Author Archives: Joseph Neff

(Re)Graded on a Curve:
Daryl Hall,
Sacred Songs

While by no means an unknown work, it also seems fair to say that Daryl Hall’s first solo LP Sacred Songs gets nowhere near enough retrospective attention. This is mainly due to the inclusion of what many might consider to be an odd associate (at best) or an irreconcilable collaborator (at worst) in art-rock maestro Robert Fripp. Blue-eyed soul meets Frippertronics? Yes, indeed.

If the team-up of Daryl Hall and Robert Fripp remains an unlikely pairing from seemingly disparate areas of the ‘70s rock landscape, after some consideration their creative union shouldn’t really be designated as a case of strange bedfellows. The key to understanding how these two ended up in the same studio lies in getting beyond the surface perception of Fripp as a prog-rock outlier and Hall & Oates as simply a hit machine.

But folks who know Fripp’s contributions to Blondie’s Parallel Lines and especially Bowie’s “Heroes” have surely already comprehended that there’s more to the guy’s output than just King Crimson and (No Pussyfooting). And any fan of Hall & Oates that’s travelled back in their discography to their Atlantic Records period has been greeted with the unusual doozy that is Abandoned Luncheonette.

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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:
“First Demo 12/29/80”

In 1981, a fleeting outfit from Washington, DC called State of Alert released an EP titled “No Policy.” Its grooves held ten short brutish blasts of early American hardcore that have endured to become historically famous. Subsequently, debates raged over its actual sonic worth. The freshly issued “First Demo 12/29/80” returns S.O.A. to 7-inch vinyl after nearly 35 years, and its eight concise tracks make a fantastic case for the band’s musical value.

By the end of the 1980s hardcore’s critical rep was at a nadir, mainly because the style just wouldn’t die. This is largely due to kids discovering it intermittently. As part of the underground, knowledge of ‘80s punk/HC was almost entirely disseminated via printed matter (fanzines and select glossy rags), word-of-mouth (a talkative classmate in the cafeteria) and guiding example (older bro or sis).

These revelations occurred in fits and starts, but once the connection was made the record store bins were loaded with wax to buy. Those documents served as the crib-sheets for wave after wave of well-meaning but rudimentary bands, many playing multi-group, all-ages shows in suburban Knights of Columbus halls (or similar locales) all across the USA.

Even at this early juncture, DC hardcore was already legendary, partially due to the later activities of certain key members, but also because the music from that scene/era was easily procured. The gateway names were of course Bad Brains and Minor Threat, but scads of salivating young punks also stepped up to the cash register with copies of the Flex Your Head comp and the Four Old Seven Inches LP collection.

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Graded on a Curve: Golden Retriever,

Extant since 2008, Golden Retriever consists of Matt Carlson on modular synthesizer and Jonathan Sielaff on bass clarinet. They offer an uncommonly approachable strain of experimentalism that’s blended with drone textures both organic and at times quite psychedelic. The duo’s fifth and latest release is Seer, and it continues to explore their sonic objectives with an unusually high ratio of success.

For many listeners raised on a steady diet of song-based musical forms, the very concept of experimental sound creation comes attached with a muddle of forbidding baggage. Amongst all this clutter are visions of aggressiveness, abstraction and abrasion, with this handful of descriptors plucked from just the first letter of the alphabet.

To be sure, a huge mess of experimental gush does resemble those remarks. Sometimes a trail is blazed far beyond the prevailing norms of its period (a la the true meaning of the term avant-garde) only to have the discomfiting edges gradually sanded down over time. For three examples, legions of ears (though absolutely not all) eventually caught up to groundbreakers Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives, and Ornette Coleman.

As the decades have unfurled however, plenty of other instances have arisen where the challenging and indeed difficult aspects of experimentation have been retained; think Arnold Schoenberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Peter Brötzmann (especially circa-Machine Gun). In summation; certain musicians visit the fringe while others reside there indefinitely.

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Graded on a Curve: Boppin’ Hillbilly Vol. 1

Apparently there are 30 whopping volumes in the compilation series Boppin’ Hillbilly, all of them released between ’88 and ‘94 by a shadowy Dutch company appropriately named White Label. Trying to collect vinyl copies of the entire set at this juncture is surely a foolhardy endeavor, but anyone desiring a fix of Country Swing in their life should attempt to hear at least a smattering of the music included across these insanely diligent sets. Unsurprisingly, some of the best selections, including a pair of stellar workouts from country guitar great Joe Maphis, are found on Vol. 1.

