Author Archives: Joseph Neff

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Profligate, Too Numb to Know (Wharf Cat) Although three volumes of demo tapes have been released since, the last “new” full-length from Profligate, which is the work of songwriter Noah Anthony, was Somewhere Else, released in January 2018, his first for Wharf Cat. That record found him working in territory comparable to synth-pop but with injections of abrasiveness and a general mood that was nearer to darkwave (which isn’t 1,000 miles away from synth-pop, but still), and it was a strong enough effort to receive a new release pick in this column. Well, the writing of Anthony’s latest, which began in Philadelphia, continued after a move to Los Angeles, and then following the theft of a laptop, was restarted in Cleveland, makes significant inroads into the realms of songs over electronic environments, though Too Numb to Know is still aptly categorized as synth-pop (but with some rewardingly atypical use of electric guitar). However, as the title might suggest, the attitude (one could even say atmosphere) is nearer to dour than sunshiny, and that’s A-OK with me, bud. A-

Christopher Parker & Kelley Hurt, No Tears Suite (Mahakala Music) This CD features pianist Parker and vocalist Hurt’s composition, initially written in commemoration and celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine’s historic enrollment in their city’s Central High School. It’s a work of substantial richness and power that is only heightened by its connection to the Arkansas community, as Parker was born in North Little Rock. Additionally, the piece was composed for the literary magazine Oxford American, which is based in the city. It premiered in 2017 with a strong band that featured Parker, Hurt, Marc Franklin on trumpet, Chad Fowler on alto, Bobby LaVell on tenor, Bill Huntington on bass, and Brian Blade on drums, the lineup heard on the disc, which comes in an attractive, informative 6 panel package.

Fitting for its conception as a historical act of tribute and remembrance, No Tears Suite is a journey deep into the heart of jazz greatness as established by the form’s masterworks of the mid-20th century. Indeed, it’s almost scholarly in comportment, as Parker has studied and taught extensively, but that’s no fault, as there is also crucial warmth and verve. Consistently accessible throughout, Hurt’s contribution, which can described as serving a narrative function, is as pleasing to the ear as it is informative, and deepens the suite’s distinctiveness as the music is at times reminiscent of Mingus, Duke, Benny Golson’s work with Art Farmer, and Max Roach’s with Abbey Lincoln. Also, the release of No Tears Suite will be accompanied by a free streaming listen of the 2019 live performance from Little Rock featuring the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and with arrangements by the great bassist Rufus Reid. For the curious, it’ll serve as a fine introduction to Parker and Hurt’s work and will stand as a splendidly robust and wholly satisfying expansion for those who choose to immediately scoop up the studio recording. A / A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Rüstəm Quliyev, Azerbaijani Gitara (Bongo Joe) Born in 1969 in the village of Kosalar, Nagorno Karabakh, in the Republic of Azerbaijan (formerly part of the USSR), Quliyev’s music is a sweet find, well, a bittersweet find as he died young after a battle with lung cancer. Encountering the guitar while doing military service in Russia, but wasted no time in mastering it upon returning to Azerbaijan (he was already proficient on the tar and the saz), where he recorded frequently on cassettes released by small local labels, as well as playing weddings and appearing in TV. This is his first international release, made with the approval and input of Quliyev’s family, and it details a personal style that is assessed as a step (or steps) beyond the “already idiosyncratic” Azerbaijani guitar scene. Launching from his country’s traditional music, Quliyev incorporated a wealth of outside influences (Indian, Afghan, Iranian, Spanish) for an expansive, and dare I say psychedelic, ride. And after getting acclimated to the sound, “Yaniq Kerem” (track seven) hits the ear, and it’s like, “aww, yes…” A-

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Graded on a Curve:
A Certain Ratio,
ACR Loco

Starting in October of 2018 and then continuing last year, the Mancunian outfit A Certain Ratio received some well-deserved retrospective action via Mute Records, first the 2LP/ CD acr:set and then the 7LP/ 4CD ACR:BOX; now here’s ACR Loco, their first LP of new material since 2008, and it finds them in energetic and inspired form. It’s out September 25 on CD, cassette, and vinyl in a variety of colors: white, blue, red, or turquoise. The same day, the band and Mute are celebrating the release with the An Evening With ACR online event, which includes a live show from last year, a Q&A, the new album played live, and a DJ set from ACR Soundsystem. Tickets are available here.

When it comes to the combination of post-punk heft and funky dance-appropriate fervor, A Certain Ratio’s importance is commensurate with others of the same period who were dedicated to a comparable objective (e.g., ESG, Pigbag, Liquid Liquid, Konk, Pop Group, Delta 5, Gang of Four), and it should definitely be stressed that in the storied history of Factory Records, A Certain Ratio had established themselves as a highly rhythmic force prior to the recording of New Order’s first album.

However, for some, ACR’s lasting significance has been overly synopsized into the namechecking of “Shack Up,” their 1980 cover of a two-part funky-disco nugget from Banbarra, their sole single released in ’75 on the United Artists label. While “Shack Up” is indeed a whopper of a record (the original, ACR’s cover, and in some of its myriad interpolations via dance music/ DJ/ hip-hop culture since), A Certain Ratio’s career achievement has been substantially greater, as the size of ACR:BOX (comprised of singles, B-sides, rarities, unreleased material, and demos) helps to clarify.

