Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Betty Davis,
The Columbia Years

For lovers of ultra-wicked funkiness, the name Betty Davis is an aphrodisiac of uncommon potency; a few years back her string of ’70s underground classics found deserving reissue by Light in the Attic, and now out of nowhere the label has just released her very enlightening late ’60s sessions. Cut prior to and during her brief marriage to trumpeter Miles Davis, The Columbia Years 1968-1969 illuminates a formative but highly productive period in the career of a considerable talent who remains too seldom heard.

Before getting hitched she was Betty Mabry; Miles nuts know it’s her picture on the cover of ’68’s Filles de Kilimanjaro and that the album’s closing track “Mademoiselle Mabry” is named after her. However, it’s important to note that she wasn’t discovered by Davis, having cut a pop single for Frank Sinatra arranger Don Costa’s DCP International label in ’64 as her song “Uptown” was covered by The Chambers Brothers on Time Has Come Today in ’67.

As related in John Ballon’s liner notes for this set, it was through her involvement in a group of trendsetting women known as the “Cosmic” or “Electric Ladies” that Miles came under her sway, with the impact of the younger on the older extending to the musical. This may seem questionable to casual observers given the hugeness of Miles’ legend, but the situation is borne out by the facts.

Mabry and her cohorts’ passion for the “avant-garde pop music” (in Miles’ description) of Hendrix, Sly Stone, and Santana opened the trumpeter’s eyes as he sat on the cusp of his electric period, with this connection having been previously articulated in Davis’ autobiography; the uncovering of these (astoundingly never bootlegged) vault recordings gives his statement even deeper credence.

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TVD Live: Pere Ubu
at the Rock and Roll
Hotel, 6/24

Since reactivating Pere Ubu in 1987 David Thomas and his cohorts have kept the focus consistently forward and in the process have accumulated one of rock’s more impressive discographies. In 2015 Fire Records began to collect Ubu’s early material into vinyl box sets, a smart maneuver helping to introduce those canonical works to a younger audience. The Coed Jail! tour finds Ubu’s current lineup tackling selections from 1975-1982, and on June 24 they brought the avant-garage to Washington, DC’s Rock and Roll Hotel with inspired precision.

As one of the busier active veteran units there was really little worry Pere Ubu’s live excursion into the back catalogue would be tentative or out-of-sync. Furthermore, as their generous yet efficient set unfurled from inside the intimate environs of the Rock and Roll Hotel, the assurances that Coed Jail! was something other than a mere greatest hits tour proved right on the money. Instead, the tour sheds contemporary light upon an era of enduring relevance, with Ubu conjuring a wild, utterly human sound.

The evening began with a short and loose appearance by Cleveland’s Obnox. Featuring ex-Bassholes and This Moment in Black History drummer Lamont “Bim” Thomas, for this current endeavor he plays guitar, sings, and in a maneuver sure to catch a few newcomers off guard, raps over a foundation of looped amp noise and live drums.

The majority of Obnox’s set, which found the duo joined on a pair of occasions by Ubu drummer Steve Mehlman, was raw, bluesy garage punk likely to please fans of assorted acts on the In the Red label. Plus, the non-gimmicky dives into hip hop actually brought to mind the merger of white hickdom and urban blackness found in Thomas’ Bassholes associate Don Howland’s work in The Gibson Bros. However, the execution was quite different as Thomas evinced a real talent for rapping.

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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:
The Replacements,
The Sire Years

Much of The Replacements’ deserved reputation rests upon their work for the Minneapolis indie Twin/Tone, and last year fans desirous of owning said material on vinyl were given the treat of a 4LP box set. But it’s hard to find a lover of the ‘Mats who gives up on the crew after the transition to Sire; if The Twin/Tone Years ended with a peak, a high percentage of its follow-up collection hangs in the vicinity of those heights as the remainder documents their decline. Offering a pair of absolute gems and the rocky but convulsively interesting later period of an oft disheveled band, The Sire Years is out now.

Born in the tail end of the 1970s and surviving into the early ’90s (of course, there was a reunion), The Replacements stand as one of the defining acts of the decade between. Consequently, there is no shortage of synopses of these booze-soaked underdogs’ existence, though the consensus on later achievements gets a little bit thornier as the story heads to its conclusion.

