Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Tim Buckley, Lady, Give Me Your Key and Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974

Two new releases illuminate Tim Buckley as being far from the typical 1960s folkie. Light in the Attic’s Lady, Give Me Your Key uncovers two ’67 demos and is easily the more consistent of the two, its contents complementing a significant portion of Omnivore’s Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974. That set leaps over a highly fertile period in chronologically documenting the 45s of an artist primarily known for his albums, but still manages to detail the lessening of quality in Buckley’s work. The former comes with vinyl, compact disc, and digital options, and the latter is CD only; both are out now.

Tim Buckley’s output can be divided into three segments: the early formative period that includes his self-titled ’66 debut and the following year’s Goodbye and Hello, a fertile middle section beginning with ’69’s Happy Sad and Blue Afternoon and continuing with ’70’s Lorca and Starsailor, and a highly disappointing shift into strained soulfulness and off-putting conventionality that includes ’72’s Greetings from L.A., ’73’s Sefronia and ’74’s Look at the Fool.

Since his premature death in 1975, Buckley’s discography has roughly doubled, mostly through performance material, a circumstance helping Lady, Give Me Your Key to stand out a bit; composed of a pair of demos made for producer Jerry Yester in aid of choosing the contents of Goodbye and Hello, there are enough new song discoveries to enhance the familiar numbers, and if belonging to Buckley’s earliest period the album deepens the man’s work rather than just offering minutiae for diehards.

If predominantly straightforward in approach, it’s important to qualify that on his first LP Buckley was already more than a clichéd strummer. Working largely in baroque mode with a full band including drummer Billy Mundi, his longtime guitarist Lee Underwood, and on piano, celesta, and harpsichord Van Dyke Parks, a third of the album sets Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974 into motion, the A-side to the first 45 lending the collection its title.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Bangles,
Ladies and Gentlemen…The Bangles

Those who came of age in the 1980s surely remember The Bangles; with songs on the radio and videos on MTV, they provided the era’s musical environs with a crisp ’60s influenced guitar-pop breeze, but too few have gotten hip to the band’s early work. Ladies and Gentlemen…The Bangles! collects their initial recordings, a sum embodying the melodic end of the garage spectrum with gestures in accord with Cali’s neo-psych movement. Released a couple of years ago as a download and earlier in 2016 by Omnivore on compact disc, on November 25 the collection hits vinyl for the first time.

A lot of bands who originate in the garage gradually shed layers of appeal as they make their way toward prominence, but even after they attained full-fledged stardom that wasn’t necessarily the case with The Bangles. Hitting pop consciousness in the latter half of the decade, Susanna Hoffs (guitar, vocals), Vicki Peterson (guitar, bass, vocals), and her sister Debbi Peterson (drums, bass, vocals) began in Los Angeles in 1981 as The Bangs, and it didn’t take long for the trio to wax a 45.

However, many early fans residing outside of L.A. were likely introduced through “Bitchen Summer / Speedway” on the 1982 Posh Boy compilation Rodney on the Roq Vol. III, making the tune a sensible place for this compilation to start, doubly so as it illuminates a connection to the region’s post-punk ’60s infatuation that came to be tagged as The Paisley Underground.

Featuring warm fuzz, bright surf vibes, and late in the track, a taste of their soon to be well-known vocal harmonies, it’s a nifty slice of the sort of classic-minded stuff that sprang up in void left by ’70s punk’s waning fortunes, and the relationship to the Paisley upswing is solidified through a co-writer’s credit alongside Hoffs for Dave Roback, then of the Dream Syndicate and later half of Mazzy Star.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Poets of Rhythm, Anthology 1992–2003

Back in the ‘90s, if a listener desired to hear some uncut soul, they almost certainly turned to recordings at least two decades old. But as Daptone Records’ fresh compilation of The Poets of Rhythm makes clear, it didn’t have to be that way. Anthology 1992-2003 corrals eighteen tracks of raw Soul/R&B/Funk exuberance of Clinton-era vintage and intriguingly Germanic origin, and as it plays it’s frequently outstanding. That it also serves as the impetus for this music’s contemporary resurgence brings the record sizeable historical élan.

Unsurprisingly, this set’s excellent liner notes open with a succinct background study into The Poets of Rhythm that also stands as a testimonial on their behalf, and what’s immediately notable is how this combination of info and enthusiasm offers a perspective of substantial worth. Therein, the writer opens by relating his first exposure to the band in 1995 and a few lines later sums up this discovery as providing him with the evidence that soul music “wasn’t dead.” But it’s really the name at the bottom of text that drives its importance home; it’s signed by none other than Bosco Mann.

