Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Lunchbox,
Lunchbox Loves You

Dating all the way back to 1994, Berkeley, CA’s Lunchbox is the work of two constant participants, guitarist-songwriter Tim Brown and bassist Donna McKean (they share vocal duties); after overcoming obstacles and reclaiming their original name, Lunchbox Loves You serves as their return. Those expecting a simple recapitulation of past glories should be pleasantly surprised by the growth Brown and McKean display on this LP’s tidy ten songs.

For folks unfamiliar with Lunchbox, the cover of their new release includes a few handy visual cues into the nature of the sound. For starters there’s the cake, the heart-shaped and clearly homemade dessert representing the sincerity of their occasionally sugary sweetness as it drives home the record’s titular message.

But that formidable blade, an instrument frankly overqualified for the task seemingly at hand, signifies the edge Lunchbox’s music frequently exhibits. While it’s not really accurate to describe them as heavy, throughout their history they’ve conjured reliable currents of intensity enhanced quite nicely at times by stabs of rawness.

And repeating a gesture from breakout ’99 effort The Magic of Sound, Lunchbox Loves You presents its entire track-listing smack dab on the front. This may not seem like an action of any major consequence, but it’s a design choice reflective of the 1960s, and in making it Brown and McKean underscore musical ties to the decade.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Animals,
The Animals

In addition to The Beatles and Stones, the British Invasion produced numerous other noteworthy groups, and one of the most successful was The Animals. A serious-minded bunch led by that brawny-throated student of American blues and early rock ‘n’ roll Eric Burdon, they persist in the modern memory mainly for their hit singles. But on the subject of albums, they also had a few very good ones, though differing US and UK editions have frustrated collectors on both sides of the Atlantic for years. Of the two versions of their 1964 debut The Animals, the Brit issue may not be the best, but it does give a deep glimpse into what this no-nonsense, solidly rocking band was initially all about.

Eric Burdon seems like the kind of cat who’d rather keel over dead than quit singing. Nearly fifty years after his first album came out he’s still out there doing it on stages, and like the R&B legends that provided him with his formative inspiration, his continued activity comes without a whole lot of pomp and circumstance.

Because he played an enjoyably quirky role in the landslide of ‘60s psychedelic rock by fronting a later incarnation of The Animals and proceeded from that to get his fingers nice and funky on a pair of albums in collaboration with the California groove merchants War, Burdon’s profile has easily transcended the outfit that began in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1962, when he joined up with a group then called The Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo.

In addition to Burdon and organist/keyboardist Price, the other members were Hilton Valentine on guitar, John Steel on drums, and Bryan “Chas” Chandler on bass. Rechristened as The Animals and following the advice of Yardbirds’ manager Giorgio Gomelsky, who obviously saw something in the band’s early stage act that was comparable to the act under his supervision, they moved to London and quickly hit the big time.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Moody Blues,
Go Now–The Moody Blues #1

Though the music they produced was only fitfully successful, the Denny Laine-fronted incarnation of The Moody Blues deserves to be remembered for more than a momentary chart fling topped by a gem of a single. In ’65 they released an album at home and another in the US under distinct titles, both holding a dozen tracks and with a third of each LP also unique. The better of the two, Go Now–The Moody Blues #1, was issued in the States by London Records.

Heavy on covers and by extension lacking in gestures toward originality, the ’64-’66-era Moody Blues are unlikely to be many people’s (I’ll stop short of saying anybody’s) most beloved component in the British Invasion. In fact, talk of the group today reliably focuses on the post-Denny Laine/Clint Warwick lineup that saw new members John Lodge and Justin Hayward helping to transmogrify the Moodies into one of the leading if artistically lesser examples of Symphonic Rock. I won’t sully the Prog genre with an inapt association since there was hardly anything progressive about The Moody Blues Mk 2.

Instead, they exemplified the Middlebrow impulse, though that’s ultimately a separate discussion. This piece concerns a band that came together when the leader of Denny Laine and the Diplomats joined up with a bunch of nameless Birmingham hopefuls, their main desire hitting it big or even just making a good living; they briefly played as the M & B 5, the initials an attempt at landing sponsorship from two local beer brewers (last names Mitchell and Butler). And similar to many of their contemporaries, The Moody Blues’ method at least initially was the borrowing and alteration of Rhythm and Blues.

