Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve: Thunderclap Newman, Hollywood Dream

There are One Hit Wonders and One Album Wonders, and occasionally the paths of those two dubious honors intersect. One such instance is UK group Thunderclap Newman, mostly celebrated for their single “Something in the Air” but also noted for their only LP, 1969’s Hollywood Dream. The record contains that superb single, but it also features a surplus of additional charm, and while its profile has increased substantially, it’s sadly plagued by its reputation as the sole document from one of rock’s notable underachievers.

And to be blunt, Thunderclap Newman is a questionable entry into the club of the One Album Wonder anyway. They have the solitary LP down pat, but a passionate bout of quibbling just might break out over the Wonder part of the equation. For Hollywood Dream, released after “Something in the Air” spent three weeks as a UK number one hit, was something of a stiff in terms of sales. It climbed no higher than #161 in the US album chart, and the single was a bit of an American sleeper, making it to only #37. And in an odd twist, apparently the LP was even more coolly received in their home country.

When the band’s back-story is added into the mix, Hollywood Dream’s landing with a splat of relative indifference becomes something of a persistent head-scratcher. Vocalist/drummer John “Speedy” Keen had previously penned “Armenia City in the Sky” for The Who’s 1967 album The Who Sell Out. Pianist and band namesake Andy Newman looked like a dry run for the likes of Bun E. Carlos and banged on the keys like an auxiliary member of the Bonzo Dog Band. A suitable nickname for their young guitarist would be “The Kid,” or maybe even better “The Face,” for it’d be well nigh impossible to find a more splendiferously Mod figure than the one cut by Jimmy McCulloch on the record’s cover.

Throw in that Pete Townsend played bass on the LP and its lack of performance is indeed a stumper. It’s in essence an album tailor made for Beatles fans, registering at times like a slightly more twee incarnation of Badfinger, though they never cross the line into the precious. Maybe the problem was that at the point of the record’s release The Beatles hadn’t really broken up yet (though the end was certainly near). However, Badfinger’s sales figures in ’70 and ’71 surely benefited from the realization of many that their favorite band was no longer extant.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
July 2020, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for July, 2020. 

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Thiago Nassif, Mente (Gearbox) Rio de Janeiro-based vocalist-guitarist Nassif has been active as a recording artist since 2009, but it was really his third album, 2015’s Três, that put him on the international radar. Arto Lindsay produced and played on that one, with Nassif returning the favor by helping to produce Lindsay’s 2017 effort Cuidado Madame. Now, Arto returns for Três, co-producing and playing on two tracks, and it’s a fitting combination, as Nassif’s work can sound like a blend of prime Tom Zé and the wilder side of ZE Records. Now, if you’re thinking Mente is the sort of record David Byrne would’ve done backflips to sign in the early days of Luaka Bop, well okay, but I also feel Nassif’s work is maybe a little (and occasionally much) too weird for that association, while never coming off like he’s forcing the strangeness. I guess that means if you dig the Brazil Classics series, there’s no reason to not check out this superb LP, which is one of the treats of 2020 thus far. A

Idjah Hadidjah & Jugala Jaipongan, Jaipongan Music of West Java + Reworks (Hive Mind) This 2LP came out in March, but it’s still available and deserves a belated spotlight, as it provides a magnificent serving of the Javanese style known as Jaipongan, which flourished in the ’70s-’80s in Indonesia, though the recordings that comprise the first LP here date from 2007, with vocalist Idjah Hadidjah at the fore and backed by the house band of Jugala Studios in Bandung, Java. The backstory is that this was a reunion of sorts, as Hadidjah was invited, back in the early ’80s, by the inventor of the Jaipongan style, composer and choreographer Gugum Gumbira, to sing in his Jugala Orchestra. She accepted, and had considerable success, becoming one of the country’s most adored singers as the collab lasted through the decade. This return to the studio also produced strong results, but as the music plays, it’s enlightening to consider how the Jaipongan style is, unusually, considered the invention of one person.

