Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Muddy Waters,
The Best of Muddy Waters

Where to start with the music of that sly titan of 20th century music Muddy Waters? Some will advise an inquisitive newbie to invest in an exhaustive multi-disc box set that retails in the neighborhood of a Franklin, while a closet Johnny Winter-aficionado might recommend one of his late-‘70s LPs for the Blue Sky label (and that’s definitely not the place to begin.) However, the most sensible way to commence a journey into the everlasting goodness of McKinley Morganfield is to simply follow the path many thousands have already made, and it leads directly to the doorstep of 1958’s extraordinarily enlightening The Best of Muddy Waters.

While a certifiable embarrassment of great LPs have been made since the format was first introduced in 1948, they don’t all command the same level of historical respect, even from individuals that happen to hold a deep relationship to the sounds those less revered records contain. For instance, after giving the realms of heavy-duty music connoisseurship a good inspection, there is no doubt that the Best of/Greatest Hits LP continues to shoulder something of a bad reputation, with its appeal often denigrated as being directed mostly to dabblers.

These records, awarded to artists who had managed to secure a handful of creative and/or commercial highpoints either in one fast spurt or in some period of sustained longevity, are reliably frowned upon by more intense listeners as essentially being easy primers designed by cash hungry record labels with the intention of giving more casual ears a quick fix and some level of conversance (a sort of career Cliff Notes, if you will) to discographies of considerable distinction.

That’s not necessarily an incorrect assessment. But there are other elements in the scenario, as anyone who ever got turned on to Donovan through their parent’s well-worn copy of his wildly popular Greatest Hits LP can surely understand. And when handed down by older siblings as they slouched off to spend four years in a cramped college dorm, the Best of/Greatest Hits album has surely functioned as a gateway into substantial musical discoveries of all types.

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Graded on a Curve:
Scott & Charlene’s Wedding, Mid Thirties Single Scene

Scott & Charlene’s Wedding is the brainchild of globetrotting Aussie Craig Dermody; his endeavor’s latest effort is primed to scratch ears itching for the savvy combination of raw pop and punkish riff bashing, with leader’s vocal exuberance intermittently recalling none other than Mr. Lou Reed. Swiping top-notch moves from predecessors both Down Under and international and then enhancing them with refreshingly personal thought-gush, the energetic and exciting Mid Thirties Singles Scene is out on LP, CD, and digital September 2 through Fire Records.

Australia has a knack for absorbing well-loved influences, particularly from the USA, with Chuck Berry, proto-punk Detroit, and The Ramones being three big examples. Crucially, the models are recalibrated into appealing and most-importantly distinctive sonic motion; the immediate impression given off by Scott & Charlene’s Wedding (named after a long-running Aussie soap opera that once starred Kylie Minogue) is of the post-Cale Velvet Underground with a bit of Stooges mingled in, but after time spent that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Finding Dermody back in the home country after considerable touring and a stay in NYC, Mid Thirties Singles Scene is Scott & Charlene’s Wedding’s third full-length, the lineup for the album featuring noted Melbourne record engineer Jack Farley on bass, former Spider Vomit bandmate Gillian Tucker on guitar, Joe Alexander on drums, and Esther Edquist on keyboards and vocals.

Across nine songs they very effectively manage the difficult trick of balancing near instantaneous familiarity with a crucial streak of individualism, and icing the cake are flashes of melodicism that can inspire a singalong scenario right out of the shrink-wrap. The Loaded-era VU stomp of “Maureen” opens matters with a bang, though the explosiveness is imbued with a ’77-ish punk edge and an extended lyrical portrait of the titular character suggesting the Go-Betweens’ Able Records output; as SACW have previously and effectively covered the early Robert Forster nugget “Karen” this is no coincidence.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sam Coomes,
Bugger Me

As one half of Quasi and a participant in a bunch of other activities, Portland, OR’s Sam Coomes has a rather imposing résumé, but until now he’s not released a solo LP. Bugger Me puts an end to this lack as the singer-songwriter-keyboardist goes it truly alone; the results ooze a compelling strangeness as honest-to-goodness songs are cloaked in home-recorded lo-fi finery via organ and rudimentary drum-box. Ripe with underlying complexity without clamoring for attention, it’s the kind of left-field record that could only be made by a veteran; it’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through No Quarter in the USA and Domino everywhere else.