And they did storm the charts with “Go Now,” in the process overtaking in popularity the terrific Leiber and Stoller-produced original by Bessie Banks, though the idea of the cover destroying the source’s commercial hopes is basically a myth. Banks’ tune was released by the Tiger label in January of ’64 while The Moody Blues’ version didn’t emerge until the following November, eventually peaking at #10 in the US in February of ’65 (it took top Brit honors a month earlier).

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Graded on a Curve:
The Chills,
“Molten Gold” b/w
“Pink Frost”

The Chills, nearly 35 years after coming together in Dunedin New Zealand and fronted as always by Martin Phillipps, are releasing a new vinyl single. “Molten Gold” b/w “Pink Frost,” out now through Fire Records, provides vibrant testimony to the heights of Phillipps’ pure pop vision, its two songs refreshingly unburdened by the stature of his past achievements.

I must confess to feeling just a twinge of envy in regard to the numerous guitar pop fans that have yet to make the acquaintance of the estimable Martin Phillipps. It’s not necessarily that the first occasion is the sweetest, but rather that the initial moment of discovery is distinct, the inaugural taste easy to recollect decades later.

Where was I the first time I heard The Chills? Unspectacularly, in the stereo room of a shared abode, though I did give my freshly acquired copy of “The Lost EP” at least a dozen spins on that day alone, primarily because the songs were so damned good, but also due to my persistent doubts over a batch of simple guitar pop being, well, so damned good.

New Zealand’s breakout indie label had their hands in a diverse range of early offerings, but alongside The Clean, The Verlaines, and Tall Dwarfs, The Chills are a cornerstone act in what’s described today as the Flying Nun Sound; with due respect to more famous countrymen the Brothers Finn (of Split Enz, Crowded House, etc), Martin Phillipps can be accurately (if of course arguably) lauded as the great Kiwi pop auteur, mainly due to assured breadth of artistry.

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Graded on a Curve: Karen Haglof,
Western Holiday

Those nutty over ‘80s NYC noise-rock and its attendant loose categorization New Music have likely heard Karen Haglof, for she was a player in the guitar ensemble of Rhys Chatham and a member of the undersung Band of Susans. Haglof eventually redirected her energies into the medical profession as a hematologist/oncologist in affiliation with New York University Hospital, but of late she’s scratched a reignited creative itch and produced her debut solo effort, the very appealing blend of bluesy Americana and big city guitar pop Western Holiday.

Prior to moving to New York City Karen Haglof was a resident of Minneapolis and in fact that’s where she began playing music. Subsequent to a trip east she strapped on the six-string under the name Karen Indiana in the trio the Crackers with fellow Minneapolitans Jay Peck, later of the Figures and Let’s Active, and Steve Almaas, previously of the terrific Suicide Commandos (‘78’s Make a Record is a punk classic) and thereafter of Beat Rodeo.

By ’83 Haglof was in cahoots with Rhys Chatham, appearing on the composer’s Factor X, a now scarce LP issued by the German Moers Music label. Roughly three years later she was part of the side-long title composition on Chatham’s brilliant Die Donnergötter. Amongst her cohorts on the track was Robert Poss; together with future Helmet honcho Page Hamilton and drummer Ron Spitzer, Haglof comprised the second lineup of Poss and Susan Stenger’s Band of Susans, her axe a component on their strongest release, 89’s Love Agenda.

She then followed an admirable detour into a medical career. Losing tabs on the scene is not unusual in this circumstance (she’s described her occupational focus as workaholic), but along with conversations with her old (and recently departed) Minneapolis friend and guitar teacher Jeff Hill, catching a screening of the documentary It Might Get Loud helped to reignite Haglof’s creativity.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Flesh Eaters,
A Minute to Pray,
A Second to Die

Any shelf dedicated to classic California punk requires representation by the Flesh Eaters of Chris Desjardins, aka Chris D. Never a bad record has he made under that moniker, but the finest of them remains the talent-drenched and enduringly brilliant 1981 LP A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die. It’s just been given a welcome reissue by Superior Viaduct of San Francisco.

