Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
Paul & Linda McCartney, Ram

Celebrating Paul Mccartney on his 79th birthday.Ed.

Paul McCartney was the member of the Fab Four that so many used to relish knocking around. Whether it was in spirited bar chats or animated discussions at parties, when the tide turned to The Beatles somebody could always be counted on for a hearty jibe at Macca’s expense. And in my above use of “so many” I’m generally referring to males and by “somebody” I’m specifically speaking of those who indisputably considered John Lennon to be the Best Beatle.

While for those truly devoted fans of the band there could simply never be a Worst, for many Paul was the Square Beatle, a designation not borne out by the facts, for he was as interested in the avant-garde as any member. Hell, in ’68 he co-produced “I’m the Urban Spaceman” by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band for Pete’s sake, an act that places him rather high up on the meter of cool. However, others derided him as the Corporate Beatle. And yeah, it’s true that Paul never lost track of the business aspect of the whole affair, but his behavior in this regard hasn’t really played out as particularly odious in comparison to other rock star types of not even half his stature or talent.

But both Paul’s image and the assessment of his post-Beatle solo career has rebounded in recent years. Much of this might have to do with the constantly regenerating fanbase of the Four consistently growing older and perhaps letting go of the rebelliousness that inspired easy identification with Lennon or Harrison. It also might be related to the race for Coolest Living Beatle being down to him and Ringo “No More Mail, Thanks” Starr.

But seriously. In my estimation Paul’s general critical resurgence is a welcome phenomenon, if only because his first two solo records have finally gotten something approximate to the proper level of respect. And yes, for years I bought the baloney regarding the collective underwhelming nature of McCartney and Ram, too.

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Hprizm, Signs Remixed (Positive Elevation / 577) MC and producer Hprizm, aka High Priest, is well-known as a founding member of Antipop Consortium, one of the cornerstone groups in avant-hip-hop’s turn of the century explosion. Antipop hasn’t released a record since 2009, but Hprizm’s Magnetic Memory came out on the Don Giovanni label in 2018, and he’s following it up with an album remixing Signs, the terrific debut recording of electronic music from crucial contempo avant-jazz drummer Gerald Cleaver, which came out last year on 577. The art of remixing can run the gamut of quality from inventive reinterpretations (that largely retain some semblance of recognizability) to autopilot hackery. Thankfully, in Hprizm’s hands, Cleaver’s pieces serve as a springboard toward invigorating possibilities. Now, if you’re expecting an infusion of slamming beats, please understand that Hprizm’s approach is broad and often abstract (in keeping with Cleaver’s source work). It’s altogether a captivating listen, but I’m especially fond of the throbbing tension in “AKA Radiator.” A

Gerald Cleaver, Griots (Positive Elevation / 577) Signs Remixed is being purposely released in conjunction with Griots, Cleaver’s second excursion into modular electronics, with both issued by 577’s new sublabel, Positive Elevation (“dedicated to electronic experimentation and avant soul.”). Although the majority of Griots’ 11 pieces are titled after individuals of significance to the New Yorker by way of Detroit (e.g. “Cooper-Moore,” “Victor Lewis,” “Geri Allen,” “William Parker”), Cleaver clarifies that this isn’t a tribute record, with his point well taken, as the contents maintain a consistently higher level of quality than most tributes. Rather than assuming that expressions of admiration will transform through sincerity into 30 minutes to an hour of worthwhile listening, Cleaver instead lets his inspirations (which include the Detroit jazz collective Tribe and Faruq Z. Bey of the Motown jazz group Griot Galaxy) serve as a starting point for a deeper delve into electronic territory, with an emphasis on the Motor City techno of his youth. Griots is an acknowledgement of roots, with its sounds vital and unpredictable. A