Specifically, Gumbira was understandably displeased over the Indonesian government’s ban on Western music, including R&R (this ban dating from 1961), and in the early ’70s, he adapted the traditional style of ketuk-tilu into a contemporary form, not as a way to smuggle in outside influences, but instead simply as modernization. Along with adding in gamelan, Gumbira had the singers focus solely on singing, with dancing cast aside. Hadidjah had been a professional singer with Sundanese Shadow Puppet Theatres prior to joining Gumbira, and her abilities remain extraordinary here, evident even to me, a non-expert in the Jaipongan style, as she’s elevated by playing of remarkable intensity and precision. The second LP, + Reworks, is the byproduct of Kai Riedl providing multitrack tapes made in Java to a variety of electronic musicians and modular sythesists for the purpose of form extension. Per the title, reworking, rather than the standard and potentially underwhelming remixing, a goal that’s largely realized. Excellent. A

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Graded on a Curve:
Big Youth,
Natty Cultural Dread

It’s International Reggae Day! Ed.

When it gets hot and muggy, some of the surefire ways to adjust to the severity of climate include shedding all unnecessary clothing, raising the intake on cold beverages, and even submerging oneself in a cool body of water. All no brainers, I know. But along with attempting to beat the heat, a person can also just get into the spirit of the season, and one of the best avenues to that goal is a musical one; simply crank up some prime Jamaican reggae. Natty Cultural Dread, the 1976 LP from the man known as Big Youth, is a particularly fitting soundtrack to sweating it up in the summertime.

The collecting of Jamaican music, especially on LP, can be a rather daunting endeavor. I’ve mentioned this before in relation to other forms/styles, but it bears repeating here; there’s just so much Jamaican material of quality and in so many different, equally enticing subgenres, that getting a handle on the whole heap is at this late date basically beyond anyone not slinging a slush-fund of downright spectacular proportions, to say nothing of the deluxe hutch needed to house all those records once they’ve been acquired.

To continue retracing a theme, it’s situations like this one that expose the completist urge, at least when it’s combined with a diverse musical interest, as sheer folly. But hey, there’s no need to get into a funk about it; just shoot for the essentials, and after that, let the chips fall where they may. In terms of personal collecting (in contrast to extensive libraries, which have their own allure), it’s the uniqueness of those fallen chips that makes checking out the contents of specific collections so enlightening; a person’s record stash, whether large with experience or small but growing with budding enthusiasm, is as individual as a thumbprint and yet (hopefully) in a state of perpetual growth.

And just as interesting will be the varying responses to the nature of the “essential.” Writers and gabbers on music (and art in general) often employ the term as an objective truth that’s in accord with the dictionary definition of the word, but no matter how much writing and gabbing gets done, there’s no denying the inherent subjectivity of art. Everybody responds to music differently, which is why so much ink and breath accompanies its creation.

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Graded on a Curve:
Unwed Sailor,
Look Alive

Led by bassist Johnathon Ford, Tulsa, OK’s Unwed Sailor have been active since the late 1990s, honing a largely non-vocal approach that has been occasionally described as post-rock but with stylistic affinities that span back to the ’80s and are often appealingly Anglocentric in nature. With the release of Look Alive, Unwed Sailor’s discography now totals six full-length records plus a slew of singles and EPs. The latest holds up strong and encourages repeated spins through consistent depth of feeling. It’s out now on vinyl, CD and cassette through Old Bear Recordings, with the wax distributed by Light in the Attic.

The achievements detailed above are considerable; to keep a band not only active for over 20 years but producing worthwhile material throughout the duration is a rarity, but Jonathan Ford has also been a part of Roadside Monument and Pedro the Lion (in both cases prior to the formation of Unwed Sailor) plus he’s collaborated with Damien Jurado, Early Day Miners and more.

Ford has been the only constant member of Unwed Sailor, though Matthew Putman has played drums and added percussion since the outfit’s sophomore long-player from 2003, The Marionette and the Music Box. David Swatzell is the relative newbie of the group, though he was the guitarist on 2019’s Heavy Age, a self-released double-album that has been described as the byproduct of a “dark period” for Ford.

