Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Kate St. John,
Second Sight

If one is familiar with The Dream Academy, then one is familiar with Kate St. John, even if her name rings no bells of recognition. But to focus upon her contribution to that group is to give her considerable short shrift, as she’s a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, producer, and musical director. Along with membership in the New Age art-pop supergroup Channel Light Vessel, she also issued two solo records in the ’90s. Second Sight was the second and best, and it’s making its vinyl debut on double 180-gram clear wax. Remastered by Tim Story, with a high-resolution art print, the limited edition of 500 is available now through Curious Music.

Before she was in The Dream Academy, Kate St. John was one of The Ravishing Beauties with Virginia Astley and Nicky Holland. Noted for live shows with The Teardrop Explodes, their only recording is an April 14, 1982 Peel Session, though one of the songs, “Futility,” which was adapted from a poem by Wilfred Owen, did turn up on a New Musical Express tape sampler. The whole thing’s hosted on Astley’s website, providing a cool listen that lends insight into what St. John was up to before “Life in a Northern Town.”

The Dream Academy were more than that song (their biggest hit in ’85), releasing three albums in fact, but more pertinent to this review is what came after. Along with playing oboe and sax on a series of Van Morrison’s ’90s albums, she recorded The Familiar with Roger Eno, a collaboration that led directly to the formation of Channel Light Vessel. Featuring St. John, Eno, Bill Nelson, Laaraji, and Mayumi Tachibana, they released two discs, The Automatic in 1994 and Excellent Spirits in ’96 (the second without Tachibana).

The stature of the participants establishes Channel Light Vessel as a supergroup, and the lack of hubbub over their output might suggest they failed in meeting expectations. This isn’t borne out by listening, as both discs have their moments, though there is more than a hint of an ambiance this writer associates with ’80s high-end stereo culture, particularly with The Automatic. From the vantage point of 2018 (and the years chalked up getting here), this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Moody Blues,
Go Now–The Moody Blues #1

We remember The Moody Blues’ Ray Thomas who passed away on Thursday, January 4 with a look back from our archives. Ed.

Though the music they produced was only fitfully successful, the Denny Laine-fronted incarnation of The Moody Blues deserves to be remembered for more than a momentary chart fling topped by a gem of a single. In ’65 they released an album at home and another in the US under distinct titles, both holding a dozen tracks and with a third of each LP also unique. The better of the two, Go Now–The Moody Blues #1, was issued in the States by London Records.

Heavy on covers and by extension lacking in gestures toward originality, the ’64-’66-era Moody Blues are unlikely to be many people’s (I’ll stop short of saying anybody’s) most beloved component in the British Invasion. In fact, talk of the group today reliably focuses on the post-Denny Laine/Clint Warwick lineup that saw new members John Lodge and Justin Hayward helping to transmogrify the Moodies into one of the leading if artistically lesser examples of Symphonic Rock. I won’t sully the Prog genre with an inapt association since there was hardly anything progressive about The Moody Blues Mk 2.

Instead, they exemplified the Middlebrow impulse, though that’s ultimately a separate discussion. This piece concerns a band that came together when the leader of Denny Laine and the Diplomats joined up with a bunch of nameless Birmingham hopefuls, their main desire hitting it big or even just making a good living; they briefly played as the M & B 5, the initials an attempt at landing sponsorship from two local beer brewers (last names Mitchell and Butler). And similar to many of their contemporaries, The Moody Blues’ method at least initially was the borrowing and alteration of Rhythm and Blues.

And they did storm the charts with “Go Now,” in the process overtaking in popularity the terrific Leiber and Stoller-produced original by Bessie Banks, though the idea of the cover destroying the source’s commercial hopes is basically a myth. Banks’ tune was released by the Tiger label in January of ’64 while The Moody Blues’ version didn’t emerge until the following November, eventually peaking at #10 in the US in February of ’65 (it took top Brit honors a month earlier).

