Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Jefre Cantu-Ledesma,
A Year With 13 Moons

Some will recognize Jefre Cantu-Ledesma as a founding member of Tarentel, others will know him as a diligent collaborator (with filmmaker Paul Clipson, Grouper’s Liz Harris as Raum and Alexis Georgopoulos in both Arp and The Alps), while various aural adventurers will have experienced the extensive output of his Root Strata label. Hitting racks this week through Mexican Summer is his latest LP A Year With 13 Moons; it finds the musician continuing to progress after roughly two decades of development.

As part of San Francisco’s Tarentel, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma initially emerged as a contributing factor in the great post-rock upsurge of the late-20th century, but across the multi-instrumentalist’s solo work, of which there is much to choose from, his modus operandi can be synopsized as abstractionism frequently residing at the intersection of ambient and drone.

An appealing aspect of Cantu-Ledesma’s artistry is seriousness of intent. I won’t pretend to have heard the entirety of his productivity, but nothing my ears have soaked up, a sum including ‘07’s Garden of Forking Paths and ’10’s Love Is a Stream (each very strong), leads me to suspect his prolificacy is due to a lack of restraint. I’m also on board with his cross-media interests, specifically an orientation toward film that’s nicely underscored by A Year With 13 Moons’ title adjustment of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1978 classic of the New German Cinema.

Mexican Summer’s promo text lists other filmmakers as well. There’re nods by Cantu-Ledesma to Euro-masters Alain Resnais and Chantal Akerman, and elsewhere the writing draws comparisons to the soundtracks of Michael Mann. Now, if you’re thinking the recently deceased art-film cornerstone Resnais is incompatible with the guy who directed Miami Vice, well, you shouldn’t; this false opposition is frankly a key component in A Year With 13 Moons’ aesthetic strategy.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Fireworks,
Switch Me On

The Fireworks’ primary sonic objective is drenching catchy guitar pop in feedback and fuzz as they add gal-guy vocals and unleash the ingredients through a trim energetic attack. Featuring 13 hard-hitting songs and a handful of twists, Switch Me On is the London and Brighton UK-based four-piece’s first LP. It’s out this week on blood red vinyl exclusive to Rough Trade shops and on white wax via Shelflife Records.

The Fireworks boast a diverse if complementary background. To begin, vocalist, tambourine rattler and guitarist Emma Hall was/is a member of Pocketbooks, a group that amongst other achievements headlined the inaugural indietracks festival back in 2007. Held at the Midland Railway Centre in Derbyshire, indietracks has grown from a one-day event into a huge annual affair spanning a cluster of calendar dates.

Similarly, the club parties/DJ nights Hall’s singing partner and guitarist Matthew Rimell organized under the telling name Big Pink Cake unsurprisingly blossomed into a record label. To my knowledge The Fireworks’ bassist Isabel Albiol doesn’t set up fests or club-nights, but as a visual artist of note her intriguing work has appeared in solo and group exhibitions. And that leaves drummer and additional guitarist Shaun Charman, formerly of The Wedding Present and a member of The Popguns.

In 2012 The Popguns recommenced activity and were one of the acts shaping up indietracks’ ’14 shebang; their participation in a roster 59-deep reinforces the tight-knit and thriving nature of the indie pop scene. Likewise, tilting an ear toward The Fireworks’ debut, a self-titled 4-song EP issued by Shelflife in ’13, underscores how said community is largely less concerned with attempts at wheel reinvention and more interested in subtle variations upon memorable rides down well-traversed routes.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Brazilian Boogie Connection: From Rio to São Paulo (1976-1983)

First there was Bombay Disco: Disco Hits from Hindi Films 1979-1985, a very worthwhile collection from Boston’s Cultures of Soul label. It was smartly followed with Tropical Disco Hustle, an appealing survey of the Caribbean adaptation of the titular style. Next was Bombay Disco 2, and now the latest installment has arrived; The Brazilian Boogie Connection: From Rio to São Paulo (1976-1983) features 13 tracks from 11 acts. Compiled by Deano Sounds and Greg Caz, the 2LP/CD continues to document the fleeting global dominance of the USA’s dance floor export.

