Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Blackout, Blackout

The Brooklyn trio Blackout specializes in a particularly heavy form of metal. Additional adjectives applying to their self-titled 7-song long-playing debut: sludgy, dense, thick, doomy. Few will describe them as original, though that’s hardly the objective. Rather, the aim is the inspired exploration of an esteemed style, and to this end Blackout succeeds. It’s out now on RidingEasy Records.

Blackout’s new LP first came to my attention while checking messages on my laptop. In so doing, the thumbnail image of the cover glimpsed above was reduced to roughly the size of, well, a thumbnail, and my immediate reaction before reading any clarifying text was that the email in question was promoting a mid-‘70s-vintage reissue.

It’s likely I would’ve thought the same had I stumbled over the record as I perused the B bin at my local wax shack. For starters, it’s a flat fact that the utilization of band photographs as cover art is far less common than it used to be, and by extension Blackout’s B&W portraiture, and the abundant locks and facial hair it captures, are the focal point of an undeniably retro design motif.

It reinforces the differences in Blackout’s approach, though Sabbath-roots aside the group doesn’t sound like they escaped from the ‘70s. No, part of their distinctiveness comes down to an undisguised sense of humor, which certainly stands apart in a field known for a high ratio of solemnity. This comic facet is healthy but not obnoxious, for no yuk-meisters are they; once the amps are plugged in and the picks and sticks are in hand, Blackout is a decidedly serious proposition.

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Graded on a Curve: Houndstooth,
No News from Home

Houndstooth’s membership hails from numerous points on the North American map, this geographical breadth mirroring musical range that helped to strengthen their 2013 debut. Formed in Portland, OR as a five piece in 2010, in the interim they’ve shed a member, but their follow-up record maintains the diversity of inspiration; indie elements blend with Americana, Classic-rock and psychedelic flourishes as Katie Bernstein’s lead vocals enhance the tunes’ worthiness. No News from Home is out this week on LP/CD/digital via No Quarter.

Houndstooth’s influences are broad but complementary, their music striving for cohesion from inside the melodic rock realm. The sound they make is refreshing and not a bit unusual; at times, in indie terms, Houndstooth can even be described as classicist. To begin, they rely heavily upon strength of material, with each of the band’s full-lengths springing from the songwriting fount of Bernstein and lead guitarist John Gnorski (both originally from Austin).

Graeme Gibson (who moved to Oregon from Canada) plays the drums and produces, and newest edition Cari Palazzolo (also from Austin) rounds out the lineup on bass. Since the group’s inception a pair of contributors have departed the scenario (and on good terms; Courtney Sheedy and Mike Yun, both Detroit to Portland transplants, are listed on Houndstooth’s website as “past pals”), but these changes in personnel haven’t discernibly effected the togetherness of their attack.

All the ingredients were in place for first LP Ride Out the Dark; its stronger moments include the Crazy Horse-tinged “Canary Island,” the crisp Americana of “Wheels on Fire,” the fibrous indie pop of “Strangers,” and the Bernstein showcase “New Illusion.” Additionally, “Francis” could’ve been an entry on a ‘90s Too Pure label sampler, sly Krautrock influence being one of Houndstooth’s aces in the hole, while “Don’t I Know You” tickles the ear like Mazzy Star circa She Hangs Brightly.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sly & The Family Stone,
Original Album Classics

The late-1960s was loaded with musical groundbreakers, and one of the most enduring is Sly & the Family Stone. Formed by brothers Sly and Freddie Stone, the group grew by leaps and bounds through the combination of rock, R&B/soul, psychedelia, and pop, and by ’69 they had effectively conquered the scene. Theirs is a reign dotted with masterworks, and Sony has collected the bulk of the discography into the vinyl box set Original Album Classics. It includes five 180gm LPs remastered from the source tapes by Vic Anesini and pressed at URP; for a limited time it’s available exclusively at Popmarket.

He was born Sylvester Stewart in Denton, TX in 1943. Two decades later the man was wielding the handle Sly Stone, and when his Sly & the Stoners joined forces with his brother’s Freddie & the Stone Souls in ’67 San Francisco, he was already well-ensconced in the music biz both as a performer and producer at Autumn Records. In due time Sly excelled at his leadership role, though the Family Stone, credited as the first major American rock act to incorporate integrated multi-gender personnel, was always something more.

