Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Starling Electric,
Electric Company

It was roughly a decade ago that the Ann Arbor, MI-based Starling Electric began bringing joy to power pop lovers far and wide through an unusually assured and full-bodied first album. After a long delay its follow-up expands the confidence of its predecessor and offers increasingly skilled songs blending a variety of classic pop-rock styles; a deft full-band dynamic clinches the deal. Opting for the self-released route, Electric Company is out now.

Starling Electric began as the solo enterprise of songwriter Caleb Dillon and gradually morphed into a five-piece affair. After various changes in personnel the lineup solidified; Dillon delivered lead vocals with Ben Collins on guitar, Aaron Diehl on guitar and keyboards, John Fossum on drums, and Christian Blackmore Anderson on bass.

Originally self-released in ’06, their debut was picked up for distribution by Bar/None a couple of years later; Clouded Staircase revealed lingering aspects of solo-project throughout 18 tracks that exuded similarities to the work of Robert Pollard, in no small part due to Dillon’s voice, combined with a mingling of psych and folk-tinged power pop a la Big Star, hints of art-rock in the mode of Yes, and pop-prog gestures reminiscent of ELO.

The results won them some high-profile fans including Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow and even Pollard himself, who secured Starling Electric as openers for dates on his ’06 tour of the US East Coast. Reportedly recorded in numerous on-the-fly locations, Clouded Staircase importantly didn’t reverberate as ramshackle or lo-fi, instead cohering into a vivid statement on the enduring merit of pop-rock ambitiousness.

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Graded on a Curve:
Big Youth,
Natty Cultural Dread

When it gets hot and muggy, some of the surefire ways to adjust to the severity of climate include shedding all unnecessary clothing, raising the intake on cold beverages, and even submerging oneself in a cool body of water. All no brainers, I know. But along with attempting to beat the heat, a person can also just get into the spirit of the season, and one of the best avenues to that goal is a musical one; simply crank up some prime Jamaican reggae. Natty Cultural Dread, the 1976 LP from the man known as Big Youth, is a particularly fitting soundtrack to sweating it up in the summertime.

The collecting of Jamaican music, especially on LP, can be a rather daunting endeavor. I’ve mentioned this before in relation to other forms/styles, but it bears repeating here; there’s just so much Jamaican material of quality and in so many different, equally enticing subgenres, that getting a handle on the whole heap is at this late date basically beyond anyone not slinging a slush-fund of downright spectacular proportions, to say nothing of the deluxe hutch needed to house all those records once they’ve been acquired.

To continue retracing a theme, it’s situations like this one that expose the completist urge, at least when it’s combined with a diverse musical interest, as sheer folly. But hey, there’s no need to get into a funk about it; just shoot for the essentials, and after that, let the chips fall where they may. In terms of personal collecting (in contrast to extensive libraries, which have their own allure), it’s the uniqueness of those fallen chips that makes checking out the contents of specific collections so enlightening; a person’s record stash, whether large with experience or small but growing with budding enthusiasm, is as individual as a thumbprint and yet (hopefully) in a state of perpetual growth.

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Graded on a Curve:
Blue Orchids, The Once and Future Thing, Awefull, The Battle of Twisted Heel

As a founding member of The Fall, Martin Bramah will be safely ensconced in the annals of 20th century music for decades to come, but rather than coast on prior achievements the guitarist and singer-songwriter is back leading the group he formed upon parting ways with Mark E Smith in 1979; new LP The Once and Future Thing coincides with a roundup of oft-brilliant early Blue Orchids’ material (Awefull), a once barely available Bramah solo album (The Battle of Twisted Heel), and a 2CD featuring a pair of ’80’s vintage live shows. It’s all out June 3 via Tiny Global Productions.

It’s widely reported that Martin Bramah was initially supposed to serve as vocalist for The Fall, with Mark E Smith situated in the guitarist role; their subsequent switcheroo resulted in some of the most rewarding sounds of the post-punk era, and casual observers might assess Bramah, who exited The Fall after Live at the Witch Trials, as merely an early casualty of a revolving door membership policy. He did briefly return to The Fall for ’90’s Extricate, but the Blue Orchids’ discography handily proves the error in overlooking Bramah’s talents.

Commencing activity in 1980 with keyboardist Una Baines and guitarist Rick Goldstraw (both ex-Fall), bassist Steve Toyne and drummer Ian Rogers, Blue Orchids explored a blend of post-punk and non-goofus neo-psychedelia, hooking up with Rough Trade and producing the terrific The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain) in ’82.