Cultures of Soul’s anthologizing of disco’s extensive impact has been steady, thorough, and to these ears quite welcome. Still too frequently derided as a fad rather than a transitional stylistic phenomenon springing from the ‘70s Philadelphia underground, disco deserves its due, and the more evidence of the music’s worldwide assimilation the better.

Well, as long as the sounds hold up. If more than a passing fashion, disco could be easily and brazenly transformed into a vessel of uninhibited commercialism, and in fact that’s all many people remember about it, or even noticed at the time. And as one of the most populous countries on the planet, it was inevitable disco mania would emanate from Brazil’s twin record-producing locales Rio and São Paulo.

Those cities would remain the centers of the Brazilian music industry until the ‘90s. The compilation opens with two from Bossa Nova man Marcos Valle; his most highly regarded stuff comes from ’68-’74, but after five years in Los Angeles, where he worked with Chicago and R&B artist Leon Ware, he returned home ready to boogie. His “A Paraíba Não é Chicago” is slick but crisp, wielding clean guitar, spongy bass, smooth horns, and energetic if unperturbed voices in Portuguese and English.

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Graded on a Curve:
Dreams and Images

Late in 1967 Arthur Lee Harper cut an album in Los Angeles. Even with the studio expertise of Lee Hazlewood, a plum spot on the producer’s LHI Records, and the distribution muscle of the American Broadcasting Company, the LP was not a hit, and with one exception three years later, Harper didn’t record again. Many reissues make it abundantly clear why they missed the marketplace, but Dreams and Images, recently reprinted by Light in the Attic, is simply a modest debut, very much of its era, that retains a sense of artistic promise curtailed.

During the second half of the 1960s the planet was chock-full of idealistic youngsters endeavoring to hit it big, a shared yearning certainly entailing contemporary notions of stardom that in the context of its era also embodied being an agent of positive change. Amid this mass of eager humanity Arthur Lee Harper made it farther than most, his full-length actually getting into racks.

And notably, he did so before the Summer of Love’s energies began going stale, a circumstance due in part to fortuitously hooking up with a singer-songwriter-producer in the midst of a career high. Most famous for his fruitful musical partnership with Nancy Sinatra, Lee Hazlewood was a superb blend of accessibility and idiosyncrasy, and for a few years his fortunes led him to spearhead a label.

Between ’67 and ’71 Lee Hazlewood Industries was more prolific than successful, but some of the enterprise’s best work came early and in association with ABC. The relationship lasted hardly beyond a year, the brevity allowing for the distribution of the solitary, self-titled LP by girl-group Honey Ltd., Safe at Home by the International Submarine Band (whose membership included a young Gram Parsons), and Dreams and Images by Arthur Lee Harper.

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Graded on a Curve:
John Carpenter,
Lost Themes

John Carpenter’s accomplishments as a director include a handful of masterpieces and a larger number of cult classics, his body of work defining him as a maestro of genre flicks and maker of personal films. Part of the distinctiveness relates to Carpenter’s frequent role as composer; he’s credited in this capacity on such heavyweights of the American Cinema as Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Big Trouble in Little China, and They Live. Now Sacred Bones offers Carpenter’s non-OST debut with Lost Themes, his legion of fans unlikely to require much persuading in order to investigate further.

I guess the mainstream consensus on John Carpenter is that he’s just one in a long line of filmmakers who started out strong, hung in there for a while and then faltered as time progressed. And our current motion picture industry does a good job of making it seem like he’s retired; his last effort was The Ward, which hit US theatres, or a few of them anyway, back in 2011.

But for an ever growing pack of buffs, Carpenter is a very special auteur indeed. Gaining his biggest commercial and critical success with Halloween in 1978, it and the titles surrounding it in his filmography are trim, energetic no-nonsense affairs emerging from a motion-picture scene noted for self-consciousness and excessiveness.

Circa the late-‘70s, Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Cimino, and even that lurid genre-dabbler De Palma were all clearly Artists. Where the family-friendly Lucas and Spielberg danced atop the rubble of the New Hollywood and ushered in the age of the multiplex, Carpenter rose out of the exploitation scene and subsequently spent the majority of his career in unfashionable if not always disreputable territory.