ACR Loco is also their tenth full-length (excluding comps), though it is only the second album of new material they’ve released the 21st century. It’s suggested by bassist Jez Kerr that the boxset’s assemblage directly impacted the recording of this fresh offering, a sensible conclusion as ACR Loco incorporates sounds and styles from throughout their existence. Furthermore, the wide-ranging whole is heightened by cohesiveness and spirited execution that can be linked to the stated success of ACR’s recent tour.

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Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for September 2020, Part Two

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Osees, Protean Threat (Castle Face) Having undertaken yet another shift in moniker (which actually commenced with the release of the two-song “The 12” Synth” EP late last year), this highly productive Cali band (most prominently known as OCS and then a handful of variations on The Oh Sees) puts another full-length in the bins with nary a trace of creative fatigue. The contents are less prog-tastic than on their last couple, as they more often tap into a blend of art-punk and heavy psych but with a focus on grooves that can, at times, become considerably funky and less Krautrock-derived than on prior records. Plus, there is persistent synth gurgle and splatter that on a few occasions had me thinking of Chrome. Opening with enough speed and fuzz to give a room full of hardcore freaks a squeeze right where they want it, this aggressive forward motion gets alternated with some post-Wavoid herky-jerk spazz, but highly muscular, as is the Osees way. Things just roll from there. The record’s initial conception as a flowing, continuous piece is still quite tangible, and that’s just fine. A-

Jon Hassell, Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) (Ndeya) This set’s predecessor, Listening To Pictures (Pentimento Volume One), came out in June of 2018 and was the groundbreaking trumpeter’s first album in nine years; it also launched Hassell’s own label, which brought out a sterling vinyl reissue of Vernal Equinox, his 1977 debut, in March of this year. And so, Hassell’s achievements have been impacting my consciousness lately (Flash of the Spirit, his 1988 collab with Burkina Faso group Farafina, was reissued in February), but what’s foremost in my mind after soaking up Seeing Through Sound is how the man has not only not lost a step in terms of quality, but additionally, how fresh this album is in the context of the ambient genre in general and as a continuation of his Fourth World ethos more specifically. Occasionally, pioneering musicians end up getting overtaken by subsequent advancements from the hoards they influenced, but that’s not the case with Hassell, in part because his work is so eclectic that it remains resistant to imitation. That’s why Seeing Through Sound is up top. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: V/A, The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us From Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business (Archeophone) Of the three Archeophone releases covered in this column this week (which shape up the label’s Spring 2020 entries to their catalog), this one is the most purely enjoyable while simultaneously providing revelatory insight into the recorded history of early jazz, so it gets the archival pick even though it’s CD-only. It does come with a 31-page booklet loaded with info from essayist Colin Hancock, the text detailing Gus Haenschen’s long career in music, which started in St. Louis with tutelage from Scott Joplin shortly after the turn of the 20th century, with the formation of his own orchestras (responsible for the first six cuts on this set) following. After that, he served in the Navy during WWI, then moved to NYC, where he became the Director of Popular Music for Brunswick Records. Essentially, he was a talent coordinator, record producer, and occasional session player (his writing of tunes, which was sometimes pseudonymous, is less in evidence as the disc progresses).

Haenschen’s own bands were boldly innovative, but what makes The Missing Link such a treat is how the subsequent music he directed pushed jazz forward rather than simply popularizing it. As evidence, “San” by the Mound City Blue Blowers features Frankie Trumbauer on C-Melody saxophone. That track’s jumpy jug-band zest is one of this CD’s highlights, coming late in the sequence, so don’t worry about a dissipation of gusto as the tracks progress. Charlie Chaplin’s guest conducting of Abe Lyman’s California Orchestra on “With You, Dear, in Bombay” is additionally of note, though I never would have known if they hadn’t told me (‘twas a publicity stunt). That the closing version of Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” cut in 1924 by Herb Wiedoeft’s Cinderella Roof Orchestra, is as pleasurable as the one recorded by Haenschen’s Banjo Orchestra in 1916 reinforces The Missing Link’s worthiness both historically and as pure listening experience (provided of course, that one digs material of this vintage). A

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Graded on a Curve: Reverend John Wilkins, Trouble

Reverend John Wilkins can be described as a specialist in the sanctified blues, but that’s really only the tip of his stylistic iceberg. As the son of noted pre-war bluesman (and also ordained minister) Robert Wilkins, there is a firm North Mississippi root in his work, but more prominent is the sound of soul and even a well-integrated turn toward country gospel. Although he has been playing music and preaching for decades, Trouble is only Wilkins’ second album, but it’s an assured one, cut at Royal Studios in Memphis, TN with family and friends and engineered by Willie Mitchell’s son Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell with production by Amos Harvey. It’s out on vinyl (300 blue, 500 black) and compact disc September 18 through Goner Records.

