Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, June 2017

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: CHEER-ACCIDENT, Putting Off Death (Cuneiform) This Chicago avant-prog unit (led by multi-instrumentalist-composers Jeff Libersher and Thymme Jones) has been active for over 30 years, with their first record coming out in 1986; something like 20 albums later, they exhibit not a trace of fatigue. Instrumental dexterity is certainly on display, but honest-to-goodness songs are showcased over musical athleticism; the early portion of 11-minute-plus opener “Language Is,” is aptly described as pop inclined (think Robert Wyatt). Note for vinyl-loving Cuneiform fans: this one’s on wax. A-

Stutter Steps, “Floored EP” (Blue Arrow) Ben Harrison’s second release and debut for Blue Arrow is a 6-song EP with a stunningly perfect guitar-pop title track as the opener. It’s veteran stuff; Harrison has collaborated with Dean Wareham (who his voice favors just a bit), and is a curator of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Stutter Steps have been described as combining Flying Nun with the Go-Betweens, and that continues here in “Dim,” which starts out like the former and subtly transitions into latter. If none of the subsequent tracks quite match the highs of “Floored,” the whole is still a peach. A-

REISSUE PICKS: Doc Watson, Live in Chicago March 1964: Vol. One (Rockbeat) For decades, Doc Watson served as an invaluable vessel of the USA’s wide-ranging folk essence. Plainspoken but lacking in any phony “aw-shucks” vibes, his ability to bring casual audiences a dose of the real stuff is essentially unequaled, and he influenced generations of players. This just under an hour-long set was captured shortly after Watson cut his self-titled masterpiece for Vanguard, but there is little overlap in these 18 songs. The guitar and banjo picking, the singing, and the conversation are exceptional. A

ESG, Step Off (Fire) I recall the nervousness some felt over the long-delayed return of this rightfully legendary minimalist funk unit, but this sweetly concise 7-song effort brought the goods. Having deeply impacted post-punk, hip-hop, and later, the dance-punk surge that was still transpiring as this set originally emerged via Soul Jazz, ESG (stands for Emerald, Sapphire and Gold) played on Step Off like it was their debut and they were an unknown band from Bronx. This is indeed body-moving stuff, but with an attention to instrumental heft that’s always reminded me of another trio, namely the Minutemen. A-

Arbouretum, Song of the Rose (Thrill Jockey) I’ve slept on this one a bit (it came out in March), but it’s a major slab of neo-classic rock that deserves a bit of spotlight. Folks familiar with Dave Heumann’s terrific Here in the Deep likely know he’s the guitarist-vocalist here. Newbies should think of the heavier side of Will Oldham (there are connections), though Arbouretum is distinct, in large part through Heumann’s lyrics; he’s a descendant of the 17th century poet Richard Lovelace (who penned “The Rose”), and on the title track, his poetic-mystical words and the band’s sharp playing conjure similarities to Lungfish. A-

Asphyxiation, “What is this Thing Called ‘Disco’?” (Chapter Music) Folks jazzed by Chapter Music’s reissue of David Chesworth’s 50 Synthesizer Greats might dig this 1981 post-punk art-disco project headed up by Philip Brophy; Chesworth, a longtime associate of Brophy, helped with production. Initially the soundtrack to an art exhibition, this baby oozes post-modern intellect, though the music is never an afterthought. Indeed, much of the disc is instrumentally focused. Some ideas are more successful than others, but the whole, which includes alienation, saxophone, and full-frontal cover nudity, is solid. B+

Bubblemath, Edit Peptide (Cuneiform) These Minnesota-based avant-prog-technical metallers long-delayed second alb lets it all hang out on the 12-plus minute opener “Routine Maintenance”; there’re stops, starts, numerous structural changes and mucho zesty vocalizing of highly literate lyrics. Comparisons to Mars Volta and Mr. Bungle are apt, but Bubblemath are more pop savvy than the former as they avoid the twistedness of the latter. Driving deep into the danger zone of ‘70s prog, right down to the tone of the keyboard flourishes, hard edge, and non-pomposity keep this one afloat. B