Many will recognize that nom de guerre as belonging to one Gabriel Roth, for as the Grammy winning producer for Booker T. Jones and Amy Winehouse, bassist/bandleader for Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, and just as notably, as co-founder of Daptone Records, Mr. Roth has been at the forefront of Soul/R&B/Funk’s renaissance as a thriving, “living” music for the 21st century. And quite striking is how a figure so instrumental in the revitalization of this aesthetic once considered the source of his passion to be located completely in the grooves of decade’s old records.

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Graded on a Curve:
Lee Fields &
The Expressions,
Special Night

For a significant portion of his career, Lee Fields was known only by the heaviest of funk and soul lovers. However, beginning in the late ’90s his profile began to rise in direct proportion to the fledgling neo-soul movement, and together with crack band the Expressions he’s grown from an artist primarily descended from the innovations of James Brown to one offering a broader and very rich early ’70s template with an inclination for slow romantic burners; his latest is Special Night, and it continues his evolution with assurance and verve. It’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Big Crown.

Had Lee Fields quit the biz after the 1979 release of Let’s Talk It Over, he’d still be remembered for the bright rays of funky sunshine his self-produced and funded LP (on his own Angie 3 imprint) provided to heavy-duty aficionados of soulful groove. Reissued first in ’97 and again in an expanded edition by Truth & Soul in 2013, even with its maker securely ensconced in hypothetical retirement mode it’s basically a cinch the LP would’ve returned to store racks.

This observation mainly comes down to an abundance of vigor and sturdy execution, though if certainly influenced by James and the J.B.’s, it’s also clear that Fields, who began his recording career in 1969 with the “Bewildered” b/w “Tell Her I Love Her” 45 for the Bedford label, was no mere clone. Vocally, there is an undeniable similarity to Brown, but even in the walloping motion of “Funky Screw” there are subtleties of approach as the album’s title track points the way to Fields’ latest effort.

Obviously, the man didn’t retire, though the ’80s didn’t produce much, but at the point of his hookup with the Desco label in ’97, he’d been busy playing shows and releasing CDs and cassettes throughout the ’90s. Reading that he was on the roster of Ace, the storied Mississippi-based and initially New Orleans-centric label in the days prior to its sale to UK reissue entrepreneurs might seem enticing, but in fact this material, which reportedly suffers from weak production and a reliance on synths, remains out of print and mainly discussed in relation to his Desco debut.

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Graded on a Curve:
Negative Trend (s/t) 7″

In the second half of the 1970s, the hilly West Coast burg of San Francisco was noted for some bands, and a few of them specialized in the creation of punk rock. Amongst the more illustrious names are The Avengers, Crime, The Dead Kennedys, and Flipper, but one of the less championed troops in the city’s early punk narrative was Negative Trend. Their terrific self-titled 1978 7-inch has just been repressed by the folks at Superior Viaduct, and it’s an essential purchase for anyone striving to build a comprehensive punk library.

By this point, the late-‘70s punk uprising has been examined from a multitude of angles, with the majority of the approaches offering at least some measure of substantive insight. Since the whole explosion proved to be such a complex beast, indeed so multifaceted that individual perspectives can frequently seem downright contradictory, the value found in such a large number of diverse viewpoints should really come as no surprise. One particularly interesting outlook concerns how punk’s North American surge was inevitably doomed to initial failure due to the lack of an appropriate distribution network to service its burgeoning creativity as it was emerging.

It’s a tempting idea, but it tends to sidestep the reality of what actually did occur after The Dictators’ Go Girl Crazy! (my pick as the starting point of the unhyphenated punk era) first hit the racks in early ’75. Specifically, the impulse spread like wildfire, or better yet like a disease. In England, the situation grew into an epidemic that sent shockwaves through the country’s entire culture, but in the USA, the very land that gave the form its messy back-alley birth, the transmission remained either underground or largely disdained but the public at large.

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Graded on a Curve: The Superior Viaduct Punk Singles Bundle

Minus the aid of a financial stockpile it’s often difficult and sometimes well nigh impossible to experience many punk classics via their original format. So it’s tremendous that five killer chips off the genre’s block by The Residents, the Germs, The Dils, X, and Flipper are seeing reissue as they initially appeared; as 7-inch singles. Pressed on color vinyl and available separately in stores the week of April 14, the whole batch can be obtained as a special-priced bundle only by ordering through the website of Superior Viaduct.

Unfold and ogle a map of North America and it’ll be hastily apparent that California covers a lot of acreage, and is in fact the third largest territory in the US union. By extension the Golden State looms large in its country’s punk narrative through the spawning of thriving city-scenes in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Apart, they join New York and Cleveland as the USA’s healthiest regional explosions from ’76 to ’81; considered together, LA and San Fran become an unbeatable combination.