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, January 2018, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued wax presently in stores for January, 2018.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Profligate, Somewhere Else (Wharf Cat) Most current stabs at synth-pop yank my chain hardly at all. I mention this due to Wharf Cat listing Depeche Mode under the heading of R.I.Y.L. in the promo attachment for Profligate’s latest record. It’s a valid supposition, as much of this does fall under an electronically-derived melodic umbrella, especially “Black Plate,” but there’re big dollops of techno-abrasiveness that might agitate the nerves of a typical Mode fan. I’m just guessing, though. Since 2016, this project of Noah Anthony has been a duo with the input of Elaine Kahn, whose vocals are a distinct asset. Although the edginess oozes an avant-garde flavor, Somewhere Else can still be tagged as darkwave-derived, conjuring images of seasonally appropriate black turtlenecks and clove cigs. A-

Makaya McCraven, Highly Rare (International Anthem) This came out a little while back, but I just caught up with it over the break, and its sounds are too choice to not slide in a mention as the clock begins ticking on 2018. Cut in Chicago’s Danny’s Tavern in late November of 2016 by McCraven on drums, Junius Paul on bass guitar, Nick Mazzarella on alto sax, and Ben Lamar Gay on cornet, diddley bow, and voice, the tapes were then extensively edited (which is to say, looped, layered, and stretched) by McCraven; that the results, often captivating, have been described as combining free jazz and hip-hop is accurate, though there are no traces of genre-stitching. Some may persist in considering the abundant post-show transformation antithetical to jazz, but nah; methinks Teo Macero would approve mightily. A-

REISSUE PICKS: Betty Davis, Nasty Gal (Light in the Attic) Davis’ too small discography attained its pinnacle with this slab of hard funk from the middle of the ’70s, but the lack of sales effectively halted her career; the subsequent Is It Love or Desire? was cut in ’76, but didn’t see release until 2009. Davis’ unashamed sexual image surely contributed to the public’s cool response, but the music’s intensity no doubt played a role as well. When she and her band Funk House go full-bore, which is often, the results radiate a punk temperament, though overall, it’s nearer to the celebration of strangeness found on the ZE Records roster than the fratty freakiness of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Nasty Gal is a record so sharp that even the roll-call tribute track “F.U.N.K.” registers as essential. A

Smart Went Crazy, Con Art (Ernest Jenning Record Co.) Chad Clark’s recent return to activity as the singer-songwriter-guitarist-producer of Beauty Pill has been welcome, and a reissue of his prior outfit’s second record enhances this turn of events quite nicely. Like the early Beauty Pill material, Smart Went Crazy’s two full-lengths were originally issued by Dischord, where their sound—arty, articulate, and cello-shaded courtesy of Hilary Soldati, sprouted from fertile post-hardcore soil to deepen an especially strong period for the label. Not enough people heard ‘em though, so this set, which includes everything from the ’97 CD edition plus an exclusive track on double clear vinyl (‘twas formerly a single LP) should get some ears up to speed. The design by Henry Owings is characteristically sweet. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Live from Austin, TX: Eric Johnson, Widespread Panic, Guided by Voices

As the vinyl surge mounted in late 2017, there appeared three 2LPs of recordings from the television program Austin City Limits, with the wide range of the participants reinforcing the show’s multi-decade longevity. The oldest performance, by guitar wunderkind Eric Johnson, retains ties to ACL’s roots, while the sets from early this century by Widespread Panic and Guided by Voices are more representative of the municipality’s lasting rep as a live music hub. Although none of the offerings really transcend the stature of gifts to dedicated fans, each album does merit inclusion in the Live from Austin, TX series; all three are out now via New West Records.

As the longest-running music program in television history, the endurance of Austin City Limits coincides with the locale’s growth into a performance mecca, but the show’s original intention was to spotlight the city’s “mix of country, blues, folk and psychedelia” (per the FAQ on ACL’s website) through the platform of the Public Broadcasting Service rather than to document the steady flow of notable acts that made their way into town.

Thus, Eric Johnson’s inclusion in the latest batch of Live from Austin, TX releases, an endeavor that now totals fourteen entries, is quite fitting. Johnson’s aptly tagged as an Austin guy, and his album Ah Via Musicom, which placed four tracks on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Chart and moved well over 500,000 units since it’s 1990 release, is by far his most commercially successful outing. He’d been on the scene since the ’70s however, first surfacing as part of the Austin fusion outfit Electromagnets and then with his own eponymous band.

While Johnson is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, he’s most celebrated for guitar prowess that’s landed him on the cover of Guitar Player and in the stylistic neighborhood of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani; in fact, the trio hit the road together billed as the “3G” tour. But Johnson’s early inspirations, as noted in New West’s promo blurb for this Live from Austin, TX installment, are the “3J’s,” namely Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Reed, and Jeff Beck.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Khan Jamal
Creative Arts Ensemble,
Drum Dance to the Motherland

Jazz is loaded with underrated players, and Khan Jamal is one of them; it’s a situation that stands even without taking Drum Dance to the Motherland into consideration. Upon lending a thoughtful ear to the sole privately pressed 1972 LP by The Khan Jamal Creative Arts Ensemble, the rep of its vibraphonist leader is significantly enhanced, with the album cohering into a core document of its era’s underground fringe. Offering spiritually-inclined free jazz with striking dub-like sonic processing, it was first reissued on compact disc back in 2005, but a welcome audiophile quality silkscreened vinyl pressing of 999 copies is out now on Eremite Records.

