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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Swans, Leaving Meaning (Young God / Mute) It can seem a bit unfair to other promising and thriving acts to so regularly spotlight the work of Michael Gira in this column (and in year end best lists), but after consideration, Leaving Meaning fully deserves the attention, as it’s something distinctly more than just another great Swans release. That’s because it documents a new phase of Gira’s band; much attention was paid to the winding down of the prior lineup, arguably the best in the outfit’s long history, after the release of the masterful The Glowing Man. There was promise of more to come under the moniker with the understanding that the results would constitute a break with what had commenced at the beginning of the decade and solidified Gira as one of our most important artists.

Leaving Meaning assuredly marks a fresh chapter in the saga, though unsurprisingly, Gira hasn’t inaugurated this phase with concision, as the release is over 90 minutes long on 2CD and over 80 on 2LP. This is in keeping with his penchant for large-scaled works (which predated the prior Swans iteration going back to the mid-’90s and even earlier as ’87’s Children of God broke 70 minutes). And with expected similarities aside, Leaving Meaning justifies the new start hubbub; back in the day, Swans was occasionally compared to Industrial, but this set inches into the ballpark of the Gothic, or maybe more appropriately dark folk, partly through depth of vocals but also because Gira is never cheerful, which, along with many returning players, reinforces this as a Swans record. A very brilliant Swans record. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: The Pop Group, Y (Definitive Edition) (Mute) This expanded edition of the first LP from these essential UK post-punkers completes a reissue program that commenced on the band’s own Freaks R Us label back in 2016 with the rerelease of their second LP from 1980, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? There was also a fresh pressing of the “We Are All Prostitutes” 45, Cabinet of Curiosities, which collected the debut single and unreleased stuff including a session for John Peel, and The Boys Whose Head Exploded, which was a collection of live songs documenting various locations on a 1980 tour. This stream of fanbase-funded material overlapped with two new records from the group that to my ear did a pretty okay job of not sullying their significant legacy.

Perhaps in part because Pledge Music (the platform for the Freaks R Us reissues) went bust, Mute is now on the scene. But I’ll add that the multi-format nature of the affair required hefty label muscle; along with single CD and cassette offerings of Y, there is a 3CD that includes the rare and unreleased comp Alien Blood plus the self-explanatory Y Live. There is a 2LP of Y with a 12-inch reissue of debut 7-inch “She Is Beyond Good and Evil” and two limited 4LP sets, one on Inca Gold wax, corralling everything. Those unfamiliar with The Pop Group’s importance might be wondering if all this activity is justified, to which I’ll reply most certainly, as the music offered here greatly expanded possibilities, and as reflected by how many folks once hated this band, was way ahead of the game. So, it still holds up, big time. A

CUP, Spinning Creature (Northern Spy) CUP is Nel Cline and Yuka C. Honda, a pairing that brought certain inevitabilities, namely that there would be guitar on Spinning Creature, as well as an inclination toward avant-pop. The latter comes through Honda’s contribution to Cibo Matto (and numerous projects since), while the guitar is Cline’s forte; his highest-profile credit is as a member of Wilco, though he has a long experimental background with a tendency toward out-jazz. The aspect I wasn’t expecting was the high percentage of vocals, or more to the point, those emanating from the larynx of Nels. It’s a neat-o twist, though it’s not quite enough to put this very likeable joint endeavor into the upper echelon. There is a boatload of string action and Honda’s personality and voice impress. B+

Djunah, Ex Voto (Triple Eye Industries) Chicago’s Djunah (pronounced June-ah, like Djuna Barnes) is the duo of Donna Diane, who sings while playing guitar and operating a Moog bass organ with her feet, and Nick Smalkowski on the drums. He brings considerable thump to the proceedings and shouldn’t be underestimated (he’s played in Arctic Sleep and Fake Limbs), but due to the substantiality of her presence, both instrumentally and vocally, Ex Voto, the twosome’s debut, really feels like Diane’s show, an observation that’s supported by the focus in the promo text on her multifaceted contribution to the overall sound. Ultimately, it’s the music that places her at the fore, with neither the playing nor the vocalizing suffering through the dual role as the lyrics add legitimate value. Lots of promise here. B+

Dana Gavanski, “Catch” b/w “Off Again” (Full Time Hobby) Gavanski, who was born in Vancouver and currently splits her residence between Belgrade and Montreal, is a budding singer-songwriter, and I say budding because the PR for this 45 mentions that she hasn’t been playing guitar for that long, in fact learning from an instruction book sometime in the early to middle portion of this decade, though a year spent focusing on her music resulted in the EP “Spring Demos” in 2017 (available on CD) and a prior 7-inch earlier this year. Her stature as a relative newbie isn’t manifested in an aura of the tentative, however. Both of these tunes are sturdy growers vocally and instrumentally, but the flipside ultimately steals the show through assurance and gorgeous depth of emotion. A stone winner. A-

Juana Molina, “Forfun” EP (Crammed Discs) Issued on 10-inch vinyl and digital, the always reliable Argentine experimental pop singer-songwriter Molina’s latest is described as being inspired by punk, a point that is driven home by each of the four tracks featuring the genre in its title; there’s “Paraguaya Punk,” “The Punkish Rat,” “Un Dia Punk,” and “Vagos Punk.” But really, the key word in the label’s designation is inspired, for on one hand, the selections are considerably something other than straight-ahead riff and shout. If you know Molina’s work, this tidbit will be of no surprise. But on the other hand, the rawness and intensity on display is surely distinct from what’s come before in her discography, a welcome stylistic wrinkle at times a bit reminiscent of Rough Trade-style post punk. A-

