Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Chairs Missing

Celebrating Colin Newman, born on this day in 1954.Ed.

While the punk genre has its share of great albums, and the same can surely be said for the refinements, expansions, and disruptions in post-punk’s playground, the list of those having excelled at both is short indeed. If any outfit makes the cut, it’s Wire. Having delivered the UK class of ’77 a cornerstone LP, their next two full-lengths helped to define the sound of post-punk; they remain amongst the finest records the styles ever produced. Out now through the band’s label Pinkflag are special edition CD books of all three, 80 pages each and sized like 45s, featuring text by Jon Savage and Graham Duff plus additional tracks. Here’s our look at 1978’s Chairs Missing.

The enduring stream of adulation awarded to Wire’s debut Pink Flag can mask the fact that the esteem wasn’t instantaneous. As the printed observations in these CD books helps to clarify, the band was strikingly distinctive as part of the whole ’77 punk shebang, as they garnered a pocket of fervent advocates, including then Sounds writers Jon Savage and Jane Suck, but overall, Wire existed as just one outfit amongst many, and this lack of a microscope of expectation surely allowed for creativity to flourish without the hinderance of unnecessary pressures.

If somewhat ambivalent to the punk tag at the time and in retrospect, it’s pretty apparent now that Wire benefited from their emergence in connection to the sheer tumult of the time. Just as importantly, they weren’t anointed the saviors of its essence, the crucial destabilizers of convention, or the inevitable deliverers of what comes next.

Simply put, making rock music is hard. Making rock music that will produce an immediate audience reaction (and critical response) is harder. And making rock music under outsized expectations has been the end, literal and figurative, of many a band, resulting either in breakups or a nosedive in quality. At the very least, the avalanche of attention will irrevocably change the music.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for September 2021, Part Three

Part three of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for September 2021. Part one is here and part two is here.

NEW RELEASE PICS: Satoko Fujii, Piano Music (Libra) This CD is a life-affirming gift from one of modern music’s greatest pianists. It offers two long tracks, the first, “Shiroku,” lasting 19 minutes, the second, “Fuwarito,” reaching 27, that wouldn’t exist except for the Covid-19 pandemic. They capture Fujii alone, and not in the long-established solo mode, but instead creating sound collages built from recordings of prepared piano, Fujii stitching them together seamlessly using a computer at home during quarantine. Sound collage is a new discipline for Fujii, but prepared piano is not (interestingly, one of her methods is placing a guitar Ebow on the strings), so that this excursion into unfamiliar territory is grounded in expertise. I mention this in part because the drones in “Shiroku” are truly first rate and additionally striking, as the sustained resonances were assembled from pieces lasting only one or two minutes. In his enjoyable liner notes for the disc, Shiro Matsuo mentions that not all of Fujii’s fans will be pleased with Piano Music’s contents, but I sure am. The disc is an astounding accomplishment. A

Norman W. Long, BLACK BROWN GRAY GREEN (Hausu Mountain) Long is a Chicago-based guy who’s toured as part of Angel Bat Dawid and tha Brothahood and collaborated with Damon Locks and members of Tortoise (amongst others), but he’s mostly known as a sound artist with an emphasis on field recordings (often manipulated field recordings, which are the best kind). This release (available on CD and cassette) opens with the nearly 23-minute “SOUTHEAST – LIVE 2019,” a recording of a performance held at the Experimental Sound Studio on May 17 of the year in the piece’s title. Listened to loud on headphones, the work is immersive and holds stretches that border on the overwhelming. If altered to varying degrees by Long’s hand, much of the progression documents recognizable sources (crickets chirping and birdsong, for two examples), but there’s still plenty of mystery in the unwinding. It’s followed by four worthwhile pieces recorded in Long’s home studio that utilize sounds captured near his residence in Chicago’s south side. Overall, a brilliant and admirable release. A-

