Author Archives: Joseph Neff

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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Graded on a Curve: Nolan Strong and the Diablos, “The Wind”
b/w “Baby Be Mine”

In 1954 Nolan Strong & the Diablos recorded one of the great doo wop singles, “The Wind” b/w ”Baby Be Mine.”For years it’s skirted under the radar as a pleasure known by far too few. But this Detroit group impacted two generations of Motown glory, and there is no time like the present to spread the word on this neglected classic.

It’s true that one of the perks of the CD era was the steady proliferation of box-sets, a development that was spurred by both a healthy economy and a general increase in consumer interest in having hefty chunks of music history loaded into their stereo system’s multi-disc changers. Yes, vinyl box sets weren’t uncommon, but in reality labels tended to shy away from subjects that required more than three or four LPs. Often they just broke them down into individual volumes, where most buyers reliably purchased the first few entries and left the subsequent installments (which is reliably where some of the best stuff was found) for those branded as “obsessive.”

This box-set boom included everything from Columbia’s 4-disc Roots ‘N’ Blues Retrospective collection, MCA’s generous stream of single artist and compilation sets procured from the vaults of Chess Records, Polydor’s Star Time, a 4-disc study of James Brown, and maybe the granddaddy of them all, Atlantic’s 9-disc The Complete Stax/Volt Singles 1959-1968. Naturally, Rhino Records got into the act with gusto, producing three 4-disc sets of garage-rock in the Nuggets series and a 4-disc collection of vocal group harmony titled The Doo Wop Box that was so successful it inspired two additional volumes.

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Graded on a Curve: Brigitte Fontaine,
Brigitte Fontaine

On her ’68 debut LP the youthful actress-writer-singer Brigitte Fontaine announced with conviction her presence as an artful practitioner of the chanson; shortly thereafter emerged a record firmly documenting a departure into the avant-garde as it further highlighted adeptness at collaboration. Three years elapsed before her next effort arrived, and the appropriately eponymous affair established her as a musician of distinction. Brigitte Fontaine is the latest of her albums to receive reissue from Superior Viaduct.

Prior to the release in ’68 of Brigitte Fontaine Est…Folle, an LP matching the now revered avant-vocalist and multi-media artist with the accessibly progressive arrangements of conductor Jean-Claude Vannier on 11 French pop songs, Brigitte Fontaine found early success as a playwright and actress, though she began singing in 1963 and made her first recordings with her theater partner, the noted French singer Jacques Higelin, in ’65.

Est…Folle may read like something of an anomaly for the angry year of 1968, but the way in which the sturdy voice of Fontaine and the superb conductions of Vannier (a name some will recognize for his arrangements on Serge Gainsbourg’s ’71 perv-classic Histoire de Melody Nelson, though he worked with Jane Birken and yé-yé singers Françoise Hardy and France Gall amongst others) magnificently gel into a record that would’ve spun naturally upon the turntable of many a chic revolutionary from the era (a la those populating Jean-Luc Godard’s ’67 film La Chinoise).

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Graded on a Curve:
HT Heartache,
Sundowner

Listeners pining for more of the alt-country/indie-folky sounds offered by performers such as Margo Timmins, Hope Sandoval, and Chan Marshall could easily get sated by the new album from Mary Roth, the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter who records and plays under the moniker HT Heartache. Together with the requisite digital option, Sundowner is currently available on vinyl in a limited edition of 400 copies, and it continues to essay the artistry set into motion on her 2010 debut.

The ambiguously named HT Heartache is but one component in Mary Roth’s broad résumé. Not only a singer-songwriter, she’s a model and actress, her work as the latter appearing in a slew of commercials for goods and services ranging from telecommunications to candy bars to car insurance. A sweet gig if one can get it, and in Roth’s case it has seemingly afforded an environment conducive to the pursuit of her musical goals.

This is not to infer that she is especially prolific; since she began writing tunes on her father’s guitar nearly a decade ago Roth has finished two records, an eight-song affair collecting her material up to ’08 titled Swing Low, and now Sundowner, a follow-up also holding eight-tracks that reinforces the moody qualities of her first effort.

As a country-derived artist, Roth has offered influences unsurprising (Emmylou Harris, George Jones) to less expected (Motown, namely Smokey Robinson, and ‘60s/’70s Soul/R&B in general) to pleasingly frank (a formative middle school obsession with the Counting Crows’ Recovering the Satellites). Upon listening to Swing Low however, HT Heartache exuded similarities to the Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins and to a lesser degree The Greatest-era Cat Power and Mazzy Star.

