Author Archives: Joseph Neff

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: Muddy Waters,
The Best of Muddy Waters

Where to start with the music of that sly titan of 20th century music Muddy Waters? Some will advise an inquisitive newbie to invest in an exhaustive multi-disc box set that retails in the neighborhood of a Franklin, while a closet Johnny Winter-aficionado might recommend one of his late-‘70s LPs for the Blue Sky label (and that’s definitely not the place to begin.) However, the most sensible way to commence a journey into the everlasting goodness of McKinley Morganfield is to simply follow the path many thousands have already made, and it leads directly to the doorstep of 1958’s extraordinarily enlightening The Best of Muddy Waters.

While a certifiable embarrassment of great LPs have been made since the format was first introduced in 1948, they don’t all command the same level of historical respect, even from individuals that happen to hold a deep relationship to the sounds those less revered records contain. For instance, after giving the realms of heavy-duty music connoisseurship a good inspection, there is no doubt that the Best of/Greatest Hits LP continues to shoulder something of a bad reputation, with its appeal often denigrated as being directed mostly to dabblers.

These records, awarded to artists who had managed to secure a handful of creative and/or commercial highpoints either in one fast spurt or in some period of sustained longevity, are reliably frowned upon by more intense listeners as essentially being easy primers designed by cash hungry record labels with the intention of giving more casual ears a quick fix and some level of conversance (a sort of career Cliff Notes, if you will) to discographies of considerable distinction.

That’s not necessarily an incorrect assessment. But there are other elements in the scenario, as anyone who ever got turned on to Donovan through their parent’s well-worn copy of his wildly popular Greatest Hits LP can surely understand. And when handed down by older siblings as they slouched off to spend four years in a cramped college dorm, the Best of/Greatest Hits album has surely functioned as a gateway into substantial musical discoveries of all types.

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Graded on a Curve:
Music Blues,
Things Haven’t Gone Well

Things Haven’t Gone Well is veteran bassist Stephen Tanner’s debut under the moniker Music Blues. A true solo effort, the record’s 11 tracks delve headfirst into topics most folks consciously try to avoid; depression, failure, and the inescapable disappointment of existence. A challenging yet consistently rigorous and ultimately rewarding collection, it arrives this week on CD, digital and aptly, double shit brown vinyl through the Thrill Jockey label of Chicago.

The promo-lit for Things Haven’t Gone Well explains that in the period after the death of his friend Jerry Fuchs (notable as the drummer for LCD Soundsystem, Turing Machine and !!!), Stephen Tanner crashed on the couch in the Georgia home of Creston Spires, his cohort in experimental sludge kingpins Harvey Milk. In the attempt to write that band’s next album he found himself drinking and watching six hours of the original Beverly Hills 90210 a day.

I can identify with that, though not specifically; during a personal mid-‘90s rough patch the viewing choice of this night-owl was early AM reruns of Law & Order on the A&E Network. And I have caught a few episodes of 90210 over the years, but by now the memory banks are a bit foggy; these days I mainly recall the program for providing a nascent example of Wayne Coyne’s increasingly relentless use of incongruence as promotional strategy via a guest spot by The Flaming Lips.

It’s been reported the Lips got the gig because Pavement turned it down; however, this is probably an untruth fueled in part by the lyrics to the Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain song “Unfair.” Indisputable though is the Flaming Lips and Pavement helping to define a musical era, and one that Harvey Milk existed in without much fanfare.

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Graded on a Curve: Gruppo D’Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza (s/t)

Founded in Rome by Franco Evangelisti in 1964, Gruppo D’Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza is cited as the first experimental composers collective, their revolving membership including such figures as Egisto Macchi, Mario Bertoncini, Frederic Rzewski, and Ennio Morricone. Their self-titled 1973 LP for the General Music label is an eclectic and beautifully abstract beast, and it’s the second of the ensemble’s releases to see welcome reissue by Superior Viaduct.

These days free improvisation, a system as well as a widely populated genre as underappreciated sonic frontier, is predominantly associated with a subset and historical period of jazz, but it also has a multifaceted relationship with modern classical music, and it continues to be practiced, if increasingly on the cultural margins, right up to the present.

Novices and the generally tender of ear reliably reject free music as an absence of instrumental skill and compositional craft, or less politely, dismiss it as just so much fucking around. This is comparable to those who derided the Abstract Expressionist painters as a gang that’s main discipline was the shuck and jive of charlatanism.

