Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Jenn Grant,
Paradise

Nova Scotian pop singer-songwriter Jenn Grant emerged in the mid-’00s, first with a self-released EP, and then a full-length debut. She’s released five LPs to increasing critical acclaim since, sharpening her instincts and imbuing her contemporary folk-pop with increasingly lush atmospheres along the way. Paradise is her latest, and it’s available now on the Outside label in Grant’s home country and through Ba Da Bing! in the USA.

Prior to stepping out on her own, Jenn Grant was a touring-member of the long-running Halifax-based group the Heavy Blinkers; her EP “Jenn Grant and Goodbye Twentieth Century” came out in 2005 and stirred up enough notice that the Paris 1919 Sound label chose to finance her second effort of two years hence.

Enlisting the Blinkers, fellow Canadians Ron Sexsmith, Matt Mays, Jill Barber, and numerous others, Green injected occasional touches of jazzy tastefulness into an Americana-ish folk-pop equation for Orchestra for the Moon, with much of the disc suitable for café listening. 2009’s Echoes was the first of three releases for Six Shooter, the set raising the intensity and placing her firmly in the contempo alt-indie framework.

2011 brought her next album, Honeymoon Punch showcasing her versatility by opening with a rocker, though not so raucous as to alienate those attuned to her wavelength. Mostly, the record illuminated Grant’s inclination to tinker with the rudiments of her sound; the next year’s The Beautiful Wild was even more ambitious, validating the tag of songstress as she exhibited pop-auteur moves and raised the lushness quotient.

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Graded on a Curve:
Philip Lewin,
Am I Really Here All Alone?

Philip Lewin’s private-press Am I Really Here All Alone? has been tagged as loner folk, but that’s mainly because it was recorded solo and per the title relates to the pain of relationships. Instead of connecting as off-puttingly awkward or a pain in the ass to be around, its creator just seems like a guy who had some songs and could sing and play them, mostly on guitar, with the straightforwardness of his results low of fidelity but ultimately quite refreshing. Initially released in ’75 as signed edition of 300, this vinyl, compact disc, and digital reissue bears Tompkins Square’s reliable mark of quality.

Again, it’s invigorating to hear a recovered private-press LP unaccompanied by esoteric or otherwise severe attributes, though it should be emphasized that Am I Really Here All Alone?, the first of two albums Philip Lewin recorded for his own Gargoyle Records imprint in the mid-’70s apparently while residing in Toronto, is a substantially personal experience; it just doesn’t register to me as being strung out or even particularly strained.

Just as stimulating is how the music doesn’t merely represent a scaled down or tweaked reaction to prior or contemporary musical environments. In a stimulating twist, Lewin predicts future developments in the one-man folk scheme of things, his lo-fi scenario deepened by an occasional vocal similarity to John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats.

The likeness relates to general tone and a distinct resigned inflection, intermittent but detectable during opener “Unusual Day” and sharper in focus across the LP’s third track “Watercolors.” Elsewhere the resemblance is totally absent, with the succinct and fast-paced bluesy folk-club-ish business of “King of Queens” contributing to the set’s diverse sonic landscape and tying into the psych-leaning (and decidedly non-Mountain Goats-like) electric guitar motions of “Unusual Day.”

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Graded on a Curve: Object Collection, cheap&easy OCTOBER

Noise-opera isn’t exactly a hybrid encountered every day. Those who undergo a twitch of excitement over the rarity of the combo might want to investigate Object Collection, a NYC-based performance group led by writer-director Kara Feely and composer Travis Just. They’ve freshly issued cheap&easy OCTOBER, a wild and wooly intermingling of experimental disciplines with a thematic focus on revolution and its commemoration. Recorded live in the East Village at La MaMa on October 17, 2015, it’s out now on compact disc and digital through the Infrequent Seams label.

Opera is succinctly described as a theatrical work set to music. That covers a whole lot of territory, including the release under consideration here. Apparently, there’s been some prior debate over whether to categorize Object Collection as a musical outfit or an experimental theater group. Releasing a CD surely tilts them toward the former, but as the 73 minutes of cheap&easy OCTOBER unfurl the essence of the performative remains.

Under the guidance of Feely and Just, the incarnation of Object Collection documented here features the voices of Avi Glickstein, Tavish Miller, Daniel Allen Nelson, Fulya Peker, and Deborah Wallace, the violin, bass, mandolin, and percussion of Andie Springer, the guitar, bass, and percussion of Taylor Levine, the synthesizer, guitar, trumpet, and percussion of Aaron Meicht, and the drums and guitar of Owen Weaver.

