Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
XTC, “3D EP”

In their early days XTC released a copious amount of singles, with this output appropriately corralled onto a handful of compilations situating the band as one of the more interesting acts produced in the late-‘70s UK. Amongst these songs were the three cuts that comprise their debut, ‘77’s “3D EP.” Many consider it as a strong but minor first effort in a scenario of future greatness, but investigating them apart from the group’s initial prolific tide provided this writer with the key that unlocked XTC’s substantial value.

By the time I became acquainted with them in the mid-‘80s, XTC was essentially a critics’ fave and one that was largely functioning as an album band. This was the era of Skylarking, and while “Dear God,” the b-side of that LP’s first single “Grass,” kicked up quite a bit of dust via MTV and even replaced “Mermaid Smiled” on the US version of the disc, in the US it only managed to land on a now defunct barometer of radio play named the Billboard Album Rock Chart, where it found modest success.

And on their home turf it barely even entered the Singles Chart, peaking at the severe back end at #99. This really is no surprise, since “Dear God” is a truly eloquent dispatch of religious disbelief, a song that likely would’ve caused their countryman Bertrand Russell to stand up and cheer had he only lived to hear it.

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Graded on a Curve:
Joni Mitchell,
Love Has Many Faces:
A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting to be Danced

Joni Mitchell’s discography gathers 19 original albums spanning from the masterful to varying degrees of flawed, a range highlighting her lack of artistic complacency. She’s had her share of compilations, and Rhino’s Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting to be Danced is the third box set devoted to her work. Containing four CDs curated by Mitchell from a long stretch of productivity, it eschews chronology for a quite personal and sometimes frustrating thematic vision.

The first inapt tag I’ve read applied to Love Has Many Faces is “career-spanning,” its usage positing Mitchell’s musical activity beginning with 1971’s Blue. Indeed, nothing from ‘68’s Joni Mitchell/Song to a Seagull, ‘69’s Clouds or ‘70’s Ladies of the Canyon is included here, and it leads me to a minor quibble in the casual use of “greatest-hits” to describe this collection; a few of her larger singles did make the cut, but absent is “Big Yellow Taxi” from Ladies or “Help Me” from ‘74’s Court and Spark.

Given the specifics of this box, the omissions make sense. Artist-assembled and love song-themed (the subject nowhere near as constrictive as a Joni newbie might suppose), these 53 tracks essentially underscore what Mitchell’s made clear since the arrival of Blue; in particular, she’s anything but just another strumming folkie, and as Love Has Many Faces’ accompanying book rounds up 54 poems and six new paintings, at this late date it’s hard to imagine anybody lumping her into that bag.

“I am a painter who writes songs,” Mitchell is quoted in the press materials, and after spending time with the entirety of this set, at less than a minute shy of four hours long no small undertaking, I consider the key portion of her statement as “writes songs.” Over the years she’s done a good job transcending mere writing to enter the realm of robust musicality, though her self-assessment does differ, and at points substantially, with this reviewer’s evaluation of her oeuvre.

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Graded on a Curve: Screaming Lord Sutch, Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends

Screaming Lord Sutch was a colorful character from the early days of the Brit rock ‘n’ roll scene, and in 1970, in a major stab for a little bit of hard rock glory, he fronted a band including such banner names as Page, Bonham, and Beck. What resulted instead was a whole lot of infamy. The album was titled Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends, and it’s been called the Worst Record of all Time, but whenever that kind of assessment is made you can be sure those awarding the dishonor are barking up the wrong tree.

Anybody who’s dedicated a large portion of their existence to the appreciation of music is likely to have audibly evaluated a certain container of audio as being the worst record they’ve heard in their entire life, and possibly with an expletive or two thrown in for emphasis. Indeed, on a mercifully meager handful of occasions over the years that very sentiment has also passed the lips of this writer.

Bad LPs are no rarity of course. And after spending the night out on an especially good date or perhaps just completing a fine hang with some old friends, encountering a severely subpar album can deflect off your consciousness like so much water rolling down a duck’s feathers. But when severely disappointed expectations or just a foul mood enter the equation? That’s when those personal assessments over the most awful sounds ever experienced can arise.

However, I can’t help but consider it troublesome when some person or group makes the attempt to rate a record (or any art object, for that matter) as “The Worst of All Time.” This is partially due to what should be obvious, the flat-out impossibility that any one human being or committee of individuals could’ve somehow listened to every musical document placed onto shellac, vinyl, tape, or compact disc.

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Graded on a Curve: Native North America (Vol. 1), Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country

Light in the Attic’s Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966–1985 is a simply glorious compilation providing wholly necessary and long overdue access to vital regional history. Painstakingly researched and assembled by Kevin “Sipreano” Howes, as the title states this 34-track set explores the intersection of native culture with a variety of compatible modern genres; the sum is an illuminating and engaging listen.

One extreme of the reissue/archival spectrum is the uninspired regurgitation of previously extant product. Found on the opposite side is the uncovering of discoveries and the deepening of context that serves as the antidote to predominantly mercantile interests. This divide is a good place to begin detailing Native North America (Vol. 1), a collection that required years of extensive research on the part of its curator.

