/ multi-instrumentalists Donald S. Fisher and Jeffrey L. Engel. Recorded in a makeshift local studio on budget equipment, it delivers a refreshing wrinkle on the “usual” private press thing, emphasizing serious post-Beatle pop and soft-folk instead of bluesy hard rock or psych (though there is some nice fuzz guitar). There are a few sweet twists, e.g. a couple spots clearly impacted by 3rd and 4th album Velvets, plus the smart use of horns. All this and a nifty bonus 7-inch pairing two later outtakes with the 45 of Sensation backing local soul singer Tina Smith. Wow. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Guru,
Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Deluxe Edition

Billed on its sleeve as an “experimental fusion of hip-hop and jazz,” the 1993 release of Guru’s Jazzmatazz delivered historical perspective, seriousness of intent, and organic richness in a sweet-sounding package that, rather than succumbing to grandiosity, registered as a natural (and inevitable) encounter. It was a landmark affair that spawned numerous sequels, but UMG’s Urban Legends division has kept the focus on the first with a sharp 25th anniversary expansion, adding instrumental versions and a rack of remixes for a total of three LPs. Certain to be cherished by longtime fans, this edition’s approachable depth and diversity make it a worthwhile pick-up for appreciative newbies. It’s out now.

Although the parameters of its ambition get established in its opening introductory track, Jazzmatazz is a crisp pleasure to listen to throughout, and its success now stands as an essential chapter in the voluminous tome that is ’90s hip-hop’s golden era. Like the music of his contemporaries, Guru, an MC who came to prominence in the Brooklyn-based duo Gang Starr (alongside turntable wizard DJ Premier), was a meticulous and levelheaded purveyor of urban groove science, and it was through this approach that he shared a baseline with the jazz that is his most celebrated album’s inspiration.

Too many fusions are nearer to patchwork, but Jazzmatazz not only seamlessly blends elements of post-bop and soul-jazz (its cover design in homage to the bountiful achievements of the Blue Note label) with the thrust of cutting-edge East Coast hip-hop, it also pulls off the tricky combination of live instrumentation (which works better at deepening the relationship of hip-hop and jazz than it does in other’s attempts to fuse rap and rock) and the style’s original tools, namely a pair of turntables, some records, and a microphone.

If a byproduct of the LP was the mass awakening of doubters to hip-hop’s burgeoning artistry (a still somewhat contentious topic in ’93), there were no traces of pleading for acceptance (and by extension, lessened impact). Instead, Guru (who sadly passed in 2010) cut an album that aficionados would be (and still are) proud to pull off the shelf, its contents also dropping a knowledge bomb regarding the general connectedness of African-American musical experience.

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Graded on a Curve: African Scream Contest Vol​.​2–Benin 1963​-​1980

It’s been ten years since Analog Africa unveiled African Scream Contest, an outstanding compilation appropriately subtitled Raw & Psychedelic Afro Sounds from Benin & Togo 70s. A decade might be a long time to wait for a follow-up, but it’s a duration that insinuates patience in the accumulation of quality, plus a desire to do right by the music’s creators. Listening to the 14 entries shaping African Scream Contest Vol. 2–Benin 1963​-​1980 supplies proof of due diligence, and it’s out now on CD with a 44-page booklet and on double 140gm vinyl in a gatefold sleeve with an LP-sized 24-page insert. If primo ’70s African sounds are your bag, this set is a piece of designer luggage.

The first installment of African Scream Contest arrived in the midst of a swell upsurge in excavated ’70s funky African band action. The span of ten years has solidified the album as one of the movement’s highlights, and one covering distinct territory. That the ’70s African strand of the reissue impulse has endured rather than proving to be a temporary flurry may blunt the fanfare for this second entry, but only slightly, and the care in assemblage and consistent aural sweetness more than adequately replace any diminished excitement.

“A Min We Vo Nou We” by Les Sympathics de Porto Novo kicks off side one, spilling a fine mess of guitar distortion as prelude to an appealingly tough Afro-rock groove, its progression accented with a strong and lithe guitar solo, nicely non-crap organ, and some jazzy trumpet. Appropriately, it stretches out for a while. Next is an immediate twist, as “Asaw Fofor” by Ignace de Souza & The Melody Aces exudes ska flavor, and as cited in the label’s promo text, vocal smoothness descended from Nat “King” Cole and a structure seemingly derived from the ’60s Batman theme.

