Author Archives: Joseph Neff

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICK: V/A, Arc Mountain (Hausu Mountain / Deathbomb Arc) This release, a benefit with all profits going to the Last Prisoner Project (a nonprofit committed to cannabis criminal justice reform), features artists from the Deathbomb Arc and Hausu Mountain labels in collaboration, with the cassette released by Hausu Mountain and the CD by Deathbomb Arc. Contributors include Dustin Wong, Margo Padilla aka I.E., They Hate Change, J Fisher, Fielded, Signor Benedick the Moor, TALSounds, Angry Blackmen, George Chen, Jonathan Snipes, White Boy Scream and more, with particularly heavy input from Fire-Toolz and Khaki Blazer. The contents range from wild blasts of underground hip-hop to varied strains of avant-pop to bent electronics to noisy soundscapes, with some instances of overlap and the uniting bonds being the liberating spirit of experimentation and a clear disdain for the soul-sucking rigidity of norms, both musical and societal.  Upon repeated listens, the gripping assemblage of twisted teamwork (mostly twos but a couple threes) coheres into a larger statement of considerable power. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: BMX Bandits, Star Wars (Last Night From Glasgow) Headed by sole constant member Duglas T Stewart and with input on this album from Francis McDonald and Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub and Gordon Keen and Eugene Kelly of Eugenius (Kelly was also in The Vaselines), BMX Bandits are one of indie pop’s finest cult bands, but with a refined blend of kindheartedness and twee tendencies that inspired many to reject them. Although there is a sense of the awkward in Stewart’s vocals (which has resulted in comparisons to Jonathan Richman, though they don’t sound alike to my ear), it never comes of as a mannerism, and that’s cool. What definitely not awkward is Stewart’s songwriting, which blossoms beyond the standard indie pop jangle. One example is “Extraordinary,” (sure to drive twee-haters up a wall), which sounds a little like young Dan Treacy if he was heavy into Nilsson and bubblegum pop rather than Syd Barrett. And instrumentally, the flare-ups of baroque strings remind me a bit of Big Star’s Third. And that’s just dandy. First time on vinyl outside of Japan. A-

V/A, Made to Measure Vol.1 (Crammed Discs) As part of Crammed Discs’ 40th anniversary, here’s a reissue on vinyl and compact disc of the inaugural entry in the Belgian label’s series dedicated to music that either could’ve been or deliberately was made as a soundtrack to other artforms, e.g. film, theater, dance, and even a fashion show, as is the case with this album’s track by Benjamin Lew, “A la recherche de B.” The other contributors are Minimal Compact, with four tracks commissioned for live dance; Aksak Maboul, with the album highlight “Scratch Holiday,” supposedly crafted (with a turntable, a ’60s pop 45, and orange marmalade) to soundtrack a movie, and six tracks intended to accompany a theatrical play; and Tuxedomoon, with three cuts composed for a documentary film. The guest violin by Jeannot Gillis (of Julverne and Univers Zero) for Minimal Compact, who are sequenced first, lends an appealing circularity, as Tuxdeomoon (and violin) close side two. But in fact, as the record plays, the sound is quite unified as it stirs thoughts of Rock in Opposition, Ralph Records, and early ’80s avant-pop in general. A-

Telex, This Is Telex (Mute) The best way to experience Telex is probably by soaking up one of their songs in a larger mix of material, like during some cat’s late night college radio show, in the midst of a friend’s mixtape, or as spun by a DJ in a club while waiting patiently for the headliner. Over the years, I’ve heard a few people opine that Telex was a novelty act, a conclusion drawn essentially because of their penchant for interpreting the material of others in the then nascent electronic pop style. I disagree. Taken individually, Telex’s songs are frequently pleasant, partly through catchiness but also due to the enduring appeal of their formative aura. But when heard sandwiched between the songs of others, Telex sticks out, largely because they were operating with a different sensibility. The trio’s versions of “La Bamba” (included on this LP/ CD compilation) and “Rock Around the Clock” (which isn’t, giving hopes for a follow-up volume) underscore the non-angsty ’50s-ish R&R spirit they brought to the scene. But there’s more to Telex, like a sweet version of Sparks’ “The Number One Song in Heaven.” A-

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Graded on a Curve:
Elsa Hewitt,
LUPA

Based in London and hailing from Sussex via Yorkshire, Elsa Hewitt is an electronic producer and songwriter who’s been active since 2017, and with a fondness for releasing her music on cassette. To wit, LUPA, her latest and sixth overall, is available on tape in an attractive edition of 50, but it’s also fresh out on vinyl through Tompkins Square. As a document of her consistently evolving skills, it’s both inviting and elusive, as likely to please curious dabblers as those with an undying jones for electronic sounds.

