Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Ngozi Family,
45,000 Volts

In 2017, the Now-Again label released the compilations Welcome to Zamrock Vols. 1 and 2 on double vinyl and compact disc, with the sets delivering an ample serving of the fuzzy, funky rock music made in 1970s Zambia. Two tracks from the Ngozi Family stood out as highlights, one of them from the band’s ’77 LP 45,000 Volts, which is fresh out on wax through Now-Again in its first official reissue. Featuring guitarist-lead singer-band leader Paul Ngozi with bassist Tommy Mwale and drummer Chrissy Zebby Tembo (both of whom add appealing harmonies), the contents groove and glide amid plentiful amplifier bite. Rather than a mere approximation of US-UK hard rock, this album is its own sweet thing.

A characteristic that’s often shared by compilations shedding retrospective light upon hitherto unheard realms of sound, especially when the music on the records is of consistently high quality (this is the case with the Zamrock volumes detailed above), is the sense of mystery over whether the assembled music constitutes the tip of a worthiness iceberg or instead represents the delectable cream skimmed from atop a larger but lesser body of work.

Of course, mileage will frequently vary depending on an individual’s level of investment in a particular style. To elaborate: if some enterprising label dishes a comp of previously unheard vault recordings by ’60s garage bands from the state of Nebraska, what many listeners will chalk up as not much more than competence will strike a fervent few as another delightful chapter in the history of the genre.

A big part of the Ngozi Family’s success on 45,000 Volts derives from its solidity as an album as it’s the most recent reissue illuminating Zamrock’s qualitative depth, following earlier editions from Now-Again by Chrissy Zebby Tembo, Witch, and indeed, a prior set from the Ngozi Family, the 1976 album Day of Judgement.

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Graded on a Curve:
Kiwi Jr.,
Cooler Returns

Cooler Returns is the sophomore full-length from Kiwi Jr. and is additionally the Toronto four-piece’s first record for Sub Pop. The titular suffix and the releasing label are representative of an unreservedly indie state of mind, with the use of the affectionate nickname for New Zealanders insinuating that the album’s 13 songs will dig a little deeper than the expected norm. Theirs is a bright, catchy, energetic sound with an undeniable likeness to Pavement, and if Kiwi Jr. don’t reach the heights of that ’90s indie behemoth, the resemblance is one of shading rather than mimicry. Cooler Returns is out on vinyl, CD, cassette and digital January 22.

Kiwi Jr. consists of vocalist-guitarist Jeremy Gaudet, bassist Mike Walker, drummer Brohan Moore, and guitarist Brian Murphy (he of Alvvays). To get right down to it, the similarity to Pavement is directly related to Gaudet’s singing, as the man frequently just sounds like Stephen Malkmus. In fact, at a few points, Gaudet really sounds like Malkmus, though more often there is a liveliness (that can border on exuberance) that brings tangible distinctiveness to the table.

Some whose ears were active during Pavement’s original tenure may wonder if there is a difference between Kiwi Jr. and ’90s acts of a decidedly Pavement-like bent such as Silkworm and The Grifters. Well, there is, and it’s absorbed through Cooler Returns’ straightforward pop sensibility, a consistent facet that is inextricably tied the Gaudet’s spirited approach at the mic.

And instrumentally, Kiwi Jr. are tidy rather than disheveled (as was Pavement’s wont). But this pop inclination maybe isn’t such a surprise for a band whose 2019 debut Football Money came out on noted Canadian indie label Mint (distinguished for releasing or co-releasing the first few records by the New Pornographers). The connection is plainly discernible in the strummy, then punchy, then anthemic opener “Tyler,” but it’s really driven home in the infectious but muscular “Undecided Voters.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Gary Numan,
Replicas, The Pleasure Principle, Telekon

Out of the UK’s punk scrap yard came Gary Numan, first as part of the ever more synth-imbued Tubeway Army and then as a solo artist for a long string of albums. His chart dominance in the waning moments of the ‘70s was fleeting but huge, and his most commercially successful run of LPs detail a pop-savvy artist of much deeper value than his hit singles.