I first learned of Chris D.’s work in the latter portion of the 1980s, my discovery largely aided by the diligent underground music press of the era, in particular the scribbling of Byron Coley. While numerous zines featured reviews of both the Flesh Eaters and Chris D.’s band of the period The Divine Horsemen, it was really Coley that helped to put Desjardins’ art in proper context.

In fact, Coley’s such a determined champion of the man’s work that his new liners for this reissue aren’t an extra so much as a prerequisite. And the insight was found in more than just reviews, articles, and prior sleeve notes, as Coley and Forced Exposure publisher/writer Jimmy Johnson conducted an extensive interview with Desjardins for issue #12 of their reliably hefty “quarterly” mag. The duo also provided space in the back for “Chris D.’s Video Guide,” an enjoyable and extremely enlightening tour of the guy’s VHS collection.

I’d already sized Desjardins up as a major part of the USA’s roots punk brigade, his output landing in the same rough region as The Cramps, X, The Blasters, The Plugz, and The Gun Club, but the conversation in FE presented him as an uncommonly astute member of the punk community (especially when compared with the average Flipside chat).

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Graded on a Curve: James Blackshaw,
Fantomas: Le Faux Magistrat

Last Halloween, British 12-string guitar wizard James Blackshaw, in collaboration with electro-acoustic composer and sound-instillation artist Duane Pitre, Slowdive drummer Simon Scott, and multi-instrumentalist Charlotte Glasson, delivered the live score for the final installment of master French director Louis Feuillade’s silent film series of 1913. Fantômas: Le Faux Magistrat, Tompkins Square’s 2LP/ CD/ digital issue of the performance’s recording, reveals an ambitious undertaking that succeeds due to a lively combination of respect and invention.

Perusing the details of the centenary celebration of Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas, specifically an event coordinated by Yann Tiersen hosted last year in Paris’ Théâtre de Châtelet (additionally broadcast live on the European ARTE TV channel) that indeed culminated on All Hallows Eve 2013, is enough to inspire Pavlovian levels of salivation in movie buff/music fans. The affair generated scores from Tiersen, Tim Hecker, Loney Dear, Amiina, and Blackshaw for all five parts of an enduring opus by one of cinema’s most talented and intriguing filmmakers.

Naturally a danger accompanies these sorts of endeavors, in particular the belief that the images receiving a soundtrack are somehow lacking in vibrancy and require a boost of modernization. This often results in knuckleheaded maneuvers (e.g. noise hostility, egregious dance beats) or more problematically gestures of shallow commentary or even attempts to subvert the message of the picture.

Of course, the other extreme is inhabited by scores, reliably knocked-off by studious nimble-fingered scholarly pianists, which are well-intentioned but unfortunately burdened with quaintness. At least this tactic eschews arrogance and largely avoids obnoxiousness; in the case of Feuillade though, playing it overly safe is almost as insulting as underestimating his visual skills and undermining his status as a visionary.

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Graded on a Curve: Gramercy Arms,
The Seasons of Love

Since the dissolution of ‘90s indie pop-rockers The Dambuilders, singer-instrumentalist-writer Dave Derby has focused upon a variety of projects, one being Gramercy Arms, a New York City-based outfit whose self-titled ’08 debut established a revolving member, indie all-star affair. Roughly six years has elapsed, and now Derby has coordinated a follow-up. The Seasons of Love features unfussy professionalism and a slightly broadened scope; while not a consciousness-altering record, it does go down smoothly enough, and fans of pop-rock song-craft should take note.

Though they released seven full-lengths across a near decade of existence, Boston via Honolulu’s The Dambuilders received their highest profile as a four-piece in the mid-‘90s. Part of the era’s indie deluge, the first three LPs came out through German imprint Cuacha! NYC’s SpinART issued the Tough Guy Problem 10-inch/CD EP in ’94 shortly prior to the group’s emergence on the roster of EastWest Records.

