Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Alice Gerrard,
Follow the Music

A key figure in the history of bluegrass, 80-year old singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Alice Gerrard has just issued her latest LP. Produced by longtime admirer M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger and pressed up via the Tompkins Square label, Follow the Music finds Gerrard in strong voice and wielding focused intensity across 11 tracks.

To describe the ‘60’s bluegrass scene as male dominated shouldn’t imply the milieu was in any way unusual in the grand musical scheme of the period. Alice Gerrard and her departed playing partner Hazel Dickens were amongst the high lonesome exceptions. Gerrard (then known as Alice Foster) and Dickens cut their ’65 Verve Folkways debut Who’s That Knocking for 75 bucks in Washington, DC’s First Unitarian Church with the worthy assistance of Dave Grisman on mandolin plus Bill Monroe sidemen Chubby Wise on fiddle and Lamar Grier on banjo.

Today the Smithsonian Folkways CD Pioneering Women of Bluegrass collects that LP and Won’t You Come Sing for Me?, its ’73 follow-up. Gerrard and Dickens continued to make records together into the mid-‘70s, producing two more discs for Rounder, though just as important to Gerrard’s background is her participation in civil rights activists Anne Romaine and Bernice Johnson Reagon’s race and gender inclusive ’68 Southern Folk Festival tour, the lineup including Roscoe Holcomb, Elizabeth Cotten, Dock Boggs, Bessie Jones, and the New Lost City Ramblers.

Gerrard’s second husband was the late Rambler Mike Seeger. In 1980 they completed an eponymous album for Greenhays Recordings; it’s currently in print on a CD titled Bowling Green with extra stuff from a ’71 Japanese visit. And while she’s dished three prior solo efforts and played in the awesomely-named Back Creek Buddies with the also deceased clawhammer banjoist Matokie Slaughter (I’d love to hear their ’90 cassette release Saro) Gerrard remains most well-known for her work with Dickens.

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Graded on a Curve: Ultimate New Orleans Brass: Second Line Funk!

Thoughtfully assembling 13 tracks from long-established names to younger bands, Ultimate New Orleans Brass: Second Line Funk! not only serves as a primer into one of the USA’s last remaining actively played forms of indigenous music, it’ll most assuredly enliven any shindig requiring a pick-me-up. Released this past August, on 10/7 it gets a deserving double-vinyl pressing.

Amongst the deepest elements in 20th century recorded sound are the constant twists and turns fostered through regional identities. In the US alone, along with numerous outposts in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and of course New Orleans, the 1900s saw enduring styles emanate from Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, and Memphis.

Furthermore, smaller but essential scenes popped up in Bakersfield and on the Texas-Mexico border as distinct punk rock rose out of NYC, LA, and elsewhere. Post-punk aftershocks also rippled from Athens, GA and Seattle, WA as coastal (and frequently competitive) individualism helped to define an era of hip-hop.

These days, at least in the US, regional flavors are an extremely rare occurrence, which is part of the reason Ultimate New Orleans Brass is such a welcome endeavor, spotlighting the city’s brass band style as born from the foot parades sponsored/undertaken by various community organizations and benevolent groups. They constitute the First Line and the band and its followers the Second; it’s a tradition very much alive and therefore thankfully not dominated by purist attitudes and/or the kid-glove museum approach.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bob Carpenter,
Silent Passage

In the mid-‘70s Canadian singer-songwriter Bob Carpenter cut an LP for Warner Brothers, though a contract dispute kept it from coming out when it should’ve; it finally saw release a decade later via Canadian roots imprint Stony Plain. Carpenter never made another album, but the lack of profile doesn’t mean fans of the country and folk material serving as foundation for contemporary music’s Americana wing shouldn’t proceed directly to Silent Passage. It was recently reissued by the No Quarter label.

Not all lost records are equally deserving of being found. Often through collusion spiraling from deep within smoky dens of promotional intent, slabs ranging from pretty good to okay to suspect to downright crummy are suddenly championed, breathlessly even, as vessels of unknown brilliance valiantly rescued out of the clutches of unjust neglect to take their rightful place as timeless classics.

