Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, May 2017

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die (International Anthem) Long active on the Chicago scene and recently busy in NYC, Branch is a skilled trumpeter. She’s recorded quite a bit over the last decade, but this, to employ jazz parlance, is her debut as leader. The core group consists of trumpet, cello, bass and drums with guest spots for guitar and two cornets. In line with the Chicago tradition, there’s a lack of spotlight hogging, but the collectivity is unique; “theme 001” and “theme nothing” brandish wicked cello-driven grooves, and when Branch does let loose, the sound is imaginative and energetic. A-

Penguin Cafe, The Imperfect Sea (Erased Tapes) Formed in ’72 by Simon Jeffes, most of Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s output emerged in the ’80s and was often associated with New Age, though it’s more accurately categorized as chamber-pop with a minimalist bent. The Imperfect Sea is not that Penguin Cafe Orchestra, as Jeffes passed in ’97, but is instead a continuation of sorts by his son Arthur, and one that exceeds expectations. Fully utilizing chamber instrumentation, Sea registers as less of a World Music offshoot than the Orchestra, but the mood is still sunny. During “Ricercar,” sunnier even. A-

REISSUE PICKS: Flat Duo Jets, Wild Wild Love (Daniel 13) For recent converts to the gospel according to Dex Romweber looking to get acquainted with the man’s early work, this is an absolute score, rounding up the Jets’ self-titled 1990 LP, a second disc of outtakes, and the long-elusive ’84 cassette-only mini-album (In Stereo), which makes its vinyl debut here via 10-inch. Alongside drummer Chris “Crow” Smith, Romweber dished an enticing strain of rockabilly that was as knowledgeable of Southern pop’s long history as it was roots potent. This blend has kept their stuff as delicious as fresh-picked produce. A-

V/A, Max’s Kansas City: 1976 & Beyond (Jungle) This expands (near-ridiculously, especially on the 2CD) a 1976 slab many have belittled or downright dismissed over the decades. This isn’t exactly a misapprehension; those who love Wayne County (I love Wayne County) might beg to differ, but the distance between Suicide and Ubu and the rest of the original slab’s lineup is, shall we say, significant. This reish drops Ubu but adds so much material (from weak to surprisingly spiff) that County’s opening Max’s trib registers not as hyperbole but as the legit documentation of a club-dwelling way of life. B+

Cindy Lee, Malenkost (W.25th) This gives a vinyl pressing to a 2015 cassette from Patrick Flegel, formerly of the Canadian outfit Women, and his work here combines noise spells with flashes of pop to murky, mysterious ends. The label mentions a smash-up of Brill Building and No Wave, with opener “No Worth No Cost” launching from an abrasive place, temporarily locating melodic form, and then detouring into a throb-spasm of distortion. “Always Lovers” is slow-motion dream-pop worthy of David Lynch, but it’s “A Message from the Aching Sky” that drives home a substantial early-’90s lo-fi quality. A-

Paul Collins’ Beat, Long Time Gone / To Beat or Not to Beat (Lolipop) Nifty pairing of “lost” ’80s mini-LPs by this cornerstone power-popper and his band. Right away “Broken Hearted” hits a sweet-spot betwixt achy emo-tug and anthemic upswing, and the disc rolls from there; gems get sprinkled throughout. Sure, a few lesser cuts emerge, and period trappings are observable, especially the drums on the ’85 material, but these aspects arise naturally and are by extension largely easy to take. The sharper and slightly tougher ’83 stuff adds value. ‘tis not Collins at his peak, but this is still a solid acquisition. B+

Curse the Son, Isolator (Ripple / The Company) This Connecticut-based stoner-doom outfit began life as a studio project; in 2017, they have a handful of full-lengths and an EP under their joint belt. Amp-grizzled riffs, ominous-anguished voicings (courtesy of guitarist-vocalist Ron Vanacore), forward motion and thud (from bassist Brendan Keefe and drummer Michael Petrucci) are all in abundance, and they manage to summon darkness without getting too bombastic. Still, this doesn’t fully impress, though a tangible “homemade” quality (somewhat comparable to ultra-low budget horror flicks) adds appeal. B

