Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
The Deadly Ones,
It’s Monster Surfing

Issued in 1964 by Vee-Jay Records, It’s Monster Surfing Time may appear to the sophisticated modern observer as an undisguised fusing of a trend and a gimmick. While it most assuredly fits that description, its instrumental surf bedrock has proven more than just a fad and likewise, the creature feature matinée gimmick has endured across generations. The Deadly Ones offer a fun taste of legitimate surf flavor, but their album signifies a whole lot more; its vinyl reissue is out on April 8 via the Concord Music Group.

Founded in 1953, Vee-Jay Records stands as one of the great labels in 20th century popular music’s pre-corporate era. Initially successful in the fields of doo-wop (The Spaniels, The Dells), R&B (The Impressions, Dee Clark), blues (John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Memphis Slim) and gospel (The Staple Singers, The Swan Silvertones), the company also managed a small but worthy jazz line (Wayne Shorter, Wynton Kelly, Lee Morgan, Walter Perkins) and perhaps most famously had the foresight to be the first US home of The Beatles.

It’s well documented how the Fab Four helped to metamorphose rock ‘n’ roll and youth music in general into a more serious proposition, but the change didn’t occur overnight, and there is no better proof of its gradual transformation than It’s Monster Surfing Time. The disc positively basks in a lowbrow aura prompting visions of a cigar-chomping label-boss orchestrating an unabashedly mercantile concept through colorful language and a cloud of smoke, though I’ve discovered no evidence to actually support James Bracken or his wife Vivian Carter (the Vee to James’ Jay) fitting this salty descriptor.

Surf music naturally inspires thoughts of waves, wipeouts, beach parties, and couples doing the swim, but in its unadulterated instrumental form its range isn’t especially wide; in 1963 Vee-Jay issued Come Surf with Me by Aki Aleong & the Nobles, a fine if less than earth shattering attempt to hang ten on the style’s popularity, and it would seem that by the following year it was deemed necessary to give the template a considerable shaking up.

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Graded on a Curve: Professor Longhair, Crawfish Fiesta

If Professor Longhair had recorded nothing but ‘59’s “Go to the Mardi Gras” he would still be a national treasure. But fortunately he recorded a whole lot more. And it’s a likely story that record store shelves have been undernourished over the years by the potency of Fess’ musical elixir, but his final album Crawfish Fiesta was a grand attempt to reverse this trend. Alas, it too fell out of print. Alligator Records has done the world a tremendous solid by reissuing this fantastic slab of New Orleans gusto, and if a party where people dress up and cavort is in your future, this record will serve as an ideal soundtrack.

In the development of the vast and diverse musical legacy of New Orleans there is nobody more crucial than Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd, better known to the world as pianist Professor Longhair. Born in 1918, he was old enough to have soaked up formative musical nourishment from the raw energy that radiated like spirit fuel throughout jazz music’s thriving early years (of which New Orleans was the birthplace, of course), but he was also young enough to fall right into the forefront of the formulation of a fresh musical sphere, specifically rhythm and blues, that exploded during the economic and cultural boom period directly after WWII.

The crib notes on the Professor’s widely influential but stridently individualist achievement is that he combined a Caribbean left hand with a boogie-woogie right hand and in so doing became a prime example of 20th Century American Music’s strongest thread, that being Creative Synthesis, a fiber reflective of his country’s status as Melting Pot.

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Graded on a Curve: Professor Longhair,
Live in Chicago

Prior to his passing in 1980, the New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair reliably delivered the goods to club and festival audiences far and wide. For evidence, please consult the brand new Live in Chicago; cut at the University of Chicago Folk Festival on February 1, 1976, it offers a fine dose of the man’s immediately recognizable sound, and it’s available April 12 on vinyl and compact disc through Orleans Records and distributor Select-O-Hits.

Professor Longhair’s 1970s renaissance is one of the sweeter late acts in the whole of 20th century American music; throughout the decade Henry Roeland Byrd was knocking out crowds on festival stages across the USA and Europe, but before the Alligator label’s 1980 release of Crawfish Fiesta the pianist was still primarily known on home stereos for his ‘50s work as collected by Atlantic on their classic ’72 LP New Orleans Piano.