Gary Webb started out in the bands Mean Street and The Lasers; recording with neither (Mean Street waxed one song after his exit for the Live at the Vortex comp LP), after departing the latter with bassist Paul Gardiner they formed Tubeway Army with Webb’s uncle Jess Lidyard in the drum chair. Promptly signed by Beggars Banquet, with Webb on guitar they initially dished out beefy Bowie-influenced punk, the singles “That’s Too Bad” and “Bombers” later compiled with a mess of demos from the same era as The Plan.

It’s a cool acquisition for serious punk collectors, but ’78’s Tubeway Army was even better. By the point of its release Webb had adopted the name Gary Numan (he’d briefly wielded the handle Valerian) but his signature sound was still in development, the debut augmenting the punk excursions (which occasionally leaned into a hard rock/glam merger) and sci-fi themes (impacted by Phil K. Dick and William Burroughs) with interjections from a Minimoog discovered in the studio by Numan after recording began.

Tubeway Army is very good record with a few excellent spots and conversely a handful of lags; ‘79’s Replicas is more fully-formed, and while the group’s name remains on the cover it’s flanked by Numan’s on later editions; the LP is clearly his show and any doubts over such will be quickly dispelled by the icy/edgy opener “Me! I Disconnect from You.”

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Graded on a Curve: Vanilla Fudge,
Near the Beginning

Remembering Vanilla Fudge bassist Tim Bogert.Ed.

To soak up Vanilla Fudge’s talent as song-interpreters the best route is their eponymous ’67 debut. A further understanding of them as a singles act is most appropriately gleaned through the Rhino compilation Psychedelic Sundae. If an immersion into the multifaceted positives and negatives of these trailblazing late-‘60s hard rockers’ everyday reality is what one wants however, then one should look into the contents of Near the Beginning.

There’s no question Vanilla Fudge are an important band. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” the group’s reading of a Holland-Dozier-Holland tune originally by The Supremes, is a vital evolutionary brick in the hard rock megastructure, and it stands as a one-song distillation of nearly everything that was good and potentially less than stellar about this hard-touring New York quartet. There are two versions of the Fudge’s recording, a just shy of three-minute single edit and the take found on their debut; that one’s over twice as long, and this duality is to an extent indicative of the group’s creative problems. It’s far from that simple though, and their somewhat brief and highly eventful initial existence provides a consistently interesting story, if one that’s only sporadically fruitful in musical terms.

Vanilla Fudge’s beginnings are in The Electric Pigeons, the soul cover unit featuring organist/lead vocalist Mark Stein and bassist Tim Bogert. They soon acquired guitarist Vince Martell and drummer Carmine Appice, and after hooking up with Shangri La’s producer Shadow Morton, they changed names and focused attentions on the studio.

The first effort turned out to be the best, but it was also a problematic record. Those soul roots were still showing; in fact, they never went away, flaring up rather flagrantly later in their tenure, but on Vanilla Fudge, it’s not a decisive detraction. It’s true that “People Get Ready” (and the first album is composed entirely of covers) is no great shakes, but “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is one of the better R&B lifts in ‘60s rock precisely because it displays a disinterest in mimicry (a real issue with NYC bands of the era) to instead hone a variation on a then new sound.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for January 2021, Part Two

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for January 2021. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Matthew Sweet, Catspaw (Omnivore) Sweet’s big splash was the 1991 LP Girlfriend, though he’d been active for a good while prior, emerging from the Athens, GA scene with a sound that stood a bit apart from post-Byrdsian collegiate jangle. Instead, he’s generally categorized as a power-popper, but as the release of his 15th album Catspaw makes clear, with multidecade longevity that’s somewhat unusual for the genre, partly as he’s occasionally branched out a bit, but more because his range of influence is wide and therefore fertile. These dozen tunes are noted as the first time Sweet had played everything on a record except drums- that’d be guitar, bass and vocals, lead and background, plus recording and mixing the set. The drums ae handled by frequent collaborator Ric Menck, he an Alternative-era power pop coconspirator most notably from the band Velvet Crush, but this album is very much a showcase for Sweet as instrumentalist, particularly as lead guitarist, with his plying taking on Crazy Horse-like rough edges edge that contrast well with the vocal harmonies throughout. A-

