Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Rivener, (S/T)

The New Haven, CT-based duo Rivener describe their work as “lysergic free-rock improvisations,” and it only takes a listen to verify the astuteness of that claim. After a pair of tape/ CDR releases, they’re making their long-playing vinyl debut with a highly communicative and wholly satisfying eponymous effort. Across six tracks the pair engage in elevated abstract back-and-forth, and it’s all out September 1 through Twin Lakes Records and These Are Not Records.

Rivener is Paul Belbusti, who has recorded extensively as Mercy Choir, and Michael Kiefer, who plays in Myty Konkeror and has also served as live drummer for Aussie Michael Beach. For their new album Belbusti is credited with guitar and keys and Kiefer with drums (both add percussion to the scenario), and they manage to tackle a combination of noise-imbued psych and out-jazz-flavored no wave in a manner that avoids overplayed tropes.

Tellingly, neither member is divorced from more trad rock forms. As said, Kiefer has worked with Beach, an undeniably song-oriented guy, while the notably heavy Myty Konkeror is still accurately tagged as rock. Likewise, Belbusti’s Mercy Choir is self-described as a songwriting project, amassing a sizeable discography. This is all worth mentioning as Rivener’s free-rock doesn’t spew forth in a savant-like gush. Proficiency (though not flashiness) emerges amid the abstraction, and elements of tangible rock form enhance the loose flow of their overall approach.

Of their two prior cassettes, “Fires in Repose” found them more inclined to stretch out, hitting lengths of 11 and 16 minutes, with a shorter piece in between. On last year’s “Svengali Gaze” none of the three selections went beyond ten as the duo explored rock structure a little more, but with ultimately no weakening of their outbound appeal.

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Graded on a Curve:
Allen Ravenstine + Albert Dennis,
Terminal Drive

At the intersection of art and rock there is a signpost, and scrawled across it is the name Pere Ubu. From their inception until 1991, Allen Ravenstine’s sui generis synth playing was crucial to the band’s sound, but a new archival LP places his artistry squarely in the foreground; featuring a nearly 16-minute piece with Ravenstine playing EML synthesizers and tapes and Albert Dennis contributing string bass, Terminal Drive is the second release in Smog Veil Records’ Platters du Cuyahoga, Series 2. Accompanied by exhaustively researched notes by music scholar Nick Blakey, it’s out on vinyl Sept 1.

Of the first-generation punk scenes, it feels safe to claim Cleveland as the most artistically ambitious, so much so that some of the participants bristled at the stylistic categorization, and in fact continue to do so. In Pere Ubu’s case, the alternate descriptor Avant-Garage was utilized, and while it apparently wasn’t meant to be a long-term designation, it has lingered as an adequate shorthand regarding the band’s unique style.

Back then, Allen Ravenstine was squarely on the left side of the hyphen, and so it remains today. In the mid-’70s, synths in a pop or rock context were still novel, but it wasn’t simply that he played synths, it was how he played them, a wildly expressive, human approach to technology that helps to solidify Pere Ubu as one of rock’s greatest units.

Ubu’s perseverance as a recording and touring act continues right up to this moment under the leadership of its one constant member David Thomas, and his prominence in the saga perhaps slightly overshadows the contributions of others in their history. Suffice to say that as folks left and returned and left, Ravenstine was a constant on their first eight studio albums.

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Graded on a Curve:
Four Sun Records LPs from Org Music

The recordings cut at Memphis’ Sun Studios remain a cornerstone of modern music, which is why the stuff has been reliably reissued across the second half of the 20th century and into the current moment. The latest round of vinyl platters comes courtesy of Org Music, their picks offering well-assembled overviews of two giants in the Sun narrative, namely Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, and then teaming them with a pair of inspired choices, one a compilation reinforcing the influence of Hank Williams on Sam Phillips’ rockabilly brigade, the other the often-overlooked debut LP by the young Roy Orbison. All are out now, some with limited color editions found only at participating indie retailers; the red wax version of the Williams covers comp is a Barnes & Noble exclusive.

So much has already been said regarding the explosion of creativity documented by Sam Phillips that writing up Org Music’s fresh batch of Sun reissues is more than a little daunting. As a long-established portion of the rock ‘n’ roll bedrock, better minds than I have soaked up the Sun experience and then expanded upon its essence with eloquence.