Awefull collects the two singles preceding the LP and the “Agents of Change” EP that immediately followed; those owning the CD edition of The Greatest Hit or either of the two previous Blue Orchids compilations will be familiar with these selections, but two demos get included here for the interest of longtime fans.

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Graded on a Curve: Thumbscrew, Convallaria

Bassist Michael Formanek, drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and guitarist Mary Halvorson are prominent shapers of contemporary jazz’s forward motion and cerebral edge, and they come together under the moniker of Thumbscrew. Their second album Convallaria is the byproduct of two fruitful weeks spent in the Pittsburgh-based artists in residence program City of Asylum, and it’s a knockout of energetic interplay blending advanced compositional skills and inspired improvisation. It’s out now digitally and on compact disc through Cuneiform Records.

Although Thumbscrew functions without a leader, it’s fair to suggest Mary Halvorson as the most immediately striking voice in the trio’s aural weave, in large part through the intersection of her chosen axe and the avant-leaning milieu she inhabits here and elsewhere. Drummers and bassists remain a constant presence outside the jazz mainstream, but even as the number of boundary pushing guitarists has increased considerably over the last quarter century, the instrument is still not as frequently heard and therefore quickly commands attention.

Many ears got hip to Halvorson through the ensembles of the great composer, saxophonist and teacher Anthony Braxton, as those of modest jazz background were possibly introduced via Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant. She’s recorded solo (Meltframe made this writer’s Best of 2015 list), as the leader of a trio, quintet, and septet, and contributed to the bands of Tim Berne, Myra Melford, Joe Morris, Marc Ribot and others.

It was in the sextet of cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum that Halvorson began playing with Tomas Fujiwara; subsequently she joined the drummer’s quintet The Hook Up and played beside him in the collective quartets Reverse Blue and Thirteenth Assembly. They also appear together on albums by cellist Tomeka Reid, Mike Reed’s Living by Lanterns, and alongside clarinetist Ben Goldberg in the free improv trio The Out Louds.

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Graded on a Curve: Jackie Lynn,
Jackie Lynn

The promotional synopsis for Jackie Lynn reads like the young Jim Jarmusch filming a screenplay by Barry Gifford. Gritty and lurid but tangibly stylish, Thrill Jockey’s blurb is a fictional construct; the straight scoop on the album is that it’s the latest from Haley Fohr, the distinctive singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist best known for a handful of recordings as Circuit des Yeux. This concise LP intriguingly and highly effectively spins off from her past achievements and underlines Fohr as a major artist. It’s out on vinyl and compact disc June 10.

In addition to Circuit des Yeux, Haley Fohr was once part of the duo Cromagnon, but given her desire to create a fictive yarn and then write and record this album around it, extensive background info (such as Cooper Crain and Dan Quinlivan of Bitchin’ Bajas reportedly lending their musical expertise) can seem somewhat superfluous.

The tale: the titular country girl (born in 1990 in Franklin, TN) hops a Greyhound bus for Chicago in 2010 and quickly meets up with Tom Strong (not his real name). Cocaine is dealt, money is made, and parties are thrown in an apartment on Sacramento and 26th street; the cops are on their trail, but without probable cause, they can’t make an arrest. Summoned to the apartment in February of 2015 in response to a domestic dispute, the fuzz finds it empty. A red and gold LP jacket was left behind; along with traces of cocaine, this recording was enclosed.

It’s a narrative that could’ve been banged out on a manual typewriter in a fleabag hotel by a down on his luck writer trying to procure a few bucks for bottles of booze by selling a manuscript to the pulp paperback market (the makings of another story, perhaps), and at just over 21 minutes, the length of Jackie Lynn can give the impression of a fleeting moment of inspiration captured in a studio and then grooved into vinyl; an impulsive act unlikely to be repeated.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, May 2016

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

NEW RELEASE PICK: Orchestra of Spheres, Brothers and Sisters of the Black Lagoon (Fire) A historically-rich but forward-thinking sonic bouillabaisse from Wellington, NZ and pretty damned swell; at moments retro-futurist, dance-inducing, psychedelic, folky; there’s even a segment bringing Konono Nº1 to mind. Perhaps most beneficial is a playfulness that’s occasionally humorous and at other times darkly surreal. Their cover of Sun Ra’s “Rocket #9” sounds like a collab between ESG and Ari Up produced by Adrian Sherwood and it clinches this album as a success. A-  

