Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: OSTs from Waxwork Records: Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, Creepshow

For soundtrack fans with a keen interest in the horror genre, Waxwork Records has been steadily delivering the goods; made to look marvy as they’re pulled off the shelf, the attention to audio hasn’t been lost in the shuffle. Three of the company’s recent releases, Krzysztof Komeda’s score for Rosemary’s Baby, Pino Donaggio’s for Don’t Look Now, and John Harrison’s for Creepshow, form an engaging, at times masterful trifecta of expanded compositional possibilities documenting a film genre in transition. Featuring 180gm thematically colored vinyl, all three are out now.

That such a large percentage of the upsurge in vinyl soundtracks is devoted to horror flicks is no surprise. Not only has horror persisted in inspiring intense fandom long after the heyday of the cult movie has waned, but more so than most other film genres, horror was and remains reliant on original, often composed scores in the advancement of its goals.

Some of the greatest moments in horror are intrinsically linked to their music; the shower scene in Psycho is perhaps the primary example. Although nothing from the soundtrack to Roman Polanski’s Hollywood debut has clung to the public consciousness the way Bernard Herrmann’s contribution to Hitchcock’s masterpiece has, Krzysztof Komeda’s score for Rosemary’s Baby is still right up there amongst the greats, with its initial seconds instilling an immediate sense of queasiness that’s quickly overtaken by the wordless singing of actress Mia Farrow.

Serene yet eerie at the start, when the theme returns at film’s end, it burns like the ache from being punched in the stomach, which is essentially what the movie’s conclusion delivers, specifically by what it doesn’t deliver: there’s no return to normalcy, and sure as shit no happy ending, and for years afterward Rosemary’s Baby remained controversial. Until a long line of slashers and blatant bloodletting overtook it, Polanski’s film was frequently derided as having gone too far.

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Graded on a Curve: Michael Beach,
Gravity/Repulsion

The Aussie native and Oakland transplant Michael Beach’s Golden Theft came out in 2013 and was rated by this writer as a masterpiece. Achievements of that level can be hard to follow up, but along with playing in the Melbourne-based Shovels and undertaking numerous solo tours of his home country, the USA and Europe, Beach took his time in crafting a follow-up, and the results are worth the wait. Gravity/Repulsion’s trim run-time initially unwinds as a solid if somewhat more modest continuation of man’s stylistically broad yet tightly focused melodic rock objectives, but with time spent, the disc connects as a wholly worthy successor. It’s out now on LP and digital via Spectacular Commodity.

Time does fly. It seems like, well, not yesterday, but not a terribly long time, since Golden Theft made my Best of 2013 list for this website. In fact, it has been a while; indeed, the smidge over four years is a longer gap between records than is the norm. If I weren’t constantly inundated with new music for review (this is not a complaint), it’s a sure thing the wait for Gravity/Repulsion’s emergence wouldn’t’ve snuck up on me.

Now that it’s here, I’m pleased to report the LP is no disappointment. Part of the reason stems from Beach’s retention of aspects from the prior album that clearly worked, foremost the drumming of Utrillo Kushner (Colossal Yes, Comets on Fire) as they’re joined by bassist Muslim Delgado, with the trio having honed their skills over a two-year period.

Like the album that preceded it, Gravity/Repulsion was recorded by Phil Manley in San Francisco and was mastered by Bob Weston, so the results are again full-bodied, with a warmth and clarity that feels “classic” as Beach continues to avoid easy categorization. But that deserves a finer point; like Golden Theft, the songs here reach back to the ’60s, with clear ties to folk-rock and psych-rock, though it’s integrated with sustained verve reminiscent of ‘80s Flying Nun and the subsequent indie scene’s more rock-focused acts.

