Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: The Best of 2020’s Box Sets

It’s been a rollercoaster of a year, with many of those twists and turns unpleasant, and we’re not out of the woods yet. One of the consistent balms for uncertainty, pain, fear, and loneliness across this pileup of months has been art, with music prominent in the mix. This week, as a change of calendar is in the wings, we spotlight a more positive side of 2020 with a series of lists, beginning with the best box sets and expanded releases of the year.

10. Michael Rother, Solo II (Groenland) Those passionate over Krautrock are surely familiar with Rother from his cornerstone work in Neu! and later in Harmonia, and I’m willing to wager they know that he also thrived as a solo artist. Last year, Groenland rounded up his first four albums from 1977 to ’82, added some soundtrack work plus a little live material and remixes to shape the 6LP/ 5CD set Solo, a doozy of a box that missed contending for placement in TVD’s 2019 Best of list only through a delay in checking it out.

Solo II offers more across seven CDs. It isn’t as strong as Solo, though it’s inclusion here is still warranted, in part because it presents such a contrast with his earlier stuff. Indeed, non-synth-pop-loving sticklers for Rother’s groundbreaking work in Neu! (before that, he was also briefly in Kraftwerk) might want to dabble in the albums individually before dropping coin on its contents. However, the truly solo Fairlight CMI-infused Lust from ’83 is a cool snapshot of the era, and from there, some beautiful tranquility is heard, with Rother’s largely non-vocal approach, and his guitar playing, very much appreciated.

9. Peter Stampfel, Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century in 100 Songs (Louisiana Red Hot) Stampfel is best-known for his work in the Holy Modal Rounders, who helped give the 1960s folk surge a needed dose of the weird. They kept on trucking into the ’70s, as the Unholy version of the outfit joined with Michael Hurley, Jeffrey Frederick, and the Clamtones to wax Have Moicy!, which stands as one of the best records of its decade. Hey, it’s lists within lists!

In fact, this very set, featuring 100 versions by Stampfel of songs, one a year from the 20th century, across three CDs, is an act of audio list making, very personal, though its maker does admit to fielding suggestions from the last 20 years of the span. And speaking of 20 years, that’s roughly how long it took for this set to reach completion, but the production by Mark Bingham and Stampfel’s instantly recognizable singing insures crucial cohesiveness. It feels like a spoiler to reveal the unexpected choices, so I won’t. Like so much in 2020, this set’s been pushed to January 2021; here’s one to look forward to.

8. Grateful Dead, Dick’s Picks 26 – 4/26/69 Electric Theater, Chicago, IL 4/27/69 Labor Temple, Minneapolis, MN (Real Gone) As a fan of the Dead, I’ll listen to any live recording of the band, as there is reliably something, and more often, many things of interest, even from inside stretches of their existence that don’t thrill all me that much.

But as pertains to the band, I have a special fondness for the 1960s, and ’69 in particular. Folks up to speed with the Dead know that Live/Dead, one of the very greatest official (non-jazz) live albums, was recorded that year (compiled from assorted shows from January to March), and this volume of Dick’s Picks expands upon that brilliance, with the Labor Temple show (which is the majority of the set) even including the “Live/Dead sequence” of “Dark Star”> “St. Stephen”> “The Eleven.” Another big bonus is the organ of Tom Constanten. Real Gone’s 4LP edition (1,500 hand-numbered copies) sold out fast…

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Graded on a Curve:
The Gladiators, Full Time and Ethiopian & His All Stars, The Return Of Jack Sparrow

Remembering The Gladiators’ Albert Griffiths.Ed.

The sun is shining, it’s hot enough to induce sweat just by standing up, and there’s a substance (or two) tickling the brain: this is maybe the best framework for soaking up deep reggae grooves, but it’s also true that any time can be a good time to engage with the style. Omnivore Recordings knows this, as they’ve recently reissued The Gladiators’ Full Time compilation and rescued Ethiopian & His All-Stars’ The Return of Jack Sparrow from the realms of the unreleased. Both compact discs commence a reissue program focused on the catalog of the St. Louis label Nighthawk Records, and as the goodness on display here indicates, it’s going to be quite the enjoyable ride.

I’d say The Gladiators need no introduction, but reggae is such a cavernously deep genre that even a multidecade discography including a series of LPs for a major label can manage to go unnoticed by folks receptive to Jamaican sounds. Formed in the mid-’60s by singer-songwriter-rhythm guitarist Albert Griffiths, the group cut their first single for the Wirl label in ’67 and then hooked up with producers Duke Reid, Lloyd Daley, Lee Perry, and Clement “Coxsone” Dodd for a series of hits. In the second half of the ’70s they landed on Virgin Records, as Dodd’s Studio One milked the vaults for comps.