1981’s Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash established trashy punk parameters as ’82’s “Stink” EP found them dabbling with hardcore a la hometown contemporaries Hüsker Dü. ’83 brought Hootenanny’s rough-edged growth spurt, the album capturing increasing flirtations with true greatness; ’84’s follow-up marked a more significant rendezvous with the masterful, Let It Be standing as one of the ‘80s finest albums and a cornerstone of proudly unpolished pop-rock.

Part of The Replacements’ appeal derived from their collective persona as the guys least expected to succeed, and like many of those told they ain’t never going to amount to nothin’, they could engage in bouts of self-sabotage; the gradually deteriorating gig issued on the ’85 cassette-only release The Shit Hits the Fans would’ve spelled serious trouble for most bands, but in this instance hearing the wheels come off proved part of the allure (the admittedly small Okie crowd stayed to the end).

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Graded on a Curve:
John Coltrane,
The Atlantic Years
in Mono

John Coltrane’s Atlantic period presents an arresting convergence of circumstances. It was a time of raised profile and of considerable transition, the artist’s confidence audibly growing as he united jazz tradition and experimentation; most of all it was an era of major breakthroughs establishing the saxophonist as a leader in his field. The Atlantic Years in Mono doesn’t include the entirety of his work for the label, but it does ably document a thrilling era that brought Coltrane to a mainstream audience. Don’t be scared by the audiophile angle; Rhino’s 6CD/6LP+7-inch set is a splendid acquisition for both newbies and longtime fans. One gets to hear the thriving mastery as it was originally released.

By the time John Coltrane hooked up with the Ertegun brothers he’d already chalked up a significant list of achievements, serving as a powerful voice in post-bop’s development via the bands of Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, guesting for a track on Sonny Rollins’ Tenor Madness, teaming with Hank Mobley, Al Cohn, and Zoot Simms for Tenor Conclave, and leading bands for Prestige and for one LP Blue Note.

Top billing came with Coltrane in 1957, and next was Blue Train for Blue Note, which many consider to be his first great album. John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio followed in ’58 (aka Traneing In for its ’61 reissue), and Soultrane retained the services of the Garland band. As Coltrane’s fame grew Prestige would later release nearly a dozen albums under his name from unissued sessions and elevated sideman dates, in turn possibly lending a false impression of the saxophonist as unusually prolific during ’57-’58.

Coltrane was constantly playing but was nowhere near popular enough to have that many albums produced in such a short span; indeed, his two ’58 records with Wilber Harden as co-leader, Jazz Way Out and Tanganyika Strut, are rarely discussed in spite of their being positioned directly before Coltrane’s move to Atlantic. Well, not quite; the closest correspondent recording to his ’59 Atlantic debut Giant Steps is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, June 2016

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

NEW RELEASE PICK: Spain, Carolina (Glitterhouse/ Diamond Soul) For his sixth LP as Spain, Josh Haden cites a turn toward Americana/alt-country, and that’s indeed a tangible thing; check the pedal steel-infused “In My Hour” for evidence. But along the way the style branches out farther than one might expect, with “Apologies” providing a highlight through assured soulfulness of voice. In no way has Haden forsaken his established “slowcore” direction, so those digging the old stuff should like this just fine. But neither is he stuck in a holding pattern, and he’s got Danny Frankel and his sister Petra on board. A-

REISSUE PICK: The Scenics, In the Summer (Studio Recordings 1977-1978) (Dream Tower) Highly worthwhile collection of Toronto-based punk-friendly melodic-rock that’s intermittently injected with an era-appropriate nervousness nearer to Ubu than The Feelies. A lot of these late ’70s punkish reissues present bands best suited as local openers for out-of-town headliners, and that’s cool. However, The Scenics were strong enough that had circumstances been different they could’ve toured the continent’s clubs. This album came out in 2015, but it’s getting a fresh push through Light in the Attic. A-

