Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Fire Records at Thirty Three and a Third: Underrated Gems and Deeper Cuts

Acknowledged classics are the backbone, but a label’s longevity is also based upon listeners spending days into weeks into months getting acquainted with undersung discoveries. Here are seven.

The Garbage and the Flowers, Eyes Rind as if Beggars (1997/2013) A whole lot of Kiwi musical product, much of it related to the Flying Nun record company, has been reissued to substantial acclaim over the last few years. Formed in late ’80s Wellington by guitarist-songwriter Yuri Frusin and vocalist-violist Helen Johnstone (with assistance along the way), The Garbage & the Flowers waxed nothing for Flying Nun; the lo-fi nature of their stuff was better suited for the Xpressway label, but in fact they cut nary a peep for that enterprise either.

This no doubt partially explains why so few know this set, an ample and at times astounding double reissued with a CD of bonus material. Eyes Rind as if Beggars is far from cut-rate lo-fi; far too many acts used the tactic as a look-at-me move while jumping atop the springboard of relative normalcy, but not this bunch. Wielding an undeniable pop streak, they leavened the sweet with the dark and radiated a consistent sense of being eavesdropped upon. If one wishes to hear the legit influence of the Velvets rather than just the copping of surface Lou moves, step right up to this one.

Orchestra of Spheres, Vibration Animal Sex Brain Music (2013) Also hailing from Wellington NZ, the four-piece Orchestra of Spheres offers a markedly different experience than does The Garbage & the Flowers. The thrust on their sophomore effort (the first recorded in a “real” studio) is extroverted and hi-fidelity (24-tracks worth) art-dance-funk.

It’s a booming affair, but it’s as rhythmically complex and tonally eclectic as it is driving, recalling everything from ESG, Euro disco, Brit post-punk with occasional shouty bits (think Slits, Pop Group, On-U Sound), Konono Nº1, electro funk (with vocoder), Italian-style synth soundtracks, highlife, a dose of urgent, effects-pedal-hopping rock, and elements that are tougher to categorize. Overall, it’s a party as wild and colorful as the threads the band members donned in the promo snaps for this album.

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Fire Records at Thirty Three and a Third: A Canon of Sorts, Part One

Formed in 1984, Fire Records has a huge number of releases in its catalog. This week we celebrate 33 1/3 of the best, and it seems appropriate to begin the plunge with a few of the records that establish the label’s high level of quality and roughly define the parameters of their pursuit. So away we go.

Close Lobsters, Foxheads Stalk this Land (1987) Nailing down Fire’s first classic release is a debate-worthy topic, but without question the debut album from this Scottish band will be part of the discussion. Due to the Lobsters’ presence on the era-defining New Musical Express compilation C86, they endure as one of ’80s indie pop’s core acts, but unlike some of their cohorts they didn’t squander that momentum and shrivel in the spotlight.

Foxheads is one of indie pop’s stronger long-form statements, in the same ballpark as Up for a Bit with The Pastels and George Best. Like The Wedding Present, the Lobsters relied upon energetic jangle, a tactic in full flower here via “In Spite of These Times” and the wickedly infectious “I Take Bribes,” but they also maintained a distinct personality within the subgenre; this disc captures them honing it, spiking the melodicism with louder moments and culminating with the raucous, nearly eight minute “Mother of God.” Altogether, this is a prerequisite for any indie pop shelf.

Lemonheads, Lick (1988/2013) Over the years, Fire’s value has been considerably deepened by a steady stream of well-chosen reissues, their efforts keeping a slew of important material in print. Such is the case with the early recordings of the Lemonheads; formed in ’80s Boston, they straddled punk, college rock, and the gradually unfolding alternative scene, of which the group became a major contributor.