Roots reggae entered a period of commercial decline in the early ’80s, and the Gladiators’ final record for Virgin, an eponymous Eddy Grant-produced misfire, only worsened their personal circumstances. And yet by adjusting to the smaller Nighthawk label they bounced back artistically with ’82’s Symbol of Reality, ’84’s Serious Thing, and ’86’s collaboration with the Ethiopian (real name Leonard Dillon) Dread Prophecy.

In ’92 Nighthawk issued Full Time, which gathered up two cuts from the ’82 various artists comp Calling Rastafari and the entirety of the group’s ’83 US Tour EP (enticingly pictured on clear vinyl in the CD booklet) in combination with then unreleased selections from the ’82-’86 sessions. It’s all engineered by Sylvan Morris, who’d worked with The Gladiators at Studio One starting in the early ’70s, so the quality is high throughout. This is anything but a plate of leftovers.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Dave Clark Five, “Try Too Hard” b/w
“All Night Long”

Celebrating Dave Clark on his 81st birthday today.Ed.

Of all the marquee British Invasion acts, nobody typified the concept of “singles group” more than The Dave Clark Five. Of albums they had many, but the qualities that made them a special and enduring outfit are best served by the two brief sides of a 45. During the mid-‘60s their short-players stormed both the US and UK charts with a frequency that remains impressive, and “Try Too Hard” b/w “All Night Long” from 1966 is one of their finest efforts.

While they are well-remembered today, I also suspect that few people these days would rank the Dave Clark Five as one the tiptop exemplars of the Brit Invasion, and that’s an interesting scenario because during the phenomenon’s initial wave, only The Beatles achieved a higher level of popularity. Contemplating the subject for a bit leads me to a handful of reasons for the lessening of the DC5’s status over time.

Perhaps the biggest factor is that none of the Five’s non-compilations have landed in the rock ‘n’ roll canon. I tend to think that any well-rounded, historically focused record collection is incomplete without the inclusion of Clark and company, and no doubt many others feel the same way. But I also agree with those asserting that in the run of albums they made while extant, nothing represents them better than UK Columbia’s ’66 release of the 14-track The Dave Clark Five’s Greatest Hits.

This is not to infer that the original long-players are negligible. To the contrary, ‘64’s Glad All Over and the following year’s Coast to Coast, both issued in the US by Epic, are quite good.  But starting in the mid-‘70s and continuing until 1993, none of the Dave Clark Five’s music was commercially available in any format, leaving the used bins and the radio dial as the only ways one could access their discography.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bert Jansch,
Avocet

By its very nature instrumental music is a study in form, and frequently to such an extent that listeners nurturing vocally focused comfort zones can feel left out in the cold. Bert Jansch’s non-vocal debut Avocet is well-poised to overcome this obstacle; a trio effort of welcoming beauty devoted to the glory of British birds, the whole stands amongst the lauded Scottish guitarist’s most fully realized achievements. 

The making of Bert Jansch’s twelfth LP transpired in February of 1978, a point on the calendar roughly coinciding with the nasty storm of punk rock, and wherever the eye of the squall traveled across the landscape of the UK, it can be safely surmised Avocet was elsewhere. Over time the guitarist would come to be revered by a heaping dog-pile of alternative-indie figures with creative DNA directly traceable to the punk upheaval, but it’s well-established that the late ‘70s proved to be a tough stretch for practitioners of non-clamorous sounds not limited to veterans of the Brit-folk scene.

Of course it’s not all so simple. As related in Colin Harper’s excellent notes for Avocet’s reissue, Jansch’s prior set A Rare Conundrum, released in the UK in ’77 on Charisma, had been well-received by the Brit music press in part because it was viewed as a sort of homecoming affair after two full-lengths cut out California way (those would be ‘74’s L.A. Turnaround and ‘75’s Santa Barbara Honeymoon).

