Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
The Reply,
The Complete Collection

Comprised of bassist-singer Gary Roth, guitarist Ted Riederer, drummer John Lyons, and keyboardist Mark Thorp, Washington DC’s mod-punk outfit The Reply formed in autumn of 1983 as 13-year-olds and lasted until ’89. In between, they played a bunch of shows, getting all the way to the stage of CBGB’s, and also did a bit of recording, which is gathered on two white vinyl LPs in The Complete Collection, with sounds likely to please fans of The Jam, The English Beat, and Ted Leo’s work in Chisel and with the Pharmacists, as that New Wavy keyboard component could bring a smile to the face of those into the Fleshtones and Joe King Carrasco. It’s out now with liner notes in a gatefold sleeve from Reply Records.

Like a lot of teens in the 1980s, the members of The Reply weren’t pleased by what was being offered on the radio. Instead, per the notes and PR for this retrospective set, they took inspiration from the likes of The Jam, The Clash, The Specials, The Beat, The Ramones, The Damned, and “the really early Cure like “Fire in Cairo.””

Forming in 1983 means The Reply’s timeline runs concurrent to the development of DC hardcore, a movement which in fact inspired the band as they shared a common mentor in the late Skip Groff, the owner of storied record shop Yesterday & Today and the man behind the noted DC indie label Limp. A point of pride for the band is that Groff put a poster for one of their shows on his wall and then “left it there forever.” That he would do so isn’t surprising, as The Reply’s sound was shaped by the same sort of records Groff had been digging in the late ’70s (Limp’s name was an homage to Stiff Records).

While The Reply were distinct from harDCore stylistically, they were still part of the same scene, playing venues like DC Space (booked by photographer Cynthia Connolly, whose pictures, along with the work of others, document part of the city’s scene of the period in the book Banned in DC), the old 9:30 Club, and the Wilson Center, plus sets in the summer at Fort Reno and benefits for Positive Force and Rock Against Racism. By their breakup in 1989, the PR describes The Reply as being “part of the same milieu as Fugazi, Gray Matter, Scream, and Swiz.”

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICK: Phillip Sollmann, Monophonie (A-Ton) Sollmann is a Berlin-based DJ and producer, who when recording via the alias Efdemin, produces a brand of techno that’s, reportedly, “psychedelic, and idiosyncratic,” doing so as recently as last year on the New Atlantis album (which was based, per the title, on an unfinished 17th century novel by Francis Bacon). He’s also produced work that falls outside of the techno realm, specifically experimental and microtonal composition, which includes the “Panama / Suez” EP (a collaboration with Konrad Sprenger and Oren Ambarchi), Gegen Die Zeit (a co-billed collab with John Gürtler) and Monophonie, which, as a live performance with Ensemble Musikfabrik, dates from 2017, premiered at Berlin’s Volksbühne theatre and then taken to Ruhrtriennale and Kampnagel in Hamburg.

For Monophonie, Sollmann has orchestrated a massive undertaking that employs the “rare historical instruments of sonic research” developed by 19th century physician-physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (including the double siren, an original of which Sollmann played in performance with Ensemble Musikfabrik), the microtonal instruments made by the great 20th century avant-classical composer Harry Partch, and the metal sound sculptures of Harry Bertoia (I did say massive). Utilizing the tuning system of just intonation, Monophonie, akin to his work in techno, attains the psychedelic, which in this case is a transportive music reminiscent at times of ’70s Steve Reich blending with early Terry Riley, but with tones and instrumentation enhancing the non-academic side of the modern classical tradition a la Partch naturally, but also nodding toward Moondog and even La Monte Young. Monophonie is a record of startling beauty and precise, disciplined ambition, destined to be one of the best of 2020. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Ike Yard, S/T (Superior Viaduct) NYC’s Ike Yard hold the distinction of having the first record released on Factory Records’ short-lived Factory America label, their eponymous 1982 LP sporting the catalogue number FACT A SECOND (FACT A FIRST was given to a NYC live show featuring Ike Yard opening for New Order, whose set was later released on the Taras Shevchenko VHS). Featuring vocalist-percussionist Stuart Argabright, guitarist Michael Diekmann, vocalist-bassist Kenny Compton and synth player Fred Szymanski, Ike Yard’s second release (following the “Night After Night” 12-inch, issued in 1981 by Les Disques Du Crépuscule, a label associated with a few Factory bands. It’s slated for reissue in August by Superior Viaduct) fits into Factory’s post-punk scheme quite nicely while also standing out and being stylistically prescient, distinguishing them as an influential cult band.