Assorted Orchids, S/T (Whale Watch) Assorted Orchids is the recording moniker of Massachusetts native T. McWilliams, and this is his debut, though I’ll note that he’s 35 years old, so there’s a steadiness (that life experience can bring) tangible throughout this succinct recording’s ten tracks. Fingerpicking is also consistently in the foreground, but McWilliams hits those steel and nylon strings hard, with this aspect of his sound intensified by the album’s depth of fidelity. I’ll add that guitar and vocals (his singing as prominent in the mix as the picking) are Assorted Orchids’ main ingredients, with Mississippi John Hurt, Donovan, and Nick Drake cited as influences. In terms of overall sound, he’s much closer to the Brits, but except for the aura of intimacy, he doesn’t particularly remind me of either one. There are a few fleeting moments that do make me think of Robyn Hitchcock if he’d been heavily impacted in his formative years by Bert Jansch. And the last couple selections led me to wonder if McWilliams cut this record in a lighthouse, but no, it was tracked at Wonka Sound Studios in the city of Lowell. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Milt Jackson & Ray Charles, Soul Brothers (Rhino) Ray Charles is a pillar of 20th century music, but his discography is large, and from my perspective, the two albums he cut with Milt Jackson for Atlantic are too frequently overlooked, perhaps because neither LP features Charles’ voice. Soul Brothers was the first, released in 1958 (Soul Meeting came out in ’61), and it has an abundance of fine qualities. Naturally, prominent among them is Charles on piano and Jackson on vibes, but the record is just as notable for documenting Charles’ alto sax (the title track and “How Long How Long Blues,” comprising the entirety of side one), and on the album’s mono pressings (which is what Rhino is reissuing) “Bag’s Guitar Blues,” which is the only recording of Jackson playing guitar. If you’re getting the idea that these sessions were relaxed, that’s affirmative, but the playing is sharp for the duration, heightened with Billy Mitchell on tenor, Skeeter Best on guitar, Oscar Pettiford on bass, and Jackson’s Modern Jazz Quartet bandmate Connie Kay on drums. The goodness is inexhaustible. A

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Graded on a Curve:
The Tremolo Beer Gut, You Can’t Handle…The Tremolo Beer Gut

Copenhagen, Denmark’s The Tremolo Beer Gut describe their sound as Surf & Western. That means not only do they emphasize the twang, but they burrow deep into the pasta variations of cinematic oaters. You Can’t Handle…The Tremolo Beer Gut is the band’s fifth studio full-length but first in six years, offering 16 cuts and a load of guest spots. While the sound can be assessed as unapologetically retro, there is a high level of smarts enhancing the sharpness of attack. As with their prior output, the Crunchy Frog label is handling this release in Europe, but in the USA, it’s coming out on June 18 via the combined efforts of MuSick Recordings of Los Angeles and No-Count Records of Seattle.  

Although I remain appreciative of bands that are dedicated to roots styles and general R&R simplicity this deep into the 21st century, I will confess to approaching the fruits of their labor with varying degrees of trepidation, as disappointment frequently arises. But it’s not a total wasteland. Preferable are the raunchier and more destructive approaches, but occasionally, a well-honed act acquits themselves through astuteness and sheer energy.

So it is with The Tremolo Beer Gut, who, save for the infrequent hoop, holler or repeated phrase, is an instrumental outfit that was founded by Jesper “Yebo” Reginal and Sune Rose Wagner back in 1998. Some may recognize Wagner’s name from The Raveonettes, whose popularity required him to step away from the Gut, with the lead guitar duties then assumed by producer The Great Nalna. He’s still in the band along with guitarist Jengo, bassist Per Sunding, and Yebo on drums.

However, this LP’s “Hot! Hot! Heatwave!” features some guitar playing from Wagner, his presence likely to deliver an added treat for fans after the long wait for this new record. And as the intensity of the track’s chiming motions rises, the thrust gets further boosted by the guest vocal interjections of Flavia Couri and Martin Couri, the duo that comprises contempo Danish-Brazilian guitar-drum bashers The Courettes.

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Graded on a Curve: Thomas Comerford, Introverts

Chicagoan Thomas Comerford is releasing his fourth solo album, Introverts, on July 18. He’s drawn comparisons to early Wilco, which is apt as his work benefits from the heft and interactive spark of a multi-piece band, but more striking is the stated influence of Gene Clark and Tim Hardin, acknowledgements that reinforce his singer-songwriter bona fides. Like many who fortify the annals of the vocalizing tunesmith, Comerford’s compositions possess an instantaneous allure that only grows with repeated listens. His latest, which offers eight selections on vinyl and digital, is available via Spacesuit Records.

The immediate appeal described above is indeed right there in Introvert’s opening track “Not Like Anybody Else,” specifically through guitar strum that hangs halfway between Loaded-era Velvets and the biggest hit by Stealers Wheel (you know the one). However, the largeness of Matthew Cummings’ bass playing favors the VU side of the equation (definitely a positive), while the vividness of Comerford’s words establish him as an uncommonly astute exponent of the singer-songwriter tradition. Adding to this is distinctive inflection that at times recalls Bill Callahan and David Berman.