That Atlantic-subsidiary funded The Dambuilders’ best work, ‘94’s Encendedor and the next year’s Ruby Red. As was the case with many of their indie-to-major contemporaries, the band’s last statement, ‘97’s transitional Against the Stars, was a disappointment. Subsequent to breaking up in ‘98, guitarist Eric Masunaga went into film, opening a studio specializing in post-production, drummer Kevin March continued beating the skins, most prominently in one of Guided by Voices numerous lineups, and violinist/vocalist Joan Wasser embarked solo under the name Joan as Police Woman.

Bassist/lead singer Derby has kept himself quite occupied as well, initiating the side-project Brilliantine, hooking up with Lloyd Cole in the cult Brit’s post-Commotions ensemble the Negatives and completing two solo albums, ‘03’s solid Even Further Behind and ‘07’s borderline excellent Dave Derby and the Norfolk Downs. He commenced Gramercy Arms not long thereafter.

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Graded on a Curve:
Craig Leon,
Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1

Craig Leon is deservedly lauded as a key record producer from the fitful days of first wave New York punk, but over the last few years his output as a musician has gathered increased attention. His two early-’80s electronic LPs Nommos and Visiting, each terrifically remastered by Leon, assembled to his original intentions and packaged with care by the RVNG Intl label under the suave title Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1, form an outstanding addition to 2014’s stream of necessary reissues.

The name Craig Leon might ring personal bells of recognition, and for numerous reasons. Classical music aficionados possibly know him as a producer, as that’s been his steady gig for quite some time. However, punk fans conversant with album credits likely identify him as a guiding force behind three of the style’s defining LPs; Ramones, Blondie, and Suicide.

Nommos, a record Craig Leon made after being inspired by a ’73 Brooklyn Museum exhibit featuring the ancient art of the Malian Dogon tribe, first appeared in a low press run back in 1981 as one of the last items on the late John Fahey’s Takoma imprint. If the title is triggering buzzers of recollection, this could be due to prior knowledge of the amphibious, hermaphroditic, extraterrestrial, and indeed mythological creatures worshipped by the Dogon that it references. But familiarity might simply relate to Nommos’ rerelease on LP/CD in 2013 by San Francisco’s Superior Viaduct label.

I liked it then and I like it even more now that it’s been combined with ’82’s Visiting, Leon’s long-delayed desire that the disc’s be taken together as the first volume of a set named Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music finally achieved. If that title is causing a bout of remembrance it’s surely because of the sly reference to the inexhaustibly brilliant Harry Smith-compiled Anthology of American Folk Music.

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Graded on a Curve:
Ela Stiles,
Ela Stiles

The self-titled debut solo LP of Australia’s Ela Stiles is a brutally concise, consistently interesting and fleetingly beautiful a-cappella affair. Available on her home turf for a few months now, it’s freshly out all over the globe via Fire Records’ nifty distribution deal with the appealing Down Under imprint Bedroom Suck. Even those possessing knowledge of the singer’s prior work in the groups Songs and Bushwalking will likely find Ela Stiles intriguing, for the highly eclectic contents rise to the level of agreeably arcane.

It didn’t take long for Ela Stiles to bring the output of certain very specific artists into this writer’s mind. Since she doesn’t sound like any of them it is safe to assume that none actually serve as an influence on her new record. One was an assumption, or better put it was a conclusion prematurely drawn. The other two surfaced after hearing; both help to illuminate an album that can initially be somewhat baffling.

Reading about the a-cappella nature of this LP and the capsule description of Stiles as an indie artist caused me to quickly, indeed lazily, think of the vocals-only work of Petra Haden (Imaginaryland, Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, the majority of Petra Goes to the Movies). It took one spin to realize the error. To elaborate, Haden can be described as striving for the maximal in a stripped-down setting; using just the human voice, she frequently crafts seamless reproductions of instrument-laden and even lavish material.

By contrast, the six pieces comprising the first side of Ela Stiles are minimal to the extreme. Utterly lacking in the superfluous, four of the selections clock in at a minute or less, her layered vocals exuding a folk ambiance and specifically the sound of captured field recordings. This element is only enhanced by the brevity of the tracks, almost as if an ethnomusicologist was diligently cataloguing sources with a tape machine and absolutely no interest in embellishment.

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