Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, April 2016

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new or reissued wax presently in stores for April, 2016.

The Adverts, Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts and Cast of Thousands (Fire) Deserving reissues of the killer debut and underrated follow-up by these crucial UK punkers. Sharpened through gigs, Crossing is a rare punk LP that’s fantastic from start to finish, its highlights including their monster early 45 cuts plus album-only doozies like “On the Roof.” Brandishing more ambitious songs and execution, less punk orthodoxy and occasional non-toxic pop gestures (e.g. keyboards), Cast’s rep has steadily grown over the decades. Fire gives both spiffy new covers and bonus tracks. A/A-

Loren Auerbach with Bert Jansch, Colours Are Fading Fast (Earth Recordings) An eye-opening set surely appropriate for Jansch heavies, though amongst numerous contributors this is still firmly Auerbach’s show, rounding up her mid-‘80s albums Playing the Game and After the Long Night and adding an LP of unreleased material. The label notes the difficulty in fathoming the heretofore modest appreciation for her gifts as a vocalist, a point well taken as the music’s original issue on her own Christabel label undoubtedly limited her exposure. This loving collection sets things right. A-

Bardo Pond, Acid Guru Pond (Fire) One of the finest heavy-psych bands of the last 25 years joins up with prolific Japanese contemporaries Acid Mothers Temple and Krautrock survivors Guru Guru (the number of participants from each band isn’t exactly clear) for an extravaganza of expansiveness spread across four sides of vinyl. Studio meetings of this type tend to fall short of expectations, but the Pond’s style of pulse-drone psych fits well with a loose jamming atmosphere, and these five tracks never falter into aimlessness or self-indulgence. A-

Jaye Bartell, Light Enough (Sinderlyn) Wielding a voice not necessarily unconventional but certainly distinctive, Bartell’s background as a poet shines through (influences cited: Spalding Gray, Eileen Myles, Charles Olson) as the verses on his second album sidestep the commonplace with ease. Enhanced by a folky framework, the work of Leonard Cohen and to a lesser extent Bill Callahan does spring to mind on occasion, but Bartell’s ultimately up to something different here. The title track serves as a good entry point and “The Ceiling” expands things very nicely. Excellent cover, as well. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Tony Conrad, Outside
the Dream Syndicate

Underneath the overlapping narrative of established musical innovators can be found an even more complex web of figures less well-known but just as crucial to the advancement of recorded sound. Tony Conrad is one such contributor; although we lost him to prostate cancer on April 9 his art, wholly ahead of its time and spanning from experimental film and video to robust drone-based early minimalist musical settings is destined to span centuries. For years the highest profile doorway into Conrad’s sound world was his 1973 collaboration with influential Krautrockers Faust, and Outside the Dream Syndicate’s fresh reissue on LP/CD provides an easy opportunity to get acquainted with an avant-garde master.

Like a lot of folks, my first exposure to Tony Conrad came in relation to the Velvet Underground. Specifically, the entry-point related to his participation in the Theater of Eternal Music aka the Dream Syndicate, a ’60s minimalist group featuring La Monte Young, his wife Marian Zazeela, Conrad, original VU drummer Angus Maclise, and John Cale.

For many Velvets fans Conrad’s name is of little more than trivial concern, with the book that named the group reportedly belonging to the filmmaker/musician, but for a small pocket of devotees the work of the Dream Syndicate; slim, mysterious and commercially unavailable for decades, represented an unattainable object of desire.

By the time the bootleg tape-sourced Inside the Dream Syndicate Volume I: Day of Niagara was issued to much controversy in 2000 by Table of the Elements, the same label had already released Early Minimalism Volume One, a 4CD set of ‘60s material, Slapping Pythagoras, a ’95 recording with contributions from John Corbett, Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs, and the initial ’93 repressing of Outside the Dream Syndicate, so much of the intrigue surrounding Conrad had dissipated.

