Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Nat King Cole,
Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943)

Celebrating Nat King Cole on the date of his birth.Ed.

Nat King Cole’s enduring renown derives from his skill as a vocalist, but he’s also arguably the most underrated of jazz’s great pianists. The seven CDs or ten LPs comprising Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943) do a stellar job of highlighting Cole’s keyboard prowess while documenting the growth of his superb trio with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince first, and later Johnny Miller. There are also brief visits from the great saxophonists Lester Young and Dexter Gordon and a ton of singing, though the approach lands solidly in a hot and often vocal group zone. 

Back in 1991, Mosaic Records issued The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio, an exhaustive limited-edition set spread across 18 compact discs or 27 vinyl records. It was obviously produced for hardcore jazz nut collectors, the kind of listener who would know that Cole had worked extensively as a musician prior to his career-defining move to Capitol (an association he would maintain throughout his superstardom until the end of his life) but with very few commercial records detailing said period.

Hittin’ The Ramp features jukebox-only discs, private recordings, and a slew of radio transcriptions along with the handful of sessions that resulted in discs that were available for retail purchase, with the vast majority of the selections here officially released for the first time. There is a smidge of overlap with the Mosaic collection, but it doesn’t arrive until LP eight (or CD six) with “Vom, Vim, Veedle” commencing a smattering of cuts for the small Excelsior and Premier labels which were later purchased by Capitol and serve as the kickoff to the Mosaic set.

This repetition isn’t likely to bother owners of The Complete Capitol Recordings one bit, as it’s a miniscule percentage, specifically ten tracks out of Hittin’ The Ramp’s 183. Yes, that’s a lot of music, but slim compared to the behemoth decades-of-discovery scenario presented by Mosaic’s presentation of Capitol’s holdings, though in its vinyl incarnation Resonance’s achievement is also a limited edition.

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Graded on a Curve:
Patricia “Miss Pat” Chin, Miss Pat: My Reggae Music Journey

In Jamaican music’s growth from regional phenomenon to sustained international success, the performers are of course indispensable, but others operating behind the scenes are nearly as crucial. One such figure is Patricia Chin, aka Miss Pat, who cofounded VP Records in 1979 with her late husband Vincent “Randy” Chin. Miss Pat: My Reggae Music Journey is her memoir, its contents documenting a life spent in the shaping of Jamaican music spanning over 60 years. Loaded with photos and illustrations, the oversize hardcover will be a fine acquisition for any reggae lover with a coffee table. It’s out today via VP Music Group with distribution through Gingko Press.

The colorful dust jacket of this exquisitely designed book offers text serving as timeline: From Mento, Ska, Rocksteady, Reggae to Dancehall. That’s the span of innovation in Jamaican music that Patricia Chin witnessed and played an increasingly vital role in shaping. Staying power relates to perseverance, but it’s really more complex than that.

To expand, the sobriquet Miss Pat, seemingly in universal usage with this book as ample evidence, is testament that she is something of a rarity in the music business; a person who has constantly done the right thing for the musicians, for the consumer, and for her peers in independent record production, an endeavor she helped to trailblaze.

While many dancehall aficionados will know her through VP’s major role in developing and sustaining that style through turbulent industry changes, My Reggae Music Journey devotes a substantial portion of its pages to Miss Pat’s life in Jamaica prior to the Chin family’s move to New York City in the late 1970s, starting with childhood reminiscence, describing her upbringing and pinpointing those who raised her, and progressing to her meeting and eventual marriage to Vincent, who, like Miss Pat, was Chinese-Jamaican.

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Graded on a Curve: American Culture,
For My Animals

American Culture is a labyrinthine subject, with multiple tomes devoted to its countless nooks. But American Culture is also a band, and as musical acts go, the Denver-based outfit is quite multifaceted, their sound blending lo-fi, classique guitar pop, psychedelia, indie rock, and on their new album For My Animals, even a few stabs at dub. If this sounds like a decidedly late-20th century scenario, that’s not wrong, but American Culture manage to avoid falling under the sway of one particular influence while simultaneously sidestepping pastiche. Recorded pre-pandemic and released on LP, CD, and cassette by Happy Happy Birthday to Me as a gesture of necessity in an uncertain world, it’s out March 19.