To start, we should shed light on the achievements of Reverend Robert Wilkins, first as a blues singer and guitarist for the Victor and Brunswick labels from 1928-1936 including such major sides as “Old Jim Canan’s,” “Rollin’ Stone” (an influence of Muddy Waters’ later bombshell of the same title), and “That’s No Way to Get Along,” this last one likely better-known in its later gospel version, reworked, extended and renamed by Wilkins as “Prodigal Son” (covered by The Rolling Stones on Beggars Banquet).

If reliably placed in the country-blues category, Robert Wilkins is more aptly classified as a songster in his pre-war days, with the breadth of his talent well expressed by Yazoo’s compilation The Original Rolling Stone. This is all worth mentioning in relation to his son John (one of seven children), as Trouble thrives on diversity while keeping a firm grip on Southern gospel tradition with an underpinning of Hill Country blues (Wilkins has been a pastor at Hunter’s Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Como, MS since 1983).

What is Hill Country blues, you might be asking? In short, it’s a rhythmically driving, often hypnotic style from the North Mississippi region that’s distinct from the sound of the Delta; its celebrated exemplars include Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Robert Belfour, and Jessie Mae Hemphill. The North Mississippi fife and drum bands (Sid Hemphill, Othar Turner, Napoleon Strickland) are closely related to the Hill Country style.

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Graded on a Curve: Jeremy D’Antonio, “Spinning Wheels” EP

Jeremy D’Antonio, who currently hangs his hat in San Geronimo, CA, has been in few bands over the years, but with the “Spinning Wheels” EP he’s stepping out as a solo artist. More descriptively, he’s embracing the singer-songwriter mode of expression while dipping into the reservoir of old-school country, but with a satisfying grasp on that long tradition and an appealing lack of hang-ups over authenticity. There is rich vocalizing, solid playing from an assembled crew that includes a few gents who played with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and four songs that hold up nicely next to a full-bodied John Prine cover. It’s out September 18 on clear vinyl through Track Records.

Of Jeremy D’Antonio’s prior bands, the ones that folks are most likely to know are Tiny Television and San Geronimo, with the former having morphed into the latter after a move from San Francisco. But before that, while D’Antonio was living in Colorado, he was in the heavily Dischord Records-inspired Fahrenheit 451; it’s unclear if that unit ever recorded (as you might imagine, their choice of moniker makes web research a wee bit difficult), but they did once open for Fugazi, which D’Antonio relates as a fond memory.

This youthful, punk-inclined background contrasts pretty sharply with the sound heard on “Spinning Wheels,” but I’ll suggest that D’Antonio’s range of activity, as he’s additionally a contributor to Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s current live band, helps build the foundation of this EP’s success. Another block in the architecture is sequencing, as “Sad and Blue” kicks off the record in a honky-tonk-infused vein and with a touch of humor in the lyrics.

The opening line, “I’m sorry that I left you on your birthday,” led me to think of something Steve Goodman might’ve penned in the early ’70s, but just as noteworthy is how the cut finds D’Antonio’s strumming and singing joined by the pedal steel of Jay Dee Maness, the piano of Malcolm Burn, the drumming of Jim Christie, the guitar of Eugene Moles, and the bass of Lindsey Brown, plus some backing vocal enhancement in the choruses (the credited singers are Jessica DeNicola, Jen Corte, and Darren Nelson).

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Grex, Everything You Said Was Wrong (Geomancy) To begin, this album’s release is being celebrated with the Lockdown Festival 3 livestream on Saturday September 5 at 4pm-9pm PDT, which will be streaming on Facebook and YouTube. Second, the album’s release is a fundraiser, with the proceeds supporting the heroes at the ACLU and the work and health of another great hero, the drummer and teacher Milford Graves. Third and most important, Grex is the core duo of Karl Evangelista and Rei Scampavia, both multi-instrumentalists, though he is distinguished by his guitar playing and she by her singing. Evangelista also provides some words, but they are gruff and at times reminiscent of u-ground hip-hop, which was not something that sprang to mind when reviewing Grex’s prior release Electric Ghost Parade. On that record, I was struck by guitar reminding me of Sonny Sharrock and Nels Cline. The playing here is still sharp but is only one facet amongst many on a sweet post-category release. A-

Jesse Draxler, Reigning Cement (Federal Prisoner) Each of the 22 tracks here is credited to a different person, collaboration or group, so this can be described as a compilation, but it’s better assessed as an audio-visual/ conceptual art project that combines a 100-pg book of Draxler’s photographs and collages, noted as location-specific (Los Angeles), with a vinyl record of music by artists all handpicked by Draxler. To get a little deeper, the musicians were all provided with the same 34 sonic elements recorded by Drexler with which to create their piece; the only additional ingredient allowed was vocals if they so desired. Rather than include the entire list of contributors here, I’ll just say that much of the contents belong to the noise camp, with some entries abstract and others structural in a manner reminiscent of the Industrial genre at its most sonically extreme, but also, Japanoise purveyors like Masonna and Merzbow. However, some selections do depart from a tendency for surliness and abrasion, emitting dance thump and even a few poppish turns. It’s all dark, though. Vinyl+book in an edition of 500. A-