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Graded on a Curve: Petra Haden, Imaginaryland and Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out

Petra Haden has accumulated a long list of credits in her 20-plus years as a professional musician; alongside her proficiency on a variety of instruments including main axe the violin is a unique and welcoming aptitude as a singer, and fortunate ears received an eclectic dip into her vocal talents via the largely a cappella 1996 debut Imaginaryland. It paired well with 2005’s Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, a voice-only reconstruction of the stone classic from the titular British band, and in a fine turn of events both releases have been given fresh vinyl pressings through the auspices of the perennially classy Hoboken, NJ label Bar/None. Get ‘em while they’re hot.

Generally the first thing related in essays of Petra Haden’s background is her deep familial roots. Being a triplet sister fathered by the great jazz bassist Charlie Haden isn’t the sort of information that gets cast aside, especially since Rachel and Tanya are also musicians; the three have recorded as the Haden Triplets, in fact. Older brother Josh further adds to the equation as the longtime leader of the group Spain.

Sheer acumen as a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist has secured Petra’s role in a wide range of bands and projects; she’s a former member of The Decemberists, was half of duos with Bill Frisell, Miss Murgatroid (aka Alicia J. Rose) and Yuka Honda (as If By Yes), and has contributed to recordings by The Twilight Singers, Victoria Williams, and Sunn O))).

She made her initial splash as violinist-vocalist next to bassist-vocalist sister Rachel, guitarist-vocalist Anna Waronker and drummer Tony Maxwell in that dog. As a draftee of the David Geffen Conglomerate the indie/alt outfit released three well-regarded full-lengths from ’93 to ’97; while they did find an audience in the midst of the flood of product hitting record store shelves across the decade, with the exception ’97’s minor Modern Rock hit “Never Say Never” they lacked the chart motion desired by the majors.

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Graded on a Curve:
First Class Rocksteady


The musical history of Jamaica is so immense that it’s sensible for novices to engage with the rewards in digestible chunks; this Record Store Day VP Records’ vintage imprint 17 North Parade offers just that with First Class Rocksteady, its seven 45s celebrating the 50th anniversary of the titular island style. But in a sweet maneuver its contents have been assiduously gathered from the want lists of savvy collectors, forming a selection wide of range and suitable for newbies and experienced heads. Demand will surely exceed supply; additionally, on April 16 two vinyl-only showcases hosted in VP Records’ New York and South Florida retail stores will feature DJ sets from Downbeat the Ruler (NYC) and King Jammy (Miami).

Reportedly taking its name from a ’67 cut by Alton Ellis, rocksteady flourished in the latter half of the 1960s as it served as the bridge between ska and reggae. Succinctly defined by its slowing down of the ska tempo to allow for greater exploration around the constant offbeat, rocksteady thrived for only a couple of years and sometimes gets downgraded as a mere transition on the path to reggae’s world domination, though the case in favor of the style is tidily made through the 14 songs comprising First Class Rocksteady.

Initially issued in ’67 by Amalgamated Records, The Jupiters’ “Return of Ezekial” fills side one of this set’s first 45, wasting no time in locating a brass-spiked groove and then riding it unshakably as the vocalist, cited by numerous sources as Derrick Morgan, expounds upon the return of “rudeboy Ezekial Marascus Sabascus.”

The producer for “Return of Ezekial” is listed as Joe Gibbs, but that’s apparently because he owned and operated the label; much of Amalgamated’s output has subsequently been credited to none other than Lee “Scratch” Perry, who just might be amongst the backing singers on this unrelenting and unusual number.

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Graded on a Curve: Heartworn Highways 40th Anniversary Edition Box Set

Today ’70s Outlaw-country is revered as a corrective to Nashville’s overly slick tendencies, but at the time this predecessor of the Alt-country genre was a scene defined by struggle; filmed in late ’75 and into ’76, the outlaw documentary Heartworn Highways wasn’t released theatrically until 1981. Featuring singer-songwriter heavyweights Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, and more, the movie has developed an understandable cult following over the decades while being frequently hard to see; on April 16 for Record Store Day Light in the Attic’s 40th anniversary box set remedies this with panache, its contents including a DVD and double LP amid a fiesta of creative packaging.

