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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Jumpstarted Plowhards, Round One (Recess) Bassist Mike Watt is, with no hyperbole, indefatigable. In the recent past, he’s been out on the road as part of Tav Falco’s band, assisted (along with singer David Yow) in a bunch of shows with Flipper, and has just wound down a tour with his own outfit The Missingmen. Recordings have been prominent as well, with this set a back-and-forth project with singer-guitarist Todd Congelliere of Toys That Kill and a rotating cast of drummers including a few with long associations with Watt, namely George Hurley, Raul Morales, and the youthful Nick Aguilar. Toys That Kill is a San Pedro-based outfit, so this is all literally close to home for Watt, with the foundation of the songs beginning with his bass parts as recorded to click tracks.

They were then passed on to Congelliere, who fleshed out the tunes and finally picked the drummers as he felt appropriate; amongst the contributors is Patty Schemel of Hole. Not being super-familiar with Toys That Kill, the results are pretty surprising as the concise set begins in what I’ll call a late ’70s-early ’80s UK art-punk zone that borders on that era and that nation’s subterranean DIY explosion. As the next seven tracks unwind, the general aura of Britishness remains but without ever slipping into the territory of a best-accent contest. The whole is cohesive as fuck (this bodes well, as there are five more prospective installments of Jumpstarted Plowhards material) and rocks like a mofo, which given the participants, isn’t the least bit surprising. It all syncs up very nicely with the below. A-

Fitted, First Fits (ORG Music) If Jumpstarted Plowhards is near to Mike Watt geographically, Fitted connects to the Minutemen (the bassist’s most high-profile endeavor, as ever it will be) pretty solidly, as amongst the participants is founding member of Wire, bassist-vocalist Edvard Graham Lewis; rounding out the band is later and current Wire member Matthew Sims on guitar and Bob Lee (Fearless Leader, Claw Hammer, The Freeks) on drums, with Watt on bass and spiel. Lewis adds synth and sampler, while Simms brings modular synth and organ to the studio. Well, five studios, as this was cut in various locations in Cali, the UK and Sweden in 2017-’18. Amazingly, Fitted practiced once, on March 30, 2017. The music is sharp-edged post-punk and expansive; at six tracks, it’s twice the length of Round One. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Peter Ivers, Becoming Peter Ivers (RVNG Intl.) Peter Ivers is far from forgotten, but along with the mysterious circumstances of his death in 1983, he’s probably remembered mainly these days for writing “In Heaven,” which was featured in David Lynch’s Eraserhead as sung by Laurel Near (it has since been covered many times, including by The Pixies). He was also the host of Los Angeles-area public access show New Wave Theater, which benefited from wider exposure on Night Flight and last decade by making the internet rounds. But as a recording artist, Ivers debuted all the way back in ’69 for Epic with Knight of the Blue Communion. Neither it nor his epic follow-up Take It Out On Me sold much, but he still ended up signed to Warner Brothers, where he cut two more albums.

Ivers’ role on New Wave Theater might position him on the surface as an early punk-era oddball personality, which he certainly was, but as the above should highlight, he was much more than that. His ’74 album Terminal Love was produced by Van Dyke Parks, who appears on one selection on this collection, “Window Washer.” Five years in the making and collecting mid-’70s demos, four of them of songs from Terminal Love, Becoming Peter Ivers really underscores Ivers’ talent as a songwriter, his solid harmonica playing (he was mentored by Little Walter) and the kind of ’70s presence that didn’t fit in to the decade’s scheme, a la Tom Waits, though the music here, often in the singer-songwriter mode with a funky undercurrent, is distinct. While demos, these aren’t song skeletons. A valuable eye-opener. A-

Helen America, Red Sun (Self-released) Seattle-based Helen America has been around for a while and is noted for her DIY comics, paintings and drawings; a sampling of her stuff illuminates a unified yet fairly diverse aesthetic, as the work in the 24pg 11” x 11″ book accompanying this 11-song collection (available on CD or download) reminds me a little at times of Henry Darger, but more psychedelically macabre (“body horror” is a reference point from the artist). There are also printed lyrics. It’s all pretty impressive, enhancing a musical approach that radiates as indie/ freak folk at its core but hearty, with numerous examples of rocking out, also indie-derived as the roots reach back to Patti. Instrumentally, a solid violin/ cello bedrock deepens the strum as accordion and bagpipes widen the landscape. A-

An Explore, “One” EP (Lewis Recordings) Released digitally, on CD and 10-inch vinyl, this is the first fruits of a new project from UK-based electronica producer Rob Macdonald. The stated goal of the endeavor is to unite “instrumentalism and experimental methods of composition” with a basis in field recordings, an element that’s surely discernible as these five tracks unwind, though more prominent is the layered violin playing of Lucy Wilkins (she also adds a bit of vocals to “Under a Bridge”), a positive contribution to be sure, but one that does intensify a similarity to contemporary neo-classical. The nice thing is that the whole resists getting too brightly effervescent, as neo-classical stuff is wont to do. Instead, there is an undercurrent of melancholy, which to my ear is always welcome in this sorta context. B+