Jackson Pollack endures as the most famed Abstract-Expressionist, and to currently denounce the man and the artistic movement connected to him as being polluted by fakers and frauds is to court ridicule as an utter philistine. To be sure, the drift away from the realist objective in the visual arts and literature has been largely accepted if not fully embraced, but the situation is less easily assessed in film and music.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Hobbes Fanclub,
Up at Lagrange

The 11 songs found on Up at Lagrange, the full-length debut from the Bradford England based trio The Hobbes Fanclub, explore a decidedly ‘80s-into-’90s indie pop scenario with energetic precision. While they won’t win any ribbons for broken ground, the group could easily be awarded shelf-space in the collections of listeners predisposed to their twist on a well-defined style.

The scoop is that The Hobbes Fanclub began in 2008 as a project of a single man, specifically guitarist-songwriter Leon Carroll. Before morphing into a triangular orientation with bassist Louise Phelan and drummer Adam Theakston, the Fanclub underwent a long-distance duo collab phase with Sao Paulo Brazil native Fabiana Karpinski.

Surprisingly successful (Carroll and Karpinski reportedly never met in person), the pair managed to produce two split CDRs, the first in July ’10 for Cloudberry Records with outfit Young Michelin and the second the following February, this time as the inaugural entry on the Dufflecoat label with counterparts Leach Me Lemonade.

That partnership ended shortly thereafter, Carroll drafting his current bandmates and wasting no time getting down to work, the three playing their first gig in Bradford in November of ’11 and performing at the Glasgow Popfest a few weeks later. Amongst further live action the studio was not neglected, and by August of the next year a 7-inch was issued by the Portland, OR/San Francisco imprint Shelflife.

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Graded on a Curve: Smoke Dawson,

Initially a 1971 private-press LP released in an edition of 750, Fiddle is the solitary record by Smoke Dawson, and its fresh reissue by the vital enterprise known as Tompkins Square illuminates how there is still plenty of unexplored nooks in the vastness of 20th Century Music. On 17 tracks steeped in tradition but infused with a restless, youthful, and sporadically unusual manner, Dawson wields his titular instrument with skill and panache.

Minus the legwork attached to Live at Caffè Lena: Music from America’s Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013, a terrific 3CD set issued by Tompkins Square that documents the Saratoga Springs, NY folky hotspot run by its namesake Lena Spencer, George “Smoke” Dawson’s main artistic achievement would be little more than a footnote.

Specifically, he was the banjoist in MacGrundy’s Old-Timey Wool Thumpers with guitarist Rob Hunter (not the Grateful Dead lyricist) and fiddler-mandolinist Peter Stampfel, the soon to be Holy Modal Rounder and leader of the Bottlecaps proving such a fine picker of the banjo that Dawson felt encouraged to take up the bow. According to Stampfel, “George took a fuck-ton of speed and came back in a couple weeks playing fiddle better than I did.”

He also ran off with Stampfel’s wife. Dawson began performing at Caffè Lena in the autumn of 1960, the java hut as cultural hub additionally serving as his occasional digs for the ensuing eight years. “Devil’s Dream,” his crowd-rousing examination of a fiddle standard, is included on the opening discof Caffè Lena.

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Graded on a Curve:
Document and Eyewitness

When informed of Wire’s plans to reissue Document and Eyewitness Geoff Travis, known the world over as the man who started Rough Trade (the label and the shops) retorted that the group was “completely mad.” This wouldn’t be especially significant except it was Travis who put up pounds to release the damned thing in the first place. This small anecdote is a big tipoff that Wire’s 1981 live LP, notorious to many and beloved by a few, is really quite special. On August 18th Pink Flag’s expanded multi-format edition will again illuminate the range and polarization of opinion.

I retain a fluctuating level of esteem for the live record, but as worthy captured performances continue to occasionally hit the racks it’s hard to deny that the form’s best days are basically behind it. To my ear the neck-and-neck contenders for the finest non-jazz live set ever waxed came relatively soon after the format’s invention, taped in ’62 and ’64 respectively; James Brown’s Live at the Apollo and Jerry Lee Lewis’ Live at the Star Club, Hamburg.

These aren’t controversial choices of course, but they do amplify what’s missing from the vast majority of live records and why most are little more than artistic victory laps/obligatory pop and rock star rites of passage/bones tossed into the salivating yawp of easily satisfied fans. Surely many early live discs were to varying levels studio-massaged sleight of hand, but in the cases of Brown and Lewis it was their abilities as performers that ultimately made those albums so massive. Plus, each slab possesses further crucial qualities in abundance; danger, uncertainty, surprise, and a legit sense of vérité.

