Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Mickey & Sylvia,
“Love is Strange” b/w “I’m Going Home”

The great Mickey “Guitar” Baker has left this mortal coil. Those who don’t know the name have almost certainly heard him sing and play on Mickey & Sylvia’s 1956 hit “Love is Strange,” and amongst numerous other accomplishments, that song endures as the breakthrough for which he is best known. It’s a glorious combination of sophistication and sexiness, and spinning it with the volume up loud is a fine memorial to a crucial and undersung figure in the formulation of rock ‘n’ roll.

To a large extent, the lasting appeal of the 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll explosion is defined in contemporary terms by a widely celebrated handful of originators and the subsequent explosion of wildcats who reacted to the sound of sweetly broken ground with worthwhile recordings of their own. One thread finds a bunch of unkempt, well-intentioned hicks succumbing to the potency of uncut rhythm and blues and combining it with the essence of their own tradition to fuse a new music that conquered the world.

Another storyline finds scores of African-American musicians perfecting the everlasting beauty of R&B to big sales figures but little cultural fanfare; that is until a burgeoning and restless youth culture discovered it, adapted it, and in some cases diluted it for a wider marketplace, with a few savvy black musicians making the shrewd adjustments necessary to become stars themselves.

The reality of both narratives, one the tale of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, the other the story of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard, is indeed the bulk of the original rock ‘n’ roll impulse. But it’s not the entirety of the situation, and considering it the whole of the thing is how an enormously important figure like Bill Haley gets unfairly saddled with the reputation of being perhaps rock music’s biggest square.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for October 2020, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for October 2020. 

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Lafayette Gilchrist, NOW (Lafayette Gilchrist Music) Baltimore-based pianist-composer-bandleader Gilchrist’s CD from last year, Dark Matter, was a superb listen, but it was also a solo set, recorded live in 2016. This 2CD, which offers nearly two and a half hours of music, expands to a trio with Herman Burney on bass and Eric Kennedy on drums, and finds the band immediately setting forth on a course of high energy and groove heaviness that effectively illuminates Gilchrist’s influences from ragtime and stride to hard-bop and blues to go-go and hip-hop, with the thrust falling comfortably between the two-handed expressiveness of Dark Matter and the vivid sound of his larger bands, which includes the New Volcanoes (formed in 1993). There are also passages of considerable lyricism, particularly “The Wonder of Being Here” on disc two, but even Gilchrist’s ballads can boom (in no small part due to Burney).

Gilchrist might be best known for “Assume the Position,” which was featured on the HBO series The Wire. A ripping version of the piece opens NOW, the choice deliberate as the song deals with police violence, an issue that continues to plague this country (this reading of the tune was recorded last year, before the latest egregious examples occurred). Indeed, the record’s very title establishes that its contents are socially concerned, and as detailed above Gilchrist’s music is a robust blend of old and new. Along with The Wire, the pianist has also been featured on two other David Simon series, The Deuce and Treme; the connection to the latter highlights a touch of New Orleans in his music, though he’s firmly a Charm City-DC guy. While the length of NOW situates it as best absorbed a disc or so at a time (the first concludes exquisitely with “The Midnight Step Rag”), the second half does find the trio progressing into less torrid, more contemplative territory (the second disc also holds many of the set’s more personal selections). Most importantly, there’s never a shortage of ideas or verve. A

Michael J Sheehy, Distance is the Soul of Beauty (Lightning Archive) Londoner Sheehy’s music-making spans back to the 1990s as part of Dream City Film Club, who released a pair of albums and an EP for Beggars Banquet in the latter half of the decade. Following that outfit’s breakup in ’99, he commenced a solo stretch, initially on Beggars for three records, and next on Glitterhouse for three more, two of them with backing band the Hired Mourners, Then, a break of over ten years. But don’t consider that span a stretch of inactivity, as along with quitting drinking, Sheehy’s been playing in Miraculous Mule and is half of United Sounds of Joy, the psychedelic electronic act where he’s joined by his partner in Dream City Film Club, Alex Vald. Along with imbibing, another thing Sheehy stopped doing for a while was solo writing, although after a few years of sobriety and then his time in Miraculous Mule, the tunes began to come together.

