Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Kristin Hersh,
Possible Dust Clouds

Distinguished for co-founding Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh’s 21st century musical thrust has been dominated by the trio 50FootWave, and even more so her increased solo activity; six of the ten albums released under her own name have emerged post-2000. Recurring and ambitious, as Hersh’s prior set presented what seemed a hard act to follow. Rather than fall victim to the pitfalls of the repetitive (or the willful avoidance thereof), the noted self-multi-tracker just rounded up some frequent playing partners (including her son Wyatt) and tore into ten fresh ones. If it lacks the breadth and heft of her last, Possible Dust Clouds is tidy, tough and strong, and it’s out now through Fire Records.

Kristin Hersh’s previous full-length, 2016’s Wyatt at the Coyote Palace, combined two CDs with a hardback book featuring lyrics, notes, essays, and photographs (released through the music-related book publisher Omnibus Press), though a standalone 2LP version came out the following year (offered by Athens, GA’s Happy Happy Birthday to Me). In either iteration it connected as a major career statement. What it wasn’t was any kind of return to form.

It wasn’t even Hersh’s first music-book combo; that would be Crooked from 2010 (and regarding standalone tomes, she has more than a couple). Wyatt at the Coyote Palace did shape up as a highly personal statement that cemented the artist’s creative longevity as both remarkably consistent and persistently urgent (scenarios that have proved elusive for a significant portion of her Alternative-era contemporaries). And after time spent, it additionally registered as a hard act to follow.

The success of Possible Dust Clouds comes through adjustments in scale and delivery that are no stretch for Hersh. Therefore, they feel natural. Specifically, there’s a focus on a smaller trad-album length batch of songs, something she’s done more often than not in Throwing Muses and 50FootWave, as she opens up the recording process to additional players, an operating procedure (it should go without saying) of which she’s no stranger, though Hersh was in fact the only contributing musician on Crooked and Wyatt at the Coyote Palace.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, October 2018, Part Two

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for October, 2018. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Alec K. Redfearn and The Eyesores, The Opposite (Cuneiform) After a short hiatus, Silver Spring’s venerable avant-prog-experimental-jazz label is back at it, and along with digitally reissuing prior material by this always interesting Providence, RI-based band, they offer the outfit’s latest on LP and CD. It’s a treat. Over their 20-year existence, Redfearn and cohorts have stood out a bit in Cuneiform’s general scheme (this is their fourth for the label), but upon listening here, they and Steve Feigenbaum’s enduring love of art-rock remain a perfect fit. Redfearn plays accordion, and his knack for keeping it in the forefront of his music while eradicating even a hint of novelty remains impressive. Those keen on ambitiousness in the rock sphere should definitely lend this one some time. A-

Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles, Love’s Middle Name (Blue Corn) Borges has been on the scene for a while, with prior efforts with the Broken Singles and solo in her discography. The sound? It’s been called Americana (she’s won an Americana Music Award, in fact), but it’s important to qualify that hers is an approach well-suited for humid, boozy weekend bars. That means it rocks, and the thrust here is maybe better tagged as country-punk. What distinguishes Borges from some with a similar inclination is the quality of her songs and the strength of her pipes, and on this new one, the smart choice of hooking up with producer Eric Ambel, who also plays lead guitar on the record (as he did in Joan Jett’s Blackhearts). The outcome is that all the elements are in fine balance, with nary a misstep. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: The Fall, I Am Kurious Orang (Beggars Arkive) If memory serves, anti-Brix-era sentiment reached something like its apex post-The Franz Experiment in early ’88; certainly, there were some who’d suggested Mark E. Smith was “over with” or had “sold out.” Emerging in the autumn of the same year, this set, created to accompany a ballet by the Michael Clark Company loosely based on the life and “psyche” of William of Orange, made it plain those negative assessments were balderdash. Having listened to this record a ridiculous number of times in the year or so after its release (returning to it intermittently ever since), I know it well, and it hasn’t lost a thing. To my ears, at least half of this is as good as post-Rough Trade Fall gets, and the rest isn’t far behind. That makes it utterly essential. A

