Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Sidi Touré,

If Malian music is one’s cup of tea, then vocalist-guitarist-bandleader Sidi Touré is likely to be a familiar name. He’s an award-winning specialist in his country’s multifaceted Songhaï Music, and on his new album Toubalbero he extends the bluesy trance-groove often present in his prior work with electric instrumentation. Blending tradition with freshness, Touré pushes without strain for new possibilities to infectious, life-affirming effect. The record is out now on double vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Thrill Jockey.

Even for folks who don’t know Sidi Touré, the surname just might ring a bell. The late Malian singer-guitarist Ali Farka Touré is of no relation however, though he has been described (along with Ibrahim Hamma Dicko) as a musical mentor to the subject of this review. But if not as world-renowned as Ali, long prior to making his first recording the younger Sidi was well-known at home as the singer of the Songhaï Stars, a regional orchestra based in his hometown of Gao.

The recipient of two Malian National Arts Awards for best singer, Touré is notably of Malian royal lineage, which makes his musical background quite unusual (but not unheard of, as the Afro-pop vocalist Salif Keita is also a Malian noble). Hoga was Touré’s debut, released back in 1996 by Stern’s Africa, and like Toubalbero, it features electric guitar. The appealing trance-blues atmosphere (derived from a style known as holley) and the use of African fiddle (described as both the Goje and Viol) helped to establish him outside of his home region, and yet the album sits in marked contrast to his subsequent work.

After a long break from recording, Touré reemerged in 2011 via Thrill Jockey with Sahel Folk. Credited to Sidi Touré and Friends, the album is the byproduct of an informal atmosphere, as the musicians gathered for tea and discussion and then recorded in a modest studio setup with acoustic instrumentation. It’s a fine LP, but the following year’s Koïma is livelier and more bluesy while retaining the same basic studio approach that shaped 2013’s even more rhythmically resonant Alafia.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, March 2018, Part Five

Part five of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for March, 2018. Part one is here, part two is here, part three is here, and part four is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Cavern of Anti-Matter, Hormone Lemonade (Duophonic) Consisting of multi-instrumentalist Tim Gane and drummer Joe Dilworth, both ex-Stereolab, plus synth specialist-electronic manipulator Holger Zapf, Cavern of Anti-Matter’s sound is inextricably linked to Krautrock. Unsurprisingly and undisguisedly so, as opener “Malfunction” is a 16-minute motorik excursion that for many will justify the purchase of this 2LP all by itself. Even more impressive is the territory covered in the tracks that follow, which travel quite a distance by the end of side four. As the trio operate sans vocals, the range adds extra value. There are a few moments recalling Stereolab, but had I been ignorant to the association upon listening, it’s questionable I would’ve made the connection. Fine stuff. A-

XOR Gate, Conic Sections (Tresor) Detroiter Gerald Donald has been one of techno’s most reliably interesting practitioners, and amongst a load of projects and collabs, most prominently Drexciya and Dopplereffekt, he’s also issued material under a bunch of pseudonyms, the most well-known perhaps being Arpanet and Heinrich Mueller. His latest venture/ moniker is XOR Gate, the tag borrowed from linguistic or electronic logic, with the music taking the form of eight themes all edited together as one 30-minute track where “waveform and synthesis merge entirely with emotions.” If this all seems somewhat (or considerably) obscure, don’t be intimidated, as this tangibly Germanic excursion is not a bit dry, and to my ear would make a fine companion to this week’s other new release pick. A-

REISSUE PICKS: V/A, Rumbita Buena: Rumba Funk and Flamenco Pop from the 1970s Belter and Discophon Archives (Pharaway Sounds) This continues my crash course in the Spanish genres of the title, a line of study I’m happy to be making, though from a personal perspective, I suspect the best way to engage with this material is through well-selected comps. Of which this is one; Rumbita Buena puts its weakest track right up front and then blossoms, the funkiness hearty rather than flashy and the pop rooted in substance over the saccharine. Plus, there are all sorts of cool twists; I especially dig Los Candelos’ hard rock guitar-infused “Te Estoy Amando Locamente” and Teresiya’s truly zonked gipsy yé-yé gem “El perro de San Roque.” Are there handclaps? Goddamn right there are handclaps. A-