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Graded on a Curve:
Jesus Rocked the Jukebox: Small Group Black Gospel (1951-1965)

The impact of the African-American gospel tradition on soul and rock ‘n’ roll is long-established. Craft Recordings’ Jesus Rocked the Jukebox: Small Group Black Gospel (1951-1965) spreads the evidence across six vinyl sides as they provide an expansive overview of the undiluted spiritual spark. Mingling well-known artists who made the jump into pop territory (Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, The Staple Singers) with giants in the gospel field (The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Swan Silvertones, The Harmonizing Four), the results are an unmitigated joy. It’s out now in a sturdy triple gatefold.

The give and take between the sacred and the secular was long and productive across the 20th century, and for the details, this set’s notes by Robert M. Marovich do an outstanding job. But really, the beauty of Jesus Rocked the Jukebox is that all one needs to do is listen; the elements of the crossover to soul and rock and of course to the pop charts, is abundant here, and frequently from artists who themselves made the thematic transition.

None were bigger than Sam Cooke. Unlike Ray Charles, who built his career on honing a blend of blues, R&B, jazz, and gospel into a cornerstone of soul, prior to a foray into pop, Cooke was well-known as a member of the already long-running Soul Stirrers. Indeed, the quartet’s greatest success essentially spanned Cooke’s tenure, with the a cappella “Jesus Gave Me Water” an early hit (from 1951, exactly) and one that was clearly influential on doo wop’s explosion later in the decade.

From the following year, “Just Another Day” begins with the vocalist’s immediately identifiable style, blending it with rich harmonizing and simple but driving rhythmic accompaniment that as Marovich explains, was often the design of record labels, in this comp’s case Specialty and Vee-Jay, in hopes of shifting more units. Naturally, this addition is important to gospel’s impact on secular music, particularly R&B and rock. Here, it intensifies the Stirrers’ considerably more emphatic “Come and Go to that Land” and the splendid “Sinner Run to Jesus” (from ’57, a year before Cooke left the group).

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, September 2017

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued wax presently in stores for September, 2017. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Shilpa Ray, Door Girl (Northern Spy) Like many of the great New York records, Door Girl has few strong ’60s threads in its weave, an attribute that gives Ray’s songwriting a sense of timelessness. But she deviates from any kind of comfort zone through lyrical candor (detailing her time working the door at NYC bar Pianos) and beautifully risky stylistic jumps; “Revelations of a Stamp Monkey” is rap-rock that totally kills, and “EMT Police and the Fire Department” weds a post-Beat poetic scenario to a full-tilt punk blowout sans hitch. And jeepers creepers, what a set of pipes she’s got. A

Golden Retriever, Rotations (Thrill Jockey) If a plunge into a blend of kosmische, ambient, new age, and experimentation is what you’re desiring, then look no further than the Portland, OR-based duo of modular synth man Matt Carlson and bass clarinetist Jonathan Sielaff. For Rotations, they enlist a large crew of guests on assorted string instruments, French horn, flute, oboe, percussion, vibraphone, and pipe organ, and the sonically varied results are weightier and edgier than is the norm for this sort of outward-bound sprawl. Lift-off is certainly achieved, but parts of this get downright hectic. I dig. A

REISSUE PICKS: Slade, Slade Alive! (BMG) Rightly remembered for dishing out hits from the earthier side of the glam rock sphere, on the evenings documented by this killer live slab (19-21 October 1971), Slade were just as aptly tagged as good time hard rockers. As evidence, please consider the opening cover of Ten Years After’s “Hear Me Calling.” Harkening back to their days as Ambrose Slade, they were rock knowledgeable enough (and in retrospect, somewhat tasteful, even) to avoid boogying themselves into a hole in the ground, and could shift gears into John Sebastian’s “Darling Be Home Soon” quite nicely. A-

Mal Waldron, Mal/2 (Go Bop) Waldron cut over 100 albums as leader and nearly as many in the support slot. Forget about owning them all, but this early date from his ’50s run for Prestige, where he was house pianist at the time, is one for the shelf. In part for the personnel, which includes Coltrane, Jackie McLean, Sahib Shihab, Bill Hardman, Idrees Sulieman, Art Taylor, Ed Thigpen, and Julian Euell in an interchangeable sextet, though Waldron’s playing is splendid, and his three originals are sharp. The highlights are a fascinating “Don’t Explain” and a refreshing dive into “The Way You Look Tonight.” A-

