Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Jimmy Reed,
I’m Jimmy Reed

One of the first great electric blues LPs is titled I’m Jimmy Reed, and it’s loaded with twelve songs from one of the 1950s only true blues crossovers. Over half a century later it still holds up spectacularly well and additionally provides a solid contrast to the electrified delta sounds that poured out of the studio Chess during the same period.

Jimmy Reed’s blues is amongst the most accessible ever recorded in either the acoustic or electric permutations of the form. Master of a relaxed, natural style lacking in the rough edges that his contemporaries Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker utilized with prideful relish, Reed’s stellar run of sides for the Vee-Jay label displayed how in the bustling post-WWII urban environment the blues could represent more than the power of the plantation transmogrified after traveling up the Mississippi River (Muddy, Wolf, etc.) or the horn-laden high strains of citified sophistication (Louis Jordan, Charles Brown, Tiny Bradshaw, Willie Mabon).

In contrast to Muddy, who instigated a booming ensemble sound that while impressively groundbreaking completely on its own terms would also prove an essential component in rock music’s ‘60s growth spurt, Reed was somewhat closer to the norm of a “folk-blues” player, offering up simple and often insanely catchy guitar figures and an unfussy, plainly sung (some might say sleepy) vocal approach with accents of trilling rack harmonica.

This shouldn’t infer that Reed engaged in any forced gestures of aw-shucks down-home authenticity, at least not in what’s considered his prime. Hell, one glimpse at the picture on I’m Jimmy Reed’s back cover presents a man of top-flight refinement and truly choice threads, and his image intersected with the sound of his records extremely well.

To some extent less celebrated than those abovementioned Chess bluesmen as a key factor in the development of rock, Reed appears in retrospect to be equally if not more influential, both in terms of the user-friendly simplicity of his template, for he was adapted by blues rockers, garage bands, folkies, psyche merchants, and even a few punkers, and in the sheer number of prominent covers; Elvis, The Rolling Stones, Them, Grateful Dead, Steve Miller (no surprise), and four times by Bill Cosby (a surprise), and that’s just for starters.

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Graded on a Curve:
Phil Ochs,
All the News that’s
Fit to Sing

The union of political subject matter and music can surely make for a problematic, sometimes even dysfunctional relationship, but the occasions where the results actually work are cause for celebration. Unsurprisingly, much of the good stuff sitting at the big crossroads of social issues and song sprang forth from the 1960s, and one of the best protest singer-songwriters of the era was Phil Ochs. His music shines great illumination upon the tumultuousness of that decade, but in its specificity to concerns of its period it also manages to present a somewhat discomforting commentary on the present.

For as long as I’ve been cognizant of Phil Ochs, he’s been identified as a tragic figure. This reflects upon how undiagnosed sickness and a troublesome final act to an eventful life can cast a shroud over prior achievements that are quite substantial and worthy of praise. And the fact that he was a success as a topical folk artist who never really transcended the realm of modest renown to become a household name (ala some of his contemporaries) only contributes to the grimness that surrounds his story. Add in that, Ochs’ attempts to move beyond the constraints of folk-based protest persist in being underrated and the downbeat mood of the man’s life narrative is secure.

Phil Ochs committed suicide by hanging on April 9, 1976 after suffering a long period of depression, bipolar disorder, and alcoholism, and his self-inflicted death has often been linked to the creeping malaise that transpired in the ‘70s after the fallout of stumbled progressiveness that ended the previous decade. While denying this symbolic resonance is surely a mistake, it’s also true that wallowing in the difficulties of Ochs’ later years reduces him to an artist of fleeting productivity that was victimized by life’s struggles and ultimately died a failure.

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Graded on a Curve:
Fred Schneider,

Fred Schneider is famous for his work in The B-52’s, but over the years he’s also released a pair of solo LPs, the second of which found him in some unexpected company and delivering a set of pumped-up, punked-out mania. But ‘96’s Just…Fred isn’t really an outlier in the man’s discography, standing instead as a brief manifestation of an alternate career possibility that also reinforces how the ‘90s produced all sorts of unusual musical documents. The record’s charms could easily encourage a little bit of the ol’ pogo and might even inspire a few appropriate laughs, so in the end it’s very much a part of Schneider’s MO.

I can still remember quite clearly the reaction of certain friends and acquaintances over the arrival of Just…Fred, the out-of-nowhere solo record from instantly recognizable vocalist Fred Schneider. The general idea expressed by these folks was that in deciding to record an LP with a certain highly opinionated and defiantly indie-minded producer and a bunch of oft-noisy underground rockers as his backing, Schneider had suddenly, out of the blue, gotten “hip.”