Sonny Vincent, Snake Pit Therapy (Svart) For a long time, Sonny Vincent was mostly noted for singing and playing guitar in the first-wave NYC punk band Testors. But as documented by Diamond Distance & Liquid Fury- Sonny Vincent: Primitive 1969-76, which came out last year via HoZac, Vincent was haunting recording studios much earlier than that (in the protopunk outfits Distance, Fury, and Liquid Diamonds). Even better, he’s remains active and continues to pack a wallop with this set of 15 songs, its title shared with Vincent’s recent book of recollections, poetry and fiction. That he’s still dishing out worthy stuff isn’t exactly a surprise, as his 2014 album Spiteful (featuring Rat Scabies, Glen Matlock, and Steve Mackay) was quite the solid undertaking. Vincent reliably radiates a Noo Yawk street-rockin’ swagger, but importantly, he doesn’t go overboard with the attitude, instead focusing his energies on writing songs of high quality. Snake Pit Therapy is no dress-up retro show, rocking hard and catchy enough to please fans of mid-period Hüsker Dü (Vincent has played with Greg Norton). Thoroughly vital. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Sheila Jordan, Comes Love: Lost Session 1960 (Capri) The 11 tracks on this CD predate Jordan’s classic Portrait of Sheila album on Blue Note by two years, although her recording debut was singing four songs on an obscure LP credited to bassist Peter Ind in 1960. It’s unclear which occurred first, the Ind session or this date, as the specifics of Comes Love are a little hazy; we don’t even know who the accompanying musicians are. They might be John Knapp on piano, Ziggy Wellman on drums, and either Steve Swallow (who played on Portrait of Sheila) or Gene Perlman on bass (as they were Jordan’s band during her engagements at the Greenwich Village club the Page 3 around this time), but there’s really no way to be sure. What is abundantly clear is that Comes Love documents Jordan in strong voice, with nary a subpar or even a tentative selection in the bunch. As I’ve always found jazz singing to be something of a tough sell (yes there are plenty of exceptions), this is no small feat. Is it as strong as Portrait of Sheila? No, but it does find her hovering in the proximity of greatness. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
The Small Faces,
From the Beginning

Celebrating Kenney Jones in advance of his 72nd birthday tomorrow.Ed.

The Small Faces stand as one of the very finest groups of the 1960s, though many know them mainly for Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, their most ambitious and final album before Steve Marriott’s departure effectively ended their diminutive phase. The scoop is that all of the Small Faces’ ‘60s records are worthy of ownership, even the mercantile odds-and-ends collection From the Beginning. That disc and its self-titled predecessor are currently available as 180gm replica LPs. Are they cut to lacquer from the original quarter-inch production masters with front-laminated sleeves? Why yes indeed.

One gauge of the true greats is that the music manages to get better, or at least maintains a high standard of quality, as the discs take their place in the racks. So it is with the Small Faces. With this said the Decca period offers distinct and enduring appeal; more so than The Who, the Small Faces circa-’65-’66 are the true ambassadors of Mod. Utterly Brit in orientation, it wasn’t until the fourth LP that the group entered the US market.

The Small Faces consisted of Steve Marriott on vocals, guitar and harmonica, Ronnie Lane on bass, Kenney Jones on drums and percussion, and initially Jimmy Winston on keyboards. Upon signing to Decca through the efforts of manager Don Arden, they released two singles in ’65. The first “What’cha Gonna Do about It” charted, hitting #14, while the second “I’ve Got Mine” didn’t. Shortly thereafter, Winston was replaced by Ian McLagan, the new keyboardist assisting 3rd 45 “Sha-La-La-La-Lee” in reaching the #3 spot. A full-length followed a few months later.

Sporting the brass to open with “Shake” in Sam Cooke’s tempo, ’66’s Small Faces starts out strong and never really falters, which is impressive for a debut comprised roughly equally, as was the norm of the time, of originals and borrowed/cover material. Neither tentative nor betraying instrumental greenness, the Small Faces were also unburdened by conflict over what they wanted to be.

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Graded on a Curve: Buffalo Daughter,
We Are the Times

Formed in Japan in 1993, Buffalo Daughter made a modest splash in that decade’s sizable pond, releasing a pair of albums on the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label. Unlike many of their indie scene contemporaries, the group persevered well into the 21st century, though We Are the Times is their first album in seven years. It’s a solid extension of their techno-infused, post-rock-inclined sound, available through the Buffalo Ranch and Anniversary labels, with one exception; Musicmine is releasing a CD, but only in Japan, on September 17. The digital is available everywhere the same day, with the vinyl to follow on October 15.

Although they began as a four-piece, Buffalo Daughter has long been the trio of suGar Yoshinaga (guitar, vocals, TB-303, and more), Yumiko Ohno (bass, vocals, electronics, and more), and moOog Yamamoto (turntables, vocals, and more). As on previous records, We Are the Times brings in numerous guests, often with drumsticks in hand, to fill out the sound.

