Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2016’s New Releases, Part One

In the rearview is 2016—and we won’t really miss it. We’re counting down the new releases you shouldn’t have missed; the platters that easily got us through it. Here’s the first installation of our favorites spun.

10. A Tribe Called Quest, We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service (Epic) + Kristin Hersh, Wyatt at the Coyote Palace (Omnibus) Writing about records can be a tug of war between the excitement of expectation and emotional detachment; one wishes to avoid foaming at the mouth like a raving fanboy and conversely, emanating the disinterest of a robot. The leadup to the release of We got it from Here was accompanied with hopes of a great album tamped down by the knowledge that most comebacks bring disappointment. Inside: hopes for an odds-defying success. Outside: the demeanor of a drone.

A Tribe Called Quest pulled it off with flying colors, and with a high number of guest spots, a tactic that’s always cause for nervousness. But instead of making up for a lack of substance, the contributions underscore Tribe’s sheer impact over the years, with none of the visitors impeding the smooth eclecticism of the record’s progress; the best are Andre 3000 and Kendrick Lamar. Plus, Tribe packs a ton of engaging sonics and sturdy word flow into a solid and digestible hour, so there’s no worries in terms of content. All this and standout “Lost Somebody” samples Can’s “Halleluhwah.” Jeepers.

Wyatt at the Coyote Palace isn’t a comeback album, but akin to We got it from Here it offers an artistic vision having emerged from the 1980s that perseveres in the present day; that both albums are completely disinterested in hopping on any nostalgia trains is a major component in their triumphs. Throwing Muses has been fitfully active over the years, but Wyatt is a deeply personal collection, recorded entirely by Hersh and accompanied with a book of her (very good) writing. The whole fully embraces its solo nature.

Likewise, it turns its 82-minute running time into a major trait. If Tribe’s return benefits from a relative measure of conciseness, Wyatt gains strength from what in lesser hands would be unwieldiness or sprawl, with the results reminiscent of catching up with an old friend who’s achieved and endured much in their absence. Said friend has a whole lot to share, and just happens to write, sing, and play guitar like a champ.

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Graded on a Curve: The Best of 2016’s Reissues, Part Two

The sheer number of records put out in a calendar year can be positively daunting, but it’s also an energizing reality; while diving into the decision-making below we discovered a half-dozen items that if heard earlier could’ve easily made this list. Put another way, these picks aren’t engraved on stone tablets, they’re just our current favorites from a sea of reissued and archival material made available across 2016. Part one is here.

5. V/A, Subnormal Girls – DIY/Post Punk Vols. 1 & 2 (Waiting Room) + Pylon, Live (Chunklet) The Subnormal LPs span 1979-’84 and are their Berlin-based label’s first releases; the homeland is certainly represented across the entirety, but the first side of Vol. 1 spreads the geography in impressive fashion, covering the USA (IUD), the UK (The Petticoats), France (Zona), Germany (Mannschreck), Italy (Jo Squillo Electrix), Japan (Boys Boys), and Australia (Toxic Shock).

Naturally, Waiting Room’s gender focus is still quite welcome (the albums are a nice match with 2016’s contempo-focused comp Typical Girls on Arizona’s Emotional Response label), but they also emphasize post-punk as a truly global development rather than UK-centric affair. Additionally, while a few of the inclusions do hold posthumous reputations (The Petticoats, X Mal Deutschland, Rosa Yemen), most of this stuff will be unknown to all but the most voracious of post-punk addicts, reminding me a bit of Chuck Warner’s old Messthetics CDR series (but with a global focus).

Live has only grown in my esteem as 2016’s calendar pages have hit the trashcan, with its contents (taped in December ’83 at the Mad Hatter club for an aborted PBS music program) helping to recalibrate post-punk geography more than a little, though admittedly Pylon has long been tagged as one of the USA’s few legitimately post-punk units. It’s still appropriate to group them into the early college rock brigade alongside Athens, GA mates R.E.M. (who covered Pylon’s “Crazy”) and TVD Best Reissues of 2016 counterparts Game Theory and The Feelies, but the arty dance-rock and the vocals of Vanessa Briscoe-Hay underscore their kinship with such units as Delta 5, Kleenex / LiLiPUT, and Au Pairs.