While many continue to associate them with the muffled audio from stadium concerts or the misbegotten demos of various rock stars, it’s impossible to deny that a considerable amount of vastly important cultural documentation has entered into common currency due to the undeniably ambiguous actions of bootleggers. Even better though is when the sheer impulse to collect and the undying need to document rise to the point of pure mania.

Not to be confused with an equally exhaustive and no doubt just as illicit ten volume batch of compact disc comps titled Rockin’ Hillbilly that were issued by the even more aptly monikered imprint Cactus, the obviously bootleg (though perhaps in this case the more suitable term is “grey market”) Boppin’ Hillbilly LPs do such a staggering job of corralling so much truly juiced-up white-boy boogie that listening to just a fraction can feel like being submerged inside a huge ceramic jug brimming with pure white lightnin’.

Certainly the impetus for all of this stuff is none other than the gang of Milton Brown (and His Musical Brownies), Spade Cooley (and His Orchestra), and of course Bob Wills (and His Texas Playboys), but one can also hear the influence of later greats like Merle Travis and Moon Mullican, assorted purveyors of high boogie-woogie piano, the breakneck guitar tandem of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, and the inescapable presence of Hank Williams, as well as hints of R&B, rockabilly and even pure early rock and roll.

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(Re)Graded on a Curve:
Rhinoceros, (s/t)

While not forgotten, the late-‘60s group known as Rhinoceros seem to be remembered less for their music and more for the circumstances of their formation. In the end that’s no great crime, but they did knock out two very solid LPs in ’68-’69 (and a final one in 1970 that frankly isn’t so good.) The first one was self-titled and anyone with a strong inclination for the music of the period should look into its contents.

Even though they got into game a bit late, the Elektra label was responsible for some of the biggest rock success stories of the latter half of the 1960s. The Doors were the company’s biggest commercial breakthrough, but interestingly, most of their other achievements from that period sold more modestly.

Love and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band certainly shifted some units, and the imprint’s diverse troop of progressive/ crossover folkies Tim Buckley, Phil Ochs, Tom Rush, and The Incredible String Band all found varying levels of consumer interest (particularly the ISB, who were quite big for a spell in the UK), but if the Lizard King and his crew are excluded from the equation, Elektra’s ‘60s rep rests far more on critical accolades and enduring influence than upon massive chart domination. Furthermore, the label even holds some curious releases from outfits that surely fell far short of Elektra’s expectations.

Some might be thinking of proto-punkers The Stooges and MC5, but that’s not the case. Less reliable, often word-of-mouth instances of proto-punk lore frequently establish that only a small, wise few bought the records that comprise the movement, but that’s not really all that accurate, with The Stooges managing a very minor but under the circumstances respectable showing of #106 on the Billboard Album Chart, and the MC5 climbing all the way to #30 and selling a quick 100,000 copies of Kick Out the Jams.

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Graded on a Curve: Casper & the Cookies, Dingbats

Stylistic audacity is the undoing of many bands. Not so with Casper & the Cookies, though because of their refusal to fit into one tidy bag their discography can be aptly described as an uneven affair. Due in part to concision and intensity the Cookies’ fourth LP Dingbats is their best, but that doesn’t mean its 13 songs offer a streamlined ride.

Athens GA’s Casper & the Cookies stretches all the way back to the late-’90s in relation to one Jason NeSmith, a multi-instrumentalist some may recognize as a touring member of his municipal cohorts Of Montreal. However, NeSmith hasn’t been out on the road with the Kevin Barnes-led outfit since the mid portion of last decade.

Subsequently, the Cookies have issued two full-lengths (their debut appeared in ‘03) and assorted singles/EPs, the majority of it via the label Happy Happy Birthday to Me (though Dingbats comes attached to the imprint Wild Kindness), so the connection to Of Montreal might not seem all that relevant. In fact, by now it’s quite possible NeSmith and his bandmates have grown tired of reading about the relationship.

But as it underscores Casper & the Cookies’ often bold pop unconventionality the link is worth bringing up. Additionally, the association earns them extended family status in the Elephant 6 family tree (the Cookies supported The Apples in Stereo on a nationwide tour in ’07 and figured on a split single with head-Apple Robert Schneider’s side group the Marbles the same year) and places them solidly into Athens’ new breed alongside Tunabunny, Muuy Biien, and New Sound of Numbers (who happen to include in their ranks Cookie Kay Stanton).

