Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Wild Man Fischer,
An Evening with Wild Man Fischer

The records of Wild Man Fischer were once a warped fixture in well stocked record bins all over the globe. He’s left this mortal coil, but as an early example of the often fascinating and sometimes frustrating world of “outsider music,” his reputation is assured. An Evening with Wild Man Fischer was his first stab at immortality, and to this day it remains his best. Never reissued, it’s a 2LP that’s more talked about than heard, but once experienced it’ll certainly never be forgotten.

These days, the desire to take a plunge into the backlog of musical eccentricity that’s accumulated over the years can provide a crazy trip, man, but there’s frankly so much of the out-there residing out there in the nooks and crannies of recording history that trying to gather a full picture of Weirdsville can be more than a little daunting, even for those with a few decades of listening experience under their belts.

Cynical views regarding outbursts of the weird often express how they are mainly attempts at gaining attention in a crowded musical landscape (and sometimes that’s correct), but a general truth regarding expressions of the artistically bizarre is that for every example that rises to prominence, there are many more that never make it beyond the fringe. Indeed, quite a few only find the smallest release or even remain in the vault to be discovered years later through the insatiable thirst of obscurantist researchers.

That’s not the case with Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, one of the first “outsider” musicians and a one-time oddball fixture in the Los Angeles scene. In a sense he was in the right place at the right time, specifically the second half of the ‘60’s, an environment that placed a high value on strangeness, considering it all rather “far-out.”

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Graded on a Curve: Close Lobsters, “Kunstwerk in Spacetime” EP

Those carrying an eternal torch for the epochal C86 compilation are certainly familiar with Close Lobsters. That Scottish band emerged from estimable company with a pair of full-lengths and even made some late-‘80s ripples in the US market before breaking up around the turn of the ‘90s. In 2012 they announced a reunion, and Shelflife Records’ issue of the sturdy, unfussy, and highly enjoyable 7-inch EP “Kunstwerk in Spacetime” offers the first new music from this rekindling of activity.

More than an anthology, C86, a cassette originally offered by the weekly UK periodical New Musical Express, gave a name to an entire post-punk/indie pop movement. As its recent compact disc reissue underscores, this circumstance is long and well documented, though the Cherry Red label’s expansion of the initial 22 selections to three CDs and a whopping 72 cuts (some unreleased) intensifies the spotlight to the absolute hilt; its track-listing reads as exhaustive, possibly even exhausting.

Aside from disc one and a fair amount of the previously available addendum, I’ve yet to hear the revamped C86. Soon to be sure, but in the interim there’s fresh music by one of the participants to consider. Like other bands on the set (and C86 was comprised totally of bands, a facet the Cherry Red box wisely retains) Close Lobsters took full advantage of the good fortune and secured a record deal. But by the dawn of the ‘90s, and again like many of their cohorts, the group formed in Paisley, Scotland in 1985 was essentially done.

Close Lobsters was/is vocalist Andrew Burnett, guitarists Tom Donnelly and Graeme Wilmington, bassist Robert Burnett (Andrew’s bro), and drummer Stewart McFayden. The C86 contribution that set them into motion was “Firestation Towers,” a terrific slab of succinct jangle, and they followed it up with two strong 45s, “Going to Heaven to See If It Rains” and “Never Seen Before,” for Fire Records. This material was collected with numerous other tracks including the nifty ’88 EP “What is There to Smile About?” on Fire’s Forever, Until Victory! The Singles Collection.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Gun Club,
Fire of Love

The Gun Club underwent myriad changes in personnel during their existence, but the one constant element was founder Jeffrey Lee Pierce. In 1979 he formed a group whose impact is still being felt today. The best place to begin investigating Pierce’s achievement is at the beginning, and on July 8th doing so becomes a whole lot easier through Superior Viaduct’s compact disc reissue of The Gun Club’s classic 1981 debut Fire of Love.

Whenever OFF! undertakes a tour there’s undoubtedly a smattering of older heads reliably if reluctantly finding themselves getting a little misty around the eye sockets when the band pencils in “Jeffrey Lee Pierce” for the set list. Deservedly so, for that song, all 1:21 of it, is a tribute to an important if undersung rock contributor, and not by a fan but from a close friend. Indeed, the intro to the cut on Live at the 9:30 Club finds Keith Morris steeped in emotion, his preamble roughly as long as the track itself.

