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

Part five of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases—and more—presently in stores for January, 2019. Part one is here, part two is here, part three is here, and part four is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Maurice Louca, Elephantine (Sub Rosa – Northern Spy) Cairo-born and based, pianist-guitarist-composer Louca has cut a prior LP under his own name, 2014’s Salute the Parrot, in addition to playing in Bikya, Alif, Lekhfa, Kharkhana (praised in this space a couple of weeks back as part of the Unrock split LP Carte Blanche), Orchestra Omar and Dwarves of East Agouza, the latter a trio with Sam Shalabi (of Shalabi Effect) and Alan Bishop (of Sun City Girls). Being hip to those two can provide a starting-point for what Louca achieves across Elephantine’s six tracks (totaling a gripping 38 minutes), but the whole is a highly distinctive blend of compositional fortitude and free jazz exploration. An instrumentally massive set, “The Palm of a Ghost” features exquisite vocals from Nadah El Shazly. A

Hedvig Mollestad Trio, Smells Funny (Rune Grammofon) If you always felt Mahavishnu needed an injection of Black Sabbath-like oomph scorch, this is an asteroid of chocolate plunged into your personal store of peanut butter (the group has notably shared stages with McLaughlin and Sab). Mollestad’s the guitarist, and she tears into complex runs without sacrificing forward motion as bassist Ellen Brekken and drummer Ivar Loe Bjørnstad deliver much more than a rhythmic bedrock. ‘tis a true power trio thing. The Sabbath reference shouldn’t imply the doom-laden but rather just heaviness, with the record (their sixth in seven years) a fine locale for headbangers and jazzbos to joyously congregate. The title brings Zappa’s comment on jazz to mind, but Smells Funny makes plain that rock ain’t dead, either. A

REISSUE/ ARCHIVAL PICK: Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound You Never Heard (A-Side) Along with teaching at the New England Conservatory in Boston for over 50 years, the great pianist Ran Blake has a voluminous discography; my introduction came through his sublime ’65 ESP Disk Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano. Four years prior, he debuted on record in duo with his Bard College classmate, the vocalist Jeanne Lee (and for two tracks bassist George Duvivier) on the RCA Victor LP The Newest Sound Around. Opening with “Blue Monk,” it stands amongst the most underrated of vocal jazz records, Lee not only impacted by but extending the grandness of Billie Holliday, Dinah Washington, and Abbey Lincoln as Blake, already more than just an accompanist, often recalled the sensitivity of Mal Waldron.

The title and the cover design of this 2CD collection directly reference the RCA LP, which is wholly appropriate as the contents are an ample serving of the duo in majestic form at the studio of what was then BRT (Belgium Radio and Television) and live in Brussels in ’66-’67. However, these recordings are also a spotlight on maturity and a widened sphere of interest, and right away; the opening “Misterioso” features words taken from a Gertrude Stein poem. Loaded with standards that ooze assurance and taste (in the best sense), they also dig into Ray Charles and Ornette and Duke, revisit “Blue Monk,” and in an unexpected but sweet left turn, interpret The Beatles and Dylan. Two tracks offer Blake in prime solo form, while Lee delivers a wonderful a cappella “Billie’s Blues.” Overall, outstanding and revelatory. A

Joe Bataan, Afrofilipino (Real Gone) Maybe the first word used to describe Latin-soul singer-bandleader boogaloo kingpin Joe Bataan is legendary, but not far behind in the adjective department is adaptable. Rather than getting overtaken by the ’70s change of musical tides, he grappled with disco, as evidenced by this ’75 album, pretty successfully, and down the road a bit even had an early rap hit (that would be “Rap-o Clap-o,” not included here). Divided into East Coast and West Coast sides (based on where they were recorded), not everything here works equally well (e.g., I’m not thrilled by his cover changeup of the theme to sitcom Chico & the Man), but Bataan’s arrangements thrived on energy and I enjoy the holdover of vocal group style, especially during “Hey Girl.” I also dig Bataan’s hearty lead singing. B+