I’ll confess to losing track of Buffalo Daughter well over 15 years ago. My prior experience included hearing and digging their two albums for Grand Royal, 1996’s Captain Vapour Athletes (a compilation of two earlier releases on the Cardinal label) and ’98’s New Rock. I also caught up with I, which came out in 2001 via Emperor Norton (as Grand Royal ceased operations that year).

But I’ve yet to get acquainted with their two releases for the V2 imprint, 2003’s Pshychic and ‘06’s Euphorica, nor have I heard the two that followed, ’10’s Weapons of Math Destruction (listed on Buffalo Daughter’s website as issued on the band’s own Buffalo Ranch label, though the Japanese company AWDR/LR2 seems to have been involved, as well) and ’14’s Konjac-Tion (on U/M/A/A through Buffalo Ranch, their imprint also putting out vinyl editions of Pshychic and Euphorica in 2019).

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Graded on a Curve:
Walk in the Light

Ohr (that’s pronounced or) is the new project of Craig Klein, formerly of Chicago’s The Race, though he’s long since relocated to Seattle. Ohr’s sound is unabashedly psychedelic, and with particular attentiveness to the 1990s, but, as the choice of moniker helpfully underscores, there are deeper levels of inspiration. Walk in the Light is Ohr’s debut record, a 17-track extravaganza available on four sides of vinyl (colored ohrange, nyuk nyuk) and digitally. To describe Klein’s endeavor as sprawling isn’t inaccurate, but the set never wears out its welcome. Impressively disciplined and a pleasure to hear, it’s out now via Headstate Records.

Releasing a double album as a debut takes chutzpah. 2LP-length debuts (well, any long record, really) can also prove unfocused and either overdetermined or undercooked (and occasionally, a combination of both). Sometimes, the contents are downright disastrous. Happily, none of this applies to Walk in the Light. As extended debuts (this one breaks 72 minutes) don’t arrive all that often, the matter is pertinent here.

Upon due consideration (in other words, the proper handful of spins), it seems like maybe Craig Klein chose to make a long record, at least in part, because a significant portion of his influences derive from a time when folks regularly made long records. Why’d they do that? Because they could (i.e., nobody was stopping them), that’s why.

I’ve complained with some regularity in this column and elsewhere about excessively long albums, a tendency that proliferated during the CD era, and with results that were decidedly mixed. But Ohr maintains consistency throughout Walk in the Light, which is both refreshing and borderline remarkable, as the largest percentage of Klein’s inspirations helped to define the CD era.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for September 2021, Part Two

Part two of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for September 2021. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: New York United, Volume Two (577) This set follows-up a lovely self-titled LP from 2019, on which an exquisite fusion of jazz and electronics was unveiled as conjured by the quartet of Daniel Carter (saxophones, flute, trumpet, clarinet), Tobias Wilner (synthesizers, percussion, vocals, piano, guitar), Djibril Toure (bass), and Federico Ughi (drums). As on the first record, the basis is group improvisation, although it’s more frequently groove-rooted than purely abstract (Toure is noted for playing bass with Wu-Tang Clan), which is further enhanced in post-production by Wilner, his input honing a sound that’s likely to appeal to lovers of ambient electronics and strains of beat-driven techno (and when Carter blows trumpet, even Hassell’s Fourth World music, but just a little bit). But fans of avant-jazz will find much to enjoy as well. When the first album came out, the group moniker/ album title connected like a reflection upon the bond of togetherness. Given all that’s happened since, it now registers like a statement on survival. Available on vinyl (limited grey and black) and digipak CD. A-