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Graded on a Curve:
The Wedding Present,
George Best 30

Although they sprouted from ’80s indie pop soil, indeed making the cut for the New Musical Express’ legendary C86 compilation, The Wedding Present have long transcended the style. Still, those early days continue to radiate with engaging verve; tampering with its essence would seem decidedly not smart, but that’s just what David Gedge and company went and did. George Best 30 is a rerecording of their full-length debut, and the results defy the odds through precision, live-performance energy, and the assistance of Steve Albini. It’s out now on vinyl and compact disc through Scopitones in the UK and Happy Happy Birthday to Me in the US.

The Wedding Present has maintained a high enough standard of quality that I’m guessing there’s no overwhelming consensus regarding their best album. For example, this writer’s pick is 1989’s Bizarro, and it’s safe to surmise that their three ’90s studio discs all have their partisans, with the same holding true for their output since the turn of the century (let’s leave the numerous compilations and live recordings out of this).

However, if the band has an essential full-length, it’s probably ’87’s George Best. Even if it’s not one’s beloved choice, as the record that put them on the ’80s indie pop radar screen, it was a smashing success, combining hyperactive jangle, energetic rhythms, thick bass, and the distinctive vocal moodiness of sole constant member David Gedge. Paving the way forward, three decades later it still holds up; it may not be everyone’s fave, but it’s difficult to imagine a Wedding Present fan that doesn’t hold George Best in high esteem.

Therefore, it would seem, if not necessarily foolish, then certainly a precarious move to release a rerecording of the LP’s dozen tunes, even with Steve Albini at the console. But here it’s worth stressing that this George Best redux isn’t exactly new; it was cut with Albini in 2008 directly after finishing the El Rey album, and more importantly while Best was still fresh in the band’s collective memory after the 20th anniversary tour for the album the previous year.

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Graded on a Curve:
Pere Ubu,
20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo

The last two years have seen Pere Ubu bringing thoughtful revision to a prodigious and highly influential back catalog; after touring in support of it to considerable success, the focus has returned to fresh material. The new album is 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo, their first for the Cherry Red label, and it finds vocalist-leader David Thomas and the band in sharp, distinctive form. Adding another layer to the avant-garage institution’s discography, this tidy, frequently rocking, and wholly rewarding set is out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital.

On occasion, the longevity of highly acclaimed, once-groundbreaking acts will codify into touring-circuit predictability, the lineups rigid and the setlists devoid of new material, mainly for fear of lowering the energy level in the room. To the other extreme, sometimes the stature of long-loved acts gets devalued by the dubious persistence of one (or two) original members and whomever they manage to dredge up to assist, with the outcome a series of underwhelming studio efforts and endless tour dates.

Such is not the case with Pere Ubu. Yes, David Thomas is the band’s sole original member, but 20 Years in a Montana Missile is far from an “If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s the Fall”-style situation. Bassist Michele Temple, drummer Steve Mehlman, and analog synth-Theremin man Robert Wheeler have been part of the group since the mid-’90s, while guitarist Keith Moliné joined the roster in 2005.

They, along with digital synthesist Gagarin and clarinetist Darryl Boon (members since ’07 and ’12, respectively) establish continuity as Ubu moves from its Chinese Whispers-Orange Period into a phase described as The Dark Room (quote Thomas: “Put a bunch of musicians in a lightless room and by feeling one small section of an unknown object have them figure what it must be.”). Bringing a new twist to this development is a three-guitar lineup, with Moliné joined by Gary Siperko (from Thomas’ other band Rocket from the Tombs) and Kristof Hahn (from Swans) on steel guitar.

