Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2014’s New
Releases, Part Two

It bears repeating that this list is in no way based on a comprehensive assessment of the 2014’s deluge of new music, but rather personal highs in a year’s worth of listening. A whole lot of listening; all said it was a great 12 months, and after consideration these final five offered the most pleasure.

5. Mary Halverson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara, Thumbscrew

Three improvisers in a leaderless trio (Thumbscrew effectively serves as the name of the group) with energies focused on composition; the result will certainly appeal to fans of all three players and those into adventurous jazz and rock in general (it’s fittingly released by the Cuneiform label of Silver Spring, MD).

Bluntly, these are heavyweight players. My first exposure to guitarist Halvorson came via Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant, and once I discovered she’d studied and performed with Anthony Braxton, I began seeking out the work of her trio; ‘08’s Dragon’s Head remains a favorite. Bassist Formanek has a bunch of impressive “inside” credits and a ton of avant-garde session work, and along with his own high-quality quintet he was in Tim Berne’s Bloodcount. Drummer Fujiwara has worked at length with Halvorson, in a duo with cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and as leader of Tomas Fujiwara & The Hook Up.

Thumbscrew is not a guitar trio, though Halvorson does shred early and often. As said Thumbscrew is a unit of equality and their communicative sparks can be startling; Formanek and Fujiwara are constantly throwing ideas into the fray with nary a rhythm section trope in the duration. And a few of the track titles make me smile, particularly “Goddess Sparkle,” which could be about either Aurora of the dawn or drag shows, and “Still…Doesn’t Swing,” a nutshell encapsulation of the resistance creative musicians of this caliber routinely contend with, malarkey that doesn’t seem to be keeping them down.

4. The Young Sinclairs, This is the Young Sinclairs

Roanoke, VA’s The Young Sinclairs are exemplary purveyors of ‘60s-informed guitar-pop melodicism, relying on songwriting over attitude/costuming to achieve a sound of uncommon depth. Just when it seems a historically-based genre such as this has reached a point of exhaustion, a record like This is the Young Sinclairs comes along to make plain the faultiness of that notion.

They can perhaps be synopsized as a garage-imbued, less bubblegummed-out Apples in Stereo, but that also short-shrifts them mightily. The Who, The Byrds, The Zombies, Nuggets, and the Stones with Nicky Hopkins can all be discerned as the LP spins, and that’s just the ‘60s motions; also detectable is Rundgren circa-Runt and Petty with his Heartbreakers.

Aspects of the ‘80s are also represented through flashes of indie pop, Galaxie 500, and even The Jesus and Mary Chain. And most impressive is how it all fits together so seamlessly, the work of The Young Sinclairs reflecting their near decade of existence as they evade the slightest traces of fatigue longevity can bring.

3. Alice Gerrard, Follow the Music

Gerrard can be appraised as a barrier-breaking forward-thinking living legend, having staked-out gender territory in the bluegrass scene alongside Hazel Dickens and in collaboration with her husband Mike Seeger. Both Dickens and Seeger have left us but Gerrard is still at it, and part of what makes Follow the Music such a marvelous experience is the lack of diminishment in her creative prowess at 80 years of age.

Indeed, on a vibrant slate of cover interpretations mixed with a few choice songs of her own writing, Gerrard sets an extremely high standard for musically-adept octogenarians. Finding her in strong voice throughout and especially on the a cappella “The Vulture,” elsewhere the accompaniment doesn’t let her down; produced by M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, Follow the Music consistently avoids the neighborhood of second-rate Americana.

But really, I want to stress no moving of the goalposts/easing of the standards here; I don’t take too much stock on the Grammy nominating process, but I certainly don’t discount it either, and Gerrard didn’t make the shortlist for Best Album by a Senior Citizen, she got nominated for Best Folk Album period. Don’t be surprised if she wins.

2. Ex Hex, Rips

This finds Mary Timony at her most power-popping and occasionally Joan Jett-like; a bit surprising sure, but Mitch Easter serving as engineer really should’ve provided a tipoff. Together with bassist Betsy Wright (who also plays in Chain and the Gang) and drummer Laura Harris, Ex Hex (the name lifted from Timony’s ’05 solo effort for Lookout) has wasted no time shifting into full pop-rock cruising gear.

And as “Radio On” kinda infers, one aspect of Rips that persists in standing out is how naturally the trio slide into the late-‘70s/early-‘80s zone of airplay potential. But not entirely; there’s a subtle heaviness throughout, a trait obviously retained from her extensive indie service and here just a tad reminiscent of the Ramones. It and other factors (like the strains of feedback in “New Kid”) keep the album from falling into throwback mode.

Rips might not be the best spotlight for Timony the guitar heroine, but uptempo chargers like “You Fell Apart” are downright impossible to resist, and the way it leads into the sassy Bomp!-level whoa-whoa-whoa of “How You Got That Girl” is truly killer, as is the severely catchy “Waterfall” and the chunky riffs of “Hot and Cold.” A dozen songs, all highlights; Ex Hex has produced an outstanding debut that sounds like an instant classic.

1. Marc Ribot Trio, Live at the Village Vanguard

A simply astounding record from a multi-generational band consisting of three improvisational giants; guitarist Ribot (the nominal leader, though like Thumbscrew this is really an expression of collectivity), bassist Henry Grimes and Windy City drummer Chad Taylor. And some might question bestowing such an accolade on the relatively young Chicagoan, but the evidence in favor is all over the record, as are moments where the group interplay reaches jaw-dropping levels of intensity.

And the story of Grimes’ unexpected return to prominence is worth the telling. It spans back to the ‘50s where he played with everybody from Sonny Rollins to Benny Goodman to Gerry Mulligan to Anita O’Day, though he made his reputation in the New Thing, recording The Call as a leader for ESP Disk while also supporting the innovations of Albert Ayler. But he disappeared in the late-‘60s shortly after moving to California; many assumed he had died. However, post-rediscovery, Grimes’ productivity has been an inspiration.

Bookended by Coltrane tunes “Dearly Beloved” and “Sun Ship,” the sequence also includes a pair of standards (the bassist is particularly vibrant on “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)”) and two by Ayler, which is unsurprising since the trio evolved from Spiritual Unity, a group dedicated to the broken ground of the saxophonist; here they tackle “The Wizard” with bluesy-punky Hendrixian spirit and unleash “Bells” in a 19 minute version holding moments mammoth and blistering.

Brilliantly captured (it’s spectacular through headphones) in a renowned space and issued by Pi Recordings, Live at the Village Vanguard extends from the beautiful precedent of Albert Ayler in Greenwich Village, Coltrane’s Sun Ship, and the collective vision of Ribot, Grimes, and Taylor. Oh, to have been in the audience for this one.

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