Meat Puppets, Crass, The Grateful Dead, The Feelies: the four are cited in For My Animals’ PR as being amongst American Culture’s favorites. Those names don’t tidily equate into tangible influences, so the info isn’t as insightful as a newbie might expect regarding the nature of their sound, but in firmly establishing American Culture as a band made up of music fans, this tidbit of background does illuminate the territory covered across their third album.

However, the list of faves, wide-ranging to say the least, is shaped-up by bands that, from American Culture’s viewpoint, “do what they feel” rather than electing to travel unwaveringly along a single genre course. This only reinforces the breadth heard on For My Animals, which chronologically follows-up their 2015 debut Pure American Gum, though The Olympia Sessions 2013 came out on cassette later that same year.

Those first recordings, captured at K Records’ Dub Narcotic Studio and with J Mascis lending guitar to the closing track “Hamburger Stand,” constitute an effort that’s wholly worthy of its slightly delayed release. Pure American Gum does connect as a stronger showing, and without deviating much from a sturdy template informed by the melodic guitar motions of the 1960s, punk of the ’70s and ’80s, and the indie scene of the ’80s and ’90s.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
March 2021, Part Two

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for March 2021. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: John Krausbauer and Kaori Suzuki, Night Angel of Dual Infinities (Beacon Sound) This is the last of Beacon Sound’s releases for Bandcamp Friday, which yes, means it was issued last week, but as I wasn’t made hip to its existence until that very day, here we are. This is a 100-copy edition, 35 of them paired with a Risograph-printed art booklet (six are remaining as of this writing) and the rest offered as a standalone 45rpm 140gm 12-inch tucked into hand-assembled matte jackets with hand-stamped labels. It is, succinctly, an art object of unusually high quality, with the accompanying sounds, a single 21-minute, 45-second piece divided in two, equally exquisite. Krausbauer of Oakland, CA and Suzuki, Tokyo-born but also an Oakland resident, specialize in the drone, or as Beacon Sound’s PR puts it, trance psychedelia; it’s a form for which I’ve developed an affinity over the years, and this piece is easily one of the finest examples of sustained reverberation that I’ve heard in quite some time. Devotees of La Monte should step up to the plate because this baby won’t be around much longer. A

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Theory of Ice (You’ve Changed) Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is a Mississauga Nishnaabeg writer, editor, musician, academic and activist, with her work focused on the Indigenous experience in Canada. Her books are many, including the fiction work Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies, and with Theory of Ice, she is releasing her fourth album. It is the first I’ve heard, and it resonates as a major effort, poetic while wielding ideological and emotional clarity, the playing forceful yet possessing considerable beauty. On one hand, the LP’s centerpiece is its striking version of Willie Dunn’s “I Pity the Country” (which many have heard as the opening track on Light in the Attic’s 2014 compilation Native North America Vol 1), but on the other, Simpson’s own compositions stand up tall, especially the three following “I Pity the Country” in the sequence. I’m especially fond of penultimate track “The Wake” heading into “Head of the Lake,” the two songs recalling aspects of the ’90s indie sound in wholly positive ways while still being very much Simpson’s own thing. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: V/A, Rocksteady Got Soul (Soul Jazz) The musical style known as rocksteady dates to 1966, falling chronologically smackdab between ska and reggae in the Jamaican scheme of things. Many highly regarded names in the country’s music thrived playing rocksteady in the period the style was dominant, including Alton Ellis, The Heptones, Jackie Mittoo, The Gladiators, The Ethiopians, Errol Dunkley, and John Holt, all artists featured on this 18-track comp spanning ’66-’70 and culled from the deep vaults of Studio One, issued on double vinyl in a gatefold jacket and on CD and digital. But making Rocksteady Got Soul even sweeter is the sprinkling of high quality selections by lesser-known acts, with a few of those entries downright rare, this knowledge gleaned from the sharp sleeve notes by Rob Chapman. Amongst the highlights is “Run Rudie Run” by Lee (King) Perry & the Gaylads (Perry not yet known as Scratch), “The Tables Gonna Turn” by The Clarendonians, and a cover of Toots & the Maytals’ “Monkey Man” by the Freedom Singers and Larry Marshall. But the whole set is a delight. A