Conversely, Look Alive is said to derive from “a place of strength and inspiration.” After time spent with both records, there are a few passages on each where the specific circumstances and mindsets surrounding their making can be pinpointed, but it’s frankly much easier to discern the unity of style across the two releases as Unwed Sailor deliver a focused sound that’s energetic but also textured.

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Graded on a Curve:
Albert Ayler,
New Grass

Although some have managed to expand upon his groundbreaking intensity and flights of abstraction, Albert Ayler is one of the few sui generis figures in the history of jazz. An uncompromising player with only a small following in his lifetime in music, he cut a record in 1968 that initially seemed to satisfy nobody except for (perhaps) Ayler himself. That LP was New Grass, lambasted as a sell-out by those who favored his prior work, while less adventurous listeners weren’t buying. The album has been reevaluated since however, and Third Man has given it a vinyl reissue that’s available now. In the label’s storefronts and select indie shops it can even be found on coke bottle clear 180-gram wax with opaque green wisps.

I’ve been contributing to this column for over eight years, but until this piece, I haven’t delivered a full review of a record by Albert Ayler, who’s one of my favorite jazzmen, though I have included him in this site’s New In Stores column and in at least one group review. As this omission is remedied, I feel it should be immediately qualified that the term jazzman isn’t necessarily a tidy fit for Ayler’s brilliance.

Albert Ayler was certainly a man whose work falls inside the boundaries of jazz, so calling him a jazzman isn’t in error, but it still might give those unfamiliar with his work the false impression of a figure, sharply decked-out in a classic tailored suit maybe, who excelled at extending, through live gigs and studio sessions, the core tenets of Modern Jazz.

While innovators are surely jazzmen and vice versa, Ayler remains one of the ever-evolving form’s major freedom-seeking iconoclasts. In short, he’s best placed in the avant-jazz category, which means that for long stretches after his death in November 1970 (presumably by suicide, as his body was discovered in the East River of NYC) his music was difficult to obtain. This was especially true at the end of the 1980s, which is when I first learnt of his existence.

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Graded on a Curve: Joseph Spence,
Bahaman Folk Guitar: Music from the Bahamas, Vol. 1

There are a few utterly joyful experiences in this world, and one of them is the music of Joseph Spence. In 1958 while on a field recording expedition in the Bahamas, Samuel Charters captured Spence’s unique guitar playing and idiosyncratic singing; the combination is amongst the most infectious entries in the folk canon. Those tapes comprise Bahaman Folk Guitar: Music from the Bahamas, Vol. 1, first issued by Folkways in ’59, and has received a welcome reissue by the label, tucked into an old-school tip-on jacket with the original liner notes.

From Andros Island in the Bahamas and a stonemason by trade, Joseph Spence is one of folk music’s true originals. The notes to this reissue emphasize the importance of the guitar to Bahaman life during the period of its recording, and amongst no shortage of talent on the instrument, Spence was acknowledged as the best around. He tapped into the three threads of song popular in the island nation at that time; the older “anthem” songs, southern USA-derived spirituals, and the “folk songs” that accompanied dancing and enlivened parties.

When Charters first heard him, playing for workers as they built a house, the folklorist was convinced a second guitarist was accompanying him nearby. Later that day, on the other side of the settlement of Fresh Creek, Charters recorded Spence entertaining a small gathered audience. This LP offers the bulk of that impromptu session, a landmark in personal folk expression that resulted in subsequent releases on Elektra, Arhoolie, and Rounder.

I first read of Joseph Spence in Byron Coley’s “Underground” column in SPIN magazine, the April 1988 issue in fact, though by the time I caught up with it, that edition was about a year old. It took me good while longer than that to hear the guy’s stuff, as the store racks turned up nothing, and the same with the libraries in my area. Of the locals I consulted who were affirmative of Spence’s stature, none were record collectors. Those were the days.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
June 2020, Part Five

Part five of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for June, 2020. Part one is here, part two is here, part three is here, and part four is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Céu, APKÁ! (Six Degrees) This is the fifth release from the São Paulo, Brazil-based singer and composer Céu, but it’s the first I’ve heard. The blend of pop, electronic elements, dance rhythms, classic Brazilian song and even flashes of psychedelia has me excited to investigate her earlier stuff, though this set is being promoted as a metamorphosis for the artist (indeed, a chrysalis gets mentioned). She’s accompanied here by her producer-drummer husband Pupillo and a core band of familiars that includes Frenchman Hervé Salters on keyboards (he also co-produced). There are a few guests, with guitarist Marc Ribot among them, which I admit perked my interest right up, though the quality of Céu’s vocals and compositions had me shifting focus right quick.