The Damnation of Adam Blessing, S/T & The Second Damnation (Exit Stencil) Two slabs of hard rock from ’69-’70 that come with the Paul Major seal of approval. The Damnation of Adam Blessing hailed from Cleveland and got signed by United Artists, who by all accounts screwed the pooch in promoting them. For the first LP, the band’s psychedelic roots are a lot more obvious, but amid cool covers of “Morning Dew” and “Last Train to Clarksville” their original material makes clear that the “should’ve been” status isn’t hype. But an even better barometer of their worth relates to their second LP topping the debut. Comparisons have been made to Grand Funk, but I dunno if those guys (whose early stuff I like) had a song as killer as “Back to the River.” Vocals steer refreshingly clear of caterwauling. B+/ A-

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Graded on a Curve: Robert Deeble,

Singer-songwriter Robert Deeble lives in Seattle, but as a musician, he simultaneously inhabits well-trodden ground; although the man’s sizable discography has garnered deserved acclaim and welcomed the input of numerous notable guests, thus far he’s flown somewhat under the radar. With his new record Beloved, this just might change, as the 11 tracks heighten Deeble’s already substantial emotional heft through sharp writing and execution; altogether, it feels like his strongest record yet, and undeniably his most personal. It’s out March 30 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Mind Bomb Publishing.

Regarding musicians (and the bands they frequently constitute), the ranks of the underappreciated are considerable in number, and perpetually so. However, this unfortunate (if obviously subjective) circumstance seems especially common within the realms of the singer-songwriter. Or perhaps better said, for many practitioners of the style who’ve been saddled with the baggage of not getting enough recognition, it becomes one aspect of the overall allure; to those listeners who do appreciate the work, it can become part of the appeal.

Ah, the basis of cult status. Fred Neil, Karen Dalton, Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley, Judee Sill, John Prine, Nick Drake, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Victoria Williams, Mark Eitzel, Howe Gelb, Vic Chesnutt; the list can continue for a while, but (along with a tendency for leaving us too soon) it’s a stone cinch that this sampling would’ve preferred/ would still welcome a larger listenership to the small, intense fanbases they achieved and maintain.

It’s probably a stretch to tag Robert Deeble as a cult singer-songwriter, but it feels right to say he’s gathered a committed following, which in our crowded contemporary musical landscape is no small accomplishment. His is modest success that’s unfolded gradually. Deeble debuted in 1994 with Days Like These, a record with a few strong moments including a closing guest spot from Victoria Williams, but he made considerable strides with Earthside Down, which came out ’98, and progressed through three more full-lengths, ’03’s Thirteen Stories, ’05’s This Bar Has No One Left, and ’11’s Heart Like Feathers.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bud Powell,
The Essen Jazz
Festival Concert

A giant of bop piano, Earl Rudolph “Bud” Powell was also stricken by events that adversely affected his art and directly led to his early passing. As a result, many have shied away from his later recordings, and particularly those spotlighting him in performance, but as The Essen Jazz Festival Concert makes abundantly clear, that’s a faulty approach. Featuring bassist Oscar Pettiford, drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke, and a guest appearance from swing-to-modern sax titan Coleman Hawkins, it captures Bud in fine, consistent form. It’s out now everywhere on standard black vinyl, with white and green swirl wax available as an independent store exclusive, through ORG Music. Don’t sleep on it.

While not overtaking his stature as a jazz groundbreaker, the crimes committed against Bud Powell; specifically, racism, police brutality, forced hospitalization, and electroshock therapy, have surely led many to stick to the consensus masterpieces in his ample discography. And without a doubt, The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings are indispensable; if a listener desires an introduction to Bud, that collection is the place to start.

It should be complemented by the ’47 Charlie Parker Savoy session that found Bud in a group with Miles Davis, Tommy Potter, and Max Roach (included in The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes), and the ’53 live recording Jazz at Massey Hall, which documented him on a Toronto bandstand with Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach (the complete recording is preferable; it was released on 2LP by Prestige as The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever).

The thing is, some just stop right there in investigating Bud, and frankly, that’s a ludicrous act of omission. If the ’50s material corralled by Verve is not as massive, it still offers heights (The Genius of Bud Powell and more) that hardly any other jazz pianist achieved (there are also lows, as it was a tough period). Furthermore, his two RCA albums are often underrated, and the same is true of his pair of ’61 LPs for Columbia, A Tribute to Cannonball (with saxophonist Don Byas) and A Portrait of Thelonious.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, March 2018, Part Four

