Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Michael Angelo,
Michael Angelo

Deep and wide are the realms of self-produced obscurities; just when it seems every attic, garage and barn has received inspection for test pressings, acetates, and undistributed editions, another doozy turns up. In this context, the self-titled ’77 effort of Michael Angelo isn’t amongst the rarest, as 500 were pressed. But originals can go for four figures, indicating it’s not an ordinary rediscovery. Those lacking four figures worth of spending money should, if not rejoice, than at least smile with satisfaction over Michael Angelo’s legit reissue by Anthology Recordings. A bonus 3-song 7-inch is icing on the cake.

The neighborhood of the unearthed obscurity is populated by more than a few fringe characters, especially on the private press side of the tracks. However, Michael Angelo Nigro comes off as a pretty well-adjusted dude, and if his lyrics can get a tad spacey, that’s indicative of ambition and not an inability to curb excessive errors of taste.

Michael Angelo is a retrieval possessing not only restraint but palpable perceptiveness into how to craft an album, though none of that would really matter much if the guy lacked songwriting talent. It helps greatly that Angelo’s Influences, noticeably derived from the second half of the ‘60s, were as attentive to melodicism as self-indulgence.

Another huge factor is Angelo’s instrumental skill; except for the drumming of Frank Gautieri all the sounds came from his hands and throat. Indeed, Angelo was sharp enough to work as a full-time session musician, and in Kansas City, MO no less (how times have changed), his LP crafted in the off-hours at employer Liberty Recording in 1976.

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Graded on a Curve:
Jon Gibson,
Visitations

He may not be well-known, but 20th century music would unwind somewhat differently minus multi-wind instrumentalist Jon Gibson. His membership in the defining ensembles of New York City Minimalism is without peer, but he’s also a composer spanning roughly 50 years. Gibson’s debut under his own name emerged in 1973; Visitations contains two side-long tracks establishing that he was trapped beneath nobody’s stylistic umbrella. It gets its first-time vinyl reissue this week through Superior Viaduct.

Born in 1940, saxophonist, clarinetist and flautist Jon Gibson studied at Sacramento State and received his BA from San Francisco State in 1964. By the end of the decade he’d secured placement in the history of New Music, but for an artist of such achievement his name is raised far too seldom. He started out in the improvisation-based New Music Ensemble, his most famous cohort in the group being its founder, the prolific composer Larry Austin.

Folks bonkers for experimentalism might recognize the Ensemble’s Richard Swift, Stanley Lunetta, and Arthur Woodbury; along with Austin, they were subsequently involved in the magazine Source: Music of the Avant-Garde. The New Music Ensemble cut what appears to be a self-released record in 1964, but it doesn’t seem to have been given a very large pressing and today looks to be utterly scarce. I’d love to hear it, almost as much as I would’ve treasured witnessing the November 4, 1964 premier of Terry Riley’s In C at the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

Gibson was a participant in that performance as he helped to debut Steve Reich’s Drumming and a bit later Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, all this activity kinda making him minimalism’s Freddie Hubbard (look up the jazz trumpeter’s credits to understand); he also worked with La Monte Young, Frederic Rzewski, Alvin Curran, Robert Ashley, Christian Wolff, Harold Budd, and others.

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Graded on a Curve: Contortions, Buy

Like any visionary artistic movement, the late-‘70s explosion known as No Wave was both ahead of its time and intrinsically related to its era. This is no more apparent than in the work of James Chance. As leader of the Contortions he debuted on the ’78 Brian Eno-produced compilation that essentially provided No Wave with its name, but Chance and his crew’s long-playing shining moment remains Buy. Initially released in ’79 on the ZE label, a 180gm gatefold edition with bonus cuts is currently available from Futurismo.

As the decades have piled up, the whole No Wave shebang has grown in stature from a dissonant and divisive intersection of punk and art into one of the 20th century’s more striking outbursts of indigenous creativity. It couldn’t have occurred anywhere other than the old, cheap, dangerous New York City, its geographical location but one of the factors causing many to disregard its emissions; hey, it’s just a bunch of arrogant Gothamites peddling pretentiousness.