Nine out of the eleven tracks are hers. In what’s described as a new move for Céu, she tackles a pair of outside compositions, specifically interpreting Caetano Veloso’s “Pardo” and a fresh piece, as she requested that Dinho from the group Boogarins write a song for the album (“Make Sure Your Head is Above”), a smart move as she and Ribot shine on the track. Overall, I’d guess that listeners into folktronica and Tropicalia should find this record right up their alley. The album also seems to have been out for a while, as a compact disc and vinyl was issued in Brazil last year (a green opaque club edition co-released by a few Brazilian entities), though Six Degrees is handling the distribution in the USA and Europe. My copy of APKÁ! arrived on CD, but I have noticed a vinyl pre-order online. Hopefully, it gets another pressing on wax, as the contents strike my ear as especially conducive to the format. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Sound of The San Francisco Christian Center, s/t (Cultures of Soul) Founded in 1954, The San Francisco Christian Center is noted as one of the first churches, circa the late ’60s, to welcome disaffected hippies. If you’ve studied up on the era, you know there was quite a few youngsters in the Bay Area fitting the description, as thousands seeking the idyllic liberation lifestyle poured into the region and were greeted with…something else. Frankly, the SFCC’s generosity was just a Christian thing to do, but mentioning it really gets to the good vibes positivity that emanates from the grooves of this reissue. The LP was initially self-released in 1978, with that edition (there have been no other pressings until now) highly sought after and very expensive. It features a killer band soaring under the direction of multi-instrumentalist and arranger Carl Fortier, with the results stylistically intersecting with the bold and lush motions of the same era’s pop-soul and R&B.

To be sure, this album effectively underscores the intrinsic connection between gospel and its secular genre descendant, soul, but folks who prefer their Christian sounds to be hotter and a little edgier and rawer need be prepared for the pure breadth that’s in evidence across this album, as Fortier and the band gained access to what sure sounds like a mellotron (there are also synths), which intensifies the lushness placing this as contemporary to ’70s Stevie and Earth, Wind & Fire. Another stated influence on the proceedings is the San Fran-based Andraé Crouch, with this association hopefully driving home the sounds on offer here. Still, as someone who gravitates to those wilder examples of gospel heat (as previously compiled by labels like Tompkins Square), I must relate how this LP completely won me over, as the sheer celebratory joie de vivre in the playing and singing ultimately proved impossible to resist. Originals have sold for hundreds of dollars, so this repress is a smart buy for those inclined. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Betty Davis,
The Columbia Years
1968-1969

For lovers of ultra-wicked funkiness, the name Betty Davis is an aphrodisiac of uncommon potency; a few years back her string of ’70s underground classics found deserving reissue by Light in the Attic, and the label has released her very enlightening late ’60s sessions. Cut prior to and during her brief marriage to trumpeter Miles Davis, The Columbia Years 1968-1969 illuminates a formative but highly productive period in the career of a considerable talent who remains too seldom heard.

Before getting hitched she was Betty Mabry; Miles nuts know it’s her picture on the cover of ’68’s Filles de Kilimanjaro and that the album’s closing track “Mademoiselle Mabry” is named after her. However, it’s important to note that she wasn’t discovered by Davis, having cut a pop single for Frank Sinatra arranger Don Costa’s DCP International label in ’64 as her song “Uptown” was covered by The Chambers Brothers on Time Has Come Today in ’67.