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Graded on a Curve: Sunny & the Sunliners,
Mr. Brown Eyed Soul

Led by vocalist Sunny Ozuna, Sunny & the Sunliners began as a sturdy regional act in the late ’50s, broke out nationally for a little while, and then just kept on rolling; of course, they’re ripe for contemporary discovery, and with Mr. Brown Eyed Soul, Big Crown Records has brought the goods. Earlier this year, label owners Danny Akalepse and Leon Michels issued the “Should I Take You Home” b/w “My Dream” single as a teaser, and this compilation’s 13 additional tracks don’t disappoint. Fans of classic doo wop, R&B, and soul shouldn’t procrastinate; it’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital.

Sunny Ozuna’s start in music is a variation on a highly familiar story, but one that somehow never succumbs to hoariness. As detailed in Ramón Hernández’s sleeve notes for this set, he started out as vocalist for The Sequence and then The Galaxies, both high school doo wop groups popular around Ozuna’s hometown of San Antonio.

It was Sunny and Rudy Guerra’s forming of the Sunglows that precipitated Ozuna’s impact beyond southern Texas. “Just a Moment” delivered their first regional hit in 1959, but it was “Talk to Me” that provided their national R&B chart breakthrough, making it to #11 in ’63 through Huey Meaux’s Teardrop label. The song resulted in an invitation to appear on American Bandstand, the long-running pop music-focused TV program hosted by Dick Clark; Ozuna was in fact the first Chicano artist to appear on the show.

Somewhere along the way, the moniker was adjusted to the Sunliners. Meaux continued to release the group’s recordings, but those studio forays are not what’s found on Mr. Brown Eyed Soul. The Sunliners’ contract with Teardrop ended in mid-’66, and it was then that Sunny and Johnny Zaragosa started the Key-Loc label; the music here cherry-picks from seven years’ worth of self-released productivity, a considerable length when compared to the much shorter periods of creative longevity experienced by many acts both well-known and obscure.

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Graded on a Curve:
Joseph Shabason,
Aytche

It’s Joseph Shabason who plays the somewhat yacht-evoking saxophone on the last two albums from Dan Bejar’s Destroyer, but his first solo effort is onto something decidedly different. Aytche can be succinctly tagged as an ambient jazz recording, but it easily surpasses the expectations for such a merger, exhibiting a consistent desire for experimentation amid sonic environments that transcend mere tranquility and smoothness. It’s out now on LP, CD, and digital from Western Vinyl.

There was really no reason to expect Joseph Shabason’s solo debut to be some sort of outgrowth from his work on Destroyer’s Kaputt and Poison Season, any more than one would assume a direct formal link between the solo work of Shabason’s saxophone peer Colin Stetson’s solo recordings and the numerous albums he’s guested on.

But in diving headfirst into a stylistic hybrid that on paper will likely produce as many (or more) doubters than eager listeners, Shabason, who in addition to lending sax to Destroyer, The War on Drugs and others also contributes synth to the unabashedly throwback electropop act DIANA, does pull off a maneuver somewhat akin to Bejar’s elevation of soft-rock textures to art-rock status.

Helping to raise Aytche’s worth is a lack of strain through deliberateness, as the nine tracks frequently travel far afield of the ambient jazz zone, though it takes a little while to get there. Opener “Looking Forward to Something, Dude,” with its recordings of birdsong, processed sax drift, and occasionally skittering lines conjuring images of a horn being played in a rainforest, fit into the imagined ambient jazz bag quite well, but with streaks of subtle unusualness assisting in the avoidance of the trite.

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Graded on a Curve: 80s Underground Cassette Culture Vol. 1

A fair amount of deserved spotlight has been paid to ’80s UK DIY, an impulse that thrived in the underbelly of the decade’s post punk scene, but a new compilation from the Contort Yourself label reinforces self-production and distribution of experimental sounds as a global occurrence throughout the decade. 80s Underground Cassette Culture Vol. 1 collects 21 examples of subterranean artistry with a focus on dark and occasionally misanthropic electronic experimentation. It’s out September 18 on double vinyl with a gatefold jacket, printed inner sleeves, and two inserts.