Wolf Eyes / Blank Hellscape, “Winter Sunday” b/w “Concrete Walls” (12XU) Detroit’s Wolf Eyes are the underground noise vets as Austin’s Blank Hellscape occupy the young upstart position. I say u-ground, but it’s worth mentioning that in the mid ’00s Wolf Eyes released a few records on Sub Pop, a productive relationship placing them up there with Lightning Bolt amongst high-profile purveyors of sonic brutality and mayhem. A lot has transpired since. Fuck, a lot has went down in the last week, but something that hasn’t changed is the high quality of Wolf Eyes’ abstract ruckus. One change is that John Olson and Nate Young (Aaron Dilloway departed a while back) aren’t as aurally assaultive as they were circa Burned Mind, or on their 2,000 or so micro releases, for that matter. But their 18-plus minute side here (for this as a 12-inch single) will still give non-noiseniks the fidgets. Those looking for an ear canal scalding will be satisfied with the nearly 20 minutes of Death Industrial unleashed by Blank Hellscape (Andrew Nogay, Ethan Billips, and Max Deems). In summation, these pieces, recorded separately in (I assume) their home states, offer damaged vibes for damaged times. A-/ A-

Corey Ledet Zydeco, S/T (Nouveau Electric) If you’ve any doubts over the general health of zydeco in the 21st century, this CD, the 14th full-length release by singer, accordionist and bandleader Corey Ledet should dispel them. His band for this Mark Bingham-recorded ten-song set is Cecil Green on Hammond B3, Lee Allen Zeno on bass, Grant Dermody on harmonica, Julian Primeaux on guitar and backing vocals, and Gerard Delafose on drums and washboard, the band digging into the rich, tradition-rich soil of the style and, like the best zydeco bands, harnessing a sound that’s lively and fresh. As anybody who’s ever heard it likely knows, zydeco is a party music, with Ledet’s latest hitting the proper level of potency without a hitch, a far from easy task when it comes to recreating sounds best experienced live in the studio. Part of Ledet’s success might derive from the album’s intention as homage, both to his family (specifically his grandfather Buchanan, who is credited as zydeco’s first drummer) and to his musical heritage, though there are also sweet covers ranging from Big Joe Turner to Bob Marley. Fun, dig? A-

Dale Crover, Rat-A-Tat-Tat! (Joyful Noise) Crover remains best known, and appropriately so, for his role in the Melvins, playing drums and bass in that pioneering sludge-punk outfit for 36 years. But we’ll expand on those achievements further when Ipecac reissues two of their albums in March (alongside a new record). He’s also contributed to a slew of musical situations over the years, like drumming in pre-stardom Nirvana and more recently serving in the same capacity in Redd Kross, though as busy as he’s been, this set is only his second full-length solo effort, following The Fickle Finger of Fate from 2017, also on Joyful Noise. He also issued solo EPs in 1992 and ’96, plus “Piso Mojado,” a five-sided lathe-cut record with four spindle holes last May in an edition of 127 copies. It’s five solo drum tracks are reprised here, which is cool, as they deliver the beautifully fucked aura of a solo record by a heavy rock disruptor. And that’s exactly what this is. The twistedness also contrasts nicely with the more melodious, less mauling passages (e.g. “Shark Like Overbite”), moments which underscore that he’s been hanging around those McDonald brothers. Not as sharp as his best work, but still worthwhile. B+

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Graded on a Curve:
Chris Brokaw,

Chris Brokaw is noted as guitarist, drummer, vocalist, and songwriter, but between his work as a solo artist, soundtrack specialist, collaborator in numerous bands and session player, he’s also been one of the busiest musicians on the global scene. This says a whole lot about the guy’s dedication, temperament and sound decision making. His latest solo album, Puritan, is equally loquacious on the subject of staying power through creative verve. Offering nine solid songs elevated by seamless execution, it’s out January 15 on 140 gram vinyl (black) and digital via 12XU.

Although he was active in the late 1980s, notably in the band 7 or 8 Worm Hearts (alongside guitarist Glenn Jones, tape manipulator Phil Milstein and others), Chris Brokaw’s made his proper splash into the indie milieu at the dawn of the following decade as the drummer in Codeine, and then followed that up a couple years later in Come, where he shared guitar and vocal duties with Thalia Zedek.

