Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Afghan Whigs,
Up in It, Congregation, “Uptown Avondale”

From humble beginnings, Cincinnati’s Afghan Whigs grew into one of 1990s more appealing Alternative success stories. Featuring guitarist Rick McCollum, bassist John Curley, drummer Steve Earle, and vocalist-guitarist-songwriting powerhouse Greg Dulli, they came on strong with 1990’s Up in It and sharpened their sound with ‘92’s Congregation; covers EP “Uptown Avondale” signaled the departure of Sub Pop for the majors. In a sweet turn, all three records are getting vinyl reissues in standard 180gm versions and special Sub Pop “Loser” editions, both available September 8 through the label’s online store and at the Whig’s merch table. The records hit retail shops September 22.

Up in It emerged in 1990 and was an immediate breath of fresh air. A whole lot of loud and heavy stuff was steamrolling toward a point of detonation, but the Afghan Whigs essentially came out of nowhere and infused the template with better than average songwriting right out of the gate. The LP’s best song is its opener, “Retarded” an almost ridiculously catchy hard rocker reinforcing that Dulli and company weren’t just hitched to a trend on the upswing. It’s sort of cut that can get stuck in one’s head for days, as this writer can attest, and reinvestigation has proved this capability undiminished.

Had Up in It been the only record the Whigs released…but wait. They do in fact have a prior record under their belt, 1988’s Big Top Halloween, issued on their own Ultrasuede label in an edition of 1,000 copies, one of which landed in the hands of Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman. Except for three tracks tacked onto the end of the Up in It CD (“Big Top Halloween,” Sammy,” and “In My Town”), nothing from the record has been legitimately reissued. Unbreakable: A Retrospective 1990–2006 chronologically cuts it out of the band’s history.

This is understandable. Although not terrible, Big Top Halloween (notably engineered by Wayne Hartman, who did the same for another Ohioan debut, the “Forever Since Breakfast” EP from Guided by Voices) is somewhat schizophrenic. Initially tapping into a Replacements vibe, across the disc there’re numerous structural nods to hardcore, doses of college jangle, a rather bogue country-ish number (“Life in a Day”), and the earliest nod to R&B-soul in the group’s discography (“But Listen”).

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Graded on a Curve: Invenciones: La otra vanguardia musical
en Latinoamérica

The avant-garde is often submerged under a torrent of fleetingly popular detritus, and with the passage of time investigating its essence frequently gets harder. This is the circumstance from inside one’s own culture; becoming acquainted with the history of artistic experimentation in other parts of the world can be even more difficult. With this said, Invenciones: La otra vanguardia musical en Latinoamérica 1976-1988 is a highly enlightening treat for thirsty ears. Digging into the Latin American avant-garde, the 14 tracks derive from ten countries and span a variety of approaches, yet it all makes for a cohesive listen. It’s out September 8 on 2LP and 2CD through Munster Records.

When thoughts turn to Spain’s Munster label, the predominant genres springing to mind are punk, garage, and assorted strains of unkempt roots junk, with a focus on reissues. The emergence of this compilation was therefore something of a surprise, but an insightful observation in Munster’s promo text lent clarity by reinforcing the reality of these Latin American musicians amid social and political upheaval, regularly under dictatorial rule.

While nothing here fits a trad punk description, these artists do share a similar impulse for creativity in environments that were generally non-encouraging and even downright hostile. And so; a subculture, or better put, a post-hippie-era counterculture formed with attention to self-sufficiency that anticipated and overlapped punk’s DIY wing.

What brings these geographically wide-ranging selections together is a common spirit of adventurousness, though there are of course other commonalities. For instance, Peruvians Manongo Mujica and Miguel Flores struck out from rock bands, the former in the London-based Los Mad’s, the latter in The Loops, Thee Image, and PAX.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Ocean Party,
Beauty Point

Extant since 2009 and currently six members strong, The Ocean Party formed in Wagga Wagga, Australia and are currently based in Melbourne. With the release of Beauty Point, their discography is now seven LPs deep, with a couple of cassettes sprinkled in. Specializing in a mature strain of indie pop, fans of fellow Aussies The Go-Betweens or Scotland’s Orange Juice might find these 13 tunes strolling right up their main street. The new record is out now on vinyl and compact disc, in their home country and New Zealand through Spunk Records and in the US, UK, and Europe via Emotional Response.

