Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2018’s New Releases, Part Two

As we bring this week of salutes to a close, a dominant theme emerges. It can perhaps be defined as an assortment of artists tapping into deep traditions and reliable genres. In so doing, they retain the essence of the familiar while producing new possibilities.  

5. Nathan Bowles, Plainly Mistaken (Paradise of Bachelors) & Sarah Louise, Deeper Woods (Thrill Jockey) Durham-based multi-instrumentalist Nathan Bowles has been on the scene since the ’90s, first with the Virginia-based improv-drone band Pelt, then as part of the Appalachian old-time string band Black Twig Pickers, and more recently as a solo artist; along the way he’s taken part in numerous collaborations, including with the late Jack Rose, Steve Gunn and Hiss Golden Messenger. What makes Bowles’ music in any context such a treat is his comfort with both the avant-garde and the traditional music of his region, and more so that he has no problem with the two disciplines rubbing together and creating sparks. His second solo effort, 2016’s Whole & Cloven, was very good, but Plainly Mistaken is a knockout as he works in a full-band (trio) context for the first time. Opening with a swell cover of Julie Tippetts’ “Now if You Remember,” from there everything just rolls.

Deeper Woods is the third solo album from fellow North Carolina resident Sarah Louise Henson, though many were introduced to the guitarist’s work through the first record by House and Land, her duo with multi-instrumentalist Sally Anne Morgan (who played fiddle alongside Bowles in the Black Twig Pickers). Their LP made it abundantly clear that the pair’s approach to roots was respectful but not overly reverent, so Deeper Woods’ bold stylistic leaps aren’t especially surprising (nor is its level of quality, as House and Land came in at the seventh spot in TVD’s 2017 best new releases list), even as her prior record, which was the 12th volume in Vin Du Select Qualitite label’s solo acoustic series (it came out in 2016), didn’t predict she’d end up here. What does it sound like? In my prior short review, I compared her to Haley Fohr in terms of weight and scope, but stylistically it can be pegged as serious-minded psych-folk lingering on the edge of the experimental.

4. Anna & Elizabeth, The Invisible Comes to Us (Smithsonian Folkways) & The Other Years, S/T (No Quarter) The duo of Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle work in a similar mode to the abovementioned House and Land (there are Virginia roots in common), which may make it seem like we are retracing territory in the handing out of accolades, but The Invisible Comes to Us is ultimately quite different in execution and cumulative effect, while still excelling in the grand endeavor of extending folk traditions (after a year’s worth of researching the archives of song collector Helen Hartness Flanders, this record is the byproduct).While the folk foundation is strong (there are moments that even resonate as British), there is a striking amount of range across these two sides, with rock-tangible moments emerging and then subsiding and likewise with unexpected dips (and a few big dives) into an avant-garde sensibility that brings NYC in the old days to mind (well, the ’70s-’80s, at least). All this unearthed potential is uncommonly strong.

Yes, another duo, this one from Kentucky, and yes, one that’s deeply invested in old-time folk. Why is this list seemingly traveling down a particular rabbit-hole? Well, my retort to that prognosticated query is that multi-instrumentalist Anna Krippenstapel and Heather Summers have delivered some of the most beautiful harmony singing that I’ve heard not just this year, but in a long time. Additionally, the solo vocal turns are superb, and the playing top flight; Krippenstapel has worked with Joan Shelley and Freakwater. She plays guitar and fiddle, while Summers brings guitar and banjo. Maybe most impressively, eight of the ten songs on The Other Years are originals, with only one of these exceptions a traditional tune (“Fair Ellen”). The other is a take of Michael Hurley’s “Wildegeeses,” which should hopefully illuminate the acumen that helps define this stellar debut. It’s the kind of record of you can listen to five times in a row and then want to listen to again. Recommended if you like getting goosebumps.

3. Glenn Jones, The Giant Who Ate Himself and Other New Works for 6 & 12 String Guitar (Thrill Jockey) & Gwenifer Raymond, You Never Were Much of a Dancer (Tompkins Square) To recycle and slightly alter a statement made earlier in the week, guitarist Glenn Jones is kinda like the Dust-to-Digital label, in that he doesn’t make bad records. He doesn’t even make records that hang around the neighborhood of being kinda pretty good. He brings it full-on every time out (hopefully I didn’t just jinx the guy). In a sense, this isn’t any kind of startling thing, as Jones is maybe arguably the finest but indisputably the purest practitioner of American Primitive string science that we have. That means his technique is superb but so is his judgement over what constitutes quality; without it, he would be just another fingerpicker. Jones’ success derives as much from taste as it does from skill, and he’s once again tasteful to the maximum here.