For those less sensitive to matters of attitude in presentation, No Wave’s haughty stridency is inherent to its appeal. Amongst the scene’s most surly was James Chance; as detailed in his notes for Futurismo’s reissue, he left his hometown of Milwaukee after three years of conservatory study, saxophone in hand with an intention to play jazz. Sensibly he landed in NYC, but things didn’t go as planned.

It became clear that Chance, who’d gained experience playing the music of the Stooges and the Velvet Underground back in Wisconsin, was an ill fit for the burg’s loft-jazz milieu; in turn he gravitated toward CBGBs/Max’s Kansas City. Of course, he wasn’t quick to find belonging there either, and Chance and his pocket of cohorts shaped an alternative to creeping commercialism.

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Graded on a Curve: Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe & Ariel Kalma, FRKWYS Vol. 12: We Know Each Other Somehow

Based in Brooklyn, RVNG Intl. specializes in progressive-minded sound creation frequently of an electronic nature. Featuring a diverse yet unified roster, the imprint’s FRKWYS series, a group of records documenting simpatico collaborations between younger and older artists, deserves special citation; FRKWYS Vol. 12: We Know Each Other Somehow details the meeting of Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, ex-90 Day Men and of solo project Lichens, with saxophonist and avant-gardist Ariel Kalma. The resulting explorations are available on 2LP/CD/digital, and AV-lovers rejoice, for the physical formats are accompanied by a DVD containing a “feature-length exploratory documentary.”

The FRKWYS shebang began back in ’09 with Vol. 2, a 12-inch holding remixes of NYC outfit Excepter from Throbbing Gristle’s Chris & Cosey, JG Thirlwell of Foetus, and on a digital bonus Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto. Indeed, much of the early FRKWYS action was devoted to remixes, the tide later swinging to original collabs a la Vol. 6’s team-up of Julianna Barwick and Ikue Mori.

The series’ name is a play upon Folkways, the label started by Moses Asch in the late-‘40s, and if that reads as odd, lending an ear to a few FRKWYS volumes reveals a likeminded seriousness of intent extending to the RVNG discography overall; in fifty years it’s safe to predict listeners will look upon Vol. 9: Icon Give Thank by Sun Araw, M. Geddes Gengras and The Congos with a reverence similar to that paid to Folkways ’54 LP Jamaican Cult Music.

Succinctly, sound and its historical context is of the upmost importance; We Know Each Other Somehow is just the second FRKWYS set to offer an enhancing DVD, but it probably won’t be the last. And likewise, sonic creativity appears paramount to Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, not only as Lichens and as a former member of Midwestern math rockers 90 Day Men, but as an associate to doom metal titans Om and that fount of u-ground experimentation Nurse with Wound.

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Graded on a Curve: Beauty Pill,
Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are

Led by singer-guitarist-producer Chad Clark, DC-based outfit Beauty Pill made a fair amount of experimental pop headway back in the 2000s. Much has transpired since, including serious health issues for Clark, but in a positive turn the band has returned with Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are. Originating from a two-week project commissioned in 2011 by Arlington, VA culture hub Artisphere that allowed visitors to observe the creation of the album, it’s a rigorous, gripping work out now on CD and digital via new label Butterscotch Records. A limited second edition clear-vinyl 2LP is available for order and will ship in June, and Beauty Pill will be performing at Artisphere on April 30, May 1, and May 2.

In purely quantitative terms, Chad Clark biggest achievement is as a studio wizard. His name has appeared in dozens of credits, a sizeable number from the District of Columbia and surrounding regions, e.g. The Dismemberment Plan, Mary Timony, and Bob Mould, with his mastering skills helping to shape a considerable amount of classics in the catalog of Dischord Records.

As Dischord was the home of Beauty Pill’s first three releases this isn’t a surprise, and in fact Clark’s relationship with the label spans back to the mid-‘90s through the ensemble Smart Went Crazy. More than just a precursor to Beauty Pill, they recorded two LPs, ‘96’s solid Now We’re Even and the next year’s impressive Con Art, both assisting in widening Dischord’s scope as they established the leader’s sonic diligence and stood as an early example of the fruitful union of indie rock and cello.

It took a few years for Beauty Pill to emerge after Smart Went Crazy’s dissolution; initially a trio, they debuted with “The Cigarette Girl from the Future” in 2001, the EP recently lengthened to long-playing status with five additional tracks and nifty packaging by Butterscotch. In ‘03 an expanded quintet produced follow-up EP “You Are Right to Be Afraid” and ’04 brought The Unsustainable Lifestyle.