They initially consisted of Sly (vocals, organ, and assorted other instruments), Freddie (guitar, vocals), Larry Graham (bass, vocals), Cynthia Robinson (trumpet, vocal interjections), Jerry Martini (saxophone), and Greg Errico (drums), with assistance from Vet Stone, Mary McCreary, and Elva Mouton, collectively known as Little Sister (backing vocals). Signed to CBS Records’ subsidiary Epic, they worked fast, maybe too fast; the first long-player was in the can before June was done.

Indeed, if they’d broken up after A Whole New Thing’s cashbox failure, Sly & the Family Stone would likely be forgotten. Over the years the debut has taken its share of heat, some of it undeserved. Things begin fairly well; “Underdog” is bookended by horns riffing on the melody to “Frère Jacques,” but the meat of the matter is upbeat soul. The opener establishes one of the album’s distinctive attributes, specifically a heavier drum sound than was then the norm for the R&B genre.

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Graded on a Curve: People of the North,
Era of Manifestations

When Rock and improvisation are spoken of in the same breath it’s frequently in the context of some sweaty creature in the throes of an uninhibited onstage solo, but on occasion it can refer to sensibilities of a deeper nature. One such example is People of the North, an outfit shaped-up by Bobby Matador and Kid Millions, both noted as part of the veteran Brooklyn unit Oneida. With key assistance from band mates, they’ve managed a handful of worthwhile platters over the last half decade; their latest LP and second for Thrill Jockey is Era of Manifestations.

Since 1997 Oneida has issued a dozen full-lengths and a serious mess of singles and EPs, the contents of which detail the combination of psychedelia, Krautrock, and assorted elements of experimentation. Theirs is a decidedly expansive proposition, and its prolificacy leaves most of the band’s contemporaries looking like comparative underachievers.

And yet for certain members Oneida’s level of activity is apparently inadequate. That’s particularly the case with Kid Millions aka John Colpitts, his drumstick plying digits jabbed into all sorts of aural pies, e.g. Scarcity of Tanks, White Hills, Man Forever, and a recent collaboration with the tenor saxophonist Jim Sauter (of NYC jazz-noise titans Borbetomagus); their Fountain, released late last year on Family Vineyard is a wonderfully ass-flaying ride.

The handiwork of Kid and his Oneida cohort Bobby Matador aka Fat Bobby on organ, People of the North first emerged on wax in 2010 with the murky, keyboardy-Krauty repetition of Deep Tissue via Jagjaguwar subsidiary Brah Records. The 2LP Steep Formations arrived two years later; also on Brah, it offers a surplus of kit rumble and soundscapes spanning from minimalist to early industrial in texture.

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Graded on a Curve: Connie Converse,
How Sad, How Lovely

For each musician scoring a measure of lasting recognition there are multiple examples of the opposite. This is reliably due to a dearth of ability, though occasionally gifted artists do fall through history’s crevices. And sometimes they receive belated acclaim; so it is with Connie Converse, a folk-oriented singer-songwriter whose material, originally documented in the 1950s, remained unreleased and almost entirely unknown for decades. In 2009, 17 of her tunes were collected on How Sad, How Lovely; it’s just received the clear vinyl treatment with an extra cut by Squirrel Thing Recordings.

Every lost record has its own story to tell. In fact, many of those accounts are more remarkable than the music; they frequently include one or more of the following: being out-of-step with the era, eccentricities, conflict, flagrant bungling and flat-out bad luck. Additionally, there are tales of talented individuals who plainly lacked the aptitude for self-promotion, scenarios less gripping in unusual content, but ultimately ringing of truth.

Connie Converse was not adept at career-building. Her narrative is quite interesting however, though the positive circumstance of her music’s long-delayed emergence is tempered by the events of 1974, the year she packed up her belongings, wrote goodbyes to family and friends, and drove off in her Volkswagen Bug. None of those she left behind have heard from her since. If alive today, unlikely as the notes hinted at suicide, she would be 90 years old.

