Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
El Michels Affair,
Adult Themes

Many know the El Michels Affair through a pair of Wu-Tang Clan-inspired albums, but with a new LP arriving on May 8 that’s about to change. Formed and directed by composer and multi-instrumentalist Leon Michels, the group’s specialty is “cinematic soul,” with the effectiveness of their sound finding Michels in high demand as both a producer and player. Adult Themes, the Affair’s fourth full-length since debuting in 2005, documents considerable growth alongside the soulfulness that’s integral to Michels’ style. It’s available on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through the label cofounded by the band’s leader, Big Crown Records.

Prior to forming the El Michels Affair, its namesake played in The Mighty Imperials, who’ve been described as the house band for Soul Fire Records, a long defunct label that emerged from the ashes of the Desco imprint, with the other noted byproduct of Desco’s demise being the neo-soul and classic funk enterprise that gifted the world with Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Charles Bradley, and much more, namely Daptone.

The Mighty Imperials only full-length, Thunder Chicken, was first released on CD by Desco in 2001 and then given a vinyl press on Daptone three years later. The sound is M.G.’s and early Meters instrumental action leaning into hard funk a la James Brown and the J.B.’s, especially on the tracks featuring vocalist Joseph Henry.

Today, as R&B, soul, and funk in the old-school mode has become increasingly commonplace, Thunder Chicken might seem like not such a big deal, but at the time of the record’s release this prevalence wasn’t the case. Listening now, it retains the sweet kick that’s felt when everything falls right into place, but with the El Michels Affair and the release of Sounding Out the City in 2005, Michels was already moving forward, retaining the sheer musicality while tapping into broader sonic possibilities.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
May 2020, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for May, 2020. 

NEW RELEASE PICKS: The Soft Pink Truth, Shall We Go on Sinning so That Grace May Increase? (Thrill Jockey) Conceived by Drew Daniel of Matmos, the latest release in this long-running if on-again-off-again project is a direct byproduct of the artist’s desire to respond emotionally and artistically to creeping global fascism, generally, and a certain narcissistic incompetent’s election to the US Presidency, more directly. He’s further stated that he didn’t want to make “angry white guy” music, which means this album (available digitally today and out on vinyl June 19, understandably delayed due to pressing plant safety issues related to Covid-19) isn’t an exercise in sloganeering or didacticism, a lack that’s appreciated but frankly not especially surprising, as Daniel isn’t a strong candidate for making like a pissed-off Caucasian on record, even as a portion of The Soft Pink Truth’s catalog is dedicated to interpretations of what many (not me) would dismiss as “angry white guy” music.

I’m talking about Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want The Soft Pink Truth? (described as “electronic interpretations of UK punk and American hardcore songs”) and Why Do the Heathen Rage? (“electronic profanations of black metal classics”). And yet it’s important to note The Soft Pink Truth began as a challenge to Daniel to make a house record, a root that’s manifest here in the decidedly club-friendly second track “We.” Although Daniel’s engagement with the house style isn’t sustained through this record, the music still coheres into a life-affirming whole, with moments that can even be called joyous. Furthermore, The choice of a biblical quote, specifically from Paul the Apostle, has been explained as relating to Daniel’s “creative practice and how one should live in the world,” but the title also gets to how the music provides a “much-needed escape” while avoiding the pitfalls of escapism. Shall We Go on Sinning so That Grace May Increase? can be thought of as gospel music for these troubled times. A

ONO, Red Summer (American Dreams) Now, Chicago’s ONO have been called a “gospel industrial band” and “punk-gospel-noise.” These may seem unusual juxtapositions, so here’s the statement of purpose from the group’s website: ONO is an “Experimental, Noise and Industrial Poetry Performance Band Exploring Gospel’s Darkest Conflicts, Tragedies and Premises.” Noise is amongst the most confrontational of musics; most find it something to abjure, while a smaller number welcome it as a presence to be reckoned with; it can’t exist as background, and resists being ignored. The industrial genre, in its earliest years, was in many ways an offshoot, or indeed, an early incarnation of noise music, which had yet to really be articulated as a form.