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Graded on a Curve:
Wire, Wire

Minus undue pomp, the immensely influential UK outfit Wire has unveiled its latest effort. A key player in the uprising of 1977 and just as important to subsequent progressions of post-punk, through a pair of hiatuses, a founding member’s departure and a consistently evolving sound they’ve grown into one of contemporary music’s great units. Wire doesn’t reach the heights of the group’s finest work, but it easily vindicates their continued existence, and it’s out now on LP/CD/digital via Pinkflag.

The style of music known as Rock, a form derived from the crosspollination of R&B and C&W and distilled by bands reliably featuring vocals and guitar but crucially dependent upon a human rhythmic engine, has proven versatile and resilient since it surfaced in the mid-section of last century. But if it’s true that Rock will never die, its undiluted essence has basically nothing to do with longevity.

Certainly, the Rock ideal can be located by focusing on the ins and outs/ups and downs of a pertinent career, but it can also be found through absorbing one album, or even better, just a 45 RPM single. Indeed, the embodiment of Rock can be uncovered in a solitary song and pinpointed further in succinct moments; the scream at the beginning of the Stooges’ “T.V. Eye,” the slashing progression along the guitar neck in the middle of The Jam’s “In the City,” and the extra thrust in the drumming at the end of The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold your Hand.”

And yet a measurement frequently employed to make the case for truly exceptional rock acts is an ability to persevere over time, especially in instances where influence endures over sales figures; so it is with Wire, though the group’s lifespan consists of distinct eras, each with its proponents. Most lauded is the ’77-’80 run, a period offering three consecutive studio masterpieces. However, a considerable number of younger listens have surely been struck by the unusually productive return from their ‘90s layoff.

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Graded on a Curve: Shirley Collins,
Shirley Inspired

Great artists assert their influence in numerous ways. In the example of Shirley Collins, the recipe for lasting relevance derives from prodigious if astutely unembellished vocal talent and a keen insight into folk tradition. In terms of wedding the past to the future in the eternal present, Collins is extremely valuable, and for evidence one need look no further than Shirley Inspired, a whopping and wide-ranging tribute compilation assembled by Earth Recordings on three vinyl discs just in time for Record Store Day. Any heavy-duty folk nut should be pining to pony up, and as the proceeds go directly to the production of a film on Collins’ life, the collection’s benefits are especially worthwhile.

Born in 1935, Shirley Elizabeth Collins stands amongst the giants of 20th century folk, though listeners unversed in the British streams of the style may know of her only implicitly; in 1959, prior to commencing her recording career, she accompanied Alan Lomax on a particularly productive song-collecting tour of the US south, the indispensable folklorist back in the States after the quashing of the Red Scare Witch Hunts.

But Collins’ primary importance stems from her own music, and those having stiff-armed Brit-folk aside thinking it the milieu of pennywhistles, jig marathons, and gallivanting around maypoles should pay her stuff some mind; Sweet England, her ’59 debut for British Argo is cool, but things really take off with Folk Roots, New Routes, a ’64 collaboration with Brit guitarist Davey Graham for Decca, and continue through her next two solo efforts, ‘67’s The Sweet Primroses for Topic and ‘68’s masterful The Power of the True Love Knot for Polydor, both albums cut beside her older sister Dolly on pipe organ.

Even better were ‘69’s Anthems of Eden and ‘70’s Love, Death and the Lady, the siblings receiving equal billing as a part of EMI Harvest’s still astounding roundup of late-‘60’s/early-‘70s British sounds. Naturally there are more nuggets to be found in Collins’ body of work, but the material outlined above sets a solid course for the curious novice.

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Graded on a Curve: Colleen, Captain of None

Colleen is the nom de scène of Cécile Schott, a French multi-instrumentalist who’s been performing for over a decade. Her main axe is the treble viola da gamba; similar to a cello and mainly used for baroque purposes, it figures in a decidedly avant-garde context across her substantial discography. If experimental in nature, Colleen’s artistry avoids the inhospitable, and with her sixth album and first for Thrill Jockey, the music takes an accessible twist sacrificing none of its brilliance. Captain of None is out now on LP/CD/digital.