Following the start of United Sounds of Joy and especially after the birth of his daughter, the songs were flowing with greater frequency, and Sheehy had an album on his hands. But that’s not what’s here, as post-Covid-19, he shelved that material unfinished and then dedicated himself to recording and releasing a finished album quickly. This is the result, and while it required a few spins to get its hooks in, I’m glad I took the time. Sheehy cites the third Velvets album as a touchstone for Distance, and I can hear that, though I’ll elaborate that a few cuts here, specifically in closer “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” remind me of the gentler Ira-sung selections on Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. But there’s also a consistent Memphis-Nashville vibe (underscoring another of Sheehy’s touchstones, Elvis) and a use of electronics that drives home the influence of Suicide in a wonderfully subtle way. But the bottom line is that the songwriting here is strong throughout. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Four from El Paraiso Records

Operated by Jonas Munk & Jakob Skøtt, El Paraiso is a Danish label that began back in 2011 as an outlet for the psych-stoner-space rock sounds of Causa Sui, but has since expanded beyond that objective, all while maintaining a focused stylistic vision, expansive yet often heavy, that is well-encapsulated by their most recent releases, The Discipline of Ascent by the Martin Rude & Jakob Skøtt Duo, San Diego Sessions by the Ellis/Munk Ensemble, Aak’Ab by Justin Pinkerton, and Feat. The Legendary Emil Nikolaisen by Fra Det Onde. The first three are out now and the last is available October 2, but please don’t delay in purchasing, as they are all limited on vinyl and are sure to sell out their first pressing.

While none of these new offerings from El Paraiso are accurately categorized as stoner rock in nature, all four can be correctly tagged as creatively searching, if not necessarily psychedelic in comportment. Due to Skøtt and Munk being members of Causa Sui, one might expect the records they play on here to be nearer in sound to that of El Paraiso’s flagship band, but The Discipline of Ascent throws that supposition right out the window.

For the album, Skøtt plays drums, keyboards and contributes effects, while Martin Rude (who teamed with Skøtt in an earlier El Paraiso duo outfit, Sun River, cutting one album back in 2012) handles double bass and guitar, both acoustic and baritone. Given the number of individuals and the amount of instrumentation, it would be fair to assume some overdubbing took place, but the results flow like a live session; Skøtt seems to be doing double duty on the drums and effects, while Rude alternates between bass and guitar.

El Paraiso’s description of the album explains it as an homage to Miles and Coltrane, and especially their drummers Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, and Elvin Jones, though bass titan Mingus is also mentioned, which is fitting, as the sheer heaviness of Rude’s playing in the second track “A New Arrival” reminded me of Mingus’ wild string pulling on Money Jungle. Elsewhere, I thought of Richard Davis, Reggie Workman, and Cecil McBee, and that’s sweet. The infrequent sound of vibraphone had me thinking of Bobby Hutcherson, but in the context of Bitches Brew.

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Graded on a Curve:
Elkhorn,
The Acoustic Storm Sessions

With The Acoustic Storm Sessions, the NYC guitar duo Elkhorn release their sixth full-length, a companion record to The Storm Sessions, which came out earlier this year. As on that record, guitarist Jesse Sheppard and Drew Gardner are joined by Turner Williams (of Ramble Tamble and Guardian Alien) who also plays guitar. However, these two side-long tracks are, per the title, the first all acoustic Elkhorn recordings, documented a day prior to its acoustic-electric counterpart, and rising to the same heights of quality. Blending American Primitive string beauty, substantial raga motions and discerning psychedelic moves, it’s out October 2 on Centripetal Force in North America and Cardinal Fuzz in Europe.

The lowdown on this record and its predecessor relates to sessions that took place in Drew Gardner’s studio after a snowstorm put the kibosh on traveling to a Brooklyn venue for an eagerly awaited performance they were scheduled to give. But instead of moping, watching TV, endlessly phone scrolling or doing crosswords, this pair plus one got down to the business of spinning a positive out of a bum situation.

Hence, the name of the two excellent LPs, with the positivity extending to the listener rather than just being impromptu/ improvisational therapy for the participants. Of course, it helps that improv is already a significant aspect of Elkhorn’s equation, since the background scenario does read like a recipe for a time-filling basement jam, the kind that might sound wonderful when you’re listening to friends while lounging on the sofa and working on beer number six.

That sorta thing can make for a nice memory of your pals just totally killing it. If only somebody had recorded them…unless, somehow, it was recorded, and then, experiencing it all over again in the cold, bright, sober light of day, reality sets in. But hey, don’t go gettin’ sad, as it was still a fun night with friends…

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Graded on a Curve:
The Small Faces,
From the Beginning

Remembering original Small Faces keyboardist Jimmy Winston.
Ed.

The Small Faces stand as one of the very finest groups of the 1960s, though many know them mainly for Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, their most ambitious and final album before Steve Marriott’s departure effectively ended their diminutive phase. The scoop is that all of the Small Faces’ ‘60s records are worthy of ownership, even the mercantile odds-and-ends collection From the Beginning. That disc and its self-titled predecessor are currently available as 180gm replica LPs. Are they cut to lacquer from the original quarter-inch production masters with front-laminated sleeves? Why yes indeed.