Avocet also soaked up positive coverage in the weeklies, but didn’t appear in the UK until 1979; its initial ’78 pressing came via the Ex-Libris label of Denmark, the enterprise of Jansch’s Danish manager Peter Abrahamsen having additionally brought out A Rare Conundrum (as Poormouth) a year ahead of its emergence in British record shops.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for December 2020, Part Two

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for December 2020. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Winston C.W., Good Guess (Whatever’s Clever / Ruination Record Co.) Winston Cook-Wilson sings, plays keyboards and writes the songs in Office Culture, an outfit that’s been described as “literary soft-rock,” a designation that effectively communicates music of sincerity rather than schtick. This scenario, the sincere, the soft-rock, continues on this solo effort (as a trio) by Cook-Wilson, though really, Good Guess is a cosmopolitan singer-songwriter paradise, the atmosphere deepened considerably by the upright bass of Carmen Rothwell; Ryan Beckley completes the band on electric guitar. You’ll notice the exclusion of drums, which is fine, as the songs don’t require them. What’s in abundance is a leisurely contemplation, and seriousness to go along with the sincerity. Soft-rock, or maybe better said, downtrodden urbanite piano pop circa the late ’70s, remains the foundation, with the style magnified in the up-tempo “Birds,” but there are stretches, such as “Swing Time” and the closing title track, where Cook-Wilson pushes outward to splendid effect. A terrific surprise. A-

Carly Johnson, S/T (sonaBLAST!) The strength of Johnson’s voice is undeniable. Based in Louisville, she’s sung jazz in duo with guitarist Craig Wagner, fronted a notable Heart cover band (I Heart Heart), and backed My Morning Jacket, Houndmouth, and Norah Jones, but this is her solo debut, featuring her own compositions co-written with her college roommate, Charlotte Littlehales. Along with the Wilson sisters, another of Johnson’s cited inspirations is Whitney Houston, which is reflected in the presentation here, as the bold expressiveness, if not hampered by slickness, is surely vivid in a manner that embraces commerciality. But stylistically, Johnson is reminiscent of Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones, with the overall thrust of the set being old-school soul and R&B (another prime influence is Etta James). And as the songs unwind, an undercurrent establishes it as a Southern record in the best sense; it’s tangible in the instrumental verve and Johnson’s versatility. Will Oldham, who once guested with I Heart Heart, engagingly duets with Johnson on “For You.” An album as assured as it is powerful. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Divine Horsemen, Live 1985-1987 (Feeding Tube) These days, Chris D is best-known for forming and fronting the essential Los Angeles punk unit The Flesh Eaters. In fact, his stature in relation to that outfit has been pretty constant since the release of their two back-to-back masterpieces for Slash in the early 1980s. But by the second half of that decade, he had moved on to Divine Horsemen, a band that initially cohered to back Chris on his 1983 solo album for Enigma, Time Stands Still. In ’86-’87, Divine Horsemen cut three LPs and an EP as part of the 15,000 or so releases SST Records was putting out back then. By ’88, they were done. This is when I first heard them, at roughly the same time I got hip to The Flesh Eaters, with this overlap of discovery fitting, as the two bands shared some personnel and had a few songs in common. In fact, the name Divine Horsemen is also the title of the last song on The Flesh Eaters’ ’81 monster A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die.

But don’t get the idea that the two were interchangeable. Divine Horsemen were more of a rootsy-bluesy rock band with punkish tendencies in comparison with the wonderfully twisted roots punk of The Flesh Eaters. For us youths who’d gotten fatigued with “classic” rock stylings and headed for the punk offramp, Divine Horsemen may not have provided as immediate and sturdy a wallop. But on the other hand, by the late ’80s, when hardcore was proving to be a consistent letdown, the Horsemen could sound mighty fucking fine. This CD, culled from two shows, one in Huntington Beach, CA, the other in Boston, MA, offers proof of their capabilities and additionally highlights one of the band’s most distinctive qualities, specifically the tandem vocals of Chris and Julie Christensen. The disc flows very nicely with no repeated songs. It’s also great to know that a fresh Divine Horsemen record, Hot Rise of an Ice Cream Phoenix is on deck (a sort of reunion companion to I Used to Be Pretty, The Flesh Eaters’ excellent 2019 return, on which Christensen provided some backing vocals). A-

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Graded on a Curve: Magnetic Eye Records, Day of Doom Live

In November of 2019, to mark the 10th anniversary of Magnetic Eye Records, an event was held in celebration at Saint Vitus Bar in Brooklyn. Nine bands played back-to-back, and the four headlining sets by Elephant Tree, Domkraft, Summoner, and Horsehunter were recorded in commemoration of the event. The four albums, all titled Day of Doom Live, are available separately on vinyl in limited color editions (dark green, ocean blue, purple and dark brown, respectively) and “worldwide classic black,” plus on compact disc individually and together in a 4CD hardcover artbook. It’s all out December 11, forebodingly sludgy across the board, and with elements of distinctiveness throughout.

