Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, February 2017

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued wax presently in stores for February, 2017. 

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Howe Gelb, Future Standards (Fire) As the title clarifies, this plunge into the Great American Songbook focuses entirely on ambiance; rather than corralling the umpteenth versions of bedrock compositions, Gelb tackles 12 of his own with satisfying and increasingly intimate results. Favoring depth of mood over an interpretational tightrope, he gets to keep and eat his cake, reveling in the foundational appeal of chestnuts while leading a warm piano trio (and occasionally duetting with Lonna Kelley) on a program of classic-minded yet subtly and fruitfully off-center tunes. A-

Mark Eitzel, Hey Mr. Ferryman (Merge) Gelb and Eitzel’s co-headlining tour reaches into the springtime, and based on the ex-American Music Club leader’s tenth solo effort in a long career attendees shouldn’t leave disappointed. These 11 tracks (+ two bonuses) rank high in Eitzel’s discography, largely due to the input of former Suede guitarist and solo artist Bernard Butler; his extensive instrumental contribution and supervisory role, sometimes symphonically bold and at other moments almost Brit-folk restrained, enhances the singer-songwriter’s veteran touch and produces a late-work of polished intensity. A-

REISSUE PICKS: Max Roach, We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (Cornbread) Not just a monumental achievement in jazz but one of the 20th century’s finest protest artworks. The key to this LP’s present day resonance is directly related to the refusal to tone down the musical verve in favor of the message, eschewing a tactic that reduced the lasting impact of a whole lotta folk stuff from the same era. To the contrary, Abbey Lincoln’s letting loose during the middle portion of “Triptych: Prayer/ Protest/ Peace” still triggers goosebumps. With Coleman Hawkins, Booker Little, Julian Priester etc. A+

Vic Chesnutt, Little and Drunk (New West) The Mike Stipe-produced 1990 debut Little and third album Drunk are two of seven entries from Chesnutt’s superb catalog scheduled for vinyl reissue across 2017. A demo so effective nobody wanted to attempt improving upon it, Little gets to the core of this inspirational and much missed singer-songwriter’s talent. Brandishing lyrics laced with poetry, his (mostly) solo acoustic folk approach lends familiarity to the eccentricities, and a similar effect is achieved on the more rock-inclined Drunk. Both are key works from a one-of-a-kind artist. A- / A-

Ariel Pink & Weyes Blood, “Myths 002 EP” (Mexican Summer) Here’s entry two in this label’s “Myths” series of collaborations. This sort of endeavor is too often the breeding ground for disappointment, in large part due to unfamiliar participants hitting the studio with a timeclock ticking. Not so with Ariel Pink and Natalie Mering; the easy flow of these four songs reinforce that the pair know each other well. Opening with lilting psych interjected with outbursts of operatic glam-rock (“Tears on Fire”) and closing with a slice of sophisto indie pop (“On Another Day”), this tidy 14 minutes exceeds expectations. B+

LaVern Baker, See See Rider (Cornbread) Baker’s final album for Atlantic doesn’t do her justice, though it starts out strong and amply displays her versatility. This is a hodgepodge of old and new stuff corralled to capitalize on her then recent chart success with the title track, and the problem is too much underwhelming pop material; only “See See Rider” makes the cut of Soul on Fire, which still stands as the best Baker collection around. Cornbread’s addition of two lively side-ending bonuses from ’63 helps to make this a worthy pickup for R&B lovers, but it’s still far from an essential purchase. B

Lincoln Barr, Trembling Flames (Showpony Records/ RedEye Worldwide) Like Gelb, the solo debut of Barr, whose prior rep derives from his leadership of Seattle-area outfit Red Jacket Mine, is based on smoky lounge allure, the Songbook of old, and a focus on original, highly personal writing. The mention of Lynchian soundtracks and Bacharach and David-esque AM radio hits highlights the distinctiveness. Even with Levon Henry’s attractive horns as part of a crack studio band (including Calexico’s John Convertino), this is nearer to post-’80s pop-auteurism than neo-jazziness, and that’s OK. B+

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, Like Someone in Love (Doxy) Arguably Blakey’s best band, with trumpeter Lee Morgan, tenor-man Wayne Shorter, pianist Bobby Timmons, bassist Jymie Merritt, and drums by the leader of course, but this isn’t their best LP; that would be A Night in Tunisia, although this derives from the same sessions. The sense of good manners does temper the boldness of Blakey’s general approach, and by extension, the overall heft a bit. On the other hand, the playing is impeccable as three of Shorter’s very fine tunes and a groover by Morgan are featured. A-