Ka Baird, Respires (RVNG Intl.) This is Baird’s second solo LP under her abbreviated first name; as Kathleen, she was part of Spires That In the Sunset Rise, a group described by the late guitarist Jack Rose as a “female Sun City Girls.” They were based in Chicago, but Baird moved to NYC in 2014, shortened that given name and released Sapropelic Pycnic on Drag City three years later. This set delivers a sweet dose of beautiful strangeness focused on Baird’s often wordless vocals and her terrifically non-clichéd flute playing. Respires succeeds in part because it is a well-ordered undertaking, and if strange, it’s all quite natural as the tracks unfurl, which is impressive as there is a substantial amount of manipulation going on. There are electronic elements, and drones, but the better descriptor is experimental. A-

Sasha Bell, Love Is Alright (Both Sides Now) Bell released Destination Girl under the handle Finishing School back in 2003, though I mainly know her from The Ladybug Transistor and The Essex Green, two in a long list of names associated with the Elephant 6 experience. However, both outfits resided a bit off to the side (if not on the fringe) in that whole scenario, so I kinda absorbed both as part of Merge Records’ mid-period maturation. Maybe you did, too. I liked Ladybug T. and Essex Green quite a bit, especially the former’s debut The Albemarle Sound (a knockout of baroque/ sunshine/ psych-pop) so it’s a treat to cozy up to Bell’s latest, which is designated as her first solo album (under her own name, anyway).

Those who dug The Essex Green for Bell’s vocal presence, large and smooth but with oomph-sass, will find much to love here, as she’s in strong voice throughout. And for those who know her from the aforementioned bands, this set is nearer to Essex Green, but with a few adjustments. These changes register as subtle to me; the PR mentions a march into the ’70s with nods toward ABBA, and I can surely hear that, but at times Essex Green struck me a little like post-Buck/Nicks Fleetwood Mac saying fuck it and carrying a torch for sunshine-psych into the late ’70s…so what I’m saying is Love Is Alright isn’t a radical departure. And there’s still mucho ’60s action in Bell’s recipe (“Candy Mountain” reminded me of ’60s Who while sounding like those dudes hardly at all). B+

Dandy, Dandy Returns (Real Gone) The Jamaican-British Dandy, aka Robert Livingstone Thompson, wrote “Version Girl,” which was later covered by UB40, and “Rudy, A Message to You,” which anybody with even basic knowledge of 2 Tone ska knows was done by The Specials. Neither tune is here, nor is his ’72 hit “Suzanne, Beware of the Devil,” as this set, one of the Trojan label’s earliest LPs, dates from ’68, and as sorta inferred by the title, is Dandy’s second album. The rocksteady vibes are sturdy throughout with the originals spiked with covers of Chad & Jeremy (“Only a Fool Breaks His Own Heart”) and The Beatles (a nifty “Yesterday”). The sound is as bright as a sunshiny winter’s morn after a fresh snowfall. First time reissued in any format, so if this is your thing, you know what to do. A-

Entlang, The Four Sisters (Rose Hobart) The first of two releases from a new, excellently named label collects nearly everything from Garbage & The Flowers-affiliated u-ground New Zealanders Helen Johnstone and Yuri Frusin. But don’t go thinking this set is loaded with tracks, as there are four; in their relatively brief mid-’90s existence they self-released a 7-inch, a 10-inch (both lathe cuts) and had a track on the Jeweled Antler comp Windswept Trees and Houses (later, in 2002). However, the runtime here is still bountiful, with two cuts breaking the 10-minute barrier and another nearly so. The level of post-Velvets damage is wonderfully high (I’m talking Cale-esque string screech, baby), though a small portion of “Nameless One” blends mid-’90s Yo La Tengo with the same era’s Siltbreeze aesthetic. Spiffy. A-

Fenella, S/T (Fire) This is the latest from Jane Weaver, who’s already established a strong 2019 through Loops in the Secret Society, which “reimagined” elements of her 2014 set The Silver Globe and the 2017 follow-up Modern Kosmology. This is also a reimagining, specifically of Hungarian animator Marcell Jankovics’ cult film from 1981 Fehérlófia (Son of the White Mare). Fire is quite keen on reimaginings, as this is part of an alternate soundtrack series that includes Death and Vanilla’s scores for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr and Roman Polanski’s The Tenant. Weaver worked on this set with bandmates Peter Philipson and Raz Ullah, but the decision to release the results under a fresh moniker makes sense, for if her retro-futurist approach is intact, the music travels down some unique avenues of heaviness. A-