The name Day of Doom sets up a rather clear expectation, and alongside it, the risk that the sounds will sink into genericism as the bands gradually become indecipherable from each other. Anybody who endured a multiband all-ages hardcore matinee will tell you that piling up nine consecutive acts of the same style on the same bill is a gamble, even if the occasion is a celebratory one.

But thankfully, Magnetic Eye’s output has established a high standard of quality across their existence, so that Day of Doom’s four headliners kept matters consistently interesting while not straying far from the brand of metal that is the label’s specialty. That the bands call four different countries home is representative of the combined achievement; if comparable in style, each outfit is coming from a different place.

Elephant Tree formed in London in 2013, with the lineup heard on this recording featuring Jack Townley on guitar, Sam Hart on drums, Peter Holland on bass, and John Slattery, the most recent addition, on guitars and synth. Townley and Hart are the cofounders, with Holland entering the fold a little later, after the three met for the second time at an Om show. Their set offers similarities to the heavier side of the ’90s Alt-rock sound, which could’ve proved a toxic situation.

Except that Elephant Tree evince taste and restraint, and additionally, fold aspects of the same era’s noise rock into the equation, so that more than once I thought of a less surly Melvins with hints of a doomier Unsane. The kicker is that Holland is a legit singer rather than a vocal cord shredder, which also could’ve spelled disaster for me, as ’90s heavy rock vocals are decidedly not my bag. However, Holland’s approach doesn’t date, as he refuses to overemote and is appropriately placed in the mix. Altogether, a nice dose of thud, with an introspective piano and synth-infused finale. B+

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Graded on a Curve:
Lee Fields,
Big Crown Vaults Vol. 1

Lee Fields stands amongst the titans of contempo classic-styled soul sounds, so it makes total sense that his work with the Expressions comprises Big Crown Vaults Vol. 1. It’s the first in a series of records finding Big Crown founders Leon Michels and Danny Akalepse tidying up their audio closet for the betterment of humankind. This album, availably now on vinyl (limited translucent purple ripple or reliable black), compact disc and digital, features six Fields-sung tracks followed by six instrumentals, five of them versions, effectively illuminating the Expressions’ skills and Michels’ production savvy. Altogether, for lovers of old-school soul, this set is a total keeper.

As a survivor on the scene, Lee Fields’ soul prowess is far from a secret. Having debuted on record via 45 rpm single in 1969, Fields cut a bunch more through the next decade and capped the initial stretch of his long career with his first LP, Let’s Talk It Over in 1980 for the Angie 3 label. As the warmth, grit and energy of classic soul ebbed in the years thereafter, Fields’s momentum was slowed until the early ’90s, when he recorded a few full-length discs for Ace, but the set that firmly established his presence was Let’s Get a Groove On in 1998 for Desco, which was recently reissued for Record Store Day.

It was Desco that helped pave the way for Daptone, so if Fields is a new name, that association might clue you in, as he appears on a pair of albums by Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. He also cut a few singles for Daptone, plus the LP Problems for Soul Fire (the other label spawned by Desco’s demise) before hooking up with Truth & Soul for three records, My World in 2009, Faithful Man in ’12, and Emma Jean in ’14.

After Truth & Souls’ folding and as part of Big Crown’s flowering (events directly related through Michels as co-owner-operator of both), Fields recorded Special Night for his current imprint in 2016 followed by It Rains Love last year. That brings us to Big Crown Vaults Vol. 1, which rounds up songs from the sessions for those two LPs, starting out with a version of “Two Timer” by Little Carl Carlton (perhaps best known to non-soul aficionados for his smash reading of “Everlasting Love” from ’74) that’s faithful to the 1970 original while deepening the groove considerably, as is Michels’ and Big Crown’s way.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for December 2020, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for December 2020. 

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Time OutTakes – Previously Unreleased Takes from the Original 1959 Sessions (Brubeck Editions) The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out, released in 1959 by Columbia Records, remains one of the cornerstones in the heyday of jazz, cut in what some have proposed was the music’s greatest year. What’s more, it was a legit smash at the time of its release, not just in jazz terms but in the pop sphere as well, where it climbed to No. 2 on the album chart, with the single of “Take Five” reaching No. 5. This means many people have heard its contents many times, and surely some of those listeners have concluded they’ve had their fill of the LP; while not ubiquitous (how could it be), the music could occasionally feel that way, as it crept into contexts of all kinds, frequently as a signifier. That means long after one chose to give Time Out a time out, other people would continue playing it. A lot.