Khan Jamal doesn’t have the unwieldly discography of some jazz players, but recordings of his vibraphone are plentiful of one looks beyond the ordinary racks. He’s on the first and fifth volumes of the Wildflowers loft jazz comps (as a member of Sunny Murray & the Untouchable Factor), Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society’s Nasty, Billy Bang’s Outline No. 12, the Jemeel Moondoc Sextet’s Konstanze’s Delight, and more recently the Roy Campbell Quartet’s It’s Krunch Time, Matthew Shipp’s Equilibrium, and the Jemeel Moondoc Vtet’s Revolt of the Negro Lawn Jockeys.

There’s also a bunch of discs Jamal has cut as a leader or co-leader, including sessions for Steeplechase, CIMP, Jambrio, Stash, and Storyville, and then harder to find stuff like Give the Vibes Some, his ’74 date for French label Palm, and The River, a ’78 duo album with marimba player Bill Lewis for Philly Jazz Inc. (Jamal is indeed a Philadelphia guy). And until last decade, amongst the scarcest Jamal-related LPs were those issued on Dogtown Records, a small label reportedly owned in part by saxophonist Byard Lancaster.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2017’s New Releases, Part Two

As we continue, there’s guitar abstraction, jazz, and rock of various stripes, with inspirational history and hope sharing the top spot.

Find them all for purchase from our friends at Discogs at the links below, or at your local mom and pop, indie record shops via The Vinyl District Record Store Locator app—free for your iPhone here, free for your Android here.

5. Chain & the Gang, Experimental Music (Radical Elite), Escape-Ism, Introduction to Escape-Ism (Merge) + Juana Molina, Halo (Crammed Discs) Sporting a new project and a major spurt in activity from his current combo, Ian Svenonius has had quite a year. It’s a burst of goodness that extends an already impressive list of achievements including, but not limited to, Nation of Ulysses, Cupid Car Club, The Make-Up, Weird War, David Candy, and XYZ, as well a book writing, talk show hosting, filmmaking, and general thinking.

All this from a guy whose explosion onto the early ’90s scene, while certainly welcome, didn’t exactly seem poised for longevity. That’s okay, as much fine rock ‘n’ roll isn’t, but regardless, he’s just knocked out three killers in 2017 with Chain & the Gang; Best of Crime Rock (instead of a straight comp, the cuts are rerecorded, and it works), Live at Third Man (self-explanatory), and Experimental Music, which is the strongest (by a nose). Introduction to Escape-ism is truly solo, conjuring thoughts of Suicide and early electro, and it reinforces Svenonius as nowhere close to running out of creative gas.

Juana Molina only released one new record in 2017 (I just consulted Discogs to check), but it’s a doozy. She’s been musically active since the mid-’90s, which is when she decided to end her career as an actress (she was a star in her native Argentina) to concentrate on the recording studio and live stage. Initially poorly received at home, the critical tide has turned in her favor, but she’s still been naggingly underrated. In fact, the only thing more reliable than not enough people digging her stuff is the increasingly high quality of her work, with Halo shaping up as her best album so far.

As she emerged as part of the folktronica field, that’s doubly impressive. Not to knock on the style, but those practicing it haven’t exactly be noted for longevity; Molina’s exception derives from a non-clichéd blend of elements and strength of construction; at this point, her stuff should likely interest fans of Os Mutantes and Animal Collective, and hey, if one album isn’t enough, her swell 2008 set Un dia has recently been reissued on wax by her new label Crammed Discs.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2017’s New Releases, Part One

Diversity of tradition, experimentation, instrumental vigor, and protest help shape our best new releases of 2017. Here’s the first half.

Find them all for purchase from our friends at Discogs at the links below, or at your local mom and pop, indie record shops via The Vinyl District Record Store Locator app—free for your iPhone here, free for your Android here.

