Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for January 2019, Part One

The TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases—and more—presently in stores for January, 2019.

BOOK PICK: Nick Soulsby, Swans: Sacrifice and Transcendence: The Oral History (Jawbone Press) Many of Soulsby’s prior credits delve into the grunge scene of the Pacific Northwest and Nirvana in particular; he’s done two books related to the band, one an oral history and the other a collection of interviews with Kurt Cobain. If that doesn’t necessarily paint him as a natural fit for covering one of the most formidable outfits of the last half century, do consider that he also assembled an oral history of Thurston Moore’s musical collaborations outside Sonic Youth.

Swans leader Michael Gira was interviewed for that book, and Moore (amongst a long list of others) was spoken with for this one, and the results are appropriately exhaustive (there’s lots of welcome input from Jarboe) without getting into sheer minutiae. The narrative is broken into chapters largely focused on periods that Swans fans have already drawn for themselves, which should also prove useful for the curious newbie, as it’d be easy and beneficial to listen to the records listed at the start of each chapter while soaking up the specifics of the tale. The while the book’s title truly fits what unfurls in the text, Soulsby could’ve easily chosen another word; that’d be Struggle, of course in the striving for excellence in the moment, but also on the part of Gira as a communicator with his bandmates and loved ones.

The unfurling anecdotes do nothing to soft-pedal Gira’s famously difficult personality. Indeed, Sacrifice and Transcendence is a warts-and-all portrayal. Folks who want to read about art-making as a bed of roses are advised to buy some other tome. But Soulsby pulls off the tricky feat of balancing the unpleasantness and the bountiful humanity, though working directly with the participants’ spoken words helps; there’s no authorial pleading or contortions of perspective, as everything said was said by somebody else. Also, the depictions of touring here are amongst the most grueling I’ve ever read. But there are also moments that inspire laughter, and the book’s trajectory is ultimately a rumination on hard-won success. As a lover of Swans, I knew that already. But I really know it now. What a book! A

NEW RELEASE PICK: Frank Kimbrough, Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk (Sunnyside) 2017 was the centennial of Thelonious Monk’s birth. The mammoth undertaking that is this 6CD set was a direct outgrowth of the commemoration of Monk’s arrival on this spinning rock, featuring the distinguished individuals that pianist Kimbrough called upon to play as part of a celebration held in NYC at the club Jazz Standard. This release does indeed cover Monk’s entire compositional oeuvre (70 pieces in total, even the Christmas song) and finds bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Billy Drummond in typically (exquisitely) sharp form as multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson handles the horn duties with something more than aplomb.

Given the number of tunes and how the group got the results onto tape in six working days, that this isn’t a radical reinvention of Monk’s work shouldn’t be a surprise, but even as the word respect hovers prominently over Monk’s Dreams, this isn’t timid imitation, and if recognizably, even approachably jazzy to novices of the form, I still hesitate to call this a “straight-ahead” undertaking. A big part of the non-imitative approach here relates to Robinson’s work on numerous horns, including a few not associated with Monk, e.g. the bass sax, bass clarinet, echo cornet, contrabass sarrusophone and to a lesser extent, the trumpet. Right off the bat in “Thelonious,” he doubles on trumpet and tenor sax, but if invested in non-mimicry, the multi-horn approach is also devoid of gimmicks.

As outlined in the liner notes by the exceptional jazz critic Nate Chinen, there have been only two prior attempts to get interpretations by a core unit of the entirety of Monk’s compositional achievement onto a single release. It’s surely an arduous task, but in this case the group conquers the potential predictability of another version of “Well You Needn’t” or “Straight No Chaser” by tackling it all, with Kimbrough’s playing engaging throughout and the band’s approach to the tunes frequently surprising. And I get the impression that the tight timeframe worked in their favor as well, as relentlessly seeking perfection over a longer period could’ve resulted in a lack of spark coming out of the speakers. Instead, Monk’s Dreams is as delightful at the end of its sixth disc as it is at the start of the first. Stupendous. A+