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(Re)Graded on a Curve:
Ellie Greenwich, “I Want You to Be My Baby” b/w “Goodnight, Goodnight”

The late Ellie Greenwich’s well-deserved fame derives primarily from her activities a songwriter, specifically as one half of the behemoth Brill Building duo Greenwich-Barry, a pair that penned some of the most brilliant and enduring tunes in the rich history of the ‘60s Girl-Group sound. But she was also a gifted vocalist, and while her talents behind the microphone will never eclipse her abilities as a composer, a little enthusiasm for her efforts as a performer can only serve to deepen an already impressive legacy. Exhibit number one should be her fabulous single from 1967 “I Want You to Be My Baby” b/w “Goodnight, Goodnight (What’s So Good About It?)”

Once upon a time, the highly rewarding phenomenon of the ‘60s girl-groups was firmly in the grips of the formidable tentacles of nostalgia. Such was the intense power of the “golden oldies” experience. While the same can be said of the numerous more rock-based genres that also happened to remain in the cultural memory through widespread popularity, those forms were also separated far more easily from their sticky status as representatives of a supposedly simpler and somehow preferable past.

As such, younger folks often come to grips with the greatness of Stax before they integrate the more sophisticated pop direction of Motown into their listening diets. And to this day, whole hypothetical countries can be populated with Beatles fans that care nothing about the concept of the ‘60s as a great time to be alive, mainly because they weren’t around to form any memories of that nature.

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Graded on a Curve:
Dex Romweber Duo,
Images 13

Dexter Romweber continues to be most noted for his work as part of Flat Duo Jets, but if he keeps releasing LPs as strong as Images 13 that situation is bound to change. Recorded with his sister Sara, the Dex Romweber Duo’s latest album finds them in expectedly trim and energetic form, but key to its success is the level of subtle diversity on display.

Like many I’m guessing, my introduction to Dex Romweber came through the 1987 Tony Gayton-directed documentary Athens, GA: Inside/Out. That film and its accompanying soundtrack illuminated one of the more storied regional scenes of the post-punk era, with its exponents including The B-52’s, Pylon, and R.E.M.

By the latter portion of the ‘80s, Athens’ musical productivity, loaded as it was with jangling college radio friendly guitars, frequently got saddled with the reputation of being just too damned well-mannered for its own good. It was a trait far from unwarranted; R.E.M. was sitting on the precipice of Big Rock Stardom (by the beginning of ’88, Document had sold a million), and all sorts of acts were attempting their own overly-pleasant wrinkles on that niche.

Athens, GA: Inside/Out helped to at least somewhat undercut this notion. Standing out was the noise-punk racket of Bar-B-Q Killers, but the biggest exception was easily Flat Duo Jets. They mixed a solid grip on pre-Beatle rock gumption with a wild streak of impoliteness that kept them securely out of the neo-rockabilly bag from earlier in the decade, and to these ears Dexter, drummer Crow, and bassist Griz “Tone” Mayer (who departed in 1990, leaving them as a two-piece for the rest of their run) landed in the fertile zone betwixt The Blasters and The Cramps.

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Graded on a Curve: Descendents,
Milo Goes to College

Though it seems they perennially garner fewer accolades than their Cali cohorts Black Flag and the Minutemen, coffee-fueled Los Angelinos the Descendents’ full-length debut Milo Goes to College stands as one of the ‘80s indispensable punk documents. Its grooves are teeming with furious catchiness and what it lacks in good manners it more than makes up for in sheer gusto.

I’ve fond memories of and considerable good will for the Descendents, namely the incarnations of the group that recorded up to and including the Enjoy! LP, but must say that from my viewpoint they can be easily underrated. Or maybe more appropriately, they often slip through the cracks, in large part due to the non-flash nature of their music and image. First and foremost about focused energy, they wrote tunes that joined musical and lyrical concerns triumphantly seeking to shirk the concept of the punk as a metal-studded casualty with a tube of Testors stuck up his/her nostril.

Occasionally described as “nerd-core,” their songs tackled topics like fishing, hanging out in nature, the joys of junk food, loyalty to friends, bodily gasses, the desire to not be a fuck-up, coffee, friction between cliques, and quite frequently late-adolescent struggles with the opposite sex. Many of these concerns have been addressed by other bands, but frankly a few haven’t, and certainly not with the appealingly direct (again, focused) musicality and no-frills sincerity that basically stands as their enduring legacy.

They began in ’79 with a 45 of surfy, poppy guitar rock “Ride the Wild” b/w “It’s a Hectic World.” While a nice enough first effort, it’s unrepresentative of where they would head after the addition of lynchpin vocalist Milo Aukerman on 1981′s “Fat” EP. The six songs grooved into that disc are characterized by short, sharp blasts of youthful punk action; some are melodic, others breakneck and spastic a la Hardcore, but they all still sound worthwhile as they creep up on thirty years of existence. Additionally, they serve as the template the band would refine on their next three releases.

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