Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Builders,
Beatin Hearts

Flying Nun certainly gets its share of retrospective coverage, but there are chapters in the Kiwi label’s story that are only intermittently skimmed; one such example is Bill Direen. Noted as a poet and novelist in addition to his work as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, Direen’s musical rep largely rests on a string of ’80s recordings issued both under his own name and a succession of monikers, most of them variants on Builders. After self-releasing a handful of EPs, Beatin Hearts served as the first full-length album in Flying Nun’s discography, and yet it’s overlooked far too often; Grapefruit’s reissue, available for purchase on LP August 12, underscores that it’s anything but a historical footnote.

Bill Direen was a member of Vacuum, which in Flying Nun terms means he spans way back before the beginning, back to 1977 in fact, in cahoots with Stephen Cogle, Peter Stapleton, Peter Fryer, and Alan Meek. Swiping liberally from ’60s garage, the Velvets and other proto affairs, Vacuum was surely a small speck in the global sonic uprising of the period, but their raw, low fidelity recordings, retroactively released on a pair of 7-inches by Siltbreeze, illuminate them as more than just another punk band.

Once Vacuum dissolved, Cogle, Stapleton, and Meek hooked up with Tony O’Grady to form The Victor Dimisich Band. During this period Stapleton also played a role in the Pin Group alongside Roy Montgomery, and after the Victor Dimisich Band broke up was part of Scorched Earth Policy; later than that he joined The Terminals. Make no mistake, all this subsequent activity is very impressive, but one could easily argue that the strongest post-Vacuum track record belongs to Bill Direen.

A part of the reason is the string of 7-inches he released in ’81-’82. Self-financed and distributed by Flying Nun, these objects; “Soloman’s Ball,” “Six Impossible Things,” “Die Bilder/ Schwimmen in Der See,” and “High Thirties Piano,” offer a remarkable post-punk survey undiluted by marketplace concerns. There was lingering demand, however; the whole lot was reissued in 2012 by the Unwucht label, and it’s all worth tracking down. Just don’t let locating them usurp obtaining a fresh copy of Beatin Hearts.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Bevis Frond, Any Gas Faster, New River Head, London Stone

Emerging from the guts of 1980s London, Nick Saloman’s The Bevis Frond is a potent ’60s psych-rock flavored treat. Helping to pioneer DIY album making, the Frond’s unexpected success triggered a move into “real” studio environs as the ’90s dawned; earlier this year Fire Records reissued Saloman’s first two home recorded LPs with bonus material, and they’ve wasted no time in unveiling ’90s Any Gas Faster, ’91’s New River Head, and ’92’s London Stone. Together they form a vivid portrait of a consistently underestimated artist in transition as he pursued a creative trajectory of unusual abundance; all three are out now on LP, CD, and digital.

Where a fair amount of material from the pre-digital glory days of home studio recording luxuriates in a learn-as-one-goes aura adorned with varying levels of unchecked ambition (i.e. lack of discipline), Nick Saloman had his act together from the beginning, and there’s no greater evidence than Fire’s first two Frond reissues as the endeavor approaches 30 years of existence.

This is not to downplay the boldness of conception that makes Miasma and Inner Marshland so special. Undeniably impacted by the psychedelic ‘60s, Saloman immediately distinguished himself from the decade’s retro garage hoards through strength of songwriting and a thorough sidestepping of calculated trappings. But don’t get the notion one couldn’t sniff the incense and envision the paisley, it’s just that the Frond ultimately pitched a tent much closer to fellow Brits Spacemen 3 and Walkingseeds than to say The Chesterfield Kings.

Furthermore, as a home recorder he was also able to document his inspiration while ripe rather than having it ossify as he scraped up money for a studio date or quickly signed a contract with a label to secure recording time. Indeed, Saloman had started his own imprint Woronzow, spanning back to 1980 with releases by his band of the time the Von Trap Family, and as a result the Frond kicked out three LPs in 1987 alone.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mary Lattimore & Jeff Zeigler, Music Inspired by Philippe Garrel’s Le Révélateur

The contemporary scene is pretty well flush with top-flight instrumentalists, but few are as distinctively talented as Pew Fellowship in the Arts recipient Mary Lattimore. Once primarily known for a succession of guest spots, over the last two years the harpist’s own work his stepped authoritatively to the fore, both solo and in partnership with fellow Philadelphian Jeff Zeigler. Having debuted in 2014, the duo returns with Music Inspired by Philippe Garrel’s Le Révélateur; providing the soundtrack to an early film by one of French cinema’s best kept secrets, the music stands tall on its own, and it’s out now on LP and digital via Thrill Jockey.