Emily Barker, A Dark Murmuration of Words (Thirty Tigers) This is Barker’s fourth solo album, though she has more than doubled that number of releases as a member of groups and in collaborations spanning back to 2003. A native of Australia, she’s resided in the UK for a while now, and her work has occasionally been tagged as Americana; Barker’s last album, 2017’s Sweet Kind of Blue, was recorded in Memphis at Sam Phillips’ joint. Her work on this follow-up can just as easily be categorized as folk, with the string arrangements (by Barker, Misha Law, and Emily Hall) emphasizing Britishness that’s contrasted by the desire for a more contemporary sound, though this aim should be contextualized as possessing tastefulness, restraint mingled with boldness, and a simultaneous desire to extend from folk classicism as a reservoir of beauty. Barker is a fine singer, her songs carry emotional heft, the playing is rich and instrumentally diverse, and “Machines” even kicks up a little racket. Very nice. A-

Andrew Wasylyk, Fugitive Light and Themes of Consolation (Athens of the North) This is the third in a trio of instrumental records from multi-instrumentalist Wasylyk, who was (and is likely still) a member (as Andrew Mitchell) of The Hazey Janes, a Scottish indie pop act of whom my impression has been mostly positive (he’s also played in Idlewild). The stated intent with these three records is to evoke the Eastern Scottish landscape, and without ever having been there, I’ll say he’s done a solid job of it, The selections on Fugitive Light, as on the prior entries, can be described as cinematic (one might also draw a subtle connection to post-rock). Wasylyk mostly plays guitars and keyboards across these ten selections, but also notably harp in the album highlight “(Half-Light Of) The Cadmium Moon,” which reinforces the influence of Alice Coltrane. As on the prior installment The Paralian from last year, Pete Harvey of King Creosote and Modern Studies contributes string arrangements, but it’s Wasylyk’s input that registers most strongly, and I’ll conclude by saying this is the best of his solo conceptual bunch. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Five from Black Jazz Records

Those looking to fortify their collections with some prime ’70s indie label jazz just hit the jackpot, as Real Gone Music is reissuing selections from the catalog of Black Jazz Records, including founder Gene Russell’s New Direction, Walter Bishop Jr.’s Coral Keys, The Awakening’s Hear, Sense and Feel, Doug Carn and Jean Carn’s Spirit of the New Land, and Kellee Patterson’s Maiden Voyage. With the exception of Patterson’s album, which arrives on September 25, all are out now on wax, with Russell’s album, Black Jazz’s debut, issued in the first drop of Record Store Day 2020.

Although there have been some recent questions regarding who exactly owned the label, it’s indisputable that pianist Gene Russell was the creative force behind Black Jazz Records, which makes it highly appropriate to begin this consideration of Real Gone’s reissues with New Direction, even as it isn’t necessarily representative of what was to come.

Released in 1971, New Direction is essentially a piano trio, with drums by Steve Clover and bass by either Henry Franklin or Larry Gates, and the lineup augmented on a few tracks with congas, notably played by drummer Tony Williams. The album consists entirely of cover selections, and has a decidedly soul-jazz feel; on one hand, it can be described as a blend of Ahmad Jamal, Red Garland and Ramsey Lewis, but with a welcome predilection for bluesy numbers.

However, the record opens with the Cal Tjader tune “Black Orchid,” which also began and titled a 1962 album for Blue Note from The Three Sounds, and furthermore concludes with “Makin’ Bread,” a song credited to Gene Harris, the pianist for The Three Sounds, the original of which can be found, titled as “Makin’ Bread Again,” on the ’67 Blue Note set Live at the Lighthouse.

Interestingly, Black Jazz released “Black Orchid” and “Makin’ Bread” as a 7-inch, reinforcing how The Three Sounds’ accessible brand of piano trio motion was very much on Russell’s mind. A version of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” drives the pop-jazz sensibility home even further, though the soul-jazz verve helps keep matters from ever getting innocuous. If not amazing, New Direction holds up as a pretty strong showing.

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Graded on a Curve: Johnny Iguana,
Johnny Iguana’s
Chicago Spectacular!

You may know Johnny Iguana as the founder, pianist and chief songwriter for the Chicago-based indie-blues act The Claudettes, but before that he was the keyboardist for Windy City blues giant Junior Wells. Additionally, playing with Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, and Eddy Clearwater, he’s an undisputed purveyor of the blues’ uncut essence. This reality gets driven home a dozen times on Johnny Iguana’s Chicago Spectacular!, wherein he conjures a massive sound from the ivories as he is joined by a sturdy crew of the city’s blues survivors, amongst them Billy Boy Arnold on vocals and harmonica and Lil’ Ed on vocals and guitar. The CD is out now on Delmark Records, a sure sign of quality.

Chicago Spectacular!’s cover is adorned with the additional descriptor A grand and upright celebration of Chicago Blues piano, a statement borne out through eight fresh interpretations of blues classics, most all of them with a Windy City connection, but with four original Iguana compositions (credited to his birth name Brian Berkowitz) diversifying the whole, all instrumentals and all familiar from the output of The Claudettes.