The Ocean Party’s output resonates an undeniable 1980s feel (but in a non-labored way), and yet their prolific nature, releasing those seven full-lengths across the same number of years, gives off something of a ‘60s vibe. Making this even more impressive is the sophisticated nature of their sound right from the get-go; The Sun Rolled Over the Hills is their 2011 debut.

Social Clubs made it clear they’d located their sound, honed through a Wagga Wagga arts council giving young local bands an opportunity to play the city’s library (there was an additional youth-run program named Youth Voice), and Split drove home solid musicianship and occasionally biting lyrics that helped to set them apart, important qualities when putting discs in the racks with such regularity. Soft Focus came next, followed by Light Weight, and 2016 brought Restless.

This shouldn’t suggest a sameyness in execution. For starters, since Split, everybody sings their own songs, and for Beauty Point there are a few guests voices including recurring backing vocalist Ashley Bundang. Over their existence the lineup has changed little, and for the new record there’s Zac Denton, Liam Halliwell, and Curtis Wakeling on guitars, Jordan Thompson on keyboards, Mark Rogers aka Crowman on bass, and Zac’s bro Lachlan Denton on drums.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, August 2017

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Nadia Sirota, Tessellatum 2 (Bedroom Community) On occasion, the impulse to combine experimental sounds with visuals (often of a likeminded nature) smacks of a covert attempt to quell boredom. However, when the union is inspired it can be sublime. Such is the case here. Featuring Sirota on violas and Liam Byrne on viola da gamba playing a composition by Donnacha Dennehy, the accompanying animated film by Steven Mertens (available as a download with the LP/ CD) enhances an already full-bodied sonic tableau; think modern classical with elements of drone. Superb. A

Rob Noyes, The Feudal Spirit (Poon Village) A stunning solo 6 and 12-string guitar debut (in an edition of 330 with a Raymond Pettibon cover), aptly tagged as post-Takoma school (Glenn Jones is a vocal proponent) but with broader folk-blues reach (lines of descent have been drawn from John Renbourn, Davey Graham, Wizz Jones, and Michael Chapman) and a level of intensity setting him apart from the ever-increasing contempo fingerpicking hoards. Noyes has a background in loud post-HC rock (e.g. Bloody Gears), but his playing, often aggressive and fast, evinces no traces of the recent covert. A

REISSUE PICKS: Pharoah Sanders, Izipho Zam (My Gifts) (Everland) This sometimes gets tagged as spiritual jazz, and opener “Prince of Peace” (with vocalist Leon Thomas and his ultra-cool yodel) reinforces the observation; more so, the LP was originally on Strata East. But stretches of “Balance” and the 29-minute title track (amidst more yodeling) offer some of the wildest large group free jazz ever recorded. The lineup is wide-ranging, including out-jazz mainstays Sonny Sharrock on guitar and Sirone on bass, but also Sonny Fortune on alto, Howard Johnson on tuba, and Billy Hart on drums. A doozy. A

Jerry Garcia, S/T (ATO) Amir Bar-Lev’s recent film Long Strange Trip is something of a music doc rarity, in that it’s an utter treat for serious Deadheads and more casual fans alike, and it reasserted my love for the band. It also deepened the fresh listen I gave to Garcia’s ’72 solo debut, a record I’ve long dug, but probably never more than right now. Stripped back to just a multi-tasking Jerry, drummer Bill Kreutzmann and some of Robert Hunter’s best lyrics, the first side of this, peaking with the majestic “Sugaree,” is faultless. Some bag on the experimentation opening the flip, but it bothers me not a bit. A

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Graded on a Curve: Rivener, (S/T)

The New Haven, CT-based duo Rivener describe their work as “lysergic free-rock improvisations,” and it only takes a listen to verify the astuteness of that claim. After a pair of tape/ CDR releases, they’re making their long-playing vinyl debut with a highly communicative and wholly satisfying eponymous effort. Across six tracks the pair engage in elevated abstract back-and-forth, and it’s all out September 1 through Twin Lakes Records and These Are Not Records.

Rivener is Paul Belbusti, who has recorded extensively as Mercy Choir, and Michael Kiefer, who plays in Myty Konkeror and has also served as live drummer for Aussie Michael Beach. For their new album Belbusti is credited with guitar and keys and Kiefer with drums (both add percussion to the scenario), and they manage to tackle a combination of noise-imbued psych and out-jazz-flavored no wave in a manner that avoids overplayed tropes.