One gauge of the true greats is that the music manages to get better, or at least maintains a high standard of quality, as the discs take their place in the racks. So it is with the Small Faces. With this said the Decca period offers distinct and enduring appeal; more so than The Who, the Small Faces circa-’65-’66 are the true ambassadors of Mod. Utterly Brit in orientation, it wasn’t until the fourth LP that the group entered the US market.

The Small Faces consisted of Steve Marriott on vocals, guitar and harmonica, Ronnie Lane on bass, Kenney Jones on drums and percussion, and initially Jimmy Winston on keyboards. Upon signing to Decca through the efforts of manager Don Arden, they released two singles in ’65. The first “What’cha Gonna Do about It” charted, hitting #14, while the second “I’ve Got Mine” didn’t. Shortly thereafter, Winston was replaced by Ian McLagan, the new keyboardist assisting 3rd 45 “Sha-La-La-La-Lee” in reaching the #3 spot. A full-length followed a few months later.

Sporting the brass to open with “Shake” in Sam Cooke’s tempo, ’66’s Small Faces starts out strong and never really falters, which is impressive for a debut comprised roughly equally, as was the norm of the time, of originals and borrowed/cover material. Neither tentative nor betraying instrumental greenness, the Small Faces were also unburdened by conflict over what they wanted to be.

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Graded on a Curve:
VA, Pimps, Players &
Private Eyes

Compiled and produced by Ice-T and Jorge Hinojosa, the 1992 collection Pimps, Players & Private Eyes offered a healthy dose of full-bodied and progressive ‘70s Soul culled from the frequently-elusive soundtracks of an oft-maligned film genre, and it functioned simultaneously as a history lesson and a fountain of deep groove. Issued in multiple formats (though apparently not 8-track tape), its judiciously chosen 10 songs fit perfectly on a trim vinyl record.

The track-list of Pimps, Players & Private Eyes features no duds. But just as importantly it holds three standouts; their strategic placement seals the LP’s worth and makes the integrity of the compilers abundantly clear. To some this might not seem like a big deal. I can only assume those who feel that way have little or no experience getting stuck with compilations that appear to contain great potential but are ultimately revealed as major disappointments.

Stuffed with second-rate cuts randomly sequenced, records of this nature can often end up taunting the owner through the bogus claims of enticing sleeve design. That Pimps, Players & Private Eyes’ jacket is an utter beauty exuding no false promise obviously increases the robustness of the situation, but its greatest strength is derived from the varied concision of its revelatory offerings.

Or more accurately, revelations once offered, for nearly all of the soundtracks excerpted here have seen subsequent reissue. Additionally, within a few short years of this album’s release, the majority of the movies could be purchased or rented fairly easily as a byproduct of the VHS retail boom. But in ’92, as part of the then (and to an extent, still) disreputable action/grindhouse Blaxploitation phenomenon, videotapes of Across 110th Street were scarce (at least in my neighborhood), as were copies of the movie’s soundtrack.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for September 2020, Part Four

Part four of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for September 2020. Part one is here, part two is here, and part three is here.

NEW RELEASE PICK: Chris Smither, More From the Levee (Signature Sounds) Singer-songwriter Chris Smither is from the old school. When I listen to him, I hear echoes of Townes Van Zandt, Spider John Koerner, Eric Von Schmidt, and even a key influence on Smither, Mississippi John Hurt, as the fingerpicking on this album is impressive. Smither cut two records for the Poppy label in the early ’70s and then a third one for United Artists that went unreleased for decades. In fact, he didn’t record again until 1984, but since then, he’s been steadily productive, with More From the Levee his 18th album, though the songs date back to 2014 and the recording of his 16th, Still on the Levee, which was a 25-track double set featuring fresh versions of songs from his substantial repertoire. Well, that record wasn’t the entire session, with these ten cuts right up there with the prior 25 in terms of quality. Similar to Randy Newman’s Songbook albums, the new treatments hold up like someone just bought them a pair of suspenders, with “Lonely Time” and “Caveman” my favorites so far. But the whole thing is a delight. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Willie Colón canta Héctor Lavoe, Cosa Nuestra (Craft Recordings) This was the first gold record for the union of trombonist and leader Colón and vocalist Lavoe; it is often cited as Colón’s first masterpiece and occasionally ranked as his best album. As I haven’t heard all of Colón’s work, I can’t verify the latter statement, but that Cosa Nuestra is a masterwork is easy to affirm, as it’s a flawless document of constant structural magnificence that, as the eight selections unfurl, strikingly mingles sheer verve and heightened finesse. As the fourth record to team Colón with Lavoe (all of them for the Fania label), with Johnny Pacheco again serving as recording director, it found them truly hitting their stride as the NYC scene transitioned toward salsa. Make no mistake; this is the sound of a band with no weak link, though the dual trombones of the bandleader and Eric Matos are a total gas, as is the piano of Professor Joe Torres. The rhythms punch with flair, and Lavoe is a gift of assured expressiveness. A+

