Graded on a Curve:
New in stores January–March, 2016

Our 2016 first quarter overlook is in no way an attempt to be all-encompassing; it’s simply some thoughts and grades on records released in the first three months of the year. Part two arrives next week.

Adult Books, Running from the Blows (Burger/Lollipop) Guitar-based pop-rock in a late ’70s-early ’80s vein; that means occasional new wavy flourishes and a few welcome touches of leather-and -scarf attitude, and even as a couple of lesser songs emerge this is surprisingly strong for a full-length debut. On a just planet every town would have an Adult Books practicing outdoors on crisp autumn afternoons. But to paraphrase William Gaddis, we get justice in the next world; in this one we have the law. A-

Animal Collective, Painting With (Domino) Opener “FloriDada” strives for novelty but is ultimately just kinda corny and the album never really recovers; the whole is intermittently pleasant but constantly lightweight. Along with samples of the Surfaris and Bea Arthur (a real “are you shitting me?” moment) are guest spots by John Cale and Colin Stetson that are far more exciting on paper. In the end it’s a typically average late-work. C+

Anenon, Petrol (Friends of Friends) Producer and saxophonist Brian Allen Simon resides in Los Angeles, and fittingly his electronic-ambient-experimentalism is very L.A.; a few spots here conjured thoughts of burnt orange sunsets and smog. But worry not east coasters, for the manipulated blend of synthetic and organic instrumentation isn’t a bit shallow, with Simon’s sax bringing distinctiveness to the techno-abstract table. A-

Animal Daydream, “Citrus” (Jigsaw) 4-song EP retaining the Swedish duo’s devotion to the Buck/Nicks-era of the Fleetwood Mac, though this time out the tunes aren’t quite as strong. Saving them is the instrumentation however, which is likely to appeal to guitar-pop aficionados with nary a care regarding ’70s soft rock. B+

Guy Blakeslee, The Middle Sister (Leaving) Consistently interesting if stylistically wide-ranging (some might say schizophrenic) instrumental solo album by a former Entrance Band guy; one side is celestial fingerpicking and the other holds Krautrocky kosmische, dance rhythms, and psych-rock. Not a mindblower, but still an easily digestible affair. B

The Bonnevilles, Arrow Pierce My Heart (Alive Natural Sound) Garage punk blues sayeth the label, and I’d be more smitten with this Northern Ireland-based duo if they upped the punk angle and reduced the rootsy attitude a smidge. They do hold it together fairly well and largely manage to avoid the blues-rock duo novelty trap; bonus points get awarded for “Erotica Laguna Lurgana (Intermission),” which kick-starts a second half rally. B

Bootblacks, Veins (Manic Depression) Brooklyn-based synth-pop with guitar and vocals bringing Psychedelic Furs to mind. The form moves are so down pat that folks with an unquenchable thirst for the style will probably be downright chuffed, but listeners valuing the unpredictability and off-kilter aspects of electronic pop’s original innovators are just as apt to experience disappointment; “ABC Anxiety” gets them into the ballpark. Free download is available now; the vinyl is out in April. B-

Boris with Merzbow, Gensho (Relapse) 2CD/two separate 2LPs/deluxe 4LP set containing halves of the exact same duration, one belonging to the doomy art-metal of Boris and the other to the avant-noise mastery of the prolific Masami Akita aka Merzbow, the pair intended to be played simultaneously. Volume adjustment is encouraged to allow the listener to find their own personal ratio of Boris to Merzbow; listening to each set individually is deemed perfectly acceptable. Frankly, it’ll take months and probably much longer to fully grasp the ins and outs of this thing, so let’s just give it an A- for ambition.

Cavern of Anti-Matter, void beats / invocation trex (Duophonic) Second record by Tim Gane’s post-Stereolab trio features some really terrific electro-Krautrock moments, and at one hour and a dozen minutes stretched over three LPs, there is a lot to absorb. A little too much in fact; whittling down and perhaps ditching the okay but out of place “liquid gate” with vocals by Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox would’ve improved an already strong, mostly instrumental situation. B+

Cha Wa, Funk ‘n’ Feathers (UPT Music) Contemporary New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian music fused with funk and rock, the reliably grooving hybrid succeeding across ten tracks. Sometimes the modern elements seem to be keeping the potential for craziness in check, but in the end enough wildness arises that fans of updated roots science should be very pleased. Covering “Jock-A-Mo” (better known as “Iko Iko”) is a bit like a garage band dishing out an umpteenth version of “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” but it goes down rather nicely and fits these circumstances well so never mind. B+ (Available on CD 4/1)