It might not seem a fair fight, but of the 50 states the 31st wields the strongest output of the pre-HC era; New York and Ohio had the heaviest hitters, the former municipality cultivating many of the defining acts in the style as the latter berg came to embody the sparks that can fly when the need for artistic expression collides with significantly grim surroundings, but simply put, California had the deepest bench.

As the music bundled by Superior Viaduct illustrates, Cali possessed a hefty share of vital bands; these units, two hailing from Los Angeles and two from San Francisco with one chalking up time in both cities, managed to unleash wide-ranging sounds persisting as highly influential. Indeed, the music ranks amongst the finest punk ever waxed.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, November 2016

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

NEW RELEASE PICK: Wayne Hancock, Slingin’ Rhythm (Bloodshot) Specializing in ’40s-’50s honky-tonk, rockabilly and post-Bob Wills country bop, Hancock’s been dishing it out for over two decades; his latest solidifies the unlikelihood he’ll ever modernize his style, and that’s good news all around. Unashamedly throwback, the depth of feeling, lack of playacting, and utter love for bygone genres keeps him out of the mere retro pile. As usual, a few wildcards are pulled from his sleeve, e.g. the rich gospel of “Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine” and a sweet reading of the Merle Travis nugget “Divorce Me C.O.D.” A

REISSUE PICK: V/A, Cologne Curiosities: The Unknown Krautrock Underground 1972-1976 (Mental Experience) An intriguing reissue from one of the multiple subsidiaries of the Spanish label Guerssen, the consumer hook comes in form of a question: “the Nuggets of Krautrock?” Opener “Interstellar Shortwave” by The Astral Army gets off to an underwhelming start, but thereafter the program expands rather nicely. The story here relates to lathe cut LPs from a “label” called Pyramid that were art objects rather than store-bought items, and if not in the league of Nuggets it’s surely good listening. A-

Hamish Anderson, Trouble (Kobalt/AWAL) From Melbourne and currently residing in LA, this is Anderson’s debut studio LP after a couple of EPs and live album. Noted for his guitar prowess, he’s undoubtedly got chops, but the accolade ultimately isn’t about flash. Instead it relates to his bluesy approach; citing Albert, B.B. and Freddie King as influences, the trifecta underscores a decidedly pro-like sophistication. Roping in over a half-dozen session heavies, the songwriting here is impressive and the results likeable a la Petty or the Black Crowes, but I’ll confess to needing a higher ratio of grit. B

Arrowhead, Desert Cult Ritual (Ripple) Stoner stuff from Down Under, specifically Sydney, that has its Sabbath-isms in check, largely keeps the vocal wail of Brett Pearl from going overboard in the mix (he also plays guitar), and retains a proper balance of heaviness to riff motion, with drummer Matt Cramp and bassist Arron Fletcher forming a powerful rhythm section. There’s also plenty of psych-tinged pedal-stomping going on, which assists in keeping the pot-permeated grooves from getting monochromatic, man. A few more stinky behemoths like “Weed Lord” would take these guys right over the top. B+

Tredici Bacci, Amore Per Tutti (NNA Tapes) Simon Hanes’ influences range from soundtracks to big band to exotica to Broadway stuff infused with an aura of the New York-ish New, and this debut LP puts a gaggle of guest vocalists (JG Thirlwell, Ruth Garbus, Jennifer Charles, Ryan Power) in front of a classically trained crew as Hanes adopts the persona “Luxardo” in his role as arranger, composer, conductor, and guitarist. Edgy yet approachable, I’m reminded a bit of Zorn and Mike Patton’s soundtrack stuff and even Hal Wilner in a not-bad way. Classique post-modern on the cusp of great things. B+

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Graded on a Curve: Oneida and Rhys Chatham,
What’s Your Sign?

Experimental music is by its very nature a risky endeavor. Occasionally something outstanding occurs, at other times the attempt is best forgotten, but far more often the results are moderately successful; add collaboration into the scenario and the dangers of failure are only heightened, a circumstance that makes the meeting of NYC psychedelic free-rockers Oneida and veteran avant-garde composer Rhys Chatham even more impressive. What’s Your Sign? documents their recent encounter, and it’s a prime example of raw, robust, experimental energies available on vinyl, compact disc, and digital November 11 through Northern Spy.

Amongst this collaboration’s numerous positives is multi-generational appeal, with What’s Your Sign? at least potentially roping in adventurous listeners spanning from NYC’s minimalist era all the way up to the current moment’s thriving experimental scene. That Rhys Chatham remains active and relevant beyond this record only increases its contents’ vitality; nobody pulled him out of retirement for this session, and in fact this is the multi-instrumentalist-composer’s second release this year; the other is the very strong Pythagorean Dream on the Foom label.