Actually, describing Sam Coomes as a veteran is something of an understatement. First emerging on the scene in late ’80s San Francisco via the trio Donner Party, after their breakup in ’89 he split the Bay for Portland and formed Motorgoat with Janet Weiss. Proving a short-lived entity, Motorgoat gave way to the enduring combination of Weiss’ big beat and Coomes’ distorted keyboard tones in Quasi.

Plainly Coomes is adept at collaborating; joining Heatmiser in time for their final album, he subsequently contributed to the records of bandmate Elliott Smith and additionally chalked up extensive involvement with Built to Spill, played on The Go-Betweens’ The Friends of Rachel Worth and Jandek’s Portland Thursday and Seattle Friday, and helped turn Pink Mountains, Crock, and the Deep Fried Boogie Band into realities.

Blues Goblins could perhaps be considered as Coomes solo debut, except that in diving so deeply into a pool of blues covers the disc kinda registers as a one-off. That’s decidedly not the aura emanating from Bugger Me, a record its creator has described as “Suicide meets The Beach Boys,” with Coomes quick to emphasize the early “Surfer Girl” period over the later more sophisticated Pet Sounds.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Frightnrs,
Nothing More to Say

In terms of retrospectives, 2016 has been a pretty good year for Rocksteady, the Jamaican subgenre that briefly flourished in the second half of the 1960s as the stylistic bridge between ska and reggae; in an unexpected twist The Frightnrs’ Nothing More to Say is loaded with high-quality contemporary slow-groove action. Thankfully eschewing a revivalist approach while being highly versed in tradition, the group’s soulful flair makes them a perfect fit as Daptone Records’ inaugural excursion into long-playing reggae. It’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital September 2; those ordering from Daptone’s website prior to that date will receive Victor Axelrod’s dub version of the track “Purple” as a download.

Rocksteady might be a relatively brief flash in the grand continuum of Jamaican music, but it’s been far from pushed aside by ska, reggae, dub, or dancehall. As evidence, earlier this year the 17 North Parade label issued a boxset of seven 45s and a 40-track 2CD collection; both titled First Class Rock Steady, they offer a sweet appetizer and immersive banquet into a style that’s more than just a transition.

The Frightnrs hail from Queens, NY, with the lineup that made Nothing More to Say featuring Preet Patel on bass, his brother Chuck on piano, Rich Terrana on drums, and Dan Klein on vocals. Sadly, Klein passed away in June after being diagnosed with ALS last November, a cruel circumstance turning this fine debut full-length into a vivid and surely durable document of his considerable abilities at the microphone.

Residing in the USA, The Frightnrs hurdle a major geographical stumbling block like Olympic champs, for far too frequently Jamaican-inspired sounds wafting from the North American mainland conjure up a Patchouli-reeking patchwork pants-clad nightmare. A clue to their success would seem to derive from the “punk rock spirit” mentioned in a Daptone press release.

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Graded on a Curve: Cannonball Adderley, Somethin’ Else

Blue Note Records is celebrating 75 years of existence by giving numerous key titles from their incomparable catalog high-quality vinyl reissues, and it’s fitting that we begin our tribute to the label’s longevity with a look at one of their very finest releases, the great alto saxophonist Julian Cannonball Adderley’s 1958 masterwork Somethin’ Else.

The LPs of Blue Note’s classic-era are aptly described as an embarrassment of riches. Along with loads of amazing music, there is of course the surrounding context, and engaging with the fruits of the imprint’s labors offers a truly enlightening historical narrative. Naturally, it’s only part of jazz’s larger story, but it’s also a highly valuable component since Blue Note is an example where respect for the music trumped pure capitalistic desire.

That respect extended to the amount of studio time given to the musicians, but it also concerned other vital aspects of record production, beginning with the use of engineer Rudy Van Gelder and ending with the company’s justly celebrated graphic design. Blue Note didn’t have the market cornered on either the Van Gelder touch or the manufacturing of handsome album jackets, for it really was a fantastic era in terms of both fidelity and sharply conceived presentation, but throughout the salad days of Modern Jazz (and for a good while afterward) the label was at the forefront.