The Groundhogs, Blues Obituary (Fire) When it comes to the ’60s wave of Brit blues-rock, I rate The Groundhogs higher than Savoy Brown, Chicken Shack, and even Ten Years After (I’m guessing those nutzo for Alvin Lee will consider this heresy). In fact, I’d rank the ‘hogs as roughly equal to Fleetwood Mac (and another group of readers has just thrown up their hands in disgust). Like the Mac, guitarist Tony TS McPhee, bassist Pete Cruikshank, and drummer Ken Pustelnik moved beyond the blues, and after doing so entered their classic period. But this, the band’s second LP (and trio debut) directly led to that phase. The no-frills punch of the recording, McPhee’s smoking guitar, the air non-reverence combined with good taste, and the sharp trio interaction is a major achievement in itself. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
The Other Years,
The Other Years

One can rest-assured that the reservoir of contemporary old-time artistry far exceeds the supply of new recordings, in part due to the participants valuing community, and live playing in particular, over establishing some sort of foothold on a pro career. Rather than watering things down or gussying them up for consumption, the best current wax in the old-time style manages to capture this emphasis on social music like a snapshot, and the self-titled debut from the Kentucky duo The Other Years is a fine example. Anna Krippenstapel and Heather Summers aren’t affectedly rustic, however. Theirs is a rich potency expressed largely through striking original songs, and it’s available now through No Quarter.

Some neo-old-timey stuff leans so heavily into authenticity that it begins to feel like theatrics; at the very least, an ear will find it extremely difficult if not impossible to misplace that it is young people playing music that’s significantly older than they are. Older than their grandparents, even. This quality isn’t absent on The Other Years, but by its end numerous moments have accumulated where the primacy of the old-time objective is augmented with creativity that’s considerably, and at a few points, arrestingly beautiful, and in a manner not at all discordant with the contemporary.

Along with guitar and vocals, Anna Krippenstapel bows the fiddle here, while Heather Summers plucks the banjo and adds guitar and vocals of her own. To hopefully offset the potential romanticizing of the “social music” idea (the term in this context spanning back to the middle of last century as a category of the Harry Smith-compiled Anthology of American Folk Music), Krippenstapel has prior recording experience, contributing to releases by fellow Louisville residents Joan Shelley (a labelmate and old friend of The Other Years) and Freakwater (she can be heard on their latest release Scheherazade).

Further breaking down the old-time mystique, Krippenstapel played violin in Vampire Squid, which by reports (there aren’t many) was an arty-metal band. What she and Summers achieve on this debut lands decidedly nearer to the moments in Freakwater that zero in on Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin; there’s also the timeless duo of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard to consider.

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Graded on a Curve: Charalambides,
Tom and Christina Carter

Houston’s Charalambides have amassed over thirty full-length releases since 1993, with their output (a large hunk on vinyl) navigating the realms of acid-folk, psych-rock, and improvisation. It’s a significant accumulation of sound, but newcomers shouldn’t be flummoxed over when and how to jump in, as there is no better time than now through their latest; it’s out October 12 via Drawing Room Records. Charalambides has trio incarnations in their history, but the title of the new one gets right at their enduring reality as a duo: Tom and Christina Carter. With six tracks spread across four sides of vinyl, the byproduct of their union is exploratory, at times gentle and distant but intense and never unfocused.

The genres of acid-folk and psych-rock cover a lot of territory, so it’s worth adding that the mention of improv in the paragraph above (all three terms borrowed from the autobiographical description on their Bandcamp page, where they’ve attached the phrase “outer limits”) establishes an undeniable rigor, even as the music on their latest (and as its title expresses, a good representation of their discography as a whole) isn’t antagonistic or abrasive in nature.

A good litmus test for receptiveness to Charalambides would be how a listener feels about Jandek (and with emphasis on the listening and not just an appreciation of the latter’s unusual backstory). Now, some will say that if a person doesn’t know Charalambides they are unlikely to know Jandek, but I disagree, as a documentary film has been made and book chapters have been written on the guy.

It’s not just the shared locale (Jandek hails from Houston). It’s not just that Heather Leigh, who is one of the two folks to have filled out the trio lineups of Charalambides (and also half of Scorces with Christina Carter) has played live and on record with Jandek. And it’s not just that on the 1995 compilation Drilling The Curve Charalambides covered Jandek’s “Variant.” But put all three instances together and you do have a worthwhile point of reference.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, October 2018, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for October, 2018. 