ONO spans back to this era, formed in 1980 by P Michael Grego and travis, the former handling the audio, the latter the words, with records released in ’83 (Machines That Kill People) and ’86 (Ennui) for the noted San Francisco punk indie label Thermidor (both were reissued in limited editions in 2013 and ’15, respectively, by the Galactic Archive label). Now, ONO’s music might seem an odd fit for the gospel tag, but if confrontational, Red Summer is, per the above statement of purpose, contending with the past and how it impacts the present, and all in hopes of a better future. Over the decades, the lineup has changed a lot, but P Michael (here on samplers, drum machine, bass, and synthesizer) and travis (again, the words and vocals) have been the constants, with work on Red Summer commencing in 2015.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
April 2020, Part Six

Part six of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for April, 2020. Part one is here, part two is here, part three is here, part four is here, and part five is here.

NEW RELEASE PICK: Damien Jurado, What’s New, Tomboy? (Mama Bird Recording Co. / Loose) I got into Jurado’s work pretty early on, shortly after his second album, 1999’s Rehearsals for Departure, came out on Sub Pop. I was pretty taken with that one and his follow-up from 2000, Ghost of David, enough so that I picked up a bunch of his subsequent stuff, which consisted of one more for Sub Pop and then a bunch for Secretly Canadian. And I can’t say I was let down by any of it; the guy’s consistency as a singer-songwriter in what I’ll succinctly call the post-Neil Young tradition is striking and a bit reminiscent of another guy I stumbled onto around the same time, Richard Buckner, not because they sound similar (they do, and yet they don’t), but because they were able to turn that tradition into something that was very much their own.

But I must confess that I lost track of Jurado’s work around 2012, right about when his album Maraqopa came out. This drifting apart was mainly down to his prolificacy before and since, as this new record is his 15th full-length (and he has a slew of EPs and singles, as well). This is not the only instance where I’ve disconnected from a musician or band for no fault of theirs, though sometimes return engagements can prove to be a letdown. Well, happily, not here, as What’s New, Tomboy? unwinds with confidence and verve, just like I remember it, though I don’t want to infer that he hasn’t grown as a musician since the last I heard him. No, the songs consistently impressed upon me that Jurado is in strong creative form, and it wasn’t until roughly halfway into the record and “Francine” (with its terrific vibes playing and fingerpicking) that I was reminded of the influence of ol’ Neil. From there, Jurado continues to exemplify everything that is worthwhile at the crossroads of indie and folk. Now, to catch up on what I missed. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Sopwith Camel, The Miraculous Hump Returns from the Moon (Real Gone) As is the case with countless acts, maybe the least interesting thing about Sopwith Camel was their hit single, namely “Hello Hello,” which made it all the way to No. 26 in ’67. That might be overstating matters a bit, but it’s in aid of explaining how this San Francisco outfit’s long-delayed second album didn’t come completely out of nowhere. But still. Reformed with all the original members except one, the sound of Sopwith Camel circa ’73 had almost nothing to do with the Lovin’ Spoonful-Mamas & Papas neo-vaudeville pop of their earlier days, instead diving into a merger of funkiness, soft rock and spaciness, though a few songs on side two do reinforce a connection to what they sounded like before.