Tellingly, neither member is divorced from more trad rock forms. As said, Kiefer has worked with Beach, an undeniably song-oriented guy, while the notably heavy Myty Konkeror is still accurately tagged as rock. Likewise, Belbusti’s Mercy Choir is self-described as a songwriting project, amassing a sizeable discography. This is all worth mentioning as Rivener’s free-rock doesn’t spew forth in a savant-like gush. Proficiency (though not flashiness) emerges amid the abstraction, and elements of tangible rock form enhance the loose flow of their overall approach.

Of their two prior cassettes, “Fires in Repose” found them more inclined to stretch out, hitting lengths of 11 and 16 minutes, with a shorter piece in between. On last year’s “Svengali Gaze” none of the three selections went beyond ten as the duo explored rock structure a little more, but with ultimately no weakening of their outbound appeal.

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Graded on a Curve:
Allen Ravenstine + Albert Dennis,
Terminal Drive

At the intersection of art and rock there is a signpost, and scrawled across it is the name Pere Ubu. From their inception until 1991, Allen Ravenstine’s sui generis synth playing was crucial to the band’s sound, but a new archival LP places his artistry squarely in the foreground; featuring a nearly 16-minute piece with Ravenstine playing EML synthesizers and tapes and Albert Dennis contributing string bass, Terminal Drive is the second release in Smog Veil Records’ Platters du Cuyahoga, Series 2. Accompanied by exhaustively researched notes by music scholar Nick Blakey, it’s out on vinyl Sept 1.

Of the first-generation punk scenes, it feels safe to claim Cleveland as the most artistically ambitious, so much so that some of the participants bristled at the stylistic categorization, and in fact continue to do so. In Pere Ubu’s case, the alternate descriptor Avant-Garage was utilized, and while it apparently wasn’t meant to be a long-term designation, it has lingered as an adequate shorthand regarding the band’s unique style.

Back then, Allen Ravenstine was squarely on the left side of the hyphen, and so it remains today. In the mid-’70s, synths in a pop or rock context were still novel, but it wasn’t simply that he played synths, it was how he played them, a wildly expressive, human approach to technology that helps to solidify Pere Ubu as one of rock’s greatest units.

Ubu’s perseverance as a recording and touring act continues right up to this moment under the leadership of its one constant member David Thomas, and his prominence in the saga perhaps slightly overshadows the contributions of others in their history. Suffice to say that as folks left and returned and left, Ravenstine was a constant on their first eight studio albums.

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Graded on a Curve:
Four Sun Records LPs from Org Music

The recordings cut at Memphis’ Sun Studios remain a cornerstone of modern music, which is why the stuff has been reliably reissued across the second half of the 20th century and into the current moment. The latest round of vinyl platters comes courtesy of Org Music, their picks offering well-assembled overviews of two giants in the Sun narrative, namely Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, and then teaming them with a pair of inspired choices, one a compilation reinforcing the influence of Hank Williams on Sam Phillips’ rockabilly brigade, the other the often-overlooked debut LP by the young Roy Orbison. All are out now, some with limited color editions found only at participating indie retailers; the red wax version of the Williams covers comp is a Barnes & Noble exclusive.

So much has already been said regarding the explosion of creativity documented by Sam Phillips that writing up Org Music’s fresh batch of Sun reissues is more than a little daunting. As a long-established portion of the rock ‘n’ roll bedrock, better minds than I have soaked up the Sun experience and then expanded upon its essence with eloquence.

By extension, there has been a certifiably massive amount of retrospective attention paid to the work captured by Phillips, with a sizable percentage of the releases mediocre or shoddy in a manner that suggests purely mercantile interest. Yes, the wildness of the music shines through, but the effect can be a bit like watching Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It on a 40-year old budget-line 10-inch TV set (or iPhone).

It’s true that two of Org’s most recent dip into the Sun catalog are straight reissues, but the look and sound is terrific, and all four would provide a fine introduction for the curious newcomer. And hey, don’t let the title of the Perkins’ set insinuate that it’s a mere cherry-pick of the guy’s most well-known tunes; through 14 numbers, Best of the Sun Records Sessions makes a really cogent argument for Perkins as the most stylistically diverse of the rockabilly cats briefly corralled by Phillips.

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Graded on a Curve:
Rick Deitrick, Gentle Wilderness and River
Sun River Moon

Rick Deitrick is yet another in the recent wave of solo guitar rediscoveries, or better put, for nearly all of us just plain old discoveries. In Deitrick’s case the sounds are far less American Primitive and, as the titles of his two LPs, Gentle Wilderness and River Sun River Moon make clear, much closer to a log cabin in the mountains, and there is nothing wrong with that. Tranquil without becoming a sedative, both records are out on vinyl August 25 through Tompkins Square.

