Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Eternal Tapestry,
Wild Strawberries

Contemporary psych-rock veterans Eternal Tapestry practice in a branch of the style favoring seriousness of intent over faux-druggy tomfoolery. The Portland, OR group has scads of releases, but their newest considerably ups the level of ambition; Wild Strawberries, the band’s first 2LP, was recorded in a remote cabin over the course of a week and suitably finds them traveling into the aural wilderness. It’s out now on Thrill Jockey.

In tandem with the hippie movement’s proclivity for drug intake, the 1960s are designated as the apex of psychedelia. I’m not going to disagree, but I will add that most of the groundbreakers in the style took qualitative nosedives sooner rather than later by abusing not just substances but tropes swiped from blues, R&B, and to a lesser extent folk and country.

Some will decry it as heresy, but there are multiple units operating in the psych field right now that are the equal of their ‘60s antecedents, and one is Eternal Tapestry. While a few lineup changes have occurred over the years (notably Dewey Mahood leaving to dedicate his creativity to Plankton Wat), Eternal Tapestry currently consists of Nick Bindeman on guitar and vocals, Warren Lee on organ, Krag Likens on bass, Jed Lindeman on drums, and I’ll speculate Ryan Carlile is still around on sax and synth.

They’ve amassed a hefty discography, much of it on Thrill Jockey, though Guru Overload, a benefit for the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, came out last year on the Oaken Palace label. Wild Strawberries widens their scope not only in number of sides but in execution, and in psych terms it easily fulfills expectations of sessions conducted in a cabin located in a burg known as Zigzag.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Pop Group,
Citizen Zombie

High on the list of unlikely reunions is The Pop Group. Known for boundary smashing fierceness shortening their initial existence while simultaneously enshrining them as one of the defining outfits of the post-punk-era, they were also rigorously ideological and by extension highly divisive. Therefore, any recommencement of activity would require continued commitment to prior ideals while displaying favorable musical growth in line with past accomplishments; Citizen Zombie, out now on LP/CD/digital, does a surprisingly good job.

Formed in Bristol UK in 1977, three founding members of The Pop Group are involved in this return to active business; vocalist Mark Stewart, drummer Bruce Smith, and guitarist Gareth Sager, the trio joined by longtime cohort Dan Catsis, who replaced Simon Underwood on bass in ’79. Amongst the first and most vociferous in critiquing the squandered possibilities of the punk uprising, they looked upon the Ramones/Pistols model not as the realization of a goal but as a springboard for a diligent and cross-stylistic approach married to lyrics, spoken words, and song titles of an unapologetically leftist bent.

It’s difficult enough for traditionally-inclined bands to pick up the pieces and rebuild an engine long dormant; the situation grows increasingly problematic when substantial ground was broken. Then again, maybe these observations are simply off target, the impulse to reunite deserving to be considered on an individual basis and minus the burden of living up to history. After all, The Pop Group rekindled for live shows roughly half a decade ago; had the gigs went dismally, it’s doubtful Citizen Zombie would’ve been made.

35 years have passed since For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? emerged on Rough Trade, and a huge aspect of the unit’s standing as groundbreakers, specifically the manic absorption of punk, dub, funk, free jazz, Afrobeat, and avant-experimentation, has become, if not the norm, than perfectly acceptable and not unusual; in fact, contemporaneously specializing in a style utilizing one hyphen or less actually courts being belittled as retrograde.

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Graded on a Curve: Windian Records’ Subscriber Series #3

Windian Records’ Subscriber Series #3 is out now, and along with a handy and comely die-cut container, an equally attractive 14-page art booklet, and a snazzy 45 spindle, there are six 7-inch discs and matching-designed sleeves by The Seeers, DD Owen, Platinum Boys, Church Bats, War Party, and John Wesley Coleman III. That’s a lot of range from underneath the garage punk umbrella, and it’s all limited to 250 copies, so folks finding their interests fomented shouldn’t delay in remedying the situation.

The tried-and-true two-song 45 radiates an enduring charm, and when a bunch of those platters get amassed and placed in a stack (or slid inside a custom designed box) the level of goodness is likely to increase; I’ve conducted the necessary trials in the matter and can testify that the supposition is a sound one.