Most of the acts on Subnormal Girls burned brief but bright as part of a grand musical transition, but Live documents one of the major units of the 1980s.

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Graded on a Curve: The Best of 2016’s Reissues, Part One

The sheer number of records put out in a calendar year can be positively daunting, but it’s also an energizing reality; while diving into the decision-making below we discovered a half-dozen items that if heard earlier could’ve easily made this list. Put another way, these picks aren’t engraved on stone tablets, they’re just our current favorites from a sea of reissued and archival material made available across 2016.

10. Dow Jones & the Industrials, Can’t Stand the Midwest 1979-1981 (Family Vineyard) + MX-80 Sound, Out of the Tunnel and Crowd Control (Ship to Shore PhonoCo.) The middle of the USA was once (and sometimes still is) belittled as nowheresville, and to play punk rock in the region was once considered folly at best and potentially dangerous to boot.

But hey, it’s not where you’re living, it’s where you’re at, you dig? Of course you do. Dow Jones & the Industrials may have hailed from West Lafayette Indiana, but during their existence they inhabited a highly appealing zone flush with Devo-esque jerking to-and-fro, raw keyboard-synth infusions and horn honk, crunchy guitar flailing, art-funk spasms, and vocals covering the three A’s: alienation, anger, and anguish. Ultimately, they pulled it off like regional champs and Family Vineyard collects it all in a 2LP + DVD set that’s indispensable for any student of punk history.

Some groups just had to pull up roots and plant themselves someplace else, however; that’s the case with MX-80 Sound, a gang of Hoosiers who managed to get an album out via Island Records (’77’s Hard Attack) before the major label’s relationship with rock’s new thing took a severe nosedive. While they certainly fit in with the scene, tagging MX-80 as punk isn’t exactly accurate; in a nutshell, they played an aggressive form of art-rock so powerful it was occasionally compared to heavy metal.

After migrating to San Francisco, they ended up on Ralph Records, and the above two classics of precision racket were the result. Bassist Dale Sophiea and drummer Dave Mahoney are a constantly expressive rhythm team while vocalist-guitarist-saxophonist Rich Stim delivers the art-edge and the lead guitar of Bruce Anderson tears it the fuck up for the punk crowd while being technically proficient enough to win over progsters. Folks who devour the fringe of punk’s first wave, namely Ubu, Suicide, Chrome, Debris, and those Residents, will cozy right up to these well-deserved reissues.

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Graded on a Curve: The Best of 2016’s Box Sets

Amongst those I hold close, 2016 has no fans and I’m inclined to concur without hesitation. It wasn’t a complete torrent of crummy news and political ominousness, however; some nifty boxsets were released this year. These are our picks.

10. Carl Stone, Electronic Music of the Seventies and Eighties (Unseen Worlds) A student of Morton Subotnick and James Tenney at CalArts, Stone’s had a long but subterranean musical existence. Active during New Music’s brief vogue, he gathered diverse fans including well-known food writer Jonathan Gold and veteran World Music critic Richard Gehr.

These three LPs plus download card with one 29-minute bonus track offer eight varied pieces utilizing the now common tactic of sampling and manipulation, though Stone’s manner of looping and distending is a bit like a cross between Steve Reich’s “Come Out” and the Plunderphonics of John Oswald; what he does to Motown in “Shibucho” is nothing short of amazing. His pieces from the ’70s, including two relatively short ones on Buchla synth from his CalArts days and even “Kuk Il Kwan” from ’81, are nearer to minimalism and drone. All but one track is unreleased.

