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Non-Existent Sounds: The Story of the Asterisk Label’s Deep Digging

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Dusted's Nate Knaebel profiles The Numero Group's new reissue label, Asterisk, and speaks with its curator, Rob Sevier.

Non-Existent Sounds: The Story of the Asterisk Label’s Deep Digging

With their multi-volume Eccentric Soul and Cult Cargo compilations, the excellent Yellow Pills sampler, and the two volumes of classic ‘70s troubadour folk that comprise the Wayfaring Strangers discs, the Chicago-based Numero Group has staked its claim as one of the most diligent and consistently reliable reissues labels functioning today. Though they have released three single-artist sets, two of which are in fact proper full-length LP reissues (Antena’s Camino De Sol and British folky Catherine Howe’s What a Beautiful Place), Numero has primarily specialized in painstakingly assembled compilations. [Dan Ruccia discusses many of these releases in his earlier feature for Dusted]. Numero’s new imprint Asterisk, however, has taken the label’s M.O. of resurrecting quality music from obscurity to the next level: reissuing full-length LPs.

It seems a logical step to take, and it’s certainly not something that hasn’t been done before. As Numero co-founder and force behind Asterisk Rob Sevier notes, these are very much re-releases. “I can’t really think of them as a proper debut release because there are none of the advantages that accompany a new release,” he says. Still, the degree of obscurity here can give each of them the feel of new and entirely original albums, ones that have seemingly appeared out of the musical ether fully formed, as opposed to reissues long rumored and eagerly anticipated. The liner notes, though informative, aren’t the grand narratives one finds on Numero release. They provide the basic, essential backstory and then let the music fill in the blanks. As Sevier explains it, “Some projects didn’t really warrant the full Numero treatment. What we’d become known for was these elaborate work intensive releases. The min catalog didn’t seem suited for a single LP by a short-lived artist that didn’t have much of a backstory. But the music was still great and long neglected.” Indeed.

Asterisk’s debut release was the sole LP from Connecticut pre-punks Johnny Lunchbreak. A Numero office favorite, the album finds the band trading in Velvets/Modern Lovers America pop primitivism and Stonesy swagger, with touches of British Invasion-style chamber pop. The album is by no means a revelation, but it’s also more than a nice find, working as a strong, unified full-length album. And though not as integral to understanding the nascent stages of American punk and new wave as what emerged around the same time in Cleveland, or even Indiana or Boston, the album provides yet another feature to the ever-widening relief map of the pre-punk landscape. There were pockets of weirdness all over the country in the early 1970s, and Johnny Lunchbreak stakes a claim for Hartford.

With the Capsoul installment of the Eccentric Soul series, Numero marked Columbus, Ohio, as a musically rich town with a strong independently driven record scene, culling the finest tracks from the Capsoul label’s rich yet forgotten archives and helping to cast the spotlight once more on Capsoul founder and civil rights advocate Bill Moss just prior to his death. The comp was Numero’s first release, and the special relationship forged between the two labels extended to Asterisk’s second release, the Four Mints full-length, Gently Down Your Stream – technically five singles and one unreleased cut (three songs appear on the Eccentric Soul comp). Like the Johnny Lunchbreak release, Gently Down the Stream doesn’t necessarily stand out against releases from era’s bigger names, yet it’s a solid and charming set nonetheless, equal parts supper club soul and a little Curtis Mayfield-style rhythmic push.

Asterisk’s third release is a true gem, a rabbit-out-of-the-hat record that feels too perfect to have been a one-off release from some 30-plus years ago. Propinquity’s self-titled 1972 full-length is a lovely collection of folk and folk-rock that looks more to the U.K. sound of the era than the Cosmic American Music being made in the band’s home country. Yet a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” proves Propinquity were no mere Anglophiles, either. The songs here contain almost a total lack of electricity, and the only concession to technology is that a tape had to be rolling to capture it all. One can practically here flesh melding with strings on each pluck, as the room comes alive with the band’s fluidity, kineticism, and all-around comfort with one another. The album has a warm organic feel that recalls the production work of Joe Boyd, no coincidence given that he recorded the very British folk acts that Propinquity recall. Based in Colorado (and for a time in Ohio), Propinquity wasn’t exactly living in the heart of Laurel Canyon, and perhaps this is what makes their music so unique and worth revisiting. They were in touch with the zeitgeist of the era, but that never-to-be-underestimated catalyst for inspiration – isolation – clearly worked its magic.

Numero’s most recent release as of this writing, the lone full-length from Chicago funk/free-jazz ensemble Boscoe, is – unlike the previous releases – utterly of its time and place. That’s not to say that Boscoe’s one and only record is derivative; rather, it is a valuable artifact of the revolutionary arts movement taking place in Chicago in the 1970s. As Sevier notes, “Boscoe is very important to [Numero/Asterisk] as Chicagoans because it represents a connection to a powerful local movement.” Though steeped in the black power politics of the day and inspired by the wild creativity and pure artistic energy encouraged by the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), the album has a surprisingly reserved feel. The band does cut loose with the occasional free jazz excursion, but the album is primarily built on steadily unfurling funk and soul-jazz grooves. Despite the Last Poets-style spoken word intro, the album doesn’t have an upfront sense of urgency, yet it still functions as a musical call-to-arms, simmering with the notes of revolution.

The Boscoe album, to a certain extent, is something of a metaphor for the Asterisk endeavor itself. Like Boscoe, Asterisk goes about its mission with a quiet passion. There’s no screaming from the roof tops with these reissues; they are what they are. It can’t be easy running a reissue label, and its certainly not easy trying to give a second life to albums that never had one in the first place, but this is an act of no concern to Sevier. In fact, he has enough potential projects to keep Asterisk running for years. “I have fifty projects in mind right now [that] barely have shape,” foremost among these a reissue of his “dream release,” the Black Unity Trio LP (Noah Howard, Abdul Wadud and Hasaan Al-Hut). With that, a final message from Sevier: “Abdul Wadud, if you’re reading this, get in touch.”

By Nate Knaebel

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