Ken Boothe, Black Gold & Green (Real Gone) Boothe was one of the biggest vocalists in ’60s rock steady, but the record reissued here, his first for Trojan Records in collab with producer Lloyd Chalmers, is a minor-classic dive into the zone where American soul and reggae productively meet. Released in ’73, by the following year he and Chalmers cut a Marvin Gaye-inspired follow-up and then scored a #1 UK hit with a cover of Bread’s “Everything I Own.” And so, Boothe can be assessed as a significant component in the history of pop-reggae (he latter recorded with UB40 and Shaggy), with the template very much in evidence here, and effectively executed. “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Garnet Mimms’ “Thinking,” and “Suzie Q” are part of the program, but the non-covers hold up and Boothe’s in rich, sturdy voice throughout. A-

Bowery Electric, Lushlife (Beggars Arkive) A reissue of the third and final LP from this ’90s NYC duo. I’ve been known to give a hard time to trip-hop, but the sound isn’t a total washout. Far from it actually, with this record a good example of the style’s too-seldom realized potential. That’s in part because Martha Schwendener and Lawrence Chandler incorporate textures associated with shoegaze, though a deeper association, per Simon Reynolds, is post-rock. Although there are a couple of overfamiliar rhythmic patterns along the way, the pair’s constructions here are reliably interesting and further enhanced with layering and additives of aural color largely avoiding the clichéd. There’s also an appealing weight to the pieces, though this doesn’t interfere with the propulsion. Overall, this one’s held up pretty well. B+

Business of Dreams, Ripe for Anarchy (Slumberland) The second album from Corey Cunningham’s solo project (he’s played in Terry Malts, Magic Bullets, Smokescreens, and backed up Mike Krol) is a solid dive into the deep waters of indie pop classique. No, it’s not the most original thing on earth, but originality’s not the point here, and never really was in the indie pop scenario, anyway. What’s important is catchy songs delivered with engaging commitment, and across the span of an LP, a unified sound. Cunningham has it all down, and of the comparisons made by Slumberland, it’s the Go-Betweens that reinforces the strength of the songwriting. The Field Mice, Servants, and Smiths are also mentioned, but parts of this remind me of the Bats if Robert Scott had moved to the UK and cut an LP for the Ron Johnson label. A-

Croatian Amor, Isa (Posh Isolation) Loke Rahbek hails from Copenhagen and alongside Christian Stadgaard is co-operator of Posh Isolation. Amongst other projects, Croatian Amor is described in Isa’s promo sheet as his “most eloquent and gentle.” The later term isn’t something I would’ve came up with myself after listening to this tidy set, but I do get the point. Rahbek’s electronic-based approach isn’t abrasive or disruptive, though amid passages of drift it also isn’t ambient. Instead, whole big hunks of this register like twisted extensions of contemporary pop aesthetics (e.g., the beaucoup effects-laden vocals). Indeed, per the promo, it’s “alien pop,” though I will note that Isa doesn’t strike me as an act of deliberate surrealism but more just a distortion landing between the mysterious and the familiar. A-

Van Duren, Waiting: The Van Duren Story (Omnivore) This soundtrack to Wade Jackson and Greg Carey’s documentary on this ’70s-early ’80s Memphis to NYC to Connecticut (to record with Jon Tiven) and back to Memphis again power-pop obscurity is an enlightening comp of ’78 debut Are You Serious?, its long-unreleased follow-up Idiot Optimism, live and unearthed stuff including a ’77 collab with Big Star’s Jody Stephens (a friend of Duren’s since high school), plus two tracks from Duren’s post-homecoming band Good Question. For folks who think Badfinger wipe the floor with Big Star (I’m sure these people exist) Waiting will possibly be a desert island airdrop from the power pop gods, but I’m less smitten. “Make a Scene” should’ve been a smash, and other tracks hold up. The ’80s cuts lessen matters considerably. B

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba, Miri (Out Here) Malian ngoni player and bandleader Kouyate is a master of desert blues, having chalked up four prior albums with his group Ngoni Ba and landing an entry on the 2010 Rough Guide to Desert Blues. The individual style is less gritty than some of his contemporaries (much less so next to Tallawit Timbouctou, say), but this isn’t a fault, as a significant aspect in Ngoni Ba’s appeal is richness derived from vocal harmonies and specifically the lead voice of Kouyate’s wife Amy Sacko. After a record for Glitterbeat in 2015, they are back on original label Out Here, and maybe the most impressive part of this return is how the influx of guests, which include Michael League of Snarky Puppy, fiddler Casey Driessen and Dom Flemons, don’t lessen the record’s heft with good intentions. A-