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Graded on a Curve: Chrome,
Feel it Like a Scientist

Via the designs of crucial member Helios Creed, underground rock stalwarts Chrome have returned with another blast of fresh and very welcome psych-punk. Feel it Like a Scientist offers Creed leading a crack band through a generous running-time as they extend deep into the 21st century a template honed in late-‘70s San Francisco.

Momentarily setting aside matters of quality, the appearance of new Chrome material in 2014 relates an interesting story and one with little in the way of music scene precedent. To begin, Feel It Like a Scientist is the latest chapter in a narrative finding veteran guitarist Helios Creed continuing the saga commenced by Damon Edge in the steaming guts of the mid-‘70s.

Make that the late Damon Edge; prior to his death in ’95, Chrome shifted in personnel numerous times, though the outfit’s strongest period began once Creed entered the fray in ’76. While the pre-Helios debut The Visitation is worth investigation by serious fans, the sparks that flew from the creative permutation of Edge and Creed remains integral to Chrome’s reputation as one of the most important and least typical experiences to be born from first-wave US punk.

In short, ‘77’s Alien Soundtracks and 79’s Half Machine Lip Moves are must acquisitions for any well-rounded punk collection, and furthermore Red Exposure, Blood on the Moon and 3rd From the Sun, albums issued between ’80-’83, the rhythm section on the last two John and Hilary Stench, aren’t far behind.

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Graded on a Curve:
Aztec Camera,
High Land, Hard Rain

While technically a band, Aztec Camera was always the creative brainchild of Scotsman Roddy Frame. On the debut LP High Land, Hard Rain, released in 1983 through Rough Trade in the UK and via Sire in the US, he made an outstanding case for himself as one of the decade’s great pop music auteurs. The album embraced intelligence and sophistication as it abandoned any pretense to a rapidly aging punk standard that spawned it, and if it isn’t perfect, 30 years after High Land, Hard Rain’s making it wears its minor flaws very gracefully.

High Land, Hard Rain opens with “Oblivious,” one of the record’s more famous tracks, though in hearing it with fresh ears after a very long absence I was struck by two elements. The first was the heights of Roddy Frame’s pop ability and at the tender age of 18; where much pop climbs to greatness in the details, “Oblivious” can be accurately assessed as an exceptionally written tune. It attains its success through sublime construction around a foundation that many well-respected songwriters twice his age had never managed to build.

The second element was Aztec Camera’s sheer level of dedication to an unabashedly erudite sensibility. This was maximal, accessible, unabashedly sophisticated Pop Music not only shirking off any tangible debt to punk but also steering far clear of the swelling tide of the synth-wave. And this relates directly to my third thought; in the bass line to “Oblivious” lays the key to so much of High Land, Hard Rain’s essence.

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Graded on a Curve: Roddy Frame,
Seven Dials

Since the mid-‘90s Roddy Frame, the Scotsman most renowned as the leader of ‘80s indie pop mainstays Aztec Camera, has chosen to issue recordings under his own name. On August 19th, after a break of eight years, his latest effort Seven Dials hits the US through AED Records on multiple formats including 180gm vinyl housed in a gatefold sleeve with CD version and a bonus six-track live disc thrown into the bargain. Lacking in rust as the good decisions far outweigh the questionable, it finds Frame exploring his comfort zone with composed assurance.

Working greatly in Roddy Frame’s favor across the ten selections comprising Seven Dials is a seeming lack of anxiety regarding the trajectory of his post-Aztec Camera career. To be sure, Frame’s rep as a classicist has survived unperturbed over the years, with the pop auteur’s albums arriving infrequently and minus any straining stabs at the cutting-edge.

To the contrary, the first release offered as Roddy Frame, ’98’s North Star, revealed him doing little differently from the contents of the six record stretch documenting Aztec Camera’s existence, and 2002’s follow-up Surf, in a coincidental but fitting contrast to the clamorous musical decade that preceded it (an epoch largely at odds with Frame’s approach), scaled the setting down to just voice and unamplified guitar.

Seven Dials begins likewise, but before a minute’s elapsed “White Pony” blooms to full life through Mark Edwards’ sturdy piano and the precise but tastefully vibrant drumming of Adrian Meehan, the players complimenting Frame’s expert bass and electric guitar soloing. While somewhat formulaic in thrust, it’s still an acceptable start, though the depth of reflective pondering located in Frame’s lyrics does set a tone of rumination that’s additionally worrisome.

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