Alfredo Linares Y Su Sonora, Yo Traigo Boogaloo (Vampisoul) As detailed directly above, most of the Latin retrospective heat to recently hit my ear canals has come via Craft Recordings and their welcome Fania reissues, but here’s an exception, cut in Peru in 1968 and originally released by the MAG label, the second of two LPs from the band led by noted pianist Linares. Per the title, the boogaloo style is prominent across these 13 tracks, but the sound also incorporates Latin jazz and descarga (the Cuban jam session style) while pointing toward salsa, as the sounds of New York were influential on what was being harnessed in MAG studios. While the heft of the swinging collectivity here isn’t as gripping as on Cosa Nuestra, it’s still an utter treat from start to finish, and I especially like Charlie Palomares’s vibraphone. 500 copies, so don’t futz around. A

Camille Yarbrough, The Iron Pot Cooker (Craft Recordings) A record that should have a much higher profile (beyond its sampling by Fatboy Slim) gets a deserved reissue. The reason for my esteem is threefold. First, Yarbrough is a ’70s street-poetess, performance artist, and social activist of the first order, a total equal to Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets, and with a command of language strong enough that I also thought of Wanda Coleman, Nikki Giovanni, and Jaki Shelton Green. Second, the instrumental accompaniment across the record is consistently rewarding, legitimately enhancing the proceedings rather than simply providing standard “spoken-word” backup, which directly relates to reason number three, specifically, that Yarbrough is quite talented as a singer, best heard in this context in the sequential tracks “Ain’t It a Lonely Feeling,” “Take Yo’ Praise” (the one Fatboy sampled), and “Can I Get a Witness?,” enough so that The Iron Pot Cooker also brought Nina Simone to mind. Such a powerful recording, with closer “All Hid” unnerving in the context of the moment. Edition of 2,300. A

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for September 2020, Part Three

Part three of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for September 2020. Part one is here and part two is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Profligate, Too Numb to Know (Wharf Cat) Although three volumes of demo tapes have been released since, the last “new” full-length from Profligate, which is the work of songwriter Noah Anthony, was Somewhere Else, released in January 2018, his first for Wharf Cat. That record found him working in territory comparable to synth-pop but with injections of abrasiveness and a general mood that was nearer to darkwave (which isn’t 1,000 miles away from synth-pop, but still), and it was a strong enough effort to receive a new release pick in this column. Well, the writing of Anthony’s latest, which began in Philadelphia, continued after a move to Los Angeles, and then following the theft of a laptop, was restarted in Cleveland, makes significant inroads into the realms of songs over electronic environments, though Too Numb to Know is still aptly categorized as synth-pop (but with some rewardingly atypical use of electric guitar). However, as the title might suggest, the attitude (one could even say atmosphere) is nearer to dour than sunshiny, and that’s A-OK with me, bud. A-

Christopher Parker & Kelley Hurt, No Tears Suite (Mahakala Music) This CD features pianist Parker and vocalist Hurt’s composition, initially written in commemoration and celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine’s historic enrollment in their city’s Central High School. It’s a work of substantial richness and power that is only heightened by its connection to the Arkansas community, as Parker was born in North Little Rock. Additionally, the piece was composed for the literary magazine Oxford American, which is based in the city. It premiered in 2017 with a strong band that featured Parker, Hurt, Marc Franklin on trumpet, Chad Fowler on alto, Bobby LaVell on tenor, Bill Huntington on bass, and Brian Blade on drums, the lineup heard on the disc, which comes in an attractive, informative 6 panel package.