I guess it’s possible to review the soundtrack to Heartworn Highways without delving into the movie’s content, but as Light in the Attic’s box set contains both, separating the film and its OST frankly doesn’t make a lot of sense. At the core of James Szalapski’s cinema verité portrait and providing sizable enduring appeal are Clark, Van Zandt, Steve Young, Crowell, and Earle; if Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and Kris Kristofferson can be said to constitute outlaw-country’s success, then the subjects of Heartworn Highways shape up its fringe/underbelly.

However, the movie’s reach is ultimately much broader, as the time spent with these youthful outsiders gets complemented by the recollections and informal performances of an older generation, specifically bar owner Big Mack McGowan with former Uncle Dave Macon sideman Glenn Stagner and enigmatic vocalist Peggy Brooks.

Szalapski also profiles all-around controversial personality David Allen Coe en route to a gig at the Tennessee State Penitentiary, the highly productive outlaw-country songwriter’s movements ranging from an intimate display of his talent as a singer-songwriter to the delivery of a rambling and somewhat desperate monologue to the captive crowd regarding his own experience behind bars; it all contrasts interestingly with a packed high school gym show by an all-business Charlie Daniels Band.

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Graded on a Curve:
Music of Morocco from the Library of Congress: Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959

Primarily remembered for his mid-20th century novel The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles was in fact a multifaceted wordsmith, translator, and composer, and a dip into his historical profile reveals him to be a non-clichéd bohemian expatriate to boot. Moving to Tangier in 1947, Morocco served as his home until his death in 1999, though Bowles didn’t completely sever ties with the USA; in the 1950s he received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to record the music of his adopted home. Dust-to-Digital’s Music of Morocco from the Library of Congress: Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959 offers the exceptional results on four CDs and will surely rank amongst 2016’s best box sets.

By any yardstick Paul Bowles led an eventful and unconventional life. Like Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, who contributes a brief opening essay to this set’s accompanying notes, my discovery of the man came through his connection to the Beats; indeed, Music of Morocco includes the often reproduced 1961 photo of Bowles in Tangiers with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Alan Ansen, and Ian Sommerville that brought Ranaldo, myself and scores of others directly to The Sheltering Sky.

To some this instance of hipness by association may seem like a superficial road to Bowles’ existentialist classic, but that’s just how it is, or more aptly put is one way of it; undoubtedly many Charles Bukowski fans stumbled upon Bowles’ Collected Stories in the catalog of alternative/underground publishing house Black Sparrow Press.

However, Paul Bowles encompassed far more than writing and throughout 88 years on this planet his copious achievements ride on nobody’s coattails. Early evidence of his greatness was articulated in his desire to be a poet, but Gertrude Stein set him straight and additionally proposed Bowles and his teacher Aaron Copland travel to Morocco in 1931.

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Graded on a Curve:
Redd Kross,
Researching the Blues

Redd Kross lasted much longer than the average punk band of their vintage, mainly because they avoided the typical didacticism that came to plague the mid-‘80s punk scene. After a 15-year break in recording, they are back with Researching the Blues, their sixth LP and first for Merge Records. If it doesn’t reach the heights of 1982’s Born Innocent, it is their best release since ‘87’s Neurotica.

It would be difficult to find a band that’s tenure has produced such differing results and reactions as Redd Kross. The brothers Jeff and Steve McDonald are the two constant members of the band, easily one of the half-dozen finest California groups of the hardcore-era, though their music was always too melodic to be accurately described as hardcore in style. And they were also one of the few Golden State acts to make it past 1983 without the well of inspiration running dry.

Redd Kross have made a career out of being serious about being unserious. This tactic has served them extremely well, particularly early on. But by the dawn of the ‘90s they’d taken their mixture of melodic punk, power pop, glam, and trash culture to such an extreme that if the interested parties were polled as to whether Redd Kross should call it quits or continue exploring their unapologetic and over the top ways, its voting would’ve been quite heated and very close.