Jessica Ackerley and Daniel Carter, Friendship: Lucid Shared Dreams and Time Travel (577) This digipak CD serves as my introduction to guitarist Ackerley. She plays acoustic with remarkable skill and communicative prowess in duo with Carter, who brings his reliable stash of horns (sax, flute, trumpet, clarinet) to the recording; throughout its eight dialogues, he improvises at a typically high level. While these interactions were documented at Scholes Street Studio in Brooklyn, the musical relationship (indeed, the friendship) of Ackerley and Carter was solidified by playing outdoors in a park last summer. Even with this knowledge, the familiarity and the comfort level are at times astonishing here. I’ll add that the atmosphere that’s established by the pair is casual and quite approachable rather than full-tilt bananas, which is worth mentioning given Carter’s rep for wild skronk (though it’s not the only arrow in his quiver) and Ackerley’s background in experimental noise (likewise, amongst other pursuits), as she also plays electric. I’m eager to hear more of her work. Daniel Carter continues to amaze. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: O.V. Wright, A Nickel and a Nail and Ace of Spades (Real Gone) Originally released in 1971 or ’72 (sources differ), the cover of this album is definitely a conversation piece. Looking at it, you might think the label’s center of operations was a storage shed, but no, Back Beat was a subsidiary of Duke Records, an important enterprise in the history of gospel (through Don Robey’s Peacock imprint), R&B (on Duke proper), and soul via Back Beat, featuring such notables as Carl Carlton (“Everlasting Love”), Roy Head (“Treat Her Right”), and the prolific Wright, who had five albums released on Back Beat, of which this was number four. Cut at Royal Recording Studios in Memphis with production by Willie Mitchell and featuring the Hi Records rhythm section and the Memphis Horns, the music is uncut Southern soul, a sound that contrasted with the increasingly polished direction taken by so many early ’70s soul singers and production houses. The band here is unimpeachable. Wright’s gospel drenched vocalizing never falters. Al Green fans shouldn’t sleep on this one. A

Rick Deitrick, Coyote Canyon (Tompkins Square) This is the fourth reissue/ archival album from guitarist Deitrick, who is (thus far) the most prolific of the players to have been introduced to the wider public via Tompkins Square’s Imaginational Anthem Volume 8: The Private Press, an album now nearly five years old. Folks who know the first few volumes of that instrumental guitar series might be thinking that Deitrick’s an American Primitive guy, but that’s not the case. However, I don’t want to cultivate the impression that he’s undertaking some radical departure. Really, the main difference is that Deitrick plays in standard tuning. This is a significant distinction to be sure, but much of his work (here and elsewhere) strives for beauty regions that’re comparable to assorted nooks of the American Primitive impulse. Coyote Canyon features seven tracks recorded between 1972-’75, with a nearly ten-minute piece from 1999, “Three Sisters,” serving as the tidy record’s finale. The span of years isn’t really discernible, and Deitrick’s playing exudes calm without becoming overly tranquil. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Otis Redding,
Lonely & Blue: The Deepest Soul of Otis Redding

Celebrating Mr. Otis Redding, born on September 9, 1941.Ed.

As one of the undisputed titans in the annals of Soul Music, Otis Redding seemingly needs no introduction. Any serious discussion of the genre he so thrillingly mastered will reflect upon the rewards to be found in his work, and that it’s never fallen out of favor is tribute to his talents. But in truth, scads of younger listeners do require some enlightenment regarding the massive achievements of the man. Lonely & Blue: The Deepest Soul of Otis Redding will serve as an exemplary primer for the uninitiated, and the thoughtful focus on the artist’s aching love balladry might just lead many longtime fans to hear Mr. Pitiful with fresh ears.

With Sam and James and Wilson and Al and Marvin all making such singular contributions to the style, there will never be an undisputed King of Soul. But upon reflection, Otis Redding can perhaps be accurately described as the form’s Total Package, for the fabric of his music contains so many substantial fibers; a Southern “country” grit combining with the newfound sophistication of R&B, the powerhouse qualities of a consummate front-man coexisting with a distinctive desire to interact with his backing band, and the ability to knock ‘em stone cold dead on stage thriving alongside an uncommon level of success in the studio setting.

Furthermore, Redding’s considerable talents as a songwriter coincided with his equally impressive skills at interpreting other’s material, a substantial crossover into the pop market sacrificed none of his creative verve, and Stax’s significant spirit of racial harmony served as a beautiful example of brotherhood in an era that very much needed it. So Otis clearly lacked nothing in his ascension to the very top ranks of Soul expression.

Add to the above Redding’s knack for both raising the roof through raucous uptempo material and delving into the deep emotional weeds via exquisitely rendered slow burners. This dual proficiency is surely a given with the great soulsters, and it seems fairly obvious that a huge component in Redding’s lasting rep is how he could turn it way up and then bring it all back down without a hitch, frequently hitting upon spectacular mid-tempo grooves along the way.