It’s a wild, surprising mix (hell, I’m also hearing trace elements of Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk”). “Dja Dja Dja” by Stanislas Tohon is nearer to the horn-laden funky glide one might expect from comps of this era and continent, but it’s all sharply executed, fruitfully extending a la Les Sympathics, while turning up the heat. A hearty sax solo is the icing on its satisfying confection.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, May
2018, Part Three

Part three of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for May, 2018. Part one is here and part two is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: GAS, Rausch (Kompakt) The latest from Wolfgang Voigt’s reignited ambient-electronic project is a 60-min piece designed to be listened to in one sitting. Out on CD and standalone digital, the 2LP comes with a download allowing for the realization of Voigt’s aim, this pairing exquisitely combining the beauty and heft of the tactile (a reliable component in Kompakt’s output, and distinctively in the oeuvre of GAS) with the possibilities opened up by technological advancement. But y’know, this wouldn’t really be worth noting if the music was merely okay. The good news is that Rausch is impeccably constructed, with nary an inch of excess or traces of ran-through motions. Offering many unexpected (and dark) turns along the way to a splendid finale, it’s amongst Voigt’s finest work. A

The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices featuring Lisa Gerrard, BooCheeMish (Prophecy Productions) Initially assembled by Swiss ethnomusicologist Marcel Cellier, The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices released an LP back in 1975 (as Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares) that roughly a decade later was reissued on 4AD (Nonesuch did the honors in the US), so this collab with vocalist and Dead Can Dance co-founder Gerrard has roots in precedent. Furthermore, the MotBV has always been dedicated to combining the traditional and the modern, so even after a break in recording of over 20 years, the music here unfurls comfortably but intensely (likewise, Gerrard’s contribution) and without straining for the up-to-date. And while the instrumentation holds a consistent allure, it’s the singing that’s really where it’s at. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Bark Psychosis, ///Codename: Dustsucker (Fire) After some notable singles and EPs, ’94’s debut LP Hex put this UK act (led by sole constant member Graham Sutton) at the forefront of the New. An essential post-rock acquisition, it was reissued by Fire late last year, and now here’s the ’04 follow-up (and Bark Psychosis’ final statement). Musically, a decade is a long time. Although a whole lot had transpired in the post-rock realm since Hex helped to define it, these selections display no hints of being eclipsed. Overall, if not quite rising to the level of its predecessor, Codename reliably hangs in the ballpark of excellent, and everything still sounds fresh in 2018. How ‘bout that? If you dig Hex, you’ll want this one, too. Featuring guest drums by Lee Harris of Talk Talk. A

Franco Battiato, Clic (Superior Viaduct) Italian experimental pop/ avant-garde composer Battiato’s three prior LPs have recently been reissued by Superior Viaduct, and this one, originally issued by Bla Bla in ’74, is the latest in a program that’s scheduled to culminate with ’78’s L’Egitto prima delle sabbie. Sometimes tagged as the Italian Brian Eno, Battiato’s work occasionally offers similarities to Krautrock/ kosmische (“Propriedad Prohibida,” here), but much of this alb’s sonic motion is resistant to easy comparisons. The saxophone in opener “I Cancelli Della Memoria” delivers a nice surprise, and twists are common. However, there are recurring gestures toward classical experimentation (Clic is dedicated to Karlheinz Stockhausen), and the sampling of Henry Cowell’s ’50s Folkways recordings is tremendous. A

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Graded on a Curve:
Gene Turonis aka
Gene D. Plumber,
All the Pretty Girls

To burnish the label of throwback when writing (or simply gabbing) about music is often, if not an act of derision, then quite likely a gesture of diminishment. But there are exceptions, and Gene Turonis aka Gene D. Plumber is one of them. However, his new CD All the Pretty Girls, while assuredly suggestive of earlier, less harried times, is ultimately just a warm, good-natured and timeless affair. It’s out now through his hometown label Bar/None Records.

Regarding Gene Turonis’ alternate handle, he is indeed a plumber, having worked at the trade since the ’70s. This may seem gimmicky, but just as the great Atlanta bluesman-songster Barbeque Bob dished no tunes about cooking meat or working at Tidwells’ Barbecue, there are no tracks on Turonis’ new disc relating to leaky faucets or burst pipes.

Not a gimmick, but rather a way to illuminate the simultaneous plying of craft and honing of musical skills, and it takes just one listen to absorb All the Pretty Girls as the byproduct of an experienced singer-guitarist. Had the choice been made to release this set solely as Gene Turonis, one might gaze at that cover photo and wonder where exactly the guy’s been over the years; the extra moniker simply clarifies that he’s spent a significant portion of time underneath sinks.

With his band D. Plumbers, he’s performed in Hoboken since the ’70s, navigating scene changes while raising a family, and it’s clear that he’s persisted at music out of love. And it’s just as apparent through Turonis’ deft handling of the guitar and the distinctive addition of Charlie Giordano’s accordion in All the Pretty Girls’ opening title track that this is no amateurish undertaking.

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