As related in John Ballon’s liner notes for this set, it was through her involvement in a group of trendsetting women known as the “Cosmic” or “Electric Ladies” that Miles came under her sway, with the impact of the younger on the older extending to the musical. This may seem questionable to casual observers given the hugeness of Miles’ legend, but the situation is borne out by the facts.

Mabry and her cohorts’ passion for the “avant-garde pop music” (in Miles’ description) of Hendrix, Sly Stone, and Santana opened the trumpeter’s eyes as he sat on the cusp of his electric period, with this connection having been previously articulated in Davis’ autobiography; the uncovering of these (astoundingly never bootlegged) vault recordings gives his statement even deeper credence.

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Graded on a Curve: Nicole Mitchell & Lisa E. Harris, EarthSeed

Born in Syracuse, NY, with time spent in California and Chicago, Nicole Mitchell is a flautist, composer, bandleader, and teacher. Hailing from Houston, TX, Lisa E. Harris is an interdisciplinary artist, performer, composer, and singer of striking, often operatic, power and feeling. The new release EarthSeed is their collaboration, inspired by the works of the late, very great and remarkably prescient science-fiction novelist Octavia E. Butler, and featuring Mitchell’s long-running Black Earth Ensemble with vocalist Julian Otis in a prominent role. The results demand the listener’s attention but also offer moments of humor along with marvelous singing and playing. It’s out June 26 on 2LP, CD, and digital through FPE Records.

EarthSeed is directly inspired by Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, Octavia E. Butler’s two novels from the 1990s, those books comprising her third thematic science-fiction series (after the Patternist and Xenogenesis collections) and the late-work (she passed on February 24, 2006, a year after publishing her final standalone novel Fledgling) that underscores her literary foresight in relation to the unpredictable, stressful and at times downright unsettling nature of current events.

With this said, per Mitchell in the PR for this release, “All the words and all the text in the music are ours, they’re not Octavia’s,” that is, “except for the word EarthSeed” (the cover art is “Patternmaster,” from Krista Franklin’s 2006 artist’s book SEED (The Book of Eve)). It’s also important to note that the music was recorded in performance at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Fullerton Hall on June 22, 2017 (by commission), and that Mitchell’s Butler-inspired work spans back to her Xenogenesis Suite from 2008 and Intergalactic Beings from 2014.

FPE’s background for EarthSeed also relates how Harris discovered Butler’s writing as she worked on her opera Lilith. This was four years prior to meeting Mitchell in New Orleans while attending the New Quorum Composers’ Residency (the other composers invited were Wadada Leo Smith and Damon Locks). Upon discovering their mutual appreciation for Butler’s books, they immediately decided to create as a team a work inspired by the author.

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Graded on a Curve: Fanny, Fanny

As they were the first all-female rock band to release an LP on a major label, you might be surprised that Fanny isn’t a household name, especially as they were a solid four-piece who in their first recording incarnation cut four albums for the Warner Brothers subsidiary Reprise. But the reality is that Fanny was terribly underappreciated during their initial existence and long since. It was an unfortunate situation, directly related to sexism while they were extant, though the subsequent lack of fervent cult following is a bit more complex. The best place to begin absorbing this worthy outfit’s story is at the beginning, as their self-titled debut from 1970 is freshly reissued June 26 on white vinyl by Real Gone Music.

Let’s be clear; Fanny do have a fanbase, one big enough but also niche enough that Rhino Handmade released the 4CD box set First Time In A Long Time: The Reprise Recordings back in 2002 in a limited edition of 5,000 copies. Indeed, Fanny’s history isn’t difficult to get acquainted with, and the same is true of their music as it’s been added to a handful of streaming sites. They even have a well-designed and maintained website, fannyrocks.com.

As Fanny’s background encourages a deep dive into how it all transpired, we’ll attempt a condensed version here and then proceed to engage with the contents of their debut. Sisters June and Jean Millington, California residents who were born in the Philippines, played first in the Svelts and then joined Wild Honey alongside Alice de Buhr. June played guitar, Jean bass, and Alice drums. Producer Richard Perry’s secretary caught them live and after hipping her boss, they were signed sans audition, with pianist Nickey Barclay added thereafter. Fanny was born.