Brokaw’s talent has impacted dozens of scenarios since then, but that Zedek sings and plays guitar on two of Puritan’s tracks underscores cohesiveness amid the breadth. Along with Zedek, Tricia Anderson and Claudia Groom sing on a track apiece, but the album’s core trio is Brokaw on guitar and vocals with Dave Carlson on bass and Pete Koeplin on drums, their playing sharp throughout.

However, as a solo record, this set appropriately finds Brokaw consistently in the foreground, with his vocals immediately up front in the opening title track. But it’s his guitar that gets an extended instrumental spotlight in the cut’s back half, a stretch simultaneously establishing a trio dynamic that’s both heavy and lithe. For the very next selection, “Depending,” the gears shift into melodic-rock territory of a near singer-songwriter comportment.

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Graded on a Curve: Midnight Sister,
Painting the Roses

Midnight Sister is the duo of Los Angelinos Ari Balouzian and Juliana Giraffe, two interdisciplinary artists who are releasing their second full-length Painting the Roses January 15 on vinyl, CD, and digital via Jagjaguwar. Established as co-writers, the classically trained Balouzian brings his skills as arranger while Giraffe’s impact is felt through a voice that’s warm and rich. Breathy? Oh my. The songs are consistently vivid, frequently lush and reliably strange, as Midnight Sister maintain a pop sensibility throughout. Hovering between warmly retro and approachably surreal, there’s never a dull moment as the LP’s dozen tracks unwind.

The label bio relates that Midnight Sister’s halves have worked in “fashion, visual art, video and film scoring,” with Giraffe a filmmaker and Balouzian having arranged for musicians Tobias Jesso and Alex Izenberg. Their 2017 debut Saturn Over Sunset is described as her first time writing and performing music and his inaugural dive into dishing out “true pop music.”

True pop it is, but Painting the Roses is frequently as bent as a box of boomerangs, though with appreciable acumen on display, the record flows instead of just amassing a succession of shallow attempts at weirdness. This is apparent right off in opener “Doctor Says,” which blends the sophistication of strings and the measured emotiveness of Giraffe’s voice with cascades of pop-rock guitar.

As a beginning, it’s engaging enough, but the ’70s big-beat soulfulness of “Satellite” kicks the album into cruising gear, with bass large enough to bring the productions of Leon Michels to mind, plus a handful of diagonal violin lines and recurring surges of tweaked, occasionally backward, mellotron. Next, “Foxes” starts out as vividly baroque-poppy as prime ’70s ELO but then gets glitter-funk sassy and with hints of Beatles-esque psych-pomp (meaning we’re back in Jeff Lynne territory).

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Graded on a Curve: Françoise Hardy,
The Disques Vogue Collection

French vocalist Françoise Hardy openly disdains being described as an icon, though of course her modesty plays a large role in why she continues to be revered by so many. Naturally, the most important component in her enduring reputation is the music; a superb singer and true artist from within the oft-unrelenting 1960s pop machine, her records have aged exceptionally well, retaining the allure of their era as they lack period gaffes. Hardy’s first five French language albums, all originally issued by Disques Vogue from ’62-’66, comprise a highly worthy run of productivity.

Françoise Hardy is a cornerstone of the ’60s Euro-pop phenomenon known as yé-yé. Akin to rock, girl groups, svelte male crooners, and the majority of the era’s teen-oriented sounds in general, yé-yé was widely considered to be of an ephemeral nature, and by extension was basically dominated by the collusion of producers and labels. The singers, amongst them France Gall, Sylvie Vartan, Clothilde, and Chantal Kelly, were the crucial ingredient in a very calculated recipe.

Hardy differed from the norm by writing a significant amount of her own stuff, all but two songs on her debut in fact, and as a result she evaded the sometimes embarrassing subject matter thrust upon other yé-yé girls. Furthermore, she was regularly photographed with guitar in hand, though it’s unclear to what extent she actually played on these recordings. To borrow a phrase relating to Studio-era Hollywood, Hardy transcended the “genius of the system” method of pop manufacture, instead excelling at a subdued auteur-driven approach.

In the tradition of the original filmic auteurs, few recognized Hardy as a major talent during her emergence on the scene. She definitely sparked interest in fellow musicians however, including The Beatles, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan, the last so struck by her skills he dedicated the poem “Some Other Kinds of Songs” to her; it’s on the back of Another Side of Bob Dylan’s sleeve.