This sort of fervent stumping was once far more common. These days internet access and a set of speakers obviously allow interested parties to take a disc for a test drive prior to dropping their ducats on the barrelhead, and that’s quite a difference from sending off a check based totally on descriptions in a distributor’s quarterly catalog. Yes, many such transactions were conducted by mail order, distance only adding to the existential vacuum (envision a lonely Charlie Brown staring out from a comic strip panel) when a guaranteed garage monster was revealed to be a bunch of crusty also-rans. (Good grief).

There’s a noted deficiency of hype surrounding Bob Carpenter. With Tom Rush, Emmylou Harris, Billy-Joe Shaver, and others recording his songs, his abilities as a writer are secure. Plus, the musicians involved in the making of Silent Passage, amongst them Harris, Little Feat members Lowell George and Bill Payne, steel guitarist Buddy Cage (Jerry Garcia’s replacement in New Riders of the Purple Sage) and session heavyweights Russ Kunkel and Lee Sklar, establish it as more than an ordinary affair. But the absence of calculated overstatement is filled by a persistent lack of appreciation.

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Graded on a Curve:
Holy Sons,
The Fact Facer

Emil Amos is a productive fellow. Figuring in various bands, the multi-instrumentalist’s most enduring artistic outlet is the solo songwriting venture Holy Sons, though only a portion of his reportedly 1,000 tunes have been offered for public consumption. 11 of them can be found on The Fact Facer, the project’s latest and Amos’ first for the Thrill Jockey label.

I’ll admit that upon first glance, the cover of Holy Sons’ new one, a discomfiting and precise rendering of a well-dressed hanged man framed inside a larger noose, inspired thoughts of the frequently lurid and seedy Italian genre cinema called Giallo. In fact, if perusing through the bins without prior knowledge of the numerous activities of Holy Sons founder Emil Amos, I fairly certainly would’ve surmised that this album was a soundtrack to a skuzzy, creatively dubbed crime-horror hybrid.

And to be sure, if I happened upon a shabby second-hand VHS tape of a movie named The Fact Facer, the temptation to provide it with an at least temporary new home would be considerable, particularly if the box featured the images described and prominently displayed above. To some all this might read as tangential to the task at hand, specifically assessing the selections assembled herein, but I’m frankly not so positive I’m digressing.

For instance, the sleeve of Holy Sons 2010 LP Survivalist Tales! riffed rather excellently upon the artwork attached to Jack London-inspired wilderness adventurer pulp paperbacks of a century ago. Furthermore, a substantial number of The Fact Facer’s song titles would seem proper subject matter for the twisted filmic journeys of Bava, Fulci, or Argento: “Doomed Myself,” “Transparent Powers,” “Selfish Thoughts,” “Wax Gets in Your Eyes,” “No Self Respect,” “Back Down to the Tombs.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Debby Schwartz,
A Garden of My Own

Debby Schwartz is properly appraised as a veteran musician, a singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist combining broader than usual range with a fairly low profile. As part of the small but potent roster of the NYC/Connecticut-based Twin Lakes Records that might change; her new LP A Garden of My Own offers 11 strong selections in a contemporary electric folk vein.

I was familiar with the output of Debby Schwartz long before recognizing her by name, having crossed paths with her band The Aquanettas roughly a quarter century ago. Flaunting a handle reminiscent of the B-52s, their first and sole full-length Love with a Proper Stranger sported a sound comparable to the Bangles if they’d been from Hoboken and didn’t hit the big time; appearing in early 1990, it was a thorough byproduct of the decade prior.

As issued by Nettwerk/I.R.S. Records the disc never found an appropriate audience. My exposure to The Aquanettas came through a casual acquaintance rather than a personal copy, and after giving it a fresh spin via the resources of the internet I’m bluntly kinda bummed I didn’t pick it up, though I don’t recall ever seeing it in the racks back then.