Noted for his work with Kurt Vile, Chris Forsyth, Purling Hiss, and The War on Drugs, Jeff Zeigler was also the recorder and mixer of Mary Lattimore’s solo debut; initially issued as an untitled cassette in 2012, it emerged as the limited edition LP The Withdrawing Room the following year. From there the most economical narrative leads straight to the duo’s Slant of Light, but before that they had traveled to Texas for the purpose of premiering their score to Philippe Garrel’s 1968 film Le Révélateur at the Ballroom Marfa’s annual silent film program.

The creation of new or alternate soundtracks for silent movies is far from a novel impulse. At its worst the endeavor is little more than shallow attempts at rescuing pre-talkie cinema from the clutches of the Wurlitzer organ, but Lattimore and Zeigler’s choice is uncommonly astute and far from high-profile. Intentionally filmed without sound as it falls between short and feature-length at 62 minutes, Le Révélateur embodies the norms of silent filmmaking while being a thoroughly underground manifestation of its period.

Reportedly intended to be projected at the silent-era standard of 18 frames per second (rather than the post-sound frame rate of 24), the tendency for hommage is considerably tempered by the movie’s experimental nature and its direct ties to the upheaval of May ’68 as part of a group of filmmakers who collaborated under the name Zanzibar.

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Graded on a Curve: Pentagram,
First Daze Here, First Daze Here Too

At this late date Pentagram’s existence is far from a secret, with the nearly 15 years of struggle leading to the emergence of their debut album in 1985 firmly part of the band’s lore. However, these highly influential Northern VA/ DC-based Metallic titans did cut a couple of early singles; rare and surely pricy in original form, those sides were combined last decade with a load of long-unreleased material to comprise First Daze Here and the extended First Daze Here Too. In a fine development they’ve been reissued by Relapse; the LP/2LP/7-inch bundle is still available, and the vinyl can also be purchased separately or on CD/ digital. For anyone curious over the roots of Doom, they form a colossal primer.

The story of Pentagram basically relates the perseverance of vocalist and solitary constant member Bobby Liebling amid numerous setbacks both professional and personal, his eventual modest success being followed by drug-addled decline that found him living in his parent’s basement. It’s all covered in painstaking detail by Last Days Here, frankly one of the better examples in a veritable ocean of music documentaries in large part because it culminates with the positivity of Liebling getting sober and married as his creative juices begin flowing once again.

Many fans were introduced to Pentagram through ’93’s Relentless, which was actually a retitling of their eponymous self-released first album, though the Peaceville label additionally reverted to the recording and sequencing of the songs as they appeared on ‘82’s All Your Sins, a demo cut while under the moniker of Death Row. That’s a whole lot of revamping, and it indicates the level of difficulty the group experienced; formed in 1971, jump forward a decade and Pentagram had been through temporary name changes and considerable lineups with many more to follow.

Day of Reckoning came out in ’87, initially on Napalm Records to be later reissued by Peaceville; for a while it and Relentless formed the basis of the outfit’s underground status, extending the sonic ground broken in the early ’70s by Black Sabbath as Pentagram hung in the same corner of the metal scene as Witchfinder General, St. Vitus, Trouble, and their geographical peers The Obsessed.

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Graded on a Curve: Charles Mingus,
The Black Saint and
the Sinner Lady

Bassist-bandleader-composer Charles Mingus remains one of the most important figures in the history of recorded sound. A jazzman of uncommon versatility, his extensive achievement is deeply linked to a voluminous personality and an occasionally volatile temper. In 1963, as part of a brief, fertile association with Impulse! Records, he waxed The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady; it’s widely rated as the apex of his career, which in turn awards it placement amongst the great moments in 20th century music. A vinyl reissue is out now courtesy of Superior Viaduct.

Please forgive me if I’ve fallen egregiously behind the times, but I continue to perceive the goal of education as more than a factory churning out highly efficient producers brandishing economically useful skills, a mass of graduates left to dodge underemployment in hopes of spending decades in the modern workplace’s existential ditch. But maybe I’m just frightfully naive in considering higher learning as the valiant endeavoring to intellectually engage with generations of individuals, hopefully leaving them at least somewhat prepared for the ups and downs of existence, and potentially armed in adulthood with the knowledge to utilize portions of history’s immense landscape to their advantage.

And not only history but art, which is easily the most disrespected component in contemporary academe. This may come as a shock to anyone aware of the number of art schools, conservatories, and Liberal Arts institutions taking up residence from sea to shining sea, but my observation concerns quality rather than quantity; to get down to the matter at hand, while Charles Mingus’ life and music are far from absent in the educational curriculum, I know of no school offering an extended, intensive course in Mingus Studies.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, July 2016

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new or reissued wax presently in stores for July, 2016. Part one can be found here.