Of course, the record’s perseverance is exactly why these outtakes are so worthwhile, as they present a fresh twist on sounds that are long interwoven into the cultural fabric. The playing is as impeccable as expected, but more importantly, the distinctiveness of these versions becomes quite clear; nowhere are the differences more apparent than in “Take Five,” which not only moves at a brisker pace (and yet is a smidge longer than the release version) but also finds everybody laying out except for Joe Morello, who makes exquisite use of the spotlight. “Blue Rondo a la Turk” is more than two minutes longer than the version that opens Time Out, with the intensity level higher and the playing just a bit edgier. I also like how OutTakes follows the sequence of the original album until deep in the runtime. Altogether, this set is a superb remedy for those who might still consider themselves burnt out on Time Out. CD is out 12/4, but it appears the vinyl has been delayed. A

Edan, Primitive Plus (Lewis Recordings) 2002 was the year of arrival for Edan’s debut full-length (receiving its first vinyl reissue since date of release here), and by that point, left-field/ underground hip-hop was a well-established subgenre. Primitive Plus still made a deep impression, partly because it was as strange in its musical layering as it was lyrically unique. Like many other u-grounders, Edan was a passionate student of the old-school, but rather than express his love through imitation, his word flow, sometimes twisted and in other moments direct, is equal to the sheer force of his beats and the often surreal nature of his loops. Scratching is abundant. It comes as no surprise that “Ultra ‘88” is a tribute to the Ultramagnetic MCs, the legendary group that unleashed Kool Keith on the world, for in terms of the bizarre, Keith is one of the few easily taggable influences on Edan’s work. It’s also not a shocker that Mr. Lif guests on “Rapperfection”; had Lewis Recordings not released Primitive Plus, it could’ve easily landed on Definitive Jux. A fine album that set the table for the brilliance of Beauty and the Beat. A-

The Bangles, Sweetheart of the Sun (Real Gone) For their fifth and most recent album from 2001, this oft-terrific Los Angeles band consisted of Susanna Hoffs and the Peterson sisters, Vicki and Debbi, as bassist Michael Steele had departed shortly after the recording of their 2003 reunion effort Doll Revolution. Recruiting Derrick Anderson to fill that role, what resulted on this set co-produced by the band and Matthew Sweet (who plays bass on “Through Your Eyes”), is one of the Bangles’ strongest records, opening with the riff-tastic “Anna Lee (Sweetheart of the Sun)” (which I would rate as one of their greatest songs, period), and wrapping up with a sturdy cover of the Nazz’s “Open My Eyes.” In between, the stated influence of the ladies of the Laurel Canyon (Carole, Joni, Carly) is heard, which is to say that there’s a vibe of maturity to the songwriting, a wholly appropriate circumstance that never undercuts the garage-y melodic youthfulness making the Bangles’ music such a treat. Only 900 copies pressed and sold out at the source, so if you see it and have the folding money, don’t hesitate. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Versus,
The Stars Are Insane

From the point of their arrival in 1992, New York City’s Versus excelled as one of the decade’s stronger melodic rock units, shaped but in no way constrained by the sounds of North American indie precedent. They released an impressive series of discs on a succession of labels, and amongst the best is the ’94 full-length The Stars Are Insane.

Amidst the ‘90s indie flood Versus stood out as a reliable breath of fresh air both on recordings (of which there are quite a few) and through a steady flow of live gigs. A large part of the group’s lasting appeal rests on how they didn’t easily fit into any of the tidy indie subcategories that thrived during the period.

Like some of the most rewarding convulsions in ‘90s indie, Versus had direct ties to the previous decade, specifically through Flower, a band formed in ’86 NYC by Richard Baluyut, Rob Hale, Yosh Najita, and Ian James (later of Cell); subsequent members included Andrew Bordwin (also of Cell and Ruby Falls), plus Baluyut’s brothers Ed and Jim. Between ’87 and ’90 they put out a 45, the 12-inch EP “Crash” (produced by Kramer) and a couple LPs, Concrete and Hologram Sky.

Through all this activity Flower remained solidly underground, this writer knowing not of their existence until the Bear and Simple Machines labels gathered the albums onto Concrete Sky, a ’94 compact disc highlighting considerable influence from Sonic Youth (no surprise given the choice of moniker), a factor that extended onward into the formation of Versus.