Office Culture, A Life of Crime (Whatever’s Clever) This Brooklyn four-piece specializes in decidedly retro-flavored sophisti-pop; there is mention of Talk Talk, but really, the writing (structural, lyrical) and the vocal delivery of Winston Cook-Wilson reminds me a whole lot more of the late ’70s in NYC, with nods to Donald Fagan, Stephen Bishop and later in the record, Al Stewart. The band, a crack band it should be noted, gets so deep into the veneer of it all that only about half of the songs truly connect with me, but in their favor, there is a melancholy aura maintained throughout that avoids “Baby Come Back” obnoxiousness, and there’s a certain degree of restraint; when the horns come in, they nod toward Steely Dan and a hint of Philly Soul rather than sub-“Baker Street” bullshit. But still… B-

Signe Marie Rustad, When Words Flew Freely (Die with Your Boots On) Of Norwegian singer-songwriter Rustad’s prior work I know nothing except that she has a couple of full-lengths preceding this one, her first for this upstart label based in her home country. The PR for this set situates Rustad as a purveyor of Americana, and I guess that’s right if the definition of the sound encompasses vibes suggesting the Lilith Fair experience. That was a pretty American occurrence, am I right? If you’re registering this as a putdown, please don’t; the Lilith Fair shebang was partially a gender-focused extension of the ’70s singer-songwriter explosion, which is worth noting as Rustad has been compared to Joni and Carole. Consistently enjoyable, with a few spots implying that she could make a solid neo-folktronica LP. B+

The Stargazer Lilies, Occabot (Rad Cult) For their fourth LP since debuting with We Are the Dreamers in 2013, the Pennsylvania duo of John Ceparano and Kim Field burrow deep into the shoegaze zone but with riff largeness that contrasts interestingly with the dream poppish gush greatly enhanced by the vocals of Field. Shoegaze outfits regularly get all huzzy and fuzzy and can even build up to a substantial roar, but crashing and thudding isn’t so common, and that’s just two components that help to distinguish this record from the standard thing and in fact is a new progression in the Lilies’ discography, in part due to producer Tom Fec aka TOBACCO (Rad Cult is his label). Checking out their earlier stuff, the development is tangible, but it’s not like the changes were thrust upon them. Hefty and expansive. B+

Synthia, “Tonight You Might” b/w “Dissolve” (Big Crown) Here’s a fun one, described as Big Crown’s first dive into the realms of “boogie synth-pop” and additionally a label supergroup as it features production by Leon Michels and Homer Steinweiss and vocals on the a-side by Lady Wray. That one is so ’80s-ed out that I can almost imagine myself noshing at Shakey’s Pizza Parlor while classmates drop quarters into the jukebox slot, the speakers dishing a steady stream of R&B with a synth sheen. This is okay, because they didn’t forget to build it all up around an honest-to-goodness song. The instrumental flip (well, there’s a big “oh, yeah” and a bunch of “chicka-pows”) is something of a different story, dishing a plate of mild electro funk with beaucoup flute action. It’s a b-side, is what I’m sayin’. Again, a fun one. B

Sophia Talvik, Paws of a Bear (Makaki Music) Like Signe Marie Rustad, Talvik (pronounced tull-week) is a Scandinavian singer-songwriter, her home country being Sweden, who explores an aptitude for Americana. Talvik’s stuff is inclined toward folky introspection that validates the comparisons to Judy Collins and Buffy Sainte-Marie. The title of opener “Take Me Home” had me bracing for something different that thankfully didn’t come to pass, though there are indeed some occasional country touches throughout the record. Often, its rising pedal steel, which deepens the likening of her work to the precedent of the Laurel Canyon, but there is a fragility to a few of the songs here that gets borderline ethereal and suggests that Talvik could productively expand upon this avenue if she so chose. B+

Kat Vokes, Clockwork (Ropeadope) Vokes is a composer, pianist and vocalist (a powerhouse) who’s sang extensively in the USA and Europe. This is her first CD. She holds a double degree in comparative literature and vocal performance from Oberlin and is currently pursuing a Master’s in composition with a focus on scoring for film at NYU. Clockwork illuminates her jazz background, but not necessarily in ways you might expect. Nitzan Gavrieli’s keyboards, often electric, as is Jeff Miles’ guitar and Noah Garabedian’s bass, steer this set into a zone that, while not screamingly cutting edge, is nonetheless not exactly beholden to Tradition. But she does integrate trad moves into her approach to strong effect and even gets pretty deep into a Great American Songbook situation in “Too Late Now.” A-

Water from Your Eyes, Somebody Else’s Song (Exploding in Sound) This is my intro to the work of Brooklyn’s Nate Amos and Rachel Brown. The short description of their thing is experimental pop, though they additionally cite prog, Krautrock, post-punk and twee, reference points that are welcome, as a lot of contempo avant-art pop gets so wrapped up in newness that the ties to precedent have to be ferreted out; yes, a factor that’s surely part of the appeal of those records. But the fun of Somebody Else’s Song is in how the opening title cut whips off some fine fingerpicking and vox that’s followed by torrid groove-throb before setting into vaguely ’90s indie pop territory. It conjures visions of scribble-loaded comp notebooks and worn, warm cardigan sweaters. Intellectual and a bit bohemian. A-

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