As stated above, there’s not a whole lot of precedent in the noise-opera category, but what immediately sprung to this writer’s mind was John Gavanti, also from NYC (of course), and their self-titled No Wave splatter-growl transmogrification of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, released in 1980 on the Hyrax label (later put out on CD by Atavistic). A merger of key No Wave units Mars (Mark Cunningham, Sumner Crane, China Berg) and DNA (Ikue Mori, Arto Lindsay), John Gavanti delivered a formidable racket.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Godfathers,
A Big Bad Beautiful Noise

Emerging in 1985, Londoners The Godfathers promptly injected a dose of muscle into the decade’s sonic milieu. Essentially a hard-rocking update of R&B-infused pre-punk action with occasional ventures into pop territory, they released a string of albums, chalked up a handful of radio hits, and persevered until 2000. Reactivated since 2008, their new record is A Big Bad Beautiful Noise; while uneven, it benefits from focused energy and intermittently sturdy writing. It’s out now on CD and digital through Metropolis Records, with the 180gm vinyl arriving on March 24.

The Godfathers were formed by Peter Coyne and his bassist brother Chris after the breakup of The Sid Presley Experience, a mid-’80s act with a short but eventful lifespan; they managed to kick out a pair of singles, visit a few radio stations including a session for John Peel, perform the A-side of their first single “Hup Two Three Four” on TV program The Tube, and even toured with Billy Bragg.

The Coyne brothers wasted no time in building upon the momentum of their defunct unit, getting at it so quickly that many have chalked up The Godfathers’ arrival as simply that of a name change. That’s not true, as Presleyite (and future conspirator) Del Bartle ended up in the Unholy Trinity for a subsequent spell, but the idea is supported by cover versions of the Plastic Ono Band’s “Cold Turkey” titling Sid Presley’s second EP and adorning The Godfathers’ ’87 full-length Hit by Hit.

Comprised of their first three singles and a smattering of new tracks, Hit by Hit isn’t a mindblower but it does document promise, and it was the final release on their Corporate Image label before Epic came a calling. In something of a reversal of norms, ’88’s Birth, School. Work, Death and the following year’s More Songs About Love and Hate, saw the involvement of a major company improving upon the band’s independent beginnings.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, February 2017

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued wax presently in stores for February, 2017. Part one is here. 

NEW RELEASE PICKS Satoko Fujii, Invisible Hand (Cortez Sound) Satoko Fujii Joe Fonda Duet (Long Song), and Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo Peace (Libra) Like a lot of jazzers, Japanese pianist Fujii has a loaded discography; these three are her most recent, running from Invisible Hand’s two CDs worth of solo action through the sustained inspiration of Duet’s lengthy duo with US bassist Fonda (and shorter trio with guest trumpeter Natsuki Tamura) to expansive-eclectic large band creativity. Fujii’s avant bona fides bring cohesiveness to all three tricky modes, including the raucous beauty of Peace. A-/ A-/ A

REISSUE PICKS The Skatalites, Foundation Ska (Studio One) Originally on the Heartbeat label, this is an utter doozy, collecting 32 tracks of jazzy groove bliss from one of Jamaican music’s greatest collectives. Indeed foundational; this is all material waxed for Coxsone Dodd, some from before the group was known as The Skatalites, with other tracks originally issued under the names of the individual composer or main soloist. Although far from comprehensive, this sprinkles in a few nifty vocal cuts across its four sides, and is a carefully compiled, essential hunk of the genre’s history. A+

The Damned, Damned Damned Damned (BMG) Brit punk’s first LP remains one of the best the genre ever coughed out. Given its stature and frequency of reissue, this shouldn’t be too difficult to find on the cheap, but those needing a Cadillac copy should cozy up to this 40th anniversary deluxe edition. The lack of bonuses is a plus, as the original Nick Lowe-produced sequence is essentially perfect. With cornerstones “Neat Neat Neat” and “New Rose” opening each side, it features thud, snot, a Stooges hat-tip finale, and amp spillage that burns like a dose of the heavenly clap: What else could one need? A+

10,000 Russos, “Fuzz Club Session” (Fuzz Club) This Portuguese heavy psych trio’s S/T full-length debut came out on Fuzz Club in 2015, so their getting chosen as the second installment in the label’s new vinyl series (Seattle’s Night Beats delivered the inaugural entry) makes complete sense. Given the freedom to do anything they want during 30 minutes of studio time, the group picked two from 10,000 Russos, an older non-LP number (“Policia Preventiva” from the Fuzz Club Festival 2015 live tape) and what appears to be an unreleased song. The whole is loaded with motorik drive and reverberating amps. B+

Ahmed Abdul-Malik, The Eastern Moods of Ahmed Abdul-Malik (Doxy) Originally from 1962 on Prestige, this was Abdul-Malik’s fifth LP in a series of Middle Eastern folk and jazz fusions; it features a smaller more cohesive group than on previous sessions, with Abdul-Malik alternating between bass and oud. Mostly remembered today as one of Thelonious Monk’s bass players, Abdul-Malik’s claim to Sudanese ancestry is apparently spurious, though his actual Caribbean descent hasn’t overtaken the fiction, possibly because his records thrive on ingenuity and a palpable sense of the sincere. B+