The breadth derives from the instrumental scheme as well as compositionally, with the originals featuring a distinct lineup of Bill Dickens on bass and Michael Caskey of The Claudettes on drums. Notably, guitar is absent on these cuts as they can occasionally insinuate pop-jazz piano trio grooving, but substantially heavier; however, as Bill Dahl mentions in his liner notes for the set, Mose Allison was an inspiration for the soloing in “Hammer and Tickle.” Still, there’s enough post-boogie-woogie oomph in the cut to remind me a bit of Pinetop Perkins’ later work.

Along with its title evincing a humorous side, “Land of Precisely Three Dances” hits a sweet spot between fleetness and stomp, its outburst of handclaps delivering the icing on the cake. Furthermore, the name “Big Easy Women” underscores a New Orleans feel that perseveres even as the momentum and sheer forcefulness rise to a striking plateau (Iguana’s love of punk rock a la Minutemen, Wire, and Hüsker Dü is readily apparent).

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Graded on a Curve:
Trader Horne,
Morning Way

The Brit folk scene of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s was a deeper happening than a casual observer might suppose, and prime evidence is offered by the duo of Judy Dyble and Jackie McAuley. Borrowing John Peel’s nickname for his nanny, they called themselves Trader Horne and in 1970 cut a terrific LP for Pye Records’ underground subsidiary Dawn. 

At a glance it would seem that Judy Dyble is uncommonly familiar with the precipice of fame. To begin, she was replaced in Fairport Convention by Sandy Denny before the group broke big (in context). But if overshadowed her contribution was far from negligible; there’s the sunshiny psych-folk of the debut single’s “If I Had a Ribbon Bow” plus two Joni Mitchell interpretations, “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” and “Chelsea Morning,” strengthening the eponymous first album. She also co-wrote the nifty instrumental “Portfolio” with Ashley Hutchings.

She’s further noted as a pioneer in multitasking, knitting scarves and dishcloths onstage while her bandmates took flight. Shortly thereafter she was out of the Fairport picture, and it was around this point that she guested on The Incredible String Band’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, lending her voice to “The Minotaur’s Song.”

Dyble’s second dalliance with wide recognition came in the prelude to King Crimson, specifically as a contributor to Giles, Giles, & Fripp. A handful of tracks on The Brondesbury Tapes carry her mark, most notably “I Talk to the Wind,” the alternative to Greg Lake additionally collected on A Young Person’s Guide to King Crimson. Just as interesting but significantly less retrospectively cited is her brief spot on “Ashes of the Empire/The End” from G.F. Fitz-Gerald’s Mouseproof.

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICK: Fay Wildhagen, Leave Me to the Moon (Live in Oslo) (Warner Music Norway) While she’s tersely described as a Norwegian folk-pop singer-songwriter, that shortchanges the strength of Wildhagen’s vocalizing and doesn’t even touch upon her guitar skills, which are considerable. There is also a grand, dare I say Nordic, sweep to her work, that on this performance document spills forth with a flowing continuity eschewing the familiar trappings of a live recording (at least in the audio I was provided); there’s no explication or conversation, but also a lack of applause, which gets back to the flow, or as said, the sweep, of the music as it progresses. There are a few spots where this sweep borders on becoming too grand (and in a manner akin to other music from Wildhagen’s geographical region), but this impulse is ultimately kept in check, and overall, Leave Me to the Moon serves as a highly engaging introduction to the artist. B+

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Galaxie 500, Copenhagen (20/20/20) Having been lucky enough to catch a show by this band at the old, dank 9:30 Club in Washington, DC (with Velocity Girl opening) on their tour for their final studio album This is Our Music, I was truly gassed when this live recording hit stores in 1997, particularly as offering selections from all three of their LPs on the last show of their final European tour, it was roughly of the same vintage as the show I witnessed. After spending time with Copenhagen back then, I was pleased but also struck by the air of a fantastic band nearing the end of their time together, something I hadn’t picked up on as they played in front of me, or after; I walked out onto 14th St. that night elated that they’d encored with “Ceremony.” Over time, the bittersweet feeling inspired by Copenhagen subsided and I was left with some fine music. It’s hard to pick a favorite from the set, but Wareham’s guitar in “Summertime” is massive. A-

Ned Lagin, Seastones: Set 4 and Set 5 (Important) Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, and Mickey Hart all contribute to this LP, with Round Records, the short-lived label founded by Garcia and Ron Rakow, having initially released it in 1975, so it’s kind of impossible to contemplate this serving of experimental electronics without also thinking about the Grateful Dead. But hey, David Crosby, Spencer Dryden, Grace Slick, and David Frieberg are here, too. I can recall hitting this record store in Northern VA a few times a year in the early 1990s, and on every visit, I’d see the same copy of this LP. Due to the title I assumed it was just ocean sounds and paid it no further mind. Well, I bring it up because that record is not this record. The covers are different, sure, but so is the music, as this edition assembles 18 tracks from the Seastones undertaking (which totals 83, the whole bunch self-released by Lagin on 2CD in 2018), some from the original LP, some not. Academics were in Lagin’s background, but his sounds encompass more than conservatory-spawned electronic abstraction. Much more, including proto-New Age and space drift. A-