LUPA isn’t Elsa Hewitt’s vinyl debut. Her 2019 release, Citrus Paradisi, received a wax pressing late last year that’s still available through the Lobster Theremin label. There’s also a self-released single LP distillation of Becoming Real – Trilogy, a 3CD set that corrals Hewitt’s three tapes from 2017, Cameras From Mars, Dum Spiro Spero, and Peng Variations.

The contents of Becoming Real – Trilogy; that is, the full 3CD version (I’ve not listened to the compilation), reinforce Hewitt as a writer of songs (as distinct from a crafter of soundscapes, rhythmic thickets or tangles of abstraction), though her music gravitates not toward synth-pop but rather a blend of experimental techniques and progressive dance impulses with samples (occasionally humorous). Singing (and even rapping during Cameras From Mars track “Rainbowz”) aids considerably in establishing the songlike aura.

Cool thing is, Hewitt’s songs roam around a lot, so that the progression is never predictable. Circus Paradisi can be considered a rapid-fire spurt of advancement, the tracks more wide-ranging and more confident as the brightness/ boldness doesn’t break the spell cast by her 2017 tapes. Contrasting, the cassette “Quilt Jams,” described as wordless, spontaneously created and modest, was issued shortly before Circus Paradisi.

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Graded on a Curve: Chester Thompson, Powerhouse

An Oklahoma native who landed in San Francisco in 1969, organist Chester Thompson joined Tower of Power in 1973 and after a decade with that group, hooked up with Carlos Santana for a 26-year stint that included work on GRAMMY®-winner Supernatural. But pertinent to right now is Powerhouse, Thompson’s 1971 debut for the Black Jazz label, which has just been reissued on LP and CD by Real Gone Music. In most (likely all) synopses of jazz in the year 1971, Thompson’s album doesn’t receive a mention, but that’s a faulty measurement of its worth. Let’s delve into that a little more below

Artistic canons, which are dominated by masterworks, are certainly useful in ascertaining the creative heights and the breakthroughs of a particular discipline, but they are forever at risk of ossifying and even becoming downright moribund. For this reason and others (sexism, racism, Eurocentrism, etc.), canons have received scrutiny of late, which is completely fair, though I’m not here pile on. Rather, let me merely recommend maintaining an openness to artworks, in this case musical recordings, that haven’t been championed as high hierarchical classics.

It shouldn’t be difficult to make this argument to music fans, but when it comes to jazz (and the following applies to varying degrees to any style that’s existed for more than a half century), the history is by now considerable, indeed labyrinthine, and therefore potentially daunting, so that many end up simply falling back, deflated, and electing to absorb the established cannon. Of course, getting acquainted with masterpieces isn’t a terrible problem to have, but it doesn’t represent jazz’s true historical sweep.

Chester Thompson’s Powerhouse isn’t a masterpiece. Instead, it’s a highly appealing album by a quartet working in soul-jazz territory, which for 1971 was not exactly novel. Had it been released by Prestige and not by the label cofounded by keyboardist Gene Russell (whose own album New Direction was the imprint’s first release in 1971), it might’ve been slapped with a title like Soul Gravy and immediately followed by two, maybe three exclamation points.

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Graded on a Curve: Sonny Rollins,
A Night at the Village Vanguard

Sonny Rollins’ name met the marquee of The Village Vanguard in the fall of 1957, and by November 3rd the saxophonist had honed his group to basic rudiments and figured out exactly what he wanted to do. With drummers Elvin Jones and Pete La Roca and bassists Wilbur Ware and Donald Bailey, he delivered one of jazz’s core documents, the undyingly superlative A Night at the Village Vanguard.

According to Leonard Feather’s liner notes for the original 6-track LP documentation of Sonny Rollins’ ’57 Vanguard stand, the saxophonist first hit the stage for a week with a quintet including trumpet and piano. Not happy with the results, he ditched the other horn and grabbed a new rhythm section for week two. Dissatisfied with the quartet lineup as well, Rollins then decided upon a sax-bass-drums trio. And that’s what we hear on the still startling A Night at the Village Vanguard. If Rollins’ rapid-fire retooling seems odd for a concert engagement, understand that he was basically using the bandstand as a live laboratory, experimenting loosely and approachably for proprietor Max Gordon’s hip urban clientele.