If I never stumbled across Love with a Proper Stranger, until very recently I didn’t even know Schwartz’s Wrongs of Passage existed. Released in ’98 on Joan Osborne’s Womanly Hips label, it seems to have fallen through the cracks, and I still haven’t heard it. I do know her bass and vocal work in Patrick Gubler’s post-Tower Recordings outfit P.G. Six however; it sets the table for A Garden of My Own quite nicely.

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Graded on a Curve: Tinariwen,

Before winning a Grammy for 2011’s Tassili, the enduring Malian outfit Tinariwen had already attained a deservingly high profile. International success wasn’t immediate, however; at the point of first album The Radio Tisdas Sessions in ‘01, they’d been active for over 20 years. This week Modern Classics Recordings reissues onto double-vinyl that impressive debut and ’04’s even better follow-up, Amassakoul.

Whether it’s through their latest record Emmaar, the breakthrough of predecessor Tassili, the group’s entry on the ‘10 compilation The Rough Guide to Desert Blues, or any of their four prior discs, Tinariwen has amassed a considerable following including such celebrity aficionados as Robert Plant, Carlos Santana, Brian Eno, Henry Rollins, and Thom Yorke.

Famous fans aren’t unusual, but the variety of these enthusiasts is worthy of note, surely indicative of the breadth of their listenership overall. Hippies, blues nuts, experimenters, punks, Alt/indie mavens, and of course those stereotypical lefties parking a used Volvo in the garage with the stereo tuned to NPR so not to miss the weekly edition of World Café.

Unlike other examples, Tinariwen has managed to conquer broader recording situations and specifically the introduction of outside contributors (Nels Cline, Kyp Malone, Josh Klinghoffer, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Matt Sweeney) without damage to their sound. This ability to bend and adapt is something they share with the great Malian vocalist-guitarist Ali Farka Touré.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mary Lattimore &
Jeff Zeigler,
Slant of Light

Mary Lattimore is a harpist of numerous credits and considerable ability. Jeff Zeigler is a busy recording engineer and capable multi-instrumentalist. On Slant of Light, due out next week via the venerable constancy that is the Thrill Jockey label, these two first-rate Philadelphians come together to produce a worthy duo statement. Abstract yet approachable while expansive and concisely focused, Lattimore and Zeigler’s successful collaboration is a solid effort holding promise for the future.

Ironically for an instrument that can be such a formidable beast to lug around, the harp’s long history has been dominated by delicateness of tone. Many have played it, including the appropriately-named Harpo Marx, naturally to his own tuning, as a few notables have sought to broaden its range; one of the more recent practitioners is Mary Lattimore.

Over the last five years or so Lattimore has been quietly chalking up a heavyweight list of collaborators. Amongst them: Fursaxa, Kurt Vile, Sharon Van Etten, Jarvis Cocker, Meg Baird, and Thurston Moore, whose 2011 solo LP Demolished Thoughts provided my introduction to the harpist. However, it was her membership in The Valerie Project that foreshadowed Lattimore’s eventual musical breadth.

Succinctly, The Valerie Project’s sole ’07 release was an alternate score to Jaromil Jireš 1970 Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, an enduring cult movie derived from the 1945 novel of the same name by Jireš’ countryman Vítězslav Nezval. Comprised of ten Philadelphia-based musicians including Fursaxa leader Tara Burke and directed by Espers’ Greg Weeks, The Valerie Project is accurately assessed as a prime byproduct of last decade’s u-ground folk-rock experience.

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Graded on a Curve:
God Help the Girl, OST

Many song-based soundtracks aren’t much more than just a clump of tunes the director happened to like. The God Help the Girl OST however is impossible to pry from the movie that gave it life, in this case a full-fledged musical crafted by Belle and Sebastian principal Stuart Murdoch. Both the film and its 2LP counterpart are imperfect specimens significantly bettered through stylish daring.

God Help the Girl began in the midst of last decade, an endeavor matching Stuart Murdoch’s songs to female vocalists Catherine Ireton, Celia Garcia, Brittany Stallings, and others as Belle and Sebastian served as backup band. Along with some singles a self-titled LP was issued in ’09; many of those songs figure in Murdoch’s recently released film of the same name, now sung by actors Emily Browning, Olly Andersen, and Hannah Murray.