Subscription series and boxed 7-inch collections snuggle up very comfortably into the warm and fragrant folds created by the intermingling of underground music and the impulse to accumulate physical objects, and maybe the most famous example of the phenomenon is the Sub Pop Singles Club, the first of which tidily coincided with the Grunge explosion and detailed but one instance of vinyl’s perseverance throughout the compact disc boom.

Sub Pop’s success catalyzed a ton of like minded endeavors advertised largely in fanzines/small press publications of the period and stocked in brick and mortar Mom & Pops all over the map (by ’92 most chains had jumped ship on selling wax). And the majority (but certainly not all) of these clubs subs and boxes targeted those tarred (with varying degrees of affection) as “collector scum.”

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Graded on a Curve:
B.C.Gilbert · G.Lewis,
3R4

After completing three consecutive masterpieces that serve as defining documents in forward-thinking ‘70s punk, Wire entered a new decade by promptly going on hiatus. But it was a break bereft of loafing, and the most active members were Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis. They instigated numerous projects, one being the 3R4 LP under the joint handle of B.C.Gilbert · G.Lewis. Initially issued in late 1980, it’s just received a deserving reissue by Superior Viaduct.

The enduring influence of the vast majority of punk acts is usually pinpointed to a specific release or to a clearly delineated period of activity, but the situation isn’t so cut and dried with Wire. Sure, ’77’s Pink Flag is a dead ringer for any non-specious list of the genre’s great achievements, but in truth their debut is only part of the band’s equation of importance. The next two, ‘78’s Chairs Missing and ‘79’s 154, while brilliantly detailing a transitional phase away from unhyphenated punk and toward a seat at the head of the early post-punk class, don’t adequately sum up their relevance either.

Document and Eyewitness, a fascinatingly untidy and eternally-divisive live disc (repressed deluxe-style last year on Wire’s Pinkflag imprint) serves to punctuate the first unimpeachable era; many folks overlook it and pick the tale back up at ‘86’s “Snakedrill” EP or ‘87’s The Ideal Copy. Those records inaugurate a synth/electronic-friendly sequence sitting betwixt the breakthroughs of ’77-’80 and a third regrouping both rewarding and unexpected (the second recess lasted roughly a dozen years); it commenced with ‘03’s Send and is still in progress today.

Most outfits are lucky to put together five worthwhile months much less deliver vital artistic contributions across five decades (the timeframe is even harsher when applied to punk). With this perspective in mind, the quality attained by ‘13’s Change Becomes Us is substantial and directly pertains to Wire’s resistance to tidy encapsulation; they’ve had an existence as unique as it is valuable, and one still significant as it continues unfolding.

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Graded on a Curve: Imaginational Anthem Vol. 7

Over the course of a decade Tompkins Square’s Imaginational Anthem compilations have proven reliably pleasurable in their wide-ranging exploration of solo guitar artistry. The early numbers benefited from the selective prowess of label head Josh Rosenthal, but more recent arrivals have traveled different avenues and utilized the curatorial input of others. Such is the case with Imaginational Anthem Vol. 7; assembled by Hayden Pedigo of Amarillo, TX its 14 contributions extend the impressive relevance of the series. It’s out on CD this week.

Recorded history is rife with crummy compilations, some purely mercantile, many more uninspired as most of the guilty specimens come from the pop and rock divisions. Certainly there are exceptions, Warner Brothers’ Loss Leaders series for example, but it’s very smart to look askance at the vast backlog of comps.

Yes, noticeable improvement did coincide with the rise of the independent scene, and yet due to a confluence of reasons a high ratio of lackluster entries persisted, as did the suspicion that anybody possessing a well-rounded collection and a little inspiration could do a better job; i.e. the enduring phenomenon of the mix-tape.

There are myriad ways to be snide regarding the whole mix-tape thing, but it’s undeniable that a truly inspired assemblage of tracks, perhaps distributed for various holidays or just uploaded online, can give one pause and remain close at hand for years. Similar factors surround the progression of Imaginational Anthem; the title of curator gets bandied about a bit too frequently these days, but in this circumstance the appellation is fully deserved.