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Graded on a Curve:
Laura Nyro,
Go Find the Moon: The Audition Tape and Trees of the Ages; Laura Nyro Live in Japan

On September 10, Omnivore Recordings unveils a fascinating artifact detailing the strength of singer-songwriter Laura Nyro’s skills from the earliest vantage point yet: 1966, at 18 years of age. Go Find the Moon: The Audition Tape is raw documentation of Nyro playing songs for Milt Okun and her future manager Artie Mogull, the tape contrasting wonderfully with Trees of the Ages; Laura Nyro Live in Japan, which came out in July, offering robust performances from 1994 that reveal her artistry as undiminished. Trees of the Ages is available on CD and digital, while Go Find the Moon is out on CD, digital, and 45rpm vinyl (with a bundle option offering a limited-edition lithograph print of the cover).

Although still too few listeners are hip to it, the late singer-songwriter and pianist Laura Nyro was a tremendous talent, in some ways comparable to Carole King but notably preceding her as a recording artist; her first LP, More Than a New Discovery, was issued by Verve Forecast in 1967 (reissued in stereo with a different track order as The First Songs by Columbia in ’69). But unlike King, who was responsible for one of the smash albums of the 1970s, Nyro’s sales were considerably more modest (if never a commercial disaster).

Some have categorized Nyro as a cult musician, but that kinda insinuates that she had an artistic trait (or a few) that limited her appeal. To my ear, her stuff is so straightforwardly (but intelligently) pop that when playing her great records there is regularly a sense of the bygone listening public being stricken with collective knuckleheadedness in regard to picking up what Nyro was laying down.

In his liner essay for Go Find the Moon, Jim Farber observes that Nyro was an artist who required the listener to accept her music on her terms (finding and going to her rather than the other way around). To elaborate, Nyro, who is a resolutely accessible singer-songwriter, simply refused to engage in the subtle maneuvers that would’ve made her music truly mainstream, for good or ill. This is a big part of what differentiates her own versions of songs from those by others that became hits.

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Graded on a Curve:
A knife in your hand

Based in Turin, Italy, the trio Sloks specialize in garage punk, raw and aggressive, with their second full-length A knife in your hand dishing out a formidable stream of primo bash and squall. Ivy Claudy handles the vocals and the pummeling of a floor tom, Tony Machete pounds on a larger drum set, and Billy Fuzz rakes the guitar strings. Although a wide-ranging style doesn’t seem to be high on their list of priorities, the record’s 11 tracks offer enough twists to keep matters fresh for the duration, and while they’re consistently focused on dark themes, it’s an angle that avoids faltering into schtick. The album is out now on black or red vinyl, CD and digital through Voodoo Rhythm Records.  

Sloks debuted with a 4-song 7-inch in 2017 and followed it up the next year with the full-length Holy Motor. Those releases effectively established an approach that hasn’t wavered. Upon cueing up A knife in your hand, the unkempt griminess of their sound becomes apparent in mere seconds. If surely connected to the more destructive regions of the garage impulse, Sloks are just as tethered to what’s been called weird punk. Bluntly, the band’s sound is damaged in the best way possible.

Think Flipper, think Chrome, think Tales of Terror, and think of the dozens of bands that fall into the Killed by Death subcategory of late ’70s-early ’80s punk rock (like “UFO Dictator” by fellow Italians Tampax and “Cola Freaks” by the Danish band Lost Kids. But Sloks’ twistedness is distinguished by a trashy-pulpy aura that’s intensified with a borderline transgressive edge, perhaps reminiscent of the rawest low-budget drive-in flicks of the ’70s and the video nasties of the decade following.

Indeed, a few of the tracks register like soundtracks to montages of cinematic mass slaughter (chainsaw massacres and toolbox murders), and it’s directly due to the voice of Claudy, who is credited not with vocals but screams. But the album’s opener “Dillinger” is more of a scuzzy distorto-pulser with the vocals a distant croak.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for September 2021, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for September 2021. 

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra, Tinctures In Times (Community Music, Vol. 1) (The Royal Potato Family) This is the first of four albums, all issued on vinyl, that will complete trumpeter-composer-arranger Bernstein’s Community Music series, with Vol. 4, Popular Culture, scheduled for release on September 2 of next year (Vol. 2, Good Time Music, paring the orchestra with vocalist Catherine Russell, comes out in January, while Vol. 3, Manifesto of Henry-isms, where Bernstein’s Hot 9 is joined by keyboardists John Medeski and Arturo O’Farrill, releases on May 1). Each volume has its own theme, with this set marking the first time Bernstein’s Orchestra has played his own compositions (having previously focused on his arrangements of other people’s material). While tagged as an orchestra, the credited players on Tinctures in Time total up to a nonet that’s steeped in tradition but with boldness of execution and edge that should satisfy avant-garde heads, who likely already know Bernstein, anyway. He’s played with everybody, and his tunes cut strong mustard. A

