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

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases—and more—presently in stores for May, 2019. 

BOOK PICKS: Gillian G. Gaar, World Domination: The Sub Pop Records Story (BMG) This item and its counterpart below came out late last year as the initial two entries in the BMG imprint’s RPM series, which in a nutshell is shooting to do for notable record labels what Continuum’s 33 1/3 series has done for individual albums. The comparison isn’t a tidy as all that, as these books are bigger and info-loaded as well as perspective-driven; it’s unlikely folks will be finishing either in a day or two. I obviously didn’t. Gaar’s volume tackles a tale that I witnessed unwind, at least partially as an indie rock fan from my vantage point on the east coast, and I was a little worried that it was going to handle the subject unsatisfactorily, either through a lack of new info or by overemphasizing certain aspects of the saga.

I needn’t have worried. Gaar takes a good long time setting up the underground background of the label and she does a nice job illuminating the differing personalities of Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that they nearly imploded the label before Nirvana broke big; ‘twas Grunge that yanked them from the jaws of bankruptcy. In a sense, the heroes of this story are Rich Jensen (whose accounting and basic discipline served as an anchor after the Kurt & co. cash came rolling in) and Megan Jasper (who righted the ship after the inevitable grunge backlash and Pavitt’s exit). Sub Pop’s ultimate success story (tapping into ’00s indie) isn’t exactly a mystery, so Gaar expands the tale to include how the label smartly navigated the sweeping changes in the industry from the ’90s forward. A-

Randy Fox, Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story (BMG) Fox does something similar with his spotlight on one of the great mid-20th century indie labels (which includes the persevering Nashboro gospel label), detailing its extensive long-term success in the mail order business through label owner Ernie Young’s “Ernie’s Record Mart.” Many sensibly think of Excello in relation to the swamp blues of Lightnin’ Slim, Lazy Lester, and of course Slim Harpo, but the label cut a ton of R&B throughout the ’50s, and when they didn’t score hits, those records reliably “sold through” via placement in package deals that customers could purchase through the mail. The records reached all the way to the UK, which is part of the reason why Slim Harpo had such an impact on the burgeoning Brit blues-rock and Beat scene.

As the story progresses, Ernie Young is depicted as a businessman and a record producer by necessity, but also as something of a rarity in the music biz, a fundamentally decent guy (in marked contrast to his New Orleans connection Jay Miller, who is revealed as sort of a shithead and definitely a bigot); really, the worst you could say about Young was that he drove a hard bargain (maybe sometimes a little too hard), but here’s the thing; EVERYBODY GOT PAID. This includes royalties. I’m going to guess that as the RPM series (hopefully) continues, unpaid royalties will be a not-uncommon thread in the individual stories. Another part of Fox’s scheme that’s such a treat is how much time he gives to specific recordings in a way that had me stopping to listen, even to tracks I already knew well. This is a special thing. A

Dorothy Ashby & Frank Wess, In a Minor Groove (Real Gone) This is the third of three LPs pairing Wess with Ashby; he played saxophone in addition to flute but left the former instrument at home for this ’58 date, and for me, that’s undeniably a limiting factor if not a full-blown disappointment (I’ll take Wess on the stick over many others I’ve heard). The real attraction is the harp of Ashby, which totally hangs in a jazz context, in part through versatility; there are times where she sounds like a rhythm guitarist, which means that a lot of this is tougher (in a straight-ahead ’50s jazz sorta way) than you might think. But there are a few spots (“Yesterdays,” in particular) that swell and bloom as prettily as expectations would have it for a flute-harp combo. Bassist Herman Wright and drummer Roy Haynes round out the band. B+