Don’t let those comparisons insinuate that he’s aping either of the two. It’s just that Comerford has a tone, likeably unsmooth, that’s well-suited for the flowing musicality of his delivery. Setting him apart is a lack of awkwardness or the idiosyncratic in his singing, as he alternates laidback flirtations with impassioned crescendos in “Cowboy Mouth,” a combination that’s complemented by the song’s almost soft rock feel, and with this ambience itself tweaked with effects-laden backing vocals.

As Introverts progresses, an alt-country-tinged sensibility does occasionally take shape, though it’s to Comerford’s credit that his strain of the style resists the orthodox. In “Three Sisters” for example, the hovering synth suggests a mellotron and by extension, offers a brief dalliance with cosmic country, though together with the brisk tempo, the track simultaneously gestures toward guitar-pop.

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICK: Ìxtahuele, Eden Ahbez’s Dharmaland (Subliminal Sounds) Eden Ahbez remains best known for writing “Nature Boy,” which was a smash hit in 1948 for Nat King Cole, though in connection with that achievement Ahbez was noted for a proto-hippie lifestyle that included mysticism, health foods, and extended living outdoors (you know, in nature). The Swedish exotica band Ìxtahuele (amongst its members is Mattias Uneback, whose highly enjoyable Voyage Beneath the Sea came out last year, also on Subliminal Sounds) has undertaken the recording of Ahbez’s late compositions, which were located in the Library of Congress by this album’s coproducer (and liner scribe) Brian Chidester. The results are deftly played and with obvious love and respect for the material. Fans of Martin Denny will surely be pleased, but a song like “Dharma Man,” sung by King Kukulele, gives a lighthearted (some might say novelty) spin to the clear influence of Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, and delivers a tune that would’ve fit very nicely on Rhino’s The Beat Generation box set. Like, cool, daddy-o. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: V/A, Chicago/The Blues/Today! (Craft) Recorded for the Vanguard label in 1965 at the behest of Sam Charters, the three LPs in this collection were initially released as separate volumes. They were first reissued together in 1999, and now here they are again for RSD in a triple gatefold sleeve with two sets of notes by Charters and some words from critic Ed Ward (RIP). Issuing them together makes for a more expensive package, but that’s really beside the point, as anybody with an interest will want all three. Bluntly, this material from nine Windy City blues bands is indispensable from side one to side six. The artists tapped are Junior Wells, J.B. Hutto, Otis Spann, James Cotton, Otis Rush, Homesick James, Johnny Young, Johnny Shines and Big Walter Horton with Charlie Musselwhite. Of course, guitars, mouth harps, and pianos are well represented, but Young’s mandolin adds some unexpected breadth. Along with a handful of LPs put out on Delmark by Bob Koester (RIP), this set exemplifies the sound of the Chicago blues in the 1960s. It still delivers an astonishing kick. A

Michel Legrand, La Piscine OST + “Un Homme Est Mort” (WEWANTSOUNDS) Legrand, who passed in 2019, remains one of the greatest of film composers, and one of the best at utilizing the legit essence of jazz. The list of his exceptional scores is long, so instead I’ll mention that this is one of his less celebrated OSTs, at least in the USA, where the 1969 psychological thriller directed by Jacques Deray doesn’t have much of a reputation, at least not until very recently, with its 2021 restoration and theatrical rerelease, 4K Blu-ray from Criterion, and the LP at hand (the bonus RSD-only 45 offers two cuts from a 1972 Deray film scored by Legrand). Starring the smoking hot bods of Alain Delon and Romy Schneider, a soundtrack positively brimming with chicness was required, but Legrand delivers more, grabbing violinist Stephane Grappelli, calling on his vocalist sister Christiane Legrand (a member of the Swingle Singers), and even getting Delaney Bramlett to sing on one of the album’s two pop-rock numbers (but it’s the other one, “Ask Yourself Why,” sung in English by Sally Stevens, that’s the gem). The 45 is a total smoker. A

The Raybeats, The Lost Philip Glass Sessions (Ramp Local) NYC’s The Raybeats featured George Scott, Don Christensen, and Jody Harris, all fresh from the Contortions, and also included Pat Irwin, who played with Scott in 8-Eyed Spy (Lydia Lunch’s band after Teenage Jesus and the Jerks), so the No Wave connection is sturdy. But if you’re expecting pure abrasiveness and alienation, please understand that The Raybeats were tagged at the time as a neo-surf group. One could also call them a party rock combo, a description that points ahead to Irwin’s later work with the B-52’s. Also, Danny Amis, who replaced Scott after his death by overdose, went on to play in Los Straitjackets. Of the seven tracks here, Amis plays bass on a cover of Link Wray’s “Jack the Ripper” and guitar on “A Sad Little Caper.” Those and two more cuts, “Pack of Camels” and “Black Beach,” were produced by Philip Glass, who also played keyboards (and released it all in 2013 on his Orange Mountain Music label, though this is its first time on vinyl). A few of these moves are showing their age, but overall, this hangs together quite well. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Kenny Dorham,
Quiet Kenny