9. Randy Newman, Songbook Vol. 1-3 (Nonesuch) When I read about the imminent release of this set’s first volume back in 2003, I was sure it would evince a mighty faltering of wisdom on the part of artist and label. How wrong I was. One of the USA’s finest songwriters acquits himself with nary a hiccup via just piano and that unmistakable voice, and in this writer’s estimation Vol. 1 holds the definitive versions of a few Randy standards. I especially feel that way about “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind).”

Vol. 2 didn’t come out until nearly eight years later; bluntly, it and the just released third installment aren’t as good, but collected here into a limited edition 4LP set they emphasize the side of Newman that often gets overlooked (by myself included) in favor of praising the unique nature of his gifts; in short, he’s been a working musician in a variety of contexts for over five decades. Here, the three volumes get shuffled up with bonus tracks for a 56-song total; there are lesser entries but not a single clunker, not even “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, December 2016

The TVD Record Store Club’s look at the brand new wax presently in stores for December, 2016. 

NEW RELEASE PICK: Virginia Wing, Forward Constant Motion (Fire) Alice Merida Richards and Sam Pillay currently shape-up Birmingham, UK’s Virginia Wing, the pair deserving commendation for crafting an experimental-leaning strain of electro-pop lacking in cliché if not familiarity; the whole continues to radiate as an extension of Broadcast or to a lesser extent Stereolab as the motorik element found on last year’s Measures of Joy has essentially vacated the premises with drummer Sebastian Truskolaski. “Grapefruit” has been chosen as the LP’s first single, and it’s an exquisite entryway into their sound. A-

REISSUE PICK: OST, Chinatown (Cinewax) Jerry Goldsmith remains amongst cinema’s most distinguished composers. That he wrote and recorded this soundtrack for Roman Polanski’s masterwork in just ten days (after producer Robert Evans nixed the efforts of Phillip Lambro) only reinforces his stature; it’s probably (though arguably) Goldsmith’s finest achievement. Scoring a neo-noir from the midst of the New Hollywood era, this embodies, stains against, and breaks completely with narrative filmic norms as the period-enhancing pop standards are flawlessly executed. The result is 31 minutes of brilliance. A+

Asteroid, III (Fuzzorama) This Örebro Sweden-based trio fits rather snuggly into a heavy psych/ stoner rock mold, but unlike many of their contemporaries they’re handy with a song. Guitarist Robin Hirse’s deft melodic touch, apparent from the lead slide in opener “Pale Moon,” helps to elevate this beyond mere riff motion, but fans of that tactic will still find satisfaction, especially in “Wolf & Snake” and “Them Calling” as both tracks are loaded with textures underlining their relationship with Fuzzorama. The vocals are emotive (with harmonies, even) but they mostly avoid lessening the overall value. B+

Jon Camp, Stifled Hair-Trigger (Self-released) 2016 has been a lousy year by any metric, but the proliferation of prime-grade Guitar Soli has helped to keep the horrors and anguish somewhat at bay; those who can’t get enough experimental-tinged fingerpicking should consider investigating this Washington, DC-based practitioner’s full-length debut. Camp also indulges in bit of instrumental post-rock on the latter portion of the set; my lingering impression is that the stylistic expansion isn’t an improvement, but neither is it terribly detrimental. “Christian, the World is Yours” is a standout. B

Cat-Iron, Sings Blues and Hymns (Exit Stencil) Excellent reissue of the only recordings by Natchez, Mississippi singer-guitarist William Carradine as released in 1958 by Folkways. Cat-Iron wasn’t a nickname but a mishearing of his surname by rediscoverer Frederic Ramsey, Jr., and as the title indicates the record is cleaved between blues and spirituals. Continuity is established through potent vocalizing and string work, reminiscent at times of Son House, so gospel-blues fans shouldn’t hesitate to grab a copy. Only 500 have been pressed, on yellow vinyl like the original. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade, Sunday Morning Revival

Straddling the fence between jam session and no-fuss recording date, Sunday Morning Revival by the Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade features major figures from the fledgling late ’60s Cleveland rock scene including three members of The James Gang and harmonica maestro Bill “Mr. Stress” Miller. The first release in Smog Veil Records’ Platters du Cuyahoga Series 2, this archival recording (once thought lost) is loaded with covers tackled with a combination of studiousness and verve; destined to bring a smile to the face of Butterfield and Musselwhite fans far and wide while deepening the already rich history of its municipality, it’s out now on LP, CD, and digital.