Chimurenga Renaissance, “Girlz with Gunz” (Glitterbeat) 11 track 26 minute EP from Shabazz PalacesTendai Maraire, guitarist Hussein Kalojni, and guests offering conscious hip-hop with Zimbabwean rhythms, Congolese guitar, and electronic elements. The layered intensity benefits the mix of smooth and rough as the organic instrumentation is consistently well integrated, and the overtly political subject matter gets intelligently expressed. The whole interjects hectic elements into a finessed flowing whole. A-

Com Truise, “Silicon Tare” (Ghostly International) Bluntly, I’ve steered clear of Seth Haley’s music up to now due to the nyuk-nyuk spoonerism of the guy’s performance handle. Ending the avoidance with this EP, I’ll report that the five cuts aren’t that bad; they’re really not that great either, but helping the electronic pop scenario is an absence of vocals. Instead of an overbearing crooner’s paradise the textural landscapes get satisfactorily magnified. B (Available on vinyl/digital 4/1)

CTMF, “A Glimpse of another Time” (Damaged Goods) A 4-song 7-inch from Wild Billy Childish’s current group. He pens and sings two including the title stomper; the others belong to band member JuJu, her vocals so deliciously non-pro, especially on the popish gem “Ode to Citrus Heights,” that they justify the cost of admission alone. A-

Brian Cullman, The Opposite of Time (Sunnyside) Second solo album from a cat who’s been on the scene long enough that Lillian Roxon introduced him to Danny Fields; after decamping to England he scored an opening spot for Nick Drake. Cullman’s songwriting is hard to fault, but the delivery by a group loaded with pros is substantially adult and at times innocuous, an understandable circumstance somewhat lessening the impact of an agreeable whole. B

Desert Suns, (s/t) (Ripple Music) Repress of the 2014 debut album by a San Diego four piece specializing in hard-rocking stoner-blooze, the majority of its contents are appropriately heavy and energetic. The strum and harmonica diversification gesture of “Ten Feet Down” is an exception of middling quality, and the record’s whole ultimately falls short of transcending any stylistic highpoints, making it one for serious genre aficionados rather than a gateway into the scene. B-

Driving Rain, “Intervention Time” (Lövely) Stockholm-based outfit utterly immersed in late ’70s-early ’80s melodic rock, with the promo text for this out of nowhere 6-song EP mentioning Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, and Radio Birdman; upon inspection, the line between collegiate marketability and unabashed commercialism is straddled more openly. Who-ish opener “Hard Times” is a gem and the entirety is played with total commitment. B+

Elevators to the Grateful Sky, Cape Yawn (HeviSike) The label calls this Sicilian combo’s wares “thinking man’s stoner rock,” and while this LP is certainly a non-generic item, the integration of self-described “alternative rock” elements doesn’t especially elevate the proceedings. Beginning strongly, as the record progresses the head of steam gradually dissipates; the late appearance of saxophone is surprising but does little to uplift matters. C+

Fucko, Dealing with the Weird (Black Numbers) Debut full-length from a Boston trio clearly smitten with the indie-Alt ’90s; they succeed through crisp, punchy songwriting with pop richness at the core. The guitar tone is appropriately rough, the femme vocals are attractively plainspoken, and the nature of the entire endeavor is refreshingly unconflicted. B+

HAG, Fear of Man (DNAWOT) Described as noise-rock, HAG harkens back to the underground circa the close of the 1980s. While there are a few spots bringing NYC’s Unsane to mind (though not as caustically uncompromising) the majority is reminiscent of grunge in the interval prior to the style’s mainstream acceptance. Melvins get cited as an influence, a connection heard in the repetition of riffs, but there’s too much singing and simply not enough noise in HAG’s recipe; any bright spots come in fleeting, frustrating moments. C+

HÆLOS, Full Circle (Matador) Neo-trip-hop, seamlessly executed, eminently listenable, and by extension easy to overrate; on the other hand, the potential for cringeworthy moments is high, and that this trio avoids potential missteps throughout earns them credit. Candidly, this style was far from this writer’s favorite the first time around, but there’s no denying this is a confident, fully-formed debut. B+