Due to the history of wrongs inflicted on native peoples by the overriding culture, this package is bound to stir up the emotions. But instead of getting stricken by anger or disgust over the decades of injury and neglect the indigenous population has endured, the belated emergence of these sounds as part of a tide of interest in global culture old and new offers the possibility of healthier emotions going forward; along with the crucial historical context, the biggest asset here is the regenerative power of music expressed through a dedication to originals, much of them with a country-rock flavor.

Native North America is deservingly dedicated to Willie Dunn, whom Howes explicates as an indefatigable cross-disciplined inspiration and a prime example of the true benefits to be found at the crossroads of art and activism. Culled from his self-titled ’71 LP for Summus Records, “I Pity the Country” offers topical lyrics reinforced by well-practiced instrumentation.

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Graded on a Curve: Howard Eynon,
So What If Im Standing
in Apricot Jam

Howard Eynon is a curious figure who sauntered off the Tasmanian farm and into a variety of artistic endeavors before exiting public view in the early-‘80s. In ’74 he cut his sole LP; 40 years later the insanely scarce So What If Im Standing in Apricot Jam has been given a deserving reissue by Earth Recordings. Eynon won’t win awards for originality, but his dozen songs will be of likely interest to fans of Syd Barrett and Neil Innes, a combination one doesn’t read about every day.

So What If Im Standing in Apricot Jam is frequently pegged as a private press, which is unsurprising since it sports a way-out title missing an apostrophe and has a pair of floppy leather boots on the cover. Indeed, in quantitative terms this welcome retrieval’s original appearance was surely congruent to a private issue, though it initially came out via a small label named Basket/Candle, with Eynon’s invitation to record by engineer Nick Armstrong spring-boarding from a fledgling acting/musical career.

In 1971 he’d won the Grand Final of Australian New Faces, an award that encouraged popularity in his Tasmanian home (in fact he was born in St Ives, Cambridgeshire England and moved Down Under at age 11); a byproduct was Eynon opening for one Hunter S. Thompson on what this writer assumes was a reading tour, though maybe the headliner just got drunk and shot guns.

At age 17 Eynon bailed on the family’s rural dairy farm, hopping atop a motorcycle and speeding away in pursuit of work on stage and screen. And he found success, landing roles and joining numerous repertory groups; while part of the Tasmania Theatre Company he was asked to record a song for a play, the request taking him to Spectangle Productions in North Hobart. There, he was introduced to Armstrong.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bloodshot Records,
While No One Was Looking

Bloodshot Records was launched roughly two decades ago in response to the creeping commercialization of roots music, particularly Country & Western. They’ve issued many albums since, and to celebrate this feat of endurance comes a 2CD/3LP set offering a diverse batch of artists covering tunes from an extensive catalog. While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records is designed to simultaneously please longtime fans and entice more than few newbies to investigate their discography, a dual utility indicating the likelihood of continued worthiness.

2014 has brought us a pair of independent label anniversaries, with Merge’s 25th and Bloodshot’s 20th pointing to diligence, creative focus and healthy operating practices (plus good taste, natch) as crucial ingredients in overcoming so much music business tumult. And they didn’t just persevere, they actually prospered.

Bringing Merge into the discussion is appropriate not just because their milestones arrive in the same calendar year or that both began as alternatives destined to eventually impact the mainstream; simply, While No One Was Looking includes a clever appearance by Merge’s flagship band, Superchunk revamping North Carolinian colleague Ryan Adams’ “Come Pick Me Up” as brawny anthemic power-pop, the significance deepened by the song title serving as the name of the ‘chunk’s 1999 LP (it’s also a key lyrical aspect of that disc’s “Hello Hawk”).

It’s a gesture helping to reinforce this collection as considerably more than a mere victory lap; Bloodshot could’ve easily assembled a standard greatest-hits styled affair for curious parties and/or rounded up a bunch of unreleased cuts for the long converted. And yet that would’ve been a rather predictable and potentially uninspired marking of a birthday very few anticipated in 1994.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sylvie Simmons, Sylvie

Sylvie Simmons has been a part of the scene for decades, but as a noted journalist and biographer, not as a musician. Sylvie changes that state of affairs; released this week through Light in the Attic, it offers a striking combination of Simmons’ voice and ukulele with additional instrumentation and production by the estimable Howe Gelb. It’s one of 2014’s most welcome debuts.

The Los Angeles correspondent for the UK weekly Sounds, chronicler of that city’s ‘80s metal explosion, and the subsequent LA source (under the pseudonym Laura Canyon) for the metallic rock mag Kerrang!; from just these informative tidbits one could jump to an inaccurate conclusion regarding Sylvie Simmons’ first LP.

Please throw these morsels of knowledge into the picture; interviewer of a wide range of musicians, upstart fictioneer, biographer of Neil Young, Serge Gainsbourg ,and Leonard Cohen, writer of liner notes for assorted high-profile projects and maybe most germane to Sylvie, longtime Americana columnist for Mojo Magazine.