10. Saz’sio, At Least Wave Your Handkerchief at Me (The Joys and Sorrows of Southern Albanian Song) (Glitterbeat) + Shilpa Ray, Door Girl (Northern Spy) One of the sweet byproducts of music fandom is getting introduced to various new styles, often from far-reaching regions of the globe. Such is the case with the debut album from Saz’sio. While the group’s sounds are new to my ears, for the residents of their home country, the recording’s vitality is part of a long, rich tradition.

At Least Wave Your Handkerchief at Me is a doorway into the Albanian musical form Saze, which the notes for the album describe as one of the world’s least recorded folk styles. Dynamically executed both vocally and instrumentally, the emotional range is as wide as the title’s parenthetical suggests. Produced by Joe Boyd and recorded by Jerry Boys, folks attuned to Balkan and Turkish folk and even klezmer should waste no time getting to know this one.

Even without knowledge of her previous work, making Shilpa Ray’s acquaintance brings an immediate sense of the familiar, as she oozes a distinct swagger that’s simultaneously old-school and up to date. Indeed, her fourth full-length (there have been two fronting Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers, and now two under her own name), Door Girl is a record chronicling life in NYC, and as the selections unwind Ray’s confidence is palpable.

Throughout, she makes good choices, particularly the doo-wopish elements established right off the bat in “New York Minute Prayer” and later the assured pop-rock of “Rockaway Blues,” but she also takes chances; attempts at rap-rock usually stink up the joint, but she pulls it off with “Revelations of a Stamp Monkey” (the song and album title reference her time working the door at Lower East Side bar Pianos). Ray occasionally recalls Debbie Harry and Patti Smith, but on “EMT Police and the Fire Department” she belts out a wall-pinning punk rager and references Allen Ginsburg to boot. Brilliant.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2017’s Reissues, Part Two

Picking up where we left off yesterday, the international focus continues. You can find them all for purchase from our friends at Discogs at the links below, or at your local mom and pop, indie record shops via The Vinyl District Record Store Locator app—free for your iPhone here, free for your Android here.

5. V/A, Even a Tree Can Shed Tears: Japanese Folk & Rock 1969-1973 (Light in the Attic) + Hiroshi Yoshimura, Music for Nine Post Cards (Empire of Signs) In the notes for Even a Tree Can Shed Tears, set co-producer Yosuke Kitazawa observes that Japan’s global pop exports have been rather small. Regarding pop I can’t disagree, but in overall musical terms I’d argue that Japan’s impact has been significant. Bluntly, I can go hardly a day without some Japanese band or artist entering my consciousness, if not landing upon my turntable.

Like another of Even a Tree Can Shed Tears’ producers Jake Orrall, much of my initial interest in the country’s music came through noise, experimentation, and heavy rock, and it’s an inclination I maintain. That doesn’t mean the more folk-derived sounds collected here aren’t appealing; I love when things take a turn for the psychedelic, but even the Laurel Canyon-esque moments go down easy. Joni is a big influence here, but so is Dylan, and this is the type of comp that inspires binge buys of the represented artist’s full albums. I’m familiar with a few already, but frankly, I’m going to need a longer shelf.

Empire of Signs is a label co-founded by Maxwell August Croy (of the Root Strata label) and Spencer Doran (of Visible Cloaks), and it’s being distributed by Light in the Attic. Croy and Doran’s inaugural release brings wider exposer to Yoshimura, a pioneer in Japanese ambient music. Music for Nine Post Cards was his 1982 debut (he passed in 2003), and it’s been reissued numerous times, but this is its first release outside Japan and its first time on vinyl since initial release, executed in cooperation with the artist’s widow Yoko Yoshimura.

Beginning as a conceptual artist, Yoshimura’s musical side developed as part of the Japanese post-Fluxus scene, with his sound creations intended to soundtrack activities (fashion shows) and objects (from houses to train stations to perfume). Indeed, Music for Nine Post Cards’ original incarnation was as a demo tape intended for play inside the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. If you’re thinking Eno, well yeah, but this LP, played on a keyboard and Fender Rhodes, is distinct. Empire of Signs’ promo text states he strived for serenity as an ideal, but the album is also very pretty and melodically engaging.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2017’s Reissues, Part One

What was said yesterday regarding the year’s box sets also applies to 2017’s less expansive reissues. Who could listen to them all? Not us. Not you, either. But amid the deluge, many worthy releases emerged, some exceptional even, and here’s a list of a few.

Find them all for purchase from our friends at Discogs at the links below, or at your local mom and pop, indie record shops via The Vinyl District Record Store Locator app—free for your iPhone here, free for your Android here.

