Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, September 2017

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Daniel Levin, Living (Smeraldina-Rima) Levin is a NYC-based cellist tapping into a wide variety of New Music disciplines, with avant jazz a major component. Living is his second recording of solo improv, a difficult, and by extension, rare avenue of spontaneous expression. The prior disc, 2011’s Inner Landscape, was live, but this LP (in an edition of 300) was captured in studio, and it’s a perfect fit for home listening. Going far beyond standard bowing, he doesn’t create a racket but instead conjures quiet, focused intensity and surprise. It’s just one of four 2017 releases for Levin. A

Trio da Kali & Kronos Quartet, Ladilikan (World Circuit) Trio da Kali consist of vocalist Hawa Kassé Mady Diabate, bass ngoni player Mamadou Kouyaté, and balafon player and musical director Lassana Diabaté; described by World Circuit as a sort of Malian griot supergroup, their playing is exquisite, especially the balafon (a type of xylophone), and the singing is powerful, pretty, and expressive (and occasionally gospel-flavored). With the assistance of Jacob Garchik, who arranged Trio da Kali’s repertoire for this collaboration, Kronos inject elements of surprise and make a splendid thing even better. A

REISSUE PICKS: The Dream Syndicate, The Complete Live at Raji’s (Run Out Groove) The reunion set from this foundational Paisley Underground band is freshly out and more than up to snuff, but this reissue (first time on vinyl for the entire show) is an absolute monster. Captured on the last day of January 1988, this is the Ghost Stories lineup (2/3rds of which are back for the new LP) a little prior to that album’s recording, with the track-list focusing on the first three Syndicate records. The whole band is killing it, and Wynn’s guitar tone is blazing throughout, especially on sides three and four. A

Group Home, Livin’ Proof (Get on Down) The duo of Lil’ Dap and Melachi the Nutcracker were part of the Gang Starr Foundation, which in ’90s hip hop terms is a sure sign of quality. Produced by DJ Premier (with a track a piece by Guru and Big Jaz), this ’95 debut is rhythmically intense yet complex and loaded with samples (in the manner of so much New York hip hop of the era), with the numerous instrumental interludes a highlight, but the MCs are far from overshadowed. Possessing contrasting styles, Lil’ Dap wields a distinctive lisp and Melachi brings the comparatively straightforward firepower. A-

Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel, Dance Underwater (Westworld) Like many yanks, my introduction to Gene Loves Jezebel came via “Motion of Love,” but a whole lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. In a stranger than fiction scenario, there are now two Gene Loves Jezebels, each led by a founding identical twin brother; this version is required by court settlement to be known as Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel in the USA. Much of this is not my bag, but it’s important to note that nothing egregious occurs, and it mostly connects as mainstream singer-songwriter-ish melodic rock. Okay. B

Chris Bell, I Am the Cosmos (Omnivore) The posthumous ’92 release of this album by Rykodisc was cause for much rejoicing amongst Big Star fans, as it greatly expanded the goodness of his ’78 Car Records’ single. Omnivore’s new edition adds ten tracks to Rhino Handmade’s ’09 2CD, which makes this a must for aficionados, though the vinyl allows newcomers the opportunity to soak up the original album and set aside the slew of what’s largely (wholly worthy) alternate mixes and outtakes for later. If not as brain-rippingly brilliant as Third, Bell’s attempts to step beyond Big Star are no less important. A-

Cloakroom, Time Well (Relapse) To these ears, the combo of doom-stoner and psych-shoegaze is an enticing one, and this Northwest Indiana trio’s sophomore effort delivers some goods, in large part through blending rather than stitching. Unsurprisingly, Cloakroom like to stretch out, with over half of the ten tracks topping six minutes and closer “The Passenger” hitting nine. But attention is also paid to tunefulness, with “Big World” and “Concrete Gallery” early highlights as Time Well delivers a very digestible hour of heaviness amid a decidedly non-crummy ‘90s atmosphere. A-

The Dickies, Stukas Over Disneyland (Drastic Plastic) The third Dickies album was something of a comeback, and it’s also their final effort before the rot set in. Some will draw the line even earlier, and that’s understandable, as Stukas is a different beast than their two prior albums, both from ’79. It’s also uneven. The LP’s obligatory punked-out cover, here of “Communication Breakdown,” is passable; much better is their take of The Quick’s “Pretty Please Me.” Always noted for humor over surliness, the joke-inclined numbers don’t fare as well as the straight-ahead ’60s-ish material like “Rosemary.” B

Chris Forsyth & the Solar Motel Band, Dreaming in the Non-Dream (No Quarter) Forsyth and Solar Motel’s Intensity Ghost made my best of 2014 list, and his/ their subsequent releases haven’t disappointed. Neither does this one, which corrals four songs; two long, one medium and one short, and plays (and looks) like the kind of gem freshly plucked out of a bin loaded with underheard ‘70s nuggets. Forsyth’s talent on guitar, which combines an inclination to jam in a non-stupe yet undeniably classic rock manner with expansionist tenancies a la Television, shines throughout. A-