Charles Rumback & Ryley Walker, Little Common Twist (Thrill Jockey) LP two from this duo, with Rumback at the drums and Walker on guitar. Both musicians are Chicago-based, though Walker has the higher profile of the two, probably partly because Rumback is involved in the Windy City’s contempo free jazz activities. Now, if Rumback’s connection to free jazz bothers any prospective newbies (for some are allergic to free jazz, and jazz in general), it shouldn’t, as Little Common Twist lands firmly in what I’d call progressive folk territory; and I’ll add folk as in American Primitive, though this is so much more than a mere launching off from the Takoma sound, particularly the drum ‘n bass-like elements in “Menebhi.” I will say that folks into Billy Higgins’ work with Sandy Bull should find this one of interest. A-

Tears|Ov, A Hopeless Place (The Wormhole) Consisting of sound artist/ self-taught musician Lori E Allen, the classically trained cellist/ mixed media artist Katie Spafford and illustrator/ prison psychotherapist Deborah Wale, this album, sparked by a commission by the German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans as part of a curated concert series to run alongside his 2017 retro at the Tate Modern Gallery, combines assorted synths and programmed drums with Allen’s piano, Wale’s percussion and Spafford’s cello to build through structured improvisation a powerful blend of electronic and organic elements that makes its deepest impression through the use of samples, voices, and spoken words, often looped, including a dive into different eras of Family Feud and some of the best cyclical laughter I’ve heard in a while. A-

Thuja, Hills (Rose Hobart) If this new label’s inaugural release by Entlang (reviewed above) is tied to the Jeweled Antler Collective through a single comp track, this reissue of a 2012 CDr by a noted San Fran-based five-piece experimental outfit deepens the connection, though in fact Hills was released by Last Visible Dog. Three CDrs, all minis, were offered by Jeweled Antler, while other full-lengths came out on tUMULt, Emperor Jones, Strange Attractors Audio House and Important, hardly any of it on wax, which makes this offering a fine start in a potential reissue program. The eight untitled cuts combine drone, electro-acoustics and an improv rule, but with no jamming or solos (or vocals), which reduces the similarities to rock (indie and in general) in a way that’s as appealing now as it was refreshing then. A-

Matt Valentine, Preserves (Beyond Beyond is Beyond) Most recently enthused over in this column in connection to Wet Tuna, Matt Valentine has a much deeper background that is reflected in this set, which was made across eight years. He was in Tower Recordings with PG Six, has issued an ass-ton of plastic in connection with his partner Erika Elder (under a bunch of different name variants), and has indeed worked solo on record and live; Preserves dives into this aspect of his creative trajectory as well, though there’s a slew of hefty contributors, so it’s far from a loner affair as the psych and the folk strands in Valentine’s creative weave are well represented. There are even synths, often spacy in comportment, and a few teched-out rhythms that might induce an ass to wiggle. Jeepers, yes. A-

Dan Weiss Trio Plus 1, Utica Box (Sunnyside) An unusual piano trio in more ways than the titular addition of a second bassist; the group features Jacob Sacks at the keys, Thomas Morgan and Eivend Opsvik on bass and Weiss on drums. The first thing is that in my experience, most piano trios are led by the person at the 88s but applying the distinction here isn’t a bit wrong. The PR for this CD does so, and as the music plays, the classification connects as totally on the money. The second thing stems from how the introduction of a second bassist, unlike adding a horn player, doesn’t undermine the trio sensibility. It does allow for the real-time mingling of plucking and bowing, and that’s quite nice. The third thing is that Weiss explores aspects of rock music that again, doesn’t mess with the piano trio aura.

If you know Weiss’ prior effort, 2018’s Starebaby, which was made with a five-piece band (with two keyboardists) but credited to the drummer alone, the rock inclination will be of no surprise, as that disc interacted with the heavy metal style (Trevor Dunn contributed electric bass). However, the big splash of Starebaby (which is available on wax) got me not a bit wet, so Utica Box serves as my entry into his work, and it’s a striking introduction. Even with closing cut “Bonham” (and mixing by Ron Saint Germain, who’s noted for working with some heavy bands, a few of them metallic, as well as a ton of jazz cats) I’m reminded not of metal, and that’s fine. This is sorta in keeping with an overall subtlety that spans across Utica Box’s nearly 65-minute runtime, and that’s appreciated.

For example, the 16-minute “Bonham,” which helps bookend the record with lengthy selections (the opening title cut reaches 17) eschews the thud-momentum of the Zep drummer, while “Jamerson,” an obvious nod to the great Motown bassist, isn’t reminiscent of soul-R&B-funk, even as at 2:26 it’s as short as a Gordy-funded single. “Bonham” does get appropriately heavy though, so the association is clearly not random. And while there is ample string bowing, that’s not the only reason for the two-bass lineup, as “Rock and Heat” is a fiesta of resonant pull-and-tug. Get the idea that these guys are sharp? Good. Utica Box is a delightful trip, challenging but quite accessible, seemingly even for folks who think they don’t like jazz. I’ll be digging into Starebaby with relish at the earliest opportunity. A-

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