Black Lodge, Kings Arms Sessions Vol. 3: Lodge Wars (Disciples) Dan Dwayre is Black Lodge, having cut an incredibly rare 12-inch (as in it never made it beyond the test pressing stage) for Mo’ Wax circa 2000 that was reissued last July on Warp’s Arcola imprint. Simultaneously, Disciples dished the archival LP Bitter Blood and followed that up in November with this cassette. Offered in an edition of 150, it’s the third in a comp series inaugurated in 2010 through the label The Trilogy Tapes. With the exception of Bleep, a London art space which opened in Nov. and closes Feb. 6, open 12pm-8pm seven days a week, this is only available to order online, so if you’re in the proximity of 529 Kingsland Rd. and dig the merger of proto-techno and deep-u-ground ’80s-style industrial noise experimentation, do drop by. A-

Cantique Lépreux, Paysages polaires (Eisenwald) Consisting of guitarist-vocalist Blanc Feu, bassist Matrak and drummer Cadavre, Cantique Lépreux hail from Quebec and specialize in atmospheric black metal, with a handful of factors raising its sum of quality higher than I was expecting. First, while I was anticipating utterances from way down deep in the diaphragm, hearing them in French was novel, as I was unfamiliar with the band’s 2016 debut. Second, Blanc Feu occasionally contrasts his growly deepness with higher-pitched voicings that are appropriately stressed-out without tipping over into shrieky. Third, atmospheric doesn’t mean the tempos are languid, as impressive velocity is achieved. Last, Cantique Lépreux are quite remarkable as an instrumental unit. The titular triptych is a highlight. A-

Crooked Ghost, Skeleton House (Palomino) This Ashville, NC group’s second LP arrives accompanied with quite a list of namedrops: The Cure, The Smiths, Echo, Siouxsie, and on the left side of the Atlantic R.E.M. and The Gun Club. I had an itching suspicion that it was all going to prove underwhelming and/ or overcalculated in the Goth/ dour dept., but Crooked Ghost defied and bettered my expectations in part by not sounding anything like I expected them to. This isn’t to suggest that vocalist Ray Clark doesn’t make considerable inroads into melancholic territory, it’s just that his singing is engagingly intense rather than predictable as the band flaunts guitar-based edge and toughness. The main room for improvement is lyrical. The CD came out in November and the wax arrives in February. B+

Evilfeast, Mysteries of the Eternal Forest (Eisenwald) Here’s another hefty spurt of black metal via Eisenwald, this time from Poland. However, unlike Cantique Lépreux’s offering (reviewed above), this is a CD reissue of a 2004 release (it made its vinyl debut back in June in an edition of 500; copies have already changed hands for close to $50). Evilfeast is the work of one guy, heavily made-up (as is appropriate for the genre), who answers to the handle GrimSpirit. Like Paysages polaires, this has been tagged as atmospheric, though Mysteries of the Eternal Forest is distinct from Cantique Lépreux (within the confines of the form). The main difference: synths occasionally reminiscent of ’80s horror soundtracks and gothic cathedrals (and sometimes both), plus vocals that rasp more than growl. B+

Far Corner, Risk (Cuneiform) One of the sweeter musical twists of 2018 was Cuneiform’s return to activity after a hiatus. It was a relatively brief break, but still. A major reason for the good cheer on my part was the label’s consistency as an outpost for quality prog. And so it remains, with the third CD from Milwaukee’s Far Corner (after an 11-year geographically-based gap in activity for the group) landing in the zone where classical compositional acumen and rock drive (and crunch) productively meet. A fair percentage of Cuneiform’s prog action launches from a u-ground platform (think RIO), but Far Corner’s influences extend from a higher-profile base, at least in part, as King Crimson and ELP are cited. Thankfully, the likeness to Emerson is more due to Dan Maske’s organ sound rather than execution. B+

Forgas Band Phenomena, L’Oreille Électrique (Cuneiform) With drummer and composer Patrick Forgas as leader, Forgas Band Phenomena lean to the jazzier side of the prog landscape, though the main thrust derives from a love of the Canterbury scene; think Soft Machine, Matching Mole, and to a lesser extent Gong. The influence of Soft Machine certainly underscores the jazz bent, and indeed there are passages here that are aptly described as fusion. Interestingly, Karolina Mlodecka violin playing might bring Mahavishnu to mind for a moment (it did for me, at least), but her excellent playing largely explores avenues of its own. Unsurprising for a band led by a drummer (a vet who debuted back in ’77 with Cocktail), rhythmic propulsion is a primary facet, but there’s no showboating to be found. A-