Sivuca, S/T (Real Gone) Starting in the late 1950s, Brazilian accordionist-guitarist-vocalist Sivuca recorded frequently, but his most prominent discs were made for Reprise, RCA, and Vanguard, the label that originally issued this set in 1973. It’s likely his highest profile LP, due in part to a version of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The mention of Vanguard and the cover photo might lead you to think this is a folky sorta situation, but even as Sivuca’s guitar does occasionally tap into the folk mode, his playing is more often fleet, and in “Tunnel,” appealingly fibrous. But it’s the blend of bossa nova and Latin jazz, eminently likeable and just as much of a time capsule, in no small part due to the group gal vocals, that sets the album apart. The singing lends it an airy quality that thankfully never drifts into the territory of kitsch. While there is nothing particularly strange going on, the record’s overall thrust is vibrant enough that fans of Tropicalia, and certainly Música popular brasileira, should dig it. Both color vinyl editions are listed by Real Gone as sold out, so if you spot a copy in store, don’t hesitate. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Neneh Cherry,
Raw Like Sushi

Celebrating Neneh Cherry on her 57th birthday.Ed.

It’s long well-known that singer-songwriter, rapper and DJ Neneh Cherry excels at defying categorization, but roughly three decades ago she burst onto the global scene with confidence by exploding the boundaries between the ascendant genres of rap, ’80s R&B and house music. The single was “Buffalo Stance,” a worldwide chart smash; it widened the era’s pop possibilities and helped lay the groundwork for ’90s trip-hop. In 1989, the song opened her full-length debut Raw Like Sushi, and that the subsequent tracks avoided letdown secured the LP as a landmark of stylistic hybridization. For its 30th anniversary, Virgin/UMe has given it 3LP and 3CD editions, both with a 48pg album-sized booklet. There is also a slimmer reissue of the original record sans extras on gold wax. All are available now.

Raw Like Sushi is Neneh Cherry’s debut, but to call her a newcomer to the scene in 1989 is erroneous, as early in the decade she’d sang in The Slits, with membership in Rip Rig + Panic following shortly thereafter. A little later she was a third of the fleeting trio Raw Sex, Pure Energy (responsible for the Falkland Islands War protest 12-inch “Stop the War” b/w “Give Sheep a Chance”) and Float Up CP (basically Rip Rig + Panic reformed under a new name).

Inching nearer to her pop breakout, she collaborated with Matt Johnson on “Slow Train to Dawn” from The The’s 1986 LP Infected and contributed to “Looking Good Diving with the Wild Bunch,” the B-side to the Stock Aitken Waterman-produced ’87 single “Looking Good Diving” by Morgan-McVey (featuring Jamie Morgan and Cameron McVey, the latter Cherry’s future husband).

“Looking Good Diving with the Wild Bunch” can be described as “Buffalo Stance” in embryo, but the cut has deeper connections to Raw Like Sushi’s whole, as track remixers the Wild Bunch featured Robert Del Naja, soon to be a member of Massive Attack and also the cowriter of Sushi track “Manchild.” The association reinforces the record’s stature as a crucial foundational stone in the architecture of trip-hop, though the deepest credit goes to Cherry of course as she’s long abjured the rigidity of musical format.

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Graded on a Curve:
Adele Bertei,
Peter and the Wolves

The musical achievements of Adele Bertei are extensive and varied, with her youth spent in Cleveland and her first band the Wolves featuring the legendary Peter Laughner. However, Bertei’s credits extend beyond the musical, with her memoir Peter and the Wolves, its second edition released last autumn by Smog Veil Records, covering those formative Cleveland days. The slim, attractively designed and captivating volume makes splendid reading for Women’s History Month, which might seem odd given Laughner’s prominence in the title and the tale. But make no mistake: Adele Bertei tells HERStory with poetic flair and an unflinching feminist perspective. It’s a brilliantly informative read.

My introduction to the music of Adele Bertei came through her Acetone organ playing as a member of the Contortions, who were the first band sequenced on the No Wave movement-establishing Brian Eno-produced compilation No New York; the bands following them on the LP were Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, featuring Lydia Lunch on guitar and vocals, Mars, which included China Berg and Nancy Arlen on guitar/ vocals and drums respectively, and D.N.A., with Ikue Mori on drums.