Now, I’ll confess to coming to Miraculous Hump with fresh ears. If the record had a cult following, I wasn’t clued in, and will admit to being more than a little skeptical over the specialness of the situation as proclaimed in the 2014 Guardian article cited in the press for this reissue, which was released in late March in a limited edition of 750 on marbled smoke vinyl (and still available). However, checking this out establishes it as much more than a curiosity (if not quite as amazing as some of the praise has it). As a lot had transpired in the period between the group’s two albums, that they migrated toward what is at times reminiscent of Steely Dan mating with Santana in a Seals & Crofts state of mind shouldn’t be a shock, but that it holds together so well, kinda is. It’s so effective that the later cuts which recall their earlier incarnation have an almost Bonzo Dog Band goes soft rock feel. Cuh-razy. I also have a creeping suspicion that folks into Shuggie Otis will dig this. B+

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Graded on a Curve:
The Clean,
Compilation

Over the decades there have been many bands in the post-Velvets guitar-rock sweepstakes, but none better than The Clean, New Zealand’s on-again off-again kings of post-punk/DIY string splendor and one of the cornerstones of the whole Flying Nun sound. In 1988, the generically titled Compilation LP helped introduce to world to their brilliance.

In the world of heavy-duty record collecting, single artist compilations are often viewed like a small army of redheaded stepchildren. The words Best Of and Greatest Hits are the tip off to a certain type of casual abbreviation, a CliffsNotes or Condensed Classics treatment for careers that obviously encompass much more than can be adequately summarized through the cherry-picking of chart-toppers or the most noteworthy tunes of an artist or act. But sometimes these comps provide a valuable service in the procurement of music that was originally released on 78 RPM discs or vinyl 45s, records that would be tremendously difficult to obtain in their original form. Indeed, there is a big difference in perception between a lowly Best Of cash-in and a well-ordered anthology presenting often scarce and forbiddingly pricey material.

You want the easiest route to The Falcons, a ‘50’s-‘60s R&B group with members that included Eddie Floyd, Sir Mack Rice, Joe Stubbs, and Wilson Pickett? Well, that would be You’re So Fine and I’ve Found a Love, a pair of far from perfect yet basically indispensible LPs chronicling this historically titanic acts’ progress for the Lupine and Flick labels. You want to taste the root of jazz via New Orleans in the ‘20s? Any physical format other than shellac that holds Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens is a comp, some obviously better than others. You want the full picture on the early belladonna-whacked work of Siouxsie and the Banshees? Then please don’t neglect Once Upon a Time: The Singles.

In 1981 The Clean began a quick spate of recording, making quite a ripple in their homeland, a hubbub that would take a few years to travel the oceans beyond their shores as one of the earliest and finest examples of the Kiwi nation’s Flying Nun record label. Featuring Robert Scott and the brothers David and Hamish Kilgour (with early assistance from Peter Gutteridge and Doug Hood), this band forms one of the four pillars upon which the whole Flying Nun experience rests, the others being Tall Dwarfs, The Chills, and The Verlaines.

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Graded on a Curve:
Field Works,
Ultrasonic

Although he has a sizable discography to his credit, Stuart Hyatt isn’t accurately labeled as a musician, but rather as a field recorder, and through extensive collaboration, a sonic architect (he indeed studied architecture, an endeavor that led him to his current pursuit). Released as Field Works, his productivity was collected in a large-scale limited edition vinyl box set in 2018, and now there’s Ultrasonic, a 2LP, CD, and digital release of Hyatt’s compositional sources enhanced by, amongst others, Eluvium, Sarah Davachi, Mary Lattimore, Noveller, and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma. Cohering into a rewarding “storytelling project” concerning the endangered Indiana bat, it’s out May 1 via Temporary Residence.

Although electronic music has its share of multi-member groups, and most-often duos (e.g. Boards of Canada, Matmos, Autechre, The Knife), it is still dominated by solo operators (and doesn’t my promo inbox know it). Indeed, electronic music is largely an auteur-driven zone where collaboration is regularly utilized as a way to extend or just spice-up an approach that has already proven effective on its own.

But wait. To describe Field Works as electronic is reductive, even as the list of those who’ve built upon Hyatt’s foundations include many who fit into that category (the aforementioned Matmos, Visible Cloaks, Ben Lukas Boysen, The Field, Dntel, B. Fleischmann, Gazelle Twin, Prototokyo, Pantha du Prince, and more), along with others, with the expected descriptive overlap, who are frequently tagged as ambient (Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Lusine, Chihei Hatakeyama).