This appears to be the first US vinyl reissue for this album (there was a French pressing in 2012), but the music was notably released by the Acute label in 2006 on the CD 1980-82 Collected; that was a welcome set, as original copies of Ike Yard’s releases aren’t exactly common in the bins, which makes Superior Viaduct’s endeavor especially appealing for vinyl lovers who favor electronics-infused experimental rock. As said, the music here oozes chilly alienation that’s right up Tony Wilson’s alley, but with an edge that situates the band as evolving out of their city’s No Wave scene. Sort of by extension, the danceability of their stuff, which draws fair comparisons to other Factory signees (A Certain Ratio, Section 25) and as Superior Viaduct points out, Cabaret Voltaire and Front 242, never registers as Ike Yard’s main goal, which is a big part of why this record continues to hit so hard. Essential for post-punk collectors. A-

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICK: Pharis & Jason Romero, Bet on Love (Lula) Residing in Horsefly, British Columbia, Canada, the married folk-Americana-bluegrass duo of Pharis & Jason Romano also make instruments. Specifically, they build banjos, and Bet on Love, the fifth album for the Juno Award winners, was recorded in their shop at home. It’s a delightful record evincing strong ties to the old-time folk root while flowing forth with bright, crisp production that places the album as a contemporary release, if one unburdened by any trends of the moment. Put another way, the Romeros aren’t throwing back to the past, but instead, being deeply invested in tradition (as instrument builders, more so than most), are carrying the old styles into the present with clarity that’s reflected in Bet on Love’s expert musicianship.

The reliable anchor of Patrick Metzger’s double bass and the strumming and occasional flourishes of John Reischman’s mandolin aside, Bet on Love ultimately lands nearer to Americana than the elevated ensemble flair of bluegrass. But happily, the record lacks the mild-mannered sensibility that hinders, at least for this listener, so many current practitioners of the Americana style. This shouldn’t suggest that the music here isn’t primed to be soaked up without a hindrance by as many receptive ears as possible, it’s just that the beauty with which this album is infused is delivered with considerable power. Part of this intensity derives from the sturdy folk foundation, but a larger reason comes down to the sheer gorgeousness of Pharis Romero’s voice, which hits a peak in the record’s title track but sounds splendid throughout. She also plays guitar as Jason utilizes a variety of banjos and guitars; while often pretty, the playing is better assessed as possessing great verve. A magnificent set, on vinyl and compact disc. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: V/A, Early Works: Funk, Soul & Afro Rarities from the Archives (ATA) Whether it’s releases by The Sorcerers, The Magnificent Tape Band, The Lewis Express, Abstract Orchestra, Rachel Modest, or Tony Burkill, the ATA label, based in Leeds, UK, has made it crystal clear that contemporary funky soulfulness in a classic vein isn’t exclusively the provenance of US labels like Daptone, Big Crown, and Colemine. The label of Neil Innes & Pete Williams, ATA commenced operations in 2013 and not long after had their initial work compiled by the Here & Now label in an edition of 300 copies that sold out in weeks. With new artwork, notes that illuminate the label’s origins, and a slightly altered title, this is a welcome reissue.

That Innes and Williams are involved with everything lends cohesiveness to the whole, as does the largely instrumental nature, which helps the label to standout a bit, though the approach does bring them into the general proximity of Big Crown. Still, ATA’s stuff hits hard but is noticeably distinct from the work of Leon Michels, frequently coming off as a neo-library music experience. However, the sitar and flute in “Thought Forms” by um, Ivan Von Engelberger’s Asteroid is tasty neo-psych. I also adore the ripping baritone sax in “Hawkshaw Philly” by The Yorkshire Film And Television Orchestra, which is a late standout. There are also two vocal cuts courtesy of Cleveland Freckleton, though for one he goes under the handle Reverend Barrington Stanley. Represented by three cuts, The Sorcerers bring some Ethio-jazz to the table with “Elephant,” while The Cadets cinch up a soul-jazzy finale with “What Are We Made Of.” This album is great for dancing in your sock feet on the hard word floor of the living room. I tried it. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Stevie Wonder,
Live at the Regal Theater, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Hotter
Than July

Today we celebrate 70 years of Wonder with a look back from our archives.Ed.