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Nathan Bowles, Plainly Mistaken (Paradise of Bachelors) Oh, yes. The latest album from banjoist Bowles (of Pelt, Black Twig Pickers, and Steve Gunn) is the first to journey into the full-band zone, and it’s an absolute delight. Mostly instrumental (there are two tracks with vocals) and peppered with interpretive selections (from Ernie Carpenter to Cousin Emmy and Her Kinfolk to an opening stab at Julie Tippetts’ “Now If You Remember”), the music extends Bowles’ immersion into Appalachian-Piedmont traditions, moving so far beyond mere Americana that it deserves a category of its own. Casey Toll’s bowed double bass helps bring to mind NC’s Shark Quest (a cool thing), but “Ruby in Kind I” is like a hybrid of Roscoe Holcomb, Up On the Sun-era Meat Puppets and Henry Flynt. Hot effing damn. A

Puce Mary, The Drought (PAN) Puce Mary is Frederikke Hoffmeier, and since 2013 the Copenhagen-based sound artist has released five LPs combining power electronics, industrial noise, and experimentation. For number six, new label PAN says she’s dialed back the extremity a bit; dipping into her prior stuff backs up the claim, though on the general musical scale, The Drought is still pretty uncompromising, with opener “Dissolve” a fitting soundtrack for a journey into the bowels of hell. But to her credit, that’s not really the atmosphere she’s striving for, with cited inspirations including Baudelaire, Jean Genet, and Antonioni’s masterpiece Red Desert. Power electronics-related stuff once regularly marinated in ideologically sketchy subject matter, so the lack of such here is refreshing. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Alvin Curran, Canti E Vedute Del Giardino Magnetico (Superior Viaduct) Curran was one of the founders of Musica Elettronica Viva, who along with AMM served as a cornerstone of free improvisation. If the term free improv brings you automatic associations with jazz, MEV was not that, just as this mid-’70s LP is not MEV. Using field recordings (ocean waves, wind, high-tension wires, frogs, birds, and bees), synth, chimes, and on the first of two side-long tracks, the human voice, Curran integrates aspects of Minimalism without ever becoming an example of the then-nascent style. In part due to the vocals, side one holds some similarities to Modernist classical, while the flip drifts like prime kosmische. All-in-all, a fully formed and deftly conceived avant experience. A

Phill Niblock, Niblock For Celli / Celli Plays Niblock (Superior Viaduct) Niblock is an avant-gardist of distinction, but as Superior Viaduct mentions in their press for this reissue, he didn’t get around to recording until the early ’80s (SV already has his stellar debut Nothin To Look At Just A Record in their catalog). The delay wasn’t out of frustration or late-blooming, as Niblock had been composing (and filming The Magic Sun, a killer experimental short documenting a performance by the Sun Ra Arkestra). He was certainly also accumulating experience, which really shines through in his first two LPs (originally for India Navigation). This is the second, with Joseph Celli on oboe and English horn, and it’s an utter feast for drone lovers. If that’s you, then dive right in. Also, Niblock advises you to crank this baby up. A+

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Graded on a Curve:
Urge Overkill,
Saturation

Of the bands that transitioned from the late ’80 US indie rock scene to the early ’90s major label lifestyle, few if any embraced hitting the “big time” with more vigor than Chicago’s Urge Overkill. While a certain Neil Diamond cover endures as their most popular song, the band’s first album for Geffen did make some waves, and if they didn’t capitalize on its success, it remains more than a footnote or a relic of an unpredictable era. That is to say, in 2018 Saturation holds up fairly well. Its 25th anniversary reissue is out now through Porterhouse Records in a clear blue vinyl edition of 1,000.

As a byproduct of a scene where the band t-shirt became an increasingly common signifier of “regular guy” bona fides (to the point where it was almost a uniform), Urge Overkill oozed panache. And as they barreled forth into the upside-down musical landscape of the 1990s, the band progressively cultivated an image as exponents of the highlife, to the point where gazing upon their sharp threads and soaking up the air of confidence they exuded, one could reasonably expect them to offer a sound in the neighborhood of neo-loungsters Combustible Edison.