REISSUE PICK: Steve Reich, Four Organs/ Phase Patterns (Superior Viaduct) This repressing of a 1971 Shandar LP is simply mandatory for any collection of 20th century experimental music. Listening now to these two side-long pieces, “Four Organs” an uncompromising immersion in note suspension and “Phase Patterns” a wild plunge into the unity and discord of cycles and repetition, it’s strange to recall a time, specifically the later ‘80s, when some considered Reich to be safe and even passé. The artist may have softened and gained acceptance over time, but the man’s early work endures as remarkable. A+

50 Foot Wave, “Bath White” (HHBTM) Pretty terrific art-tinged power trio rock stuff from Kristin Hersh (guitar-vocals), Bernard Georges (bass), and Rob Ahlers (drums). Described on occasion as math-like, while that’s not off target it doesn’t adequately convey the high quality of the group’s songs, and does nothing to relate the value of Hersh’s lyrics and the mature strength of her voice. As befitting their lean orientation, the instrumentation is strong throughout, and I’m reminded just as much of Mike Watt’s recent output as I am of Hersh’s and Georges’ work in Throwing Muses. A-

Rez Abbasi & Junction, Behind the Vibration (Cuneiform) Pakistani-American guitarist-composer Abbasi is a veteran with credits ranging from Ruth Brown to Tim Berne to Tinariwen; this is the debut CD of his jazz-rock quartet Junction, and lovers of Fusion should investigate without delay. At its worst, the style on offer here was responsible for blatant chops-braggarts and proto-smooth jazz atrocities, but it also produced high quality stuff. Thankfully, Junction leans to the positive side of the spectrum; improv sparks do fly, noodling is sidestepped, and I dig Mark Shim’s post-Trane/ Henderson tenor sound. B+

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Graded on a Curve:
Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian
Rock, 1972–1977

Discussions of 1970s Nigerian music were once dominated by the Afrobeat achievements of Fela Kuti, but over the last 25 years a steady flow of releases have highlighted the country’s energetic and imaginative sounds. However, as the reissues amassed a newbie could end up at wit’s end over exactly where to start; happily, the two volumes comprising Now-Again Records’ Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock 1972-1977 offer a splendid overview of its subject, combining wise choices with a wealth of info presented in two 100-plus page books, hardbound with the CD editions and softcover alongside the 2LPs. Novices rejoice, for both are out now.

It was directly following the Nigerian Civil War that a blend of R&B, funk, and rock briefly flourished in the country. This is no startling newsflash as labels like Strut and especially Soundway have been doing an admirable job in compiling the region’s output from the era for quite a while. Nigerian writer and musicologist Uchenna Ikonne has been at the forefront of this tide as a researcher and producer; amongst his recent credits is a marvelous 2013 showcase for his countryman William Onyeabor on Luaka Bop.

The dual platform Now-Again provides via Wake Up You! allows Ikonne to thoroughly relate the post-war landscape of Nigerian Rock, covering the bands, their regions and differences in style while highlighting the labels, the most productive of which was EMI, that distributed these recordings during their short window of popularity.

Instead of paraphrasing Ikonne’s work, this review will simply laud his impeccable scholarship and comment upon the sounds corralled in each set. Vol. 1 begins with the Formulars Dance Band’s “Never Never Let Me Down,” its soul/R&B base fortified with jubilant choruses and plentiful guitar wielding just a touch of psychedelia. The obvious Western influence continues in The Hygrades “Keep On Moving,” an undisguised James Brown rip complete with raw exclamations courtesy of Elvis Ato Arinze, though as it progresses the atmosphere is also a tad reminiscent of the Archie Bell & the Drells classic “Tighten Up.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Marissa Nadler, Strangers

A whole lot of singing and string picking transpired in the midst of the 2000s, but few of the those leading last decade’s indie folk pack have flourished like Marissa Nadler. Continuing the progression away from the guitar and vocal-based template the Massachusetts-based artist utilized roughly a dozen years ago, her latest LP finds her in typically strong form and with an abundance of inspired ideas; Strangers is out May 20 on Sacred Bones in the USA and Bella Union in Europe.

The above shouldn’t suggest Marissa Nadler’s early work was an example of generic strumming and vocalizing; 2004’s Ballads of Living and Dying was unusually mature for a debut, dominated by original songs that frequently registered as traditional material and delivered in a voice reminiscent of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval minus the chanteuse allure.

If decidedly more folk oriented, Nadler inhabited the discerning regions of the stylistic spectrum, adapting words by Edgar Allen Poe and Pablo Neruda on her first album and tapping into relationship breakup territory for inspiration as she produced her sophomore effort, ’05’s The Saga of Mayflower May. While her development was part of the indie folk surge, she didn’t connect as Freaky or Weird, her mezzo-soprano revealing affinities with Kate Bush but without mimicking her ethereal qualities. Nadler has been classified as “dream-folk,” however.