The racks are soon to be loaded with reissues from key Motown singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Stevie Wonder, the contents covering three phases in his long career. Live at the Regal Theater, Chicago, June 1962 offers his breakout third album under a new title; it’s out now on vinyl through the Jambalaya label. Fulfillingness’ First Finale, which landed amid his improbably fertile ’70s run, and Hotter Than July, a transitional 1980 album cut before Wonder maxed out his creative console’s commercial dial, are available on LP via Motown.

Stevie Wonder’s biography makes a good case for the rewards of patience in artist development, though that’s also a complicated situation; signed to Motown’s Tamla imprint at age 11, Barry Gordy’s company had to take basic human development into consideration. That Wonder wasn’t cast aside as an also-ran after the commercially tepid performance of his first two LPs is credit to the value Motown placed on the people as well as profits.

Wonder has been blind since shortly after birth, a fact making the label’s deliberate attempts to connect him to the sightless soul powerhouse Ray Charles seem more than a little brazen in retrospect; his first recording, the startlingly average Tribute to Uncle Ray, and the much better all-instrumental follow-up The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie were both released in 1962 but in reverse order; both inform his commercial breakthrough, ’63’s Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius, renamed by Jambalaya as Live at the Regal Theater with the “Little” removed from Wonder’s moniker.

The LP begins with the Motortown Revue’s MC hyperbolically stating that Wonder is “considered as being the genius of our time.” The boldness of the claim’s not really a surprise in the context of the era; what’s more unusual is the energy and flair on display in “Fingertips,” this concert performance of The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie’s opener delivering a smash hit (simultaneous pop and R&B #1s) when split into two parts on 45.

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Graded on a Curve: Vladislav Delay,
Sly Dunbar,
Robbie Shakespeare,
500-Push-Up

Since 1997, Finland’s Sasu Ripatti, better known as Vladislav Delay (amongst other handles), has been impacting the electronic scene across numerous substyles and with Jamaican dub a key influence on his overall thing. In 2018, he was a participant in the sessions that produced the Nordub album, alongside the celebrated and inarguably essential Jamaican rhythm section-production team of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. 500-Push-Up, a new record on vinyl and compact disc from the Sub Rosa label, is a reunion combining the rudiments of dub with extensive electronic expansion. A wonderful trip beyond, it’s out May 15 with two bonus tracks on the CD.

Amassing releases that have been tagged as techno, house, glitch, and ambient, Sasu Ripatti is a prolific man. In addition to Vladislav Delay, he’s recorded as Sistol, Uusitalo, Luomo, Conoco, and even under his surname Ripatti, with the music spread across a number of labels, including  Mille Plateaux, Huume, Leaf, Staubgold, Halo Cyan, Raster-Noton, ~scape, Semantica and most recently, Cosmo Rhythmatic.

But Ripatti’s considerable output is dwarfed next to the productivity of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, who are cited in Sub Rosa’s promo description for this release as the “most prolific Jamaican rhythm section and production duo.” A look at their stats on Discogs proves sizable enough to quash any debate over the claim. It’s basically a cinch that even casual fans of Jamaican music made in the last quarter of the 20th century have heard the work of Sly and Robbie.

The duo has also played a role in numerous non-Jamaican releases as well, ranging from Bob Dylan to The Fugees to Marianne Faithfull to Joe Cocker to Grace Jones to No Doubt. And as the intro above mentions, Sly and Robbie’s vitality has carried over deep into the new century; in 2018 alone, they have at least five full-length releases where they are co-credited. That includes the Nordub 2LP/ CD cited above, which found them co-billed with Norwegian trumpeter Nils-Petter Molvaer as his countryman Eivind Aarset and Ripatti were featured artists on guitar and electronics, respectively.