Amid his newfound fortune new Fess material was largely approached with disinterest; as detailed in John Sinclair’s notes for Live in Chicago, he did record with Snooks Eaglin circa ’71-’72, but the results languished on the shelf until Rounder put them out in ‘87 as House Party New Orleans Style (Rhino followed suit four years later under the tile Mardi Gras in Baton Rouge).

Rock & Roll Gumbo paired the Professor with the guitar and violin of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, but it was contemporaneously issued only in France on the Blue Star imprint, and other than Live on the Queen Mary, a ’78 album capturing a performance at a party hosted by Paul and Linda McCartney, there was basically nothing else.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in stores January–March, 2016

Our 2016 first quarter overlook is in no way an attempt to be all-encompassing; it’s simply some thoughts and grades on records released in the first three months of the year. Part two arrives next week.

Adult Books, Running from the Blows (Burger/Lollipop) Guitar-based pop-rock in a late ’70s-early ’80s vein; that means occasional new wavy flourishes and a few welcome touches of leather-and -scarf attitude, and even as a couple of lesser songs emerge this is surprisingly strong for a full-length debut. On a just planet every town would have an Adult Books practicing outdoors on crisp autumn afternoons. But to paraphrase William Gaddis, we get justice in the next world; in this one we have the law. A-

Animal Collective, Painting With (Domino) Opener “FloriDada” strives for novelty but is ultimately just kinda corny and the album never really recovers; the whole is intermittently pleasant but constantly lightweight. Along with samples of the Surfaris and Bea Arthur (a real “are you shitting me?” moment) are guest spots by John Cale and Colin Stetson that are far more exciting on paper. In the end it’s a typically average late-work. C+

Anenon, Petrol (Friends of Friends) Producer and saxophonist Brian Allen Simon resides in Los Angeles, and fittingly his electronic-ambient-experimentalism is very L.A.; a few spots here conjured thoughts of burnt orange sunsets and smog. But worry not east coasters, for the manipulated blend of synthetic and organic instrumentation isn’t a bit shallow, with Simon’s sax bringing distinctiveness to the techno-abstract table. A-

Animal Daydream, “Citrus” (Jigsaw) 4-song EP retaining the Swedish duo’s devotion to the Buck/Nicks-era of the Fleetwood Mac, though this time out the tunes aren’t quite as strong. Saving them is the instrumentation however, which is likely to appeal to guitar-pop aficionados with nary a care regarding ’70s soft rock. B+

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Graded on a Curve: Pram, The Stars Are So Big, the Earth Is So Small…Stay as You Are and Helium

Although long defunct, throughout the 1990s the UK label Too Pure promulgated a sweet heaping mess of worthwhile musical activity; most illustrious in the outpouring were PJ Harvey and Stereolab, but numerous additional acts fortified the scenario, and amongst the finest was Pram. Formed in Birmingham, England in 1990, the experimental pop outfit released three full-lengths on Too Pure, and the first two, ’93’s The Stars Are So Big, the Earth Is So Small…Stay as You Are and the following year’s Helium have just been given fresh 180gm pressings by Medical Records of Seattle, WA.

Pram initially came together in the late ‘80s under the name Hole. Eventually their founding members, namely Rosie Cuckston on vocals and keyboards, Matt Eaton on guitar, Samantha “Sam” Owen on bass, and Andy Weir on drums, changed the moniker to Pram, and their first recordings wielded an abrasive, nervous quality derived from indie rock and traceable back to their home country’s post-punk innovators, in particular The Slits and The Raincoats.

As part of the upside-down musical landscape of the early ’90s, Pram has surely been categorized as one component in the truly seismic indie explosion. But instead of being tidily indicative of the ’80s underground’s absorption into the mainstream of the ensuing decade, the group can be accurately tagged as prescient; circa ’88 as Hole their sound reportedly sprang entirely from vocals and a homemade Theremin.

Pram has been described as everything from experimental pop/rock to neo-psychedelia to dream pop, but they seem best pegged as an early example of post-rock (though at least one member of the band disagrees) as they adopted a wide range of atypical instrumentation, borrowed ideas from a Krautrock and post-punk antecedents, honed their skills as multi-instrumentalists and then strove to not sound like anyone else.

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Graded on a Curve:
Jan St. Werner, Felder

German- based musician-composer Jan St. Werner has been an important member of the international electronic scene for over two decades, both as a solo artist and as half of the pioneering duo Mouse on Mars. Displaying no signs of creative stasis, St. Werner is releasing his fourth full-length for Thrill Jockey; brandishing a disciplined approach to forging fresh sonic paths, Felder transcends genre, and it’s available on CD, LP, and digital April 1.