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Graded on a Curve:
Duke Garwood,
Heavy Love

A quarter-century of diverse creativity under his belt, London-based multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Duke Garwood is aptly described as a veteran. And though the ascent of his reputation has been gradual, a recent partnership with Mark Lanegan did much to increase his profile. Noteworthy associates and their flowing praise may give Garwood assistance, but his ace in the hole is musicianship; Heavy Love finds him in firm command of an artistry ripening with age and experience. The LP is out now via Heavenly Recordings.

Duke Garwood made his professional debut as the guitarist on The Orb’s 1991 single “Perpetual Dawn,” a connection some might assume would’ve led to a degree of notoriety and in relatively fast fashion. And maybe it would’ve, except he employed the moniker Duke James for the occasion and then spent the rest of the ‘90s in woodshedding mode.

Shortly into the new millennium he started popping up again on other people’s stuff, and by mid-decade he was supplying clarinet and rhaita (a reed instrument of Moroccan origin) to the oeuvre of the Archie Bronson Outfit. In ’05 he found time to release his first long-player Holy Week on Loog Records, and two years later sophomore effort Emerald Palace appeared on Butterfly Recordings (both are somewhat scarce these days).

Subsequently joining the roster of Fire Records, Garwood’s 5-song EP “He Was a Warlock” surfaced in ’09, The Sand That Falls arriving the same year as Dreamboatsafari hit racks in ’11. The label also gathered material from Garwood onto a pair of splits, specifically ‘10’s Keep Mother Vol. 6, a 10-inch with HTRK, and ‘12’s Duke/Wand, a Record Store Day LP with James Jackson Toth aka Wooden Wand.

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Graded on a Curve: The One-derful! Collection: The Mar-V-Lus Label

Even though it began last October, the six volume documentation of George and Ernie Leader’s Chicago-based One-derful! label and its subsidiaries is scheduled to journey deep into 2015; by the point of completion the total will mount to 147 nuggets of Soul, 57 previously unissued, and it will surely be one of the highlights of the year. That’s more than mere speculation, for the second installment is out now on 2LP/CD from the estimable folks at Minneapolis MN’s Secret Stash, and those ordering The One-derful! Collection: The Mar-V-Lus Label sans hesitation will get a bonus 45 from the Du-Ettes.

In 1962 siblings George and Ernie Leader, two important and undersung African-American entrepreneurs based in a true hub of Great Black Music (to employ the term coined by the municipality’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), started One-derful!, a label specializing in the production of soul/R&B.

Lasting for nearly a decade and spawning five sister imprints, One-derful! was a success by any yardstick, and they even had a few national hits, but in regard to genre the enterprise has been largely overshadowed by Stax, Motown, and Atlantic, while in geographical terms it’s taken a back seat to Chess and Vee-Jay.

That’s what’s sweet about history; just when it seems etched in stone, something comes along to shake up the tablets. Y’know, something like the July ‘67 recording of “Big Boy,” a full-bodied original by the Jackson Five documented but unreleased and basically forgotten by One-derful! More famously cut again and issued the following year for Steel Town Records, the unearthed version was issued on 45 last October by Secret Stash for the first 500 buyers of the One-derful! series subscription (and hey, it’s still streaming on the web).

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Graded on a Curve:
Jefre Cantu-Ledesma,
A Year With 13 Moons

Some will recognize Jefre Cantu-Ledesma as a founding member of Tarentel, others will know him as a diligent collaborator (with filmmaker Paul Clipson, Grouper’s Liz Harris as Raum and Alexis Georgopoulos in both Arp and The Alps), while various aural adventurers will have experienced the extensive output of his Root Strata label. Hitting racks this week through Mexican Summer is his latest LP A Year With 13 Moons; it finds the musician continuing to progress after roughly two decades of development.

As part of San Francisco’s Tarentel, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma initially emerged as a contributing factor in the great post-rock upsurge of the late-20th century, but across the multi-instrumentalist’s solo work, of which there is much to choose from, his modus operandi can be synopsized as abstractionism frequently residing at the intersection of ambient and drone.