Urge Overkill rocked it heavy, however. Indeed, early on they were occasionally tagged as noise-rock, with their debut EP for Ruthless Records, 1986’s “Strange, I…” recorded by Steve Albini. His studio touch on the record is considerably felt, but even at this point, in contrast to some of their subterranean scene peers (a handful of them also from Chicago), it didn’t connect as if they were brutalizing rock forms, but rather just kicking things up a few notches in accord with the u-ground moment.

The “Wichita Lineman” b/w “Eggs” 45, the band’s first release on Touch and Go, came out the next year. At the time, some lumped in the disc’s a-side handling of the Jimmy Webb chestnut with the cover tune fun and games of their labelmates Killdozer, but it was somewhat nearer to the more stone-faced tactic as employed by Big Black. Really, it was a harbinger of things to come.

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Graded on a Curve:
Brian Owens,
Soul of Cash

Johnny Cash endures as an archetype of American song, and his vast catalog is easily available for the hearing. It’s sensible to assume that every day new listeners are introduced to his work, but for those well-versed in it, the surprises are few. What about interpretations from other artists? Well, that can be a formidable task, but R&B vocalist Brian Owens is up to the challenge. With assistance from drummer Daru Jones and Robert Randolph and the Family Band, his new record gives a selection of Cash’s most beloved tunes a soul transformation, and the endeavor is not only an unstrained success, it’s often a delight. Soul of Cash is out October 6 through Soul Step Records.

I love Johnny Cash, but I don’t love him the way some folks of my acquaintance profess to. Those guys (and in my experience, guys it has always been) view any kind of non-reverent interpretation of Cash’s songs as a personal affront. As an example, once around 25 years or so back, I had a summer cookout, and a friend brought a friend. Can’t remember the cat’s name, but I do recall the look on his face when The Skatalites’ version of “Ring of Fire” started playing on the box.

It was like someone sauntered up and shat a big load right atop his plate of hot dogs. As the song continued playing he flatly stated something along the lines of “you just don’t do that to Johnny Cash.” I can only imagine what he would’ve done if it’d been Tom Jones’ (pretty dang good) reading of the same song. Spit out a lung, perhaps. This may seem a miniscule thing to remember after roughly a quarter century, but it’s remained in the memory because it relates to a broader question: exactly what kind of tribute befits a canonical artist best?

Straight covers of songs are often cool, but when it comes to stuff that’s been burned into the collective consciousness (with apologies to folks reading this who somehow aren’t yet familiar with Cash’s work), what would be the point? That kind of tribute isn’t interpretation, it’s impersonation. One can stick close to the source with fine results of course, but to do so out due to some sense of sanctity in my estimation is just bouge.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, September 2018,
Part Four

Part four of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for September, 2018. Part one is here, part two is here, and part three is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Andrew Bernstein, An Exploded View of Time (Hausu Mountain) The skinny on the full-length debut from Charm City saxophonist Bernstein is that it sits at the crossroads of elevated technique and pure stamina. The cumulative effect is striking and occasionally inspires awe. A lack of background will assuredly lead to assumptions that a looping apparatus (or three) is part of the scheme, but with one exception it’s all Bernstein, and without a trace of show-off gimmickry. What he conjures in the first couple tracks lands firmly in the zone of Minimalism, and that’s cool. Even better is his expansion into territory reminiscent of solo Evan Parker and Colin Stetson, though the Minimalist aura never totally dissipates. Rigorous but never cold, this is experimental music at its best. A

Marissa Nadler, For My Crimes (Sacred Bones – Bella Union) Nadler’s eighth album is her finest yet. Featuring a load of guests including Angel Olsen, Hole drummer Patty Schemel, Sharon Van Etten, Mary Lattimore, Dum Dum Girl Kristin Kontrol, and Janel Leppin, the confluence of female talent (all but one of the contributing musicians are women) surely adds to For My Crimes’ value, but it’s mainly great because Nadler’s songs, hovering between introspective-confessional folk and robust singer-songwriter territory, are consistently top-flight and at times quite inventive, especially lyrically. And yet it all unfolds naturally. Dealing with relationship troubles/ marital strife, the album is emotionally resonant but never a bringdown; instead, it inspires immediate repeated listens and blooms under the exposure. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Algebra Mothers, A-Moms = Algebra Mothers (Third Man) Until now, the sole release by Detroit’s Algebra Mothers was their “Strawberry Cheesecake” b/w “Modern Noise” 45 from 1979, a superb hunk of subterranean punk from the arty-wavy end of the Killed by Death spectrum. A new pressing of that one is forthcoming from Third Man, which is cool as it’s never been reissued, but nearly as snazzy is this collection of previously unreleased home-recorded demos and live stuff covering ’77-’84 (A-Moms opened for, amongst others, Pere Ubu and The Sonic Rendezvous Band). While it’s not really the thing for those with a casual interest in punk, avid fans of the style’s early years should find much to enjoy. The single remains tops, but a high percentage of this gets in the ballpark. B+