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Graded on a Curve:
Wendy & Bonnie,

Genesis, the sole album from the teen femme duo Wendy & Bonnie was released in 1969 to no fanfare, but over the decades it has quietly grown into a solid cult item. 2008 found Sundazed issuing a 2CD/3LP set with a massive helping of extra tracks, but that still in-print edition is a reward for the record’s most ardent converts. In a nice turn of events, on the 21st of this month the label is offering a fresh 180gm vinyl pressing of the original release’s fitfully strong but likeably minor charms, and it’s a gesture far more fitting to the needs of a moderately admiring listenership.

Calling Genesis a period piece will automatically impact some readers as a putdown, in part due to many folks’ yardstick of measurement for the art of the past relating directly to whether or not it’s relevant to right now. On the other end of the spectrum, at least a few of Wendy & Bonnie’s most passionate fans surely prize the duo’s only LP precisely because it is indeed so evocative of the time and circumstances of its making.

Though I’m generalizing, those who love Genesis purely for its Flower Power era ambience are likely to value Roger Corman’s ’67 film The Trip over the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s first directorial effort, ‘69’s Medium Cool. The former is a spirited teen-exploitation flick that uses clichés and stereotypes as inspired playthings, but the latter is a one of kind motion picture with a seriousness of intent specifically concerning the upheavals of the tumultuous year of 1968.

And people who expressly use the term period piece as an insult could easily be prone to burdening The Trip and Medium Cool with that problematic bag, though with the possibility that Corman’s movie might be “appreciated” as camp and Wexler’s effort referenced as symbolic of the folly inherent in attempting a formally challenging, legitimately political cinema. And if the denigrators were asked to pair Genesis with one of these films on the basis of shared traits, I’m pretty sure the majority would choose The Trip.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for January 2021, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for January 2021.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Alina Kalancea, Impedance (Important) Romanian sound artist and composer Kalancea, who’s based in Modena, Italy, has a prior full-length in her discography, The 5th Apple, which came out in late 2018 on the störung label. That one required four sides of vinyl, and hey, so does this follow-up, which serves as my introduction to her work. Succinctly, it’s a slow-building beauty of electronic soundscapes, an instrumental affair (but with a couple sourced voices in the weave) featuring ten tracks that flow interconnectedly with an edge that’s frequently dark, though the non-vocal design situates the whole as more about atmosphere than attitude. That’s sweet. And that Kalancea rides the Buchla into these realms is even better, as the hands-on approach amplifies Impedance as a human endeavor while striving to push electronic music forward. But still, some of her textures (and pulses) have a clinical sharpness, and that’s great, too. I’ll conclude by mentioning the set’s gatefold tip-on Stoughton sleeve, with the quality of the package matching the sounds in the grooves. A


Spiral Wave Nomads, First Encounters (Twin Lakes- Feeding Tube) When I explain that Spiral Wave Nomads’ debut album was produced remotely, you might conjure an idea as to why. But as that eponymous effort was issued in May of 2019, said idea is undercut. First Encounters is the duo’s new LP, their second, with its title a direct reference to how the disc’s four tracks document the first time Albany NY-based guitarist Eric Hardiman and New Haven, CT-dwelling drummer Michael Kiefer played in the same room at the same time (this was pre-Covid-19, in the summer of 2019). The sound can be described as free-psych with some wonderful bursts of abstract heaviness in “Fitful Embers” bringing the Dead C to mind just a bit. But even as the pair hone their adeptness at navigating the deep weeds, making clear this is in no way a throwback effort, there is enough gliding (particularly in the long opening and closing tracks) to recall those ballroom days of yore. First Encounters is a reminder of the goodness that can transpire when humans commune together, and right now, that’s a great thing. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Bill Fontana, Landscape Sculpture with Fog Horns (Other Minds) This CD is an expanded reissue of the 1982 LP released by the San Francisco radio station KQED-FM. That album documented artist Fontana’s outdoor sound installation of the previous year, which routed live audio feeds from eight foghorns located around San Fran into a central listening area in the city’s waterfront at Fort Mason. Fontana’s installation (groundbreaking in the field of Sound Art), the original vinyl and this CD share a title, but Other Minds’ edition includes a fresh edit by Andrew Weathers of the two-hour 1981 concert version that aired on KPFA-FM, an event that featured Stuart Dempster of the Deep Listening Band and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company on trombone, didjeridu, garden hose, and conch shell.