Though the Vanguard opened its doors in 1935, based on Feather’s notes, through the ‘40s and well into the next decade most live jazz had moved uptown, and Gordon’s club had then only recently underwent a substantial return to its now legendary intersection of serious jazz and bohemia. In attempting to steer his joint back in the direction of the cutting edge, Gordon casually inviting Rollins to spontaneously create in his spot was an extremely bright maneuver.

For at this point in his career Sonny Rollins was at an early peak. Frankly, the previous sentence is understating the case almost criminally; from ’56-’58 he cut 17 LPs as a leader, and by my count (and I’m far from alone in this arithmetic) at least ten of those recordings are classics. The performances corralled on A Night at the Village Vanguard arrived in the midst of all that activity, and the vinyl configuration’s slim but thoughtful annotation of the significant invention presented by these group’s (there are two, each with individual characteristics) remains an absolute masterpiece.

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Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
April 2021, Part Four

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Sarah Louise, Earth Bow (Self-released) Once upon a time, Sarah Louise Henson was primarily known for her skills as a fingerpicking guitarist and then a little later, as half of the progressive Appalachia duo House and Land with Sally Anne Morgan. But with her pair of LPs for Thrill Jockey, Deeper Woods (2018) and Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars (2019), she began making expansive headway that has come to some beautiful conclusions with her latest, Earth Bow. The blend of New Age and kosmische and drones and psychedelia might not seem like much of a big deal, seeing as how variations on this combination have been pretty common over the last decade or so, but a few things are working in Sarah Louise’s favor. Foremost, she’s deeply invested in song form, even flirting with pop here and there. Second, those songs can get quite intense. Earth Bow didn’t help me to relax; it took me for a ride. Third is her voice, powerful and beautiful, deepening the attentiveness to matters of nature and healing and bringing added dimension to the LP. It’s called sincerity. It means a lot. A

Innov Gnawa, Lila (Daptone) Based in NYC, Innov Gnawa is comprised of five Moroccan expats led by Mâallem Hassan Ben Jaâfer, who sings and plays the guembri, the three-stringed African bass (also called the Sintir), the featured instrument of Joshua Abrams on the latest record by his band Natural Information Society (a new release pick in this column just two weeks ago). The sound of the guembri here is traditional in nature, amply anchoring and propelling a style that’s been tagged as Sufi Blues. Please note that this sound is distinct from Malian Desert Blues, as Innov Gnawa’s four other members, Amino Belyamani, Ahmed Jeriouda, Samir LanGus, and Nawfal Atiq, along with singing richly in response to Ben Jaâfer’s powerful lead, all play metal castanets called qraqebs. An exception is the closing track “Hamdouchia,” which features Ben Jaâfer alone, his guembri playing as the start reminding me of Jimmy Garrison’s solo preludes in performance with John Coltrane (e.g. Live in Japan). Lila (which translates to “night” and describes an all-night Sufi musical healing ceremony) is utterly sublime. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Michael Nesmith, Different Drum: The Lost RCA Victor Recordings (Real Gone) The albums Michael Nesmith cut for RCA, six from 1970-’73, are still too often overlooked today, a circumstance that directly extends from their general neglect by consumers when they were new in the racks. While not flops (Magnetic South, his debut with The First National Band, produced the Top 40 hit “Joanne”), they certainly undersold in relation to RCA’s hopes for the man freshly departed from The Monkees. Now, for those with a long abiding love for Nesmith’s distinct strain of country-rock worthiness (abetted by the pedal steel of O.J. “Red” Rhodes, drummer John Ware, and bassist John London, under the supervision of Chet Atkins and Felton Jarvis), this CD is a sweet dish 22 tracks deep from across his time with RCA. Yes, it’s loaded with alternates and the back end is mostly instrumentals, but there’s distinctiveness in the versions and the playing is as shit-hot as skillet gravy. So I guess that means this set will make a fine primer for those having not yet plunged into Nesmith’s solo stuff. A-

Zouo, Agony憎悪Remains (Relapse) This set is the second in what’s hopefully an ongoing series of reissues by Relapse diving into 1980s Japanese hardcore; the first, Detestation, the debut LP from the highly influential band GISM (I’d call them legendary, but they appear to be currently active), emerged late last year. Agony憎悪Remains collects the debut 4-song 7-inch EP by Zouo, originally released in 1984, and adds two comp tracks from the same year to complete side one. The flip offers nine live cuts culled from Relapse’s 41-track digital release. It’s not clear if the vinyl editions (there appears to be four different color variations available but selling quickly) come with a download card; this review focuses on the 15-tracks grooved into the wax. Metal-core was too often hackneyed, but at its bizarre and extreme best, Japan’s strain was in a class by itself. Speed is integral, but it’s never the soul objective. Pristine fidelity gets nixed as murk and echo are abundant; indeed, some of the live stuff sounds like it was recorded in a metal culvert by a single microphone from 25 feet away. This is just as it should be. A-

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Graded on a Curve: Charley Patton, The Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Volume One

Remembering Charley Patton who passed on this day in 1934.Ed.