But there are also names standing a little further apart (The Album Leaf, Juana Molina, Lullatone, Dan Deacon), or a lot (William Tyler) as Field Works becomes distinguished for the bedrock necessity of collaboration. To offer some background, the numerous prior recordings in the Field Works catalog, currently available separately digitally but released in 2018 on vinyl in the 7LP set Metaphonics: The Complete Field Works Recordings, evolved from a site analysis Hyatt conducted of the Washington Street neighborhoods in his hometown of Indianapolis as part of his M.Arch. thesis project.

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Graded on a Curve: Pram, The Stars Are So Big, the Earth Is So Small…Stay as You Are and Helium

Although long defunct, throughout the 1990s the UK label Too Pure promulgated a sweet heaping mess of worthwhile musical activity; most illustrious in the outpouring were PJ Harvey and Stereolab, but numerous additional acts fortified the scenario, and amongst the finest was Pram. Formed in Birmingham, England in 1990, the experimental pop outfit released three full-lengths on Too Pure, and the first two, ’93’s The Stars Are So Big, the Earth Is So Small…Stay as You Are and the following year’s Helium are available via Medical Records of Seattle, WA.

Pram initially came together in the late ‘80s under the name Hole. Eventually their founding members, namely Rosie Cuckston on vocals and keyboards, Matt Eaton on guitar, Samantha “Sam” Owen on bass, and Andy Weir on drums, changed the moniker to Pram, and their first recordings wielded an abrasive, nervous quality derived from indie rock and traceable back to their home country’s post-punk innovators, in particular The Slits and The Raincoats.

As part of the upside-down musical landscape of the early ’90s, Pram has surely been categorized as one component in the truly seismic indie explosion. But instead of being tidily indicative of the ’80s underground’s absorption into the mainstream of the ensuing decade, the group can be accurately tagged as prescient; circa ’88 as Hole their sound reportedly sprang entirely from vocals and a homemade Theremin.

Pram has been described as everything from experimental pop/rock to neo-psychedelia to dream pop, but they seem best pegged as an early example of post-rock (though at least one member of the band disagrees) as they adopted a wide range of atypical instrumentation, borrowed ideas from a Krautrock and post-punk antecedents, honed their skills as multi-instrumentalists and then strove to not sound like anyone else.

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Graded on a Curve:
Olivia Awbrey,
Dishonorable Harvest

Based in Portland, OR but with time spent in England, Olivia Awbrey writes the songs and sings them on her debut full-length. Just as importantly, she invigorates her tunes with tough guitar playing and enlists a tight crew (including Jen Macro of My Bloody Valentine) to infuse the whole with heft and depth, so that instead of just another indie strum scenario, a tangle of influences productively shine through. Dishonorable Harvest is out May 1 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through the Quick Pickle label.

Checking out Olivia Aubrey’s first release, the 7-song “Fight or Fight” EP from 2017 (still available on CD), does present something of a strum scenario in its opening title track, though it’s more classically folk-poppy than indie and likeable at that. Following it is a tight dose of up-tempo melodic-rock, with the rest of the set highlighting Awbrey’s budding strengths as a singer-songwriter.

Extending from its first cut, the EP’s an enjoyable listen, but “Geolocation at P.A.M.,” the opening song on her follow-up Dishonorable Harvest, delivers a power move of considerable proportions and sets into motion a long-player that, while solid, still registers as an effort of promise rather than a document of fulfilled potential. Furthermore, the track’s title refers to the Portland Art Museum, the connection revealed in lyrics that dive into (seemingly) autobiographical realms infused with rocking loudness situating Awbrey as a descendant of Patti Smith.