By extension, there has been a certifiably massive amount of retrospective attention paid to the work captured by Phillips, with a sizable percentage of the releases mediocre or shoddy in a manner that suggests purely mercantile interest. Yes, the wildness of the music shines through, but the effect can be a bit like watching Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It on a 40-year old budget-line 10-inch TV set (or iPhone).

It’s true that two of Org’s most recent dip into the Sun catalog are straight reissues, but the look and sound is terrific, and all four would provide a fine introduction for the curious newcomer. And hey, don’t let the title of the Perkins’ set insinuate that it’s a mere cherry-pick of the guy’s most well-known tunes; through 14 numbers, Best of the Sun Records Sessions makes a really cogent argument for Perkins as the most stylistically diverse of the rockabilly cats briefly corralled by Phillips.

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Graded on a Curve:
Rick Deitrick, Gentle Wilderness and River
Sun River Moon

Rick Deitrick is yet another in the recent wave of solo guitar rediscoveries, or better put, for nearly all of us just plain old discoveries. In Deitrick’s case the sounds are far less American Primitive and, as the titles of his two LPs, Gentle Wilderness and River Sun River Moon make clear, much closer to a log cabin in the mountains, and there is nothing wrong with that. Tranquil without becoming a sedative, both records are out on vinyl August 25 through Tompkins Square.

It’s a familiar story; back in 1978, Rick Deitrick had Gentle Wilderness pressed in a 500-copy edition for his own Niodrara Records, subsequently selling copies at performances and through retailers that would buy them, but he also gave some to libraries and left a few in the wilderness, “so people would find them,” hopefully before it rained.

There is undoubtedly a handful of folks who remember Deitrick from the original release of that LP; his playing makes this clear. But for a whole lot more, knowledge was gained through the inclusion of the Gentle Wilderness track “Missy Christa” on the Brooks Rice and Michael Klausman-compiled entry in Tompkins Square’s long running Guitar Soli series.

Imaginational Anthem 8: The Private Press gathered a slew of worthy fingerpicking previously heard only by the fortunate few or the wildly persistent. Due to the high quality of the prior Imaginational Anthem volumes and of solo guitar in general, The Private Press wasn’t a jaw-dropper, but it did open the ears to an unexpected amount of formerly obscure high-quality players in a field that was once, at least from this writer’s perspective, not especially deep.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa

An absolute gem of archival diligence, Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa saw compilers Vik Sohonie, Nicolas Sheikholeslami and their team traveling to Mogadishu, Hargeisa, and Djibouti, and additionally to various locales in Europe, the USA, and the Middle East to connect with the Somali diaspora, all with the goal of unveiling part of what writer and booklet contributor Maxamed Daahir Afrax deems the “golden era of Somali theatrical arts, including music.” The sounds are stylistically varied, appealingly feminist, and constantly satisfying; it’s out August 25 on double vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Ostinato Records.

The use of the term underground in relation to art is of course figurative, often meaning subversive or dissident, but just as frequently simply standing as the opposite of popular, in that its audience, or perhaps better said those cognizant of said art’s existence, is few. However, the music collected on Sweet as Broken Dates gives underground a literal spin.

In 1998, at the outbreak of civil war, authoritarian ruler Siad Barre was set to bomb communication hub Radio Hargeisa in the northern region of the country (known today as Somaliland) so to effectively cripple organized resistance. A few with access to the station’s archives, which held over half a century of Somali music, managed to transplant the many thousands of tapes to neighboring Djibouti and Ethiopia, where they were buried deep under the ground as a safeguard against airstrikes.

Knowledge of this action and the recent excavation of the tapes comes courtesy of Ostinato’s press release, its background substantially expanded upon in the set’s liner essays and interviews with some of the key musicians involved. But even shorn of the clarity these notes bring, a single listen solidifies the contents as distinct from assorted more prominent contemporaneous African styles, in large part due to geography, with the Somali horn of Africa’s history as a trade center opening it up to a variety of cultures including the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, India, Southeast Asia, and even China.