Third Man Records has joined forces with the certifiable old-time jukebox that is the Document label to commence a rather stellar series of vinyl reissues, with its first three subjects responsible for some of the most vital music produced in the early years of sound recording. Maybe the most important is Charley Patton. He’s credited as an integral ingredient in the shaping of the blues, but his stuff remains captivating even when heard apart from the circumstances of history. Separating Patton from his legacy is in the end an impossible and undesirable task, however; Patton’s The Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Volume One is the first installment in a sequence that will not only bring huge insights to new generations but will additionally provide an inexhaustible source of pure listening pleasure.

For many a young rock-weaned listener who came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the first encounter with the blues was provided through the electrified strains that emerged from cities like Memphis, Detroit, and of course Chicago, with the amplified blues holding the closest relationship to the rock music that had absorbed, altered and in some cases betrayed the form.

To ears that held no firsthand experience with the often severe climates that shaped the early portion of last century, the more modern sensibilities of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, and even the less urbanized, at times quite eccentric sides issued by guitarists like Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker still made sense when considered in rock terms, a set of ideas that held a dominant sway on the young minds that so often salivated for insight into the circumstances behind the stuff that helped to define their youthful musical interests.

The sounds that originated from the Mississippi Delta in the ’20s-‘30s, often talked about as a locus for so many of rock’s big advances in the ‘60s-‘70s, represented a distance of only a few decades, but for adolescents hearing them for the first time, the gulf between surface-noise compromised acoustic performances that were reliably rendered solo and the unblemished, full-bodied, full-band recordings of The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton could feel huge and unsurprisingly alienating.

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Graded on a Curve:
Willie Dunn, Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies: The Willie Dunn Anthology

Many ears were hipped to Indigenous folksinger, poet, filmmaker and activist Willie Dunn by the 3LP/2CD set Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985. Issued by Light in the Attic in 2014, that one’s received a recent repress, and in even better news, the next volume in the series is Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies: The Willie Dunn Anthology, which gathers tracks from his four albums and more, with everything remastered by John Baldwin. The icing on the cake for vinyl buyers is the inclusion of Willie Dunn Notes, the 24-pg newsprint insert with exhaustively researched liners assembled by the set’s producer Kevin Howes. Essential for folk fans, it’s out now.

Willie Dunn’s best-known song is “I Pity the Country,” in large part because it was one of two recordings featured on Native North America (Vol. 1). That revelatory compilation, GRAMMY®-nominated and prominent in numerous year’s best lists including the top 10 reissues offered by this very website, smartly placed “I Pity the Country” as track one on side one.

When a musician attains a belated boost in profile, their best-known song often just happens to be their best song period, but that’s not the case with Willie Dunn, as Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies begins with the nearly 10-minute powerhouse “The Ballad of Crowfoot.” Now, that song is arguably the artist’s greatest composition (as it plays it sure feels that way); that the ensuing 21 songs here are unmarred by even a hint of anticlimax is testament to Dunn’s talent.

“The Ballad of Crowfoot” is included on both his debut and its follow-up (both eponymous, released in 1971 and ’72 with an overlap of six tracks), but neither of those shorter versions are the one that’s heard on Creation Never Sleeps. The recording collected here is sourced from the soundtrack of the short film of the same title that was made in 1968 by the National Film Board of Canada’s Indian Film Crew, of which Dunn was a member.

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Graded on a Curve:
Joe Kaplow,
Sending Money and Stems

Although currently based in Santa Cruz, CA, singer-songwriter Joe Kaplow has traveled extensively as a touring musician, a reality that has surely impacted the direct, vibrant approach of his latest album Sending Money and Stems. However, the set’s ten songs were crafted during quarantine, as digital files were shared via email with his mixer Mike Coykendall. The results exude a consistent positivity, a vibe that’s welcome in the world right now as cautious optimism begins to take hold. The album is out April 30 on vinyl (orange marble, black), CD and digital (the cassette is sold out, alas) through Fluff & Gravy.