Jack Wilkins, Windows (We Want Sounds) This reissues a very interesting guitar trio LP from Bob Shad’s Mainstream label that crate-diggers will know from A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders. It’s easy to peg the era of origin (‘twas issued sans fanfare in ’73), but it’s far less marred by ’70s excesses than you might suspect. In fact, I’d say it’s not really marred at all, though the potential does hover in the background. And so, the whole registers as a little short of a knockout for me, but thankfully the recording budget was small, with the ambiance appealing. Wilkins is a virtuoso and shows it without going overboard. Drummer Bill Goodwin and electric bassist Mike Moore are solid. There’s a nice, slow version of Coltrane’s “Naima.” Originals go for over a hundred, so this one is a public service. B+

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Graded on a Curve: Thelonious Monk,
Mønk

Thelonious Monk was not only one of the most innovative pianists in the history of jazz, he additionally remains one of the vast form’s most well-known figures, though artistic achievement and height of profile still doesn’t guarantee that your live tapes won’t somehow end up in a dumpster. That’s reportedly what occurred with the documentation of the Monk Quartet’s March 5, 1963 performance at Odd Fellows Mansion in Copenhagen, Denmark. Along with the pianist, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse was on the bandstand. So were bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop. Thankfully, the evidence was rescued, and it’s getting a multi-format reissue as Mønk on September 28 by Gearbox Records.

In pop, rock, and related genres, the live recording can occasionally encompass something great, but most often, the contents are eminently skippable, sometimes even by fans of the artists represented. In jazz however, performance documents are essential. Ellington at Newport. Coltrane’s Live at Birdland and his two sets from the Village Vanguard. Bill Evans’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ at the Half Note. Sun Ra’s Live at Montreux. A half-dozen by Mingus. Dolphy’s Live at the Five Spot. Shelly Manne’s At the Black Hawk volumes. Kirk in Copenhagen.

As the 20th century progressed, playing live (touring) in pop and rock became increasingly a promotional tool for record sales, but in jazz the gig (often extended residencies at specific clubs) was and remains integral; yes, as a way to pay the bills, but also as an endeavor in the betterment of the art. And as jazz’s commercial prospects diminished, players often went where the gigs were.

Europe was a common destination, even during jazz’s heyday, with Denmark especially receptive to the music. As listed above, Roland Kirk played there, and of course so did Monk, along with thousands of others; the amount of cash made by numerous small but dedicated labels in the reissue of recordings from Copenhagen alone would likely fill a few steamer trunks.

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Graded on a Curve:
Paul Collins,
Out of My Head

Paul Collins is no stranger to this column. That’s because in the annals of power-pop, he’s one of the greats. But he’s also a cult figure, so the spotlight isn’t exactly preaching to stadium-sized choirs. Cult music can often be esoteric or challenging, but not Collins’; this is power-pop, after all. Cult subjects can also ooze loads of thorny personality, but the man seems like a nice, together guy. As an intro, one can check his classic stuff with The Nerves and The Beat, but Out of My Head, his latest available September 28 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Alive Naturalsound Records, won’t disappoint. In fact, by any yardstick through which melodic guitar action is measured, it’s a stone winner.

The thing, well, one thing about cult figures is that it’s often damn near impossible for them to conjure up new music that gets into the neighborhood of quality that spurred the belated “but have you heard” buzz in the first place. As said above, Paul Collins’ chosen genre works in his favor, as does the fact that he never had a Third/Sister Lovers period that leaves listeners agape with the tortured brilliance of it all.

Instead, Collins just dishes out rocking songs loaded with catchiness and most importantly depth, which keeps the music from wearing thin after repeated play. Backing this up: Out of My Head sounds better to these ears on the sixth consecutive play than it did on the first. It’s also quite the classically informed LP (in the pop-rock sense of classicism) without being belabored about it. That is, while certainly recalling the ’60s, it’s not retro (or even neo) in comportment, but as it plays, more than a couple of the songs might lead one to wonder if they are covers.