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Graded on a Curve: Pacific Breeze 2: Japanese City Pop,
AOR and Boogie
1972–1986

Light in the Attic’s first archival volume of Japanese City Pop, released last year, proved such a success that they’ve dawdled not at all in assembling a sequel. Pacific Breeze 2: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1972-1986 is the result, grooved into four sides of vinyl and loaded on a single compact disc, with assorted accoutrements available, including short and long-sleeve t-shirts, a beach towel, a poster, and even a free koozie with vinyl orders while supplies last. The standard 2LP and CD are available May 15, while the color vinyl, the cassette, and the “color set” (that’s “LA Twilight” vinyl, towel and poster) are shipping June 26. Appropriately, it comes with ample background info on all the participants.

Although I described this set as a sequel directly above, that’s not really accurate, as no knowledge of Light in the Attic’s first dive into Japanese city pop is required to engage with this one; Pacific Breeze 2 is instead a standalone banquet of this stuff made possible by the success of the first. All that’s required to enjoy is a receptiveness to the sounds of unabashedly commercial late 20th century pop, with a curiosity into the poppish productivity of other cultures helping to seal the deal.

With that said, I’ll confess that this sorta thing lands pretty far from my listening norms. Indeed, while I was clued-in to the first Pacific Breeze set’s imminent release last year, I wasn’t provided with the music for review, and subsequently, I never checked it out. The contents of this installment did land in my inbox however, with my interest piqued enough that I chose to scope out its contents.

Unsurprisingly, as this compilation features a grab bag of contributing artists, the results are mixed in terms of quality, though there is a level of stylistic cohesiveness that’s unusually high, if alternating between synth-oriented ’80s atmospheres and ’70s flavors, such as the vocally extroverted funk-bounce groove-pop of Bread & Butter’s opening track “Pink Shadow,” culled from their ’74 LP Barbeque.

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Michael Thomas, Event Horizon (Giant Step Arts) Sometimes, the label releasing a record can serve as a doorway to more music of a similar stripe, or if not in the same style, than just stand as a signifier of quality. For obvious reasons, this scenario is now almost exclusive to independent labels as the big companies have long been predominantly profit driven. Well, Giant Step Arts, the label started by noted photographer Jimmy Katz, isn’t obsessed with profit. In Katz’s words, the label doesn’t even sell any music, but rather strives “to help musicians make bold artistic statements and to advance their careers.” In addition to premiering performances, recording them, and compensating the artists, once a project is complete, 700 compact discs (the complete run) and downloads are given to the leader of the session, who importantly retains ownership of the masters. Giant Step Arts also provides promo photos, videos and PR for the release.

If this reads more like a philanthropic concern than a label in a traditional sense, well yes and no; as insinuated by the name of the label, Katz wants those invited to create masterpiece-level work. This entails dedication that isn’t synonymous with prolificacy, with this set from Grammy-winning saxophonist Michael Thomas only the fourth Giant Step Arts release since 2018. For the recording, Thomas assembled a quartet featuring trumpeter Jason Palmer (leader of Giant Step Arts 001, Rhyme and Reason), double bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Johnathan Blake (leader of GSA 002, Trion, and the drummer for GSA 003, saxophonist Eric Alexander’s Leaf of Faith). The results, spanning across two discs (all of the Giant Step Arts releases except Alexander’s single disc are 2CD sets), do rise to the level of masterpiece. Notably, it’s a live performance, a setting absolutely essential to the jazz idiom.

Now, studio recordings are also crucial, with two of Katz’s models for Giant Step Arts being Miles’ Kind of Blue and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. But in promoting works unveiled on a live stage, there seems to be a simultaneous desire to elude the pressures, stresses and obsessiveness that can undermine studio recordings made within or outside of current commercial settings (the mersh settings that produced Blue and Supreme don’t really exist anymore). In short: work your asses off in prep, but then get on the bandstand and let it fly. Thomas and his crew do just that, exploring eight of the saxophonist’s compositions (plus solos intros for bass, sax, and drums) in an elevated manner (through the strength of familiarity) that’s truly searching while never straying that far from the richness of jazz in its classic Modern mode. That is, Event Horizon isn’t warmed-over turkey, not for a second, as its creators make abundantly clear that brilliance bursting forth from established jazz traditions is still a possibility. A