Now, some folks might get a bit miffed over certain umpteenth-generation hardcore whippersnappers only knowing of Jeffrey Lee Pierce because Morris wrote a song about him. But easy there, partners. We all tend to occasionally idealize and even embellish our paths of musical discovery, mainly due to the reality sometimes being as bland as simply plucking a cassette from a discount bin. That was this writer, fishing a severely marked-down copy of the third Gun Club album The Las Vegas Story from a massive box of cut-out tapes in a mall chain store back in 1987.

Perhaps somewhat more interesting is what led me to make that purchase. I first learnt of The Gun Club through an article published in an anthology/anniversary issue of Flipside magazine. Having been exposed to punk not long previously, restlessness over the music’s generic inclinations had already set in, and simultaneous to the almost daily unearthing of new delights.

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Graded on a Curve: Jobriath,
As the River Flows

For roughly thirty years there was no cult following for Bruce Wayne Campbell, the pioneering if doomed singer-songwriter/glam rocker known to small pockets of the planet’s inhabitants as simply Jobriath (invented surname Boone). Times have changed, however; Eschatone Records’ As the River Flows collects Jobriath’s ’71 demos, and while consistency still escapes him, the ten selections do combine into a modestly enlightening achievement.

Like many fizzled next-big-things Jobriath was nearly unknown in retrospect. About a year after getting clued in to the man’s existence I stumbled onto a pristine and unpriced copy of his eponymous ’73 Elektra debut. Carefully inquiring with the proprietor over the cost, I took it home for a mere buck, since the owner had never heard of him. In place of fervent worship for an undeniable (if only fitfully artistically successful) groundbreaker was an aura of failure inspired by an unfortunate combination of too much hype, obstacles of prejudice, and raw but unsharpened talent.

Jobriath wasn’t just a flop it was a highly expensive one; try $500,000 on for size. The discount glitz of the next year’s Creatures of the Night was released sans promotion and continued the nosedive. Having been discovered and shrilly over-promoted by the multitasking and massively self-aggrandizing bigwig Jerry Brandt (by comparison Clive Davis seems fairly down to earth), he was rapidly dropped by Elektra for lack of sales. He later lived on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel and worked as a cabaret singer under the apt pseudonym Cole Berlin. In 1983 Jobriath died, stricken by AIDS and basically forgotten.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Clientele,
Suburban Light

Active since 1991, The Clientele didn’t cut a single until seven years later, and with 2000’s Suburban Light, a well-deserved spotlight was finally splashed upon them. A thoughtfully sequenced collection of tracks mostly culled from their inaugural spate of 45s, it transcended the potential constraints of a compilation and flowed like an especially assured debut album. Merge Records’ LP reissue comes loaded with extra insightful early material, and it reinforces Suburban Light as a masterful statement of guitar-pop purpose from an enduringly unique group.

From 1991 to the present The Clientele has featured drummer Mark Keen, bassist James Hornsey, and guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Alasdair MacLean; guitarist Innes Phillips exited in ’96, multi-instrumentalist Mel Draisey entered roughly a decade hence. Over time they’ve been quite forthcoming in relating key influences upon their collective endeavor; on the list can be found such worthies as Love, Television, Felt, and even The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band.

After giving a few recent spins to the reissued Suburban Light it seems the most lingeringly illuminating citation from the group belongs to Galaxie 500, that Cambridge, MA trio breaking up the very same year The Clientele first came together in Hampshire, England (under the name The Butterfly Collectors). But it’s more than just the handing off of a creative baton; Galaxie 500 was an entity inextricably shaped by the music of the 1960s, and yet they betrayed not the slightest tendencies of throwback. And so it is with The Clientele.

From old resources a fresh sound, and if not new both acts resonated as highly individual. Once heard it would be impossible to confuse the two or for that matter to mistake either for anybody else. Suburban Light’s opener “I Had to Say This” exudes origins easy to discern, but MacLean’s soaring vocal and adept string work point the way forward, his playing tense and unpredictable long before the astoundingly non-hackneyed backwards guitar ambiance emerges.