To put it kindly, that assessment only made any kind of sense if one’s historical perspective spanned back to around 1988 or so. To put it less kindly, it was simply malarkey, a belief wrapped up in denigrating The B-52’s mainstream breakthrough Cosmic Thing and its smash hit single “Love Shack” as unworthy of any serious consideration.

That song’s ability to cross nearly any kind of social lines in its soundtracking of celebrations of all sorts has almost turned it into a cultural inevitability. If you’ll be attending a wedding party any time soon, the smart money is on hearing “Love Shack,” and maybe more than once. The groom’s grandma might even start a conga line. In this writer’s perception the tune has become so associated with revelry that imagining a person listening to it while alone in their abode, simply sitting in a chair and perhaps eating an apple, seems rather ridiculous.

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Graded on a Curve:
Terry Waldo,
The Soul of Ragtime

It’s been said that without the blues there would be no jazz, and while that’s a solid statement, just as important to the scenario is ragtime. The creators of this turn of the 20th century popular music are all long departed, but through the talents of veteran pianist Terry Waldo ragtime endures as a living art form. As the leader of assorted groups he’s been in the record business since the dawn of the 1970s, and his latest for the Tompkins Square label is an outstanding solo effort appropriately titled The Soul of Ragtime.

“I wanted some of that old, basic ragtime feeling…”
Andrew Hill, on his composition “New Monastery”

By the early 1920s ragtime’s popularity had largely subsided. And to this day some simply consider it to be an early manifestation of the consistently developing music that overtook it, namely jazz, but it was in fact a unique entity. Along with blues and spirituals, ragtime’s impact upon the subsequent flowering of jazz is indisputable. To “rag” a tune was to syncopate it and make it more vibrant and suitable for dancing, an African-American trend that by the end of the 1800s had developed into its own genre.  Even after its commercial fortunes had declined, rags remained a part of any well-rounded songster’s repertoire. Far into the 1930s, numerous guitarists later lumped into the category of country blues (Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller are two examples) employed the form as part of larger creative arsenals.

The retrospective renown of sophisticated ragtime dates back to World War II. However, its deepest appreciation came in the 1970s and mainly around the resurgence of interest in easily the genre’s most famous practitioner Scott Joplin. If ragtime was a popular music of its period, Joplin was ahead of it; his prominence while alive was based almost entirely on the 1899 publication of “The Maple Leaf Rag,” a steadily selling piece that more importantly proved influential upon the writing of many subsequent rags.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, October 2016

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

NEW RELEASE PICK: Noura Mint Seymali, Arbina (Glitterbeat) With this LP the Mauritanian griot Seymali has easily matched her international debut, an achievement of no small magnitude as Tzenni stands amongst the strongest entries in Glitterbeat’s discography. Seymali’s songs and even more so her vocals grip the attention as the instrumentation, with Seymali on ardine, Jeiche Ould Chighaly on guitar, Ousmane Touré on bass, and Matthew Tinari on drums, offers a wildly funky ride throughout; in particular, “Ghlana” attains a splendid plateau. Expertly produced by Tony Maimone. A

REISSUE PICK: V/A, Afterschool Special: The 123s of Kid Soul (Numero Group) That it took nearly a decade for this follow-up to Home Schooled: The ABCs of Kid Soul to appear is testament to Numero Group’s dedication to quality. Recordings of music by kids and young teens will probably always be associated with gimmickry/ novelty, a fact understandably frustrating fans of the Jackson 5, the Osmonds, and Kris Kross. In the end it’s hard to deny the adult organization necessary in formulating the musical worth as well as historical relevance of these nuggets. The Future Kind’s “Simon Says” is a highlight. A

Acid Arab, Musique de France (Crammed Discs) The prospect of combining Middle Eastern and North African music with techno frankly conjured visions of an aural horror show, but I really shouldn’t have worried; the label responsible was a tipoff to a baseline of quality, and inspecting the contents made plain this isn’t contempo exotica. Torsos will certainly move, but what makes this 2LP/ CD a success is its hard-driving density; appropriate to the group’s name, the contents can get somewhat psychedelic, particularly through the wild keyboard of Rizan Said on standouts “Le Disco” and “A3ssifa.” B+

Ablebody, Adult Contemporaries (Lolipop) The hint of tape drag during the ’80s-tastic synth haze at the start of opener “Backseat Heart” portended a puddle of irony that thankfully never happened; instead, Christoph Hochheim (he of Pains of Being Pure at Heart) and identical twin brother Anton combine indie pop (think Orange Juice), mersh synth pop (a la later Berlin or something), and ’70s soft AOR pop (Al Stewart? Sure…) into carefully crafted formal specimens. And it’s all so meticulously fashioned that I gradually lose interest; the songs are well written but lack brevity, which is an added problem. B-