The Hanging Stars, Over the Silvery Lake (The Great Pop Supplement/Crimson Crow) UK psych-folk act serving up a solid debut; the country leanings lack affectation, the vocal harmonies avoid succumbing to excess and the rocking impulses never get heavy-handed. Nothing here really rattles the foundation, but that doesn’t seem to be the intention. A couple minor tunes do crop up, but “Crippled Shining Blues” is a Laurel Canyon-ish nugget. B+

Thee Headcoats, Conundrum (Damaged Goods) Reissue of a typically svelte slab of ’60s-’70s punk ruckus from Messrs. Childish, Brand, and Johnson, initially issued in ’94 and choosing the cover of the US pressing on Super Electro. Garage fans lacking in Wild Billy wax would not go wrong with this one. A-

Holy Wave, Freaks of Nurture (The Reverberation Appreciation Society/Burger) Crisp psych-pop from an Austin-based quintet with a pronounced Anglo bent; shades of The Clientele are tangible, though Holy Wave is a slightly heavier proposition. Californian aspects, both original wave and Paisley, also enter into Holy Wave’s equation, and they get bonus points for stretching out. B+

Anna Homler and Steve Moshier’s Breadwoman & Other Tales (RVNG Intl.) Released as a cassette way back in 1985, the reality of Homler singing in a “found language” as composer Moshier accompanies her on synths positively screams Ahht of the performance, gallery, and DIY avant-garde varieties, but instead of a forced and/or dated situation the contents are seriously compelling; also striking is how this sui generis work evolved in Los Angeles and not NYC. A

The (Hypothetical) Prophets, Around the World With (Infiné) Reissue of a fairly eccentric cold wave artifact from 1982, the result of French electronic artist Bernard Szajner and British musician Karel Beer collaborating under the respective pseudonyms Joseph Weil and Norman D. Landing. Surely a fringe entry in the early experimental electronic wave, this fascinating time capsule is just as liable to appeal to fans of The Residents and Ze Records. B+

Immix Ensemble & Vessel, “Transition” (Erased Tapes) A big worry when acoustic and electronic artists collaborate is a nagging superficiality, but the meeting of Liverpool-based horn and strings group Immix and Bristolian electronic composer Sebastian Gainsborough aka Vessel is thoroughly cohesive, with nary a stitched-up seem showing. Austrian-born Immix leader Daniel Thorne’s sax blowing is hearty, the strings are of strong chamber stock, and Vessel’s contributions are deftly integrated. A-

The Jagger Botchway Group, Odze Odze (Cultures of Soul) Of all the reissues I’ve soaked up from this admirable Boston label, this one has stoked my fire the least. Pulling Ghanian sounds from Richard Neesai “Jagger” Botchway (of The Barons, Hedzoleh Soundz, and The Afro Kelenkye Band) off the shelf, the results favor the brightly pleasant over the gritty and/or greasy; there are definitely a few moments as “Chapter 5” wraps up the seven cuts on a high note, but this set, which gets filled out and somewhat enhanced with five remixes, takes a back seat to a slew of African releases both old and new. B

The Jazz Butcher, Last of the Gentleman Adventurers (Fire) Initially self-released in an edition of 1,000 through a crowd-funding effort back in 2012, it’s great to see this baby in the racks again, for it’s a fine late effort from a too-often slept-on Brit personality. His band, including longtime cohort Sonic Boom from Spacemen 3, lends just the right amount of backbone and color to the songs, and Pat Fish’s lyrics are up to snuff. Fire’s also reissuing his ’80s catalog in a couple of box sets this year, so stay tuned. A-

Glenn Kotche/Sō Percussion, Drumkit Quartets (Cantaloupe) A sizable percentage of higher-end avant-classical stuff can be as dry as a Bob Newhart routine on martini preparation, but not this one; it finds Wilco’s Kotche continuing to spread his compositional wings, with the focus here obviously on the drums but with other elements such as sirens and the human voice (Yuka Honda guests) entering the picture. There are a few short lags, but overall this is a surprisingly consistent listen. B+

Kyson, Book of Flying (Friends of Friends) Second album from this Berlin-based Aussie combines contempo electronic textures with fragile bedroom pop complete with gently picked acoustic and delicate vocals. Falls short of amazing, but the hovering folk with just a hint of glitch elevates “Black Dreaming” to a highlight. B (Out on LP and CD 4/1)

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