Ben Lukas Boysen, Spells (Erased Tapes) Merging programmed piano pieces with live instrumentation, specifically drums, cello, and harp, Boysen’s second album (at least under his own name, he’s got a bunch more as an electronic producer under the moniker HECQ) should appeal to those with a minimalist inclination, though it consistently avoids the pitfall of background. First single “Golden Times 1” combines an electronic aura with a chamber classical vibe, while “Nocturne 4” works up a sturdy rock-ish beat connections to Boysen’s previous album. Consider me intrigued. B+

James Brown & His Famous Flames, Try Me (Rumble) This is Syd Nathan using Brown’s follow-up hit to “Please Please Please” as a potential sales hook, and the results basically document the bandleader in search of a consistent sound. Try Me is dominated by straight R&B, excursions into rawer blues and unsurprisingly given the nature of the title cut, shades of doo wop; a few strands of formative soul do emerge in the mix. With a few exceptions this isn’t classic Brown, yet the selections still cohere into a strong whole in part because the tunes haven’t been overplayed. It’s a vivid snapshot of 1959. B+

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Graded on a Curve:
The Robert Bensick Band, French Pictures
in London

Until recently it’s fair to state that only heavy-duty fans of Cleveland’s subterranean musical history recognized the name Robert Bensick, but with the emergence of French Pictures in London as the latest volume in Smog Veil Records’ Platters du Cuyahoga series, his modest profile is set to change. Combining 14 tracks into a potent avant-pop brew, the results, once thought lost, are fascinating and on occasion startlingly effective. Featuring a lineup sprinkled with future Ohio punk all-stars, the Robert Bensick Band’s sole outing deepens the already labyrinthine rewards of its region and rescues its namesake from footnote status; it’s out June 24 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital.

The arrival of French Pictures in London concludes Series 1 of Smog Veil’s Platters du Cuyahoga initiative, and after time spent it registers as the most necessary (if not by extension the best) of the three albums; it’s preceded by X__X’s Albert Ayler’s Ghosts Live at the Yellow Ghetto and Mr. Stress Blues Band’s Live at the Brick Cottage 1972 – 1973.

Actually the second installment in this initial Platters du Cuyahoga run but the last to see completion (series 2 is reportedly in preparation now), French Pictures in London is very much its own thing; with this said it eventually gravitates nearer to John Morton’s art-punk convulsiveness than it does to the no-frills bar-band blues action of Mr. Stress Blues Band.

However, Bill “Mr. Stress” Miller and Bensick did basically evolve from the same fertile late ‘60s scene. By ’66 the latter had been recruited from his first band the Back Group (originally The Coachmen) to play drums for The Munx of Sandusky, OH. Specializing in essentially innocuous vocal harmony-infused guitar pop, they issued a couple of 45s. By ’68 Bensick had bailed for more lively creative environments.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Glowing Man

Swans is a formidable behemoth amongst bands. Swans is also the recording and performance entity of one Michael Gira, and with The Glowing Man he’s effectively closed the door on the latest incarnation of his group. Having recommenced activity back in 2010, the two prior Swans studio albums are sprawling examples of collective massiveness and this latest installment is no different; clocking in just shy of two hours, it’s a sustained and immense thrust of creativity certain to engross and challenge listeners for decades to come. It’s out June 17 through Young God (and Mute in the UK) on triple vinyl, double compact disc, 2CD+DVD, and digital.

Like a fair amount of reality, the story of Swans would be unlikely to survive as a fictional construct; chances are great that if made up, Michael Gira’s shape-shifting unit would fall victim to a reduction of size and ambition. Gradually maturing from post-no wave beginnings to serve as a cornerstone of ’80s noise-rock, Gira shed those limitations to reveal unexpected range on a string of more broadly scaled ’90s records. He then dissolved the band and explored various musical avenues beyond the appellation Swans before assembling a new lineup at the start of this decade.

It’s this most recent manifestation of Swans that would exceed fictive norms, as reconvening to make music under an established moniker usually entails returning to a comfort zone and tapping into a wellspring of largely safe ideas. Instead, Gira’s rekindled Swans increasingly offered such grand magnitude that borderline incredulity frequently resulted; reports of their performance juggernaut only raised the head-shaking astonishment.