When it comes to Modern Jazz trumpet, few were better than McKinley Howard “Kenny” Dorham. His credits are vast, including support roles, membership in cooperative combos, and as a leader. One of the best of the latter, Quiet Kenny, recorded in November of 1959 and released in February of the following year, is getting reissued by Craft Recordings for the June 12, 2021 drop of Record Store Day. Featuring an unimpeachable quartet with Dorham the sole horn, the record’s seven tracks transcend any titular insinuations of the tranquil. Instead, it’s a non-ostentatious display of collective mastery with Dorham in the driver’s seat. In other words, it’s a joy for the ear.

In my short capsule rave of Quiet Kenny written for this very website back in 2017, I offered that Dorham’s “stature as a major post-bop trumpeter has flagged not a whit.” Giving that statement some further thought, I’m confronted with the possibility that the high regard to which I referred applies mainly to heavy-duty jazz heads, a regenerative community that has kept Quiet Kenny and indeed much of Dorham’s output in print (on CD and now digitally if not necessarily on vinyl) for decades.

This consistency of availability can propose a consensus of esteem for the trumpeter, but it occurs to me that some folks in the here and now who are curious about jazz might not even know who the guy is. This is worth ruminating upon, for it was Dorham who stepped into Charlie Parker’s Quintet in 1948, replacing Miles Davis (Dorham’s recording debut began in 1945 on a 78rpm disc cut for the Musicraft label by Mercer Ellington and His Orchestra).

Dorham was also a Jazz Messenger (early, before that aggregation essentially became the Art Blakey Allstars), played with Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, joined Max Roach’s Quintet after the untimely death by car accident of the trumpet phenom Clifford Brown, and to jump ahead to the ’60s, contributed to one of the true masterworks in the jazz canon, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure.

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Graded on a Curve:
Van Dyke Parks & Verónica Valerio,
“Only in America–Solo
en América”

It’s the 21st year of the 2st century (if you haven’t already noticed), and Van Dyke Parks could really rest on his laurels. But no. Hell no. Instead of loafing during quarantine (which would’ve been totally understandable), he spent the time productively, collaborating with singer-songwriter and harpist Verónica Valerio on the 4-song EP “Van Dyke Parks Orchestrates Verónica Valerio: Only in America.” The two worked separately with their chosen musicians, exchanging ideas and building the finished songs over distance without having met in person. The music is as warm as a loving embrace, however. It’s out June 11 on 10-inch wax with cover art by Klaus Voormann through BMG subsidiary Modern Recordings.

Verónica Valerio hails from Veracruz, Mexico. Along with studying music at home and in NYC, she’s guest lectured on vocal folk music at Boston’s Berklee College, and has performed in Mexico, the USA, Europe and Asia. Valerio is well-versed in son jarocho, the Veracruz-based regional variant of the folk style son mexicano, but as explained in this EP’s promo text, from a young age she has sought to expand beyond the son jaracho tradition.

That Valerio initiated this collab is ultimately related to Parks’ talent and rep, but it also pertains to his continued relevance as an artist, this significance stemming in part from persistent open-mindedness (progressiveness if you will) that has allowed him not only to work with stalwarts of his generation such as Brian Wilson, Randy Newman, and Harry Nilsson, but also with younger musicians, and with seeming ease. His credits include The Chills, Silverchair, Rufus Wainwright, Vic Chesnutt, Inara George, Grizzly Bear, and notably in regard to “Only in America,” Joanna Newsom.

Parks’ excellence in the role of producer and arranger on Newsom’s Ys might’ve made an impression on fellow harpist Valerio, though the songs that comprise “Only in America” are stylistically distinctive. They are also beautifully sung in Spanish, with her vocals and harp (and occasionally additional instrumentation, such as percussion and violin) having served as the root Valerio sent to Parks for orchestration.

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Graded on a Curve: Violent Femmes,
Hallowed Ground

Celebrating Gordon Gano on the day of his birth.Ed.