Matt Evans, New Topographics (Whatever’s Clever) Amongst drummer-composer Evans’ credits is Man Forever, the band-project of esteemed drummer John Colpitts, but this release of synthetic-acoustic ambient-drone-experimentation is a distinct beast, recorded in December of 2018 during a month-long residency at Brooklyn art space Pioneer Works. It is the byproduct of an extended immersion into the musical possibilities of “hyperobjects,” which professor-philosopher Timothy Morton defines as “objects so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend spatiotemporal specificity,” e.g. “global warming, styrofoam, and the internet.” Here, the engagement with hyperobjects gathers the sound of ringing bells, rips, rattles, hums, buzzes, clinks, clanks, and importantly, a writing utensil at work.

Crucial to the record are assorted transcriptions by Evans of the Richard Brautigan poem “All watched over by machines of loving grace,” first written by Evans by hand (and heard as such in “Cold Moon” and “New Moon”) but also imagined as a musical language and translated into braille and Morse code and utilizing radioteletype; these transcriptions became the guiding process for nearly every track on New Topographics. Now, if this reads as academically dry, that’s not my experience, as parts of this reminded me of Hassell’s fourth world stuff, with melodies a natural part of the scheme and unsurprisingly, rhythms even more frequent. Available on CD and cassette with cover art by the recently deceased Devra Freelander; this album and Ben Seretan’s Youth Pastoral (reviewed below) are dedicated to her memory. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Tim Buckley, Lady, Give Me Your Key and Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974

Two releases illuminate Tim Buckley as being far from the typical 1960s folkie. Light in the Attic’s Lady, Give Me Your Key uncovers two ’67 demos and is easily the more consistent of the two, its contents complementing a significant portion of Omnivore’s Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974. That set leaps over a highly fertile period in chronologically documenting the 45s of an artist primarily known for his albums, but still manages to detail the lessening of quality in Buckley’s work. The former comes with vinyl, compact disc, and digital options, and the latter is CD only.

Tim Buckley’s output can be divided into three segments: the early formative period that includes his self-titled ’66 debut and the following year’s Goodbye and Hello, a fertile middle section beginning with ’69’s Happy Sad and Blue Afternoon and continuing with ’70’s Lorca and Starsailor, and a highly disappointing shift into strained soulfulness and off-putting conventionality that includes ’72’s Greetings from L.A., ’73’s Sefronia and ’74’s Look at the Fool.

Since his premature death in 1975, Buckley’s discography has roughly doubled, mostly through performance material, a circumstance helping Lady, Give Me Your Key to stand out a bit; composed of a pair of demos made for producer Jerry Yester in aid of choosing the contents of Goodbye and Hello, there are enough new song discoveries to enhance the familiar numbers, and if belonging to Buckley’s earliest period the album deepens the man’s work rather than just offering minutiae for diehards.

If predominantly straightforward in approach, it’s important to qualify that on his first LP Buckley was already more than a clichéd strummer. Working largely in baroque mode with a full band including drummer Billy Mundi, his longtime guitarist Lee Underwood, and on piano, celesta, and harpsichord Van Dyke Parks, a third of the album sets Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974 into motion, the A-side to the first 45 lending the collection its title.

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Beauty Pill, Please Advise (Northern Spy) The first new music from Beauty Pill since the brilliant Describes Things as They Are is not a letdown, though the brevity of the release does leave me wanting more, which isn’t the same thing as disappointment, as the four tracks cohere into a worthy whole. The shortness means Please Advise might be an EP, but I’ve only seen it referred to as an LP; Beauty Pill have been tagged as post-rock, but they are also post-duration, apparently (a different bonus track comes with each format). Beauty Pill is also the band of Chad Clark, who doesn’t lump the music into the post-rock genre but rather the Beauty Pill genre, which reinforces how post-rock is in many ways post-category; Tortoise and Godspeed You! Black Emperor are up to different things, and Please Advise doesn’t sound like either of them, partly because Beauty Pill is an ever-evolving band, here introducing newest member Erin Nelson right away through her AI-like vocals in “Pardon My Dust.”