Gleeson, The Years Have It (Almost There) Of this Austin-based outfit four LPs, this one’s the first I’ve heard. They call what they do “classicist guitar-pop,” and I’d say that’s right on the money; on opener “Holding On” they are revved the fuck up. They? Well, Gleeson is listed as being seven members strong (along with a nine-person auxiliary). It’s Ty Chandler who writes the songs, plays guitar and sings, though Elyse Estrada’s voice makes a deep impression. I’d list everybody, but space is finite. I should add that Gleeson append the self-descriptor above with an etc., with a couple of jazz-tinged instrumental tracks broadening the palette. But overall, the most likeable component is a handful of cuts that, thanks to Estrada, bring the Bangles to mind, including a cover of “God Only Knows” as finale. B+

Home Economics / Life Model, “Idiots” b/w “Real Estate” (Double A-Side) While split singles can be a cool thing, there’s also no denying the shared format sometimes makes proper introductions a wee bit difficult. What’s nice here is that both of these Glaswegian acts (on a hometown label) serve up an extra digital song, the better for making acquaintances. Described as jangle poppers, Home Economics really shines in that regard via their bonus track “Good Life,” which radiates a Bats vibe but with vocals reminiscent of Scott and Charlene’s Wedding’s Craig Dermody. On the wax, Home Ec delivers a punkier indie pop thrust. Of course, some bands can effectively communicate their essence in mere moments, and so it is with Life Model, who deliver solid dream pop with appealing bottom end. B+/ B+

NONN, XVII (Fuzz Club) The UK-based Fuzz Club label’s renown as a neo-psych label renders the appearance of NONN, which is the side band of The Orange Revival’s Christian Eldefors, as something other than a surprise. Except wait. Lending an ear to XVII reveals it to be solidly in the realms of rhythmically buppy coldwave. Huh? Well, some of you are probably saying “hey, no shit,” as A) this isn’t the first time Fuzz Club’s taken a side trip down this particular path (this I knew), and B) XVII is NONN’s second LP for the label (I was hip to this as well, though their self-titled debut from 2017 slipped right by me). Anyway, how’s the music? Enjoyable, but pretty far from mind-bending. For contempo coldwave, there’s a lot of guitar. This facet isn’t a shock given the circumstances. I just felt like mentioning it. B

Steeple Remove, Vonal-Axis (Fuzz Club) This French unit first hit the scene over 20 years ago with The Importance of Being Steeple Remove on the Sordide Sentimental label. Other releases have intermittently emerged, though with the exception of a few 7-inch platters in the ’00s, they don’t appear to have released anything on vinyl until Position Normal in ’15. Vonal-Axis is their debut for Fuzz Club, and it extends the band’s blend of psych, drone, shoegaze, Krautrock, and post-punk. These are all genres/ forms that I appreciate, but what I really dig is how Steeple Remove, by this point a veteran combo, don’t connect as if they are undertaking stylistic cut-and-paste, wielding their diversity while sounding like a coherent unit via the tried and true template of guitar, bass, drums, vocals, and synth. A-

Ttotals, Skyview Drive (Great Ape) Nashville’s Ttotals have been at it now for roughly a decade, and in my early days of writing for this site I gave ‘em a couple positive long reviews. I might’ve done the same for this one, but due to lapse in recordings (there was a cassette I missed in 2016, but otherwise nada since Let Everything Come Through in ’14) and a label switch from Twin Lakes to Great Ape Records, I wasn’t hipped to last August’s Skyview Drive until about a month or so back. Changes have occurred since ’14, with the two-piece now a trio, though as label-affiliated Grape Jelly Jane (!) mentions in her PR text, Ttotal’s “Outer Blues” concept remains. Don’t think blooze or Jon Spencer-esque Bah-Luuze, think of neo-psych with a dark thrust and a non-toxic Morrison-esque vibe. Their best one yet. A-

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