The installation recording is very much like hanging out on a foggy pier, but with the welcome absence of seagulls, and with the lack of those noisy fuckers, the whole becomes quite relaxing in its unhurried repetition. However, the concert version is a decidedly more “musical” affair (perhaps fitting, as it was performed as part of the New Music America Festival). There is also a 38-minute 2018 reworking by Fontana, which, the approximately doubled length aside, is much subtler in its differences from the installation recording. Folks pining for the visceral will probably want to get their kicks somewhere else, but for those with overlapping interests in New Music and Contemporary Art, this set is poised to satisfy, as it comes with a full-color 24-page booklet offering Fontana’s original notes, a new essay from Jennifer Lucy Allan, and a transcript of a recent convo between Fontana, Dempster, and Other Minds’ Charles Amirkhanian. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Saturday Night: South African Disco Pop Hits 1981 to 1987

As operated by Deano Sounds, the Boston label Cultures of Soul has been methodically documenting the global reach of the once-derided musical phenomenon known as disco through a series of various artists compilations, the latest being Saturday Night: South African Disco Pop Hits 1981 to 1987. Offering ten selections from seven acts, the set illuminates a transitional period in South African sound falling chronologically between the persevering style of mbaqanga and the subsequent fleeting pop flourishes of bubblegum. It’s out January 8 on vinyl, CD and digital with informative notes by Uchenna Ikonne.

In 2014 there was Bombay Disco and Tropical Disco Hustle (surveying the sounds of Bollywood India and the Caribbean, respectively), both of which inspired second volumes as they were joined by The Brazilian Boogie Connection and Boogie Breakdown, with the latter the label’s first foray into the disco of South Africa (specifically synth disco), covering the years 1980-1984. As befits the international movement and adaptation of musical genre, Cultures of Soul’s disco releases often span periods postdating the root form’s decline and supposed demise, offering a hybridized sound. So it is here.

Although this comp’s opening track “Saturday Night Special” by Verikweru wasn’t a big seller, the cut is situated as foundational to the whole South African disco pop impulse. Featuring bass player Bakithi Kumalo (known for his later work with Paul Simon) and the multifaceted supervision of Emcee Studios cofounder (and trumpeter) Peter Hubner, Verikweru are descried as taking considerable inspiration from the commercially inclined jazz of the late ’70s.

The Crusaders, The Blackbyrds, and Bob James are mentioned in Ikonne’s notes, though with their substantial threads of mbaqanga and US funkiness (as embodied by Kumalo’s bass), Verikweru hit my ear as nearer to the later, sunny, celebratory pop moves of Kool & the Gang and Earth, Wind & Fire. It’s a difference I find preferable, especially as the ensemble sound, if laden with the pop-inclined techniques of the era, is heartier than its more streamlined US equivalents.

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Graded on a Curve: Inspector 34,
Love My Life

Inspector 34 call Lowell, MA home, and have been extant for roughly a decade. Across that span, they’ve amassed a discography including a CD/ cassette, a few 7-inch releases, a handful of digital-only artifacts, and a slew of compilation appearances that have been compiled on a limited edition lathe-cut laser disc (which, like much of the catalog, is sold out in physical form). Love My Life is the band’s latest, featuring 13 tracks hovering between 1990s indie rock and post-Elephant 6/ Animal Collective psychedelia, out now on vinyl and digital through the Sad Milk Collective label.

The outfit responsible for Love My Life– that’d be Jim Warren on guitar and vocals, Pat Auclair on guitar, Silas Price on synth, Ben Kaplowitz on bass, and Alexandra Derderian on drums (everybody sings, with Warren and Auclair credited with various other instrumental input), self-identify as “junk rock” and “sludge pop.”

Both terms underscore a general tendency toward the disheveled in their approach, though simultaneously, they keep a firm grip on structure. Another way of putting it is that, instead of sanding away the music’s rough edges in the pursuit of refinement, Inspector 34 see the rawness in their sound as a virtue.