They are not. For the record, Collins sings, drums, and handles most of the guitar playing, while Paul Stingo contributes bass, harmonies, and most-notably, is the writer of the trim set’s first track “In and Out of My Head,” which springs from the Everly-Orbison-Pitney-influenced wing of ’60s garage rock, with the guitar big and the solo ripping; in another way, it’s a bit like the Beau Brummels on a Duane Eddy kick.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, September 2018,
Part Three

Part three of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for September, 2018. Part one is here and part two is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Devin Gray, Dirigo Rataplan II (Rataplan) Of the players here, I’m most familiar with tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin (through his stuff on hatOLOGY and Eremite) and bassist Michael Formanek (his own bands, Tim Berne’s Bloodcount and Thumbscrew), but the compositions and overall conception belong to drummer-leader Gray on this sequel to a group’s debut from 2012, with trumpeter Dave Ballou completing the lineup. The Ornette quartet vibe can be strong at times, which is an unambiguously fine thing, but through Gray’s writing and the players’ rapport, imagination and overall experience, a splendid distinctiveness is achieved. For vinyl-only folks into avant-free-friendly but compositionally rich jazz, this one (and the first Dirigo Rataplan) are on wax, so don’t futz around. A

V/A, Music of Southern and Northern Laos (Akuphone) Between 2006 and ’13, “self-taught ethnologist” Laurent Jeanneau (aka Kink Gong) traveled to Laos to capture numerous musical practices of the country’s minority groups, and the results are captivating, but unlike the sometimes studious, other times polite and commonly distant aura of recordings in this tradition, this set (one CD and two separate LPs by titular region) is wild and intense. With a deep interest in South East Asia, Jeanneau’s been at this for a while (releasing on Akuphone, Atavistic, Discrepant, Loup, unsurprisingly Sublime Frequencies and others), and it shows. While part of the richness comes from the clarity of modern portable recorders, listening on headphones really gives the impression of being right in the thick of it. Wonderful. A / A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Stella Chiweshe, Kasahwa: Early Singles (Glitterbeat) Zimbabwean Chiweshe has been called “The Queen of Mbira,” and her discography backs up the praise. If you’re into her work, it’s a cinch you’ll want this collection of her early output, initially cut to 7-inch vinyl mostly in the ‘70s, as it’s never been issued outside of her home country. However, if you’re a curious newbie, this short but abundantly beautiful set would make a fabulous introduction. Featuring just vocals, shakers, and of course the metal-and-wood thumb piano (the mbira, which also names the style she’s mastered), this lacks the bright production and interpolation of other genres that marks her subsequent stuff, but the root essence is strong and delightful, especially on the 8-minute standout “Mayaya (Part 1 & 2).” A

Dur-Dur Band, Dur-Dur of Somalia: Volume 1, Volume 2 & Previously Unreleased Tracks (Analog Africa) If you hunger for all things globally funky, then you may already be hep to the Dur-Dur Band, who rose to fame in ’80s Mogadishu as the funkiest act in Somalia. Awesome Tapes from Africa reissued the group’s 1987 cassette Volume 5 on multiple formats back in 2013, and now here comes this massive and very welcome 18-track roundup of their first and second releases plus additional material on a choice of two cassettes, a 2CD, or a 3LP gatefold edition. Dur-Dur’s stated mission was to combine traditional Somali music with “funk, reggae, soul, disco and new wave” plus anything else that would get bodies moving. And so, a groove monster, but one that not only holds up but encourages pure listening. That’s rad. A

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Graded on a Curve:
Joe Strummer,
Joe Strummer 001

Vocalist, guitarist and songwriter John Graham Mellor, better known by his recording and performance handle Joe Strummer, was a co-founder of one of the most important, and in the view of some, the very finest band in UK punk rock’s original wave. That would be The Clash, but the man’s activities preceded and extended far beyond that group, and on September 28 the Ignition label spotlights the results with Joe Strummer 001 in a variety of formats: a 4LP set in slipcase, a 2CD in slipcase, a deluxe 2CD with book, and a deluxe box set containing LPs, a vinyl single, a cassette, the book, and a handful of additional goodies. Totaling 35 tracks, including a dozen unreleased, it’s a stone-cinch pickup for Strummer fans.