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Graded on a Curve: Saccades, (S/T)

Saccades is the new side project of Nicholas Wood, a Berlin-based musician some will recognize as one half of The KVB, an outfit who’ve been pegged as a synth-pop post-punk merger, more tersely as darkwave, and on their own website as blending “reverb-soaked shoegaze with minimalist electronic production.” Saccades is none of those things, instead offering an appealing slice of psychedelic indie guitar pop, but aspects of his main gig do shine through. It’s out now on vinyl and compact disc via Fuzz Club Records.

The above descriptors of The KVB, which finds Wood in partnership with Kat Day, are all fair, though breezing through portions of their discography revealed less overt synth-pop than expected. What arose in its place was a combo of darkwave, with an emphasis on moves familiar from late Joy Division, and a more electro-friendly Jesus & Mary Chain/ shoegaze approach, which reinforces The KVB as being as focused on guitars as synths.

Ultimately, this solo turn is distinct but not entirely surprising. Recorded and produced by Wood last summer during a break in The KVB’s touring schedule, Saccades was captured using an old Tascam tape machine, the device delivering a stripped-down “classic” feel that nicely complements these motions beyond the garage.

Fuzz Club’s promo text describes Saccades as lo-fi, but opener “Distant Sea” is quite vivid as it leisurely unwinds, though it does benefit from a lack of sheen. Much of the song’s appeal derives from its guitars, mingling structural strum with clean, bright guitar leads, but the breathy vocals and interjections of hovering keyboard add value, and the bass and drums are effectively unfussy.

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Graded on a Curve:
Delphine Dora & Mocke,
Les Corps Defendant

French vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and composer Delphine Dora has accumulated an ample body of work since the middle of last decade. Dominique Dépret aka Mocke Depret is a French-born Brussels-based guitarist with credits including membership in Holden and Midget!, collaborations with Flanger and Laetitia Sadier, plus solo work. Together they are Delphine Dora & Mocke, and their Le Corps defendant lands betwixt experimentalism and avant-pop. It’s the eleventh release from the Belgian label Okraïna, like all the imprint’s output issued on 10-inch vinyl, in this case a double set, and like the rest featuring attractive sleeve artwork by Gwénola Carrère.

On Le Corps defendant, Delphine Dora is credited with voice, piano, prepared piano, keyboards, celesta, glockenspiel, piano and guitar strings, violin, shruti box, field recordings, and objects. Mocke just plays the guitar, and yet there is a creative equality in the results that registers as quite natural, perhaps because the contents evolved over the course of three years.

Much of the music’s strength comes from the richness of Dora’s voice, which is layered numerous times in opener “Les Miroirs conversent avec les etoiles en silence,” spanning from a whisper to conversation to distant singing. Instrumentally, Mocke’s guitar lends the piece much of its structure, while Dora provides abstract counterpoint on piano.

Not knowing French lends an aura of mystery to Le Corps defendant, but a measure of clarity arises through learning that the first track’s title translates to English as “Mirrors converse with silent stars.” Overall, this collab can be aptly described as possessing an avant sensibility, but the atmosphere is never harsh, and the second selection “L’Illusion s’etrangle” brings the rich history of French pop song to mind.

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Graded on a Curve:
Allen Ginsberg,
The Complete Songs
of Innocence and Experience

Allen Ginsberg remains a towering figure in the annals of freedom, but his musical output has suffered varying levels of neglect over the decades. The recent emergence of The Complete Songs of Innocence and Experience helps change that. It finds Ginsberg adapting the writing of William Blake to song, and features such participants as Bob Dorough, Don Cherry, and Elvin Jones. In a case of unexpected added value, noted avant cellist Arthur Russell contributes to a bonus session from 1971; it’s all available on 2CD with informative notes by Pat Thomas through Omnivore Recordings.

Of the three main points comprising the Beat Generation triangle, Allen Ginsberg was easily the most culturally adaptive. Kerouac couldn’t hang with the hippies he’d helped spawn; tormented by inner conflict and addled by booze, he was dead before the end of the ’60s. Yes, Burroughs eventually settled into a niche as an outlaw godfather of punk, both musical and cyber, but he did so by essentially just being himself; he obviously engaged with those inspired by his art and life, yet it’s also quite clear they largely sought him out, rather than vice versa.

But it was Ginsberg’s diverse activism for free speech and protest of war, intolerance and discrimination, plus his sheer curiosity into post-Beat youth movements, interacting along the way with hippies, punks, and even the subsequent ’90s Alternative generation (by request, he gave the Blake Babies their name and guested on Cornershop’s When I Was Born for the 7th Time), that positioned him as more than just one of the 20th century’s greatest poets.