Buffalo Tom, Let Me Come Over 25th Anniversary Edition (Beggars Arkive) This Boston trio’s third full-length sounds better to these ears than it did back in ’92. In a nutshell, this directly relates to creeping Alt-rock fatigue, a malady that has evaporated in 2017, but what hasn’t disappeared is Let Me Come Over’s clear attempt at refinement, so the album itself only attains a moderate level of success. Upping the grade is the 17-track live show from just before Let Me Come Over’s release; the selections are attractively rougher, and “Sunflower Suit” is included in the set in all its post-Dü glory. B+

The Great Harry Hillman, Tilt (Cuneiform) Swiss post-jazz with Nils Fischer on reeds, David Koch on guitar and effects, Samuel Huwyler on bass, and Dominik Mahnig on drums; the name is a belated trib to the athlete who won three gold medals in the 2004 Summer Olympics. Clearly skilled (everyone has university training) but not overly virtuosic and exploring a leaderless approach, the music ranges from gentle, contemplative passages to moments of considerable intensity, with the focus on compositional strength (everyone contributes at least one tune) rather than improvisational fireworks. A-

Larkin Grimm, Chasing an Illusion (Northern Spy) Shortly after we entered the 21st, a wild and weird post-hippie sensibility infiltrated the u-ground, swelled up, and then slowly dissipated. Well, not entirely; Larkin Grimm emerged as part of that movement (both solo and as a participant in Dirty Projectors), but she’s hung in there, and her latest feels like her best yet. Most of the LP can be classified as avant-folk (with a jazzy inclination inspired by Grimm’s spiritual connection to Ornette Coleman), but “Beautifully Alone” is simply a pop treasure; it reminds me more of Laura Nyro’s NY thing than the Laurel Canyon. A-

Holy Balm, “Activity Mixes” (Chapter Music) This “one-off vinyl pressing of 500 copies” consists of five remixes from the Sydney outfit Holy Balm’s 2016 album Activity. I haven’t heard that one, mainly because Chapter Music didn’t send it to me, though I did consider streaming it for research purposes. But hey, the versions found here are quite appealing on their own, seemingly extending Chapter’s description of Holy Balm as a “wonky house trio.” Wonky house is the best house, or it’s at least close to it; if asked to spin records at a basement dance party, I’d easily choose this one. B+

Jim Jones & the Righteous Mind, Super Natural (MaSonic – Hound Gawd!) Debut full-length after a handful of EPs for this crew, though Jones is a vet noted for his work in Thee Hypnotics, a hard-garage-psych unit with recs on Sub Pop, Beggars Banquet, and other labels. He’s led bands since, and this one is a punk-swamp-blues affair; like much in the style, it swaggers forth (with Jones’ soul-growl front and center) in a manner taking a little getting used to. “Base is Loaded” is illustrative, beginning unexceptionally and then building into a juggernaut that’s undeniable. Piano adds value throughout. B+

Glenn Jones, Against Which the Sea Continually Beats (Thrill Jockey) The early solo releases from this contemporary American Primitive guitar ace are getting a much deserved first time on vinyl reissue; this is his second album from 2007, its LP pressing following the reemergence of his debut This is the Wind That Blows It Out, originally from ’04. As good as that one is, this disc is an absolute doozy. Scores of fingerpickers are partially enshrouded by the influence of John Fahey, and that’s fine, but Jones is his own man, and was such even at this stage. Plus, his slide playing is up there with Cooder’s. A gem. A

Miriodor, Signal 9 (Cuneiform) The Cuneiform label’s May program, all of it covered in this dispatch, is evenly split between bands with relatively slim discographies and those with an extensive release history; Montreal’s RIO (that’s Rock in Opposition for the avant-prog newbies) exponent Miriodor falls into the later camp. Prior album Cobra Fakir was the work of a trio, but Signal 9 expands to a quartet as the sonic terrain is suitably expansive, combining those RIO influences with elements of jazz-rock, King Crimson, and even flashes of humor (see “Portrait-robot”). Yet another winner from Silver Spring. B+