She’s not swiping Smith’s moves though. In her website bio, Awbrey describes her songs as offering a “self-interrogation of her place in the world as a queer woman,” and it’s a self-assessment that shines through in the hearing. Additionally, on an instrumental level, the song’s heaviness feels connected to more recent Alt-indie developments, the bio further detailing how Awbrey met and spent time with one of her inspirations, the English songwriter CJ Thorpe-Tracey, who along with Jen Marco, contributes to Dishonorable Harvest.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
April 2020, Part Five

Part five of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for April, 2020. Part one is here, part two is here, part three is here, and part four is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Bad History Month, Old Blues (Exploding in Sound) Before releasing Dead and Loving It: An Introductory Exploration Of Pessimysticism as Bad History Month in 2017, vocalist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Sean Sprecher was half of Fat History Month with drummer Mark Fede. This is his second album on his own, and it attains a level of introspection that has been tagged, at least once, as emo, though the songs here exude the quality of being well read that borders on the intellectual, and certainly literary, so that I’m reminded more of David Berman and Bill Callahan (plus, anybody who cops the name of a Mel Brooks movie for an album title is on to something more than the dour self-seriousness/ self-absorption that mars so much emo).

But on a purely musical level, Old Blues productively branches out a bit, at times recalling early Sebadoh, though I’ll emphasize these moments are fleeting. Furthermore, because hardly anything here moves particularly fast, the sound and perhaps better said, the mood, can bring to mind slowcore, and spiked with flareups of loner folk. But upon consideration, Sprecher, with Fede producing, has labored over an immersive set of music, as sharp instrumentally as it is vividly (and complexly) observational, that isn’t easily comparable to any other artist or band. Bookended by two long, shape shifting, and thematically linked tracks in “Waste Not” (13 minutes) an “Want Not” (15 minutes) that reinforce the heights of Sprecher’s ambition, the five shorter cuts productively contrast through restraint. In the end, Old Blues sounds like the kind of record that might’ve been squirted out by an indie label in the mid-’90s to a gradually increasing and passionate cult following. That’s a welcome gift in 2020. A

Lewsberg, In This House (12XU) The second LP from this Rotterdam, Netherlands-based band is the first to get a US release. Anybody into art-punk/ post-punk should investigate its ten tracks with haste, for they cohere into a stone killer. Utilizing the tried-and-true lineup of dual guitars (Arie van Vliet, Michael Klein), bass (Shalita Dietrich), drums (Dico Kruijsse) and vocals (Klein sings lead save for one track and Dietrich handles the occasional backing except for her turn up front), In This House is the latest in a long line of examples that underscore the inexhaustible inspiration of the Velvet Underground, although as in the finest prior instances of this influence, the Velvets are largely employed as a foundation rather than as a full-on template. I say largely because “Cold Light of Day” is a slice of VU action that’s completely, some might say flagrantly, undisguised, and an utter gem in the category of how to do it right.

That is, it’s never a mere copy. The other nine songs serve up a full platter of the aforementioned art-punk/ post-punk with range that’s subtly expressed as it firmly reinforces Lewsberg as a band with a focused sound. The simple fact of the matter is the genre in which they excel doesn’t often hang together in full albums by one band (those cornerstone art-punk/ post-punk LPs have attained that stature for a reason), much less a stunner on the level of In This House. And they’ve done it twice; I went back and checked their eponymous debut from 2018, and it kicks, just not as hard as this one. That’s great, and even rarer. Another cool turn of events is how Dietrich’s lead vocal in “Jacob’s Ladder” hit me like Kendra Smith’s did the first time I listened to The Days of Wine and Roses. If you dig the VU and The Dream Syndicate but also love The Fall, this LP could be your new fave. A

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Needle Drop: Rebecca Turner, The New
Wrong Way

It’s been a long stretch since her last one (Slowpokes in 2009), but on her third LP The New Wrong Way, Maplewood, NJ’s Rebecca Turner thrives in singer-songwriter mode with a tendency toward country-rock, or better said, country-pop.