Mickey Hart, Planet Drum (UMe) As a prematurely bitter fuck, I (figuratively) shat upon this set back in ’91 and then promptly forgot all about it. Less hostile and on the brink of codgerdom today, I’m left underwhelmed rather than dyspeptic, but my feelings are roughly the same. A big problem is Hart’s objective of playing with a slew of global rhythm specialists; while surely fun for those involved, it lacks excitement and becomes something of a slog early on. And like so much World Music of the period, the sound is plagued with innocuousness. Hart’s ticker was in the right place, but this hasn’t aged well. C

John Moreland, Big Bad Luv (4AD) Given the opportunity to cover Moreland’s 2013 LP In the Throes, I wasn’t immediately grabbed and ended up passing. Like a large percentage of later-period/ contempo alt-country, the Oklahoma native isn’t peddling musical rebellion here, instead striving to “do it right.” Big Bad Luv hasn’t necessarily provided an epiphany, but after time spent with this disc (curiously released by 4AD) the songwriting and the playing did finally click. Assisted at the mixing desk by Tchad Blake (Black Keys, Sheryl Crow), this is an album for a wide audience but made on Moreland’s terms. B+

OST, Under the Tree (Full Spectrum) The release schedule of this drone-experimental-kosmische cassette label is steady (but sensibly so) and seasonal; this is half of Spring 2017’s slate, featuring work designed to soundtrack Ryan LeCluyse’s web-based doc miniseries, its subject three community-based relief organizations in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Primarily using synth and organ (plus the director’s field recordings), label boss Andrew Weathers taps into a deep fount of drone, but he also gets unusually rhythmic and at moments even song-like. The results are relaxing, engaging, and at times delightful. A-

Oxbow, Thin Black Duke (Hydra Head) This San Fran-based avant-noise-rock unit debuted in ’89 with the charmingly titled Fuckfest; since then they’ve evolved, collaborating with Kathy Acker and Marianne Faithfull along the way, but they haven’t softened a sound that’s been consistently tough to categorize. Highly disciplined and structurally rigorous, Oxbow has been compared to Birthday Party, Neurosis, Led Zep, Melvins, Sonic Youth, and Black Flag, but I continue to hear a link to Pere Ubu, a similarity as structural as it is tied to Eugene Robinson’s vocal approach. No slippage at all here; a fine effort. A-

Pilotpriest, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Waxworks) Inspired by films rather than supplying them scores, this is the first foray into original music for this OST-focused label, collecting three LPs worth of material by director-visual effects artist Anthony Scott Burns. Nearly everything is titled after the movie that stirred its creation, e.g. De Palma’s Body Double, Michael Mann’s Thief, and Paul Schrader’s Cat People, though the inspirations aren’t entirely auteur works (The Black Hole, anyone?), nor are they all from the ’80s. The sound does derive from the decade, but with a fair amount of subtlety. B

Regulator Watts, The Mercury LP (BCore Disc) The ’90s DC post-hardcore unit Hoover splintered into a handful of worthwhile bands, e.g. The Crownhate Ruin, The Sorts (see below), and this outfit, which featured guitarist-vocalist Al Durham, bassist Cret Wilson, and drummer Areif Dasha Sless-Kitain. This slab collects everything they recorded prior to the ’97 LP The Aesthetics of No-Drag; that’s an EP, singles tracks, and unreleased stuff. Regulator Watts was raw, emotionally intense (though not emo), and structurally exploratory, with a penchant for dub thrown in. Of historical value and listenable to boot. B+