An appealing aspect of Cantu-Ledesma’s artistry is seriousness of intent. I won’t pretend to have heard the entirety of his productivity, but nothing my ears have soaked up, a sum including ‘07’s Garden of Forking Paths and ’10’s Love Is a Stream (each very strong), leads me to suspect his prolificacy is due to a lack of restraint. I’m also on board with his cross-media interests, specifically an orientation toward film that’s nicely underscored by A Year With 13 Moons’ title adjustment of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1978 classic of the New German Cinema.

Mexican Summer’s promo text lists other filmmakers as well. There’re nods by Cantu-Ledesma to Euro-masters Alain Resnais and Chantal Akerman, and elsewhere the writing draws comparisons to the soundtracks of Michael Mann. Now, if you’re thinking the recently deceased art-film cornerstone Resnais is incompatible with the guy who directed Miami Vice, well, you shouldn’t; this false opposition is frankly a key component in A Year With 13 Moons’ aesthetic strategy.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Fireworks,
Switch Me On

The Fireworks’ primary sonic objective is drenching catchy guitar pop in feedback and fuzz as they add gal-guy vocals and unleash the ingredients through a trim energetic attack. Featuring 13 hard-hitting songs and a handful of twists, Switch Me On is the London and Brighton UK-based four-piece’s first LP. It’s out this week on blood red vinyl exclusive to Rough Trade shops and on white wax via Shelflife Records.

The Fireworks boast a diverse if complementary background. To begin, vocalist, tambourine rattler and guitarist Emma Hall was/is a member of Pocketbooks, a group that amongst other achievements headlined the inaugural indietracks festival back in 2007. Held at the Midland Railway Centre in Derbyshire, indietracks has grown from a one-day event into a huge annual affair spanning a cluster of calendar dates.

Similarly, the club parties/DJ nights Hall’s singing partner and guitarist Matthew Rimell organized under the telling name Big Pink Cake unsurprisingly blossomed into a record label. To my knowledge The Fireworks’ bassist Isabel Albiol doesn’t set up fests or club-nights, but as a visual artist of note her intriguing work has appeared in solo and group exhibitions. And that leaves drummer and additional guitarist Shaun Charman, formerly of The Wedding Present and a member of The Popguns.

In 2012 The Popguns recommenced activity and were one of the acts shaping up indietracks’ ’14 shebang; their participation in a roster 59-deep reinforces the tight-knit and thriving nature of the indie pop scene. Likewise, tilting an ear toward The Fireworks’ debut, a self-titled 4-song EP issued by Shelflife in ’13, underscores how said community is largely less concerned with attempts at wheel reinvention and more interested in subtle variations upon memorable rides down well-traversed routes.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Brazilian Boogie Connection: From Rio to São Paulo (1976-1983)

First there was Bombay Disco: Disco Hits from Hindi Films 1979-1985, a very worthwhile collection from Boston’s Cultures of Soul label. It was smartly followed with Tropical Disco Hustle, an appealing survey of the Caribbean adaptation of the titular style. Next was Bombay Disco 2, and now the latest installment has arrived; The Brazilian Boogie Connection: From Rio to São Paulo (1976-1983) features 13 tracks from 11 acts. Compiled by Deano Sounds and Greg Caz, the 2LP/CD continues to document the fleeting global dominance of the USA’s dance floor export.

Cultures of Soul’s anthologizing of disco’s extensive impact has been steady, thorough, and to these ears quite welcome. Still too frequently derided as a fad rather than a transitional stylistic phenomenon springing from the ‘70s Philadelphia underground, disco deserves its due, and the more evidence of the music’s worldwide assimilation the better.

Well, as long as the sounds hold up. If more than a passing fashion, disco could be easily and brazenly transformed into a vessel of uninhibited commercialism, and in fact that’s all many people remember about it, or even noticed at the time. And as one of the most populous countries on the planet, it was inevitable disco mania would emanate from Brazil’s twin record-producing locales Rio and São Paulo.

Those cities would remain the centers of the Brazilian music industry until the ‘90s. The compilation opens with two from Bossa Nova man Marcos Valle; his most highly regarded stuff comes from ’68-’74, but after five years in Los Angeles, where he worked with Chicago and R&B artist Leon Ware, he returned home ready to boogie. His “A Paraíba Não é Chicago” is slick but crisp, wielding clean guitar, spongy bass, smooth horns, and energetic if unperturbed voices in Portuguese and English.

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