V/A, The Land of Sensations & Delights: The Psych Pop Sounds of White Whale Records, 1965–1970 (Craft Recordings) My introduction to White Whale came by sponging up second-hand copies of The Turtles’ back catalog, and I suspect I’m not alone in this route of discovery. Well, The Turtles aren’t on this comp, as after a long stretch of bad litigiousness on the part of White Whale’s operators, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman own their catalog. Craft currently owns the rest of the discography, and they’ve put together a doozy of a 2LP here, with the contents really illuminating the label’s multipronged specialties of garage-rock, pop-psych, sunshine-pop, baroque-pop, and even borderline bubblegum. Not every non-Turtles killer the label put out is here, which bodes well for an additional installment or even two, but The Laughing Gravy’s cover of The Beach Boys’ “Vegetables” is, and so is The Clique’s “Superman.” But there are 24 more, and it suffices to say that anybody who’s ever gotten gooseflesh while listening to “Care of Cell 44” should be satisfied with this one. A-

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Daniel Blumberg, On&On (Mute) A record exceeding my expectations is always a wonderful thing. Not that my anticipation gauge was set low for this effort by Blumberg, it’s just that I missed his 2018 debut for Mute, Minus, and mainly knew him as the former guitarist for the band Yuck. Now, I thought Yuck was just fine, but in my experience, they were ultimately just one band amongst many, and the scoop with On&On is that in an even larger field of singer-songwriters, Blumberg stands apart. It’s worth noting that Blumberg left Yuck after their first album (before that, he was in Cajun Dance Party, whom I don’t think I’ve ever heard), and subsequent to his departure, he’s been up to some interesting things, though I learned of these activities only after being struck by the quality of his newest record. That On&On was released by Mute was enough for me to cue up the music without further PR browsing.

Had I read up first, and saw that the record comes with an essay from esteemed writer and musical-thinker David Toop, and learned that the song-cycle was inspired by Blumberg catching performances by Keiji Haino (the two have collaborated) at Café Oto in London, and noticed that the band for this record features Ute Kanngiesser (cello), Billy Steiger (violin), Tom Wheatley (double bass), and Jim White (drums), this lineup retained from Minus, but with Elvin Brandhi adding electronics, and discovered that On&On was recorded by Peter Walsh (who worked with the late Scott Walker); well, those expectations of mine would’ve been set considerably higher, and what’s more, would’ve been met. Blumberg’s foundation is folky, and one could even call it indie-folk, but it gets infused with avant-garde elements, often with a chamber string comportment (not baroque, however), though the emotionalism of “Silence Breaker” and “On&On&On&On” really validate the Haino connection. “Teethgritter” is a lyrically sharp strummer with nifty injections of string scrape. Superb all-around. A

V/A, Total 20 (Kompakt) This is indeed volume 20 in Kompakt’s annual series of techno compilations, and as electronic dance music is a genre where high quality and longevity aren’t commonly shared traits, that Total 20 maintains the standard established across the prior two decades is worthy of note alongside deserved anniversary commemoration. But here’s something else; the music that fortifies the Total series (and by extension, the Kompakt label overall) is club music at its impetus, which is kind of an obvious thing to say,  but I had to be reminded of it, or more specifically, that 2020, while a horrendous year with a little over four months to go, has been especially hard on club culture. With this in mind, Total 20 flicks my switch with a little more gusto than usual, but I can also detach from the sentimentality of Kompakt’s persistence and say that the bangers in this nearly three-hour run-time are doing more than just banging, while the pop-angled numbers are inventive and inspired. Kudos! A-

Alan Braufman, The Fire Still Burns (Valley of Search) Alto saxophonist Braufman’s Valley of Search, which was released in 1975 by the India Navigation label and reissued to much acclaim (including my long review for TVD) in 2018, is a rediscovered gem of loft-era NYC free jazz gush, and this new set, with Braufman’s longtime friend and collaborator Cooper-Moore returning on piano from the earlier recording, is clearly intended as an extension of aesthetic principles, with the very title driving this home. However, Braufman has grown compositionally (all the pieces are his) in the decades since and embraced a few accessible melodic motifs, hitting an apex in this regard with “Alone Again,” and with finale “City Nights” even dishing a borderline groove cooker. These developments set this LP apart, but ultimately for the better, even as I’m likely to always prefer the wildness of ’75.

But it should be emphasized that there are passages of abstract scorch here that are quite thrilling, especially “No Floor No Ceiling” and “Creation.” Along with Cooper-Moore, the band consists of James Brandon Lewis on tenor, Ken Filiano on bass, Andrew Drury on drums, and on “Morning Bazaar” and “City Nights,” Michael Wimberly on percussion. Those familiar with Valley of Search will note the added saxophone, while Braufman plays a little flute on “Block Party,” a selection that reminds me of something Pharoah Sanders and Andrew Hill might’ve conjured up in the mid-’70s. As The Fire Still Burns plays, Jackie McLean’s slept-on Hipnosis album, specifically side two dating from ’67, came to mind, though it’s the openness of Don Cherry’s work, particularly his two ’60s discs for Blue Note, that get cited by Braufman and Cooper-Moore as influential, and I can hear that, too. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Six from Fire Records for Record Store Day 2020