Leon Russell, S/T (Audio Fidelity) The problem with Russell’s solo career, specifically that he struggled to better or even match a strong beginning, gets mirrored on his 1970 debut. Opening with arguably the best tune he ever wrote, nothing that follows equals “Song for You,” but the crucial difference is that it all goes down easy. Loaded with big-name backing appearances, including two Beatles, three Stones, Clapton, Winwood, and Cocker, the results sidestep potential snags through Southern-inflected singer-songwriter pop; this came out on Shelter but carries a definite Atlantic vibe. B+

Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, Sidelong (Bloodshot) This was self-released on CD in 2015, but it’s been smartly nabbed and grooved into wax by Bloodshot with a new record scheduled for next year. Those who fondly recall the brief reign of country-punk, or cow-punk as it was sometimes tagged (back before alt-country), should get in line for this one. Like a lot of that stuff (the best of it, in truth), the sounds here don’t undermine C&W but simply kick it out a little louder, harder, and realer. The sentiments expressed via Shook’s bold and clear voice in tunes like “Fuck Up” drive the punk angle home. B+

The Sneetches, Form of Play: A Retrospective (Omnivore) In his notes for this jampacked CD, Sneetches bassist Alec Palao describes the outfit in rather modest terms; a bit later he mentions a band associate praising Sneetch Mike Levy’s songs as “like something he might have heard before.” I would submit that Form of Play exemplifies the smart guitar-based pop of a bygone era without succumbing to retread, an appealing trait during their ’80s-’90s existence and even more so now. Deepening this state of affairs is the absence of covers amongst the 22 tracks. Fans of late-Zombies and early Big Star take note. A-

The Sorts, Six Plus (BCore Disc) Unlike Regulator Watts, The Sorts’ lineage to Hoover isn’t as quickly apparent. The core members were singer-guitarist Joshua LaRue, bassist Stuart Fletcher, and drummer Chris Farrall with help from Carlo Cennamo (sax), Vin Novara (keyboards), and Joe McRedmond (guitar); by the time of Six Plus (that’s 2003), the sound was devoid of any overt connections to post-hardcore, instead diving deep into a post-rock sensibility recommended to fans of Thrill Jockey’s first decade and to folks looking to broaden their conception of the post-Fugazi DC sound. First time on vinyl. B+

Andrew Wasylyk, Themes for Buildings and Spaces (Tape Club Records) Wasylyk is the solo recording alias of Andrew Mitchell; his main gigs are Scotland’s The Hazey Janes and Idlewild. The non-vocal makeup here helps to differentiate these eight tracks from the contents of its predecessor, 2015’s Soroky; from the cover design (featuring a pic from Scottish photographer Joseph MacKenzie) to the contents, I find this one preferable. The title here delineates Mitchell’s intent as architecture serves as inspiration. The results are sometimes lush, at other moments minimal, and consistently cinematic. B+

Andrew Weathers & Seth Chrisman, Ogallala (Full Spectrum – Editions Littlefield) The second in Full Spectrum’s Spring 2017 catalog entries, this one placed under the Editions Littlefield sub-label. This isn’t an arbitrary designation; the four drone pieces (one short, two long, one in-between) shaping this set are augmented with field recordings captured in the location of Full Spectrum’s headquarters, Littlefield, TX. Unsurprisingly, an environmental aura enhances big portions of this, but the use of banjo and piano sharpens the geography to the Southwest, in turn adding distinctiveness to the drone. A-

Yarn/Wire, Currents Vol. 0 (Self-released) Comprised of percussionists Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg and pianists Laura Barger and Ning Yu, NYC-based Yarn/Wire’s Currents performance collab series began in ’13. Its forerunner was an ISSUE Project Room Artist-in-Residence teaming them with numerous composers. Amongst the works created are these satisfying pieces, featuring Tyondai Braxton (post-minimalist repetition), Nathan Davis (decidedly contempo classical), and Peter Evans (tangibly non-jazz free-improv but with a lack of Evans’ trumpet). A-

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