Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Luke Winslow-King,
Everlasting Arms

Singer-songwriter-guitarist Luke Winslow-King’s been on the scene for a while now, and Everlasting Arms is his second LP for the venerable folks over at Bloodshot Records. Featuring a crack band and additional vocals from wife Esther Rose King, its 14 tracks illuminate considerable breadth based in a deep and rewarding knowledge of music history.

Admirable stylistic range, undeniable instrumental ability, and an uncommon understanding of what will and won’t work; it all applies to world traveler and scholar Luke Winslow-King. When he’s really digging into the pre-WWII stuff he can resonate like a rootsier, less persona-driven Leon Redbone, and when dishing more modern he lands securely in the vast realms encompassed by Americana.

Winslow-King’s self-titled self-released debut materialized in 2008, and a year later came Old/New Baby. The first for Bloodshot was 2013’s The Coming Tide, the record also crediting his then fiancée Esther Rose on its cover. Across the three, the acumen and execution have become increasingly hard to question. The quibbles generally seem to be over the nature of Winslow-King’s voice.

I tend to view his singing as integral to the whole experience. While a vocalist far from amazing, he does get the job done, in large part due to the thankful eschewal of attempts to replicate the cadences of hard living. Winslow-King is the byproduct of extensive higher education, and as too many descendants of Waits have sadly already discovered, there’s basically no way he can effectively sound like he just crawled out of a drainage ditch somewhere. Sincere emotional intent will suffice.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Young Sinclairs, This is the Young Sinclairs,

Roanoke, VA’s The Young Sinclairs have been busy; according to reliable reports, since forming in 2005 they’ve issued two LPs, seven CDs, three 7-inches, two cassettes, and made numerous compilation appearances. On 10/13 the Ample Play label is releasing the band’s latest This is the Young Sinclairs. It finds the quintet continuing to sharpen an already well-honed blend of ‘60s-derived garage-based melodiousness across 15 strong tracks.

The Young Sinclairs’ success rests upon two main attributes. The first is consistency of songwriting, with the majority of the outfit’s tunes penned by multi-instrumentalist Samuel J. Lunsford. The second comes via engineer John Thompson’s all analogue execution, a maneuver bringing their recordings meticulous vitality.

It’s hot but not overcooked, and if there’s a third agent in the Sinclairs’ good fortune, it’s that the band is completely at ease in a cloak of assorted influences. The sound is profoundly ‘60s, but unlike many acts attached to a retro sensibility, these guys aren’t striving too intensely to sell a package. Conversely, a lack of neurosis is on display, the group seemingly unconcerned with being perceived as trying too hard and subsequently not trying hard enough.

Various similar entities emit vibes more colorful, a few are even downright flamboyant, but ultimately most inhabit a two-dimensional realm. The Young Sinclairs instead produce an immersive 3D experience. In addition to Lunsford and Thompson, they consist of bassist-guitarist-vocalist Daniel Cundiff, drummer Joe Lunsford (Samuel’s bro, taking over the chair vacated by Thompson, who now plays the six-string), and bassist-guitarist Kyle Harris, whom some will know by his work in the Athens, GA to Texas to Richmond, VA band The Diamond Center.

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Graded on a Curve,
Jerry Lee Lewis,
The Knox Phillips Sessions

Placing Jerry Lee Lewis in a studio with a working piano and rolling tape machine is a recipe for interesting results. Deep at night in the midst of the late-‘70s that’s just what happened; after nearly four decades in the can, The Knox Phillips Sessions: The Unreleased Recordings documents the Killer colluding with Sam’s son. The finished product, grooved into 180gm wax by the Saguaro Road label, is an at-times fascinating historical curiosity falling significantly short of Lewis’ finest moments, though flashes of brilliance are in evidence.

By now, the amount of combined ink and bytes employed to describe, discuss, and evaluate Jerry Lee Lewis is immense. A truly bedrock rock ‘n’ roll figure, when Lewis exploded out of Sun Studios in 1957 with “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” Elvis suddenly seemed considerably less threatening.