MKB Ultra, S/T (Self-released) This set began as the third solo album from Mia Katherine Boyle, but in the making morphed into a full-on band as producer Jack Endino filled the lead guitar spot. His contribution helps to cement a tangible Seattle rock sensibility that’s enhanced by guest spots by Screaming Trees’ Van Connor (on mellotron) and Steve Fisk (on synth), but Boyle’s singer-songwriter presence remains at the forefront; even if I’m not blown away by the results, this is an impressive feat, with the whole largely rooted in actual tunes rather than just riffs. Things get productively weird late. B

NO ZU, “BODY2BODY2BODY” (Chapter Music) Like the Holy Balm record above, I dove into this EP with no prior experience with NO ZU, a Melbourne band led by Nicolaas Oogjes. The sound has been described as “weird, no-wave funk,” and the program here, which combines new versions of two tracks from NO ZU’s 2016 Afterlife LP with a pair of cuts from the same album given remixes by A Certain Ratio and Johnny Sender of Konk, authenticate that description. Dance music is best when it encourages the flying of freak flags, and this surely does that. Methinks fans of !!! will dig it. A-

Jaco Pastorius, Truth, Liberty & Soul — Live in NYC: The Complete 1982 NPR Jazz Alive! Recording (Resonance) Bluntly, while obviously respecting the guy’s talent, I’ve never been the biggest Jaco fan. Lovers of his thing are no doubt shaking their heads, but in my defense, let me speak kindly of this 2CD set, which finds the bassist’s Word of Mouth big band swinging like an elementary school playground on the last day before summer break. Some definite mersh stuff transpires, but sharp soloing (including guest Toots Thielemans) and the distinctiveness of steel drums and tuba balances matters out. B

Rudy Stone, The Blinking Light/Peace on Earth (Moderate Fidelity) Six-song cassette from the Brooklyn to New Orleans and back again Stone (aka Andy Plovnick), with five lightly psych-tinged guitar-based pop tunes on side A and one long spacy-droning analog synth cut on the flip; briefly, “The Blinking Light B-side (Peace on Earth)” isn’t likely to inspire pangs of inadequacy in Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, but it provides an enjoyable 15 minutes. Likewise, Stone/ Plovnick’s pop stuff isn’t redefining the pop auteur shebang, but the results go down easy enough. Folks into tapes and home-crafted pop ditties are likely to dig. B+

Harry Taussig / Max Ochs, The Music of Harry Taussig and Max Ochs (Tompkins Square) This nifty split LP commemorates the 50th Anniversary of the Takoma Records compilation Contemporary Guitar – Spring ’67 with fresh recordings from Taussig and Ochs, both of whom contributed to the original LP alongside Bukka White, Robbie Basho, and John Fahey. Taussig and Ochs are the only participants still living, and as fans of Tompkins Square’s Guitar Soli-focused output already know, both are still in fine form. Taussig gets five tracks, with a sharp finale on banjo, and Ochs stretches out on three and gets a little bluesy. A-

White Hills, Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey) Prolific since forming White Hills in the mid-’00s, Dave W. and Ego Sensation paused prior to this Martin Bisi-produced effort, which finds them migrating toward a decidedly Industrialized zone. Burroughs’ cut-ups are cited as a model, while Throbbing Gristle and especially early Cabaret Voltaire are audible, but much of the record exudes an ominous techno throb of contempo origin; e.g., standout “If…1…2” brought Wolf Eyes’ more recent stuff to mind. “A Trick of the Mind” postulates Joy Div if they went full-on goth, and the title track is prime dance floor doom-thud. A-

Big Joe Williams, Southside Blues (Rockbeat) Williams was a Delta-to-Windy City blues figure, much admired for his strong voice and lithe though non-flashy technique on the 9-string guitar. Per the title, this documents a Chicago live set recorded by blues producer Norman Dayron reportedly at Paul Butterfield’s Fickle Pickle club in July 1963. Opener “Nobody Knows You When Your Down and Out” offers modest accompaniment, but the gist is an energetic solo set situated between a Mississippi back porch and the folk blues revival. Previously available but never easy to find, and currently CD only. B+

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