The first drop of 2020’s Covid-19-impacted Record Store Day is nearly upon us, but before we get there, here’s one more spotlight on a label with multiple recordings on deck for August 29. More accurately, we’re talking six releases from Fire Records and its subsidiaries Earth Recordings and Call of the Void. Like the majority of RSD product, the half dozen below are all either reissues or archival material, but the studio albums from The Groundhogs, Throwing Muses, Josephine Foster, and Pigbag are all solid choices, as is the live recording of Bert Jansch, and the soundtrack to Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie is downright inspired. There’s little time to waste, so let’s take a look…

Split, the fourth album from UK blues-rockers The Groundhogs, wasn’t quite as ambitious as their prior set, 1970’s Thank Christ for the Bomb, but the first side of this ’71 effort does consist of the title track in four (distinct) parts, so it’s not like they regressed into 12-bar hackery. Christ was reissued by Fire last year along with a second disc of material, and as the full title Split + Extras should make clear, the generosity is repeated here.

Due to their trio reality, with the considerable guitar prowess of Tony T.S. McPhee front and center (bassist Peter Cruickshank and drummer Ken Pustelnik complete the lineup), The Groundhogs often get likened to Cream (sometimes not favorably), an association deepened by McPhee’s mild vocal similarity to Jack Bruce. However, a better comparison is probably to Ten Years After.

What The Groundhogs share with Cream, Ten Years After, and with blues-rock outfits in general are accusations of running already worn out ideas into the ground. But as mentioned above, the ‘hogs were openly exploring possibilities bordering on progressive (if not capital p Prog) while maintaining an appealing heaviness. I happen to rate the Groundhogs higher than Alvin Lee and co., and while their best stuff doesn’t reach the same heights as Cream, I’d say they were more consistent (a contentious viewpoint, I’m sure). McPhee is a burner and not a showoff, so Endless Boogie fans should take note.

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Graded on a Curve:
Alan Vega,
Alan Vega

Although he’s departed this mortal, the spirit of Alan Vega remains vital to contemporary music, mainly through his work as the vocal half of the groundbreaking unit he formed in the early ’70s with keyboardist Martin Rev. Today, Suicide is justly celebrated as one of punk’s most beautifully twisted and truly sui generis outfits, but the appreciation hasn’t really spilled over to the solo careers of either member. Out of print for decades, the contents of Vega’s self-titled 1980 debut highlight a ’50s rockabilly-ish approach that’s loose, non-studious, and yet thoroughly sincere.

Solo albums generally work best when they provide some sort of departure from the artist’s main gig, and Alan Vega surely fits that bill. Suicide’s second album (titled Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev), illuminates the duo’s connection to synth-pop and electronica; Alan Vega was released shortly afterward, and is succinctly described as an off kilter early rock ‘n’ roll experience, landing halfway between revamp and throwback.

How so exactly? Well, the record’s opener gets right down to business, with “Jukebox Babe” clearly indebted to the hip-swiveling swagger and vocal affirmations (i.e. a whole lot of “uh-huh”s) of Elvis in his spring chicken days. Overall, the results sport an unserious vibe, and it’s easy to imagine it pissing off more than a few purists, but simultaneously, the formally recognizable nature of the tune scored Vega an unlikely hit in France. Or maybe not so unlikely, as the region has been a reliably enthusiastic locus of rockabilly and roots fandom for a long fucking time.

The distaste of those purists was possibly deepened by the slimmed-down nature of the proceedings, with Phil Hawk playing the guitar and Vega orchestrating everything else. The study in minimalism doesn’t subside, with “Fireball”’s strategic repetition (and the vocals, natch) obviously recalling Suicide, but with a flavor that’s ultimately distinct. The spurts of reverbed keyboards throughout the track accentuate the contempo angle, but its more interesting how Vega simultaneously toys with and remains true to the essence of early rock ‘n’ roll; born in 1938, he saw the stuff unfold firsthand.

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Guided by Voices, Mirrored Aztec (GBV Inc) The Guided by Voices recipe consists of classic ingredients: hypothetically, that crotchety uncle of yours who hasn’t bought a new record since Steel Wheels should be a huge fan, but you know your uncle; he’s not down with GBV. In the early days, it was exceedingly short songs and lo-fi atmospheres that kept Pollard and crew from being mistaken as neo-trad pop-rock, but as time wore on and something resembling normalcy set in, the appealing eccentricities of the leader’s personal approach set matters apart right up to that long farewell lap in 2004. Post-comeback, much of the discussion has been about Pollard’s freakish prolificacy and consistency of goodness, of which there is really no precedent, except maybe for a while, The Fall. The big diff is Bob’s Warholian quality grip on distilling those classic elements (possibly another reason your uncle doesn’t like GBV) so they’re recognizable, but not the same. So it is with Mirrored Aztec. A-