But don’t get the idea that her songs would receive play on contempo radio (even if she is a professed fan of Miranda Lambert). Instead, her poppy quality can resonate like something that might’ve been recorded at Water Music back in the ’80s; that is, Hoboken pop.

Perhaps “Water Shoes” (her song partly about moving to NJ from NY) planted the seed for this comparison, but it was her tune “The Cat That Can Be Alone,” the record’s second, that really brought the similarity to the surface of my consciousness.

Recorded in her home studio and finished at Ardent in Memphis, The New Wrong Way offers a little grit right off the bat in “Living Rock,” the track establishing a pattern of strong guitar playing throughout the LP, with the high point possibly “Cassandra” (which was inspired by a Lambert show she caught back in 2010).

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
April 2020, Part Four

Part four of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for April, 2020. Part one is here, part two is here, and part three is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: GRID, Decomposing Force (NNA Tapes) Featuring Matt Nelson (Battle Trance, Elder Ones) on saxophone, Tim Dahl (Child Abuse, Lydia Lunch Retrovirus) on bass, and Nick Podgurski (New Firmament, Feast of the Epiphany) on drums, this is GRID’s second album after a self-titled debut in 2017 (that one’s still available on cassette, this one’s on LP), though last year they also collaborated with Lydia Lunch on a sweet track as tribute to key Beat writer Herbert Huncke. Decomposing Force is a brutal but also atmospheric slab of post-free jazz-molten noise-Industrial strength improv scorch that should briefly cheer up those who are perpetually saddened by the lack of biannual releases from Borbetomagus. It’s not quite as hammer-down as that trio (notice I said atmospheric) but it definitely has the potential to be a room clearer. So, don’t play it during quarantine. Unless you’re hanging with a bunch of Wolf Eyes fans, in which case the party’s just getting started. What a lucky fucker you are. A

Harkin, S/T (Hand Mirror) Although she has a ton of experience as a touring musician along with a few studio credits including Waxahatchee’s Out in the Storm, this is the debut from Katie Harkin, which is also the first release on the ambitious new label she’s formed with her partner, the writer Kate Leah Hewell (they describe Hand Mirror as a “creative community,” with literary publications and live events part of the plan). The eponymous effort is a solid one, reinforcing her background along with smarts in choosing collaborators; the set features the drums of Stella Mozgawa (Warpaint) and Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak, Bon Iver). Additionally, Harkin reveals savvy in combining a live foundation with electronic elements including samples and synths.

As said, savvy: the record doesn’t really go in for an electro-poppy sound but is instead mildly reminiscent of the sorta “serious” high-tech album statements that occasionally emerged during the 1980s, though even with a few post-Gothy strains and Kate Bushy motions, this general tendency doesn’t feel like a calculated state of affairs (which is to say, maybe you won’t hear it, and it might’ve not been her intention). Part of why has to do with Harkin’s guitar playing, which is most assertive early (vaguely like Barney Sumner in early New Order in opener “Mist on Glass”) and late (in closer “Charm and Tedium”), but the biggest reason is that it’s clear Harkin isn’t striving to fit into any sort of stylistic niche. Her songs are as strong as her singing, and I’d say this is a promising record, but really, she’s already essentially delivered. A-

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Needle Drop: The Claudettes, High Times
in the Dark

My intro to Chicago’s The Claudettes came back in 2018 via Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium!, a set that not only confirmed the accuracy of the descriptions of a blues-punk merger, but greatly exceeded the dual expectations I’d formulated for the record.

On one hand, I was bracing for either the growly revamping or de(con)struction of mid-20th century electric blues nugs (particularly as The Claudettes’ then and current four-piece lineup began as a duo). On the other hand, once I’d learnt of founder-constant member-pianist Johnny Iguana’s prior work in the bands of Junior Wells and Otis Rush, I was thinking the content might swing over to the opposite side of the spectrum. That is, the highly (one might even say overly) reverential. What those predictions didn’t account for was vocalist Berit Ulseth as she brings appealing soul music verve to the proceedings. Plus, Iguana was striving for a sound that is unmistakably contemporary.