It can feel (and will surely be read as) contrarian to say it, but I’ve never been greatly enthusiastic over The Clash. Sure, the first two albums, ’77’s The Clash and the following year’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope, are essential, and the third, ’79’s London Calling arguably so, but when they took a nosedive in quality after that they did so with gusto, following up a double album with triple album Sandinista!, a display of excess that no matter how well-intentioned sent them into a tailspin from which they never recovered, though folks who discovered them through the rather tepid pop move Combat Rock might disagree.

The bigger problem, at least for me, was how the band came to represent what I’ll call the Springsteenization of punk rock. That is, the Clash were often, and well into the 1980s after their breakup, championed as the exception to the rule that punk rock sucked. By extension, certain folks frequently openly professed Clash-fandom as a way to prove they weren’t complete moldy figs.

Now, most of my punk-loving friends adored the Clash, and I could surely listen to them (the good stuff, anyway) without trouble; merely appreciating the group wasn’t a problem. It’s just that loving their output while deriding the Damned and Buzzcocks and the Lurkers and yes indeed the Sex Pistols (to limit myself to a short list of UK outfits) was and remains downright suspect.

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Graded on a Curve:
Two Niles to Sing a Melody: The Violins
& Synths of Sudan

While the output of Ostinato Records is still small, through the guiding hand of founder Vik Sohonie the Grammy-nominated label has already unveiled a deeply researched wealth of enlightenment succinctly described by the endeavor’s mission statement: “Afrophone stories from the Atlantic to Indian Ocean.” Previously, they’ve delved into the sounds of Haiti, Cape Verde and Somalia, and in 2018 have continued to travel, with the excellent new compilation Two Niles to Sing a Melody: The Violins & Synths of Sudan Ostinato’s second release to focus on the country of the title. Available as a 3LP gatefold on 140-gram wax with a 20-page booklet and as a 2CD bookcase with 36-page booklet, it’s out now.

Ostinato isn’t one of those late-arriving cash-in-hand labels poised to simply scoop up and platter the results of others’ diligence while reclining back as the modest profits and larger plaudits roll in. No, the label’s driving force Vik Sohonie is a true world traveler holding the passion of a fan, the curiosity of an archivist, and the desire to share what he’s uncovered. To an extent, Ostinato reminds me of a cross between John Storm Roberts’ Original Music label and the info-rich approach of Smithsonian-Folkways, or more appropriate to the current moment, Atlanta GA’s Dust-to-Digital.

If you want to not just hear the music of various global cultures but understand its context, Ostinato is a still young but reliably solid resource, and Two Niles to Sing a Melody only deepens this circumstance. It documents the era in Sudan prior to the violent coup of 1989, a fertile period described by the collection’s co-compiler, Sudanese poet and actress Tamador Sheikh Eldin Gibreel as “a time for culture, writers, artists, sculptors, fine arts, the musicians, and the people in the theater.”

It was time under the rule of Gafaar Muhammad Nimeiry, who seized power in 1969. He instigated a long period of support for the arts, though it was a political maneuver that as hardline Islamists established a foothold in the mainstream, was also ended by Nimeiry; in 1983 he imposed Sharia Law in Sudan with matters only worsening after Omar Al Bashir took power in 1989 (a coup removed Nimeiry three years before).

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, September 2018,
Part Two

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for September, 2018. Part one is here

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Underground System, What Are You (Soul Clap) Led by guitarist Peter Matson and fronted by vocalist-flautist-percussionist Domenica Fossati with horns, keys, synths, and a load of rhythmic specialists thrown into the mix, New York City’s Underground System spring from an Afrobeat base but with a poppy, revelry-inspiring trajectory that makes this full-length debut a welcome delight. Boldly recorded with assistance from Tony Miamone, the mildly B-52’s-ish “Rent Party” is a standout, but so is Maria Eisen’s chewy saxophone in the title-track (and elsewhere), and “Just a Place” is a Euro-tinged dancefloor beast. In short: those predisposed to a more song-based, African-rootsy cousin of !!! (with whom they’ve played) just got dealt a full house, so ante up and then rake in that pot. A-