Somethin’ Else is one of many excellent Van Gelder jobs, but some may evaluate its sleeve as solid but not spectacular. Please allow me to disagree. While I don’t think it’s one of the very greatest of Blue Note covers, it is nicely pared down to only essential information and is a fine model of strong but subtle construction; obviously the large black space, but also the contrast with the white lettering, and then the font, bold type that possesses just a hint of distinctiveness. Add the further contrasting element of color, with green for the leader and blue for his band.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, August 2016

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new or reissued wax presently in stores for August, 2016. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE PICK: Ariana Delawari, Entelechy I & II (She King) The long-awaited second release from this socially engaged Afghan American multimedia artist (musician, film director, actress, photographer) offers an electronically based album in collaboration with Butchy Fuego and an accompanying disc of the same songs performed in tandem with tabla player Salar Nader. Impressive: Entelechy I’s rich warmth and lack of gimmickry, the non-quaint immediacy of its counterpart, the high standard of songwriting throughout, and the sturdy beauty of Delawari’s voice, particularly on Entelechy II. A

REISSUE PICK: Anthony Braxton, Three Compositions of New Jazz (Delmark) He debuted nine months prior on pianist Muhal Richard Abrams’ Levels and Degrees of Light (also for Delmark), but this ’68 LP was multi-instrumentalist Braxton’s first as “leader,” though that post-bop notion doesn’t really apply here; the thrill is in soaking up his unique vision from an early vantage point as Abrams, violinist Leroy Jenkins, and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith complete the group and everybody plays numerous instruments along the way. Braxton’s next one For Alto is an absolute beast, but this is still amazing. A

Aktion, Groove the Funk (PMG) The opening title track landed on the first volume of Wake Up You, the Now Again label’s superb pair of Nigerian rock retrospectives released earlier this summer, and this reissue of a ’75 LP originally on Clover Sound makes abundantly clear that Uchenna Ikonne didn’t just cherry pick the finest moment. The name on the sleeve provides an accurate description of Aktion’s modus operandi, but in their favor the contents aren’t overly slick and neither are they instrumental showoffs, instead maintaining a consistent ambiance with fuzz guitar and keyboard. B+

Atmosphere, Fishing Blues (Rhymesayers) Eight albums strong, the latest from rapper Slug and DJ-producer Ant is a whopping dose of cerebral but polished hip-hop, in fact a bit too polished; other than recurring explicitness the ride is quite accessible, and at nearly 70 minutes (and spread across six sides of vinyl) more than a little too long. However, the excessive length stops short of inflicting fatal damage; there are enough ideas, though many are derived from a string of guest appearances (DOOM, Kool Keith, Aesop Rock etc.), to keep this one afloat. B-

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Graded on a Curve:
Shawn James,
On the Shoulders of Giants

Based in Fayetteville, AR, songwriter, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist Shawn James is probably best known as the leader of the Shapeshifters, a combo applying substantial levels of noise and sludge to a blues-rock framework. But as his latest illustrates, James is also a solo artist; On the Shoulders of Giants’ ten selections retain the raw sensibility but gravitate nearer to the bluesy end of the spectrum as James recorded everything himself at the famed Sun Studios of Memphis, TN. Never allowing attitude to usurp substance, the self-released results are out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital.

Some musicians attempt to keep a lid on their influences, but Shawn James is quite forthcoming, even going so far as recording a digital album with the self-explanatory title Covers back in 2014. Opening with “John the Revelator” as made famous by the titan of the Delta Son House, rather than continue down a straight blues path the set does a good job outlining his overall approach.

Iron Maiden, Sam Cooke, and John Legend underscore the breadth of the landscape, while House, Johnny Cash, and the prison work song “Jet Black Woman” reinforce the roots; C.W. Stoneking and A.A. Bondy make clear that James & the Shapeshifters are appreciative of those working in roughly similar contemporary territory.

2015’s The Gospel According to… outlined the band’s original material; undeniably heavy, there is an accompanying heavy-handedness that’s sure to be a deal breaker for many listeners. Indeed, James is the antithesis of microphone-shy and the group explores caustic slide guitar-based mauling with an aggressiveness that illuminates the namechecks given to Earth and SunnO))).

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Graded on a Curve:
Lee Moses,
Time and Place

Although many Deep Soul groove enthusiasts have been long hipped to the goodness of singer and multi-instrumentalist Lee Moses, the Atlanta native continues to be somewhat overlooked today. This makes the fresh reissue of his sole LP a very welcome occurrence; shorn of an earlier release’s addendum of Moses’ numerous singles, the trim package is fueled by Southern verve, a noteworthy range of influence and crack musicianship throughout, and its reputation as a cult classic is secure. Time and Place is out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital August 26 through the Light in the Attic subsidiary Future Days Recordings.