If the 1983 self-titled debut by Violent Femmes is one of the hot half-dozen expressions of Teen Angst American Style ever waxed, then Hallowed Ground, the group’s still divisive second effort from the following year is one of rock music’s core texts in how to successfully flout expectations. It still succeeds greatly as a document of nervy conceptual growth and as a major breakthrough in terms of individual musicianship.

A lingering wisdom about Violent Femmes’ first album is that it inevitably landed squarely in the lap of any ‘80s teen that had grasped just how inescapably miserable was the struggle of growing up; the isolation, the hopelessness, the short highs followed by extended lows, the sexual overload, the distasteful omnipresence of authority. Instead of just internalizing this knowledge many naturally flaunted their alienation over this unrelentingly oppressive environment via haircuts, clothing choices, and most importantly artistic taste.

The strategic reading of Catcher in the Rye on park benches aside, music has proven a startlingly effective way of expressing that unsubtle concept of Not Fitting In. Indeed, music has long been synonymous with youth in revolt, and if circa 1985 one spied a surly, disheveled teen sauntering along the sidewalks of some suburban landscape with a sticker covered backpack and a Walkman, it was a safe bet that they were carrying a cassette copy of Violent Femmes in the pocket of their tattered thrift-store trench coat.

A true rite of passage, it was also an LP so ubiquitous that I have no recollection of hearing it for the first time; once someone was identified as belonging to the great brigade of young non-conformists it was inevitable that a more experienced member of this community would lend a helping hand and expose the newcomer to the alluring strains of Midwestern anxiety.

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Body Meπa, The Work Is Slow (Hausu Mountain) This band of heavyweights (we shan’t call them a supergroup) chose a name that directly references the classic 1978 album by Ornette Coleman and Prime Time, although integrating the Pi symbol and thereby rendering the moniker distinct underscores this unit’s pursuit of their own substantive thing. The four pillars of Body Meπa are Grey McMurray (Sō Percussion, etc.) and Sasha Frere-Jones (of Ui, etc.) on guitars (Frere-Jones also plays bass on one track, “Rice Tea”), Melvin Gibbs (Defunkt, Harriet Tubman, etc.) on bass, and Greg Fox (Guardian Alien, etc.) on drums. Nobody sings. It should be a no-brainer that fans of the participant’s prior activities should seek out The Work Is Slow (available on CD, cassette and digital) at their earliest opportunity, but that doesn’t get to what the record sounds like. As the six tracks unwind, I heard elements of post-rock, a few passages of gliding psych, and even some robust funk. Also, the 1980s SST aesthetic (e.g., Minutemen and Meat Puppets) kept crossing my mind, and that’s just marvelous. A

Green-House, Music for Living Spaces (Leaving) The Los Angeles-based non-binary artist Olive Ardizoni released their debut Six Songs for Invisible Gardens on cassette and digital in January of 2020 (it’s subsequently received CD and LP editions that are still available; the tape is sold out), a recording that sounded exactly like what its title promised (that is, music for the benefit of transparent plants) while simultaneously and subtly exceeding expectations. Part of why related to Ardizoni enhancing their environmental objective through sheer electronic range while never losing focus of the goal. The same is true for this follow-up, which is rich with analog synths and vintage keyboard tones alongside recordings of nature such as babbling brooks, reverberating insects, birdsong and falling rain. Often gentle and always eschewing the disruptive, there are welcome unexpected elements, and right away with the regality of tone in opener “Top Soil.” Music for Living Spaces (also available on cassette, CD and LP) is relaxing and functional, but it’s as deep as it is pretty. It’s ultimately very moving. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Juana Molina, Segundo (Crammed Discs) While undertaking a synopsis of Argentine singer-songwriter and sound sculptor Molina’s prior work in a review of her terrific 2017 album Halo, I assessed this album, her second, as “a considerable step forward.” That was intended as high praise. However, given the extensive background provided in this 2LP reissue’s liners regarding the recording’s slow progression toward breakout success (let’s just say the journey was impacted by a few chance encounters), the terseness of my description reads like short shrift. I’ll add that getting reacquainted with Segundo on the occasion of this edition (which benefits from a quality remastering job) finds it rising in my esteem and deepening my impression that I underrated it, if inadvertently. For those unfamiliar but curious to hear more of Molina’s work, this is a fine starting point. While its contents can be tagged as folktronica, Molina ultimately transcends the designation. Fans of the Beta Band and Rita Lee’s work in Os Mutantes who don’t know Molina have some good times ahead. A