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Graded on a Curve:
Half Japanese,
Volume Two: 1987-1989

Half Japanese wield an instantly recognizable yet consistently evolving amateurism springing from the immediate shockwaves of 1977 and continuing right up to the present; they stand as one of the true pillars of Underground USA. Featuring numerous personnel led by solitary constant member Jad Fair, the band has inspired scores of folks to pick up instruments and press record. Particularly significant were the albums released in the late-‘80s; this week Fire Records carries on anthologizing their output by collecting those and relevant bonus material in the 3LP/3CD/digital set Volume Two: 1987-1989.

While it’s taken a back seat to Jeff Feuerzeig’s excellent 2005 film portrait The Devil and Daniel Johnston, I rate that director’s ‘93 documentary Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King nearly as high, in large part because its approach, often comedic but never mocking, is as endearingly unconventional as the subject it covers.

Much of the humor is Feuerzeig poking fun at the overzealous stumping of music docs in general. Along the way indie celebrity talking heads, occasionally purposefully grandstanding, help to deliver essential background as performances by Jad Fair and his cohorts quietly shift the film’s tone from satire/parody (a mock-Mockumentary, if you will) to an essay of singular brilliance.

Like the movie, the sounds harnessed in the prior installments of Fire Records’ reissue series, namely ½ Gentlemen/ Not Beasts and Volume One: 1981-1985, vividly illustrate that the world, certainly not before and hardly ever since, offered nothing comparable to the fascinating growth spurts of the early incarnations of Half Japanese.

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Graded on a Curve: Lynyrd Skynyrd,
Lynyrd Skynyrd

During the 1970s Lynyrd Skynyrd was the premier name Southern Rock, and for scores of folks their first six records constitute something akin to the apex of that oft-derided genre. This week Universal offers exact reproductions of their ’73-’77 output, specifically five studio LPs and one live double, on 180gm vinyl tucked into a rigid, eponymous slipcase box.

Though I’m too young to remember pre-plane crash Lynyrd Skynyrd, I do recall a time before their status seemed to break down to extremes, with religious fervor on one side and a source of humor/target of mockery on the other. This is not to insinuate the outfit didn’t reliably stir intense devotion throughout their existence; indeed, youthful memories designate the band as one of the few for which uttering an unkind word in public could result in hostilities not excluding violence.

I’d never disparage Skynyrd as rednecks (the ‘70s incarnation, anyway), because I don’t think that’s accurate. But amongst their fans undeniably dwelt an intolerant percentage. Furthermore, prior to descending into unimaginative rock-club attention-seeking the entreaty to “Play Free Bird” essentially reflected the phenomenon of weekend booze-hounds harassing bar acts into committing a rather ornate tune to their book.

So please forgive me for thinking Skynyrd needs no introduction. And to this writer they became increasingly burdensome upon growing more omnipresent, just one more reason to tunnel deeper into the ‘80s underground. Later, upon making the acquaintance of such killers of obscure ‘70s southern rock (if not exactly Southern Rock) as the Hampton Grease Band’s Music to Eat and James Luther Dickinson’s Dixie Fried, I really couldn’t have cared less.

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Graded on a Curve:
Otis Clay, Trying to Live My Life Without You

Even though he had some hits, Otis Clay never achieved great fame as a soul man. He’s made some fine discs over the years however, and if prime soul circa the early-‘70s fits into your bag, then you may want to check out the reissue of Trying to Live My Life without You. Initially released in 1972 by Hi Records, a definite signifier of soul quality, the LP is currently being offered on vinyl by Fat Possum. Amongst other redeeming qualities, it’s serves as the best representation of his work under the auspices of renowned producer Willie Mitchell.

Though he’s accumulated numerous honors and is still active today, Otis Clay’s career continues to be defined by the records he cut in the 1970s for the Hi imprint of Memphis, Tennessee. And those who recognize Hi as the label responsible for one of the greatest of all soul movers Al Green should have no problem understanding why Clay’s tenure there produced his most famous stuff.