Fitting for its conception as a historical act of tribute and remembrance, No Tears Suite is a journey deep into the heart of jazz greatness as established by the form’s masterworks of the mid-20th century. Indeed, it’s almost scholarly in comportment, as Parker has studied and taught extensively, but that’s no fault, as there is also crucial warmth and verve. Consistently accessible throughout, Hurt’s contribution, which can described as serving a narrative function, is as pleasing to the ear as it is informative, and deepens the suite’s distinctiveness as the music is at times reminiscent of Mingus, Duke, Benny Golson’s work with Art Farmer, and Max Roach’s with Abbey Lincoln. Also, the release of No Tears Suite will be accompanied by a free streaming listen of the 2019 live performance from Little Rock featuring the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and with arrangements by the great bassist Rufus Reid. For the curious, it’ll serve as a fine introduction to Parker and Hurt’s work and will stand as a splendidly robust and wholly satisfying expansion for those who choose to immediately scoop up the studio recording. A / A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Rüstəm Quliyev, Azerbaijani Gitara (Bongo Joe) Born in 1969 in the village of Kosalar, Nagorno Karabakh, in the Republic of Azerbaijan (formerly part of the USSR), Quliyev’s music is a sweet find, well, a bittersweet find as he died young after a battle with lung cancer. Encountering the guitar while doing military service in Russia, but wasted no time in mastering it upon returning to Azerbaijan (he was already proficient on the tar and the saz), where he recorded frequently on cassettes released by small local labels, as well as playing weddings and appearing in TV. This is his first international release, made with the approval and input of Quliyev’s family, and it details a personal style that is assessed as a step (or steps) beyond the “already idiosyncratic” Azerbaijani guitar scene. Launching from his country’s traditional music, Quliyev incorporated a wealth of outside influences (Indian, Afghan, Iranian, Spanish) for an expansive, and dare I say psychedelic, ride. And after getting acclimated to the sound, “Yaniq Kerem” (track seven) hits the ear, and it’s like, “aww, yes…” A-

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Graded on a Curve:
A Certain Ratio,
ACR Loco

Starting in October of 2018 and then continuing last year, the Mancunian outfit A Certain Ratio received some well-deserved retrospective action via Mute Records, first the 2LP/ CD acr:set and then the 7LP/ 4CD ACR:BOX; now here’s ACR Loco, their first LP of new material since 2008, and it finds them in energetic and inspired form. It’s out September 25 on CD, cassette, and vinyl in a variety of colors: white, blue, red, or turquoise. The same day, the band and Mute are celebrating the release with the An Evening With ACR online event, which includes a live show from last year, a Q&A, the new album played live, and a DJ set from ACR Soundsystem. Tickets are available here.

When it comes to the combination of post-punk heft and funky dance-appropriate fervor, A Certain Ratio’s importance is commensurate with others of the same period who were dedicated to a comparable objective (e.g., ESG, Pigbag, Liquid Liquid, Konk, Pop Group, Delta 5, Gang of Four), and it should definitely be stressed that in the storied history of Factory Records, A Certain Ratio had established themselves as a highly rhythmic force prior to the recording of New Order’s first album.

However, for some, ACR’s lasting significance has been overly synopsized into the namechecking of “Shack Up,” their 1980 cover of a two-part funky-disco nugget from Banbarra, their sole single released in ’75 on the United Artists label. While “Shack Up” is indeed a whopper of a record (the original, ACR’s cover, and in some of its myriad interpolations via dance music/ DJ/ hip-hop culture since), A Certain Ratio’s career achievement has been substantially greater, as the size of ACR:BOX (comprised of singles, B-sides, rarities, unreleased material, and demos) helps to clarify.

ACR Loco is also their tenth full-length (excluding comps), though it is only the second album of new material they’ve released the 21st century. It’s suggested by bassist Jez Kerr that the boxset’s assemblage directly impacted the recording of this fresh offering, a sensible conclusion as ACR Loco incorporates sounds and styles from throughout their existence. Furthermore, the wide-ranging whole is heightened by cohesiveness and spirited execution that can be linked to the stated success of ACR’s recent tour.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for September 2020, Part Two

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for September 2020. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Osees, Protean Threat (Castle Face) Having undertaken yet another shift in moniker (which actually commenced with the release of the two-song “The 12” Synth” EP late last year), this highly productive Cali band (most prominently known as OCS and then a handful of variations on The Oh Sees) puts another full-length in the bins with nary a trace of creative fatigue. The contents are less prog-tastic than on their last couple, as they more often tap into a blend of art-punk and heavy psych but with a focus on grooves that can, at times, become considerably funky and less Krautrock-derived than on prior records. Plus, there is persistent synth gurgle and splatter that on a few occasions had me thinking of Chrome. Opening with enough speed and fuzz to give a room full of hardcore freaks a squeeze right where they want it, this aggressive forward motion gets alternated with some post-Wavoid herky-jerk spazz, but highly muscular, as is the Osees way. Things just roll from there. The record’s initial conception as a flowing, continuous piece is still quite tangible, and that’s just fine. A-