The “big break” is often simply possessing the knack for putting forward one’s best when the right person is in the room. After learning that Connie Converse, born Elizabeth Eaton Converse on August 3 1924, appeared on CBS’s “The Morning Show” with Walter Cronkite, some will assume she either blew it or just didn’t have the goods.

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Graded on a Curve: Charles Mingus,
The Black Saint and
the Sinner Lady

Bassist-bandleader-composer Charles Mingus remains one of the most important figures in the history of recorded sound. A jazzman of uncommon versatility, his extensive achievement is deeply linked to a voluminous personality and an occasionally volatile temper. In 1963, as part of a brief, fertile association with Impulse! Records, he waxed The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady; it’s widely rated as the apex of his career, which in turn awards it placement amongst the great moments in 20th century music. A vinyl reissue is out now courtesy of Superior Viaduct.

Please forgive me if I’ve fallen egregiously behind the times, but I continue to perceive the goal of education as more than a factory churning out highly efficient producers brandishing economically useful skills, a mass of graduates left to dodge underemployment in hopes of spending decades in the modern workplace’s existential ditch.

But maybe I’m just frightfully naive in considering higher learning as the valiant endeavoring to intellectually engage with generations of individuals, hopefully leaving them at least somewhat prepared for the ups and downs of existence, and potentially armed in adulthood with the knowledge to utilize portions of history’s immense landscape to their advantage.

And not only history but art, which is easily the most disrespected component in contemporary academe. This may come as a shock to anyone aware of the number of art schools, conservatories, and Liberal Arts institutions taking up residence from sea to shining sea, but my observation concerns quality rather than quantity; to get down to the matter at hand, while Charles Mingus’ life and music are far from absent in the educational curriculum, I know of no school offering an extended, intensive course in Mingus Studies.

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Graded on a Curve: Dengue Fever,
The Deepest Lake

It may read as an unlikely development, but Los Angeles’ Dengue Fever has matured into a veteran outfit. A sextet composed of five crack instrumentalists fronted by the superb Cambodian vocalist Chhom Nimol, their latest album The Deepest Lake continues to combine Cambodian pop and tasteful psychedelia with an ever-widening pool of global flavors. It reinforces an existence eschewing pastiche, and is available now on vinyl/CD/digital via their own Tuk Tuk Records.

It bears repeating that Dengue Fever easily stand amongst recent history’s most atypically conceived units, but perhaps even more impressive than an unusual formation is how the group, which in its initial stages existed essentially as a cover band (with a heavy focus on the iconic/enigmatic Cambodian vocalist Ros Sereysothea) has lasted for well over a decade.

Instead of a starting point, Dengue Fever’s eponymous LP of 2003 registered on arrival, at least somewhat, as a culmination of interest kick-started by Cambodian Rocks, a compilation of material sourced from ‘60s and early ‘70s tapes retrieved in the country of its title by tourist Paul Wheeler and disseminated by the Parallel World label.

This isn’t to imply Dengue Fever’s emergence wasn’t a hep occurrence, but it’s also hard to deny the aura of highly meticulous tribute that largely surrounded their debut. Formed by guitarist-vocalist Zac Holtzman (formerly of San Fran-based ac Dieselhed) and his keyboardist brother Ethan, they’re filled out by bassist Senon Williams (ex-Radar Bros.), drummer Paul Smith, horn specialist David Ralicke, and most importantly Cambodian-born lead singer Chhom Nimol.

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Graded on a Curve:
Fawn Spots,
From Safer Place

Anybody who has ever blasted Mission of Burma while wearing a Hüsker Dü t-shirt as they gazed upon a picture of Ian Curtis tacked to their dorm-room wall should consider looking into From Safer Place, the full-length debut by Fawn Spots. Combining post-punk and post-hardcore with restless, highly literate lyrics is far from new, but as the LP’s ten selections blaze forth, the tightly-wound racket served up by this York UK trio does increase in effectiveness. It’s out now on the Critical Heights label.

Fawn Spots reportedly began as a duo, the goal in 2011 to push the limits of noise-production as derived from a two-piece. Hints of those hammer-down beginnings can be observed in the group’s current approach, but the origin story is perhaps more detectable today via their unconventional two guitar and drums configuration, a bass-less circumstance that seems to have evolved from happenstance rather than by design.