Buck Gooter, Head in a Bird Cage (Ramp Local) I’ve mentioned in a prior review that a live show, specifically a hometown opening slot warming up a touring act, served as my proper introduction to this Harrisonburg, VA-based u-ground industrial duo. After that show, I became a certified fan of Terry Turtle and Billy Brett, and the esteem hasn’t wavered through numerous releases, though this one marks a sad occasion, as Terry died on November 20, 2019. Hospitalized in August of that year with unbearable shoulder pain brought on by a broken neck that was caused by a malignant tumor that had eaten away his vertebrae, Terry was visited often by Billy, who recorded him while there. At the same time, he was working on Head in a Bird Cage, partly due to Terry’s insistence on knowing how the record was progressing. Only one song, “Sun Is Beaming,” was written after Terry’s hospitalization, but he’s sampled in some way on all of the 14 tracks, with his presence felt throughout. Fans of ONO and Wolf Eyes should take note. Rest easy, Terry Turtle. You’ll definitely be missed. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Marianne Faithfull, The Montreux Years (BMG) This live in Montreux series kicked off earlier this year with sets devoted to Nina Simone and Etta James, their contents assembled from numerous performances spanning decades to provide a thorough overview. This spotlight on the consistently undervalued Faithfull is a welcome shift of gears. While the timeframe is tighter here, spanning 1995-2009, the contents still feel comprehensive, as the selections are drawn from five different shows, staring out with a version of Van’s “Madame George” that’s followed by a guitar heavy extended version of “Broken English” that’s an absolute treat. Not everything here thrills me. I enjoyed Faithfull’s spoken intro to “Song For Nico” more than the song itself, for instance, but right after “Broken English” is the wonderful “Times Square, and then we’re back to Broken English the album with “Guilt.” Other highlights include “Sister Morphine” and versions of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” (a nod to Billie Holliday and Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song.” Faithfull’s engagement puts this set over the top. A-

Muddy Waters, The Montreux Years (BMG) I’ve no way to know for sure, but I suspect I’ve listened to Muddy Waters more than any other blues artist. With that said, I’ll confess to dipping into the man’s post-1960s material only on occasion, with this installment in the Montreux Years series the deepest dive I’ve taken into his ’70s stuff in quite a while. The songs derive from four performances dating from ’72-’77, and possibly because he was playing for more refined and knowledgeable audiences (at least hypothetically), the approach isn’t as aggressively raw as it is on the studio album Hard Again, which is just fine by me, as the tunes here extend pretty naturally from the sound of Muddy’s stronger ’60s albums, rather than trying to impress the rock crowd; at least that’s the impression I’m always left with whenever I return to the Johnny Winter-produced Blue Sky albums (of which Hard Again was the first). Naturally, a bunch of his most well-known songs are here, but often with distinctive execution. “Mannish Boy” is a prime example. But a handful of deep cuts nicely weaved into the program. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Booker T. & The MG’s, The Complete Stax Singles, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2

Back in the fall of 2019, Real Gone Music released on 2LP and CD The Complete Stax Singles, Vol. 1 (1962-1967) by Booker T. & The MG’s, rounding up 29 original mono single sides. Now here comes a repress alongside The Complete Stax Singles, Vol. 2 (1968-1974), which features 20 selections, the first 15 in mono, the last five in stereo in keeping with the versions as originally released. Remastered with care with notes for both volumes by Ed Osborne, these two sets offer definitive documentation of all the singles by the greatest instrumental R&B outfit in the history of the style. Although they are a band extensively and deservedly praised, we’ll add to the discourse below.

In 1991, when Atlantic released The Complete Stax-Volt Singles 1959-1968 across eight compact discs, much celebration ensued. Once buyers broke the shrink wrap and played the set’s contents during a few house parties, celebration could grow into borderline pandemonium. I was there to witness it. But as magnificent as that collection continues to be, Atlantic did play a little loose with the notion of completeness, as they omitted numerous songs, specifically B-sides, likely in an attempt to deliver maximum listener enjoyment alongside an acceptable price tag.