Alongside Nelson’s contribution, there’s also a horn-quartet blowing a wiggly pattern reminiscent of the Downtown NYC of yore and underscoring Clark’s love of Arto Lindsay. The mention of Lindsay provides a nice segue into some general enthusiasm for Clark’s guitar playing, which shines in closing cut “The Damnedest Thing.” But guitar isn’t a constant factor in Beauty Pill’s equation (it’s not even a constant factor in “The Damnedest Thing”). Neither is Nelson’s voice, though she’s crucial to “Prison Song.” However, rhythm is a constant here as the songs feature a blend of live and programmed drums that occasionally skitter forth in a manner similar to electronica. That’s nice. A sound that reminds me of a synthetic hammered dulcimer in “Tattooed Love” is even nicer. And the horn arrangement that pops up in “Pardon My Dust” hits my ear a little like those heard on Illinois by noted Philip Glass-fan Sufjan Stevens, so this review has come full circle. A-

Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding, Last Flight Out (Kernel Sound) Succinctly, Funeral Bonsai Wedding is a project that came to life in Chicago, bringing together Americana affiliated singer-songwriter Dawson (of the band Dolly Varden) with musicians from the Windy City experimental jazz and improv scene including bassist Jason Roebke, vibes player Jason Adasiewicz, and on self-titled 2014 debut, drummer Frank Rosaly, who’s replaced here due to the constraints of distance (as he moved to Amsterdam) by Charles Rumback. Additionally, the all-female classical string ensemble Quartet Parapluie partook in the recording of this follow-up, with their input, often terrific, going a long way in solidifying the comparison to Astral Weeks that accompanies the album in preparation of its release on vinyl, CD, and digital this week.

The other reason for the connection to Van is due to the mingling of the songwriter scene with jazz, which often doesn’t produce much beyond expert playing and trivia (as in, “hey, do you know who’s soloing there?”) but delivered something truly special on Astral Weeks. Now, Last Night Out isn’t as great as Weeks (very few records are) but there are a few spots where the similarity jumps out as accurate, mostly due to Roebke but in “However Long it Takes,” very much through Dawson’s vocals. His singing more frequently reinforces his Americana background to the point where this set is recommended for folks deeply invested in the style’s contempo developments, although he can occasionally remind me of Tim Buckley, a circumstance surely helped by how Adasiewicz can recall David Friedman on Happy Sad, Blue Afternoon, and Dream Letter. But really, this set is a winner on its own merits; the songs are as strong as the singing and the playing is just top-flight all the way through. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Michele Mercure,
Pictures of Echoes

Based in Lancaster, PA, composer Michele Mercure self-released a bunch of worthwhile synth-based music throughout the 1980s, with this output getting a deserved increase in profile through recent reissues from RVNG Intl. and its affiliated label Freedom to Spend. These two prior archival editions have both been on vinyl, but the latest, Pictures of Echoes, is a compilation available May 8 digitally and on cassette in a slim edition of 150 copies, the choice of format fitting as spooled tape was the manner of initial release for nearly all of Mercure’s home recordings.

In RVNG Intl.’s promotional text for Beside Herself, the 2LP/ CD they released in 2018 with subsidiary Freedom to Spend, Michele Mercure’s music is described as belonging to the “DIY cassette trading scene” of the 1980s, this reality establishing her stuff as flying considerably under any sort of mainstream radar, though the reissuing parties also helpfully pointed out that during this same period Mercure composed for experimental theater and soundtracked some public television.

And so, her background, if certainly subterranean, expands a bit from the image of a home-taper hunkered down in a basement and self-releasing material via coverage in Sound Choice and Option magazines. However, in a recent interview for the website Fields, Mercure does indeed describe herself as an avid ’80s tape trader (with a fondness for European stuff). The music compiled on Beside Herself and given the straight reissue treatment on Eye Chant fits into the scheme of ’80s cassette culture like digits into latex.

Eye Chant initially came out on vinyl in 1986 and was repressed that way in 2017 as Freedom to Spend’s inaugural release. It and Beside Herself are both sold out on vinyl (CDs of the latter are still around), this unavailability surely destined for Pictures of Echoes’ cassette edition as the format circles back to how the majority of her output was first distributed. Those releases include Rouge and Mint, A Cast of Shadows and Dreams Without Dreamers, all from ’83-’85, and Dreamplay from ’90.

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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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