Reprise reportedly entered into this situation expecting a novelty but got a surplus of talent. The band not only played their instruments with considerable skill and élan (unlike the prior norm of girl-group singers getting backed-up by studio and touring pros) but wrote their own high quality material, as well. All four sang, and that they were unusually astute interpreters of others’ compositions was the icing on the cake.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
June 2020, Part Four

Part four of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for June, 2020. Part one is here, part two is here and part three is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: V/A, The Longest Day – A Benefit for the Alzheimer’s Association (Mon Amie) The Alzheimer’s Association’s yearly fundraiser is called The Longest Day, and this year Mon Amie, the one-woman bedroom label run by Mona Dehghan, has released a compilation on double vinyl, CD and digital with 100% of the profits going to the foundation. Right on, Mona! Those ordering now will be emailed a download starting today (June 19), with physical copies scheduled to arrive by October 1. Here’s the full list of contributors, in sequence: Anna Calvi, Rituals of Mine, Daniel Avery, Cold Specks, TR/ST, Shadowparty, Beach Slang, New Order, HAAi, J. Laser, Sad13, Algiers, Astronauts, Etc., Wolfmanhattan Project (consisting of Mick Collins, Kid Congo Powers and Bob Bert), Hayden Thorpe & Jon Hopkins, Moby, and Rhys Chatham.

Dehghan is also part of the daily operations at Mute Records, specifically the senior director of marketing and project management, which likely helped in landing the second extended mix of New Order’s “Nothing but a Fool,” which makes its vinyl debut here. It sounds quite nice stretching out to over nine minutes, but it’s not even the best track. Those who know me might be guessing I’m giving the honor to Wolfmanhattan Project’s “Friday the 13th,” as I dig all those dudes. It’s a good one, but no. Beach Slang’s nifty cover of The Church’s “Under the Milky Way”? Nope. The anthemic ’80s-esque pop-rock of Shadowparty’s “Marigold”?  It makes me feel young, but nah. Thorpe and Hopkins’ cover of Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses” is close, but no cigar. The out-of-nowhere indie folk-tronic goodness of Moby’s “In Between Violence” is even closer, but I’m awarding the standout track to Chatham’s excellent “For Bob – In Memory (2014) for Flute Orchestra.” Dehghan saved the very best for last. A-

ONO, “Kongo” & “Mercy” 12-inch (Whited Sepulchre) Yes, this long-running and inspirational Chicago-based “Avant-Industrial Gospel” outfit received a new release pick in this column back on May 1 of this year for their album Red Summer (released on the American Dreams label), but there are a couple good reasons to spotlight the outfit again so soon. First, these two tracks derive from the Red Summer session and extend that record’s worthiness quite nicely. Second, as pointed out by Whited Sepulchre, the label is releasing this one-sided 12-inch (and three more, all reviewed below) on this day, that’d be June 19, aka Juneteenth, that Bandcamp is donating all of its profits to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. To align a purchase of this fiercely political record (perhaps paired with Red Summer, which is still available in a variety of physical formats) with Bandcamp’s gesture (which, per the company, will occur annually every Juneteenth hereafter) registers as a thoroughly righteous way to exercise freedom of the consumer. A-

Jaki Shelton Green, The River Speaks of Thirst (Soul City Sounds) Speaking of Juneteenth, this is the release day for the debut album from North Carolina’s Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green. Anybody with an interest in poetics with a focus on social justice should seek out a copy, as it’s on vinyl, CD and digital. Green has published eight books of poetry, so while The River Speaks of Thirst is her first recording, it documents a command of language that unwinds with substantial force and beauty. Her work is lacking in tangible flaws.