NEW RELEASE PICK: Inter Arma, Paradise Gallows (Relapse) This Richmond, VA five-piece breaks the 70-minute barrier without losing points at the finish line; along the way the sound is about as heavy as metal gets, combining doom, crunch, growl, and pummel with surprising attention to songwriting. They also resist clichés, impressively so given the duration, and consistently broach the unexpected; there are soaring guitar motifs, stately piano, and in the midst of “Primordial Wound” agitated, higher pitched vocals, delivering a highlight to this remarkable whole. A

REISSUE PICK: V/A, Tanbou Toujou Lou: Meringue, Kompa Kreyol, Vodou Jazz, & Electric Folklore from Haiti 1960 – 1981 (Ostinato) Producer-researcher Vik Sohonie adopts the generosity of a DJ alongside his scholarly approach (he also penned the liner notes) and like a record spinner he favors the impulse to dance, but his finds are so instrumentally rich and varied, spanning from small groups to big bands and urban sophistication to rural gusto, that the program should easily please those afflicted with two left flippers. Available on CD and gatefold 2LP with a 20-page booklet, this is a stone winner all around. A    

Glenn Branca, Symphony No. 13 (Hallucination City) for 100 Guitars (Atavistic) Plus one drummer (Virgil Moorefield). Documenting a Feb 28, 2008 performance from the Auditorium Parco Della Musica in Rome, in terms of massive scale the sounds on this CD really deliver, but even more impressive is the litheness and the complete non-gimmickry on display throughout the piece’s four sections; that is, the heaviness, which again is substantial, never falls victim to grandiosity and just as often exudes subtlety backing up the claims (for any doubters lingering out there) of Branca as a major composer. A

William Burroughs, Let Me Hang You (Khannibalism/Ernest Jenning Record Co.) This finds Hal Wilner pulling 20-year-old tapes of Burroughs reading from Naked Lunch off the shelf and having King Khan finish them; mingling the original backing of Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz, Eyvind Kang, and other NYC-based musicians with Khan’s rougher rock-based input, the results are surprisingly cohesive, but the real treat is how Burroughs’ glorious croak reintroduces him as one of the 20th’s great smut peddlers; if you didn’t know Steely Dan was named after a Burroughsian dildo, well, you certainly will after hearing this. B+

John Cage with David Tudor, Variations IV (Modern Harmonic) From a 1965 performance at the Feigen/Palmer Gallery in LA, this captures Cage’s chance compositional period; originally on budget label Everest, this was one of the few Cage LPs intermittently turning up used (at least in my neighborhood) and was also high-test fuel for those rating the man as a provocateur-charlatan rather than a “serious” composer. Briefly, the randomness of this sonic collage brings real uh, variations in quality, but this is a historically important recording and it remains an involving listen over a half century later. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Mendrugo, More Amor

Earlier this year Fire Records released Josephine Foster’s No More Lamps in the Morning, a fine LP further detailing her prowess of song and voice in fruitful collaboration with the band led by her guitarist husband Victor Herrero. Choosing not to dally in following it up, More Amor hits the racks on July 29; credited not to Foster but to Mendrugo, the 11 tracks present a richly casual Spanish folk-imbued collective framework that’s simultaneously deep in roots and deliciously non-trad in constitution. It’s available on vinyl, compact disc, and digital.

One of the immediate qualities arising from More Amor is a ’60s feel, though that shouldn’t be construed as a deliberate attempt to tap into the essence of the decade. No, the similarity basically comes down to a sustained pursuit of expanded possibilities stemming from a folk milieu, a type of non-labored ambience that extends to Foster’s solo work.

To be fair, the same could be said for many in the New Weird America/ freak-folk realm. That’s the scene from whence Foster established her name; first surfacing in 2000, she rose to higher prominence mid-decade through a handful of discs on Locust Music and Bo’Weavil before hooking up with Fire in ’09 with Graphic as a Star.

Through a combination of tastefulness and verve Foster’s work is a cut above the Weird/ freaky norm, and in turn she’s thrived where numerous ’00s cohorts have fallen by the wayside. And if pegging her as channeling the ’60s rubs one the wrong way, she can alternately be described as a bohemian soul more interested in the work of great poets from prior centuries than what’s currently trending on social media.

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Graded on a Curve:
Pylon, Live

Although performance recordings have a tendency to be of primary interest to heavy-duty converts of the acts in the grooves, there are certainly exceptions, and a new edition to the list captures a December 1, 1983 show by the Athens, GA band Pylon. As the group’s highly regarded discography has yet to maximize its audience, this lengthy set representing their final gig at the Mad Hatter club serves a useful purpose, spotlighting the band in front of a sizeable and appreciative hometown crowd. Live is out on double vinyl now via Chunklet Industries.