Can, Live In Stuttgart 1975 (Mute) Captured from the audience on a Halloween night, the first installment in Mute’s series of Can live documents is absolutely essential, even if you’re already familiar with the recording (as the sound has been cleaned up considerably by sole surviving founding member Irmin Schmidt). Those who haven’t heard it should prepare for a jaw-dropping experience, as Can nixed a run-through of established tunes for five jams, titled numerically as “Eins,” “Zwei,” “Drei,” “Vier,” and “Funf” (and sans vocals, as Damo Sazuki had recently left the band). The whole is high of discipline, intensity and extendedness. Of particular note for their durations are the 20-minute opener and the 36-minute “Drei,” the latter a startling excursion that justifies purchase of the 2CD/ 3LP all by itself. Along with the sheer pleasure of hearing Schmidt, Jaki Liebezeit, Michael Karoli, and Holger Czukay firing on full cylinders, it’s notable that the psychedelic thrust of these pieces travels into regions that aren’t readily taggable as Krautrock. It is identifiable at superb, however. A

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Graded on a Curve:
Okuté, Okuté

Slickness is an attribute shared by far too many contemporary recordings, with this preponderance of sheen often indicative of an overriding superficiality. Obviously, releases that are free of the malady are a welcome respite; the eponymous debut by Havana, Cuba’s Okuté is one of those. Available June 4 on vinyl (light transparent blue or standard black), compact disc and digital via Chulo Records (available through Daptone), the album’s eight songs are tough and raw as they hone a vibrant synthesis of Cuban music’s elemental diversity (spanning back to the African root). And yet, the album is wholly inviting. It’s difficult to come up with an LP better suited for social gatherings than this one right here.

Although in operation since 2012, my introduction to Jacob Plasse’s Chulo Records came through Bambulaye, the gemlike second album by Brooklyn’s Los Hacheros. Released in 2016, it delivered a remarkable serving of what the band, which features Plasse on trés guitar, describe as the sound of Latin Music’s Golden Age.

Okuté’s debut shares a lot with the sound of Los Hacheros. There is verve and edge heightened through sheer virtuosity and expert ensemble play, with Okuté comprised of lead vocalist Pedro “Tata” Francisco Almeida Barriel (pictured on the cover), percussionists Machito, Ramoncito, Roberto Vizcaino Sr. and his son Roberto Jr, trésero Juan “Coto” de la Cruz, and bassist Gaston Joya.

The album-opening “Caridad” is a concise serving of Okuté’s strengths. There’s Tata’s assured lead singing and the band’s tandem responses in the chorus, the rough-toned guitar, the sheer robustness of rhythm and the resulting infectiousness of the groove. They even spike it in the middle with a lively arrangement for trumpets.

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Graded on a Curve:
Trees Speak,
PostHuman

Tucson, AZ’s Trees Speak draw from a deep pool of complementary styles. As their name suggests, the brothers Diaz, Damian, and Daniel Martin, share a psychedelic inclination. They also have a motorik groove thing happening, along with other Germanic sensibilities (e.g. kosmische). Bonding these aspects together is a cinematic aura, rich in vintage keyboards and synths, that recalls prime soundtrack action from the 1970s-’80s. There’s even a hint of non-toxic prog in the mix. And with one notable exception, PostHuman retains Trees Speak’s non-vocal orientation. It’s out now via Soul Jazz Records.

Although the assorted styles listed above are all worthwhile, they are also not difficult to locate in the grand musical scheme of things. In terms of quality, Trees Speak, on their fourth full-length (like the prior two, issued on vinyl with a bonus 45), persists in beating the odds. To elaborate, crummy psychedelia outnumbers the good stuff by a substantial margin. The same is true for outfits tapping into filmic vibes and/ or launching from Krautrock foundations.

PostHuman follows the release of Shadow Forms in late October of 2020 as OHMS hit stores in March of last year (Trees Speak’s self-titled 2LP debut came out in 2017 on the aptly named Cinedelic label). The recent burst of productivity is impressive and becomes borderline miraculous when considering the magnitude of assembly that shapes the brothers’ oeuvre.

To be frank, a lot of psychedelia is not especially disciplined. In the right situations, this can be part of its appeal. Additionally, bands exhibiting Krautrock tendencies (either motorik or kosmische or some combination thereof) are known for zeroing in on their zone and then locking into autopilot. And likewise, prolonged repetition can be a pleasant scenario, but PostHuman’s 16 selections (not including the 45) dish variety and impeccable flow.