Part four of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for March, 2018. Part one is here, part two is here, and part three is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Brother JT, Tornado Juice (Thrill Jockey) Easton, PA’s John Terlesky has been active since the ’80s, initially with excellent garage-punks The Original Sins, but in the early ’90s he began releasing more invitingly out-there records under his current sobriquet, and I’ve never heard one that’s not been worth the time. His recent stuff has garnered comparisons to glam, and this tendency is indeed palpable, though at the core remains sweet, song-based psychedelia. JT definitely has a way with humor, but on this solid and oft-terrific new one, there’re wisely no attempts at a redux of “Sweatpants” (from 2013’s The Svelteness of Boogietude). However, as evidenced in “Ponin’” and “Mississippi Somethin’,” his wordplay can be as smile-inducing as ever. Which these days is a valuable thing. A-

Elk City, Everybody’s Insecure (Bar/None) Led by the vocalist Renée LoBue and drummer Ray Ketchem (former bandmates in the Melting Hopefuls), Elk City are back after a long absence (their last one House of Tongues hit in 2010), retaining guitarist Sean Eden while breaking in new keyboardist Carl Baggeley and bassist Martin Olson. Last autumn’s digital cover of The Motels’ “Suddenly Last Summer” announced the return and was an apt choice, as LoBue is a strong, expressive singer, and Ketchem is a noted producer (Guided by Voices, Luna, Versus, the Brother JT album above); opener “Sparrow” could’ve been gussied up and made too fragile, but instead, it and what follows benefits from weight and directness. Amongst the standouts are the sharp “25 Lines” and the intriguing “Root Beer Shoes.” A-

REISSUE PICKS: Cocteau Twins, Head Over Heels & Treasure (4AD) If you’d told me back in the ’80s that the Cocteau Twins would stand as one of the decade’s more influential acts, I suspect I would’ve quietly disagreed. Not because I didn’t like ‘em. I really liked ‘em. Most of my friends liked ‘em. Hell, Tesco Vee liked ‘em. But they did go about their innovation without a whole lot of fanfare, which is why I would’ve (probably) quibbled. 1983’s Head Over Heels is their second album, cut by the duo of Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie, and it captures a bolder gothic-edged sound prior to the splendid Treasure of the next year, which adds Simone Raymonde and marks their transition into the ethereal-dream zone. Decades on, hardly anybody’s done it better, and yes, (far too) many have tried. A-/ A

Ursula K. Le Guin & Todd Barton, Music and Poetry of the Kesh (Freedom to Spend) Amongst 2018’s sadder news is the passing of the great science-fictioneer Le Guin, author of the groundbreaking and multi-award winning 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness and much more. The list includes ’85’s Always Coming Home, an account of the Kesh, invented inhabitants of the Pacific Coast in a far distant time; the original boxed trade release was accompanied by an audiocassette of field recordings and indigenous song, and this is its vinyl reissue. Created by Barton with instruments and a conlang of the author’s invention, what was conceived as an enhancement now serves as enticement to dig back into Le Guin’s works, with Always Coming Home foremost. But it sounds just fine on its own. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Klaus Schulze,
La Vie Electronique Volume 1.0

Klaus Schulze has released a certifiable ass-ton of music, and only the most severely dedicated have collected it all. For those wishing to own his earliest solo recordings on vinyl, the long wait is over, as the One Way Static label has issued his work from 1968-1970 on the 2LP set La Vie Electronique Volume 1.0. Fully embracing experimentation in a home environment, Schulze’s boldly celestial and drone friendly excursions infuse early electronic, proto-ambient exploration with edge and heft. Today it’s easy to pigeonhole, but at the time it was breaking new ground, or it would’ve been, had it promptly come out; the good news is that it holds up well, and two more volumes are on deck.

This isn’t the debut for the material on offer here, but it is the most concise assemblage of solo Schulze at his earliest. Initially, this stuff was sprinkled non-chronologically by Klaus D. Mueller, who contributes useful notes for this set, into 1995’s 10CD Historic Edition box set, which in 2000 was dropped into the 50CD (that’s right, 50) Ultimate Edition savings-drainer (which also included the 10CD Silver Edition, the 25CD Jubilee Edition and five additional discs).

The maximal method was obviously geared to the diligent fan, but after the Ultimate Edition fell out of print, the notion of following chronology and breaking the music into more digestible sets prevailed; this resulted in the 16 volume La Vie Electronique CD series, which spanned from 2009 to 2015; La Vie Electronique Vol. 1.0 offers the contents of the first 3CD volume’s opening disc across two LPs.

Klaus Schulze wasn’t completely a solo operator. His first group Psy Free, described by Schulze in Mueller’s notes as playing avant-garde/ free rock, never recorded, but he then moved on to Tangerine Dream, and after playing drums on their swell first album, 1970’s Electronic Meditation, just as quickly quit. From there, he formed Ash Ra Tempel with bassist Hartmut Enke and guitarist Manuel Göttsching; helping to shape a terrific self-titled ’71 debut, he made another exit.