Inconceivable without the precedent of Hüsker Dü, by Lick they’d begun to expand beyond that template a bit. Additionally, the set documents the exit of founding member Ben Deily; as it’s the final disc prior to Evan Dando signing with Atlantic, it marks the end of an era. Filled out with previously recorded stuff, including a “hit” cover of Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” Lick is uneven, but it grows punkier as it progresses and shines a bright light on the stylistic contrasts that caused Deily to depart. It all goes down quite easy today, and any record with a cover of Proud Scum’s “I am a Rabbit” is cool with me.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, May 2017

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued wax presently in stores for May, 2017. 

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die (International Anthem) Long active on the Chicago scene and recently busy in NYC, Branch is a skilled trumpeter. She’s recorded quite a bit over the last decade, but this, to employ jazz parlance, is her debut as leader. The core group consists of trumpet, cello, bass and drums with guest spots for guitar and two cornets. In line with the Chicago tradition, there’s a lack of spotlight hogging, but the collectivity is unique; “theme 001” and “theme nothing” brandish wicked cello-driven grooves, and when Branch does let loose, the sound is imaginative and energetic. A-

Penguin Cafe, The Imperfect Sea (Erased Tapes) Formed in ’72 by Simon Jeffes, most of Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s output emerged in the ’80s and was often associated with New Age, though it’s more accurately categorized as chamber-pop with a minimalist bent. The Imperfect Sea is not that Penguin Cafe Orchestra, as Jeffes passed in ’97, but is instead a continuation of sorts by his son Arthur, and one that exceeds expectations. Fully utilizing chamber instrumentation, Sea registers as less of a World Music offshoot than the Orchestra, but the mood is still sunny. During “Ricercar,” sunnier even. A-

REISSUE PICKS: Flat Duo Jets, Wild Wild Love (Daniel 13) For recent converts to the gospel according to Dex Romweber looking to get acquainted with the man’s early work, this is an absolute score, rounding up the Jets’ self-titled 1990 LP, a second disc of outtakes, and the long-elusive ’84 cassette-only mini-album (In Stereo), which makes its vinyl debut here via 10-inch. Alongside drummer Chris “Crow” Smith, Romweber dished an enticing strain of rockabilly that was as knowledgeable of Southern pop’s long history as it was roots potent. This blend has kept their stuff as delicious as fresh-picked produce. A-

V/A, Max’s Kansas City: 1976 & Beyond (Jungle) This expands (near-ridiculously, especially on the 2CD) a 1976 slab many have belittled or downright dismissed over the decades. This isn’t exactly a misapprehension; those who love Wayne County (I love Wayne County) might beg to differ, but the distance between Suicide and Ubu and the rest of the original slab’s lineup is, shall we say, significant. This reish drops Ubu but adds so much material (from weak to surprisingly spiff) that County’s opening Max’s trib registers not as hyperbole but as the legit documentation of a club-dwelling way of life. B+

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Graded on a Curve:
Juana Molina,
Halo

Aptly described as falling under the stylistic umbrella of folktronica, unlike many in the genre Argentinian singer-songwriter Juana Molina has not only stuck around, her music’s gotten better with each release. Much of the reason stems from a combination of warmth and depth as she avoids aspects that can quickly become dated or downright hackneyed. Her latest album Halo continues her forward trajectory, and it’s out May 5 on double vinyl, compact disc, and digital via Crammed Discs.

Juana Molina’s decision to step away from a highly lucrative career as a television actress and comedian in favor of music is a long-established early chapter in the artist’s background. The negative reaction in Argentina to her ’96 debut Rara is no secret either; while contrasting sharply from the acoustic-electronic merger of her subsequent work, the album’s smart indie-tinged guitar pop deserved a whole lot better. At the very least, it rated being taken seriously.

It’s not a difficult record to hear, but it also looks to be technically out of print; the remainder of Molina’s full-lengths are currently available, if only digitally, through Crammed Discs. It took until 2000 and a move to Los Angeles for her second album Segundo to emerge, and this is where the folktronica sensibility essentially begins.