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Graded on a Curve: Five from Pyroclastic Records

Pyroclastic Records is on a tear. The label founded in 2016 by pianist-composer Kris Davis can perhaps be described as oriented toward contemporary progressive jazz, but as the music reviewed below by Cory Smythe, Eric Revis, Angelica Sanchez and Marilyn Crispell, Nate Wooley, and Junk Magic reveal, that assessment is, to varying degrees, limiting. What’s crystal clear is that Pyroclastic is an artist-focused label, and that this column is an early spotlight on some of the best recordings of 2020. All five are out now on CD with design and layout of unusually high quality.

Cory Smythe is a pianist of extensive experience, having played with Anthony Braxton, Ingrid Laubrock, Peter Evans, Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer, Nate Wooley, and Hilary Hahn; with her, he won a GRAMMY in 2015 for the album In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores. That achievement reinforces Smythe’s abilities in the classical field, but with Accelerate Every Voice he combines elements of jazz with the fascinating and often hallucinatory contributions of five vocalists recruited from the a cappella, new music, and improv scenes.

There is also a lengthy dive into environmental New Age, but that piece, “Piano and Ocean Waves for Deep Relaxation” (inspired by a work by Annea Lockwood), closes the record, and in this case, it’s surely better to start at the beginning. A tip-off to Smythe’s conceptual foundation here is found in the CD’s title, which references Andrew Hill’s splendid choral-infused LP of 1970, Lift Every Voice, and by extension, James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” a poem-song that’s been long-known as the Black National Anthem.

The singing at times recalls straight a cappella action with direct ties to the Yale Whiffenpoofs channeling the brilliance of Shelley Hirsch, is at other moments like a mashup of the Gyuto Monks and the Swingle Singers, and in a few spots is similar to a pitch-shifted and speed-manipulated blend of scat-singing and speaking in tongues. Absorbed in combo with Smythe’s piano and electronics, the whole is definitely post-category, and with an added dimension of social commentary. Fuck, yeah. A

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Graded on a Curve: Talulah Gosh,
Was It Just a Dream? Heavenly,
A Bout de Heavenly

One of the sharpest bands to have blossomed amid the original Brit indie pop explosion was Talulah Gosh, formed in Oxford in 1986 and burning bright for just two years. Their output was considerable during that period, as collected on Was It Just a Dream?, which gets a fresh edition on December 11 from Damaged Goods Records. It arrives in conjunction with A Bout de Heavenly, the band spanking new singles compilation from Heavenly, the outfit that emerged after Talulah Gosh’s dissolution. Absorbed together, these releases document a journey from the twee side of ’80s guitar pop toward the ’90s indie scene to rub shoulders with Riot Grrl and even burgeoning Britpop. They deliver a helluva ride.

Was It Just a Dream? was first issued in 2013 as an expansion upon Talulah Gosh’s posthumous discographical compilation Backwash, which came out in 1996, fittingly via K Records. Like Backwash, Damaged Goods’ update requires four sides of vinyl (while losing nothing in the process), which should only underscore the prolificacy of the band.

Talulah Gosh commenced as guitarist-vocalist Amelia Fletcher, her drummer brother Mathew, guitarist-vocalist Elizabeth Price, lead guitarist Peter Momtchiloff, and bassist Rob Pursey, who was the first to quickly leave in ’86, replaced in short order by Chris Scott. Price departed the next year, with Eithne Farry stepping in.

It’s important to note that Talulah Gosh thrived as a singles band in the literal sense, as they never released a non-comp full-length album while extant, although 12-inch EPs expanding or combining 45s do figure in their catalog. That means Was It Just a Dream? helps conserve shelf space as it documents all the studio material and two radio sessions for the BBC; the additional cuts are four demos first released by Damaged Goods on a 45 for Record Store Day way back in 2011.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for November 2020, Part Three

Part three of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for November 2020. Part one is here and part two is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Lisa/Liza, Shelter of a Song (Orindal) Lisa/Liza is singer-songwriter Liza (pronounced Lisa) Victoria, who resides in Portland, the one in Maine. This is her third LP for Orindal (she’s also issued a pair of cassette EPs for the label), and after welcoming additional instrumentalists on her prior effort Momentary Glance, she returns to solo mode here with eight tracks recorded live in a kitchen with nary an overdub. Victoria’s sound lands securely in the late night folk zone, with singing that’s pretty but sturdy, delivery that’s emotional but in control, and fingerpicking that is often gentle but with an invigorating tension and flashes of sharpness. Additionally, Victoria has the ability to tackle topics (the suicide of a friend on Momentary Glance, her own chronic illness on this album) that’s stimulating in its seriousness rather than burdensome. Still, it’s difficult to deny this record is a heavy experience, but that’s ultimately to Victoria’s credit. Shelter of a Song is unlikely to get many back-to-back spins, but when it is played it will surely leave an impression. A-