As detailed in Tristan Koreya’s succinct notes, the selections corralled here exist due to a confluence of factors. There was the increased affordability of musical instruments (synths, drum boxes), recording devices (microphones, tape machines), and duplicating equipment (Xerox copiers, dual tape decks, and naturally, cassettes), but just as importantly, there was the postal service, a network of enterprises which made it possible for these artists to overcome seclusion, providing and receiving inspiration and validation via the mailbox while developing a base of listeners, even if tiny.

Side one of this often-fascinating collection wastes no time in emphasizing the widespread nature of the phenomenon. East End Butchers hailed from Australia, their “Assassins” an ominous bit of tape collage, incessant pulse, rhythmic whacking, and sing-song spoken word, while Magthea called Belgium home; the extract from their “Magthea & Insanity” is a rising-falling and appealingly low-tech instrumental soundscape.

Missing Persons shouldn’t be confused with the US new wave act of the same name; representing the DIY wave mentioned up top, this Missing Persons resided in the UK. “Rotten to the Core” is aptly pegged as post-punk political protest, certainly a more strident affair than “The Other Stranger,” an unruffled blend of synth, rhythm, and dialogue samples from the Dutch outfit Doxa Sinistra. Germany’s PCR employ similar ingredients to a darker, industrial-tinged result, as side one closes with an extract from their “Myths of Seduction & Betrayal.”

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, September 2017

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued wax presently in stores for September, 2017.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Daniel Levin, Living (Smeraldina-Rima) Levin is a NYC-based cellist tapping into a wide variety of New Music disciplines, with avant jazz a major component. Living is his second recording of solo improv, a difficult, and by extension, rare avenue of spontaneous expression. The prior disc, 2011’s Inner Landscape, was live, but this LP (in an edition of 300) was captured in studio, and it’s a perfect fit for home listening. Going far beyond standard bowing, he doesn’t create a racket but instead conjures quiet, focused intensity and surprise. It’s just one of four 2017 releases for Levin. A

Trio da Kali & Kronos Quartet, Ladilikan (World Circuit) Trio da Kali consist of vocalist Hawa Kassé Mady Diabate, bass ngoni player Mamadou Kouyaté, and balafon player and musical director Lassana Diabaté; described by World Circuit as a sort of Malian griot supergroup, their playing is exquisite, especially the balafon (a type of xylophone), and the singing is powerful, pretty, and expressive (and occasionally gospel-flavored). With the assistance of Jacob Garchik, who arranged Trio da Kali’s repertoire for this collaboration, Kronos inject elements of surprise and make a splendid thing even better. A

REISSUE PICKS: The Dream Syndicate, The Complete Live at Raji’s (Run Out Groove) The reunion set from this foundational Paisley Underground band is freshly out and more than up to snuff, but this reissue (first time on vinyl for the entire show) is an absolute monster. Captured on the last day of January 1988, this is the Ghost Stories lineup (2/3rds of which are back for the new LP) a little prior to that album’s recording, with the track-list focusing on the first three Syndicate records. The whole band is killing it, and Wynn’s guitar tone is blazing throughout, especially on sides three and four. A

Group Home, Livin’ Proof (Get on Down) The duo of Lil’ Dap and Melachi the Nutcracker were part of the Gang Starr Foundation, which in ’90s hip hop terms is a sure sign of quality. Produced by DJ Premier (with a track a piece by Guru and Big Jaz), this ’95 debut is rhythmically intense yet complex and loaded with samples (in the manner of so much New York hip hop of the era), with the numerous instrumental interludes a highlight, but the MCs are far from overshadowed. Possessing contrasting styles, Lil’ Dap wields a distinctive lisp and Melachi brings the comparatively straightforward firepower. A-

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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