Jon Hassell, Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) (Ndeya) This set’s predecessor, Listening To Pictures (Pentimento Volume One), came out in June of 2018 and was the groundbreaking trumpeter’s first album in nine years; it also launched Hassell’s own label, which brought out a sterling vinyl reissue of Vernal Equinox, his 1977 debut, in March of this year. And so, Hassell’s achievements have been impacting my consciousness lately (Flash of the Spirit, his 1988 collab with Burkina Faso group Farafina, was reissued in February), but what’s foremost in my mind after soaking up Seeing Through Sound is how the man has not only not lost a step in terms of quality, but additionally, how fresh this album is in the context of the ambient genre in general and as a continuation of his Fourth World ethos more specifically. Occasionally, pioneering musicians end up getting overtaken by subsequent advancements from the hoards they influenced, but that’s not the case with Hassell, in part because his work is so eclectic that it remains resistant to imitation. That’s why Seeing Through Sound is up top. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: V/A, The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us From Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business (Archeophone) Of the three Archeophone releases covered in this column this week (which shape up the label’s Spring 2020 entries to their catalog), this one is the most purely enjoyable while simultaneously providing revelatory insight into the recorded history of early jazz, so it gets the archival pick even though it’s CD-only. It does come with a 31-page booklet loaded with info from essayist Colin Hancock, the text detailing Gus Haenschen’s long career in music, which started in St. Louis with tutelage from Scott Joplin shortly after the turn of the 20th century, with the formation of his own orchestras (responsible for the first six cuts on this set) following. After that, he served in the Navy during WWI, then moved to NYC, where he became the Director of Popular Music for Brunswick Records. Essentially, he was a talent coordinator, record producer, and occasional session player (his writing of tunes, which was sometimes pseudonymous, is less in evidence as the disc progresses).

Haenschen’s own bands were boldly innovative, but what makes The Missing Link such a treat is how the subsequent music he directed pushed jazz forward rather than simply popularizing it. As evidence, “San” by the Mound City Blue Blowers features Frankie Trumbauer on C-Melody saxophone. That track’s jumpy jug-band zest is one of this CD’s highlights, coming late in the sequence, so don’t worry about a dissipation of gusto as the tracks progress. Charlie Chaplin’s guest conducting of Abe Lyman’s California Orchestra on “With You, Dear, in Bombay” is additionally of note, though I never would have known if they hadn’t told me (‘twas a publicity stunt). That the closing version of Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” cut in 1924 by Herb Wiedoeft’s Cinderella Roof Orchestra, is as pleasurable as the one recorded by Haenschen’s Banjo Orchestra in 1916 reinforces The Missing Link’s worthiness both historically and as pure listening experience (provided of course, that one digs material of this vintage). A

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Graded on a Curve: Reverend John Wilkins, Trouble

Reverend John Wilkins can be described as a specialist in the sanctified blues, but that’s really only the tip of his stylistic iceberg. As the son of noted pre-war bluesman (and also ordained minister) Robert Wilkins, there is a firm North Mississippi root in his work, but more prominent is the sound of soul and even a well-integrated turn toward country gospel. Although he has been playing music and preaching for decades, Trouble is only Wilkins’ second album, but it’s an assured one, cut at Royal Studios in Memphis, TN with family and friends and engineered by Willie Mitchell’s son Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell with production by Amos Harvey. It’s out on vinyl (300 blue, 500 black) and compact disc September 18 through Goner Records.

To start, we should shed light on the achievements of Reverend Robert Wilkins, first as a blues singer and guitarist for the Victor and Brunswick labels from 1928-1936 including such major sides as “Old Jim Canan’s,” “Rollin’ Stone” (an influence of Muddy Waters’ later bombshell of the same title), and “That’s No Way to Get Along,” this last one likely better-known in its later gospel version, reworked, extended and renamed by Wilkins as “Prodigal Son” (covered by The Rolling Stones on Beggars Banquet).

If reliably placed in the country-blues category, Robert Wilkins is more aptly classified as a songster in his pre-war days, with the breadth of his talent well expressed by Yazoo’s compilation The Original Rolling Stone. This is all worth mentioning in relation to his son John (one of seven children), as Trouble thrives on diversity while keeping a firm grip on Southern gospel tradition with an underpinning of Hill Country blues (Wilkins has been a pastor at Hunter’s Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Como, MS since 1983).

What is Hill Country blues, you might be asking? In short, it’s a rhythmically driving, often hypnotic style from the North Mississippi region that’s distinct from the sound of the Delta; its celebrated exemplars include Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Robert Belfour, and Jessie Mae Hemphill. The North Mississippi fife and drum bands (Sid Hemphill, Othar Turner, Napoleon Strickland) are closely related to the Hill Country style.

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Graded on a Curve: Jeremy D’Antonio, “Spinning Wheels” EP

Jeremy D’Antonio, who currently hangs his hat in San Geronimo, CA, has been in few bands over the years, but with the “Spinning Wheels” EP he’s stepping out as a solo artist. More descriptively, he’s embracing the singer-songwriter mode of expression while dipping into the reservoir of old-school country, but with a satisfying grasp on that long tradition and an appealing lack of hang-ups over authenticity. There is rich vocalizing, solid playing from an assembled crew that includes a few gents who played with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and four songs that hold up nicely next to a full-bodied John Prine cover. It’s out September 18 on clear vinyl through Track Records.