Enrique Rodríguez and the Negra Chiway Band, Fase Liminal (Soul Jazz Records) One of the dangers with spiritually focused music is an overflowing bliss that deflates into insubstantiality. Fase Liminal, which can be succinctly tagged as contemporary spiritual jazz from Chile, doesn’t have this problem, largely because the range of influence is fairly wide, so that an appealing balance is struck between free jazz fire and modal fusion textures, with electric keyboard prevalent. And so, not only does Rodriguez and band avoid getting too airy, but they also avoid faltering into hackneyed vamping or technique-flaunting noodles. Hooray! And while there’s an abundance of percussion across the record, rhythm doesn’t dominate the proceedings, as the horn playing is rich and occasionally raucous. This is true in particular during the closing alt take of “Dónde ?,” which attains levels of collective intensity recalling Sanders’ Karma but with piano that brought to mind LaMont Johnson’s playing on Jackie McLean’s “Hipnosis.” Everything clicks, even the flute and vocals. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: V/A, CUBA: Music and Revolution: Culture Clash in Havana: Experiments in Latin Music 1975-85 Vol.1 (Soul Jazz) This set, issued in 3LP and 2CD editions, arrives in conjunction with the hardcover book CUBA: Music and Revolution: Original Album Cover Art of Cuban Music: Record Sleeve Designs of Revolutionary Cuba 1959-90. Both the book and this collection are the handiwork of Gilles Peterson and Stuart Baker, their third such collaboration (the prior two delved into revolutionary jazz and bossa nova), and as these selections play it’s abundantly clear, even without access to the book (which isn’t available in the US until December 11), that the compilers are at the very top of their game. Now, you might’ve noticed that the book tackles a much longer timeframe than the compilation. That’s okay. The compressed focus of Experiments in Latin Music allows for a deep immersion into a transitional period rather than surface-skimming a longer span of years. Furthermore, it’s stated that most everything here was previously unheard outside Cuba, making this a feast for the curious (out 11/27). A

MIYUMI Project, Best of the MIYUMI Project (FPE) Now 20 years strong, the MIYUMI Project is a Chicago-based Asian-American / African-American collaboration founded and led by bassist Tatsu Aoki. Drawn from the group’s sizeable discography, these nine selections span four sides of vinyl (CD is also available) and from all research appears to by MIYUMI Project’s debut on wax. The sound is a synthesis of the Japanese taiko drumming tradition and avant-jazz improvisational firepower, with a sturdy connection to the Windy City’s AACM, including members Ed Wilkerson and Mwata Bowden on reeds and Dushun Mosley on drums. Aoki, who was part of Japan’s experimental scene before moving to the USA in 1977 (Chicago in ’79), brings a steadying maturity (and robust bass) to this fusion, though that’s not to infer that things don’t get wild. They do. Things are also consistently rhythmic, rising to a powerhouse level in the nearly 16-minute “Episode One.” Along with spirited expansive blowing, there is beaucoup string scrape, which only increases the fortitude of the MIYUMI Project’s bedrock. Compilations rarely get any better than this one, which culminates with an unreleased live track.

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Graded on a Curve:
Nine from Mute Records

Formed in 1978 by Daniel Miller, Mute Records has prospered in the decades since and continues flourishing right up to the present, as is made clear by the 2020 releases reviewed below by Daniel Avery, Apparat, Nicolas Bougaïeff, HAAi, Pole, and Cabaret Voltaire. With the exception of the digital-only material by Apparat, everything is available on vinyl and CD, and it’s all out now, except for Shadow of Fear by Cabaret Voltaire, which arrives on November 20.

Daniel Avery made his initial splash back in 2013 with his full-length debut Drone Logic, but more recently, as in earlier this year, he issued Illusion of Time, a collab with Alessandro Cortini (he of Nine Inch Nails). Love + Light is described as a surprise release on Mute/Phantasy in the US and Canada and on Phantasy alone throughout the rest of the world. No longer a surprise: the digital has been out since June, but the CD and vinyl have belatedly shipped earlier in November.

While Illusion of Time is notable for the absence of rhythm, Love + Light is drenched in club-thump underscoring its maker’s beginnings in techno. Some might wonder if Avery’s backsliding, but it’s really more a case of his undiminished interest in the style. I’ll add that the record effectively branches out, and right away with a slice of ambient in “London Island.” He also ratchets up the racket in “Searing Light, Forward Motion.”  Note that the vinyl offers 12 tracks and the full release features 14 for a total just a smidge over one hour, as Avery’s individual selections are largely concise. B+

Apparat, aka Berlin-based electronic musician Sascha Ring, has also moved away from dancefloor-ready techno, heading toward the ambient but more recently soundtrack works as documented in an aptly named series of digital releases. The first, Soundtracks: Capri-Revolution, was review in TVD’s New in Stores column on May 1. We consider the subsequent three here.