Smog Veil’s Platters Du Cuyahoga Series 1 illuminated a wide array of Cleveland underground nooks, specifically post-Electric Eels-style punk racket with a freedom jones (Albert Ayler’s Ghosts Live at the Yellow Ghetto by X__X), glam-tinged avant-pop (French Pictures in London (1975) by the Robert Bensick Band), and post-Butterfield harmonica-driven blues-rock (Live at the Brick Cottage 1972 – 1973 by the Mr. Stress Blues Band).

Series 2 appears to be an equally broad affair, though it begins by burrowing deeper into the city’s blues-rock backstory and adding another chapter to the tale of the late Bill “Mr. Stress” Miller; Sunday Morning Revival finds the singer, bandleader, and mouth harp specialist in a loose conglomeration of likeminded upstarts. There’s keyboardist Mike Sands (Mr. Stress Blues Band), guitarist Glenn Schwartz, drummer Jimmy Fox, and bassist Tom Kriss (all from The James Gang), and guitarist Rich Kriss (Chuck Bates & The Barons and The Joyful Wisdom).

Today the impulse of white guys playing the blues is often oversimplified as mere cultural appropriation, but Nick Blakey’s outstanding footnoted liner booklet for this set does a fine job of complicating this scenario by describing the friction between the ’60s establishment and the sustained tide of nonconformity. One way of articulating opprobrium with the prevailing norms was that of d.a. levy, the jailed Cleveland poet whose work served as posthumous inspiration for Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers.

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Graded on a Curve:
Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, The Complete Capitol Singles: 1957–1966, Don Rich and the Buckaroos, Guitar
Pickin’ Man

Anybody desiring a hearty serving of topnotch country music shouldn’t dally in snatching up Omnivore Recordings’ 2CD Buck Owens and the Buckaroos retrospective The Complete Capitol Singles: 1957-1966; out on December 9, it’s a bountiful but easily digestible dive into the birth and growth of the innovative and enduring Bakersfield sound. Those needing another helping need not fret, for a week later Omnivore spills the spotlight onto key Buckaroo Don Rich via the rewarding 18-track collection Guitar Pickin’ Man.

The career of Alvis Edgar “Buck” Owens, Jr. remains one of the essential developments in the history of country music; primarily remembered today for a still impressive string of chart hits and as the co-host of the TV show Hee Haw from 1969-’86, he wasn’t an immediate success. Often described as a prime dissenter during the reign of countrypolitan, Owens’ embracing of the honky-tonk style and pioneering of the Bakersfield sound (alongside Merle Haggard, who came later) occurred only after his initial 45s for Capitol stiffed.

Active as a musician as far back as the mid-’40s, somewhere in the middle of the following decade Owens made his recording debut for the Pep label. The resulting sides include the pretty cool rockabilly one-off “Hot Dog” b/w “Rhythm and Booze” issued under the pseudonym Corky Jones, but the rest finds him largely in honky-tonk mode and with a detectable debt to Hank Williams.

Due in part to extensive session work in Hollywood for Capitol, Owens landed a contract with the label at roughly the same time that country music was establishing its mainstream; his debut for the company reflects this trend, lacking fiddle and steel guitar while adding the backing voices that were soon to become a defining countrypolitan trait. To be fair, “Come Back,” the rockabilly-ish “Sweet Thing” and their respective flips are decent enough tunes, but they’re not what anybody thinks off when they think of Buck Owens.