To these ears, Redd Kross have one era that’s indisputably classic and absolutely essential, and that’s their earliest material. The debut six-song self-titled EP from 1981 and the Born Innocent LP from 1982, both initially released under the name Red Cross (a lawsuit from the International Red Cross instigated the adjustment in moniker), are pretty much required listening for anyone interested in getting a solid grasp on the diversity of US underground punk of the early ‘80s.

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

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

Open Mike Eagle & Paul White, Hella Personal Film Festival (Mello Music Group) Although preferable to much of the current hip-hop mainstream, a certain percentage of the fringe can become afflicted with an undercurrent of gimmickry. That’s not the case here; described as an outsider, Eagle’s reality as something different is driven home by a very savvy Wild Man Fischer sample, and his delivery is unlike anybody else I’ve encountered. White’s music is engaging throughout, and the guests including Aesop Rock really add to the whole. A-

Lifetones, For a Reason (Light in the Attic) Anybody wondering about reggae’s depth of impact on Brit post-punk need look no further than right here; featuring This Heat guitarist/vocalist Charles Bullen, don’t think for a second that this is of the same quality as his other band. Thankfully, the focus of this ’83 album is mostly on spongy dub flavors, but as good as it gets, and it gets pretty good on the second side, For a Reason is still something of a footnote, if one sure to enthuse This Heat nuts and post-punk completists the globe over. B

Matthewdavid’s Mindflight, Trust the Guide and Glide (Leaving) Beaucoup kosmische/New Age action that easily validates its title; starts out in mellow-drift mode and hangs there for a long while, but by the 22-minute closer a spacey intensity has been achieved. This sits very nicely beside Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s EARS in the current expansive contempo sound category. A-

Francis Macdonald, Music for String Quartet, Piano & Celeste (Redeye) Teenage Fanclub drummer steps into the chamber classical milieu; as it plays the results are enjoyable yet modest. New ground isn’t broken nor do any extraordinary heights of quality get attained, but Macdonald has roped in some fine players for his brightly hued if unchallenging pieces. B

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Graded on a Curve:
Merle Haggard,
Swinging Doors

We remember Mr. Merle Haggard who passed away today, April 6.
—Ed.

Merle Haggard is a man who needs no introduction. His music, however, is best served by a thoughtful entry-point that reflects his emergence as one of country music’s truly singular figures, so the fact that his amazing third LP Swinging Doors has been given a fresh 180gm pressing is stupendous news. As the first LP he recorded with his estimable backing band the Strangers, it’s not the only Haggard record you’ll need, but it does establish the beginnings of a very fruitful period and essays with precision the attributes that make him such a valuable artist.

Along with Buck Owens, Merle Haggard was a principal architect of the Bakersfield Sound, a strain of country music rooted in the ‘50s that broke big in the following decade, providing an alternative to the Nashville Sound that was dominating the C&W charts during the era. Calling it the original Alt-Country will make many folks wince, but it’s not that far off the mark. For in eschewing the syrupy string sections, overly polite backing singers and general pop slickness of the Nashville Sound, a production-driven style that later morphed into a movement called Countrypolitan, the Bakersfield musicians were retaining the glorious essence of Honky-Tonk (a form derived from the work of Jimmie Rodgers, Western Swing-man Bob Wills, and Hank Williams) that prevailed on the C&W charts during the ‘50s.

Classic Honky-Tonk was exemplified by such major cats as Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, Hank Locklin, Lefty Frizzell, and a little later on George Jones, and it was a band music that flourished on the stages of the very clubs that named it. While the early years of the Bakersfield Sound overlap that of Honky-Tonk, by the ‘60s and its national breakout through Owens and Haggard, it was appropriately assessed as a reaction against the pop sensibilities of a city that in 1960 was designated as the USA’s second biggest record producing center.

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

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

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

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

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

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