Emerging as part of the fruitful ’90s electronic milieu, Mouse on Mars is unquestionably Jan St. Werner’s highest profile musical endeavor; he and partner Andi Toma brought the New in no uncertain terms, debuting in ’94 with Vulvaland on the Too Pure label. Newness is in some cases tantamount to the ephemeral, but Mouse on Mars has hung in there, issuing ten albums amidst a substantial number of shorter works and collaborations (2014’s extensive 21 Again is a swell exposé of connections), and their discography stands amongst the least dated in the ‘90s electronic wave.

St. Werner’s been busy on his own; Felder is the fourth installment in his Fiepblatter Catalogue, a parenthetical attached to the entirety of his Thrill Jockey output. The series’ modus operandi, to quote the label’s promo text for inaugural 2013 entry Blaze Colour Burn, is to “encompass electro-acoustic experimentation, algorithmic elements, scored music, digital signal processing, field recordings, improvisation, public performance, and graphic works. These pieces aren’t just about sound; they’re about location, structure, time, aesthetics. Stories that overlap and interact with each other.”

In short; hell, yeah! Blaze Colour Burn delivered a major slice of well-considered abstraction, and the Fiepblatter Catalogue continued the same year with Transcendental Animal Numbers. Fittingly, it was Thrill Jockey’s first cassette only affair as it dropped two 20 minute tracks onto opposite sides of a tape with packaging recalling the heyday of the format as a vessel of uncompromising invention; just as appropriately, it was issued in a micro edition of 150 copies.

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Graded on a Curve: American Jazz Quintet,
Gulf Coast Jazz, Vol. 1

New Orleans is a locale rarely discussed in Modern Jazz terms. In the second half of the 1950s however, tenor saxophonist Harold Battiste, pianist Ellis Marsalis, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, drummer Ed Blackwell and numerous bassists, Crescent City residents all, comprised the American Jazz Quintet. The moniker might seem nondescript, but it actually reflects their collective artistry quite well. The music found on Gulf Coast Jazz, Volume 1 makes a strong case for that name deserving a much higher profile.

When folks get together to gab about post-bop they often lump the vast majority of the music into the designations of East Coast Hot and West Coast Cool. In so doing, East essentially means New York City and West basically encompasses the state of California. While the Chicago scene gets its due as does Philadelphia and Boston, the rest of the country is almost entirely left out of the discussion.

In 1956 the American Jazz Quintet made their first recordings at Cosimo’s Studio in that cradle of Dixieland, zydeco, and rhythm & blues. 1996 saw those initial sessions compiled on the CD In the Beginning by the musician’s cooperative label All for One. Previously, ten of those tracks filled the first two sides of the Opus 43 imprint’s 4LP box set from ‘76, the very scarce and extremely pricey (as in 850 bucks used) New Orleans Heritage – Jazz: 1956-1966 (on which the American Jazz Quintet got coupled with the A.F.O. Executives and the Ellis Marsalis Quartet).

In the Beginning holds the recording debuts of Alvin Batiste, Ed Blackwell, and Ellis Marsalis, though as the music clearly shows, the group (which along with Harold Battiste also included alternating bassists Richard Payne and William Swanson and on one cut the alto sax of Warren Bell) benefited from the substantial playing experience of the individual members. For one obvious example, while living in Los Angeles Blackwell had already hooked up with his most famous associate Ornette Coleman (Blackwell temporarily moved back to New Orleans in ’56).

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Graded on a Curve: Ornette Coleman,
To Whom Who Keeps
a Record

Initially issued only in Japan in 1975 and compiling a series of then-unreleased cuts of 15 years vintage, To Whom Who Keeps a Record offers a striking excursion into the Atlantic-era material of recently departed saxophonist and bandleader Ornette Coleman. The configuration he guided during this fertile juncture is amongst his greatest, and the music collected on this album, if not at the absolute apex of Coleman’s achievement, impresses by getting very close. It would serve as a swell introduction to an essential period from a giant of American music, and it’s out now on LP through Superior Viaduct.