Satoko Fujii, Aspiration (Libra) The lineup is pianist Fujii, laptop specialist Ikue Mori, and trumpeters Natsuki Tamura and Wadada Leo Smith; the results are tremendous. Veterans all, their rapport is impressive but never showy as the focus consistently remains on depth of sound. Smith is a master who improves any sonic situation, and this somewhat rare two-valve no reed scenario with Tamura is a treat. Mori’s expressiveness widens the landscape considerably, and Fujii, who contributes four of the six compositions, is in typically fine form at the bench as she’s chalking up an astounding 2017. A

Gato Libre, Neko (Libra) Stunningly beautiful CD from trumpeter-composer Natsuki Tamura’s long-running group, here a trio with Satoko Fujii on accordion and Yasuko Kaneko on trombone, a lineup precipitated by the death of bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu in 2011 and guitarist Kazuhiko Tsumura in 2015. Understandably, there is an aura of melancholy here (Tamura had to be convinced by Fujii to continue the band), but the contents are never emotionally leaden. All three players are in superb form, with Fujii on a secondary instrument. The approachability of Tamura’s extended techniques is a highlight. A

Ilú Keké, Transmisión en la Eritá Meta (Music Works NYC) Fans of global sounds at the intersection of history and rhythm should find this set pleasurably enlightening. It focuses on Cuba’s batá drums, sacred vessels that host the deity of drumming called Añá from the Afrocuban spiritual tradition Santería; Ilú Keké is the name of a specific set of batá drums, and this disc finds ethnomusicologist Amanda Villepastour and Cuban producer Luis Bran delving into the reminiscences of the late Justiliano Pelladito and bringing those memories to life through three generations of Cuban musicians. One to savor. A

Mazzy Star, So Tonight That I Might See (Capitol) An utter beauty of seamless stylistic blending, reissued for those who’ve missed its prior vinyl editions (there have been a few) or those who’re just discovering its post-Paisley Underground charms. Pulling from dark psychedelia and country-laced folk, ex-Rain Parade guitarist David Roback and vocalist Hope Sandoval, who’d taken Kendra Smith’s place alongside Roback in Opal, hit a peak here, and as much as I dig She Hangs Brightly and subsequent efforts, if you only own one of their albums this one should be it. It’s so much more than just “Fade into You.” A

The Meters, Look-Ka Py Py (8th Records) The Meters’ lesser later LPs for Reprise (I understand I’m probably in the minority in this assessment) often overshadow their worthwhile early stuff on Josie like this one, though I tend to regard the band’s ’69 self-titled debut as their strongest effort. My reasoning comes down to the less prominent role of the organ on the first disc, though the rhythmic grease and sharp licks are still very much in evidence here (plus, no Art Neville vocals yet). The playing is crisp and bright throughout; if you’ve never heard ‘em, think of a New Orleans Booker T & the M.G.’s. B+

Midnight Sister, Saturn Over Sunset (Jagjaguwar) The debut from the duo of Ari Balouzian and Juliana Giraffe blends often ornate art-pop with an off-kilter cinematic sensibility to a consistently worthwhile result. Peppered throughout are nods to their L.A. home base, but the appeal here is in the ballpark of David Lynch and sparsely attended afternoon repertory screenings rather than, say, The Neon Demon. That’s not to imply that Midnight Sister is a throwback exercise; far from it, but at the same time, Saturn Over Sunset isn’t really a study in the new, either; think of a more song-oriented Broadcast. B+

Willie Nelson, …And Then I Wrote (Jackpot) Some rate Nelson’s debut as a classic, but I think that’s being just a smidge charitable. Per the title, this album, originally issued by Liberty in ‘62, found Nelson performing his own material, much of it hitting the charts in prior versions by others (e.g. “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” “Funny How Time Slips Away”). Many of the readings here are preferable, even amid the presence of Nashville-style backup singers; Nelson’s in good voice, if at times a bit tentative. Note: Everything here is on the ’73 edition of Capitol’s The Best of Willie Nelson, which adds one track. B+

Áine O’Dwyer, Gallarais (MIE Music) Irish-born and London-based vocalist and multi-instrumentalist O’Dwyer’s 2015 2LP for MIE, the terrific Music for Church Cleaners Vol. I and II, found her tackling a pipe organ in St Mark’s Church in Islington as the cleaners went about their work, and her latest takes her into the Brunel Tunnel as she employs guitars, glockenspiel, aluminum chair, wood block, drum, tin whistles, dictaphone and more. The record begins with O’Dwyer on her main axe the harp and then travels into territory not so much minimalist as intriguingly distant and mysterious. A-