Of course with 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, ’12’s The Seer and ’14’s To Be Kind, Gira was actually getting back to the epic length, all two hours and 21 minutes, that was explored on ’96’s Soundtracks for the Blind, while far from repeating himself; often still a pummeling experience, the sound of these Swans registered as less antagonistic and not as sharply rebuking of rock clichés.

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Graded on a Curve:
Pere Ubu, Architecture of Language 1979-1982

Starting in the mid-‘70s Pere Ubu conjured up a few of rock history’s truly gripping moments amid an unusually high standard of quality; the immediate results were critical acclaim and modest sales figures, with cult status developing later. Similar scenarios have broken or severely damaged other outfits, but for their first seven years they simply created at a steady clip. Architecture of Language 1979-1982 is Fire Records’ second Ubu volume; including four LPs, it begins with ’79’s brilliant New Picnic Time, continues through the subsequent pair of albums to the band’s ’80s hiatus and is capped with a worthy compilation disc. It’s out March 18.

Cleveland’s Pere Ubu began an unpredictable existence with a riveting spurt of independently released singles. Now revered, they garnered enough initial attention to secure a booking at Max’s Kansas City and to get signed to Mercury’s punk subsidiary Blank. The result is an enduring classic, though The Modern Dance’s lackluster retail fortunes caused Mercury to promptly spurn them; the terrific Dub Housing emerged via new label Chrysalis.

This is all documented on Fire’s prior Elitism for the People 1975-1978; it tidily corrals Ubu’s Hearthan 45s, the aforementioned studio efforts and a live show from Max’s circa 1977 into one of the finest box sets of 2015. Newcomers slain by Elitism will be wondering if Architecture harnesses the same level of excellence; the short answer is no, though the chronology does start almost as strongly.

Apparently Pere Ubu’s commercial standing was so bleak circa 1979 that New Picnic Time was issued by Chrysalis only in Europe, with copies trickling in domestically as imports. To the group’s credit they responded to the consumer indifference by seemingly altering their cooperating procedures not at all; in fact its opener, which somewhere along the way ditched its original name “Have Shoes Will Walk” and shaved the parenthesis off current title “The Fabulous Sequel,” melds David Thomas’ fringe-ranting to off-kilter post-punk.

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Graded on a Curve:
Pere Ubu, Elitism for
the People 1975-1978

Based in Cleveland amid the peak bleakness of mid-1970’s USA, Pere Ubu has forged a path unlike any other in rock’s history, and through lineup changes, hiatuses, refocused ambitions, and a refusal to assume the predictable, empty role of rock elders, David Thomas and his many collaborators stand as one of recorded music’s unlikeliest wonders. Those suspecting this claim as hyperbole should please investigate Fire Records’ new 4LP set Elitism for the People 1975-1978. It gathers Ubu’s earliest output, an achievement still capable of dropping jaws 40 years after the band’s formation.

Before even spinning a Pere Ubu platter on a turntable I’d read and was excited by the term avant-garage, and while the tag did prove useful, as time wore on it ultimately became shorthand for “oddball punk.” Ubu’s sole constant member David Thomas has since downplayed it as a joke-bone tossed into the salivating maws of the journalistic brigade, but it’s interesting how the title of this collection revisits the meaningfulness of the phrase.

Circa the mid-‘70s rock was still partially a populist undertaking, and garage bands continued to exist in closest proximity to the masses, sometimes playing right on the floor at audience level; these are the ashes from whence Pere Ubu sprang, with guitarist Peter Laughner and singer Thomas forming the group after exiting the storied (and subsequently rekindled) proto-punk unit Rocket from the Tombs.

Their ex-mates went on to the Dead Boys, and selections from the Tombs’ repertoire (notably sprinkled with Stones, Stooges, and Velvets covers) carried over to both outfits; as evidenced by this box’s The Hearpen Singles (1975-1977) Pere Ubu was immediately the darker of the two; “30 Seconds over Tokyo,” their first a-side (the label then called Hearthan) took the first-person viewpoint of a bomber pilot in dealing with the ugly reality that ended World War II.

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