Chatham’s musical background stretches back to the late ’60s as he studied under electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick and played in the groups of essential drone-minimalists La Monte Young and Tony Conrad. His compositions date back to 1971, but perhaps due to his role as the first musical director of Manhattan’s The Kitchen, his didn’t get a full-length recording out until Factor X hit racks in 1983.

In the late ’70s Chatham’s artistic direction was profoundly altered through a performance by The Ramones. Subsequently, he became a component in the compositional wing of the city’s No Wave scene alongside Glenn Branca, an associate who Chatham utilized as guitarist for performances of his Guitar Trio back in ’78. But as Branca recorded earlier and more, much of the NYC avant-punk-experimental spotlight fell upon his profile, though with the arrival of the masterful Die Donnergötter in 1987 Chatham’s rep spilled beyond the city’s boundaries in earnest.

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Graded on a Curve:
Il Sogno del Marinaio,
Canto Secondo

The second full-length by Il Sogno del Marinaio, an international entity comprising two Italians and an American, features a fresh yet familiar aural breeze combining progressive rock’s instrumental adeptness and expansionist possibilities with a lean punk-derived lack of malarkey. That the Yank is Mike Watt demands note, but it’s far from the only reason to investigate Canto Secondo, which is freshly available on CD/vinyl/digital via the Clenchedwrench label.

It’s important to respect this trio’s choice of handle, for it’s just one more example in the enduring tradition of naming that underscores the struggle for creative equality inherent to Rock’s communicative structure (furthermore, the Italian moniker translates into English as The Sailor’s Dream). But as stated in the paragraph above, a third of this unit does consist of the great bassist Mike Watt.

Another point in the triangle is guitarist Stefano Pilia, an Italian acquaintance of Watt who had the fortitude to ask a man significantly his senior and of considerable reputation to form a band with his drumming countryman Andrea Belfi. This they did in 2009, commencing a short tour almost directly afterward and recording that first LP between the shows.

La Busta Gialla didn’t come out until January of ’13, and it wasn’t really hard to understand why. While not aptly described as Experimental, a key component in its prog-influenced sensibility is indeed experimentation, as was the on-the-fly looseness that can only be transcended by the confluence of heavyweight talents.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mike Watt,
“Ring Spiel” Tour ’95

As 2016 nears conclusion, Mike Watt’s rank as one of rock’s finest bass players remains secure. ‘twas the same two decades back, though at that point many ears were just getting introduced to the man by his debut solo effort. Loaded with contributors, Ball-Hog or Tugboat? helped to document the era’s alt/ indie surge while raising Watt’s profile, and to promote it he hit the road econo-style with Eddie Vedder, Dave Grohl, Pat Smear, and William Goldsmith. Ring Spiel” Tour ’95 captures the Chicago stop on the tour; on November 11, it’s being released on 2LP, CD, and digital by Columbia/Legacy.

Biographical synopses of Mike Watt still regularly detail his role in the Minutemen, which is unsurprising as they endure as one of rock music’s greatest trios. Upon reflection, what he’s achieved since the tragic demise of that singular unit (due to the death by van accident of his friend and bandmate D. Boon) is nearly as impressive, with the artist’s creative energies remaining forward-focused as he’s maintained healthy ties to the past in a wide variety of situations.

Amongst Watt’s best known work post-Minutemen is fIREHOSE, a unit consisting of the bassist, Minutemen drummer George Hurley and Ohio guitarist-singer Ed Crawford that existed from 1986 to ’94 with reunion shows in 2012. More recently, his role in the Stooges’ extended return to activity and membership in Il Sogno del Marinaio put him on the radar of a younger generation; in between, his solo records and by extension, a run of material and shows with the Black Gang, the Pair of Pliers, Secondmen, and Missingmen comprise some of the more prominent entries in his discography.

Released in early ’95, Ball-Hog or Tugboat? was Watt’s first solo LP after the breakup of fIREHOSE, and today it stands as the most well-known of his solo efforts, in no small part due to its long list of guests. A sampling; Bernie Worrell, Flea, Ad-Rock, Mike D, Henry Rollins, Krist Novoselic, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley, Dave Pirner, Evan Dando, Frank Black, J Mascis, Kathleen Hanna, Mark Lanegan, Cris and Curt Kirkwood, Epic Soundtracks, Petra Haden, Bob Lee, Joe Baiza, Carla Bozulich, and Nels Cline.

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