Joe Kaplow isn’t an oldster, but as detailed in his unusually loquacious website bio, he’s been making music for quite a while now, 20 years by his count (reaching back to childhood), which is long enough that the massive setbacks brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic can seem like a catastrophe, or at the very least, can bring on changes in livelihood as music gets set aside, perhaps for good.

As is obvious, that didn’t happen in Kaplow’s case, but it did set him to thinking, as it certainly did with scores of others for whom recording and performance are more than a hobby. Often, this has resulted in sounds, songs, and indeed whole records, that directly address our global predicament with outcomes ranging from insightful and inspired but more frequently clichéd or downright ponderous. For Kaplow, it mainly meant that his second full-length was shaped remotely rather than by traveling up to Portland for mixing at Mike Coykendall’s joint.

This is to say that Sending Money and Stems isn’t an emotionally or instrumentally heavy affair. To the contrary, one could call it upbeat, amiable even, though I would stop short of tagging it as good-timey. But you might not, as opener “5 am” dives headfirst into a framework of lively fingerpicking and crisp drumming, complete with soaring vocal leads and a chorus that’s primed for a big group singalong when it’s safe to gather for a full-blown shindig.

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Toumani Diabaté and the London Symphony Orchestra, Kôrôlén (World Circuit) GRAMMY-winning kora specialist Diabaté is one of the cornerstones of traditional Malian music and also a diverse collaborator, with his partners including his countrymen Ali Farka Touré and fellow kora player Ballaké Sissoko, plus Taj Mahal, Roswell Rudd, Björk, and now the London Symphony Orchestra. As the delightful Promises, in which the LSO support electronic musician Floating Points and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, was released just last month, it might seem the London Symphony are on something like a creative roll, but Kôrôlén dates from a 2008 concert at the Barbican Centre in London, with Ian Gardiner and Nico Muhly arranging the orchestra. The infusion of non-classical styles with the ol’ longhair tradition has historically been an iffy impulse at best, but this album, if not perfect in its combination of distinct aesthetics, does succeed, both through sensitivity (on the part of the orchestra) and flights of beauty from the kora, the balafon, and late in the LP, vocals. A-

Tristan Kasten-Krause, Potential Landscapes (Whatever’s Clever) Kasten-Krause is a NYC-based composer and bassist who, in addition to playing on Broadway in Oklahoma!, has been recruited to play on works by Steve Reich and Alvin Lucier. More pertinent to Potential Landscapes’ reality is Kasten-Krause’s involvement with his city’s “DIY and experimental scenes,” and by extension, his desire to make a record rooted in deeper levels of collaboration than is the norm in avant-garde circles, with Cloud Nothings drummer Jason Gerycz, experimental vocalist Lisel (Eliza Bagg), Tigue percussionist Matt Evans, electric guitarist-composer Brendon Randall-Myers, and violinist Carol Johnson bringing (per the PR for the release) their “musical practices” to the album, rather than simply realizing Kasten-Krause’s ideas, which are drone-based and more specifically rooted in the work of Lucier, Éliane Radigue, Jon Gibson, and Phill Niblock. The results are varied and yet deliver a coherent statement, and digestible, as the four tracks fit onto a single LP. An edition of 250 on wax, each with a unique hand-painted sleeve. A-

Michael Sarian & Matthew Putman, A Lifeboat (Part I) (577) Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, keyboardist Putman and trumpeter Sarian began playing together (with the necessary precautions) at Studio Hicks, which is in fact another name for Sarian’s home, in an attempt to keep the creativity flowing and to maintain basic sanity. Two short digital-only volumes were subsequently released (both still available for download), with each sporting the serviceable tag of Improvisations. They combined into a statement of beauty and urgency. This set, available digitally, on digipak CD and LP (limited copies on red, cyan blue, and black), wholly extends that worthiness (Part II is scheduled for release later this year). While Putman continues to play an electric model keyboard in this duo, its chiming resonances distinct from the acoustic mode he explores in the Telepathic Band and elsewhere, Sarian adds flugelhorn to the equation, maybe not a giant leap but still notable when considering the lean potency of these dialogues. The late-night aura gets tempered here, more through familiarity than design. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Paul Dunmall, Keith Tippett, Philip Gibbs, Pete Fairclough, Onosante (577) Like many jazz artists, UK saxophonist Dunmall is ridiculously prolific; this quartet session with his fellow Brits, pianist Tippett, guitarist Gibbs and drummer Fairclough, came out on CDr in 2000 in an edition of 100, meaning it was likely to be overlooked amid the more than 150 releases in Dunmall’s discography (that’s not counting the “sideman” dates). And so, it’s especially worthy of reissue (577 is offering a handsome digipak in an edition of 200), partly because Dunmall, in addition to tenor and soprano, plays fife and bagpipes here. The unusualness of the instrumental configuration undeniably adds to the appeal, and right away, as Gibbs’ guitar resonates like a mbira and Tippett dishes some washes of prepared piano. More importantly, the inspired interplay is sustained across the CD, and notably during the nearly 35-minute “For Lost Souls.” Along with the spark and energy of free improv, there is warmth that’s recognizably jazzy. The good news is 577 has more Dunmall scheduled for later in the year. A