Talk of God Help the Girl as an exercise in unbridled twee is greatly overstated. To wit, this version of “Act of the Apostle,” like the original found on Belle and Sebastian’s ‘06 LP The Life Pursuit, is nearer to yé-yé and ‘60s TV variety show lushness than to the fragile innocence of twee; amidst boldly arranged strings/horns the guitar and Browning’s voice gradually blossom into a decidedly sophisto-mainstream affair complete with big leg-kick theatrics effectively highlighting Murdoch’s Musical conception.

By contrast, “I Dumped You First” offers acoustic strum and Alexander’s vocal accented by backing shouts and handclaps; it’s a likeably humble little number but more importantly is exactly the sort of ditty, both in style and value, that Alexander’s character would pen and perform in the context of the film (in real life he’s part of the band Years & Years).

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Graded on a Curve:
Bill Barron,
Hot Line

Bill Barron never achieved the profile he deserved. A sax player who worked with pianist Cecil Taylor, drummer Philly Joe Jones, bassist Charles Mingus, and undersung trumpeter Ted Curson, his opportunities to record as a leader, always using his pianist brother Kenny, found wider success eluding him. Much of his finest work was cut in the ‘60s; Hot Line – The Tenor of Bill Barron was his third LP, documented on March 31st, 1962 for the Savoy label.

So many tenors were on the scene in the early ‘60s that the fate of jazz-buff fandom was far from exclusive to Bill Barron. The good news? Extensive work as an educator allowed the man to be selective in the circumstances surrounding his studio legacy, so it’s only a sad tale in that his discography isn’t more bountiful.

In the notes to Hot Line, Barron describes its contents as a blowing date, and he’s surely correct. It’s an uncommonly strong one, with a smartly assembled group employed in service of an objective at once laid back and intense. It’s a two tenor and rhythm section setup, the quintet consisting of tiptop players; Booker Ervin is the other horn, sibling Kenny warms the piano bench, the always solid Larry Ridley is on bass, and Andrew Cyrille (credited here as Andy) takes up the drum position.

However, unlike many blowing sessions, the focus here weighs more toward originals; they win 5-2 over standards (5-3 on some later CDs), the saxophonist programming four of his tunes and one written by frequent playing partner Ted Curson. With this said the pieces are conducive to an upbeat atmosphere, so if blowing is what one wants, the program won’t disappoint.

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Graded on a Curve:
Paul Collins,
Feel the Noise

In a truly just world Paul Collins would require no introduction. Sadly, a globe of perpetual unfairness spins around the sun, so it bears mentioning that as a member of The Nerves he helped shape the original “Hanging on the Telephone” and subsequently helmed The Beat. In 2010 Collins issued the LP King of Power Pop! and now he’s back with the swell Feel the Noise, a 12-song effort pressed onto vinyl by Alive Naturalsound Records of Burbank, California.

As a young mid-‘80s pup in short pants, I first heard of power pop in relation to accusations of faddism, specifically to the fleeting if massive chart dominance of The Knack. From the svelte dudes at the mall to the crustier counter jockeys of the mom-and-pop shops, the band fronted by Doug Fieger was decidedly unpopular with store clerks in my berg, and this train of thought seemed to extend all over hill and dale.

However, a perusal of voting trends shows how off-target opinions of the ‘80s could get. The brass tacks of the matter is that power pop is an essential rock ‘n’ roll flavor; spawned in the guts of ‘60s by The Beatles, The Byrds, and The Who, their torch of melodic crunch was carried into the early-‘70s by The Raspberries, Badfinger, and cult cornerstone Big Star. Later in the decade it was healthy and highly prolific, encompassing Cheap Trick, The Cars, Blondie, even Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and that’s just in the USA.

Arguably, the true essence of power pop is an obscure 45 plucked out of a dollar bin in a wrinkled sleeve adorned with at least one, preferably two, band photographs. The single is taken home and promptly put on the turntable to kick the listener’s ass in a quick and tidy fashion. Over the years a whole lot of music matching this description has been discovered and anthologized, and that’s a grand circumstance.

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