She’s also been reading publicly for decades and wields an edge that is at times wonderfully theatrical (check out “Letter From the Other Daughter of the Confederacy”). While musical elements and production techniques are heard throughout, most prominently in “A Litany for the Possessed,” they combine well with Green’s readings, as do the handful of guest voices, including Shirlette Ammons on the aforementioned track. However, it’s Green’s own words and delivery that elevate this record to such a rare plateau. Oh, and as Juneteenth is also Green’s birthday, there is a Zoom celebration from 6:30-8 PM today (liked on her Facebook page) for the LP’s release and her arrival date. Happy birthday! A

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Graded on a Curve:
Paul & Linda McCartney, Ram

Ram, the second post-Beatle LP from Paul McCartney has just been reissued through Hear Music. There are numerous ways for the uninitiated to acquaint oneself with its contents, but the best is likely the two-disc Special Edition. It presents the contents of this hard-fought classic alongside a second album of appropriate bonus material.

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.

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Graded on a Curve: Skinshape,
Umoja

Will Dorey, a London-based (by way of Swanage, UK) multi-instrumentalist and singer, commenced activities under the name Skinshape in the mid-’00s and has subsequently issued five full-lengths and four singles (one a split) on vinyl. Across those releases, he’s cultivated a generally trip-hoppy approach, infusing it with cinematic and psychedelic elements, and on Umoja, his latest on Lewis Recordings, excursions into World Music and Afrobeat in particular. Across this set, Dorey settles into grooves that’re unperturbed but too hearty to fit the descriptor of laidback, though it’s sure to be a fine listen during the upcoming warmer months. It’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital June 19.

The musical neighborhood where Will Dorey resides isn’t exactly underpopulated, but a perusal of his back catalog reveals him to be one of the more consistent practitioners of what we’ll succinctly call post- trip-hop. Less tersely, he blends aspects of old-school funk, soul, and of course, hip-hop (rhythms, not rappers) with touches of rock, often psychedelic in comportment. There are also nods to reggae, folk, jazz and even retro pop.

What I especially dig is how Dorey hasn’t gotten too refined as his discography has grown, and I say that as someone who felt a lot of early trip-hop fell victim to exactly this problem. Instead, Skinshape has maintained an appealing largeness in the rhythmic department as the ambitiousness has spread outward. While 2014’s Skinshape is likeable with the rudiments in place, it still hit the ear like a debut. But on each successive record, Oracolo (2015), Life & Love (’17), and Filoxiny (’18), ingredients were added to the recipe without ever drifting away from the project’s impetus.

This is derived from Dorey’s guitar playing and the singing (oftentimes his voice but just as regularly guest artists as the demands of individual tracks entail) alongside the punch of the rhythm. Another constant (and this relates back to the issue of refinement) is a preference for embodying classic sounds rather than striving for the cutting edge, though there is no mistaking that Skinshape is a contemporary endeavor.

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Graded on a Curve: Groupe RTD,
The Dancing Devils
of Djibouti

Ostinato Records, the New York City-based label dedicated to uncovering “Afrophone sounds from across the Atlantic and Indian Ocean” is back with their first studio-recorded release, sourced from Djibouti, an African nation where music is under complete control of the state. The Dancing Devils of Djibouti, by Groupe RTD is the first international release from the country, with its Bollywood-ish sax-infused funkiness captured in the compact recording timeframe of three days as allowed by government officials. However, the album never sounds rushed but is instead full-bodied and intense. It’s out digitally now and on 2LP with gatefold and in a hardback CD bookcase on June 19.

Groupe RTD, the creators of this set’s ten songs, aren’t just any band. They are described in the promo lit for this album as their country’s ceremonial outfit by day, performing as part of national events and welcoming foreign dignitaries, and as a vibrant groove machine by night. They consist of saxophonist Mohamed Abdi Alto, vocalists Asma Omar, Guessod Abdo Hamargod and Hassan Omar Houssein, drummer Omar Farah Houssein, keyboardist Moussa Aden Ainan, guitarist Abdirazak Hagi Sufi (aka “Kaajaa”), bassist Abdo Houssein Handeh, and Dumbek drummer Salem Mohamed Ahmed.

In 2016, Ostinato Records, founded and headed by Vik Sohonie, met with those in charge of the national broadcast organization Radiodiffusion-Télévision Djibouti (RTD) about raising the curtain of secrecy on the music of the young country (which only realized independence from French colonial rule in 1977). It took three years for the label to gain access to the vaults, which are described as holding thousands of reels of Somali and Afar music.