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Graded on a Curve: Birthday Ass,
Head of the Household

Brooklyn sextet Birthday Ass have described their sound rather broadly as punk rock, although greater specificity comes through the tag of no wave as they zero in even further by introducing the adjective skronky. While their sophomore full-length reinforces these assessments, more impressive is how they bypass expectations through a sharp ensemble sound that’s capped with the distinctive vocal approach of Priya Carlberg, who also composed the nine tracks. Much more than just another slab of neo-no wave, Head of the Household is out April 23 on vinyl (black or purple) and digitally through Ramp Local, and with the option to purchase black undies or boxers emblazoned with the band’s moniker. Saucy!

My initial expectations for this album, which served as my introduction to Birthday Ass (they have a prior set, Baby Syndrome, issued in 2018 with cassettes still available through Erased! Tapes), leaned toward some degree of loose, high-velocity aural splatter, a gush that would rely on the intersection of sustained energy and pure mayhem for its success.

My prediction derived in no small part from what I perceived as the punk prankishness of their chosen name, an understandable presumption on my part but ultimately off-target as Birthday Ass is as sharp as tacks both compositionally and in terms of ensemble heft. Along with Carlberg, the group consists of guitarist Andres Abenante, bassist Dan Raney, drummer Jonathan Starks, trumpeter Alex Quinn, and alto saxophonist Raef Sengupta.

Naturally, those horns will be handling the skronk duties, but on first listen I was struck by a level of musicianship that bypassed the by now standard ruckus-raising honking and bleating, all while maintaining high level of rawness and edge. This all gets established without delay as opener “Blah” dishes spiky art-funkiness that’s as much UK post-punk as NYC no wave.

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Graded on a Curve: Ulrich Schnauss
& Jonas Munk,
Eight Fragments
Of An Illusion

Ulrich Schnauss is a German-born, London-based electronic musician with an extensive discography both of his own, and since 2014, as a member of Tangerine Dream. Jonas Munk, who hails from Odense in his home country of Denmark, is also a specialist in electronics along with playing guitar; he’s released music as Manual, as half of Billow Conservatory, and as part of the rock-aligned ensemble Causa Sui. Schnauss and Munk have also collaborated extensively, with Eight Fragments Of An Illusion their third full-length together. Combining abstract electronic atmospheres with rich, melodic guitar, it’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital April 23 through Azure Vista Records.

Throughout Eight Fragments of an Illusion, Ulrich Schnauss and Jonas Monk fortify their blend of electronic drift and song-structure with touches of kosmische, an anticipated development given Schnauss’ role in Tangerine Dream, and with electronic elements, which is also unsurprising, as both Schnauss and Munk began as solo operators in the fertile electronic scene.

Also present are facets gleaned from shoegaze, the ingredient that is perhaps least expected, as Causa Sui’s rock tendencies sprang forth from the Stoner zone, only to become increasingly Krautrock-tinged and occasionally even San Fran ballroom-like in psychedelic comportment. However, across the spectrum of projects I’ve absorbed that feature Munk’s input, a healthy diversity gets bolstered by an underlying unity, with Eight Fragments of an Illusion fitting right into that scheme as it additionally extends and expands the possibilities of Munk’s collaboration with Schnauss.

The duo’s latest isn’t a radical departure from their 2011 debut (released digitally either eponymously, as Epic or Weightless Memories and on CD as Emotion Meets Expression) or its 2017 follow-up Passage, but after a gap of four years (with recording spread across the last three) the partnership has started to transcend the guitar-infused ’90s-’00s electronic template.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Turtles,
It Ain’t Me Babe

Celebrating Mark Volman on his 74th birthday.Ed.

On the subject of The Turtles, the first thing to cross many people’s minds will be “Happy Together,” their huge hit from 1967. They scored other hit singles, some bigger than others, but they also had some LPs, and the initial four all portray a distinct point in the group’s development. Their 1965 debut It Ain’t Me Babe features a young band striving to find an individual voice while attempting to capitalize on their first hit. It’s a situation that often spells disaster, but in this case it results in a record that while small of scale and not without faults, nonetheless remains a highly pleasurable listen.

