Graded on a Curve:
Two Synths a Guitar (and) a Drum Machine

The latest compilation from Soul Jazz, Two Synths a Guitar (and) a Drum Machine, is the inaugural entry in a series compiling various international artists with the spotlight thrown upon (mostly) contemporary post punk dance. One could think of it as a geographically expansive update on the label’s New York Noise volumes, but with the catch that the musicians comprising this set are as dedicated to pushing forward, or at least in occupying the ever-loving now, as they are in channeling the past. Available on heavyweight green or black double vinyl, CD and digital, its gyrations, spasms, discordance and alienation arrive February 19.

Two Synths a Guitar (and) a Drum Machine opens with the chilly yet crisp electro buzz-pulse of “Too Much Money” by Automatic, a trio from Los Angeles, which serves up an immediate switcheroo, as I would’ve guessed they resided in far less temperate climes. It’s a succinct number landing solidly between pop and the more angsty bunkers of the early ’80s, and it stands in sharp contrast to the bolder dancefloor groove of “Underwater Pyramid” by Zongamin of Montreal.

And yet there is unity, as Zongamin’s track oozes vibes that recall the dank cellars of Reagan-era NYC. What’s crucial with “Underwater Pyramid” and across all four sides of this comp is a general disinterest in carbon-copying the maneuvers of yore. This even extends to the deep, dub-tinged R&B-ish groove of “The Balance” by Chino, CA’s Vex Ruffin and NYC’s inimitable Fab 5 Freddy.

In the early ’80s, when cultures were intersecting and genres were crosspollinating, Freddy was there, and that he can hang without a hitch in “The Balance” is testament to his persevering worthiness but also to Ruffin’s ability to engage with him as an equal collaborator rather than just recruiting him for the purposes of cred.

Sequenced between “The Balance” and “Underwater Pyramid” is “Lily” by Toronto’s New Fries, which begins as edgy propulsive thwack and then folds in some ominous vocals and hallucinatory dub moves. But it’s after “The Balance” that Two Synths a Guitar (and) a Drum Machine throws it’s first real curveball with “Somebody Said” from San Francisco’s Ixna, the track recorded in 1981 but not released until 2019 on the archival LP Knotpop.

Associated with Mills College, Ixna did release a 7-inch in ’81, its edition of 500 copies pricey these days, its tracks included on Knotpop, as well. Drenched in snideness that is the byproduct of being hyperintelligent and therefore disaffected, “Somebody Said” reminds me a bit of Ixna’s Bay Area contemporaries Inflatable Boy Clams. Suffice it to say, I’ll be checking out Knotpop with due haste.

Equally intriguing and resistant to easy categorization (and released just last year) is Londoner Leroy Duncann’s “Dream River,” a short instrumental piece (from a record titled Instrumentals) that strikes my ear as similar to the recent wave of neo-(faux)-soundtrack stuff. Next is “Neon Green” by Tom of England aka Thomas Bullock, who’s something of a jetsetter, having impacted the scene in San Fran, in NYC, and in the country of his moniker.

As the cockeyed post-punky art-funky “Neon Green” plays, I keep imagining Siouxsie Sioux with a wraparound bandage on her head. This should be taken as a high compliment. “Tocar” by Toresch shifts us to Germany and with an appropriate club-centric sound, like a track heard on one of Kompakt Records’ numerous Total compilations. The London-based Becker & Mukai extend this dancy tendency in their “La Rivière des Perles,” though it’s less dense in its layered strangeness.

As the title suggests, “Discolovers” by follow Londoners Gramme extends the body moving objective even more. With the vocals up front, it also exudes a pop sensibility. But with “Ida” from the Portuguese outfit Niagara, the path diverts, at least somewhat, as it sounds like an instrumental Suicide armed with a melodica.

“Sift Through Art Collecting People” is by Tadd Mullinix of Ann Arbor, MI, here using his Charles Manier alias, the track blending the glistening momentum of techno with echoing guitar groan that helps to keep tabs on the post punk side of the equation. This leads into the dystopian synth, drum machine and acoustic guitar of “Baseball Shorts” by Black Deer aka William Burnett of NYC. Then, as side four nears its close, “Hot Disco” by London’s Madmadmad arrives, its sound adequately outlined by the track’s title.

Closing the set is an untitled cut from Dublin’s Wino-D that hits like a combo of subterranean NYC post-no wave dance at its densest and techno from the lo-fi, raggedy side of the spectrum. It provides a strong finale to a collection of previously released tracks. Those nutso for this sound may already know some or nearly all of these selections, but I suspect for most, Two Synths a Guitar (and) a Drum Machine will serve as a splendid primer, one that easily holds up to repeated spins in its entirety.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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