Julie Byrne, Not Even Happiness (Basin Rock/ Ba Da Bing!) Warmly recorded by Alan Douches, this largely acoustic folk set thrives upon Byrne’s strength as a vocalist and her capable if not flashy fingerpicking across a succinct program of originals. Overall this is aptly tagged as a solo affair, one heightened with a smattering of assistance, e.g. a few string-section additives, a flute on “Melting Grid,” and the extra guitar on “Sea as it Glides,” but the real treat is the emotional vitality of Byrne’s songs and the immaculate control she displays in bringing them to fruition. Wake up, brew a cup, and listen. A-

Johnny Cash, All Aboard the Blue Train (ORG/ ADA) As a pro musician with numerous career highs and lows, Cash has as many bum albums as classic in his ample discography, but this ’62 effort falls to the positive side of the spectrum. As a late entry in Sun’s attempts to drain the well after Cash vacated the premises for Columbia, this is a compilation of ’54-’58 material, with opener “Blue Train” the only track that hadn’t previously appeared on LP. Even with “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Hey Porter” in the program this is far from a Best of, but as a survey of Cash and the Tennessee Two, it’s quite solid. A-

The Crowd, A World Apart (Radiation Deluxe) This Huntington Beach crew landed a five-song stretch on ’79’s Beach Blvd comp, and this LP of pre-HC melodic Cali punk-wave was their ’80 follow-up. There is tangible sand in the gears without ever tipping over into outright surf-dom; instead, traces of Devo-ish angularity can be detected, which benefits the band’s well-practiced scheme of things. While a few of these tracks approach the Dangerhouse ballpark of quality, particularly “Right Time,” a few instances of filler do arise across the 24-minute running-time. Still, any collection of US punk needs this one. B+

Demon Fuzz, Afreaka! (Granadilla Music) This is the sole 1970 release (expanded with a simultaneously issued maxi-single) by a UK-based unit of seven-members having all emigrated from various spots in the Commonwealth. An eclectically grooving affair (with a memorably whacked-out sleeve to match), had Afreaka! produced sales figures it seems likely Demon Fuzz would’ve quickly spiraled into crumminess, as Blood Sweat & Tears was a professed influence. BS&T is indeed discernible, but so is an organic soul edge reminiscent of Sly and Santana plus a sturdy psychedelic thread bringing Traffic to mind. B+

Peter Holsapple, “Don’t Mention the War” b/w “Cinderella Style” (Hawthorne Curve) Names don’t get much more distinguished in power-pop terms; Holsapple plus Chris Stamey equals the dB’s, but power-pop this isn’t. Instead, it’s a long overdue return to action finding him in the zone inhabited by many of his aging stylistic peers; in a nutshell, this is smart, adult pop. The plug side is a robust story song concerning a case of PTSD with nods in the direction of Neil Young-ish Americana and a tuba lending freshness. The flip exudes just a hint of his old Hoboken digs in its confident unwinding. A-

Elmore James, Blues After Hours (Rumble) The link between Robert Johnson and Hound Dog Taylor. Like a fair number of bluesmen, James is too often faulted for repetitiveness, but that’s mainly because labels kept insisting on variations of prior successes. This album served as his long-playing debut and is loaded with the guy’s intoxicating blend of Delta-derived gusto and post-WWII urban flair. In “Dust My Blues” he dishes out one of recorded music’s greatest riffs, but James was also a fittingly ragged vocalist and just as comfortable hanging with horn sections and riding atop jook joint worthy dance rhythms. A-

Noveller, A Pink Sunset for No One (Fire) Sarah Lipstate’s guitar odyssey continues through this, her eighth LP as Noveller (time does fly). As a member of both Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Army and Glenn Branca’s 100 Guitar Ensemble, her avant-garde comfort zone is by now well established, and it’s widened here by the Steve Reich tribute “Rituals.” Although Iggy Pop recently engaged her as tour opener, rock tags apply only partially; some fine raw textures are conjured, but her atmospheric glide and cyclical precision, if prog-tinged, continue to lean toward approachable experimentalism. A-