The aftermath of said breakup persisted in shaping the Espers-assisted Songs III: Bird on the Water, the first of two for the Kermado label (her prior records were issued on the Eclipse imprint). But if derived from rocky subject matter, Nadler wasn’t a wrung-out dishcloth of emotion and she consistently sidestepped overly fragile modes right out of the gate. Furthermore, ’09’s Little Hells significantly broadened the music’s instrumental scope, though she had been subtly distinguishing herself from the standard folky thing all the way back to the beginning.

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Graded on a Curve:
Red Square,
Rare and Lost 70s Recordings

The second half of the 1970s is accurately regarded as a time of tumult; in musical terms this typically pertains to the global punk uprising, but there were other surges of discontent against the period’s norms, and a highly interesting example has just received reissue. Rare and Lost 70s Recordings by the free improvising UK trio Red Square pairs a ’76 live set with a ‘78 studio session; considerably ahead of their time, the group expanded upon free jazz at its wildest and predicted the often uncompromising nature of underground experimental rock to come. The album is out now on vinyl and compact disc through Mental Experience, a subsidiary of the Spanish Guerssen label.

From ’74 to ’78 Red Square specialized in a merger of Fire Music and avant-rock so massive it basically insured a response dominated by ambivalence and drifts into hostility. Consisting of Jon Seagroatt on saxophones and bass clarinet, Ian Staples on guitars, and Roger Telford on drums and percussion, as related in Seagroatt’s liners for this archival release they were a byproduct of a healthy Brit underground scene where psychedelia, prog, and experimentalism were known to overlap.

The notes describe Staples’ guitar as drawing on the influence of Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart, British avant string bender Derek Bailey, and German experimental titan Karlheinz Stockhausen, a combination that’s not as unusual as it might seem given the late ’60s pairing of pioneering free improvisational unit AMM and Pink Floyd at the UFO Club. Seagroatt lists his inspirations as Soft Machine, Faust, and Can alongside heavy doses of outside jazz.

That means Coltrane obviously but also Albert Ayler, countryman Evan Parker, and the now somewhat undersung Danish saxophonist John Tchicai; broadening beyond fire-breathers is the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Weather Report. Initially a duo determined to improvise all of their music, their arsenal included prepared guitar, tape, multi-tracking, and toys in combo with standard instrumentation, voice, violin, and percussion; the arrival of Telford, referred to by Seagroatt as an early adopter of the free drum styles of Milford Graves and Sunny Murray, completed the lineup and refined their direction.

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Graded on a Curve:
Terry Allen, Juarez

To introduce Terry Allen as a ’70s country outlaw and progenitor of the alt-country uprising is to do him a considerable disservice, for he’s really in a class by himself. A recipient of Guggenheim and NEA grants as a visual artist, his work resides in the collections of the Met, MOMA, and Hirshhorn museums (amongst numerous others), and his music defies easy categorization as it uses his home state of Texas and the American West as a canvas to explore the drama and humor of existence. His 1975 debut Juarez endures as one of the great concept albums and underlines Allen’s value as a true original; its vinyl and compact disc reissue by Paradise of Bachelors is cause for celebration.

The sounds comprising Juarez were originally intended to accompany a collection of Terry Allen’s lithographs; initially released by Landfall Press in an edition of 50, that miniscule run was followed shortly after by a pressing of 1,000 copies minus the art. However, the results, subsequently released on Allen’s Fate label and last decade on Sugar Hill, provide a highly cinematic experience, and that a screenplay figures in the ensuing artworks inspired by the Juarez concept is unsurprising (others include an NPR radio play, a sculpture series, and a musical theater collab with David Byrne).

Often when a record is described as cinematic it pertains directly to its qualities as a mood piece and potential soundtrack, but Juarez’s filmic attributes are narratively driven, with Paradise of Bachelors’ ample promotional text situating the album beside Terrence Malick’s Badlands and a predecessor to David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.

Notably, all three concern the intersection of passions and violence. Allen’s story features two couples; there’s Sailor, who meets prostitute Spanish Alice in a Tijuana bar while on Naval leave, and there’s Jabo, a Los Angeles-based pachuco who convinces Chic Blundie, his eccentric (and possibly imaginary) “rock-writer” girlfriend (not a music journalist thankfully but rather someone who like scrawling on rocks) to go with him on a road trip to his hometown of Juarez.

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