With all these credits it’s no shock Simmons has gathered a few noteworthy connections. Along with acquiring the services of Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb as producer for Sylvie (except one track guided by the hand of Chris Schultz) Simmons’ inaugural effort has garnered positive words from Brian Wilson and Devendra Banhart, the praise indicating not only the strength of her tunes but also a savvy blend of timelessness and contemporary appeal.

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Graded on a Curve:
Ariel Kalma,
An Evolutionary Music (Original Recordings: 1972-1979)

World-traveler, multi-instrumentalist, recording technician and spiritually questing denizen of the ‘70s avant-garde; all of these descriptions apply to Ariel Kalma. The current moment is particularly opportune for getting acquainted with the man’s early stuff, as RVNG Intl has just unveiled An Evolutionary Music (Original Recordings: 1972 – 1979), a bountiful compilation of previously unreleased material carefully selected by Kalma and the label. All the necessary info is included, and the 2LP/ 2CD/ digital package coheres into a welcome survey of a highly worthy subject.

It’s well-established that as the 1960s progressed many musicians became bored by the perceived restrictions of pop and rock, with numerous artists introducing other elements into their stylistic equations. Others rejected pop/rock completely for the possibilities of experimentation in jazz and electronic music.

That’s the case with Ariel Kalma. Like a handful of his generation he’d been knocked sideways by the innovations of Albert Ayler and Sun Ra, though he did in fact travel extensively in the band of Belgian pop singer Salvatore Adamo. It was but a stepping stone to greater things; he was soon to join the quartet of bossa nova guitarist Baden Powell.

By the mid-‘70s, after his crucial purchase of a ReVox G36 reel-to-reel two-track tape machine, Kalma was employed an assistant engineer at Institut National Audiovisuel, Groupe de Recherches Musicales (or as commonly known, INA GRM) the pioneering studio formed in 1951 by noted sonic specialist Pierre Henry, a lab utilized by such important 20th century figures as Luc Ferrari, Michaël Lévinas, and Iannis Xenakis.

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Graded on a Curve: Abelardo Barroso,
Cha Cha Cha

The name Abelardo Barroso sits at the very beginning of the Cuban record industry. 78 rpm discs captured him, and a sheer talent for performance insured his fame. By the mid-‘50s Barroso’s renown had withered, but through a convergence of circumstances he returned to the limelight. Cha Cha Cha is World Circuit’s terrific compilation spotlighting the vocalist’s fruitful involvement with Orquesta Sensación, the noteworthy band directed by Rolando Valdés.

The songs Sexteto Habanero cut in 1925 under the auspices of RCA Victor are considered square one for recorded Cuban music. Abelardo Barroso’s singing on those tracks made him a star, or more accurately, helped to make him one; along with the RCA sides a spate of 16 numbers Barroso sang in New York for Brunswick as a member of Sexteto Bolona establish his ability for the ages.

Born in 1905, Barroso was of a time where the stage was still the thing. In fact, his ‘30s prestige at the forefront of the danzonette period, its large-bands replacing the fervor for the guitar-based son ensembles a la Sexteto Habanero and Bolona, is barely preserved on record; only a solitary ’39 78 by the Orchestra Maravilla del Siglo.

This is mainly due to the Depression; enter hard times and exit RCA, Columbia, and Brunswick. By the ’50s though, Cuban records were being waxed through independent homegrown companies like Panart and Jesús Gorís’ Puchito, the latter an aspect of what Cha Cha Cha’s substantial liners describe as “a perfect storm.” The other factors were Rolando Valdés’ tip-top band Orquesta Sensación, the group’s arranger/flutist Juan Pablo Miranda, and of course Abelardo Barroso.

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Graded on a Curve: Rhyton, Kykeon

Rhyton specialize in blending the sonic traditions and instrumentation of Greece and the Middle East with rock trio firepower of an oft improvisational nature. That might read as a recipe for self-indulgence, but the results, while certainly psychedelic in effect, also wield the discipline of top-notch jazzmen. Kykeon, their third LP and second for the Thrill Jockey label, continues their explorations to great reward; it’s a record that plays as strong as its cover is beautiful.

Rhyton consists of Dave Shuford, aka the leader of D. Charles Speer & the Helix and a former participant in the activities of the No-Neck Blues Band, Rob Smith of the Bronx band Pigeons, and Jimy SeiTang, a gentleman also associated with the No Neck scene but primarily known for the outfit Psychic Ills and his electronic solo project Stygian Stride.

The New York City-based No-Neck Blues Band, or NNCK for short, was part of a thriving underground of outsider rock business that came to a head in the midst of last decade. Some of the contributors to this scenario were able to engage, if not the mainstream, then at least larger audiences via Freak Folk and the New Weird, but the deep-psych/improv-rock/free folk of NNCK proved resistant (though not really by intention) to crossing over.

Of course, this isn’t a tidy assumption, since Wolf Eyes managed two discs of noise brutality on Sub Pop during the same era, but it does feel largely accurate. And so it’s doubly interesting how Rhyton’s latest is so downright easy on the ears. It does bear mentioning however that Shuford’s not exactly a novice to rock gestures of possibly wide(r) appeal.

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