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Joe Morris / Damon Smith, Gusts Against Particles (Open Systems) Free improv/ avant-jazz guitarist Joe Morris has been active since the 1970s, debuting on record with Wraparound by his trio on his own label Riti in 1983. Double bassist Damon Smith is nearly two decades Morris’ junior and young enough that punk rock (’80s US u-ground division) was a source of inspiration before jazz and free improv. He’s recorded a bunch, and like Morris, he started his own label, Balance Point Acoustics. On his instrument, Smith is a beast, and in fact, so is Morris; as Gusts Against Particles plays, the sheer breadth of technique grows to utterly striking levels, largely because the goal is intensity of interaction. Morris’ sound is at times reminiscent of Derek Bailey and Eugene Chadbourne (in free improv mode) but he is ultimately his own man. The same is true of Smith as he pulls gargantuan notes on his bass and wrangles passages of massive extendedness. A wonderfully recorded LP (Smith’s breathing is audible at a few points) in an edition of 200 as Open Systems’ first release. With two digital bonus tracks. A

Maxine Funke, Seance (A Colourful Storm) New Zealander Maxine Funke sings and plays guitar with an uncommon gentleness that’s decidedly late-night and never cutesy. In fact, at a few points, like during the terrific “Moody Relish,” Funke conjures an atmosphere that’s notably tense. That same track also had me thinking of Young Marble Giants, a comparison that never crossed my mind when soaking up her 2018 LP Silk. Like on that album, Seance dives deep into the lo-fi folky zone, with that sound heard most straightforwardly in “Homage.” But as on Silk, Funke expertly evades cliché. As side one played, I thought more than once of Skip Spence’s Oar, which is high praise, as that record is a masterpiece. So is this one. Having played in $100 Band with Alastair Galbraith and Mike Dooley (also her bandmate in The Snares), Funke has roots in the Kiwi underground, and while the relationship remains tangible as her latest unwinds, her music isn’t easily comparable to others from the same scene, which is to her credit. It’s also worth noting that Funke’s strain of lo-fi is economical rather than murky. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage / Catherine Christer Hennix, Blues Alif Lam Mim (Blank Forms Editions) Since 2018, Blank Forms has enriched the world with a yearly release of work by the Swedish composer Catherine Christer Hennix. The first three date from the 1970s, but this set is of more recent vintage, the piece (full title: Blues Alif Lam Mim in the Mode of Rag Infinity/Rag Cosmosis) performed in 2014 in Brooklyn at ISSUE Project Room by Hennix and her expanded just intonation ensemble Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage and issued on CD in 2016 by Important Records; this 2LP (in a tip-on gatefold Stoughton jacket) is its vinyl debut. The ensemble features a five-horn brass section, live electronics and three voices (one of them Hennix herself) as the music extends to nearly 80 minutes at the intersection of drone, raga and the cosmic. The effect is meditative (the singers incant a devotional poem written by Hennix in Arabic that includes quotations from the Quran) but wields power and beauty in equal measure. Avant-garde sounds are rarely this welcoming. A

Mark Fry, Dreaming With Alice (Now Again Reserve) In 2013, an original copy of this record, first released by RCA subsidiary It in 1972, sold for a smidge over $4,000. When obscurities go for that much, it’s safe to assume the master tapes are lost and someone’s planning a reissue mastered from clean vinyl. But Now Again’s edition, available on wax and CD, is sourced from the rediscovered tapes, and the fidelity is totally up to snuff. The music is psych-folk of unusually high quality and sustained levels of bentness, and the story (in short) is that while studying painting in Italy, Fry cut this record for It, the label teaming him with the visiting Scottish band Middle of the Road. Along with a title song that’s broken into segments (each featuring a verse) and spread across the album, there are flutes and sitars and a general druggy atmosphere, with the folky vibes mildly reminiscent of Nick Drake and Donovan. A prior reissue by Akarma came in a sleeve paying homage to/ ripping off the cover of Barabajagal, but this sports the original design and adds six CD bonus cuts of a substantially mellower disposition. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Screamers,
“Screamers Demo Hollywood 1977”

As one of the first punk bands to ditch guitars for electronics, Los Angeles’ Screamers are deservedly legendary, in part because the choice of instrumentation wasn’t an attempt to streamline or soften their sound. Additionally, they broke up before releasing any recordings. While numerous bootlegs eventually surfaced, their audio quality was predictably non-optimal, so that the arrival of “Screamers Demo Hollywood 1977” is reason to celebrate, as its five songs are sourced from the original reel-to-reel tapes. Issued by Superior Viaduct in black and red vinyl editions, both are already sold out at the source, which means folks desiring a copy will only find it in stores starting on May 14. Happy hunting!