Of Jeremy D’Antonio’s prior bands, the ones that folks are most likely to know are Tiny Television and San Geronimo, with the former having morphed into the latter after a move from San Francisco. But before that, while D’Antonio was living in Colorado, he was in the heavily Dischord Records-inspired Fahrenheit 451; it’s unclear if that unit ever recorded (as you might imagine, their choice of moniker makes web research a wee bit difficult), but they did once open for Fugazi, which D’Antonio relates as a fond memory.

This youthful, punk-inclined background contrasts pretty sharply with the sound heard on “Spinning Wheels,” but I’ll suggest that D’Antonio’s range of activity, as he’s additionally a contributor to Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s current live band, helps build the foundation of this EP’s success. Another block in the architecture is sequencing, as “Sad and Blue” kicks off the record in a honky-tonk-infused vein and with a touch of humor in the lyrics.

The opening line, “I’m sorry that I left you on your birthday,” led me to think of something Steve Goodman might’ve penned in the early ’70s, but just as noteworthy is how the cut finds D’Antonio’s strumming and singing joined by the pedal steel of Jay Dee Maness, the piano of Malcolm Burn, the drumming of Jim Christie, the guitar of Eugene Moles, and the bass of Lindsey Brown, plus some backing vocal enhancement in the choruses (the credited singers are Jessica DeNicola, Jen Corte, and Darren Nelson).

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for September 2020, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for September 2020. 

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Grex, Everything You Said Was Wrong (Geomancy) To begin, this album’s release is being celebrated with the Lockdown Festival 3 livestream on Saturday September 5 at 4pm-9pm PDT, which will be streaming on Facebook and YouTube. Second, the album’s release is a fundraiser, with the proceeds supporting the heroes at the ACLU and the work and health of another great hero, the drummer and teacher Milford Graves. Third and most important, Grex is the core duo of Karl Evangelista and Rei Scampavia, both multi-instrumentalists, though he is distinguished by his guitar playing and she by her singing. Evangelista also provides some words, but they are gruff and at times reminiscent of u-ground hip-hop, which was not something that sprang to mind when reviewing Grex’s prior release Electric Ghost Parade. On that record, I was struck by guitar reminding me of Sonny Sharrock and Nels Cline. The playing here is still sharp but is only one facet amongst many on a sweet post-category release. A-

Jesse Draxler, Reigning Cement (Federal Prisoner) Each of the 22 tracks here is credited to a different person, collaboration or group, so this can be described as a compilation, but it’s better assessed as an audio-visual/ conceptual art project that combines a 100-pg book of Draxler’s photographs and collages, noted as location-specific (Los Angeles), with a vinyl record of music by artists all handpicked by Draxler. To get a little deeper, the musicians were all provided with the same 34 sonic elements recorded by Drexler with which to create their piece; the only additional ingredient allowed was vocals if they so desired. Rather than include the entire list of contributors here, I’ll just say that much of the contents belong to the noise camp, with some entries abstract and others structural in a manner reminiscent of the Industrial genre at its most sonically extreme, but also, Japanoise purveyors like Masonna and Merzbow. However, some selections do depart from a tendency for surliness and abrasion, emitting dance thump and even a few poppish turns. It’s all dark, though. Vinyl+book in an edition of 500. A-

Emily Barker, A Dark Murmuration of Words (Thirty Tigers) This is Barker’s fourth solo album, though she has more than doubled that number of releases as a member of groups and in collaborations spanning back to 2003. A native of Australia, she’s resided in the UK for a while now, and her work has occasionally been tagged as Americana; Barker’s last album, 2017’s Sweet Kind of Blue, was recorded in Memphis at Sam Phillips’ joint. Her work on this follow-up can just as easily be categorized as folk, with the string arrangements (by Barker, Misha Law, and Emily Hall) emphasizing Britishness that’s contrasted by the desire for a more contemporary sound, though this aim should be contextualized as possessing tastefulness, restraint mingled with boldness, and a simultaneous desire to extend from folk classicism as a reservoir of beauty. Barker is a fine singer, her songs carry emotional heft, the playing is rich and instrumentally diverse, and “Machines” even kicks up a little racket. Very nice. A-