Jonathan Meager and Oliver Grabowski provide the vocals and wield the guitars, while new arrival Paddy Carley is the drummer, the outfit’s second. Regardless of the lack of power trio-esque bottom-end that a four-string reliably supplies, Fawn Spots are still easily pegged as a rock proposition, though more defined by velocity than by ass-pinning heaviness.

Musically, at least; to elaborate, main songwriter Meager openly draws inspiration from the Modernist poetics of T.S. Eliot and the writings of Existentialist cornerstone Jean-Paul Sartre, factors that help to illuminate Fawn Spots as extending a mid/late-‘80s phenomenon where the forcefulness of hardcore nuzzled-up with unabashed thought-gush.

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Graded on a Curve: American Culture,
Pure American Gum

There’s an air of mystery surrounding American Culture; one certainty is that Pure American Gum is their debut album. The band describes its ten songs as “Music for Introverts,” and this might be true, but they also characterize a life-affirming byproduct of their namesake, specifically the sound of colluding youth banging out a batch of tunes openly celebrating relationships amorous and platonic, watching flicks, hopping in the car and tooling around, and the resonance of musical favorites. It’s out this week, in a vinyl edition limited to 300 copies, on Jigsaw Records.

Upon getting clued-in that a contemporary outfit had decided to sport the moniker American Culture, my initial thoughts hurdled back to the ‘80s and the names spied on Xeroxed flyers for all-ages hardcore matinees. Indeed, a gang wielding this handle would’ve fit perfectly onto one of those bills, the phrase scrawled in smaller print nearer to the bottom and with a tidy set assuredly covering most if not all of the following topics; conformity, religion, political nefariousness, organized sports, watching too much TV, and eating too much junk food.

Thankfully the circumstances here reveal a different reality easily discernible in the record’s title. Pure American Gum offers fresh-faced exuberance if not exactly innocence (the first cut details the sketchy borrowing of someone else’s motor vehicle), and the words to “I Like American Culture” underscore the point; rather than jingoistic, they draw comparisons to the everyday enthusiasms found in the annals of power pop as well as the impassioned ground-level grandeur of the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner.”

Furthermore, the sprinkling of lyrical references, to Coca-Cola, soda shops, and the imbibing of cherry crushes for only a few examples, enhance a connection to a bygone era, one that gradually ramped up post-WWII and rapidly declined with the Kennedy assassination and the escalating war in Vietnam. The global appreciation of US culture was at a rare peak, and for good reason; rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, automobiles, Hollywood, American Lit and comic books/strips were cherished worldwide.

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Graded on a Curve:
David Sylvian,
Brilliant Trees

When UK new wavers Japan broke up in 1982, the members predictably splintered off into various directions, and the highest profiles belonged to Mick Karn and David Sylvian. Over the decades the latter has amassed a solo and collaborative discography of unlikely reach and impressiveness; however, giving a fresh listen to ‘84’s Brilliant Trees makes abundantly clear Sylvian’s career trajectory isn’t as surprising as it might initially seem.

Upon consideration, very few musicians who made their name in the pop sphere have aged as well as David Sylvian. Of course, this is mainly due to his choice after Japan’s dissolution (they briefly reunited for one self-titled ’91 album under the name Rain Tree Crow) to gradually leave the milieu that fostered his initial reputation. The subsequent journey led him into the outlying territories of experimentation and the avant-garde, though this shouldn’t give the false impression that Sylvian’s post-Japan oeuvre is devoid of pop elements.

As a youngster of the ‘80s, I knew little of Japan, my discovery of Sylvian supplied by his ’87 collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto, Secrets of the Beehive. The introduction was made through the frequent play and promotion of said disc by my hometown Mom & Pop record mart, an enterprise also involved in the sale of high end stereo equipment.

To my teen mind any system comprised of separate components was high end, and at the time Secrets of the Beehive basically eluded me, as did much “deep-listening” material attached to ambient, new age, minimalism, art-pop etc. Reengaging with Sylvian as a mature adult provided, if not an epiphany than another instance aiding the realization that artistic assessments work in tandem with personal growth, therefore flouting finality.

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