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Graded on a Curve: Synthesize the Soul: Astro-Atlantic Hypnotica From the Cape Verde Islands 1973 – 1988

In times of crisis and intolerance, one can look to art for a corrective. Synthesize the Soul: Astro-Atlantic Hypnotica From the Cape Verde Islands 1973 – 1988 is the story of immigration, of musicians gaining access to previously unavailable instruments and recording studios, of the blend of tradition and innovation, and of the cultural exchange that ensued. The 18 tracks that comprise the set offer an energetic, enlightening listen as the whole helps to slay the bogeymen of closed-border narrowmindedness; it’s out on CD and 140gm 2LP with gatefold jacket and 20-page booklet on February 24 through Ostinato Records.

The island nation of Cape Verde didn’t gain its independence from Portuguese colonial rule until July 5, 1975, the date falling after the years covered by this set and underscoring the political and economic uncertainty that sent thousands of Cape Verdeans migrating to various cities across Europe and beyond. Naturally, music accompanied the movement, and as Ostinato’s generous promo text explains, the songs initially intended merely for the enjoyment and rejuvenation of countrymen began to sway others, first in Napoli, then Rome, and later in Lisbon, Paris, Rotterdam, and Boston.

Synthesize the Soul is only Ostinato’s second release, though it follows promptly on the heels of June 2016’s Tanbou Toujou Lou: Meringue, Kompa Kreyol, Vodou Jazz, & Electric Folklore from Haiti 1960 – 1981. Importantly, both are loaded with info that illuminates the circumstances leading to the music’s creation and reinforcing the label’s efforts as far surpassing those of fast-buck reissue enterprises.

Alongside the documentation of a country and culture in transition is another chapter in the growth of electronic instruments during the late 20th century. This informative wrinkle gets immediately underway with Nhú De Ped´Bia’s “Nós Criola,” is early seconds brandishing a fluttering, shortwave radio-esque synth. But more crucially, the meat of the track is organic rhythm, clean guitar, keyboard spice, and unperturbed vocals, the objective clearly to get bodies dancing but with the emphasis on finesse rather than grit or unharnessed energy.

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Graded on a Curve:
Hayes McMullan, Everyday Seem Like Murder Here

Perhaps there was a time when the frequency of Mississippi Delta blues rediscoveries produced a sense of the blasé; if so, those days are long gone. What’s here right now is the unveiled recordings of Hayes McMullan, a sharecropper, church deacon, and long-retired musician encouraged by roots scholar, author, and certified blues nut Gayle Dean Wardlow to pick up a guitar, play his old repertoire, and reminisce over his former vocation. Until recently, only one song had squeaked into the public consciousness, but now Light in the Attic’s Everyday Seem Like Murder Here offers a copious and illuminating helping of the sessions. It’s out on double vinyl, compact disc, and digital.

By 1967, the year Gayle Dean Wardlow met Hayes McMullan in front of a grocery store in Tallahatchie County, MS, the Delta blues had begun its journey from cultural neglect to proper recognition as an integral thread in the 20th century’s grand artistic weave. But for many African-Americans of the period, the blues, and particularly the hard and sometimes harrowing Delta variety, was not an uncovered treasure but a blight on the community.

McMullan wasn’t playing the blues in front of that grocery store, and in fact he’d had nothing at all to do with the music for decades, having quit the lifestyle after his brother Tom, himself a bluesman, was reputedly killed by poisoning. Today, the Delta blues is the stuff of multidisc retrospectives and book length enthusiasms, but in the time of its creation, when McMullan crossed paths with Ishmon Bracey, Willie Brown, and Charley Patton, playing the music was an often-dangerous pursuit.

For the churchgoers that counted McMullan in their number, the blues was simply taboo, and Wardlow’s efforts to record his discovery have the air of the clandestine. But given a guitar and ample time to recollect his material, the sessions eventually took place with discretion in McMullan’s home and in a small studio in the city of Jackson; these four vinyl sides hold the results.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bert Jansch,
Living in the Shadows, Downunder: Live in Australia

Bert Jansch never achieved widespread fame, but his talent as guitarist, singer, and songwriter did insure cult stature and the esteem of fellow musicians as his enduring ability documented him as a survivor. As evidence, Earth Recordings has collected Jansch’s ’90s albums and bonus stuff into the freshly available 4-disc set Living in the Shadows, with the era-equivalent Downunder: Live in Australia also slated for arrival on February 24.