Hearing No New York roughly a decade after its release, the music impacted my consciousness as uncompromising, certainly the equal in this regard to anything I’d listened to from ten years hence. It was occasionally brutal, particularly in the case of the Contortions, but more often was methodically punishing, a sound to be endured as it was absorbed and in turn heightening the listener’s fortitude (if the record wasn’t just quickly rejected and jettisoned; my purchase of No New York, the one I still own, was a pristine used copy).

Circa those initial spins, New York City had yet to shed its image as formidable and even dangerous, so that No Nork York’s blend of attitude and cacophony allowed me to bask in the allure of the city as a place to survive rather than flourish. Taking in the contributor photos on No New York’s back cover, it seemed these individuals weren’t thriving but were suffering a taxing existence to varying degrees of success (therefore, the nature of the sounds) and it felt obvious that the participants could’ve came from no place other than NYC.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Ornette Coleman Trio, At the Golden Circle Stockholm Volume One

Celebrating Ornette Coleman on the day of his birth.Ed.

Ornette Coleman is most often associated with his numerous quartets, but his Blue Note debut found him exploring the possibilities of the trio configuration. At the Golden Circle Stockholm Volume One is the first half of that journey into addition by subtraction; it not only inaugurates the highpoint of Coleman’s Blue Note run, it also stands amongst the very greatest work the trailblazing saxophonist has recorded.

The end of the 1980s was swiftly approaching, and the jury was still out on the music of Ornette Coleman. The temporary reign of compact discs was well underway, and it gradually became easier to actually hear (instead of just read about) the sounds that so divided jazz at the dawn of its most tumultuous decade. However, for my first two Coleman purchases I had to settle for cassettes. Until the CD reissues of Ornette’s Atlantic efforts began showing up in the racks (or more appropriately put, started getting listed in catalogs as being available for purchase), hearing the man’s groundbreaking early material was a struggle. Even the ‘70s fusion work with Prime Time and his ‘80s albums were difficult to locate.

What’s more, none of the meager number of older jazz heads I’d become acquainted with at that point appreciated him; when the subject arose a few were downright dismissive. And dialing the handful of jazz radio programs that my stereo tuner managed to pick up in the wee hours of the AM proved just as futile.

I’ll never forget the short but pleasant conversation I had with one of those DJs, the voice of the gent on the other end of the line informing me that he loved Coleman but had sworn off playing him due to the swarm of angry calls he’d receive in response. So deep was the animosity over a divergence from and perceived threat to the post-bop standard that nearly 30 years later merely offering it on the radio brought an influx of opprobrium via the telephone.

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Graded on a Curve:
Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno, (s/t)

In 2018, Vivian Leva released her swell full-length debut Time Is Everything on the Free Dirt label, its ten selections cohering into an uncommonly rich and robust dose of classic country featuring pedal steel, fiddle, mandolin, Leva’s powerful lead vocals and harmonies that reached back to the brothers Everly, Stanley, Louvin, and Delmore: indeed, the set confidently tapped into the old-time root while being unshackled to the past. Riley Calcagno contributed substantially to that album, and through increased input as instrumentalist and songwriter, he gets co-billing on their new self-titled effort. Its eleven solid songs are available on CD right now through Free Dirt, with the 150gm vinyl shipping in early April.

Fans of Time Is Everything need not worry, for this jointly billed follow-up doesn’t mess with a good thing. Riley Calcagno, in addition to collaborating with Vivian Leva on her debut, also plays with her in the stringband The Onlies, with the couple residing in Portland, OR (she’s originally from Lexington, VA, while he’s from Seattle).

Opener “Will You” provides Leva’s vocals, sweet but sturdy, with an instrumental platform that blends the deft execution of contemporary Americana with a touch of the honkytonk, thanks in part to Chris Stafford’s pedal steel. The old-school flavor, strengthened by the drumming of Matty Meyer and the bass of Trey Boudreaux, helps to counteract the overly polite atmosphere that afflicts too much current Americana, with the fiddle of Calcagno, who also plays lead guitar on the track (Leva handles the rhythm) the icing on the cake.