Instead, he was elevated to an ambassador for free thought, open-mindedness, and nonconformity, joining Burroughs (whose own collabs with the Alt scene include Ministry, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and Kurt Cobain) in a twilight renaissance. During the same period Kerouac’s posthumous stature hit something of an all-time high.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, August 2017

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued wax presently in stores for August, 2017.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Ben Frost, “Threshold of Faith” (Mute) When it comes to post-industrial experimental soundscapes, Reykjavik-based Australian-native Frost consistently delivers the goods, and more; in 2013, he directed a musical-stage adaptation of Iain Banks’ novel The Wasp Factory. This EP documents a visit to Steve Albini’s place in Chicago, a meeting that resulted in over two hours of music. The opening title track comes on strong with booming thud-pulse enveloped in electronic haze, but the whole expands into less aggressive, at times even placid terrain. More from these sessions, please. A-

Brian Landrus Orchestra, Generations (BlueLand) Baritone sax/ low woodwind specialist, bandleader and composer Landrus is openly influenced by a wide variety of non-jazz, from Motown to Zep to Michael Jackson to J Dilla, but he’s anything but a pastiche-happy crossover hack. As the baritone chair in the Gil Evans Project, he’s absorbed some big band sensitivity from that endeavor’s namesake and loaded his orchestral debut (after a batch of smaller group outings) with some major names, amongst them vet drummer Billy Hart, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, and harpist Brandee Younger. Utterly non-stale. A-

REISSUE PICKS: Univers Zero, Heresie (Sub Rosa) Intensely dark second LP from a Belgian unit sometimes synopsized as chamber prog and further explained by a connection to Rock in Opposition. The term gothic is also occasionally employed, but don’t get the wrong idea; their inclusion on the Nurse with Wound list should relate the degree of seriousness at work here. The closest prog antecedents are Magma and to a lesser extent Crimson, though with this album they moved even farther afield of rock. This set features the 2010 remix issued by Cuneiform sans the bonus track “Chaos Hermetique.” A

Lejsovka & Freund, Music for Small Ensemble & Computer (MIE Music) The title might suggest the lab-coat-clad sternness of the avant-garde electronic days of yore and its occasional overlap with 20th century classical, but no. Keith Freund describes part of what he’s up to with Linda Lejsovka as “DIY shitty classical” but I’d never be so gauche. The small ensemble action here is modernist but warm, and the computerized elements serve a wide purpose, from varying degrees of enhancement to non-hostile disruption. This 500 count 2LP reissues the prior Mold on Canvas and Lethal Strategies. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
F.J. McMahon,
Spirit of the Golden Juice

The reservoir of unreleased and underheard sounds continues to offer a plethora of artifacts, and those keen on singer-songwriters might want to investigate the 1969 LP by F.J. McMahon. Spirit of the Golden Juice has developed a cult following over the years through previous reissues, which is no surprise given its emotional verve, crisp musicianship, and sturdy songs. On August 11, it hits racks again on vinyl through the auspices of Anthology Recordings.

Sporting a cover that vibes C&W and a title nodding to the mind-expanding activities widespread in the era of its making, F.J. McMahon’s sole album dodges these predictors to deliver a trim set of folk-rock. Low of budget but high on discipline, the production places McMahon at the forefront as his songs and delivery evoke similarities to Tim Hardin and Fred Neil.

To McMahon’s credit, he’s not a copyist. And as Keegan Mills Cooke mentions in his notes for the set, he’s not a loner or outsider in comportment, though circumstances haven’t stopped folks from claiming as such. Unlike many rescued obscurities featuring a man singing songs with a guitar, Spirit of the Golden Juice isn’t accurately tagged as a private-press relic either, the disc paid for and released by the California label Accent; after recording, McMahon reportedly received 20 copies from the company and that was that.

But Spirit of the Golden Juice is certainly a personal affair. McMahon was a Vietnam vet, and the experience seeped into the LP’s content (the juice of the title isn’t any psychedelic stuff, but I.W. Harper bourbon, which fueled his Asian sojourn), though the songs were written by observing his Cali surroundings post-Vietnam in prep for cutting this album.

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