OST, Kids (MVD Visual) Even separated from the hyper-realistic slice of Harmony Korine-written Larry Clark-directed cautionary-exploitation it serves, this OST delivers a vibrant snapshot of 1995. The Lou Barlow-John Davis Folk Implosion collab provides most of the disc’s contents including the chart hit “Natural One” and the short blast of punk anger “Daddy Never Understood” (credited to the Deluxx version of the group), while previously recorded numbers (by Barlow’s main ’90s outfit Sebadoh, Daniel Johnston, hip-hoppers Lo-Down, and post-rockers Slint) deepen the indie-era portraiture. B+

Terry Riley, Descending Moonshine Dervishes and Songs for the Ten Voices of the Two Prophets (Beacon Sound) Descending is a ’75 live recording from Berlin not released until ’82, while Songs documents an ’82 concert in Munich that was issued the following year, both initially on the German Kuckuck label. Descending’s solitary all instrumental track is easily the pick, even when broken in half for vinyl consumption. Songs’ features the composer’s vocals; while not awful they do reduce the worthiness significantly. Riley fans may want both, but pickier drone lovers should choose with care. A- / B-

George Russell and His Orchestra featuring Bill Evans, Jazz in the Space Age (Doxy) Waxed in 1960, the title and cover might give a newbie a kitschy vibe, but that’s not what’s happening here; an advanced yet still swinging large ensemble is instead the focus of the matter. Composer-arranger Russell was also a fine pianist, but the 88s are handled here by Evans and Paul Bley, with their interaction an early highlight. A strong lineup including trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, bassist Milt Hinton, drummer Charlie Persip, and guitarist Barry Galbraith help to elevate this important entry in Russell’s development. A-

The Shirelles, Sing to Trumpets and Strings (Cornbread) Though this quartet’s second album opens with one of their biggest chart successes in “Mama Said,” it’s still not as hits-heavy as debut Tonight’s the Night. Credited as the first major female vocal group to emerge after the advent of R&R, they’re often underrated today, with Motown and Spector having stolen a few claps of their thunder. Giving these tunes a few spins finds a likeable, occasionally doo-wop-ish ’50s flair on display; yes, there are some weak spots, but folks on the lookout for pre-Beatle pop stuff shouldn’t pass this one over. B

V/A, Macondo Revisitado: The Roots of Subtropical Music, Uruguay 1975-1979 (Vampisoul) This 21 track 2LP spotlights the output of Uruguayan independent label Macondo. Those hoping the years delineated in the title produced an abundance of funky disco dance and/ or rock hybrids will be disappointed; while there are a few synth doodles and nods to ’70s action movie soundtracks, the sounds herein are far more derived from a variety of trad Latin and Central American styles borrowed from numerous countries. But not to worry, for this survey is downright catchy with a few cool bursts of unusualness. A-

Vermont, II (Kompakt) The Cologne-based duo of Danilo Plessow (Motor City Drum Ensemble) and Marcus Worgull (Innervisions) inject a geographically appropriate kosmische foundation with a variety of synth-techno elements to produce an overall vibe that’s relaxing-inviting rather than icy-harsh. This shouldn’t suggest a lack of substantiality, for there is tangible heft to the whole as they opt for shorter memorable pieces (13 in 57 minutes) over lengthier aural tapestries. Adding guitar and strings broadens the scope as a few spots, while “Demut” cultivates an appealing synth soundtrack angle. B+

Miguel Zenón, Tipico (Miel Music) Puerto Rican altoist Zenón’s been quite busy since debuting as a leader back in ’02; this is his tenth album, described as a celebration of his enduring quartet with pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Henry Cole, and the sheer elevated interaction is impressive throughout. While my fondness for jazz’s outside regions lends penultimate track “Entre Las Raíces” standout status, it’s impossible to deny the sustained energy level. The lack of an instrumental weak link and the vigorousness of the Latin-jazz hybrid make this a winner. A-

John Zorn, Spy Vs. Spy: The Music of Ornette Coleman (Music on Vinyl) This consists of 17 Coleman tunes given the hardcore-thrash-noise treatment via jazz instrumentation; Zorn and Tim Berne on altos, Mark Dresser on bass, Joey Baron and Michael Vatcher on drums. The finished product, which was a crucial step on the trail to Naked City, has brought more than a few verdicts claiming that everything sounds the same, but that’s only true from a surface perspective. With a little time to get beyond the unbridled intensity, the memorability of Coleman’s songs endures. This is so much more than a provocation. A

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