Erasure, The Neon (Mute) I’m old enough to recall Vince Clarke and Andy Bell, the duo comprising Erasure, bursting onto the ’80s synth-pop scene, and while I enjoyed them back then I’ll confess to not keeping up…well, I really haven’t kept up, as The Neon is their 18th studio album. I can’t say I’ve heard more than six, but I do own the first three, and this tidy set retains, against considerable odds, the inspired, effervescent appeal of their early work. Something I’ve always admired about Clarke, going all the way back to Depeche Mode’s Speak & Spell, is his unabashed preference for pop in a classic tradition, dealing lyrically in tried-and-true themes minus angst, while as a singer, he’s a crooner at heart (which works well as maturity sets in). Not only are the songs surprisingly sturdy on this set, they get a little stronger as the finale approaches, with the best two sequenced at the end. Overall, in pure synth-pop terms, The Neon can serve as a tutorial for the style’s endless Johnnies and Janes come lately. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Tom Tom Club, S/T (Real Gone) The 1981 debut from Chris Franz’s and Tina Weymouth’s side-project in downtime from Talking Heads has been reissued on wax numerous times by Real Gone, so this could be considered a lazy choice for pick status, but this go-round, which is on tropical yellow and red vinyl as a tribute to the recording’s location of Barbados, is already listed as sold out on the label’s website, and the release date isn’t until Aug 21. This obviously underscores the love that’s accrued for the record over the years (which is interesting, as my recollection from the late ’80s is that many at the time, at least out in the ‘burbs, considered it something of a curiosity), but it also reflects its influence. I’ve positively reviewed a slew of releases that are frankly unimaginable without Tom Tom Club’s existence, and I feel like a stupe for not giving it more props. A robust dose of Downtown NYC, with deep cuts that don’t falter. I adore “Under the Boardwalk.” A

Alan Wakeman, The Octet Broadcasts 1969 and 1979 (Gearbox) In rock circles, and specifically the prog sphere, saxophonist Alan Wakeman is recognized for his playing in Soft Machine, appearing on the 1976 album Softs, and for playing on a string of records by his countryman, David “Rock On” Essex. But I’m guessing aficionados of British jazz will know him best for his work in the groups of Mike Westbrook, Graham Collier, Johnny Dankworth, and Barry Guy. However, as this release makes clear, he also led his own band, with these previously unreleased radio broadcasts for the BBC a delightful surprise, featuring two different octets across two discs on LP (and a single CD) with a bunch of notables on hand including reedman Mike Osborne (’69), drummer Paul Lytton (’69), tenor saxophonist Art Theman (’79), and pianist Gordon Beck (’79).

Plus, saxophonist Alan Skidmore and trombonist Paul Rutherford play in both bands, which lends cohesiveness to the collection, though the later broadcast really spotlights Wakeman’s compositional growth over the course of a decade. But this isn’t to diminish the material from ’69, which is a wonderful combination of Ellington, Mingus, and free jazz. The then nascent avant movement isn’t ever-present in either broadcast, but there is a wild blast at the start of ’69’s “Merry-Go-Round” that is reminiscent of an especially out session released on the BYG or FMP label. There are still elements of freedom in the ’79 set, which is an abbreviation (at the point of broadcast, not on the release) of Wakeman’s chess-inspired suite Chaturanga, but it might be better to describe the later work as “advanced.” As it played, Mike Gibbs’ big band crossed my mind, which means I was thinking good thoughts. This release comes with all the radio show intros from both broadcasts, a definite value addition. A terrific archival find. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Six from ORG Music for Record Store Day 2020

Six of ORG Music’s Record Store Day 2020 releases are available on August 29, so we’re spotlighting the wide-ranging selections in a separate article today in hopes of stirring up the desired retail action at the end of the month. The list features reissues from the Nat Turner Rebellion, Marion Brown, and Mia Doi Todd, compilations of ’50s Sun Records blues and contemporary cover tunes initially cut for the Aquarium Drunkard website’s Lagniappe Sessions, plus the debut full-length from Sock-Tight, which is the duo of bassist Mike Watt and visual artist Raymond Pettibon. Cats, let’s get crackin’…

Philadelphia’s Nat Turner Rebellion released a few singles at the dawn of ’70s, discs the ever-diligent brigade of heavy-duty soul diggers are likely already knowledgeable about with eyes peeled for backup copies. Laugh to Keep From Crying collects those 45s and adds a few unreleased selections to shape the outfit’s unrealized LP. It came out last year as a Vinyl Me Please club edition but gets a wide release with a different cover through ORG in an edition of 1,000.

Blending together the budding Philly soul sound of the era, elements of Motown-ish psychedelia, a decidedly Family Stone-like tendency (a la organ and stinging rock guitar), and as the moniker indicates, a heaping helping of socially inclined themes, the record unwinds enjoyably enough, with the (possibly faux) sitar injections lending distinctiveness and the vocal harmonies strong throughout (Major Harris, later of the Delfonics, was a member).

The songs, most written by Joseph Jefferson, are also unusually sturdy for an unreleased album (though again, much of this came out as singles), if not mind-flaying. I guess my biggest hang-up is that a few of the horn charts reminded me a little of “Vehicle” by Ides of March. Ugh. However, the Sly influence comes through much stronger in “Fruit of the Land,” and there’s even a hint of Isaac Hayes in the horn arrangement for “Going in Circles.” This one’s a grower, and I’d say it’s a must for fans of classic soul.

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