Lola Bates, Red Hot (Human Made) The scoop is that Bates is 17 years old, and this is her debut. She’s not exactly a newcomer, though. Coming from a musical family, her piano skills were tapped at age 12 for the first Guardians of the Galaxy film (she contributed to the sequel as well, recording at Abbey Road studios with the London Symphony Orchestra). She also plays a mean guitar and has a strong set of pipes, and this record is a lot more forthrightly pop-rocking than I would expect from a 17-year-old in 2019 (but then again, I probably know fuck-all about what the contempo 17-year-old scene is into). It’s a real grower as it unwinds, particularly due to Bates’ piano. I was reminded at times of Fiona Apple, but at other times not at all, like during the spots where Bates partakes in a little bossa nova. Enticing. B+

Crowd Company, Live at the Jazz Café (Vintage League Music) This might’ve been recorded at the Jazz Café (a London spot), but the sound is decidedly soul-funky, featuring Hammond, get down grooves, a horn section, clean guitar licks, and mixed-gender vocals (there are three singers in all). There are a few elements working in Crowd Company’s favor, or more accurately, elements that are missing; for instance, the horns, while augmenting the groove, don’t go haywire with the vamping (in fact, there’s some solid soling). Also, the Hammond is kept in check, and none of the singers go overboard with the soulfulness of it all. There’s a definite ’70s feel to the proceedings, but Crowd Company don’t lay the retro ambience on too thick either. I can hang with this all the way through, which is worth noting. B

Dead Kennedys, DK40 (Manifesto) To celebrate this iconic San Francisco punk outfit’s 40th anniversary, Manifesto has loaded three live shows, two from December 1982 (from Amsterdam and Munich on their European tour) and one from May 1985 (the Farm in SF) onto three compact discs. The first set wastes zero time in driving home that these guys, led of course by Jello Biafra, were always jackhammer didactic, which isn’t a problem when you’re 17 and consider yourself and your small circle of friends to be surrounded by dumbasses. This level of schooling the pit (which to many ears was always just preachiness from on high) hasn’t really aged well however, though I can still get a decent kick from the band’s earlier stuff. That means I should dig the ’82 sets more than the ’85, but it’s not quite so simple.

Part of the reason for my preference for the early stuff is that it was more purely punk (often surfy punk) before the band felt the need to stay current with bouts of raging HC. Even as early as ’82, this was a problem, with “Holiday in Cambodia,” for one example here, played too damned fast. Another thing is that circa ’82 the DKs weren’t great live in purely sonic terms (that long-ago Rhino VHS really clarified that Jello’s theatricality counted for a lot). But by ’85 they’d sharpened up a good bit (at least this night in May makes it seem so) and the band was temporarily diverting from speed and leaning at times into something resembling psych-punk (in large part due to the stinging guitar of East Bay Ray). But Jello’s diarrhea of the mouth between songs (e.g. punk vs. metal) could make an MRR shitworker groan. B

The Frightnrs, “Make Up Your Mind” b/w “Make Up Your Mind (Dub)” (Mad Decent) My intro to NYC roots reggae revivalists The Frightnrs came through their full-length debut on Daptone, which arrived in 2016 and received a full review in this space. But hey, they had an EP, “Inna Lovers Quarrel” out the year before on Mad Decent, and this zoetropic animated picture disc 7-inch reissues a track from that record with a new dub version on the flip. It’s going to look really nice spinning on your turntable, but that wouldn’t really matter much if the music wasn’t up to snuff. The good news is that folks who dig roots reggae should be very pleased, though the harmonies on display are strong enough to entice fans of vocal groups who aren’t necessarily heavy into Jamaican sounds. The flip is suitably dubby. A-

Anna Homler, Deliquium in C (Präsens Editionen) Homler is a US-based performance artist and improv musician; you might know her from the mid-’80s project Breadwoman, a collaboration with the late composer Steve Moshier, which was reissued back in 2016 by RVNG Intl. For this LP she teams up on individual tracks with Alessio Capovilla (Gang of Ducks), Mark Davies (aka the Pylon King), and Steven Warwick (aka Heatsick), and the electronic results are abstract to varying degrees and consistently texturally rich. However, the hands-down winner is the 15-minute side-long title track with Moshier that through the incessant sound of machine-assisted breathing takes on a chilly, somewhat science-fictive feel, though by the end, the cyclical interweaving attains a striking plateau. A