It’s a decision that’s appreciated, as the album manages to harness and commingle assorted strains of the indie experience that have become less common over the last couple decades (or maybe have just undergone a reduction in profile). This is increasingly apparent in “Everybody,” which hits with a wobbly momentum that’s like prime era Animal Collective, but more raucous and rocking.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2020’s New Releases, Part One

What was said about the reissues of 2020 is even truer for the new releases of the year; this list could’ve easily been doubled. This is partly because there was just so much more time for listening.

10. Nap Eyes, Snapshot of a Beginner (Jagjaguwar) & Lewsberg, In This House (12XU) Give a listen to the latest by Halifax, Nova Scotia’s Nap Eyes, and you might agree; vocalist and songwriter Nigel Chapman is a pop auteur. His tunes and delivery are a big part of the reason Snapshot of a Beginner made this list. But unlike many pop auteurs, Chapman is also fronting a full-fledged band, which leads us to the other major aspect of the record’s success, specifically that the playing is often superb, as Chapman seems to thrive on the sturdy rapport of the participants.

Jaded fucks might grumble, before retreating to their bunker of solitude to frown at the wallpaper, that Rotterdam’s Lewsberg are merely an art-punk/ post-punk extension of moves the Velvet Underground dished out over half a century ago. Bet you’re glad you’re not a jaded fuck. As for Velvets influences (or Beatles, or Stones, or Byrds, or Cheap Trick, or Thin Lizzy…), what’s the problem, exactly? Lewsberg’s take on VU is pretty unique however, seemingly as heavily impacted by “The Gift” as other bands are by “What Goes On” or “Sweet Jane.” In This House also brings Plurex Records to mind, and that’s just great.

9. Gwenifer Raymond, Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain (Tompkins Square) & Mary Lattimore, Silver Ladders (Ghostly International) On her 2018 debut You Never Were Much of a Dancer, Welsh guitarist Raymond was already prodigious. She was also in the thrall of the American Primitive, a circumstance which elevated the record to knockout status. As Raymond’s fingerpicking remains dexterous, her melodic chops are sharpened (this is a beautiful album) and she’s even travelling into experimental territory, which opens up all sorts of possibilities going forward.

Raymond is a master of six strings, but as a harpist, Mary Lattimore has 47 to contend with, and she once again handles them with aplomb on Silver Ladders, which documents her collaboration with Slowdive guitarist Neil Halstead. His playing on the record (he also helped produce), along with a bountiful infusion of synth, expands the instrumental palette without minimizing Lattimore’s presence in the framework. There are a few times where her plucking takes on an almost electronic glisten, which is just one delightful aspect of an LP as vast as it is concise.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2020’s New Releases, Part Two

As explained in part one, the bench for the Best New Releases of 2020 is deep. On another day, in a different mood, some of those records could’ve easily made it into the rotation of this very list. So, fret not if your favorite music of the year is absent, for these selections aren’t intended to be in any way definitive. Rather than attempting any kind of last word (what hubris that would be), these selections are simply intended to be part of the greater discussion.

5. ONO, Red Summer (American Dreams) + “Kongo” b/w “Mercy” (Whited Sepulchre) & Nicole Mitchell & Lisa E. Harris, EarthSeed (FPE) Chicago’s ONO emerged as part of the 1980s underground, with a sound that encompasses Industrial, noise, free jazz, experimentation in general (they’ve been described as an “Avant-Industrial Gospel Band”), and spirted protest that is roaring (appropriately) like a four-alarm fire in 2020 with Red Summer and the very much complementary 12-inch, which arrived a little later in the year. Absorbed together, the contents are unflinching in their historical clarity on the subject of American racism and cruelty.

Nicole Mitchell & Lisa E. Harris’ EarthSeed, recorded live in Chicago, is flautist, composer and educator Mitchell’s third work in a series devoted to the culturally prescient work of the great science-fiction novelist Octavia E. Butler. It’s also Mitchell’s first compositional collaboration with the classically trained vocalist and interdisciplinary artist Harris, as the co-composers add electronics (Harris contributes Theremin) to an ensemble featuring vocalist Julian Otis, violinist Zara Zaharieva, trumpeter Ben LaMar Gay, cellist Tomeka Reid, and percussionist Avreeayl Ra. Jazz threads are certainly tangible, but the whole, invigorating and fascinating, is perhaps best described as lengthy dive into the avant-opera zone.