Had the breaks fallen his way, Lee Moses could’ve easily been a big commercial deal; listening to this LP and the handful of 45s that surrounded it reveal a major talent. By Time and Place’s 1971 release on the Maple imprint his artistic personality was well-acquainted with distinctiveness, and given time for further development he might’ve flourished.

Sure, the gist of the paragraph above lands suspiciously close to the breathless hyperbole employed by record dealers and writers dishing out the promo text for a ceaseless stream of reissues, but rest assured that Moses, who unfortunately passed in 1997 before the upsurge of collector interest in his work took hold, is the real deal.

A fair percentage of retroactive discoveries and repackaged obscurities spotlight musicians who either expanded upon or downright copied the success of their immediate predecessors (but please understand the artists being copied were certainly not above this sort of exchange themselves), and evidence of borrowing is easily found on Time and Place; the difference is in what Moses additionally brought to the turntable.

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Graded on a Curve: Andrew Hill,
Point of Departure

Pianist and composer Andrew Hill cut Point of Departure for Blue Note just a touch over 50 years ago. To this day the session endures as one of the true masterpieces in post-bop jazz. Featuring an amazing supporting cast and a brilliant program of Hill’s original songs, it’s a faultless and frustratingly undersung record.

When the subject turns to underrated piano players, the late Andrew Hill fits the description perfectly. While he’s not as unknown as Ran Blake, Lowell Davidson, or Valdo Williams, it’s still stymieing how a guy who consistently produced one classic after another for arguably the most successful jazz label of the 1960s is basically only on the radar screens of heavy-duty jazzbos and Nels Cline-nuts (in 2006 the veteran improviser/Wilco guitarist issued the tribute New Monastery: A View Into The Music Of Andrew Hill).

Andrew Hill often gets lumped in with the avant-garde, and while that is far less of a disservice to his oeuvre than just placing him into the ‘60s jazz mainstream (though he did possess significant commercial potential), the New Thing doesn’t accurately encompass his strengths throughout a long and occasionally problematic career.

A good word to describe him would be cerebral. Both Hill’s composing and his improvising are positively loaded with unanticipated turns gracefully rendered, and he was able to get considerable expressiveness from some of Blue Note’s most familiar personnel. He also regularly included more eclectic recruits, a few of which are painfully under-documented.

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Graded on a Curve: Exploded View,
Exploded View

Exploded View is the eponymous first album from vocalist Annika Henderson, whom some will remember from her album Anika, in partnership with Crocodiles producer Martin Thulin, Robota’s Hugo Quezada, and Hector Melgarejo, best known for his work with Jessy Bulbo and Nos llamamos. Across eleven tracks they combine some very familiar elements, specifically aspects of Krautrock, post-punk, and post-rock, into a surprisingly rewarding whole; the record’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital August 19 through Sacred Bones.

Prior to her emergence as a recording artist Annika Henderson was a political journalist. Alternating time between Berlin and Bristol UK, she connected with Geoff Barrow of Portishead as he was on the lookout for a new vocalist for his side-project Beak>; their ensuing studio meeting proceeded so swimmingly that a full-length and EP resulted.

Dropping a consonant along the way, 2010’s Anika and ’13’s “Anika EP” revealed a mutual interest in post-punk, dub, and ’60’s girl groups, and their covers-heavy reality, featuring Twinkle’s “Terry,” Yoko’s “Yang Yang,” Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz,” The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” Ray Davies’ “I Go to Sleep,” and Dylan’s “Masters of War” exuded an appealing lack of grandiosity wedded to seriousness of intent, an aspect enhanced by her Nico-ish inflection.

The choice to focus predominantly on borrowed material was a potential double-edged sword, however; eminently listenable, they were also easy records to underrate. This circumstance is unlikely to reoccur with Exploded View, the outfit springing to life in a fairly spontaneous manner as Thulin, Quezada, and Melgarejo comprised the backing band for Anika’s 2014 performances in Mexico; in a manner somewhat recalling her hook up with Barrow and Beak>, the collab went down so well they choose to decamp to the studio for recording.

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