Attaining status as a rockabilly crossover with a ten ton personality substantially wilder than Presley’s is enough to ensconce one in the tomes of history, but inspection of Jerry Lee’s ‘50s sides, and there are many, reveals deeper substance. For starters, the piano; along with his partner in pounded-ivories Little Richard, Lewis embodied a legitimate lead-instrument alternative in the years when R&R’s fate was uncertain.

No doubt Lewis will bristle at getting lumped in with Richard Wayne Penniman. Even casual fans of the Killer know that he self-assesses into a class, if not by himself, then including only a select few. Specifically cited on this LP; Stephen Foster, Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, and Hank Williams. But in truth, outside of a pure oldies context, there are hardly any casual Jerry Lee Lewis fans, in part due to his oversized ego; many simply can’t accept the man’s arrogance, a manner that has frequently bypassed swagger to reach a level of borderline hostility.

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Graded on a Curve:
Alice Gerrard,
Follow the Music

A key figure in the history of bluegrass, 80-year old singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Alice Gerrard has just issued her latest LP. Produced by longtime admirer M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger and pressed up via the Tompkins Square label, Follow the Music finds Gerrard in strong voice and wielding focused intensity across 11 tracks.

To describe the ‘60’s bluegrass scene as male dominated shouldn’t imply the milieu was in any way unusual in the grand musical scheme of the period. Alice Gerrard and her departed playing partner Hazel Dickens were amongst the high lonesome exceptions. Gerrard (then known as Alice Foster) and Dickens cut their ’65 Verve Folkways debut Who’s That Knocking for 75 bucks in Washington, DC’s First Unitarian Church with the worthy assistance of Dave Grisman on mandolin plus Bill Monroe sidemen Chubby Wise on fiddle and Lamar Grier on banjo.

Today the Smithsonian Folkways CD Pioneering Women of Bluegrass collects that LP and Won’t You Come Sing for Me?, its ’73 follow-up. Gerrard and Dickens continued to make records together into the mid-‘70s, producing two more discs for Rounder, though just as important to Gerrard’s background is her participation in civil rights activists Anne Romaine and Bernice Johnson Reagon’s race and gender inclusive ’68 Southern Folk Festival tour, the lineup including Roscoe Holcomb, Elizabeth Cotten, Dock Boggs, Bessie Jones, and the New Lost City Ramblers.

Gerrard’s second husband was the late Rambler Mike Seeger. In 1980 they completed an eponymous album for Greenhays Recordings; it’s currently in print on a CD titled Bowling Green with extra stuff from a ’71 Japanese visit. And while she’s dished three prior solo efforts and played in the awesomely-named Back Creek Buddies with the also deceased clawhammer banjoist Matokie Slaughter (I’d love to hear their ’90 cassette release Saro) Gerrard remains most well-known for her work with Dickens.

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Graded on a Curve: Ultimate New Orleans Brass: Second Line Funk!

Thoughtfully assembling 13 tracks from long-established names to younger bands, Ultimate New Orleans Brass: Second Line Funk! not only serves as a primer into one of the USA’s last remaining actively played forms of indigenous music, it’ll most assuredly enliven any shindig requiring a pick-me-up. Released this past August, on 10/7 it gets a deserving double-vinyl pressing.

Amongst the deepest elements in 20th century recorded sound are the constant twists and turns fostered through regional identities. In the US alone, along with numerous outposts in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and of course New Orleans, the 1900s saw enduring styles emanate from Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, and Memphis.

Furthermore, smaller but essential scenes popped up in Bakersfield and on the Texas-Mexico border as distinct punk rock rose out of NYC, LA, and elsewhere. Post-punk aftershocks also rippled from Athens, GA and Seattle, WA as coastal (and frequently competitive) individualism helped to define an era of hip-hop.

