Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2019’s New Releases, Part One

Out with the old (reissues), in with the new (releases), y’know? 2019 is rapidly dwindling away, so let’s usher it out with a bang and get right down to the biz.

10. Chuck Cleaver, Send Aid (Shake It) & Joan Shelley, Like the River Loves the Sea (No Quarter) The tendency when compiling annual lists of best new music is toward broken ground and pushed boundaries. Everybody does it. And it makes sense to do it. But the thing is, it doesn’t have to be done all the time. Room can be made for a record that lands securely in the pop-rock pocket while oozing veteran assurance and some heartland verve (plus nifty lyrics). The indie scene once dished out killer platters like this with regularity, so while we’re celebrating the new, this brings back memories. Neat duality.

A similar claim of non-innovation can be made for Joan Shelley’s latest, though a record as flat-out gorgeous as Like the River Loves the Sea can easily register as tapping into the inventive. A substantial percentage of the beauty is directly vocally derived as Shelley engages wholeheartedly but astutely with a rural, subtly Brit-folk approach. That means she never comes off as overly reverent. The result documents the artist breaking significant personal ground on her fifth and finest record yet.

9. Sequoyah Murray, Before You Begin (Thrill Jockey) & Alexander Noice, NOICE (Orenda) The full-length debut (there was a prior EP “Penalties of Love,” also in 2019) of 22-year old Atlanta, GA-based Murray resonates with possibilities through rich hybridization, but it is also a remarkably assured collection of song, and for all its pushing into fresh territory, there is a substantial pop core. Specifically, there is a strong current of contemporary soul and a stated influence of rap that to my ear is implicit but surely there. More explicit are elements of synth-pop, which works well with Murray’s voice. His cello playing has drawn comparisons to Arthur Russell, but this LP is following its own path of promise.

Really, the only disappointing thing about NOICE is that its physical manifestation was CD only. Was? Yeah, it’s sold out. Waaa! But hey, it’s early yet. If enough folks take the digital plunge with this release, a vinyl edition might just emerge. Here’s hoping. The recipe here includes art-rock, prog-rock, its younger niece math-rock, jazz, electronics, noise and the avant-garde, with an emphasis on the operatic through the vocals of Karina Kallas and Argenta Walther. Thoughts of a Downtown NYC Deerhoof persist, though the jazz background of Los Angeles-based guitarist and composer Noice gives the whole a distinct flavor. NOICE is a captivating experience that does not run out of gas.

8. House and Land, Across the Field (Thrill Jockey) & Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves, S/T (Free Dirt) Due to their considerable trad folk prowess, guitarist/ multi-instrumentalist Sarah Louise and fiddler/ banjoist Sally Anne Morgan are no strangers to the TVD year-end best list, and with Across the Field the duo continues to grow as they refuse to accept outmoded ideologies in tandem with the music they love. There are also tangible strains of psychedelia, but subtle, or maybe better said, tasteful. Ill-advised moves are completely absent here as the combined vocalizing is splendid throughout. As good as they’ve been before and growing.

The sound of clawhammer banjoist de Groot and fiddler Hargreaves on their debut album can be considered a much more straight-ahead old-time affair, though the playing is so strong and the interaction so rich that folks who dig Sally Anne Morgan’s work in the Black Twig Pickers should get acquainted with this one if they haven’t already. But pairing this album with Across the Field goes a lot deeper, as de Groot and Hargreaves also insist upon extending the tradition while leaving retrograde baggage behind. It is music rooted in the past, relevant to the present, and sturdy for the future. An all-around treat for the ears.

7. Kongo Dia Ntotila, 360° (Pussyfoot) & Abdullah Ibrahim, The Balance (Gearbox) A major point of praise that can be awarded to the latest record from Kongo Dia Ntotila is its stature as a solid mover of the party, especially if the celebration is outdoors, in a big yard perhaps, as the temperature is high; 360° is the kind of record to make one want to gyrate and sweat. But the reason this set makes the list is twofold; first, the playing is constantly sharp but not showboaty, and second, the style, firmly rooted in African groove with a hefty dose of jazz, is wide-ranging and indeed occasionally surprising. Listening while seated in a chair inspires sincere appreciation and constant waves of enjoyment.

So, Africa, specifically South Africa, and jazz; these aspects of pianist Abdullah Ibrahim’s biography synch up well thematically with Kongo Dia Ntotila, but the musical thrust of The Balance is quite distinct. If 360° is jazz influenced, Ibrahim’s album is an exemplary specimen of the genre from a veteran practitioner (if one who is perhaps undeservedly underheard). The Balance exudes beauty and warmth in abundance, showcasing Ibrahim with no loss in ability and with a sharp band. If you know someone who is constantly ruing and boohooing that the best days of jazz are long gone, play this for him (it’s almost certainly a him) and watch as their face lights up like an uncovered bulb.

6. Patty Waters, Live (Blank Forms) & Kid Millions & Sarah Bernstein, Broken Fall (577) Vocalist Patty Waters fits into the jazz genre, though for decades, due to the uncompromising nature of her two ’60s albums for ESP Disk she was relegated to the avant fringe. Make no mistake, her stuff was gloriously “out”; there were some, hostile jerks mostly, who opined that Waters’ music wasn’t jazz at all. After a long sabbatical, she returned in a surprisingly inside context that was fleshed out by the release of a compilation offering early material. This performance set, recorded on April 5, 2018, does a magnificent job of tying the seemingly disparate but complementary threads of Waters’ music together. It is a joy.

577 Records calls itself simply an independent record label based in Brooklyn, New York. Many would add jazz to the description, though part of the reason for 577’s genre omission relates to how the enterprise’s output pushes beyond category, i.e. the broken ground and pushed boundaries mentioned above. The label had a superb year continuing down this avenue, but their most striking jaunt is Broken Fall by avant violinist Bernstein (who also contributes vocals and electronics here) and percussionist extraordinaire John Colpitts aka Kid Millions. But jazz context isn’t abandoned; capping a day of listening to Interstellar Space, Duo Exchange, and Interstellar Space Revisited with this one is a fine day indeed.

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