But that’s not what’s heard on The Dancing Devils of Djibouti, as Groupe RTD is an active outfit combining young talent and older masters. Since those archival reels have been assessed by Ostinato as some of the best preserved in Africa, their focus sensibly shifted to documenting the contemporary music of Groupe RTD before the opportunity passed, and in the process have brought wider exposure to a band that, up to now, has been completely unknown beyond Djibouti borders.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
June 2020, Part Three

Part three of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for June, 2020. Part one is here and part two is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Caleb Dolister, Daily Thumbprint Collection 3, The Wandering (Orenda) Although this is a digital-only release, Queens, NYC-based composer and drummer Dolister announced on June 5, 2020, that he will be donating and personally matching the June Bandcamp sales (up to an amount of $1,500) of this album, which has been ten years in the making, with the recipient Equal Justice Initiative, an organization devoted to racial justice and equality. The PR text further adds that while the release of Daily Thumbprint is of major personal significance to Dolister, he also believes “this is a time to maintain awareness on changing social and systemic issues for the better.” So again, while there is no physical format for this set (at least not at this point), this lack is small potatoes next to the positivity of Dolister’s gesture. And as the music is a vivid blend of avant-prog, jazzy elements, and post-rock (the label mentions post-jazz), spreading the word is an easy thing to do.

Now, the styles cited might lead folks to the possibility that Daily Thumbprint is a formidable beast, but that’s really not the case, as Dolister’s temperament, if open to the expression of technical deftness, ultimately leans more toward the melodic than the thorny. Bluntly, I wouldn’t have minded a little more wildness, but Dolister’s thrust is still appreciated, and there is enough heaviness to counterbalance the pleasantness of the grand compositional sweep. There is also a wide range of instruments (the rock rudiments, assorted horns and strings, piano, Fender Rhodes, vibraphone, mandolin, and harp) integrated into the mix, and played by two dozen individuals and necessitating considerable travels by Dolister and illuminating the decade spent in creating it. As said, I would’ve been happy with some crazier detours, but the comparisons to Tortoise, Electric Masada, Jaga Jazzist and others feels right on the money to me. A few of the heavy rock moves remind me a bit of the Ipecac family of bands. A-

Let It Come Down, Songs We Sang in Our Dreams (Shimmy Disc / Joyful Noise) The musical output of Kramer has been with me for nearly as long as I’ve been into the underground scene, as has his myriad credits as a producer and label runner. He was a member of Bongwater at that time, and had just started Shimmy Disc, which issued records by a slew of notable acts ranging from King Missile to GWAR to Boredoms to Ween to Naked City to a handful of his collaborations with such major figures as Jad Fair, Ralph Carney, Penn Jillette and more. He was also a member of New York Gong and the excellent Shockabilly (with David Licht and Eugene Chadbourne) and toured with The Fugs, Butthole Surfers and B.A.L.L. His production credits range from Daniel Johnston to Urge Overkill to Galaxie 500 to Low to Will Oldham. There are also over a half dozen solo records, including three for John Zorn’s Tzadik label.

To say the guy has had a distinguished career is an understatement, but it also seems he’s been nowhere near as busy recently as he was in the 1980s-’90s. So, Joyful Noise’s announcement that Kramer is their 2020 artist in residence is excellent news. As part of the endeavor, he’s releasing five distinct LPs this year, which will be compiled in a box set that’s available for preorder now. And the five albums effectively reignite Shimmy Disc’s engine, which is a fine turn of events. Let It Come Down, his duo project with the UK vocalist Xan Tyler, is the first, and it’s a sweet dose of neo-psychedelia that ranges from dream-pop to folktronica to more glacially-paced indie-chamber-folk action to even a sweet bossa move, and it all flows together damn well. Tyler has worker previously as half of synth-poppers Technique (with Kate Holmes) and extensively with dub maestro Mad Professor, so she’s no novice. Kramer’s input is typically assured, with a few instances of his trademark found audio sampling. A-

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