As its title might insinuate, “Leaving on Our Minds” brings the honkytonk right into the foreground, with Leva’s singing fully up to the task. Calcagno’s harmony vocals enhance the scenario, but again, it’s his fiddle that really shines, though in the track’s favor (ditto the record as a whole) is a decided lack of straining for that barroom ambience (impressive as Leva and Calcagno are both so young), even as the pedal steel is large in the scheme and there’s even a sprinkling of ’60s-ish pop-country piano courtesy of Sam Fribush.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
March 2021, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for March 2021.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Arab Strap, As Days Get Dark (Rock Action) Reuniting in 2016 and releasing their first LP in 16 years with As Days Get Dark, Arab Strap, which for those unfamiliar is the duo of vocalist Aidan Moffat and multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton, display an admirable disinterest in approximating the essence of their ’90s sound. To clarify, these 11 tracks do cohere into what’s still clearly an Arab Strap album, but one that’s unmotivated by the temptations of easy nostalgia. There is a considerable tendency toward electronics throughout the record, along with some dancy rhythms, even getting borderline disco-ish in spots, plus string section largeness, and a few flurries of saxophone that gesture toward pop erudition without becoming too sophisto. And all this amid a production scheme that’s as bright as Moffat’s subject matter is reliably dark. That’s dark but not dour, because who needs dour in times like these? And Middleton’s guitar is not sidetracked. Sweet. The bottom line is As Days Get Dark is head and shoulders above the norm for reunion albums, and it ends fantastically. A-

Mouse on Mars, AAI (Thrill Jockey) AAI stands for Anarchic Artificial Intelligence, which is a dead solid description of what Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma, the individuals who have comprised Mouse on Mars for a quarter century now, have crafted on their latest release. In short, they are engaging with the idea of Artificial Intelligence both as a narrative driver for this record’s 20 tracks (totaling a smidge over 61 minutes) and as a compositional tool. Or to elaborate, using AI as a musical instrument, with St. Werner and Toma collaborating with AI tech collective Birds on Mars and with Rany Keddo and Derek Tingle, both former Soundcloud programmers, to build a sort of “bespoke software,” which was then fed the voices of writer and scholar Louis Chude-Sokei and DJ/producer Yağmur Uçkunkaya as a model. From there, St. Werner and Toma manipulated the AI, changing the speed and altering the vibe. Percussionist Dodo NKishi completes the list of contributors on a record, available on double vinyl, CD and digital, that is both conceptually rigorous and bizarre as fuck. A splendid combination. A-

Rachika Nayar, Our Hands Against the Dusk (NNA Tapes) Available on cassette and digital, this is the full-length debut from Brooklyn-based ambient-electronic composer Nayar. As described in her bio, Nayar’s compositional process begins with her guitar playing, which is looped and then digitally processed into pieces of considerable range, indeed expanding beyond the descriptor of ambient-electronic. Now, the consecutive tracks “Marigolds & Tulsi” and “The Edges” certainly did strike my ear as being ambient in nature, but across the set, her compositions possess both intensity and movement. To put it another way, things are happening, and those things are powerful. Nayar’s work wields an experimental edge that is quite appealing. Also, I dig how she broadened her sound even more with Zeelie Brown’s cello in the closing selection “No Future,” and how Yatta’s singing in “Losing Too Is Still Ours” breaks with the non-vocal template. Finally, there is an organic warmth in Nayar’s work that’s in welcome contrast to the often clinical sounds proffered by others in the electronic field. A-

Vapour Theories, Celestial Scuzz (Fire) Vapour Theories features John and Michael Gibbons, who are brothers, and also the guitarists for Bardo Pond. Those Philadelphians endure as one of the finest of heavy psych units, so if you’re familiar with what they’ve been laying down since the early 1990s, you’ll have an inkling of what’s happening with Celestial Scuzz. However, a few more observations are in order, foremost, that the dual guitar attack delivers plenty of amp sizzle (the Scuzz of the title) with an absence of thud (as there are no drums in Vapour Theories’ scheme). Instead, this baby soars like an absolute champ (which is where the Celestial comes in). Amongst this record’s treats is a version of Eno’s “The Big Ship” (from Another Green World), with Fire opining that the results are like ol’ Bri tangling with Sunn-O))))). Good gravy. Great gravy even, but lemme just add that at a few spots across this slab my thoughts turned to Popol Vuh, and that’s a superb thing to ponder. Other than half a split with Loren Connors in 2014, this is Vapour Theories first release in 15 years. ‘tis very welcome. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Robyn Hitchcock,
Love from London

Celebrating Robyn Hitchcock on his 68th birthday with a look back from our archives.Ed.