Like many of the essentially underground entities to rise up in the inaugural decade of the 20th century, I initially stumbled upon Colleen in the seemingly endless info stream fostered by weblogs. Dabbling in her material, I found it interesting, but it hasn’t been until very recently that I’ve paid Cécile Schott the attention she deserves.

The treble viola da gamba, or viol for short, is mostly heard today at recitals and on recordings of early music; Schott’s employment of the instrument for undeniably contemporary ends places her in league with such modern wielders of unusual sonic equipment as harpist Joanna Newsom and lute-man Jozef van Wissem.

Colleen’s debut Everyone Alive Wants Answers arrived in 2003 via Tony Morley’s Leaf, the label also issuing its follow-up The Golden Morning Breaks in ’05, the “Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique” EP in ’06 and Les Ondes Silencieuses in ’07. Early in ’06 a limited edition live CD Mort Aux Vaches was released on Staalplaat. After a considerable break, The Weighing of the Heart appeared in ‘13 on new label Second Language.

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Graded on a Curve:
Built to Spill,
Untethered Moon

Boise, Idaho’s Built to Spill have returned with a new studio album, one making no major adjustments to a program that elevated the Doug Martsch-led band into the upper echelon of indie-spawned post-grunge success stories. Untethered Moon is largely defined by familiarity; it starts strong, explores a comfort zone through its middle, and culminates in raucous fashion. It’s out on vinyl for Record Store Day and will be available digitally and on CD April 21st.

By any yardstick, five and a half years between releases is a long time, the longest in Built to Spill’s history in fact. But on the other hand, the gap merely replaces their second lengthiest layoff, the period separating 2001’s Ancient Melodies of the Future and ‘06’s You in Reverse. The latest break comes from a group with considerable achievements under its belt, prominent amongst them a substantial fanbase for their easily recognizable blend of classic and indie rock.

If unapologetically utilizing the tried-and-true template of guitar bass drums and vocals, those unfamiliar with Built to Spill shouldn’t assume theirs is a study in stylistic redundancy, as Doug Martsch’s unit has long-ago transcended the initial indie-centric descriptor of the new band from the guy who used to be in Treepeople.

Those origins are documented on ‘93’s Ultimate Alternative Wavers, ‘94’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love (the place for newbies to start) and ’96’s The Normal Years, a comp issued by K Records; it was during this era that Martsch collaborated with K’s head honcho Calvin Johnson, noted producer/ex-Pell Mell keyboardist Steve Fisk and others in the Halo Benders.

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Graded on a Curve: George Usher and Lisa Burns, The Last Day
of Winter

Survivors from a long gone New York City, George Usher and Lisa Burns have crafted a rewarding new release greatly emphasizing perseverance in the face of great adversity. A collaborative song cycle initiated during Usher’s battle with cancer and recorded by the pair as he slowly recovered and returned to performing, The Last Day of Winter is an inspiring, emotionally resonant work featuring the assistance of a talented band. It’s out now on compact disc via Near and Dear Music.

George Usher and Lisa Burns are accurately assessed as veterans, but across decades of experience neither has been rewarded with widespread recognition. Given the relationship of both to accessible yet substantive pop songwriting and performance, that’s a bit of a drag. Moving to NYC from Cleveland, Usher formed The Decoys; power-pop mavens should really seek out ‘81’s “Not the Trembling Kind,” though many folks will already know it as the title-track to Laura Cantrell’s 2000 debut.

Usher has accumulated a long list of credits including Beat Rodeo, the Schramms, and “satellite membership” in the Bongos, additionally collaborating on work from that group’s Richard Barone and James Mastro. He also led the combo House of Usher, cut a string of acclaimed solo discs and co-wrote the tunes found on Edward Rogers’ first two well-received albums.

Lisa Burns made a self-titled LP for MCA way back in ’78. Produced by Craig Leon with the input of the Boom Boom Band (of Willie “Loco” Alexander fame), it wields likeable neo-girl-group action; while not brain-searing in its brilliance it’s stronger than some evaluations have suggested. Burns was next in ‘80s dance music one-shot Velveteen and a good while later the country-folk-oriented The Lovin’ Kind; both acts included the participation of her husband Sal Maida. She’s also collaborated with poet Holly Anderson in New Randy and issued solo records garnering high praise.

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