I’m unsure if there’s ever been any real consensus over which of The Turtles’ string of original, non-comp albums is their greatest. Indeed, the group doesn’t really get discussed all that often in LP terms, at least in my experience. Instead, they seem to remain in the cultural discourse mainly as an exponent of the mid-‘60s folk-rock boom, one that was able to break free of the substantial Dylan-isms of their early work to score a handful of pop hits that successfully straddled the fence betwixt the youth market and the era’s more “adult” record-buying audience.

Underscoring this is the fact that the only Turtles LP to enter the top twenty of the Billboard Album Chart was a compilation, 1967’s Golden Hits. But release full-length records they did, and the personal favorite of this writer is probably 1968’s ambitious yet refreshingly level-headed concept offering The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands. That album found them dishing out 12 songs in a diverse range of musical genres and all of it under the guise of different fictitious and humorously-named groups.

But that disc was also a substantial change from what they’d been doing up to that point, in some ways more indicative, mostly in terms of wit, of Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman’s post-Turtles work as Flo & Eddie, a run that began with 1972’s Mothers of Invention-aided and still pretty hep sounding Warner-Reprise-issued The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie. But they didn’t totally break from their past on Battle of the Bands, for it did include two of their biggest hit singles in “Elenore” and “You Showed Me,” both making it to the #6 spot.

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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Natural Information Society with Evan Parker, descension (Out of Our Constrictions) (eremite) Formed in Chicago by multi-instrumentalist Joshua Abrams in 2010, the Natural Information Society on this 2LP features Jason Stein on bass clarinet, Mikel Patrick Avery on drums, and Lisa Alvarado on harmonium and effects, with Abrams on guembri and British saxophone titan Evan Parker completing the lineup of 7/9/2019, captured live in London at Cafe OTO as they explore the possibilities of one piece for 75 minutes. Naturally, it’s divided across four sides of vinyl, but in an interesting twist, also into four mp3s, which formulates a digital experience that’s a little like listening to the first CD edition of Coltrane’s Om (where the vinyl fadeout-rise up was retained). This might seem like an odd digression, but not so much when Coltrane’s impact on Parker is considered. His breath tangles with Stein are simply magnificent (indeed, evoking Trane and Dolphy), but it’s the incessant groove (with ties the Chicago House) and Alvarado’s wonderful contribution that enhances the unique flavor. A

Christine Ott, Time to Die (Gizeh) Ott’s skills as a multi-instrumentalist and composer are well-established, both through her solo albums (this is her fourth overall) and more recently in the side-project duo Snowdrops with Mathieu Gabry; earlier in her career, Ott contributed extensively to Yann Tiersen’s band. For Time to Die, she sings and plays piano, harp, and the Ondes Martenot (something of a signature instrument for her), along with adding percussion, Jupiter8, timpani, tubular bells, monotron and vibraphone. Gabry also contributes on a variety of instruments, and it’s the spoken voice of Casey Brown that’s heard in the opening title-track (reading a “beloved cinematic text” I shan’t spoil). Offered as a sequel to Ott’s 2016 LP Only Silence Remains, this record’s stylistic range is appealingly wide, beginning in a dark ambient-electronic zone and gradually drifting into assorted modes of modern classical, and with particular emphasis on her skills as a pianist. Although this isn’t a soundtrack (Gizeh calls it a “musical fresco in eight chapters”), Ott’s strengths as a film composer do shine through. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: V/A, Sound Storing Machines: The First 78rpm Records from Japan, 1903-1912 (Sublime Frequencies) The output of Sublime Frequencies is reliably captivating, and this set is no exception, the third in a series devoted to early recordings from Asia, all compiled by Robert Millis of the Climax Golden Twins. The prior volumes are The Crying Princess: 78rpm Records from Burma and Scattered Melodies: Korean Kayagum Sanjo, both released in 2013, and of the three, this set reaches back the farthest. Flat disc recording (as opposed to Edison-style cylinders) had only been in existence for a few years prior to the timeframe of this LP/ CD, so the audio quality isn’t optimal as surface noise is abundant. But I somehow doubt that anybody excited to hear these offerings will be too bothered by the rough ambience. No doubt many will welcome it. As Millis observes in his notes, the haze of surface noise intensifies the aura of strangeness. Amongst the most unusual are two by Suenaga Togi with the Imperial Household Orchestra, but the overall value easily eclipses the weird. A