10. Jackie Shane, Any Other Way (Numero Group) + OST, Ciao! Manhattan (Light in the Attic) Any Other Way is one of the out-of-nowhere finds of the year, though unsurprisingly, heavy soul heads have long been in the know regarding the slim discography of 1960’s transgender pioneer Jackie Shane. Lighting out from her hometown of Nashville, she landed in Toronto and developed a career singing soul as a transwoman, even if the culture wasn’t ready for full acknowledgement of this fact.

However, Canadians (and some US residents) were eager to purchase her ’62 version of the William Bell song that titles this collection, making it a regional hit that bubbled under on the Billboard chart at #124; in the context of this comp, it resonates like a smash. Any Other Way collects her studio recordings and the serious fun of her ’67 live album, and if there’s occasional unevenness, Shane’s talent is undeniable. Though her career was brief (she turned down deals with Motown and Atlantic and the opportunity to join Funkadelic), Shane is a survivor; she currently lives in Nashville.

Edie Sedgwick did not survive, and like many of the figures primarily known for their association with Andy Warhol, her life, which was alternately captivating, exasperating, lurid, absurd, and ultimately tragic, has been the subject of scorn. Often, this is little more than small-minded hostility over the Warhol scene’s aura of cool, though quintessential underground flick Ciao! Manhattan’s blending of unfinished B&W footage of Sedgwick and Paul America in ’65 NYC (the good times) with color photography from California in ’70 (the downward spiral) provoked understandably diverse reactions.

I was conflicted after my now long-ago viewing, and through snippets of dialogue, the first-time reissue of this soundtrack (in any form) initially stirred up similar feelings. Mingling those audio bits with a synth score by Gino Piserchio and post-hippie singer-songwriter selections by John Phillips, Skip Battin, and a handful from Richie Havens, this OST is wildly imperfect; individually, the threads aren’t much, but weaved together, the whole becomes messy, uncomfortable, still sometimes frustrating and yet quite striking. Put another way, I keep coming back to it, which is something I doubt I could do with the film.

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Graded on a Curve: The Best of 2017’s Box Sets

To listen to every box set released in 2017 would require the ability to stop time, so this list is in no way definitive. However, regarding what was heard, these are the best.

Find them all for purchase from our friends at Discogs at the links below, or at your local mom and pop, indie record shops via The Vinyl District Record Store Locator app—free for your iPhone here, free for your Android here.

10. Bert Jansch, Living in the Shadows + Living in the Shadows Part Two: On the Edge of a Dream (Earth) Over the last few years, most of the recordings from this defining Brit folk guitarist’s first decade have been easy to obtain in reissue form. This circumstance is fully deserved and not a bit surprising, as Jansch’s early albums for Transatlantic, especially his ’65 self-titled debut, are considered the essential stuff, and the subsequent discs for Reprise and Charisma do nothing to besmirch his standing. Additionally, there’s his membership in Pentangle to consider.

That’s all a swell situation, but Earth Recordings’ recent activity is even cooler. Beginning with 2015’s Live at the 12 Bar, the label began making some of Jansch’s harder to find and less celebrated later material widely available. These 4LP/4CD sets, the first covering the ’90s (The Ornament Tree, When the Circus Comes to Town, and Toy Balloon) and the second the ’00s (Crimson Moon, Edge of a Dream, and The Black Swan), and each with a full platter of unreleased cuts, stand as Earth’s strongest Jansch-related achievement thus far. Considering their reissue of Avocet, that’s saying something.

9. Genius/GZA, Liquid Swords Singles Collection (UMG – Urban Legends) Concerning the physical qualities of vinyl, I’ve noticed quite a few enthusiastic testimonials over the years, and a rise of them recently, that flirt with or occasionally plunge head-first into the realms of the mystical. And hey, I can dig it. But really, at its core, the physical appeal of vinyl (and other tangible containers of art, of course, books foremost amongst them) is relatively straightforward; you can hold it in your hands and interact with it.

Box sets can provide years of appreciation, often by offering multiple CDs that are stuffed to the maximum, but Liquid Swords Singles Collection takes the opposite approach, grabbing just a handful of tracks (plus a pair of instrumental versions and a RZA remix featuring D’Angelo), grooving them into 7-inch vinyl, tucking them into attractive picture sleeves, adding art prints by Andrew Hem, and placing it all in an oversized, easel-backed art box. As Liquid Swords is one of the ’90s defining hip-hop albums, the music here is built to last, but the enduring appeal will surely derive from the physicality of it all.

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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