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Graded on a Curve:
Van Dyke Parks,
Discover America

Van Dyke Parks is easily one of the most eclectic and engaging musical minds of the last fifty years. Largely known for his involvement as lyricist in the resurrected phoenix that is The Beach Boys’ Smile, he’s also put his stamp on an array of important works, none better than his own 1972 masterpiece Discover America.

Please consider for a moment the impressive range of Van Dyke Parks. Yes, in addition to Smile there is his arranging for “The Bare Necessities” from Disney’s animated classic The Jungle Book. He’s also served as a producer and/or arranger for records as diverse as the debuts of Randy Newman and Ry Cooder, Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits and Joanna Newsom’s Ys, and contributed as a player to Tim Buckley’s first album, The Byrds’ Fifth Dimension, Linda Thompson’s Fashionably Late, and Vic Chesnutt’s Ghetto Bells. The guy even composed music for TV commercials, including work for Datsun automobiles and the figure skating mayhem known as the Ice Capades.

But to really crack the delicious and nourishing nut that is Mr. Parks, inspection of his solo work is an absolute must. Song Cycle, his 1967 debut is in obvious retrospect one of the truly amazing introductory statements in all of 20th Century music. I say obvious because hardly anybody bought the thing when it came out. This was due in part to his low profile. While he’d released a couple singles on MGM, he wasn’t exactly stormtrooping the era’s cultural radar.

But the main reason Song Cycle was destined for a second life as a cherished cult magnum opus lies in how Parks’ thoroughly non-trite baroque pop and gently psychedelic sensibilities synched-up with both his uncommonly deep and diverse interest in the history of popular song and the man’s shrewd ear for value in the contemporary (the record featured covers of both Newman’s “Vine Street” and Donovan’s “Colours”). With tenuous ties to the rock scene and a lack of capital with the rising tide of youth culture, it’s really no surprise Song Cycle took four years to recoup its admittedly large for the era $35,000 budget.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, November 2016

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the reissued wax presently in stores for November, 2016. Part one is here.

REISSUE PICK: Jungle Brothers, Done by the Forces of Nature (Get On Down) Jazzed by We Got It from Here…? Jonesing for more in the same vein? If so, then check out the 2LP reissue of this ’89 classic from Tribe’s contemporaries. To be accurate, Mike Gee, Africa Baby Bam, and DJ Sammy B slightly preceded their cohorts in the Native Tongues collective, blazing a trail without reaping the immediate recognition; instead, they’ve been the next step for those knocked out by 3 Feet High or People’s Instinctive Travels. Through uplift and inclusion, this sharp album’s immaculate flow has only improved with age. A

REISSUE RUNNER-UP: Waylon Jennings, Dreaming My Dreams (Fat Possum) That Jennings’ 22nd album (in a decade!) is arguably the best he ever cut inspires pause, for that’s hardly ever how it works. Ultimately, the fact reflects newfound artistic freedom through a fresh RCA deal, and the byproduct is subdued but rich with positives; tributes to Hank and Bob Wills (the latter recorded live in Austin), production (by Jennings and Jack Clement) that disdains overdubs, and an utterly non-dated atmosphere. The man is in superb voice (of course he is), and the material consistently delivers. A

Las Kellies, Friends and Lovers (Fire) The fifth studio album (and third for Fire) from this Argentinian grrl group (herein composed of Silvina and Cecilia Kelly) is impressively varied, its contents inhabiting the post-punk end of the spectrum; there’s the soul liberation through body movement of “Sugar Beat,” the reggae-infused “Tied to a Chain,” the riffy VU-update “Make it Real,” the new wavy “I’m on Fire,” the indie poppish “Summer Breeze,” and up-tempo rocker “I Don’t Care.” And that’s just the first six cuts; the LP’s second half tightens the focus. “Sundays” is a late pop-tinged highlight. A-