The Chills, Snow Bound (Fire) New Zealand’s reformed Chills continue to impress, with vocalist and cherished pop song fount Martin Phillipps as sturdy as ever. On one hand, the quality of the tunes here is astounding, as comebacks after long hiatuses often garner goodwill (and yes, occasionally produce strong albums), but rarely reconjure the creative vitality which made the recommencement of activity such a big deal. Hey, you take what you can get. But upon second thought, why not? Because back in the day (this would be the ’80s on Flying Nun into the ’90s on Slash), Phillipps’ pure pop acumen could register like a velvet pouch stuffed tight with pearls the size of jumbo marbles. Sure, on first listen Snow Bound might seem a little lesser, but after a half-dozen spins, its true excellence is revealed. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Miles Davis Quintet Miles Smiles (8th) While my favorite music from Davis’ “second great quintet” remains Live at the Plugged Nickel; once upon a time a gorgeous 2LP, and for a while now a copious boxset documenting two nights of utter brilliance, this studio album, the group’s second, cut in October of ’66 and released early the following year, is a direct extension of that Chicago visit. The ’65 debut E.S.P. is great of course, but it also documents the lineup getting comfortable. Next came Plugged Nickel and then this return to the studio, which is abundantly rich. For two examples, there’s Herbie Hancock’s piano soloing, particularly in opener “Orbits,” and Tony Williams’ drumming in the wonderful transformation of Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.” Absolutely essential. A+

The Beta Band, Three EPs & The Best of the Beta Band (Because Music) Lots of folks’ positive energy regarding The Beta Band directly correlates with the first time they heard “Dry the Rain.” Therefore, it’s no surprise that in addition to providing the Three EPs with an essentially perfect lead-off track, it also opens the Best of. Three EPs is offered here as a multicolored vinyl 4LP+CD set, with the breakdown into component parts appreciated, as it’s a looonnnggg one, while Best remains 2 CD-only, its second disc holding a live show from London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2004 that aids in rendering it as non-superfluous for heavy-duty fans, though that doesn’t necessarily make it a must have. You decide. It is a nice, at times very nice, synopsis of a band that helped to expand the possibilities of folktronica. A– / A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Chris Butler & Ralph Carney, Songs for Unsung Holidays

Don’t know if you’ve given the matter any thought, but we’re nearing the annual blitz of gift-giving and food-eating that’s known as the Holiday Season, a late-year explosion kicked off with the costume-wearing and candy fiesta known as Halloween. But holidays, a few big, many of them small, are a year-round thing. Chris Butler and Ralph Carney knew this prior to making the LP Songs for Unsung Holidays, and after listening, you’ll assuredly know it, too. Is it quirky? Indeed. How ‘bout zany? At times, yes. It’s also impeccably played, and as Carney sadly and unexpectedly died last December, its contents are dedicated to the man. It’s out now from the estimable Ohio-focused label Smog Veil Records.

Chris Butler and Ralph Carney first joined forces in Akron’s Tin Huey, a cool if sometimes overlooked (fitting, given the subject matter of this album) arty new wave unit from their state’s post-punk heyday. Concurrent with Tin Huey, Butler was working up The Waitresses, the outfit he’s primarily known for today, cutting the original version of “I Know What Boys Like” (an enduring song that’s solidified the group’s “one-hit wonder” status) with Carney on sax (though it doesn’t appear that he was ever a full member.

The distinctive saxophone of multi-instrumentalist Carney has graced a slew of records, including a bunch of Tom Waits classics (Rain Dogs, Bone Machine, and Mule Variations amongst them) plus discs or live performances by Elvis Costello, Jonathan Richman, Medeski Martin & Wood, Bill Laswell, The B-52’s, Galaxie 500 (his playing on the alternate version of “Blue Thunder” is a favorite of mine), and the Black Keys (Patrick Carney is his nephew).

Carney also issued a handful of solo and collaborative records over the years; I fondly remember Happiness Finally Came to Them, his joint effort from 1987 with Daved Hild (a member of fantastic Boston avant-garage act The Girls) and Mark Kramer (of Shockabilly and Bongwater, plus the impetus behind the Shimmy Disc label empire). Having stayed consistently busy, Carney’s passing came as a real surprise, but this project, while posthumous, is loaded with personality, and its arrival helps to alleviate some of the sting.

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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