This matter is relevant here as Real Gone’s The Complete Stax Singles, Vol. 1 (1962-1967), its second edition pressed on red wax (the first was on blue), rounds up the Booker T. & The MG’s tracks that Atlantic didn’t include, by my count 11, and sequences the flips directly after the plug sides. And if you’re wondering about Vol. 1’s odd-numbered total of 29, that’s because “Mo-Onions” was issued as both an A and B side.

The thing about releases conceived with a completist objective is that they are often best suited for completists. That’s not exactly untrue in this case, but the crucial difference is in how well the music on Vol. 1 overcomes the transition from standalone 45s to longform chronological compiling, a feat that’s almost miraculous given that Booker T. & The MG’s weren’t exactly known for their range.

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Graded on a Curve:
Nico Hedley,

Nico Hedley lives in Queens, NYC, USA. Painterly is his first album, recorded at Spaceman Sound in Brooklyn, landing in the racks of brick-and-mortar stores and available through online sales channels September 3 courtesy of Whatever’s Clever. The album, which can be purchased in standard black or smoky clear and black vinyl editions (plus digital), showcases Hedley’s abilities as a singer-songwriter and guitarist at the nexus of alt-country and indie folk with a touch of slowcore in the mix. Cohesive with considerable reach and sharpened by skilled players (Hedley’s “family band”), it’s a striking debut.

In the PR for this record as written by Winston Cook-Wilson (a member of the band Office Culture who contributes Fender Rhodes to Painterly), it’s stated that the lead singing on the album was inspired by none other than George Jones, and furthermore, that Jones, a mainstay of honky-tonk C&W and then countrypolitan, is Hedley’s “Nashville North Star.”

It’s a detectable association, though I find it necessary to elaborate that the similarity didn’t jump out to me during my initial handful of spins, reinforcing that Jones was an inspiration rather than a model for imitation. This infers subtlety on Hedley’s part, but it’s probably more accurate to relate that the songwriter’s intentions for Painterly were broad and decidedly contemporary.

Succinctly, Painterly isn’t a throwback album. Opener “Tennessee” makes this abundantly clear, with Hedley’s meditative vocals and guitar mingling first with Adam Robinson’s tenor sax and then with Hamilton Belk’s pedal steel, Jeff Widner’s drums and even a brief flash of backing vocals (by either Alena Spanger or Drew Citron). After the song kicks into full gear, it feels like it concludes just as quickly (the whole thing is over in a tidy two and a half minutes).

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Graded on a Curve:
Alice Coltrane,
Universal Consciousness

Remembering Alice Coltrane, born on this day in 1937.Ed.

One of the most suitable resurgences of esteem to have occurred over the last quarter century relates to the discography of multi-instrumentalist and composer Alice Coltrane. For far too many years far too many people erroneously ranked her as a major accompanist and downgraded her leadership efforts as being of primary interest to aficionados of freeform, modal, or spiritual jazz. Today Coltrane is justly recognized as a master, her output loaded with jewels; none are better than ‘71’s Universal Consciousness

Had Alice Coltrane somehow not recorded Universal Consciousness she’d still stand as one of the defining talents from jazz’s most exploratory era. And even if the woman born Alice McLeod on August 27th, 1937 in that hub of American artistry Detroit, Michigan had never managed to cut an album under her married name, her creative achievements would endure as quite notable.

In assuming the piano bench in the band of John Coltrane, she assisted in shaping the late-period of one of recorded music’s most vital exponents. With the departure of pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones, Coltrane’s “Classic Quartet” (which the saxophonist had been augmenting across 1965) was receding in the rear-view mirror. Drummer Rashied Ali, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and reedman Pharoah Sanders remained as assorted percussionists and Alice Coltrane entered; as of this writing the results remain galvanizing.

Studio evidence of her contribution didn’t emerge until after her husband’s death on July 17th, 1967; Expression arrived the following September, Cosmic Music, co-credited to Alice and John, the next year, and Stellar Regions, sourced from rediscovered tapes, belatedly appeared in 1995. The majority of the collaboration rests upon performance documents, though only one, late-‘66’s Live At The Village Vanguard Again!, was released prior to the bandleader’s succumbing to liver cancer.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for August 2021, Part Three