Andrew Wasylyk, Fugitive Light and Themes of Consolation (Athens of the North) This is the third in a trio of instrumental records from multi-instrumentalist Wasylyk, who was (and is likely still) a member (as Andrew Mitchell) of The Hazey Janes, a Scottish indie pop act of whom my impression has been mostly positive (he’s also played in Idlewild). The stated intent with these three records is to evoke the Eastern Scottish landscape, and without ever having been there, I’ll say he’s done a solid job of it, The selections on Fugitive Light, as on the prior entries, can be described as cinematic (one might also draw a subtle connection to post-rock). Wasylyk mostly plays guitars and keyboards across these ten selections, but also notably harp in the album highlight “(Half-Light Of) The Cadmium Moon,” which reinforces the influence of Alice Coltrane. As on the prior installment The Paralian from last year, Pete Harvey of King Creosote and Modern Studies contributes string arrangements, but it’s Wasylyk’s input that registers most strongly, and I’ll conclude by saying this is the best of his solo conceptual bunch. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Five from Black Jazz Records

Those looking to fortify their collections with some prime ’70s indie label jazz just hit the jackpot, as Real Gone Music is reissuing selections from the catalog of Black Jazz Records, including founder Gene Russell’s New Direction, Walter Bishop Jr.’s Coral Keys, The Awakening’s Hear, Sense and Feel, Doug Carn and Jean Carn’s Spirit of the New Land, and Kellee Patterson’s Maiden Voyage. With the exception of Patterson’s album, which arrives on September 25, all are out now on wax, with Russell’s album, Black Jazz’s debut, issued in the first drop of Record Store Day 2020.

Although there have been some recent questions regarding who exactly owned the label, it’s indisputable that pianist Gene Russell was the creative force behind Black Jazz Records, which makes it highly appropriate to begin this consideration of Real Gone’s reissues with New Direction, even as it isn’t necessarily representative of what was to come.

Released in 1971, New Direction is essentially a piano trio, with drums by Steve Clover and bass by either Henry Franklin or Larry Gates, and the lineup augmented on a few tracks with congas, notably played by drummer Tony Williams. The album consists entirely of cover selections, and has a decidedly soul-jazz feel; on one hand, it can be described as a blend of Ahmad Jamal, Red Garland and Ramsey Lewis, but with a welcome predilection for bluesy numbers.

However, the record opens with the Cal Tjader tune “Black Orchid,” which also began and titled a 1962 album for Blue Note from The Three Sounds, and furthermore concludes with “Makin’ Bread,” a song credited to Gene Harris, the pianist for The Three Sounds, the original of which can be found, titled as “Makin’ Bread Again,” on the ’67 Blue Note set Live at the Lighthouse.

Interestingly, Black Jazz released “Black Orchid” and “Makin’ Bread” as a 7-inch, reinforcing how The Three Sounds’ accessible brand of piano trio motion was very much on Russell’s mind. A version of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” drives the pop-jazz sensibility home even further, though the soul-jazz verve helps keep matters from ever getting innocuous. If not amazing, New Direction holds up as a pretty strong showing.

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Graded on a Curve: Johnny Iguana,
Johnny Iguana’s
Chicago Spectacular!

You may know Johnny Iguana as the founder, pianist and chief songwriter for the Chicago-based indie-blues act The Claudettes, but before that he was the keyboardist for Windy City blues giant Junior Wells. Additionally, playing with Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, and Eddy Clearwater, he’s an undisputed purveyor of the blues’ uncut essence. This reality gets driven home a dozen times on Johnny Iguana’s Chicago Spectacular!, wherein he conjures a massive sound from the ivories as he is joined by a sturdy crew of the city’s blues survivors, amongst them Billy Boy Arnold on vocals and harmonica and Lil’ Ed on vocals and guitar. The CD is out now on Delmark Records, a sure sign of quality.

Chicago Spectacular!’s cover is adorned with the additional descriptor A grand and upright celebration of Chicago Blues piano, a statement borne out through eight fresh interpretations of blues classics, most all of them with a Windy City connection, but with four original Iguana compositions (credited to his birth name Brian Berkowitz) diversifying the whole, all instrumentals and all familiar from the output of The Claudettes.

The breadth derives from the instrumental scheme as well as compositionally, with the originals featuring a distinct lineup of Bill Dickens on bass and Michael Caskey of The Claudettes on drums. Notably, guitar is absent on these cuts as they can occasionally insinuate pop-jazz piano trio grooving, but substantially heavier; however, as Bill Dahl mentions in his liner notes for the set, Mose Allison was an inspiration for the soloing in “Hammer and Tickle.” Still, there’s enough post-boogie-woogie oomph in the cut to remind me a bit of Pinetop Perkins’ later work.

Along with its title evincing a humorous side, “Land of Precisely Three Dances” hits a sweet spot between fleetness and stomp, its outburst of handclaps delivering the icing on the cake. Furthermore, the name “Big Easy Women” underscores a New Orleans feel that perseveres even as the momentum and sheer forcefulness rise to a striking plateau (Iguana’s love of punk rock a la Minutemen, Wire, and Hüsker Dü is readily apparent).

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