Gymnasium saw the band working with Grammy-winning producer Mark Neill, and for this follow-up they tap into the expertise of another Grammy winner in Ted Hutt, whose credits include Gaslight Anthem, Violent Femmes, and The Devil Makes Three. The results extend the full-bodied sound of their prior effort, with drummer Michael Caskey and bassist Zach Verdoorn (who also plays guitar and sings) a capable rhythm section. Along the way, the band pulls off the difficult feat of being clearly roots cognizant while never sounding like a dusted-off relic (the tag of indie blues is an apt one).

Iguana’s piano is a constant and welcome element as his playing is a natural part of a sound that smartly puts Ulseth’s skills up front. As this set unwinds there’s considerable pop savvy on display, and in spots the LP is kinda like a 21 century version of what Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, and the Dixie Flyers were doing with assorted singers circa the early 1970s. High Times in the Dark is not a bit hackneyed, which is an absence worth celebrating.

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Graded on a Curve:
E,
Complications

The band called E hails from Boston, with a lineup composed of Jason Sidney Sanford on guitar and homemade devices, Thalia Zedek on guitar, and Gavin McCarthy on drums. Complications is their third full-length, a welcome if concise set delivering rock trio dynamics as smart as they are heavy. All the members of E sing and contribute words, with some of the lyrics wielding what can perhaps be best described as coincidental timeliness. This only adds punch to an already powerful record that’s out April 24 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Silver Rocket/Lokal Rekorc.

It’s accurate to call E an underground rock supergroup, though the principals’ prior achievements are a bit more varied than is normally the case in this often-anticlimactic scenario. To begin, Gavin McCarthy played drums in Boston’s indie-punk-jazz-math rock outfit Karate for the entirety of their 1993-2005 run, the group only ending due to the persistent hearing problems of guitarist Geoff Farina.

Roughly a decade before Karate’s formation, Thalia Zedek emerged on the Beantown scene in Dangerous Birds, a band not long for this world, and followed that by joining the terrific if also short-lived Uzi. Next, she was in the underrated Live Skull. After that, she moved into the ‘90s as part of Come with guitarist Chris Brokaw. Finally, she started the Thalia Zedek Band.

Zedek’s amassed credits surely contrast with McCarthy’s lengthy tenure in Karate, but Jason Sanford’s been the one constant in the seven different lineups of Neptune, a group that sprang to life not through a want ad tacked to a record store corkboard, but in connection to Sanford’s sculpture project, from whence he began building numerous instruments including scrap metal guitars, thumb pianos, oscillators, a feedback organ, and a viola-like instrument utilizing bass guitar strings and a guitar pickup.

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Graded on a Curve:
Hazel English,
Wake UP!

Hazel English is an Australian American singer-songwriter currently residing in Los Angeles, but with a long stretch spent last decade in California’s Bay Area, where she moved from Melbourne in 2013. English has a couple prior EPs that’ve been combined into a longer showcase of her talents, but it’s the brand-new Wake UP! that’s designated as her debut full-length. Smoother and bolder than the indie pop that comprises her earlier work, a byproduct of working with producer Justin Raisen, the tidy 10-song set maintains stylistic continuity with what came before as it serves as a proper introduction for a widening listenership. It’s out April 24 on wax, CD, and digital through the Polyvinyl label.

Hazel English’s “Never Going Home” EP emerged in 2016, released then on vinyl, in fact. The “Just Give In” EP followed the next year, but its wax edition found it combined with the prior EP in a double 12-inch situation by Polyvinyl in the States (the labels Marathon Artists and House Anxiety took care of Europe), with the separation into equally weighted doses, five songs apiece, encouraging the perception of incremental progress within a relatively tight timeframe.