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Graded on a Curve: Entourage,
Ceremony of Dreams: Studio Sessions & Outtakes, 1972-1977

Integrating elements of jazz, folk, classical, global sounds, and experimentation into non-trad performances that included dancers and whenever it was possible, mood-enhancing lighting, the Entourage Music and Theater Ensemble cut a pair of records for Folkways in the 1970s. Ceremony of Dreams: Studio Sessions and Outtakes 1972-1977 greatly expands the group’s story, offering 30 unreleased tracks in a 3CD package with notes by music critic J.D. Considine and sole surviving group member Wall Matthews. But vinyl lovers fret not, as ten tracks from the set are getting issued concurrently on LP. Both are out March 23 through Tompkins Square.

The Entourage Music and Theater Ensemble, or just Entourage for short, can be aptly described as having crafted progressive-avant-folk-global-fusion; for all those hyphens, it’s a sound that regularly just gets reduced to the tag of ambient. Formed by saxophonist-keyboardist Joe Clark, initially as a loose live band that held court in a Baltimore nightclub, the outfit went through a few distinct phases.

Once Clark, who was a musician in residence in the dance department at Bennett College in Millbrook, NY, tired of weekly commutes to Charm City, a second incarnation of the group took shape, featuring violist-guitarist Rusty Clark (no relation) and drummer Michael “Smitty” Smith; this is the lineup that recorded Entourage Music and Theater Ensemble, which Folkways put out in 1973 (and reissued on LP in 2012, with copies still available from the label).

After relocating to New London, CT for another college gig, Clark recommenced Entourage, in part due to Richie Havens’ interest in releasing an album by Clark on his Stormy Forest label. Augmenting the first album’s trio with guitarist Wall Matthews from the group’s Baltimore period, by the time they were ready to make a record, Havens was no longer keen on the idea, and The Neptune Collection came out through a return to Folkways in ’76, with Moses Asch providing a whopping budget of $300 (it’s also currently available physically, but only as a custom CD).

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores, March 2018, Part Three

Part three of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for March, 2018. Part one is here and part two is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Mount Eerie, Now Only (P.W. Elverum & Sun) In 2016, Phil Elverum’s wife, the cartoonist and musician Geneviève Castrée, died at age 35 from pancreatic cancer. Last year’s A Crow Looked at Me, the ninth album by Elverum as Mount Eerie (he recorded previously as The Microphones) dealt with that terrible loss, and likewise, Now Only: largely an acoustic affair (piano figures on the title track and “Earth” has plugged-in guitar, drums, and keyboard textures for a full band feel), as reflected in the longer track lengths, he pushes deeper here. The cumulative effect is intensely personal and weighted with observations and confessional passages (the power of which crests with the ruminative 11-minute “Distortions”), but in the end is not despairing. Ultimately, it’s a transformative listen. A

Linqua Franqa, Model Minority (HHBTM) Athens, GA-based rapper Mariah Parker recorded this LP while completing her master’s degree in linguistics at the University of Georgia, and her course of study has informed her art to frequently superb effect. The wordplay is impressive in how it embraces complexity without faltering into mere displays of verbal gymnastics; instead, there are hooks galore as she grapples with tough subject matter, and she’s got the music to match, with much of the disc recalling the ’90s heyday of underground hip-hop (e.g. the jazzy elements in “Midnight Oil”) but with a persistent (and distinctive) vibe of strangeness that’s wholly appreciated. Model Minority takes her prior EP, places two new tracks and three remixes on side two and holds interest to the very end. A-

REISSUE PICKS: NRBQ, S/T (Omnivore) Although select cuts have been featured on comps over the years, this is, quite astoundingly, the first time The New Rhythm and Blues Quintet’s classic debut LP has been reissued in its entirety in any format; appropriately, Omnivore offers it on vinyl (in a gatefold sleeve), CD and digital. Cut in ’69 but about a million miles away from the rock mainstream of that year, NRBQ might not be as consistently killer as ’77’s All Hopped Up, but it does firmly establish the unstrained eclecticism that’s come to define this persevering band’s existence. A transformation of Eddie Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody” is the perfect opener, a reading of Sun Ra’s “Rocket #9” delivers one of music’s great hard left turns, and the whole is a life-affirming plunge into real, robust Americana. A must. A