Lucio Battisti, Amore E Non Amore (Light in the Attic) The notes posit Battisti as Italy’s Serge Gainsbourg, but this 1971 album (some will recall a CD reissue from a decade ago) is a helluva lot more than that; emanating from a psych-folk place and holding a share of instrumentals alongside collaborations with lyricist Giulio “Mogol” Rapetti, getting reacquainted with this LP, Battisti’s fourth, has been a treat. The ’60s are still palpable (e.g. the aggressive sitar at the end of “Una poltrona…”) as moments brought Os Mutantes, Scott Walker (mainly the symphonic sections), and even Procol Harum to mind. Dig. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Richard Pinhas, Tatsuya Yoshida, Masami Akita, Process and Reality

The strikingly durable guitarist Richard Pinhas has exhibited unusual clarity of vision in the merging of progressive rock ideals and robust experimentation; displaying cohesive personality across an abundant discography, he’s never gotten stuck in a rut, in large part due to a penchant for creative partnerships. Process and Reality finds Pinhas teaming with powerhouse drummer Tatsuya Yoshida and the prolific noise maestro Masami Akita aka Merzbow; the heavier of two new collaborations, this Franco-Japanese effort should please folks into high energy free jazz and Krautrock’s expansive side. It’s out now on CD and digital through Cuneiform Records.

Mu is the other half of Richard Pinhas’ recent spike in productivity, teaming him with fellow guitarist Barry Cleveland, bassist Michael Manring, and drummer Celso Alberti. The differences in the recordings are considerable but not jarring; Mu is certainly the gentler of the two, offering an art-prog-world-fusion blend without succumbing to insubstantiality.

Providing illuminating contrast with Mu’s connection to Zen Buddhism, Process and Reality takes inspiration and its name from a 1929 book by English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead; a major proponent of process philosophy, he approached reality not as an unchanging “timeless” permanence but rather a constant process of becoming.

The record Pinhas has made with Yoshida and Akita, their first as a trio (however, the three have toured together, and examples of the guitarist’s prior studio encounters with both men separately are extant), holds four tracks totaling just a little over an hour; while no dabbler in intellectual matters, Pinhas having received a PhD in philosophy from the Sorbonne, Process and Reality’s non-vocal nature helps free it from the clutches of ponderousness in relating to philosophical matters.

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Graded on a Curve:
Howe Gelb, ‘Sno Angel Like You + ‘Sno Angel Winging It

Tucson singer-songwriter Howe Gelb is rightly celebrated for his extensive solo output and long leadership of Giant Sand, a combination totaling roughly 50 albums (to say nothing of the EPs and 45s). Special amongst the productivity is ‘Sno Angel Like You; originally issued by Thrill Jockey, its 14 songs detail a fruitful collaboration with the Ottawa-based gospel choir Voices of Praise. Fire Records’ 10th anniversary edition features its thoroughly engaging live counterpart ‘Sno Angel Winging It; it’s available now on double vinyl and in a two compact disc + DVD combo.

Part of ‘Sno Angel Like You’s enduring value comes from its relaxed feel. Lacking the grandiosity of premeditated ambition, it never feels like it’s trying to impress, even when its knocking one’s socks off. The record’s very existence relates to chance; had Gelb not played a music festival in Ottowa in the mid-’00s, where he was struck by the gospel groups performing at the event and especially taken by Voices of Praise, it’s basically certain this album and subsequent performances would’ve never came to pass.

However, if modestly scaled, the disc remains a multifaceted delight, and it’s worth noting the CD-DVD package ‘Sno Angel Winging It emerged the same year as its studio precursor via Gelb’s label OW OM Finished Recorded Products. The project took shape through a batch of songs written with the choir in mind, Gelb augmenting them with new versions of Giant Sand tunes and three borrowed from the book of his departed friend, ex-bandmate (way back in the Giant Sandworms) and fellow Tucson resident Rainer Ptacek.

Working with a tight band including Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara, Gelb set the music down separately from Voice of Praise, a potentially dicey maneuver immediately vindicated by opener “Get to Leave.” Those familiar with Giant Sand will recognize the song from ’89’s Long Stem Rant (though maybe not, for as said the discography is huge). Where the original is hearty roots rocking that confirms Gelb as a key antecedent to the alt-country boom, this version emits a considerably gentler feel.

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Graded on a Curve:
Rudy Ray Moore,
Dolemite for President

It’s 32 days until the Presidential Election, and Rudy Ray Moore is not on the ballot; today the man is largely remembered as a key precursor to rap and as the star of the grindhouse classic Dolemite, but way back in 1972 this departed spieler of comedic smut put a topical spin on his rhyming routine by defiantly growling out Dolemite for President. Once sold under-the-counter and designed for adults-only revelries, it’s been given a timely vinyl reissue by Get On Down.