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Graded on a Curve: Lunchbox,
Lunchbox Loves You

Dating all the way back to 1994, Berkeley, CA’s Lunchbox is the work of two constant participants, guitarist-songwriter Tim Brown and bassist Donna McKean (they share vocal duties); after overcoming obstacles and reclaiming their original name, Lunchbox Loves You serves as their return. Those expecting a simple recapitulation of past glories should be pleasantly surprised by the growth Brown and McKean display on this LP’s tidy ten songs.

For folks unfamiliar with Lunchbox, the cover of their new release includes a few handy visual cues into the nature of the sound. For starters there’s the cake, the heart-shaped and clearly homemade dessert representing the sincerity of their occasionally sugary sweetness as it drives home the record’s titular message.

But that formidable blade, an instrument frankly overqualified for the task seemingly at hand, signifies the edge Lunchbox’s music frequently exhibits. While it’s not really accurate to describe them as heavy, throughout their history they’ve conjured reliable currents of intensity enhanced quite nicely at times by stabs of rawness.

And repeating a gesture from breakout ’99 effort The Magic of Sound, Lunchbox Loves You presents its entire track-listing smack dab on the front. This may not seem like an action of any major consequence, but it’s a design choice reflective of the 1960s, and in making it Brown and McKean underscore musical ties to the decade.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Animals,
The Animals

In addition to The Beatles and Stones, the British Invasion produced numerous other noteworthy groups, and one of the most successful was The Animals. A serious-minded bunch led by that brawny-throated student of American blues and early rock ‘n’ roll Eric Burdon, they persist in the modern memory mainly for their hit singles. But on the subject of albums, they also had a few very good ones, though differing US and UK editions have frustrated collectors on both sides of the Atlantic for years. Of the two versions of their 1964 debut The Animals, the Brit issue may not be the best, but it does give a deep glimpse into what this no-nonsense, solidly rocking band was initially all about.

Eric Burdon seems like the kind of cat who’d rather keel over dead than quit singing. Nearly fifty years after his first album came out he’s still out there doing it on stages, and like the R&B legends that provided him with his formative inspiration, his continued activity comes without a whole lot of pomp and circumstance.

Because he played an enjoyably quirky role in the landslide of ‘60s psychedelic rock by fronting a later incarnation of The Animals and proceeded from that to get his fingers nice and funky on a pair of albums in collaboration with the California groove merchants War, Burdon’s profile has easily transcended the outfit that began in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1962, when he joined up with a group then called The Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo.

In addition to Burdon and organist/keyboardist Price, the other members were Hilton Valentine on guitar, John Steel on drums, and Bryan “Chas” Chandler on bass. Rechristened as The Animals and following the advice of Yardbirds’ manager Giorgio Gomelsky, who obviously saw something in the band’s early stage act that was comparable to the act under his supervision, they moved to London and quickly hit the big time.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Moody Blues,
Go Now–The Moody Blues #1

Though the music they produced was only fitfully successful, the Denny Laine-fronted incarnation of The Moody Blues deserves to be remembered for more than a momentary chart fling topped by a gem of a single. In ’65 they released an album at home and another in the US under distinct titles, both holding a dozen tracks and with a third of each LP also unique. The better of the two, Go Now–The Moody Blues #1, was issued in the States by London Records.

Heavy on covers and by extension lacking in gestures toward originality, the ’64-’66-era Moody Blues are unlikely to be many people’s (I’ll stop short of saying anybody’s) most beloved component in the British Invasion. In fact, talk of the group today reliably focuses on the post-Denny Laine/Clint Warwick lineup that saw new members John Lodge and Justin Hayward helping to transmogrify the Moodies into one of the leading if artistically lesser examples of Symphonic Rock. I won’t sully the Prog genre with an inapt association since there was hardly anything progressive about The Moody Blues Mk 2.

Instead, they exemplified the Middlebrow impulse, though that’s ultimately a separate discussion. This piece concerns a band that came together when the leader of Denny Laine and the Diplomats joined up with a bunch of nameless Birmingham hopefuls, their main desire hitting it big or even just making a good living; they briefly played as the M & B 5, the initials an attempt at landing sponsorship from two local beer brewers (last names Mitchell and Butler). And similar to many of their contemporaries, The Moody Blues’ method at least initially was the borrowing and alteration of Rhythm and Blues.

And they did storm the charts with “Go Now,” in the process overtaking in popularity the terrific Leiber and Stoller-produced original by Bessie Banks, though the idea of the cover destroying the source’s commercial hopes is basically a myth. Banks’ tune was released by the Tiger label in January of ’64 while The Moody Blues’ version didn’t emerge until the following November, eventually peaking at #10 in the US in February of ’65 (it took top Brit honors a month earlier).