However, when the sets were combined on compact disc and digitally (with a bonus digital-only track missing on the CD but included with the vinyl’s MP3 download) they flowed sweetly enough that its likely a certain percentage of those listening considered the contents as one whole thing, and indeed maybe as her first album.

This is to English’s credit, as is the step forward that’s offered with Wake UP! Part of the progression is rather simple; the new record connects like she’s fronting a band rather than helming a project, which isn’t a knock on the EPs but just an observation of how English’s sound has bloomed. The growth is also beneficial to opener “Born Like” as it alternates a decidedly neo-’60s pop foundation (heard through the dexterous flair of the rhythm section, in particular) with big dream-pop bursts in the choruses.

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Graded on a Curve:
Art Pepper,
“West Coast Sessions” Volume 3: Lee Konitz and Volume 4: Bill Watrous

Today we remember Jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz who passed away on April 15 due to complications from COVID-19 with a look back from our archives.Ed.

Omnivore Recordings continues their welcome repackaging of six early ‘80s Art Pepper LPs with West Coast Sessions” Volume 3: Lee Konitz and Volume 4: Bill Watrous. Originally issued only in jazz-loving Japan with the crucial California alto strategically positioned in the sideman role for contractual reasons, their reemergence puts Pepper’s name back on the marquee alongside due credit for the initial leaders. While one objective of the series was to capture an informal atmosphere on standards, blues, and well-known tunes, the overall mood of these two installments contrasts markedly. With bonus takes and swell liners by Art’s widow Laurie Pepper, they’re available on CD.

With the arrival of these discs, Omnivore’s release strategy for this string of late-career studio dates by the long-struggling but ultimately triumphant West Coast saxophonist comes into sharp focus: divide the contents into thirds and pair a high-profile guest with a lesser-known but skilled participant for simultaneous release.

Earlier this year, Volume 1 offered Pepper’s fellow alto giant Sonny Stitt while Volume 2 spotlighted the comparatively unknown Cali pianist Pete Jolly; the upcoming editions will present a session featuring West Coast drum mainstay Shelly Manne and a set ripe with the trumpet of the far from forgotten (through sheer diversity of credits) but less celebrated Jack Sheldon.

Over three decades later, Omnivore’s teaming of figures firmly remaining on the musical radar screen with those familiar primarily to aficionados is smart, but the objective of Japanese label Atlas was simply to put some wax into the hands of jazz fiends; the original vinyl releases were titled High Jingo by Lee Konitz and his West Coast Friends and Funk’n Fun by the Bill Watrous Quintet.

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Graded on a Curve:
Miles Davis,
The Complete Birth
of the Cool

Today we remember Jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz who passed away on April 15 due to complications from COVID-19 with a look back from our archives.Ed.

We’re not quite halfway through 2019, but Blue Note / UMe’s 2LP gatefold edition of Miles Davis’ The Complete Birth of the Cool is one of the sweeter reissues of the year, in part because it’s the first time the live recordings from 1948 and the renowned dozen studio tracks from ’49-’50 have been released together on vinyl. For some, this may seem a fact difficult to reconcile with the music’s masterpiece status, but rest assured it is true.

To begin, the music on this truly gorgeous edition’s first LP, material recorded in January and April of 1949 and in March of the following year, was initially released under the group designation Miles Davis and His Orchestra as a series of four 78rpm discs across the same time period, issuing eight tracks and leaving four in the can. It’s more accurately a nonet, which is how the band has been often subsequently described; on this release’s second LP of live performances at the Royal Roost, radio announcer Symphony Sid calls the assemblage Miles Davis’ Organization.

There was no album title for these studio tracks, they were just sides, and as said they didn’t sell well enough to see the entirety grooved into shellac. Still, a whole lot of people paid attention; as Ashley Khan points out in his excellent notes for this set (presented in a booklet secured inside the gatefold with striking full-page photographs), other than guest appearances and all-star affairs, every Davis studio session from this point forward was made as a leader.

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