Before hitting upon the persona for which he’s best remembered, Rudy Ray Moore worked as a singer, dancer, and comedian. Cutting a succession of solid if not spectacular R&B singles for numerous labels, he also worked up enough material for three comedy albums; ’59’s Below the Belt is accurately pegged as risqué, but follow-up The Beatnik Scene differs markedly from the X-rated style that eventually brought him success.

It’s now well-established that the 1970s ushered in a loosening of mores concerning sexual explicitness, violence, and language; regarding the latter, George Carlin, Redd Foxx, and Richard Pryor rode atop that wave like champs. Moore achieved considerable success as well, but due to the sheer explicitness and yes, blackness of his material, he ultimately didn’t cross over. Instead, his productivity served a tighter-knit community, and he eventually became a cult figure.

According to lore, it was while employed in a Hollywood record shop that Moore nabbed the Dolemite character from stories told by a wino named Rico. Expanding upon the long tradition of the Dozens, Moore adapted Rico’s toasts and gave them jazzy-bluesy musical backing on a string of LPs beginning with 1970’s Eat Out More Often; the raps were dirty, the covers were salacious, and by the start of the ’90s the vinyl was quite hard to find.

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Graded on a Curve: Waxing the Gospel: Mass Evangelism and the Phonograph, 1890-1900

Frankly, archival sets don’t get much better than Waxing the Gospel: Mass Evangelism and the Phonograph, 1890-1900; the latest admirable undertaking from Archeophone Records of Champaign, Illinois. It serves up three CDs comfortably tucked inside a 408-page hardback book, and anybody intrigued by the sound of music at the birth of the recording industry will find copious satisfaction in its contents. Holding nearly four hours of listening accompanied by valuable insight into how late 19th century life differs from and echoes our own, it’s a vital and quite affordable slice of history.

Richard Martin and Meagan Hennessey are the owners of Archeophone as well as the label’s in-house production team, and adorning their website is a motto: “saving history one record at a time.” The slogan underlines perseverance and focus along with a bit of a double meaning, as their dedication to the industry’s “acoustic era of sound” frequently finds them interacting with the one existing copy of a recording.

Acoustic era of sound? That’s when recordings were made sans electricity, directly into the horn. For many, this is a period with hazy definition at best, often reduced to a shorthand of received wisdom or faulty generalizations. But the period of Archeophone’s expertise encompasses nearly four decades, from around 1888 until about 1925; in rock music terms, that length of time takes us from the launching pad of “That’s All Right” to the doorstep of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Only an utterly obstinate subscriber to the notion of olden times equating to slower times will disagree that 1888-1925 brought considerable changes around the world, and said developments and shifts provide the baseline for Waxing the Gospel’s intermingling of sheer enjoyment and functional knowledge; as Archeophone’s very name attests, its digs for musical artifacts directly relate to the study of human culture overall.

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Graded on a Curve: Blonde Redhead,
Masculin Féminin

It was through an association with the Brit company 4AD that NYC’s Blonde Redhead reached their largest audience, but back before their relationship with Chicago’s Touch and Go label, the group delivered two full-lengths on Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley’s imprint Smells Like Records. Long hard to find, both discs have been freshly reissued by Numero Group alongside a considerable heap of additional material as Masculin Féminin; spreading 37 tracks across two CDs or eight sides of vinyl, it stands as much more than a prologue to subsequent higher-profile accomplishments.

Numero Group’s 200 Line commenced in 2012 with When I See the Sun, a 6LP discographical roundup of the NYC band Codeine. Since then, the series has continued to provide exhaustive and exquisitely designed underground documentation; diving next into the oeuvre of Tumwater/ Olympia, WA act Unwound produced a whopping four boxsets spanning from 2013 to September of last year.

Earlier in 2015 they unveiled The Best of the Best Show, a 16CD immersion into the radio comedy team Scharpling & Wurster, and 2016 has brought increased and wide-ranging activity: It Came from N.Y.C. is an unexpected and welcome plunge into the noise-scum rock era of White Zombie; A Place Called Bad compiles the output of Australian swamp-scuzz titans The Scientists; and now comes Masculin Féminin, which adds two LPs of singles, demos, and live tracks to Blonde Redhead’s initial pair of albums. It completes what can be described as their first phase.

Not that there weren’t changes in this period, the biggest being Maki Takahashi’s departure after the self-titled first record, which left them a trio composed of Italian twin brothers Amedeo and Simone Pace and Kazu Makino, who like Takahashi had traveled to NYC from Japan to attend art school. At the outset fairly branded as being heavily under the sway of Sonic Youth, the assessment was only enhanced at the time by their connection to Shelley, who also produced their debut; today, the stylistic association remains difficult to dispute.

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