Love from London, the latest record from UK-based long-server Robyn Hitchcock, might not blow the doors off the classic records upon which his reputation is based, but it’s clear that he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Interestingly, it finds him far more impacted by the precedent of John Lennon than by the example of the late Syd Barrett, a figure that floated around much of his earlier work, and dedicated fans should find the LP a keeper. And happily, in its best moments, new listeners could also find the impetus to investigate his substantial back catalogue.

Robyn Hitchcock’s career finds him particularly well suited for later-age productivity. Beginning with The Soft Boys, it’s been a trip of unusual if accessibly eccentric consistency, with Hitchcock’s first group standing out quite a bit from not only the scorching punk of their first label Raw Records but the grand scheme of ’77-era UK punk in general.

For starters, The Soft Boys were far more musically adept then the average punk outfit of the period, and their songs also tangled with subject matter that was considerably more advanced than the standard shout-along topics of the time; before they were done they released a pair of albums, ‘79’s A Can of Bees and ‘80’s Underwater Moonlight, that are deserved cult-classics.

Additionally, The Soft Boys were one of the earliest punk acts to take influence from the psych-rock of the previous decade, a connection that occasionally found them tagged in the press as “neo-psychedelic;” ‘twas a circumstance that Hitchcock continued to explore after the band’s breakup through his highly touted solo work, frequently with coconspirators the Egyptians and more recently the Venus 3.

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Graded on a Curve: Thumbscrew,
Never Is Enough

Never Is Enough is the sixth record from the new jazz/ new music trio Thumbscrew, coming hot on the heels of their stunning Anthony Braxton birthday tribute project from late July of 2020. In fact, drummer Tomas Fujiwara, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and bassist Michael Formanek recorded this album simultaneously with the Braxton set, but more on that below. Featuring three originals by each member, the selections cohere into an immersive smoker that’s available now, and please take note that Cuneiform Records is offering a limited 2LP edition with four exclusive live tracks on side four. These cuts aren’t on the CD or the digital download; this review focuses on the nine-track core release.

Recording two albums at once might seem like it’s setting up a stressful, potentially even harried situation, but that’d be far more likely if the dual task derived from a studio scenario where time equates to money spent. Contrasting, Thumbscrew has a productive relationship with City of Asylum, indeed so beneficial that this is the second time the trio has cut two records at once in conjunction with that Pittsburgh-based arts organization.

Thumbscrew’s previous undertaking produced the 2018 albums Theirs, a disc of interpretations of material by others, and Ours, which consists of Thumbscrew originals (side four of Never Is Enough features live recordings from the Theirs and Ours tour). The Anthony Braxton Project and Never Is Enough constitute a similar (but not exact) attempt at making the most of their latest City of Asylum residency, as the former is devoted to readings of work from Braxton’s extensive Tri-Centric Foundation archives, while the latter, like Ours, is all original material.

In Cuneiform’s press release for Never Is Enough, it is mentioned that the two records were “not intended as the same kind of dialogue” as Theirs and Ours (which were released on the same day in 2018), but that the Braxton album and Never do speak to each other, with Formanek stating that he believes the influence of Braxton’s music is felt on Never, and if not a direct influence, then certainly inspiration from a massive body of work to which all three members of Thumbscrew have direct connections, Halvorson most extensively.

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Graded on a Curve:
Karima Walker,
Waking the Dreaming Body

The music of Tucson, AZ’s Karima Walker combines her strengths at sound design and as a songwriter, interweaving a folky sensibility that’s stark but robust with tapestries built from field recordings, drones, loops and synth tones. Her new album is quietly psychedelic, with this aura enhanced by its truly solo orientation. Sometimes sweet but more often contemplative and frequently strange, a defining characteristic of Waking the Dreaming Body is its distinctiveness. It’s out now on black or caliche clay colored vinyl, smoky grey cassette, and digital as a corelease through Orindal Records of Chicago and the Keeled Scales label of Austin. The CD begins shipping on March 10.