It’s a familiar story; back in 1978, Rick Deitrick had Gentle Wilderness pressed in a 500-copy edition for his own Niodrara Records, subsequently selling copies at performances and through retailers that would buy them, but he also gave some to libraries and left a few in the wilderness, “so people would find them,” hopefully before it rained.

There is undoubtedly a handful of folks who remember Deitrick from the original release of that LP; his playing makes this clear. But for a whole lot more, knowledge was gained through the inclusion of the Gentle Wilderness track “Missy Christa” on the Brooks Rice and Michael Klausman-compiled entry in Tompkins Square’s long running Guitar Soli series.

Imaginational Anthem 8: The Private Press gathered a slew of worthy fingerpicking previously heard only by the fortunate few or the wildly persistent. Due to the high quality of the prior Imaginational Anthem volumes and of solo guitar in general, The Private Press wasn’t a jaw-dropper, but it did open the ears to an unexpected amount of formerly obscure high-quality players in a field that was once, at least from this writer’s perspective, not especially deep.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa

An absolute gem of archival diligence, Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa saw compilers Vik Sohonie, Nicolas Sheikholeslami and their team traveling to Mogadishu, Hargeisa, and Djibouti, and additionally to various locales in Europe, the USA, and the Middle East to connect with the Somali diaspora, all with the goal of unveiling part of what writer and booklet contributor Maxamed Daahir Afrax deems the “golden era of Somali theatrical arts, including music.” The sounds are stylistically varied, appealingly feminist, and constantly satisfying; it’s out August 25 on double vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Ostinato Records.

The use of the term underground in relation to art is of course figurative, often meaning subversive or dissident, but just as frequently simply standing as the opposite of popular, in that its audience, or perhaps better said those cognizant of said art’s existence, is few. However, the music collected on Sweet as Broken Dates gives underground a literal spin.

In 1998, at the outbreak of civil war, authoritarian ruler Siad Barre was set to bomb communication hub Radio Hargeisa in the northern region of the country (known today as Somaliland) so to effectively cripple organized resistance. A few with access to the station’s archives, which held over half a century of Somali music, managed to transplant the many thousands of tapes to neighboring Djibouti and Ethiopia, where they were buried deep under the ground as a safeguard against airstrikes.

Knowledge of this action and the recent excavation of the tapes comes courtesy of Ostinato’s press release, its background substantially expanded upon in the set’s liner essays and interviews with some of the key musicians involved. But even shorn of the clarity these notes bring, a single listen solidifies the contents as distinct from assorted more prominent contemporaneous African styles, in large part due to geography, with the Somali horn of Africa’s history as a trade center opening it up to a variety of cultures including the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, India, Southeast Asia, and even China.

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Graded on a Curve: Saccades, (S/T)

Saccades is the new side project of Nicholas Wood, a Berlin-based musician some will recognize as one half of The KVB, an outfit who’ve been pegged as a synth-pop post-punk merger, more tersely as darkwave, and on their own website as blending “reverb-soaked shoegaze with minimalist electronic production.” Saccades is none of those things, instead offering an appealing slice of psychedelic indie guitar pop, but aspects of his main gig do shine through. It’s out now on vinyl and compact disc via Fuzz Club Records.

The above descriptors of The KVB, which finds Wood in partnership with Kat Day, are all fair, though breezing through portions of their discography revealed less overt synth-pop than expected. What arose in its place was a combo of darkwave, with an emphasis on moves familiar from late Joy Division, and a more electro-friendly Jesus & Mary Chain/ shoegaze approach, which reinforces The KVB as being as focused on guitars as synths.

Ultimately, this solo turn is distinct but not entirely surprising. Recorded and produced by Wood last summer during a break in The KVB’s touring schedule, Saccades was captured using an old Tascam tape machine, the device delivering a stripped-down “classic” feel that nicely complements these motions beyond the garage.

Fuzz Club’s promo text describes Saccades as lo-fi, but opener “Distant Sea” is quite vivid as it leisurely unwinds, though it does benefit from a lack of sheen. Much of the song’s appeal derives from its guitars, mingling structural strum with clean, bright guitar leads, but the breathy vocals and interjections of hovering keyboard add value, and the bass and drums are effectively unfussy.

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