Andy Pratt, Horizon Disrupted (Self-released) Jazzy pop-classicist debut from Chicagoan Pratt; the deliberate if not necessarily affected lounginess took some getting used to, particularly during opener “Will You Be the One Tonight?” Ultimately, the LP isn’t hindered this aspect, as the man comes off at times a little like early Tom Waits minus the boozy, slept-on-a-park-bench vibe. Try as I might, I don’t hear the connection to Bill Callahan. The big plusses here are the jazzy non-slickness of Pratt’s guitar and string arrangements putting this firmly in pop auteur mode. Curiously, produced by Steve Albini. B+

Steve Reich and Musicians, Drumming (Pure Pleasure) I’ll admit to setting this aside upon hearing it shortly after its ’87 release, less because I was a stupid teenager (which was part of it), but instead due to my budding infatuation with the newer Downtown scene, and especially John Zorn. Getting to hear Reich’s early stuff provided an epiphany; I’ll likely always prefer his ’60s-’70s output, but from the vantage point of middle age, Drumming inches into the neighborhood of the spectacular, and reinforces his continued relevance. This definitely sounds like it was recorded in the ’80s, though. A-

Miranda Lee Richards, Existential Beast (Invisible Hands) This follow-up to last year’s Echoes of the Dreamtime is described as a political album, and that’s apparent, but this attention to current events doesn’t thrust a stick into the spokes of veteran Richards’ sound. Once likened (by myself and others) to Hope Sandoval, the range of these ten ’60s-’70s-ish songs really puts that comparison in the shade; a high percentage of psych-rocking occurs, e.g. “The Golden Gate,” amid assorted strains of pop including the nicely baroque “Autumn Sun” and the Brit-folk inspired extended closer “Another World.” A-

The Saint James Society, “Covered in Blood” (Blank City) This EP is pressed onto a used medical X-ray (a la the smuggling of jazz and pop behind the Iron Curtain during the ‘50s and ‘60s) and features this L.A.-based Alt dark wave rock five-piece (plus guests) covering Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Arabian Knights” and Bauhaus’ “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything” on the flexi, with “Russian Roulette” by Lords of the New Church, “Hot Sand” by Shocking Blue, and a remix of the Siouxsie included on the accompanying download. Nothing startling occurs, but the flexi tracks are strong enough to warrant a few spins. B

Percy Sledge, The Percy Sledge Way (Bear Family) Of course his crowning achievement will always be “When a Man Loves a Woman,” a truly inexhaustible cornerstone of ’60s soul, but Sledge was much more than just a few hits. This ’67 LP, featuring 11 versions of tunes borrowed from fellow soulsters, from Sam Cooke to Otis Redding to Aaron Neville to Solomon Burke to James Carr, puts his interpretative skill under the spotlight, and if he doesn’t better the originals, all are done justice in Sledge’s slow-burning style. The band maintains a high southern soul standard throughout. A-

The Stevenson Ranch Davidians, Amerikana (Picture in My Ear) This Minneapolis-based outfit hasn’t issued a record since 2009’s Life & Death; led by vocalist and songwriter Dwayne Seagraves, they also have a fresh lineup including The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Rob Campanella on guitar and his brother Andy on drums and backing vox. The sound is tidy neo-garage with nods to psych and folk that never gets too wild, but on the plus side avoids an excess of mannerisms. The title underscores an attention to roots that crescendos during late track “The High Meadows.” Overall, enjoyably non-generic. B+

Clark Terry, Serenade to a Bus Seat (Doxy) Originally on Riverside from ’57, the second LP from then trumpeter and soon to be flugelhornist Terry offers an ample serving of high quality post-bop. Instrumentally top-flight, with Johnny Griffin (tenor), Wynton Kelly (keys), Paul Chambers (bass), and Philly Joe Jones (drums), the inclusion of five Terry compositions keeps matters from getting too familiar. The sweet ’50s slink of “Boardwalk” is an early highlight; it and “Cruising” also stretch out. Terry became an institution and recorded a ton, but this one is a smart pickup for tight shelves. A-

Jan St. Werner, Spectric Acid (Fiepblatter Catalogue #5) (Thrill Jockey) The man who mastered the latest installment in St. Werner’s Fiepblatter Catalogue, one Rashad Becker, has said that to master this for vinyl would “mutilate the spectrum and phase of the material.” With its opening digital deluge of what sounds like variations on futuristic mechanical warfare, the statement makes sense. So, for folks into aggressive abstract experimental electronics, noisescapes a la Merzbow, or just St. Werner’s thing in general, here’s one for the CD shelf. Limited to 300 hand-numbered copies with 8-page booklet. A-

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