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Graded on a Curve:
The Chills,
“Molten Gold” b/w
“Pink Frost”

The Chills, nearly 35 years after coming together in Dunedin New Zealand and fronted as always by Martin Phillipps, are releasing a new vinyl single. “Molten Gold” b/w “Pink Frost,” out now through Fire Records, provides vibrant testimony to the heights of Phillipps’ pure pop vision, its two songs refreshingly unburdened by the stature of his past achievements.

I must confess to feeling just a twinge of envy in regard to the numerous guitar pop fans that have yet to make the acquaintance of the estimable Martin Phillipps. It’s not necessarily that the first occasion is the sweetest, but rather that the initial moment of discovery is distinct, the inaugural taste easy to recollect decades later.

Where was I the first time I heard The Chills? Unspectacularly, in the stereo room of a shared abode, though I did give my freshly acquired copy of “The Lost EP” at least a dozen spins on that day alone, primarily because the songs were so damned good, but also due to my persistent doubts over a batch of simple guitar pop being, well, so damned good.

New Zealand’s breakout indie label had their hands in a diverse range of early offerings, but alongside The Clean, The Verlaines, and Tall Dwarfs, The Chills are a cornerstone act in what’s described today as the Flying Nun Sound; with due respect to more famous countrymen the Brothers Finn (of Split Enz, Crowded House, etc), Martin Phillipps can be accurately (if of course arguably) lauded as the great Kiwi pop auteur, mainly due to assured breadth of artistry.

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Graded on a Curve: Karen Haglof,
Western Holiday

Those nutty over ‘80s NYC noise-rock and its attendant loose categorization New Music have likely heard Karen Haglof, for she was a player in the guitar ensemble of Rhys Chatham and a member of the undersung Band of Susans. Haglof eventually redirected her energies into the medical profession as a hematologist/oncologist in affiliation with New York University Hospital, but of late she’s scratched a reignited creative itch and produced her debut solo effort, the very appealing blend of bluesy Americana and big city guitar pop Western Holiday.

Prior to moving to New York City Karen Haglof was a resident of Minneapolis and in fact that’s where she began playing music. Subsequent to a trip east she strapped on the six-string under the name Karen Indiana in the trio the Crackers with fellow Minneapolitans Jay Peck, later of the Figures and Let’s Active, and Steve Almaas, previously of the terrific Suicide Commandos (‘78’s Make a Record is a punk classic) and thereafter of Beat Rodeo.

By ’83 Haglof was in cahoots with Rhys Chatham, appearing on the composer’s Factor X, a now scarce LP issued by the German Moers Music label. Roughly three years later she was part of the side-long title composition on Chatham’s brilliant Die Donnergötter. Amongst her cohorts on the track was Robert Poss; together with future Helmet honcho Page Hamilton and drummer Ron Spitzer, Haglof comprised the second lineup of Poss and Susan Stenger’s Band of Susans, her axe a component on their strongest release, 89’s Love Agenda.

She then followed an admirable detour into a medical career. Losing tabs on the scene is not unusual in this circumstance (she’s described her occupational focus as workaholic), but along with conversations with her old (and recently departed) Minneapolis friend and guitar teacher Jeff Hill, catching a screening of the documentary It Might Get Loud helped to reignite Haglof’s creativity.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Flesh Eaters,
A Minute to Pray,
A Second to Die

Any shelf dedicated to classic California punk requires representation by the Flesh Eaters of Chris Desjardins, aka Chris D. Never a bad record has he made under that moniker, but the finest of them remains the talent-drenched and enduringly brilliant 1981 LP A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die. It’s just been given a welcome reissue by Superior Viaduct of San Francisco.

I first learned of Chris D.’s work in the latter portion of the 1980s, my discovery largely aided by the diligent underground music press of the era, in particular the scribbling of Byron Coley. While numerous zines featured reviews of both the Flesh Eaters and Chris D.’s band of the period The Divine Horsemen, it was really Coley that helped to put Desjardins’ art in proper context.

In fact, Coley’s such a determined champion of the man’s work that his new liners for this reissue aren’t an extra so much as a prerequisite. And the insight was found in more than just reviews, articles, and prior sleeve notes, as Coley and Forced Exposure publisher/writer Jimmy Johnson conducted an extensive interview with Desjardins for issue #12 of their reliably hefty “quarterly” mag. The duo also provided space in the back for “Chris D.’s Video Guide,” an enjoyable and extremely enlightening tour of the guy’s VHS collection.

I’d already sized Desjardins up as a major part of the USA’s roots punk brigade, his output landing in the same rough region as The Cramps, X, The Blasters, The Plugz, and The Gun Club, but the conversation in FE presented him as an uncommonly astute member of the punk community (especially when compared with the average Flipside chat).

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