Waking the Dreaming Body is Karima Walker’s second LP, following-up Hands in Our Names from 2017, though that set was preceded by the “Take Your Time” EP of two years prior and before that, the digital EP “a good year” going way back to 2012 (please note that “Take Your Time” and her first album are both still available on vinyl, the EP as a 10-inch).

Upon reading of the disparate but by no means irreconcilable approaches that constitute Karima Walker’s sound, it might seem to a listener new to her work, as it did to me, that the woozy loops, hovering timbres, and late night breathy strum of Waking the Dreaming Body’s opening selection “Reconstellated” effectively serve up a taste of her sound in tidy microcosm.

Although the basic ingredients are all accounted for in “Reconstellated,” the sheer breadth that’s heard across Walker’s latest is what’s elusive. But it’s early yet. Reflective of her work as a whole, Waking the Dreaming Body is an achievement arrived at over time.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for February 2021, Part Four

Part four of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for February 2021. Part one is here, part two is here, and part three is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Wau Wau Collectif, Yaral Sa Doom (Sahel Sounds / Sing a Song Fighter) Described as “avant-garde cosmic sounds from Senegal,” Yaral Sa Doom (a Wolof phrase meaning “educate the young”) is a gorgeous and life-affirming byproduct of cultural collaboration, as Swedish musician Karl-Jonas Winqvist visited Toubab Dialaw, a bohemian enclave of sorts in Senegal, for a music summit lasting a few weeks’ time. Upon returning to Sweden, Winqvist traded recordings via WhatsApp (good ol’ WhatsApp) with studio engineer Arouna Kane back in Senegal. Immediately striking is the combination of styles across the LP, with Sufi praise songs rubbing up against jazzy horns and dubby rhythms amid voices of young ones (“Mouhamodou Lo and His Children” is simply exquisite), synthetic beats and electronic additives seemingly derived from a celestial video game. Speaking of music of the spheres, “Salamaleikoum” is gently beautiful in a way that reminded me of Washington Phillips, and that’s special praise indeed. Those hoping to feel good in 2021 should try this gem on for size. A

John Tejada, Year of the Living Dead (Kompakt) Born in Vienna and based in Los Angeles, techno specialist Tejada is releasing his fifth album for the Kompakt label with Year of the Living Dead, which as might be ascertained from the title, is a recording impacted by the Coronavirus. Tejada had started production on the record shortly before quarantine and then continued working thereafter (being essentially a solo electronic operator allowed him to do so safely), though he has stated that distance from his loved ones during the process affected him, and by extension, impacted the record. As this set lands firmly in the neighborhood of progressive house, any connections to the pandemic are implicit, with the eight tracks, spread out across four sides of vinyl (but totaling classic album length at a smidge over 41 minutes) aren’t bleak or harried in nature. Tejada’s stuff flows inventively, easily steering clear of club clichés, and is easy to absorb in part due to the generous but not excessive duration. It more than holds up to immediate consecutive spins, which is rare for electronic stuff in my experience. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: 4 Mars, Super Somali Sounds From the Gulf of Tadjoura (Ostinato) The Ostinato label’s 2019 release The Dancing Devils of Djibouti by Groupe RTD was a direct byproduct of the label being granted access to the Archives of Radiodiffusion-Télévision de Djibouti, a storied vault of East African recordings spanning back decades. Groupe RTD’s album featured new material, the result of an unforeseen but fortunate twist on the way to tapping into the Djibouti archive, of which this is the first volume in a series, dedicated to a 40-member Somali outfit documented through studio and live recordings dating from 1977 to ’94. Similar to Groupe RTD (with whom they share a member, saxophonist Mohamed Abdi Alto), 4 Mars was a band that thrived in service of a political party with a particular goal, specifically unifying the newly formed country through music. But what makes these 13 tracks (plus one Bandcamp digital bonus) such a treat is the stylistic blend 4 Mars honed to sustained excellence, featuring elements from assorted African regions combined with Turkish synths, reggae rhythms, flutes from China and Mongolia, and a healthy dose of Bollywood. Altogether magnificent. A