Lungfish, Rainbows from Atoms (Dischord) From the perch of hindsight some have painted this as a formative work, but at the time this third LP connected as a major stride forward. Sure, the Baltimore group’s roots in ’80s post-HC emo are still very much in evidence (“Mother Made Me,” “Open House,” “Seek Sound Shelter”), but Daniel Higgs’ poetic sensibility was beginning to cohere (“Fresh Air Cure” and especially “Creation Story”) and the cyclical-drone-roar was rapidly evolving as well (“Instrument,” “8.21.2116,” “You Might Ask Me What,” closer “Seek Sound Shelter” again). A minor classic. A-

Harvey Mandel, Snake Pit (Tompkins Square) Guitarist Mandel contributed to a handful of classics (like Charlie Musselwhite’s debut) but he’s also taken part in some iffy sonic situations, so I approached his first widely distributed album in two decades with a certain amount of trepidation. Recorded over two days at Berkeley, CA’s Fantasy studios with a solid band (all Ryley Walker alumni), like a percentage of Mandel’s prior output (e.g. Baby Batter) this is all-instrumental blues-rock; the fusion-y use of keyboards/ strings inspires a personal tug-of-war between pleasure and ambivalence. B

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, November 2016

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the brand new wax presently in stores for November, 2016. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE PICK: Wadada Leo Smith, America’s National Parks (Cuneiform) This 96-minute six-movement suite might seem an arduous undertaking, but in resisting nature’s majesty in favor of celebrating the idea of preservation and public works, the trumpeter-composer sidesteps Ansel Adams-style grandeur for the poetic (think Whitman and Gary Snyder). And by celebrating New Orleans, the Mississippi River, and the writing of Eileen Jackson Southern as deserving of National Park status, he eclipses the danger of mere respectfulness. Yet another highpoint in a long, distinguished career. A+

NEW RELEASE RUNNER-UP: Elliott Sharp, Port Bou (Infrequent Seams) Sharp’s been a crucial part of avant-NYC from the late ’70s right up to this release, an opera devoted to the final moments in the life of philosopher Walter Benjamin at Port-Bou Spain in 1940 as he fled Nazi-occupied France. The tenor of the times has surely deepened the emotional impact of this demanding but not formidable avant-classical work, but the primary reasons are bass-baritone Nicholas Isherwood, pianist Jenny Lin, accordionist William Schimmel, and of course Sharp, who adds electro-acoustic backing tracks. A

Apostles, S/T (Presch Media GmbH) Once The Funkees left for London, it was reportedly The Apostles who stepped into the void to become the leaders of the Nigerian rock scene; this first-time reissue of a ’76 EMI LP is proof positive pudding. Presch Media states that album opener “Never Too Late” “could well be the best Afro Rock song ever recorded,” and after listening that seemingly bold statement isn’t at all farfetched. Although they don’t maintain that level of quality, the rest is consistently up to snuff, particularly the organ-infused “Play Girl” and the psychedelic guitar flights all over side two. A-

Beastie Vee, “Vee Sides” (BUFU) Native of France Bastien Vandevelde previously beat the skins for Juan Wauters. Beastie Vee is his side project, tagged as post-punk/ noise rock; I’d assess it as nearer to the former, though to Vandevelde’s credit it’s not easy to draw direct lines to precedent. “Outro” sets this 4-song EP into motion and is something This Heat fans might want to check out, a scenario that persists during “Lvvrrss.” A subterranean ’80s vibe does inform “Make a Wish Break a Stick,” while the brief “Bonus Clic” concludes matters with shout-racket. Promising stuff. B

Kadhja Bonet, The Visitor (Fat Possum/ Fresh Selects) Enjoyable debut from an LA soulster with a considerable amount of tradition in her scheme, though the finished product still connects as a contempo situation. Merging psychedelia with strains of sci-fi and hip-hop rhythm during “Intro: Earth Birth,” much of what follows extends from the progressive soul-R&B of the 1970s, utilizing string-sections, bilingualism, and a general tony atmosphere to positive effect. Falling short of a knockout, folks with collections holding Roberta Flack, Curtis Mayfield, Sun Ra, and Shabazz Palaces should investigate. B

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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