These days, at least in the US, regional flavors are an extremely rare occurrence, which is part of the reason Ultimate New Orleans Brass is such a welcome endeavor, spotlighting the city’s brass band style as born from the foot parades sponsored/undertaken by various community organizations and benevolent groups. They constitute the First Line and the band and its followers the Second; it’s a tradition very much alive and therefore thankfully not dominated by purist attitudes and/or the kid-glove museum approach.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bob Carpenter,
Silent Passage

In the mid-‘70s Canadian singer-songwriter Bob Carpenter cut an LP for Warner Brothers, though a contract dispute kept it from coming out when it should’ve; it finally saw release a decade later via Canadian roots imprint Stony Plain. Carpenter never made another album, but the lack of profile doesn’t mean fans of the country and folk material serving as foundation for contemporary music’s Americana wing shouldn’t proceed directly to Silent Passage. It was recently reissued by the No Quarter label.

Not all lost records are equally deserving of being found. Often through collusion spiraling from deep within smoky dens of promotional intent, slabs ranging from pretty good to okay to suspect to downright crummy are suddenly championed, breathlessly even, as vessels of unknown brilliance valiantly rescued out of the clutches of unjust neglect to take their rightful place as timeless classics.

This sort of fervent stumping was once far more common. These days internet access and a set of speakers obviously allow interested parties to take a disc for a test drive prior to dropping their ducats on the barrelhead, and that’s quite a difference from sending off a check based totally on descriptions in a distributor’s quarterly catalog. Yes, many such transactions were conducted by mail order, distance only adding to the existential vacuum (envision a lonely Charlie Brown staring out from a comic strip panel) when a guaranteed garage monster was revealed to be a bunch of crusty also-rans. (Good grief).

There’s a noted deficiency of hype surrounding Bob Carpenter. With Tom Rush, Emmylou Harris, Billy-Joe Shaver, and others recording his songs, his abilities as a writer are secure. Plus, the musicians involved in the making of Silent Passage, amongst them Harris, Little Feat members Lowell George and Bill Payne, steel guitarist Buddy Cage (Jerry Garcia’s replacement in New Riders of the Purple Sage) and session heavyweights Russ Kunkel and Lee Sklar, establish it as more than an ordinary affair. But the absence of calculated overstatement is filled by a persistent lack of appreciation.

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Graded on a Curve:
Holy Sons,
The Fact Facer

Emil Amos is a productive fellow. Figuring in various bands, the multi-instrumentalist’s most enduring artistic outlet is the solo songwriting venture Holy Sons, though only a portion of his reportedly 1,000 tunes have been offered for public consumption. 11 of them can be found on The Fact Facer, the project’s latest and Amos’ first for the Thrill Jockey label.

I’ll admit that upon first glance, the cover of Holy Sons’ new one, a discomfiting and precise rendering of a well-dressed hanged man framed inside a larger noose, inspired thoughts of the frequently lurid and seedy Italian genre cinema called Giallo. In fact, if perusing through the bins without prior knowledge of the numerous activities of Holy Sons founder Emil Amos, I fairly certainly would’ve surmised that this album was a soundtrack to a skuzzy, creatively dubbed crime-horror hybrid.

And to be sure, if I happened upon a shabby second-hand VHS tape of a movie named The Fact Facer, the temptation to provide it with an at least temporary new home would be considerable, particularly if the box featured the images described and prominently displayed above. To some all this might read as tangential to the task at hand, specifically assessing the selections assembled herein, but I’m frankly not so positive I’m digressing.

For instance, the sleeve of Holy Sons 2010 LP Survivalist Tales! riffed rather excellently upon the artwork attached to Jack London-inspired wilderness adventurer pulp paperbacks of a century ago. Furthermore, a substantial number of The Fact Facer’s song titles would seem proper subject matter for the twisted filmic journeys of Bava, Fulci, or Argento: “Doomed Myself,” “Transparent Powers,” “Selfish Thoughts,” “Wax Gets in Your Eyes,” “No Self Respect,” “Back Down to the Tombs.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Debby Schwartz,
A Garden of My Own

Debby Schwartz is properly appraised as a veteran musician, a singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist combining broader than usual range with a fairly low profile. As part of the small but potent roster of the NYC/Connecticut-based Twin Lakes Records that might change; her new LP A Garden of My Own offers 11 strong selections in a contemporary electric folk vein.