It was a considerable step forward for Molina, and ’02’s Tres cosas extended the growth. It’s shouldn’t be understated how the combination of folkish guitar, rhythm, electronics, and vocals hitting the middle ground between chanteuse and street corner busker cohered into a robust yet subtly expansive whole. A lot of what’s been classified as folktronica peddled newness but fell victim to novelty; think Lilith Fair or Beck retreads married to third-rate Astralwerks knockoffs, but Molina’s stuff is vibrant in its contemporary veneer.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Obsessed,
Sacred

Those passionate for doom metal and stoner rock are surely well-familiar with Scott “Wino” Weinrich, in part for his vocal duties in Saint Vitus, but also as the founder and leader of the historically significant doom-stoner outfit The Obsessed. Having reformed in 2016, the group has recorded its first studio album in over 20 years, with its release by Relapse a positive sign in terms of quality; Sacred is available now on double vinyl, compact disc, and digital.

Scott Weinrich’s highest-profile achievement continues to be Saint Vitus, for which he handled mic duties on a bunch of well-regarded discs from ’87-’90, but he’s also headed up Spirit Caravan and The Hidden Hand, plus taken part in a slew of projects including Dave Grohl’s Probot and Shrinebuilder with Al Cisneros (of Om and Sleep) and Dale Crover (of the Melvins).

If one desires to visit the heart of Wino’s thing it’s necessary to spend time with The Obsessed. Originally called Warhorse, they formed in 1976 in Potomac, MD. Over time demos were cut, and in ’83 a 3-song 7-inch was released on Invictus Records. Sometimes named after its track “Sodden Jackal,” its contents are most easily heard on Incarnate, a compilation wrangled up by Southern Lord in 1999.

When Saint Vitus left SST for Hellhound in 1990, the label chose to release The Obsessed, a rack of tunes cut in the ‘80s for prospective issue by Metal Blade that didn’t pan out (the band did make it onto that imprint’s Metal Massacre VI, however). The disc’s success prompted Weinrich to leave Saint Vitus and rekindle The Obsessed; Hellhound dished Lunar Womb in ’91 and The Church Within in ’94.

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Graded on a Curve: Four from Rockbeat Records

It’s springtime, and live records seem to be budding like tulips; Rockbeat has four in the racks right now on vinyl and compact disc from Paul Butterfield, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, the Flamin’ Groovies, and Emerson, Lake, & Palmer. This writer’s evaluations vary as wildly as the genres assembled, but it suffices to say there’s something here to satisfy nearly any fan of rock’s “classic” era. The number of tracks also differs, in the case of ELP quite substantially, so take time when choosing LP or CD.

Late one night, or more accurately early one morning, while leaning against a wall in a rowdy basement as Cheap Trick at Budokan spun methodically on a cheap turntable, a voice entered my ear via tones simultaneously familiar and enigmatic. Its words: “live records are mere souvenirs, serving as reminders for the few who attended and providing a substitute for the many who didn’t.”

Obviously, that shit was something of a vibe-killer, but when I turned around to bark “bug off, killjoy,” my eyes landed on a tattered poster of Iggy Pop. He was holding court on stage, shirtless and wearing yellow tights as he contorted the skin on his belly into a doughy mass with his hands. It was a powerful, nay a downright fucked-up sight to behold, and in response I promptly fell right over. Just as my body kissed the cement I can remember acknowledging begrudgingly that the voice had a point.

But from an older, wiser place it becomes clear that live recordings also serve to solidify the history we’re ceaselessly hurtling away from. Take these Rockbeat releases as four examples. Paul Butterfield’s set is the oldest in the bunch, and it deepens the stylistic redirection the famed Chicago blues rock harmonica specialist undertook after guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop exited his band.

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Graded on a Curve:
Tom Armstrong,
The Sky is an Empty Eye

Those who purchased a copy of Imaginational Anthem Vol. 8 are likely familiar with the name Tom Armstrong. Most everybody else…probably not so much, for the latest installment in the long-running series of instrumental guitar compilations is focused upon private press releases. In a positive development, Tompkins Square is reissuing Armstrong’s sole LP as the first of several full albums from artists included on IA8. If post-Fahey fingerpicking springs to mind, wipe that noodle clean, for the The Sky is an Empty Eye plugs in, gets much nearer to a psychedelic disposition, and even dishes a bit of vocals. It’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital April 28.