Gary Numan, Dance (Beggars Arkive) Having finally dropped needle on this 2LP edition of the CD expansion of Numan’s third solo set (it came out in January), my assessment is that the man’s departure from the robotic synth-pop that made him famous holds up much better than some have suggested. But don’t get the idea that it’s not very much a byproduct of its era, as the fretless bass and sax of Japan’s Mick Karn (one of a handful of guests here, including Queen’s Roger Taylor and the Canadian prog-electro-new wave violinist Nash the Slash) helps to solidify the ’80s art-pop thrust (which I appreciate much more now than back then). It’s far from a complete break with the past, however; “She’s Got Claws” was a big UK hit, and overall, Dance is just the sound of its maker spreading his wings. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Dungen & Woods,
“Myths 003” EP

Marfa Myths is a multi-day music festival that’s been held annually in Marfa, TX since 2014. Where many extended fests are about listening to a succession of acts in a field while staying hydrated and succumbing to sunburn, Marfa Myths strives for a refreshing and memorable experience by establishing yearly artists in residence and encouraging creative interaction. And through Mexican Summer’s series of Marfa Myths documents, the fest’s collaborative aims can be engaged with from the comfort of one’s listening room. For “Myths 003,” the participants are Stockholm’s Dungen and Brooklyn’s Woods. If expectedly psych-imbued, the results are quite disciplined. It’s out March 16 on vinyl and digital.

I’ve never been to Marfa, but any city that hosts a yearly film festival that chooses to screen its program one film at a time, holds outdoor showings in the desert, and aligns silent films with the performance of new scores (as per Mary Lattimore and Jeff Zeigler’s recent LP of music for Philippe Garrel’s Le Révélateur) sounds like my kinda place. Marfa Myths only intensifies this notion. The fest, founded by the nonprofit Ballroom Marfa and Brooklyn’s Mexican Summer, aims to be a “multidisciplinary cultural program” (including music, film, and visual arts) rather than just another pileup of performances.

Live music is a big part of the event to be sure, but so are collaborative recording residencies designed to produce results that endure as something other than just snapshots and shaky phone video footage from those holding a festival lanyard. Last year Marfa paired up Dungen and Woods, a combo that highlights how the Myths crew isn’t merely throwing together random participants and hoping for a spark, as the Stockholmers and Brooklynites toured together and struck up a rapport way back in 2009.

Furthermore, both outfits, and especially Dungen, are aptly described as psychedelic (Woods has been tagged more than once as freak-folk, though they strain against tidy categorization), which likely applies to why they hit the road together in the first place. Of course, the term psychedelia sometimes gets attached to meandering formlessness, but not in the case of these groups and ditto for “Myths 003,” which, like the prior two releases in the series, is an EP, with this installment consisting of seven tracks lasting just shy of 31 minutes.

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Graded on a Curve: Memphis Rent Party

If one chooses to dig deep into the uncut gusto of 20th century American music, then one will assuredly engage with the work, either in print or on film, of Robert Gordon. His latest book, fresh out in hardcover, is Memphis Rent Party, and the subject of its 20 collected profiles is concisely encapsulated by the dust jacket’s subtitle: Blues, Rock & Soul. For Gordon, it’s familiar if seemingly inexhaustible territory, and in a sweet move, Fat Possum is releasing a companion compilation to illuminate just how wild, raw, twisted, and smooth Bluff City could get. A few of the names might be well-known, but the verve on display across the 12 tracks is rare and inspiring. Both the book and the vinyl are out now.

The corner posts of the Memphis musical experience are surely deserving of their placement, but there’s no doubt that if not necessarily polished, the defining framework does possess a certain welcoming charm in execution that’s been enhanced, but also somewhat tamed, by time and stature. Robert Gordon likes to dig underneath that stuff, and not in a reactionary way, but simply to establish the sheer value of sounds that have been largely confined to the city’s limits.

Sure, today’s music hounds the globe over might know much of Memphis’ subterranean stuff, but that’s in no small part due to Gordon’s passion. I’ve yet to read Memphis Rent Party, as it just came out March 6, but I have soaked up Gordon’s first book It Came from Memphis, and it remains an all-time favorite. Since then, amongst other writerly achievements, he’s authored the ace Muddy Waters biography I Can’t Be Satisfied, a couple of books on Elvis, and won a Grammy for the notes to the Big Star box set Keep an Eye on the Sky.

He’s also made a bunch of films, including Best of Enemies, a documentary on the televised ’68 debates between Gore Vidal and William Buckley, for which he won an Emmy. If Memphis Rent Party makes it seem like Gordon’s simply returning to previously trod ground, wipe away those thoughts right quick; about Memphis music there’s always more to say, and in terms of this accompanying LP, a lot more to hear, with half of its tracks previously unreleased.

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