V/A, MIEN (YAO) – Cannon Singing in China, Vietnam, Laos (Sublime Frequencies) Recorded and produced by Laurent Jeanneau aka Kink Gong, this LP offers three vocal duos, Keo and Na (from Laos), Deng Fu Mei and Zhang Wu Mei (from China) and Yang Chun Jin and Yang Bao Cheng (also from China), plus one track by Gap Choun (from Vietnam) that combines singing with considerable percussive clatter and bash. Succinctly, the Yao are hill tribes residing in the countries of the title, and the Mien are the largest branch of the Yao. While the vocal style doesn’t vary all that much across these pieces, the nearly 20 minutes of Keo and Na (sequenced first) becomes quite hypnotic as it progresses and is further enhanced by its nature as a field recording. There is birdsong (very welcome), but also at a few points a low hum that injects a mysterious tension into the scheme of things, at least until it becomes apparent that it might just be a distant motorbike. Due to its prominent rhythmic component, I kinda dig the Gap Choun piece the best, but nothing captured here is the slightest bit disappointing. A-

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Graded on a Curve:
The Gracious Losers,
Six Road Ends

The Glasgow-based The Gracious Losers are nine members strong, but for their second full-length, the lineup burgeoned to 15 bodies, and across the set’s 11 tracks, it often sounds that way. Categorized as Celtic folk/ Americana, the sound is much broader than the designation might suggest, with rock heft of a rootsy stripe in welcome evidence as they execute the impressive songwriting of Jonathan Lilley. Six Road Ends is out now on black and yellow galaxy vinyl (and standard black) through the label Last Night from Glasgow.  

Kicked up dust isn’t the first thing that springs to my mind when considering the prospects of another contemporary folk and/ or Americana record, but such a thing is possible. In an era when the objective is too often politeness and finesse, spark and edge are welcome qualities. The sheer number of Gracious Losers increases the likelihood they will deliver a record infused with grit, heft and energy, and Jonathan Lilley, Amanda McKeown, Gary Johnston, Heather Philips, Rory McGregor, Monica Queen, Johnny Smillie, Celia Garcia, and Erik Igelstrom don’t disappoint in this regard.

But the real joy of Six Road Ends derives from how it reaches far beyond the folk/ Americana baseline, and from how its rock moves eschew the hackneyed, partly through Lilley’s songs, which are well-rounded yet focused. Likewise, the playing is broad without faltering into a patchwork of styles. It’s really with repeated listens that the territory they cover is effectively driven home.

Not that the full-bodied vocal harmony in opener “Till I Go Home” isn’t striking, particularly as it’s combined with some rock thud. Now, I don’t want the reader to misapprehend the Gracious Losers as being in league with the likes of Dinosaur Jr., though come to think of it, they do share an affinity for Crazy Horse, an influence that surfaces at length during 2018’s The Last of the Gracious Losers.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Nightingales,
Pigs on Purpose

Birmingham, UK’s The Nightingales are an important and somewhat underrated entity in post-punk’s early 1980s scheme. Indeed, for connoisseurs of the form, procuring a vinyl copy of their debut Pigs on Purpose hasn’t been easy, and the same goes for their first few 45s. In a delightful turn of events, Call of the Void is reissuing the album and those singles as a 2LP set on blue wax (also 2CD and digital) with demos and live tracks completing the package. It’s an essential addition to any full-bodied post-punk library, out April 16 and coinciding with the release of King Rocker, Michael Cumming’s documentary on the life of Nightingales’ lead singer and sole constant member Robert Lloyd.

To absorb the full story of The Nightingales, one must reckon with first-wave UK punkers The Prefects. An act as amateurish (in the best sense) as they were inspired, The Prefects are entrenched in punk history for their role in the White Riot tour of The Clash (you may have heard of them), and for additionally sharing stages with The Slits, The Damned, The Buzzcocks, and The Fall.

The Prefects’ entire discography postdates the band’s existence, with their first release a 1980 45 for Rough Trade. Comprised of two songs, “Going Through the Motions” b/w “Things in General,” was sourced from sessions recorded for John Peel. The scoop is that the single’s existence is directly related to a stipulation that Rough Trade arrange a recording of Lloyd’s then new outfit, these very Nightingales.

This gifted the world with “Idiot Strength” b/w “Seconds,” The Nightingales’ 1981 debut (technically, it’s a split label release shared by Rough Trade and Lloyd’s own Vindaloo imprint), as the band featured Lloyd on vocals with Joe Crow on guitar and former Prefects Eamon Duffy on bass and Paul Apperley on drums.

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