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Graded on a Curve:
Big Youth,
Natty Cultural Dread

When it gets hot and muggy, some of the surefire ways to adjust to the severity of climate include shedding all unnecessary clothing, raising the intake on cold beverages, and even submerging oneself in a cool body of water. All no brainers, I know. But along with attempting to beat the heat, a person can also just get into the spirit of the season, and one of the best avenues to that goal is a musical one; simply crank up some prime Jamaican reggae. Natty Cultural Dread, the 1976 LP from the man known as Big Youth, is a particularly fitting soundtrack to sweating it up in the summertime.

The collecting of Jamaican music, especially on LP, can be a rather daunting endeavor. I’ve mentioned this before in relation to other forms/styles, but it bears repeating here; there’s just so much Jamaican material of quality and in so many different, equally enticing subgenres, that getting a handle on the whole heap is at this late date basically beyond anyone not slinging a slush-fund of downright spectacular proportions, to say nothing of the deluxe hutch needed to house all those records once they’ve been acquired.

To continue retracing a theme, it’s situations like this one that expose the completist urge, at least when it’s combined with a diverse musical interest, as sheer folly. But hey, there’s no need to get into a funk about it; just shoot for the essentials, and after that, let the chips fall where they may.

In terms of personal collecting (in contrast to extensive libraries, which have their own allure), it’s the uniqueness of those fallen chips that makes checking out the contents of specific collections so enlightening; a person’s record stash, whether large with experience or small but growing with budding enthusiasm, is as individual as a thumbprint and yet (hopefully) in a state of perpetual growth.

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Graded on a Curve: Vanilla Fudge,
Near the Beginning

To soak up Vanilla Fudge’s talent as song-interpreters the best route is their eponymous ’67 debut. A further understanding of them as a singles act is most appropriately gleaned through the Rhino compilation Psychedelic Sundae. If an immersion into the multifaceted positives and negatives of these trailblazing late-‘60s hard rockers’ everyday reality is what one wants however, then one should look into the contents of Near the Beginning.

There’s no question Vanilla Fudge are an important band. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” the group’s reading of a Holland-Dozier-Holland tune originally by The Supremes, is a vital evolutionary brick in the hard rock megastructure, and it stands as a one-song distillation of nearly everything that was good and potentially less than stellar about this hard-touring New York quartet.

There are two versions of the Fudge’s recording, a just shy of three-minute single edit and the take found on their debut; that one’s over twice as long, and this duality is to an extent indicative of the group’s creative problems. It’s far from that simple though, and their somewhat brief and highly eventful initial existence provides a consistently interesting story, if one that’s only sporadically fruitful in musical terms.

Vanilla Fudge’s beginnings are in The Electric Pigeons, the soul cover unit featuring organist/lead vocalist Mark Stein and bassist Tim Bogert. They soon acquired guitarist Vince Martell and drummer Carmine Appice, and after hooking up with Shangri La’s producer Shadow Morton, they changed names and focused attentions on the studio.

The first effort turned out to be the best, but it was also a problematic record. Those soul roots were still showing; in fact, they never went away, flaring up rather flagrantly later in their tenure, but on Vanilla Fudge, it’s not a decisive detraction. It’s true that “People Get Ready” (and the first album is composed entirely of covers) is no great shakes, but “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is one of the better R&B lifts in ‘60s rock precisely because it displays a disinterest in mimicry (a real issue with NYC bands of the era) to instead hone a variation on a then new sound.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Killer Bees,
“Buzz’n the Town” 7″

In 1979 a four-piece called The Killer Bees put out a 45 on Limp Records. Roughly 35 years later that 7-inch, rare and pricey in original form, has been faultlessly reissued by the Windian label. To rank “Buzz’n the Town” as an essential purchase might be overstating the situation, but not by much, for its two songs withstand the test of time with panache, succeeding on energy and clarity of vision as they deliver an inspired reminder of the no-nonsense basics residing at the root of the punk impulse.

During the final three tumultuous years of the 1970s, a whole lot of punk was captured on vinyl. A fair percentage of this surge was issued or distributed by large companies looking to capitalize on a new development in the pop/rock landscape, though as a sound/movement born mainly through social upheaval (while based upon solid historical rudiments) it just as frequently arrived in the retail bins either via upstart independents or enterprising bands taking shared destiny into collective hands and self-releasing to the masses.