Part three of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for August 2021. Part one is here and part two is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: James McMurtry, The Horses and the Hounds (New West) There isn’t a lot of elbow room in the scene McMurtry inhabits, specifically the country-folk-Americana-roots rock singer-songwriter zone, but frankly very few do it better, with his stature in a crowded field only amplified by a six-year break between releases. How’s he do it? Well, he and his band play bright but rugged, and more importantly, his tunes are consistently strong. That McMurtry, the son of prolific (and recently passed) novelist Larry McMurtry, doesn’t do autobiography (as quoted in a recent Rolling Stone article), certainly helps, though even more crucially, his songs avoid the staleness of creative-writing class cliché. And it makes a big difference that he’s open to taking chances, with none bigger than “Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call,” a sort of talking storyteller ditty where McMurtry flirts with sounding like C.W. McCall but ends up pulling it off, mainly through astute observations; likewise, “Operation Never Mind.” At this stage, I dig the anthemic up-tempo rocker “What’s the Matter” best, but the record doesn’t falter. A-

Thalia Zedek Band, Perfect Vision (Thrill Jockey) Entering her fifth decade making music (having debuted on wax as part of Dangerous Birds in the early ’80s), guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Zedek’s latest exhibits no signs of creative fatigue. To the contrary, Perfect Vision underscores her adaptability, as it was recorded remotely due to (you guessed it) the pandemic. Operating in this manner allowed for a wide array of guest contributors. There’s Karan Zarkisian on pedal steel, Brian Carpenter on trumpet, and cellist (and Zedek’s labelmate) Alison Chesley aka Helen Money. And of course, there are familiar elements, including her regular collaborator, violist David Michael Curry, plus her bandmate in the outfit E, drummer Gavin McCarthy, but most recognizable is the tough and assured expressiveness of the singing and the distinctive way the songs unwind. Fully capable of writing catchy tunes, Zedek’s focus encompasses the layering of textures, the juxtaposition of timbres and the tension that builds through methodical repetition. In short, it’s another sweet record from Thalia Zedek. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Destiny Street (Complete), Destiny Street Remixed, & Destiny Street Demos (Omnivore) The first of these titles is a 2CD set that includes the contents of the second and third, both vinyl sets. In addition, the 2CD opens with a remastered version of the original Destiny Street, the second album by Hell and the Voidoids, a record that’s mix Hell has hated since the album’s release in 1981. It’s followed on the first CD by Destiny Street Repaired, which featured guitarists Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, and Voidoid Ivan Julian overdubbing guitar in place of original Destiny Street guitarists Robert Quine (who passed in 2004) and Naux (Juan Marciel) (whose death occurred in 2009), with Hell singing the tracks anew. Destiny Street Repaired was made possible by the then recent discovery of the tape holding the original album’s rhythm tracks, while in 2019, three of the four Destiny Street masters, long thought lost, were discovered, allowing Hell (with the aid of Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) to finally remix the record to his satisfaction.

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Graded on a Curve: Emma-Jean Thackray, Yellow

Although it was preceded by a few EPs, Emma-Jean Thackray’s debut full-length Yellow still connects like an audacious but steady-handed breakthrough, mingling genres with confidence and smarts. Suffice it to say that listeners with collections encompassing funky R&B, jazz of the spiritual, fusion, and avant-garde persuasions, and groove-oriented but expansive electronica and hip-hop, will find much to enjoy in this album, which has been out for a while but hit vinyl in the USA just last week via Thackray’s own label Movementt in affiliation with Warp. Skillful compositions and arrangements for brass and vocals intensify the deft combination of styles, with the whole secure as one of the best albums of 2021.

Leeds-born and London-based Emma-Jean Thackray studied jazz trumpet at Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama with instructor Keith Tippett and then followed that with a master’s degree in jazz orchestral composition at Trinity Conservatoire of Music and Dance under the tutelage of composers Issie Barratt and Errollyn Wallen.

These achievements are deserving of a highlight, as Yellow is clearly the byproduct of ability that’s honed through both disciplined study and playing for the sheer joy if it. Put another way, Thackray didn’t arrive at Yellow by accident, and while she’s not shy about her influences, this set’s 14 tacks are the result of much more than just good taste in records.

Although Thackray wastes no time in establishing the album’s bold flow, I never got the impression that she felt there was something she had to prove. Instead, with a glorious mixture recalling Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra in “Mercury,” she’s clearly trying to hook the listener and then slowly reel them in. But there are distinct elements as well, such as the application of synths, Thackray’s superb trumpet solo, and also the bedrock of Ben Kelly’s tuba, here delivering an unwavering line that reminded me, just a little, of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

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