Abigail Lapell, Getaway (Coax / Outside) Lapell’s Hide Nor Hair won the Canadian Folk Music Award for Contemporary Album of the Year in 2017. She’s been tagged as alternative, Americana, indie, and more generally pop and rock, but upon lending my ear to Getaway (and without bringing her prior stuff into the consideration, as this is my introduction to her work) it seems fitting to simply place Lapell into the evergreen zone of singer-songwriter, in part because it frees her up from the strain of category. Instead, she can roam around comfortably via high quality (but cohesive) material, singing that’s pretty but robust, and consistently strong guitar playing. At first, I was prepared to say she could benefit from an increase in edge, but as the record unwinds a palpable intensity mounts and gets under the skin. B+

Tomas Nordmark, Eternal Words (Valley of Search) Nordmark is a Swedish experimentalist who lives and works in London. A composer, sound artist, and designer, his work has been featured in short films, theatrical plays and exhibitions, but this is his debut album, and after numerous plays it’s made quite a positive impression. The accompanying PR text states that Nordmark’s work springs from the same compositional principle as US minimalists Riley and Reich but with a melodic sensibility based on ancient Scandinavian music; loaded with phase-shifting, the results are sharp and glistening and thoroughly contemporary with a thrust toward the future. The mention of a stylistic rubbing of shoulders with Tim Hecker, Fennesz, and Alva Noto is useful, though Eternal Words is very much its own thing. A-

Annabelle Playe, Geyser (DAC) French resident Playe is a “multidisciplinary artist, composer, singer and author,” and for her third album and first since Vaisseaux in 2014 she’s firmly in the realms of sound (at other times, she’s worked with voice, video and writing, having authored two monologues in French published by Alna Editions). “Geyser A,” the shortest of these side-long tracks (just shy of 13 minutes), dishes a soundscape of rising and falling, at times roaring, intensity that reinforces a connection to noise and Industrial precedent as the quieter moments highlight a connection to Pierre Schaeffer’s Groupe de Recherche Musicale (or GRM for short). The scenario continues across the nearly 19-minute flip “Geyser B,” but with lengthier portions of drift, as the record lands a coherent and concise knockout punch. A

Finlay Shakespeare, Domestic Economy (Editions Mego) Like Nordmark and Playe, Finlay Shakespeare explodes from the vast electronic landscape, but differs in his immediately graspable desire to ripple and splash in the sometimes-staid waters of electronic pop. Shakespeare achieves this while grappling with an unbridled dancefloor sensibility, so if you came to get down, Domestic Economy will have your body moving with haste. However, the guy’s vocal presence, while undeniably intense (yet smooth) should please those looking for a songlike foundation as the music’s depth will possibly satisfy those wishing to sit or stand in a stationary position and just listen. Well, near-stationary, as I find it difficult to imagine that non-dancers won’t at least get a noggin bobbing as these 71 minutes unwind. A-

Tiny Ruins, Olympic Girls (Milk! – Marathon Artists – Ursa Minor – Ba Da Bing) Tiny Ruins is a band, but it’s the band of Kiwi singer-songwriter-guitarist Hollie Holbrook. This isn’t to denigrate the additional contributions, which are oft-terrific and vital, it just underlines how Holbrook’s presence dominates in the best way. Notably, Tiny Ruins’ personnel has shifted at times, with the 2015 EP “Hurtling Through” featuring the input of The Clean’s Hamish Kilgour, though the backing here (an inapt term; as said, this is a band) is far from interchangeable, with the players from 2014’s Brightly Painted One returning for this display of mastery. There’s a quality to the songs that can be traced back to Dylan in a way that’s similar to the work of Aussie Michael Beach. If they co-headlined an East Coast US tour, I wouldn’t miss it. A

Ron Wood & Ronnie Lane, Mahoney’s Last Stand (Real Gone) This LP dates from Wood and Lane’s tenure in the Faces, recorded in fact while they were waiting around for Rod Stewart’s tardy ass during the ’72 sessions for Oh La La, and it was made as the soundtrack to the film of the rec’s title. Also named Mahoney’s Estate and Downtown Farmer, it was a Canadian regional independent production that hardly anybody saw back then and with essentially no following today. The obscurity rubbed off on this set, as it wasn’t released until ’76 and is the least-known of the pair’s collabs. It’s likeable but ultimately no big deal. A few of the cuts, like the opener and “Title One,” underscore the filmic intentions, but the majority is just rootsy-folky-bluesy, loose but together, and aided by a load of notable guests. B

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