A wildly varied phenomenon almost instantaneously, ‘70s punk was in fact so diverse that those trying to get a grip on its essence from the outside could find it a mixed-up and even contradictory experience, which it indeed sometimes was. By extension, any attempt to truncate the glorious messiness of punk’s eruption into a handful of consensus classics is a mistake, and if the selection is limited to or dominated by big label material (especially LPs) the endeavor becomes additionally sketchy.

But as said, the majors did spray out a substantial torrent of the ‘70s gush, often with hardly a clue over exactly what it was they were releasing. This is perhaps why such a high ratio of quality does reside in the punk output of the big(ger) businesses; if those assorted executives and their underlings would’ve had a notion what they were handling they probably would’ve dropped it like flaming spuds.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Hazey Janes,
Language of Faint Theory

Language of Faint Theory, the new album from Dundee Scotland’s The Hazey Janes, solidifies roughly a decade of existence for the group. An impressive accomplishment of human interaction to be sure, but their latest, the band’s fourth LP (but only the third to be commercially available), finds them ambitious and assured on ten songs, a tally that includes a handful of tracks precisely described as exceptional.

The music of The Hazey Janes can be accurately if a bit lazily synopsized as residing at the place where infectious power pop and sharp-minded indie pop mingle to expand upon their uninhibited shared desire to receive widespread exposure. However, the tenure of The Hazey Janes is also well-described as beating unlikely odds by weathering unusually difficult circumstances.

Specifically, due to legal issues their second LP, the fully completed Hands Around the City, remains unreleased. Lasting ten years isn’t that unusual, though making it that long as an outfit worthy of attention is certainly a trickier feat. But having finished product left lingering in the can (cut at Hoboken NJ’s Water Music Recorders with the services of prolific producer John Agnello) is a tough situation and surely enough to break the collective spirit of most.

Bands, more so than solo performers, are generally measured by productivity based on new material, and fresh stuff is far from easily procured from the branches of the ol’ song bush. That The Hazey Janes have actually gotten better and diversified is testament to the adage of strength being acquired through adversity.

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Graded on a Curve:
Jeff Beck,
“Hi Ho Silver Lining” b/w “Beck’s Bolero”

If ever they mold a Mt. Rushmore of Classic Rock guitar wizards, it will surely include the chiseled mug of Jeff Beck, his career so lengthy and varied that it’s basically a bottomless reservoir of inspiration for articles in Mojo magazine. Along with his work in The Yardbirds, rock listeners persist in celebrating him for the two distinct Jeff Beck Groups and for his many solo albums. Sometimes overlooked is the pair of singles Beck recorded in ‘67, and “Hi Ho Silver Lining” b/w “Beck’s Bolero” is the better of the two.

For a certain breed of rock fan, the various permutations of The Yardbirds are a gift that keeps on giving. Whether it’s the early blues purist period with Clapton and the smash “For Your Love” (which sent Eric reeling into the tastefully bluesy embrace of John Mayall), the copious top-notch material and numerous hits produced by the post-Beck rave-ups and experimentation, and the brief pleasures to be had from the short-lived Beck/Page lineup; really, it’s only the culminating quartet that’s patchy, though there’s more quality to be found there than many think.

Of course, scores of folks only recognize The Yardbirds as the group that begat Led Zeppelin, since it was the four-piece fronted by Page that was contractually bound to tour and slowly transmogrified into what we now know as Zep. Similarly, there’s a smaller but significant number of ears that neglect the 45s Beck cut directly after departing the ‘birds. This omission is either purposeful, due to the a sides’ unabashed pop ambition (i.e. the discrete odor of Mickie Most) or purely accidental; for decades, they were most easily discovered in Best of Beck packages. I don’t recall hearing them on the radio.

Those songs were available elsewhere, however. In fact, I first heard “Hi Ho Silver Lining” in the ‘80s on a 2LP import various artists compilation titled Formula 30, and I’ll acknowledge the initial taste proved a tad befuddling, mainly because Jeff Beck was considered, with Clapton, Page, and the departed Hendrix (the only one insured not to fuck up his own legacy), as a true deity of Rock Guitar. And of the three still living, Beck has displayed the greatest ambivalence over the commercial expectations of hard rocking power blues.

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