Soundtracks: Stay Still, recorded for a German feature directed by Elisa Mishto, came out in May, and it blends hovering, glistening ambience with melodic touches, but with the synth-poppish “BK LULU,” complete with gal vocals, dropped roughly in the middle. Released in June, Soundtracks: Dämonen provides the music for a theatrical play by Sebastian Hartmann adapting Dostoevsky’s Demons, with an emphasis on chamber strings (at times heavily bowed, very nice), a little spare pluck-strum, and even some cathedral-style organ.

But it’s not like he lost touch with his electronic side. The same is true of Soundtracks: Equals Sessions, which was issued in July as the final entry in the series, featuring work from Ring and Dustin O´Halloran for the 2015 feature by Drake Doremus. As a dystopian sci-fi romance starring Kristen Stewart, Equals the film is a higher-profile and bigger-budget affair than either Stay Still and Dämonen, a reality that’s absorbable as Equals Sessions plays, though there is stylistic unity, including some churchy keyboard and some singing (guy vocals this time out). B+/ A-/ A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Holy Motors,
Horse

Although Holy Motors hails from Tallinn, Estonia, their music is perfectly suited for a road trip in a gas-guzzling boat of a car roaring westward across the expanse of the USA. Featuring songwriter and guitarist Lauri Ruas with vocals by songwriter Eliann Tulve, the band, formed in 2013 when Tulve was just 16 years old, is completed by guitarist Gert Gutmann and drummer Caspar Salo. Their sophomore full-length Horse continues to hone a shoegazing, twangy, Mazzy Star-ish sound to productive result. The record’s out now on vinyl, digipak compact disc, and digital through Wharf Cat Records of Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

The Bandcamp bio for Holy Motor’s offers that they are a “dark twang & reverb band from a nonexistent movie.” But as others have observed, they share a name with an actual film, specifically the most recent completed feature, from back in 2012, by the great (and very underrated) French auteur Leos Carax. Additionally, Holy Motors list amongst their achievements a gig in the support spot for a screening of Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film Mystery Train.

Listening to Holy Motors’ latest while contemplating the allusions in their bio to cowboys and cowgirls and the old West, I’d say that double billing them with Mystery Train was a smart move, as Jarmusch sets his film in Memphis, TN but tells a series of stories about foreign visitors to the city. This complements Holy Motors’ adoration and embodiment of bygone American lore; the band furthermore cite Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas as favorites.

Often described as a neo-noir, Badlands is set at the turn of the 1960s in the titular region of the USA and was the first feature from perhaps American cinema’s prime transcendentalist, which is to say that while American by birth, Malick is unconstrained by borders. Paris, Texas, which can be described as the unfolding mystery of how a relationship came to be broken (complete with a child), also features scenes of Harry Dean Stanton walking across dusty landscapes in the Lone Star State.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Monkees, Headquarters

The once-heated discourse over the musical talents of The Monkees has thankfully been largely relegated to history, and in these enlightened times far more productive debates can take place. For instance; which Monkees’ album is the best? Tough question, but one certain contender is 1967’s Headquarters.

For a brief period in my teenage years of musical discovery I passed through a phase of brutally intense ‘60s worship. It was all Beatles and Stones and Hendrix and Dylan and San Francisco and Woodstock, a circumstance unsurprising for a lad of the ‘80s, as that decade saw a significant amount of nostalgia for the times of twenty years before.

But when reruns of The Monkees’ TV program first hit MTV in 1986, I really didn’t know anything about them. While certainly not erased from the history books, they were however reduced to a derisive footnote or a mild curiosity, one that inquisitive young minds might need to stumble over to gain discovery. Once hiding in plain sight, they suddenly acquired a cultural cache that while not über-cool was definitely amiable to the climate of the era.

I scored a badly beaten copy of More of the Monkees for next-to-nothing from the Salvation Army and aside from copious crackles was quite impressed. Asking the bearded owner of my local record shop about them shortly afterward, I was told in no uncertain terms they were a “fake band,” a statement that had a far different effect then was clearly intended. My ‘60s adulation took on a whole new wrinkle; how great was a decade where even the fake bands made awesome records?

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