Armstrong’s comes closest to the American Primitive guitar approach right away on The Sky is an Empty Eye, the structural framework and mood of opening track “White Pines” somewhat reminiscent of Takoma-era Fahey, though it’s a similarity immediately offset by the guitarist’s deft tempo changes and a distinctive use of harmonics.

Those bell-like tones subside roughly halfway through the piece as the folky inclination redirects toward searching yet unperturbed and mildly psych-oriented progressions. This shift is ultimately helpful in situating Armstrong even further afield from the American Primitive fingerpicking tradition; it’s a style that’s played a significant role in shaping subsequent solo guitar activities, and nowhere more so than the Imaginational Anthem series mentioned above.

“White Pines” was Tompkins Square’s pick for Vol. 8, an entry collecting tracks from assorted self-recorded and released discoveries from the ’60s to the ’90s. The Sky is an Empty Eye was issued on Armstrong’s Dharma Bum Records, the Kerouac-inspired name deepening a spiritual undercurrent as the album’s largely non-vocal nature helps keep the contents from becoming too spaced-out or insubstantial.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mark Mulcahy,
The Possum in the Driveway

Mark Mulcahy was once primarily recognized as a founding member of Miracle Legion, but in the current century he’s equally known for a solo career. Ambitious yet welcoming as a singer-songwriter, Mulcahy’s work can be emotionally powerful without hardening into severity. His latest is less guitar-focused and more orchestrated, but the artist hasn’t gotten lost in the transition. The Possum in the Driveway came out as a limited gold-vinyl edition for Record Store Day, and the standard LP, CD, and digital release follows on April 28 through the Mezzotint label.

Alongside the recently reactivated Miracle Legion, which released a slew of college-radio and indie staples from ’83-’96 (surviving the initial bankruptcy of Rough Trade in the process), Mark Mulcahy was in Polaris (of “Hey Sandy” and The Adventures of Pete & Pete fame) and has additionally collaborated on five operas with the cartoonist Ben Katchor (noted for the long-running weekly strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer). As mentioned above, Mulcahy also has an extensive solo discography that’s capped with 2013’s terrific Dear Mark J Mulcahy I Love You.

Too frequently when solo artists elect to swap out their guitar-based approach for some combination of electronica, horns, and orchestration, the results can radiate like a poorly executed attempt at cinematic greenscreen. Occasionally the disjointedness succeeds, but more often it pits the familiar realness of the musician and their songs against a grafted backdrop, with the resulting artificiality (or fakery, to be less kind) either unintentionally alienating or deliberately jarring.

In striving for fresh sonic territory, The Possum in the Driveway avoids this problem. Instead, “Stuck on Something Else” begins with a mixture of boldness and intimacy, the spare instrumentation offering a music box quality as Mulcahy’s vocal sparks a more productive friction, sounding like it might be emanating from a sparsely populated booze-den at right around closing time.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, April 2017

Part three of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued wax presently in stores for April, 2017. Part one can be found here, and part two is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Sarah Davachi, All My Circles Run (Students of Decay) Davachi is a drone-minimalist, her early stuff dubbed onto cassette and more recent output issued on vinyl. Previously, she’s combined the acoustic and electronic, but the synths get put aside here for a focus on a single organic instrument on each of the set’s five tracks. “For Strings” offers exquisite drone, “For Voice” is avant-classically eerie, and “Chanter” interweaves patterns of prepared piano, while “For Organ” and “For Piano” double-down on the drone to outstanding result. All this and an album jacket in B&W widescreen. A