Bert Jansch took a break from recording and performing in the mid-’70s, and after returning got somewhat lost in the shuffle. He didn’t stay away long, getting back to it by ‘77, and he ended the decade with the water fowl-themed all-instrumental Avocet, an excellent but terribly underheard LP, or at least until recently; in 2016 it was given multiformat reissue by Earth including an art edition with six lithograph prints by artist Hannah Alice depicting the album’s avian inspirations. That version is sold out, but the standard vinyl and compact disc (both regular and bookback editions) are still available.

Colours are Fading Fast, Earth’s 3LP/ CD collection of his collabs with Loren Auerbach, and the label’s revamp-repress of Jansch’s From the Outside, a fine and long quite obscure disc (initially issued only in Belgium), came out last April and June, respectively. Both are highpoints from a rough ’80s stretch, and now here’s the same enterprise’s expansive collection of his ’90s bounce-back. Bulky enough to resist serving as an introduction, for established fans thirsting to own the ’90s work on vinyl or just eyeballing that unreleased disc, Living in the Shadows is a sensible pickup.

Earth doesn’t just dump the entirety of the decade’s output into the set. Smartly absent is Sketches, a German release from 1990 that’s been described by a few observers as an affair for completists (giving it a stream, this assessment seems fair). Instead, the set begins with The Ornament Tree, a more focused collection of mostly traditional songs and nary an original that was also issued in ’90.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bert Jansch,
Jack Orion, Birthday Blues, Rosemary Lane

There might be no better time than the present to be a record collecting fan of Bert Jansch. Vinyl reissues from all stages of the Brit-folk guitar linchpin’s career have been flowing into the racks for a while now, and we’re currently experiencing a crescendo of material from the late singer-songwriter; for starters, his third LP Jack Orion has recently been reissued by Superior Viaduct, with sixth and seventh LPs Birthday Blues and Rosemary Lane scheduled for a March 24 release.

The 1960s was flush with fingerpickers, and Bert Jansch was amongst the very best. Adding to his appeal, the Scottish troubadour was also a capable vocalist, solid songwriter, and a deft collaborator, first teaming with fellow guitarist John Renbourn; in short order the duo co-founded the progressive folk combo Pentangle.

Jansch’s eponymous debut and its follow-up It Don’t Bother Me, both issued in 1965, have endured as classics, and for those wishing to become conversant with the man’s work, they are the place to begin; last year Superior Viaduct issued the LPs singly, and both will be part of Earth Recordings’ upcoming box set of Jansch’s output for the Transatlantic label.

This period remains the most lauded stretch in the guitarist’s oeuvre, in part due to its consistency and sharpness of focus. 1966 brought third album Jack Orion, which both extends from and contrasts with its predecessor, the opening strains of banjo in “The Waggoner’s Lad” picking up where It Don’t Bother Me’s finale “900 Miles” left off. The instrumental switch intertwines productively with Renbourn’s guitar, as his role, having commenced on the prior disc’s “Lucky Thirteen,” is deepened across four Jack Orion cuts to positive effect.

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Graded on a Curve:
Lula Pena,
Archivo Pittoresco

Portuguese singer, guitarist, composer, and poet Lula Pena has released only three records over the last two decades, but partially through highly-regarded live performances, her expansion of the Fado style and exploration of numerous complementary genres has brought her a devoted and fully deserved international following. Documenting an evolving brilliance and depth of artistry, every segment in her trim discography provides an experience worth savoring; the latest is Archivo Pittoresco, and it’s freshly out on CD and digital through Crammed Discs.

Lula Pena is often associated with Fado, or as she prefers to spell it, phado, and the connection is understandable, although it’s necessary to clarify that she extends from tradition rather than being contained by it. Broadening her personal style with French chanson, Cape Verdean morna, Anglo-American pop and folk, Latin American nueva canción, bossa nova, flamenco, blues, ’60s Portuguese folk and more, she eludes a potential quagmire of hodgepodge for a unified intensity.

In addition to her native Portuguese, Pena has sung in Spanish, English, French, Greek, and Italian while enhancing her own lyrics and poems with writing from disparate cultural sources. Armed with just guitar and alto voice, her debut Phados was released on CD in 1998 through Carbon 7 Records; even to non-Fado specialists such as this writer, her intermingling of knowledge-based richness and eschewal of reverence is quickly apparent.

It’s there in the vocal wind sounds at the close of “Senhora do Almortão/ As 7 mulheres do Minho,” in the aged warmth of “Perdidamente,” and in her deft, frequently percussive guitar style and assured vocal strength from start to finish. Fado is a style fairly associated with mournfulness, heartbreak, strife, and regret, and to excel at its tricky emotional terrain requires maturity, sincerity, and mastery; Phados established all three, but even with the gap of 12 years, the assured power and growth of her follow-up is still striking.

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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