Don Cherry, “Cherry Jam” (Gearbox) You may recall “Cherry Jam” arriving last September for Record Store Day, but that edition of 1,100 is by now likely hard to come by, therefore necessitating a new press as part of Gearbox’s Japanese Editions, a series inspired by label founder Darrel Sheinman’s time spent in Japan. It features 180gm 12-inch 45 RPM vinyl in mono with an OBI strip (a CD is available in “very limited quantities”). Musically, this is quite a find, capturing Cherry on cornet the year he cut his masterpiece Complete Communion, consisting of three originals and Richard Rodgers’ “You Took Advantage of Me,” cut in Copenhagen for Danish national radio. Cherry’s bandmates for the session are Mogens Bollerup on tenor sax, Atli Bjørn on piano, Benny Nielsen on double bass, and Simon Koppel on drums, Danes all, with the performances dishing elevated hard bop rather than the avant-garde for which Cherry was associated at the time. The band is pleasingly in synch throughout (not always the case with Euro bands of this era) and the three Cherry originals were never recorded elsewhere. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
John Coltrane,
The Atlantic Years
in Mono

John Coltrane’s Atlantic period presents an arresting convergence of circumstances. It was a time of raised profile and of considerable transition, the artist’s confidence audibly growing as he united jazz tradition and experimentation; most of all it was an era of major breakthroughs establishing the saxophonist as a leader in his field. The Atlantic Years in Mono doesn’t include the entirety of his work for the label, but it does ably document a thrilling era that brought Coltrane to a mainstream audience. 

By the time John Coltrane hooked up with the Ertegun brothers he’d already chalked up a significant list of achievements, serving as a powerful voice in post-bop’s development via the bands of Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, guesting for a track on Sonny Rollins’ Tenor Madness, teaming with Hank Mobley, Al Cohn, and Zoot Simms for Tenor Conclave, and leading bands for Prestige and for one LP Blue Note.

Top billing came with Coltrane in 1957, and next was Blue Train for Blue Note, which many consider to be his first great album. John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio followed in ’58 (aka Traneing In for its ’61 reissue), and Soultrane retained the services of the Garland band. As Coltrane’s fame grew Prestige would later release nearly a dozen albums under his name from unissued sessions and elevated sideman dates, in turn possibly lending a false impression of the saxophonist as unusually prolific during ’57-’58.

Coltrane was constantly playing but was nowhere near popular enough to have that many albums produced in such a short span; indeed, his two ’58 records with Wilber Harden as co-leader, Jazz Way Out and Tanganyika Strut, are rarely discussed in spite of their being positioned directly before Coltrane’s move to Atlantic. Well, not quite; the closest correspondent recording to his ’59 Atlantic debut Giant Steps is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

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Graded on a Curve:
Blanck Mass,
In Ferneaux

Blanck Mass is the longstanding project of Edinburgh, UK resident Benjamin John Power. The style of his endeavor is roughly encapsulated as electronic-tinged experimental sounds rubbing shoulders with industrial and drone. The newest release from Blanck Mass is In Ferneaux, a full-length effort consisting of two lengthy pieces built from a trove of field recordings amassed by Power across a decade of world traveling (essentially the duration of Blanck Mass’ existence) and constructed in isolation last year. Full-formed in terms of pure sound, the whole is surprisingly engaging on an emotional level. It’s out February 26 on vinyl, CD and digital through Sacred Bones.

In Ferneaux is the fifth LP from Blanck Mass, following Animated Violence Mild, which came out in August of 2019. Prior to the release of the eponymous debut by Blanck Mass in 2011, Benjamin John Power was half of Fuck Buttons with Andrew Hung, an outfit that, while still considered an extant concern, hasn’t put out a record since Slow Focus in 2013.

Slow Focus was Fuck Buttons’ third full-length, with their debut Street Horrrsing putting them on the scene in 2008. This means that Blanck Mass has considerably bypassed Fuck Buttons in the productivity department, so that it’s no longer really applicable to describe Power’s current activities as a “side project.”

Now, to call In Ferneaux the latest from Powers’ “solo project” isn’t wrong, though this album’s two tracks, “Phase I” and “Phase II,” the first breaking 21 minutes and the second culminating just shy of 20, are in a distinct register from many solo efforts which often find musicians focusing inward, prioritizing their own ideas over collaboration and emphasizing content at the expense of formal rigor.

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