1975 was a productive span for Ornette Coleman, though newcomers to his work wouldn’t glean this from a mere glance at his ample discography. In the midst of headway with his dual-guitar Moroccan music-infused electric band Prime Time, he didn’t debut that group on record until well after the calendar for the year had hit waste baskets and been transported to landfills the globe over.

Coleman’s catalog entries from 1975 are The Great London Concert, an August 29 1965 recording by his amazing trio with bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett, and To Whom Who Keeps a Record’s roundup of previously unissued gems from Atlantic’s vaults. The latter is the finer of the two; although the live set spotlights a criminally under-documented group, it ultimately takes a back seat to the shows captured on Blue Note’s two cornerstone volumes of At the Golden Circle Stockholm.

An opening piece for string quintet also harkens back to Coleman’s earlier ESP Disk Town Hall December 1962; scheduled for release in the US by Arista/ Freedom, The Great London Concert apparently didn’t make it past the promo copy stage. It came out elsewhere through International Polydor as An Evening with Ornette Coleman and the Freedom label as Ornette Coleman in Europe Volume I + II.

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Graded on a Curve: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, EARS

Analog synthesizer specialist, composer, and Berklee College of Music graduate Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith first appeared on the scene roughly six years ago, but with her upcoming full-length EARS her profile is poised to expand considerably; its warmly expansive blend of electronics and organic instrumentation is out on LP, CD, and digital on April 1 through Western Vinyl. Additionally, she’s going to be supporting Animal Collective in the States and Battles in Europe this spring; based on the achievement of her latest it’s advisable to arrive early.

Alongside other qualities, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s music exudes facets of experimentation, traits compatible with the New Age genre and even gentle threads of hippie-ish psychedelia. She describes her formative years as being in communion with the natural environment of Orcas Island in the northwest corner of Washington State; Cocoon, the sole album by Ever Isles, her folk duo with Jeremy Robert Harris, was recorded there in 2010.

The scoop is that after spending time with a friend’s synthesizer she abandoned Ever Isles for solo electronic exploration. And not just any synth; the direction altering device was the Buchla 100 Series Modular Electronic Music System. Its creator Don Buchla is a figure as important in electronic music history (if not as well-known) as his contemporary Robert Moog; the Buchla 100 dates from 1963 and remains an analog apparatus of vast potential, notably used by Morton Subotnick for his classic ’67 LP Silver Apples of the Moon.

Smith’s use of Buchla’s creations, including the Buchla Music Easel (which emerged a decade after the 100 Series) extends to a frankly unsurprising collaboration in progress with electronic music pioneer and Buchla colleague Suzanne Ciani, but she’s also worked with Reggie Watts and served as the sound designer for Panda Bear’s “Boys Latin” video.

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Graded on a Curve: Abelardo Barroso,
Cha Cha Cha

The name Abelardo Barroso sits at the very beginning of the Cuban record industry. 78 rpm discs captured him, and a sheer talent for performance insured his fame. By the mid-‘50s Barroso’s renown had withered, but through a convergence of circumstances he returned to the limelight. Cha Cha Cha is World Circuit’s terrific compilation spotlighting the vocalist’s fruitful involvement with Orquesta Sensación, the noteworthy band directed by Rolando Valdés.

The songs Sexteto Habanero cut in 1925 under the auspices of RCA Victor are considered square one for recorded Cuban music. Abelardo Barroso’s singing on those tracks made him a star, or more accurately, helped to make him one; along with the RCA sides a spate of 16 numbers Barroso sang in New York for Brunswick as a member of Sexteto Bolona establish his ability for the ages.

Born in 1905, Barroso was of a time where the stage was still the thing. In fact, his ‘30s prestige at the forefront of the danzonette period, its large-bands replacing the fervor for the guitar-based son ensembles a la Sexteto Habanero and Bolona, is barely preserved on record; only a solitary ’39 78 by the Orchestra Maravilla del Siglo.

This is mainly due to the Depression; enter hard times and exit RCA, Columbia, and Brunswick. By the ’50s though, Cuban records were being waxed through independent homegrown companies like Panart and Jesús Gorís’ Puchito, the latter an aspect of what Cha Cha Cha’s substantial liners describe as “a perfect storm.” The other factors were Rolando Valdés’ tip-top band Orquesta Sensación, the group’s arranger/flutist Juan Pablo Miranda, and of course Abelardo Barroso.

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