V/A, Thank You, Friends: Big Star’s Third, Live…and More (Concord Bicycle) Cut on April 27 of last year, this star-studded affair, with Jeff Tweedy, Robyn Hitchcock, Jessica Pratt, Kronos Quartet, Mike Mills, Chris Stamey, Mitch Easter, and Ira Kaplan only a portion of the talent assembled, is a splendid tribute to one of rock’s greatest albums. Filling two CDs and a DVD, this isn’t an act of docile mimicry; chronology gets tossed aside as a bunch of non-Third Big Star material and even Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos” is performed. Instead, this collective salutation transforms its subject, and the love is palpable. A-

REISSUE PICKS: Big Star, Complete Third: Vol. 3: Final Masters (Omnivore) Per the label, this is “every released master recording from every officially released version of Third,” presented for Record Store Day in a slipcase edition designed to hold the previous two vinyl installments (the whole thing came out on CD last autumn). If you’ve purchased Vol. 1 and 2, here’s your place to put ‘em, but if the masters are all you think you need, Vol. 3 is getting a non-slipcase issue later in 2017. However, as Thank You, Friends attests, Third really is a multifaceted, unceasingly giving beauty, so buy wisely. A+

V/A, Really Rock ‘Em Right: Sun Records Curated by Record Store Day, Volume 4 (ORG) This is one of our global vinyl holiday’s shrewder ideas, mainly because it could roll into the double digits without a drop-off in quality. This edition is especially well-assembled, mixing established Sun giants (Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins) with less celebrated figures (Big Memphis Ma Rainey, Lou Sargent, Billy Love, Frank Frost) as prime R&B (Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm, James Cotton) and uncut rockabilly (Warren Smith) shoot the value meter into the red zone. All this and Roy Orbison, too. A

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, April 2017

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued wax presently in stores for April, 2017. 

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Valgeir Sigurðsson, Dissonance (Bedroom Community) Sigurðsson has accrued a long list of production credits, working extensively with Bjork, Sigur Rós, Ben Frost and others. This is his first solo release as composer since 2012’s Architecture of Loss, and the combination of electronics (by Sigurðsson) and the sustained hugeness of the string and wind ensemble is a stunning thing to hear, particularly on the 23-minute Mozart-inspired title piece. This is a must for fans of undiluted chamber ambiance, but don’t dally; the 1,000 LPs are rapidly disappearing. CDs and digital are also available. A

Glenn Jones & Matthew Azevedo, Waterworks (Thrill Jockey) This live document from Boston’s Metropolitan Waterworks Museum’s Great Engine Hall pairs Jones’ ever-brilliant guitar and banjo with Azevedo’s sonic manipulations and additives (including field recordings and harmonium), and it’s a total success. Partly due to the bond of the principals, with Azevedo described as Jones’ “mastering guru of 15 years,” and additionally through sensible preparation, the music transcends the acoustic challenges of the structure and entirely eschews the hit-and-miss aura of experimental collaboration. A

REISSUE PICKS: George Gurdjieff / Thomas de Hartmann, The Music of Gurdjieff (Light in the Attic) this astounding 5LP documents philosopher, spiritual teacher, and composer G. I. Gurdjieff’s collaboration with student Thomas de Hartmann. From 1923-’29 de Hartmann translated to European notation the music Gurdjieff composed during his travels in the Middle East and Central Asia; De Hartmann’s solo piano recordings of the results date from the ’50s and weren’t intended for commercial release. Often gentle, the playing never weakens into aural wallpaper, and the use of silence is captivating. A

Meredith Monk, Key (Tompkins Square) Reissue of Monk’s 1971 debut for Increase Records of music composed between ’67 and ’70. First recordings are regularly developmental in nature, but the pieces here, featuring Monk playing organ and Jew’s harp and singing in her uniquely operatic style, are remarkably solid in their foundation. Key still gets pegged as a formative work with some regularity, mainly because she went on to create masterpieces, but as “Fat Stream” highlights, she wasn’t far from that plateau out of the gate. Fans of the 20th century avant-garde tradition should not pass this up. A-

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