Forming in 1978 and playing their first gig the following year, Pylon eventually received national prominence and widespread acclaim, achievements reaped through perseverance and an output of substantial quality. The band has remained relevant, with their first two albums reissued in expanded editions by DFA in the latter half of last decade; the dominant aspect of this enduring significance pegs them as one of the great regional bands of the 1980s.

Indeed, any retrospective article or review devoted to the outfit will allot space to recount their impact on the Athens, GA scene. If the B-52’s and R.E.M. are the highest profile byproducts of the locale’s surge in productivity, Pylon are arguably the epitome of what Athens represented as a distinct geographical phenomenon, and like a lot of folks coming of age as the ’80s neared its close, this writer discovered the group through the soundtrack to the documentary film Athens, GA – Inside/Out.

The song was “Stop It,” borrowed from ’80’s Gyrate, which alongside ’83’s Chomp gets roughly equal representation on Live, a totally logical maneuver given that the crowd assembled would be more familiar with the first album than its follow-up. The set kicks into high gear with Gyrate’s “Working is no Problem” into “Driving School” and then whips off two from Chomp, “No Clocks” and “Altitude.”

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Graded on a Curve: The Garbage and the Flowers, The Deep Niche

The musical terrain of the 1990s is often related as a series of indie acts making unexpected splashes in the big corporatist pond, but there was a steady concurrent supply of entities disinterested in becoming the Next Big Thing and instead choosing to thrive in the underground. One example is The Garbage and the Flowers; coming together in Wellington, New Zealand in the late ’80s, the unit’s output is crowned by 1997’s brilliant study in Kiwi lo-fi Eyes Rind as If Beggars. 19 years hence and it’s complemented with The Deep Niche; consisting of tracks cut prior to Eyes Rind, it’s an engaging listen standing easily on its own, available now on vinyl and compact disc through Grapefruit Records.

Taking their name from a line in Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” The Garbage and the Flowers formed when guitarist and songwriter Yuri Frusin teamed up with violist and singer Helen Johnstone. Torben Tilly and Paul Yates entered the picture in time for “Catnip” b/w “Carousel,” the debut 7-inch emerging through Twisted Village of Cambridge, MA in 1992.

Inhabiting the post-Flying Nun underground wing of the ’90s New Zealand experience alongside such names as Dead C, Dadamah, and Alastair Galbraith, The Garbage and the Flowers’ relationship with Twisted Village further cemented their subterranean status in league with such US-based acts as Vermonster, Tono-Bungay, Luxurious Bags, Fuzzhead, Magic Hour, and B.O.R.B. (stands for Bongloads of Righteous Boo).

Completely removed from the above context, their fringe dwelling sensibility can be rather quickly ascertained through a tangible Velvet Underground influence nixing the typical Reed worship to flutter like lo-fi moths around the avant string-screech candlelight of Mr. John Cale. And while many of the abovementioned cohorts amassed sizable discographies, other than a few compilation appearances it took The Garbage and the Flowers roughly five years to complete a full-length record.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Fireworks,
“Black and Blue” EP

The Brighton, UK-based quartet The Fireworks specializes in unaffected heavy melodicism halfway betwixt indie pop and shoegaze with just the right amount of punkish seasoning thrown in. Releasing an unusually assured full-length debut last year with Switch Me On, they’ve wasted no time in returning to the retail scene with the “Black and Blue” EP; getting louder and more driving while keeping tabs on catchiness, the four songs retain the high quality of its predecessor while keeping matters fresh. It’s available now digitally and on a limited blue vinyl 10-inch through Shelflife Records.

Although they have occasionally diverted into reflective strum territory, The Fireworks are inaptly described as a quiet band. Indeed, raucousness and volume was brought right from the outset, specifically a self-titled four song 7-inch in 2013. It was a solid showing from a group with noted prior experience in their ranks; vocalist and tambourine rattler Emma Hall was/ is part of London’s Pocketbooks and Stuart Charman spent time beating the skins in The Popguns and The Wedding Present.

Their bandmates weren’t exactly sitting on the sidelines; vocalist-guitarist Matthew Rimell had previously booked shows and ran a label while bassist Isabel Albiol wielded an extensive art background. Through the diversity of activity, The Fireworks achieved creative equality that turned the title-track to their follow-up three song 7-inch (also from 2013) into a total gem of distorted velocity.

“Runaround” sorta connects like a highly caffeinated Primitives in pop-pogo mode, and alongside “With My Heart” it established Hall as a terrific vocalist. So the inclusion of both on Switch Me On made total sense, but let’s not neglect 2014 please; the year saw the release of a nifty one-sided postcard flexi adorned with attractive artwork by Ceal Warnants and holding in its grooves The Fireworks’ very strong cover of “Going Nowhere Fast” by Girls at Our Best!

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