Will Kimbrough, I Like it Down Here (Soundly) Alabama-born and Southern-based, Kimbrough has been playing since the ’80s in bands (most recently, Willie Sugarcapps and Daddy), as a valued backup player (Emmylou Harris), and solo with no shortage of accolades. His latest deals with the region of his birth; how he loves it, but also how its history is problematic, and how that history continues to resonate in the present. This might read like a recipe for a heavy affair, but Kimbrough’s songs are diverse and engaging, his prodigious guitar playing eschews flash, his singing is rootsy but unstrained, and the whole record goes down easy. With this said, I would’ve loved a few more doses of chiming Southern guitar pop a la “I’m Not Running Away.” It’s just the sorta thing to chuff a fan of early Lucinda Williams. A-

Sequoyah Murray, “Penalties of Love” (Thrill Jockey) 21-year-old vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and producer Sequoyah Murray is a native of Atlanta. This 4-song EP is his debut, loaded with a strain of experimental pop-soul that’s thoroughly of the moment but with considerable depth for a first effort. Thrill Jockey mentions the impact of Arthur Russell on Murray’s artistic growth, and if far from obvious the connection is tangible, particularly on the 12-inch’s third and fourth tracks “Second Born” and “True Fun.” It’s also mentioned that Murray has opened for Xiu Xiu; there are emotional affinities here as well, but while “Penalties of Love” is experimental, it’s far more accessible than severe. The opening title track put me in an Antony frame of mind, but the comparison was quickly eclipsed. A-

The Ed Palermo Big Band, A Lousy Day In Harlem (Sky Cat Records) A CD as worthy as its title (and cover photo) is humorous. My primary experience with saxophonist, bandleader, and arranger Palermo’s big band has been in the mode of transformation, specifically the work of Zappa, Todd Rundgren, and most recently, a slew of British rockers, into his big band context. That was cool stuff, but I can’t deny being more moved by this plunge into jazz (which is where Palermo got his start in the early ’80s); it includes original material (opening with the superb “Laurie Frink”) and readings of songs by Ellington, Gigi Gryce, Monk and Coltrane. Along the way Palermo’s band does nothing to radically alter the trad big band thrust, but the arrangements are consistently engaging, and the playing is very sharp. A-

Johnny Shines, The Blues Came Falling Down – Live 1973 (Omnivore) Like a lot of folks I’m guessing, my intro to Johnny Shines came through Vanguard’s terrific 3LP set Chicago/The Blues/Today! I heard his long-unreleased ’50s-era Chess single and his sides for the J.O.B. label later. It was all fine stuff. This previously unreleased ’73 show from St. Louis was captured on tape after he’d released a few “rediscovery” albums and been on the live circuit for a while. It features 20 tracks, all solo except for three with guitar from Leroy Jodie Pierson, and it documents the man in wickedly sweet form and fueling a raucous but attentive crowd. At nearly 80 minutes, this is CD and digital only, but the energy never flags, and it’s hard to imagine a blues aficionado not wanting to own this in some capacity. A

Mitch Woods, A Tip of the Hats to Fats (Blind Pig) Recorded live at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 29 of last year, this CD finds veteran boogie-woogie and jump blues pianist-vocalist Woods delivering a solid afternoon set under the Blues Tent, with a special mid-show dedication to Fats Domino, who passed in October of 2017. Woods’ playing is tight throughout the performance, but he really seems to come alive during the Domino section, which includes “Blue Monday,” “Jambalaya,” and “Walking to New Orleans” complete with beaucoup sax blowing including Roger Lewis on baritone. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Mitch Woods show without a run-through of “Rocket 88” (the pianist named his band after the Jackie Brenston nugget), and after a few decades on the road, he still sounds engaged. A-

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