4. Jake Blount, Spider Tales (Free Dirt) & Sally Anne Morgan, Thread (Thrill Jockey) Spider Tales is banjoist-fiddler-vocalist Blount’s solo debut, but it radiates experience that’s unsurprising given its maker’s prominence in the contempo old-time community, where technique and feeling in performance are necessities. Blount’s also a member of The Moose Whisperers and half of Tui with fiddler-vocalist Libby Weitnauer, and he brings his adeptness at collaboration to this album, which features the great fiddler and singer Tatiana Hargreaves. Spider Tales also documents a gay Black man contributing with nary a trace of compromise to a scene with nasty bumps of intolerance in its historical road.

Blount is part of a younger generation that’s helping to keep old-time music vital through inclusion and curiosity into untapped possibilities. Sally Anne Morgan also holds a place of prominence in this category as fiddler in the Black Twig Pickers and as half of House and Land with Sarah Louise Henson, though Thread is her first solo album as it welcomes her partner Andrew Zinn on guitar and Black Twig Picker Nathan Bowles on drums. The results are a striking combination of Appalachian roots, Brit-folk sensibilities, and touches of experimentation. Morgan blossoms as a multi-instrumentalist (fiddle, banjo, guitar, piano) and her singing is absolutely delightful. This record and Spider Tales are future focused.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2020’s Reissues, Part One

As in years previous, the picks for the best reissues and new releases of 2020 have been paired-up to varying thematic degrees. Until the reader gets to the top spot in part two tomorrow, they shouldn’t consider each number to be a tie…unless one wants to, because y’know, that’s cool. These lists are, along with championing excellence, about making people happy. And as rough of a year as it has been, it did feature a sweet mess of reissued and archival material. What’s below (and what’s to come tomorrow) isn’t even all of it. Another day, and the list would be different. This is how these things go… 

10. Flaming Tunes, S/T (Superior Viaduct) & Michele Mercure, Pictures of Echoes (Freedom to Spend) This Heat are one of the more revered bands to have hovered on the fringes of what can be considered as the post-punk era. The late Gareth Williams was that outfit’s bassist and keyboardist, and he was half of Flaming Tunes with his childhood friend Mary Currie. The contents of their sole release from 1985 are markedly distinct from This Heat, being nearer to UK DIY experimentation, The Residents in instrumental mode and even the lo-fi psych-pop of Tall Dwarfs. In short, a subterranean beauty.

The Flaming Tunes set was reissued on black and clear vinyl, both sold out at the source, but it was originally released on cassette. Spooled tape was also the initial format for most of the selections on the Pictures of Echoes compilation, which is Freedom to Spend’s follow-up to their first Mercure collection Beside Herself. The one came out on 2LP and CD, but for Pictures, cassette was the format of choice, with an emphasis on past tense, as the 150 copies are also sold out. Mercure’s work surely fits into the ’80s cassette subculture, but the sans-vocals soundtrack aura increases with repeated listens.

9. Giant Sand, Ramp (Fire) & Jolie Holland, Escondida (Cinquefoil) Howe Gelb is no stranger to this website’s best of the year lists, either solo or with the band that established his rep. Cited as the second in a trifecta of early ’90s classics by Giant Sand, Ramp gets a 25th anniversary expansion here, only magnifying Gelb’s breadth, which by this point was already considerable. Featuring the 1991 Mad Dog Studio sessions, this edition of Ramp reinforces the band as rough and occasionally twisted, contrasting sharply from much Alt-country and Americana to come. But make no mistake; Giant Sand is desert rock.

Jolie Holland’s Escondida is not desert rock, though I’ve no doubt it would make for fine listening in arid climes. A sophomore effort from 2004, it showcases Holland’s powerhouse voice as well as her skillful songwriting (most of the record) and strengths at interpretation (two traditional tunes), all while blending strains of early jazz (Ara Anderson’s trumpet is a gas), pre-war gal blues singers, and even country, with this element decidedly closer to Appalachia than Nashville. The result is a record that sounds old as it consistently reminds the listener that its not. A gem…

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