Next to Jones, guitarist Gwenifer Raymond is a newcomer (other than a 5-song EP from 2015 and a Record Store Day 45 from earlier this year, this is her debut), but she sure as hell doesn’t sound unseasoned. Like Jones, she also plays the banjo, and her bio states that she was likewise impacted by John Fahey (and Skip James, and Mississippi John Hurt). If it feels appropriate to laud Jones for his taste, it registers as impossible to not praise Raymond for her ability, which is often astounding across You Never Were Much of a Dancer, and only magnified due to her level of intensity; this is very much a record made by a young person (though she’s a discerning player, as well). Young enough to have her ass kicked by the grunge rock of Nirvana. It was in 1982 while in line to buy my first copy of Electric Ladyland that a fellow customer in a Duran Duran t-shirt tut-tutted my purchase and informed me that it was “all over with for the electric guitar.” I wonder what that dude is doing now.

2. Heather Leigh, Throne (Editions Mego) & Marissa Nadler, For My Crimes (Sacred Bones – Bella Union) Of all the artists here wielding “traditional” instruments, Leigh, who sings and plays pedal steel guitar, is the least orthodox, though Throne can be considered a refinement; it’s better assessed as a remarkable leap. She also has loose ties to roots and Americana, being a native of West Virginia, though she was a third member of Charalambides (placing her in Texas), and currently resides in the UK (making it easier to collaborate with German free jazz sax giant Peter Brötzmann; their Sparrow Nights was a contender for this list, left out only because I could easily praise it here). But overall, Leigh’s bold step forward in terms of personal sound carries a brilliant intensity birthed in the underground into the bright light of wider exposure without any loss in power or depth. The comparisons to Kate Bush, PJ Harvey and fitfully, Coil ring true, but the more I listen the more I hear Heather Leigh, and it’s altogether an exquisite experience.

In comparison to what’s been listed above, Nadler’s work is easily the most contemporary, as it offers elements of folk blended with singer-songwriter ambitions and occasional aspects of pop and even touches of rock. I’ve enjoyed her work and praised her in print before, but nothing’s hit me quite as strongly as For My Crimes. It’s a particularly emotional excursion, in no small part through Nadler’s lyrics, which grapple with relationship and marital troubles, delivering considerable impact without becoming a drain. This is in part due to the unfaltering high-quality of Nadler’s actual tunes, a few of them exuding a ’60s feel without radiating a throwback vibe and which are enhanced by the strength of her voice. Furthermore, the instrumental and backing vocal accompaniment, which includes Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, Mary Lattimore, and Hole drummer Patty Schemel add color and punch to the proceedings, but never for an instant is For My Crimes not Nadler’s show.

1. Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings (International Anthem) & Ben LaMar Gay, Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun (International Anthem) Not to be a reappearing wart on the nose of folks who persist in not “getting” the style, but after a break in 2017, jazz is once again in the top spot, though this time it’s in fusion with aspects of classic instrumental hip-hop (think of the 1990s) through the work of current Chicagoan Makaya McCraven. If you scope out the word fusion and automatically shrink back expecting bad decisions and squandered potential, this 2LP set, featuring four different bands loaded with killer players, one on each side recorded in New York, London, Los Angeles, of course Chicago, is primed to alter that notion with haste. As it draws liberally from two magnificent traditions, Universal Beings is a record that feels like the future.

Jazz and hip-hop are prominent ingredients in cornetist-composer-etc. Ben LaMar Gay’s Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun. Indeed, the record’s second track is a tribute the late Windy City pianist-composer-educator Muhal Richard Abrams (it’s also where the title of the record derives). But there are other elements as well, including funk, Tropicalia, and Raymond Scott; that the record doesn’t buckle but rather thrives through the diversity is impressive, especially as the music comes from seven albums Gay made over the last seven years. If this info leads you to think this record landed in this column by mistake, please note that none of the seven albums were released prior to this compilation (though it appears three have been issued retroactively). Gay isn’t a newbie to recording, having contributed to Jaimie Branch’s Fly of Die and McCraven’s Highly Rare. Like McCraven’s work, Downtown Castles registers as the sound of music to come (well, some of it, anyway). I sure hope that’s true.

Altogether, it’s been an outstanding year for music. Sit back and take a listen and then share the goodness with someone you love. Catch you in 2019!

 

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