At the time, Green certainly overshadowed every other Hi artist including the consistent hit-maker Ann Peebles, but it’s also undeniable that his massive popularity was simultaneously positive for the roster as a whole. Without it, it’s very unlikely that Clay’s singles there would’ve ended up partially comprising his debut LP.

But if surely a fruitful association, Clay’s relationship with that now storied company has unfortunately not delivered him from the well-populated ranks of underappreciated soul belters. Where the star of his Hi cohort Syl Johnson has steadily risen to the point where he is now accurately described as a cult figure (with a 4CD/6LP Numero Group box set to his credit), the same circumstance has thus far eluded Clay.

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Graded on a Curve: Cornershop,
Hold On It’s Easy

In 1994, after announcing their presence with a pair of EPs, the UK combo Cornershop released Hold On It Hurts. Eventual chart breakouts, that debut full-length instead positioned them as part of the burgeoning Riot Grrl movement. A shade over twenty years since, they reflect on the milestone not by giving it a souped-up anniversary repressing but by reimagining it as an Easy Listening album. On the surface Hold On It’s Easy might seem a joke taken to a confounding extreme; it’s actually just the latest savvy maneuver from a consistently smart band, out on vinyl/digital February 2nd via Ample Play.

1997’s “Brimful of Asha” and its corresponding long-player When I Was Born for the 7th Time raised Cornershop’s profile on both sides of the pond, but it also served as an indicator of significant stylistic development and effectively marked the end of their formative phase, an era that found them initially crafting rough-hewn guitar-based post-punk and fruitfully joining it with the influence of Indian music.

The early rumblings of the Brothers Tjinder and Avtar Singh, Ben Ayers, and David Chambers culminated in the arrival of Hold On It Hurts, a scrappy affair blending sturdy punk knowledge (the opening track from their “Lock, Stock & Double-Barrel” EP is titled “England’s Dreaming”) with a decided contemporary relevance. To elaborate, it was issued by Wiiija Records, a UK indie spanning back to the late-‘80s that gained prominence throughout the next decade partially in association with Riot Grrl.

Wiiija released/licensed items from Skinned Teen, Huggy Bear, Frumpies, Free Kitten, Bikini Kill, and indeed Cornershop, who are described by Ample Play in connection to Hold on It’s Easy as the only all male band to be a part of the whole Riot Grrl explosion. And listening again to Hold On It Hurts, an LP of fleeting melodicism, inspired stabs of post-punk, the aforementioned Indian elements (to blossom on When I Was Born for the 7th Time) and bursts of squalling feedback, Ample Play’s claim is easy to believe.

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Graded on a Curve: Jonathan Badger,

Yet another exponent of Baltimore’s fertile experimental scene, Jonathan Badger is a guitarist and composer blending elements of electronic music, gestures from the post-rock genre, and the subtle influence of Robert Fripp into a surprisingly fresh sound. His latest album Verse has been available on LP/CD/digital via Cuneiform Records since last September, and this Saturday January 24th he appears at the Velvet Lounge in Washington, DC on a bill with Anthony Pirog and Luke Stewart.

Like many of his peers in the experimental field, Jonathan Badger’s profile is small, though his list of achievements borders on overload. For starters, he was commissioned to write a ballet and an opera while a student at the University of South Carolina. He received his BS and subsequently earned a PhD in political philosophy from Fordham, studied music at Duke and then obtained a multidisciplinary master’s degree from North Carolina State, where he composed a suite for piano quintet with soprano and computer setting texts from Kant, Nietzsche, and the Book of Job to music.

Please add teaching music and philosophy at Annapolis, MD’s St. John’s College, having his book Sophocles and the Politics of Tragedy: Cities and Transcendence published by Routledge Press in 2012, and releasing a series of albums, two studio: ‘06’s Metasonic, ‘10’s Unsung Stories from Lilly’s Days as a Solar Astronaut, and two live: ‘07’s Taps and ‘10’s Summer Electra.

Oh, and there was seven years of study in Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft school. Seriously, the guy’s been busy, and Verse is but the newest notch on his belt. It’s his first for the Silver Spring, MD-based Cuneiform label, and the LP solidly documents Badger’s continued development; all of the prior releases were truly solo affairs, but for this one he’s enlisted a bunch of help.

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