The above might give the impression that Screamers were unjustly neglected while extant, but that’s not really accurate, as the video footage of their 1978 show at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens captures a commanding performance in front of an appreciative crowd. Released first on VHS by Target Video as Live in San Francisco: Sept 2nd 1978, in 2004, the half-hour set was given a DVD upgrade with bonus footage. As Jon Savage mentions in his liner notes for this EP, it was that DVD (and its uploading to YouTube) that helped to spark fresh interest in the trailblazing group.

Spawned from an outfit called The Tupperwares, upon leaving Seattle for Los Angeles in 1976, they briefly adopted the moniker Gianni Bugatti and then settled on Screamers. By the next year, when the demos reissued here were recorded, the lineup consisted of two keyboard players, Tommy Gear and David Brown, with drummer K.K. Barrett and galvanizing vocalist Tomata du Plenty.

Barrett replaced Rio de Janeiro, whose obvious pseudonym, along with that of du Plenty (real name David Harrigan), point to the drag queen street theater roots of the group (Tommy Gear’s prior moniker was Melba Toast). Indeed, Du Plenty was a former member of the Cockettes in San Francisco; after leaving that troupe and moving to Seattle, he formed Ze Whiz Kidz in a similar vein, from whence the more musically focused Tupperwares emerged.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Animals,
The Best of The Animals

Celebrating Eric Burdon on his 80th birthday.Ed.

No single album can encompass the range of The Animals’ ’64-’65 run, but ABKCO’s recent vinylization of the ’88 compact disc The Best of The Animals comes pretty close. Gathering all the early hits without neglecting the enduring appeal of their R&B core, it sports the same cover photo as MGM’s 11-track ’66 LP while slightly modifying and significantly expanding the contents. 

The pop success of great rock bands, and the one formed in Newcastle upon Tyne when Eric Burdon joined the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo definitely qualifies, often gets belittled as concession, cash-in, or more likely some combination of the two. The reality is that music and commerce, particularly in the middle of last century, weave together like amorous but argumentative vines. The four largest hits of The Animals’ first two years are all represented on this fresh reissue, which places onto vinyl the contents of a CD designed to usurp an LP not all that hard to locate in used bins at the time, at least in my neighborhood; this sequencing of The Best of The Animals (there have been others) includes the A-sides from the first nine 45s.

“House of the Rising Sun,” easily The Animals’ biggest commercial success, also endures and by a wide margin as their most famous recording. Indeed, sans exaggeration it can be described as one of the defining singles of the 1960s. A few may balk, but the sheer seriousness, ambition and intensity was unusual for ’64.

Gleaning a traditional tune found on Bob Dylan and Just Dave Van Ronk and in the process setting folk-rock into motion with an intercontinental smash (#1 in four countries, #2 in Australia, Top Ten in two more), it was a massive chart breakthrough achieved without compromising The Animals’ angelic comingling of blues, R&B, and R&R (it’s gobsmacking to note, but their producer Mickie Most was initially disinclined to record the song).

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Graded on a Curve:
Damien Jurado,
The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania

The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania is the twentieth album in the discography of singer-songwriter Damien Jurado (there are nearly as many EPs), but it’s the first he’s issued himself, doing so through his own imprint Maraqopa Records. Self-produced and stripped-back but methodically so (inspired by records like Lou Reed’s The Bells and Paul McCartney’s Ram), it’s another powerful statement that’s also distinctive, making it a fitting inaugural release for his new label. It’s out May 14 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital.

Damien Jurado just keeps putting out solid record after solid record, productivity that is duly noted in the music press (often with accolades) and soaked up by his listenership, but also without the sort of hubbub that frequently accompanies the activities of musicians with discographies as prodigious as the one Jurado has built.

That he’s a guy with a guitar and a voice singing songs (of which there is no shortage in the world) surely adds to the fairly measured response, but on the other hand, Jurado debuted on Sub Pop (back in 1997, with Waters Ave S.) and after four full-lengths with that company, commenced a long stretch, 11-albums deep, with Secretly Canadian (a run culminating with The Horizon Just Laughed in 2018).

Since then, he’s recorded two that were co-issued by Mama Bird Recording Co. in North America and Loose in the UK and Europe, which plants us firmly in the present. In the grand scheme of things, Jurado’s achievements can be assessed as substantial and his longevity rare, considerations that only increase after time spent with The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania.

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