I was familiar with the output of Debby Schwartz long before recognizing her by name, having crossed paths with her band The Aquanettas roughly a quarter century ago. Flaunting a handle reminiscent of the B-52s, their first and sole full-length Love with a Proper Stranger sported a sound comparable to the Bangles if they’d been from Hoboken and didn’t hit the big time; appearing in early 1990, it was a thorough byproduct of the decade prior.

As issued by Nettwerk/I.R.S. Records the disc never found an appropriate audience. My exposure to The Aquanettas came through a casual acquaintance rather than a personal copy, and after giving it a fresh spin via the resources of the internet I’m bluntly kinda bummed I didn’t pick it up, though I don’t recall ever seeing it in the racks back then.

If I never stumbled across Love with a Proper Stranger, until very recently I didn’t even know Schwartz’s Wrongs of Passage existed. Released in ’98 on Joan Osborne’s Womanly Hips label, it seems to have fallen through the cracks, and I still haven’t heard it. I do know her bass and vocal work in Patrick Gubler’s post-Tower Recordings outfit P.G. Six however; it sets the table for A Garden of My Own quite nicely.

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Graded on a Curve: Tinariwen,

Before winning a Grammy for 2011’s Tassili, the enduring Malian outfit Tinariwen had already attained a deservingly high profile. International success wasn’t immediate, however; at the point of first album The Radio Tisdas Sessions in ‘01, they’d been active for over 20 years. This week Modern Classics Recordings reissues onto double-vinyl that impressive debut and ’04’s even better follow-up, Amassakoul.

Whether it’s through their latest record Emmaar, the breakthrough of predecessor Tassili, the group’s entry on the ‘10 compilation The Rough Guide to Desert Blues, or any of their four prior discs, Tinariwen has amassed a considerable following including such celebrity aficionados as Robert Plant, Carlos Santana, Brian Eno, Henry Rollins, and Thom Yorke.

Famous fans aren’t unusual, but the variety of these enthusiasts is worthy of note, surely indicative of the breadth of their listenership overall. Hippies, blues nuts, experimenters, punks, Alt/indie mavens, and of course those stereotypical lefties parking a used Volvo in the garage with the stereo tuned to NPR so not to miss the weekly edition of World Café.

Unlike other examples, Tinariwen has managed to conquer broader recording situations and specifically the introduction of outside contributors (Nels Cline, Kyp Malone, Josh Klinghoffer, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Matt Sweeney) without damage to their sound. This ability to bend and adapt is something they share with the great Malian vocalist-guitarist Ali Farka Touré.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mary Lattimore &
Jeff Zeigler,
Slant of Light

Mary Lattimore is a harpist of numerous credits and considerable ability. Jeff Zeigler is a busy recording engineer and capable multi-instrumentalist. On Slant of Light, due out next week via the venerable constancy that is the Thrill Jockey label, these two first-rate Philadelphians come together to produce a worthy duo statement. Abstract yet approachable while expansive and concisely focused, Lattimore and Zeigler’s successful collaboration is a solid effort holding promise for the future.

Ironically for an instrument that can be such a formidable beast to lug around, the harp’s long history has been dominated by delicateness of tone. Many have played it, including the appropriately-named Harpo Marx, naturally to his own tuning, as a few notables have sought to broaden its range; one of the more recent practitioners is Mary Lattimore.

Over the last five years or so Lattimore has been quietly chalking up a heavyweight list of collaborators. Amongst them: Fursaxa, Kurt Vile, Sharon Van Etten, Jarvis Cocker, Meg Baird, and Thurston Moore, whose 2011 solo LP Demolished Thoughts provided my introduction to the harpist. However, it was her membership in The Valerie Project that foreshadowed Lattimore’s eventual musical breadth.

Succinctly, The Valerie Project’s sole ’07 release was an alternate score to Jaromil Jireš 1970 Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, an enduring cult movie derived from the 1945 novel of the same name by Jireš’ countryman Vítězslav Nezval. Comprised of ten Philadelphia-based musicians including Fursaxa leader Tara Burke and directed by Espers’ Greg Weeks, The Valerie Project is accurately assessed as a prime byproduct of last decade’s u-ground folk-rock experience.

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