Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for February 2020, Part Two

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for February, 2020. Part one is here.

NEW RELEASE/VALENTINE’S DAY PICK:  Lulu Lewis, “The Love Song EP” (Ilegalia) The general guideline (I wouldn’t call it “policy”) with this weekly column is a focus on physical releases that one could potentially buy in a brick-and-mortar store. While this EP falls into the digital-only category, due to its theme as articulated through three smart cover tunes, I was immediately tempted to make an exception. But as vocalist Dylan Hundley and multi-instrumentalist Pablo Martin are offering made to order limited edition prints in a batch of four, I can include it this week sans conflict. Those prints are the pictured EP cover + one for each song, all in a similar style. Now, some might carp that the EP made the cut on a technicality, but I’ve a creeping suspicion those grumps are staying home for Valentine’s Day.

Lulu Lewis find success with the holiday tie-in through inspired song selection as they hit the sweet spot between interpretation and recognizability. This middle ground is most pronounced in the opening reading of Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” which comes off a little like young Siouxsie collaborating with early Ultravox, at least until Martin’s guitar bursts forth for an extended passage. John Cale’s “Helen of Troy” is next, with guest vocals from someone named Deer, though folks into Lulu Lewis’ Genuine Psychic (available on wax) will have an inkling who that is. The courtly keyboard fanfare retained from the original is a highlight. A take on Funkadelic’s “I’ll Bet You” remains groove-tastic but is sung by Hundley with breathy verve. Altogether, this would make a fine gift for someone you love. A-

NEW RELEASE PICK: Elkhorn, The Storm Sessions (Beyond Beyond is Beyond) Elkhorn’s prior two, Sun Cycle and Elk Jam, came out simultaneously last year on Feeding Tube. The move to BBiB is natural and should only increase the likelihood that newbies will zero in on the work of guitarists Jesse Sheppard (12-string acoustic) and Drew Gardner (6-string electric) as psych in nature. There is an undeniable relationship to the American Primitive as well, but with Turner Williams adding electric bouzouki on the first side and shahi baaja on the second, this hits like something Vanguard (who released Fahey and Basho, yes) or maybe even ESP-Disk might’ve put out in ’68-’69. I mention those labels because as The Storm Sessions glides and searches, it’s often closer to raga than rock, and that’s a wonderful thing. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Maximum Joy, Station M.X.J.Y. (1972) Post-punk’s funk groove subgenre, to which Maximum Joy belong, could sometimes become a little (or a lot) too refined, but Station M.X.J.Y. doesn’t have that problem. This is in part because it was the band’s only LP. Formed by the Glaxo Babies’ Tony Wrafter with Janine Rainforth, then just 18 years old, on vocals, along the way Glaxo Babies Charlie Llewellin and bassist Dan Catsis joined as did John Waddington from The Pop Group, making this something of a post-punk supergroup situation; this might’ve contributed to the brevity of their existence, as well. Throw in production by On-U Sound label founder Adrian Sherwood (plus relevant credits-heavy producers Dave Hunt and Pete Wooliscroft) and the table is set for something special.

Released in 1982 on the Y label, Station M.X.J.Y. is getting its first-time standalone vinyl reissue here, which is quite surprising, as the contents are the sorta thing to knock recent post-punk converts right the fuck over (Crippled Dick Hot Wax! did include this album on their 2LP comp Unlimited (1979 – 1983) in 2005 and there was a Japanese CD released in 2008; both currently sell for too much money). Yes, putting this on in a crowded club between bands could easily result in the audience getting scattered all over like bowling pins on league night at the lanes; y’know, those cats throw fingertip balls designed to hook right into the pocket. Maximum Joy’s pocket is where funk, dub, punk, Afrobeat and even elements of jazz (horns are well represented) come together with robust clarity. Sounds superb today. A

Daniel Carter, Patrick Holmes, Matthew Putman, Whoadie (577) Featuring Carter on sax, trumpet, clarinet and flute, Holmes on clarinet and Putman on piano, this is 3/5th of the Telepathic Band as also released by 577. As the label notes, Whoadie is New Orleans slang for good friends, the term time adjusted from “waaaar-day,” which signified recognition of residents of the same ward. This title reflects the closeness of the contributors, but the contents do the same to a deeper degree. Derived from two sessions, the first a rehearsal plagued with an out-of-tune piano that went so well otherwise that it inspired a second studio date, this time with the keys in perfect tune. That three tracks are from the initial get together says much about the level of rapport. This CD, fully descended from the avant-garde, can become as lyrical and pretty as it gets wildly abstract. A gem of elevated trio interaction. A

Jonny Couch, Mystery Man (Damaged Sofa) Time has flown. In Nov. 2016 I reviewed Mr. Couch’s 5-song EP “Animal Instinct” in this weekly roundup and found it to be a mildly pleasurable wildcard in the mid-decade spurt of early ’80s new wave-tinged pop-rock retro move bold-assery. The thing I dug about Jonny back then was his uninhibited power-pop flair, which made his thing more than just regurgitated trappings, though period ambiance was definitely present. Still, upon finding this LP on my doorstep, I did wonder if the man could pull it off for a whole LP. The verdict is yes, as his songwriting has only strengthened, though his love for those trapping keeps this from resonating with me too strongly. However, “Shadow Eyes” and “Delusions of Grandeur” remind that sometimes style is substance. B

Elephant Stone, Hollow (Fuzz Club) Here’s the sixth full-length from this Montreal-based band formed by “Hindie Rock” sitarist Rishi Dhir, but the first to feature the Fuzz Club Records logo; these dozen tracks reinforce the association as highly simpatico. Dhir’s adeptness on the sitar has placed him in the studio with a variety of figures, some simply looking to integrate a little Eastern and perhaps even Beatles-esque flavor into their record, while others are linchpins of the neo-psych community (i.e., Brian Jonestown Massacre and Black Angels). A few spins reveal Dhir and crew leaning to the accessible side of the contempo psych spectrum, so you’re unlikely to repel unwanted houseguests with the contents (unless you play it really loud), but with an engaging underlying vigor and non-trite foundations. B+

Satoko Fujii New York Orchestra, Entity (Libra) As if we need more evidence that pianist-composer-improvisor-bandleader Fujii is unstoppable…well, actually, I’ll take all the evidence that’s available, thanks. And I’ll take a few more New York Orchestra discs as well (this is the group’s 13th, spanning back to 1997), for the contents here have once again exceeded my expectations, as large group out-jazz of the non-Arkestra and non-go-for-broke communal splatter variety (the latter exemplified by a few jewels in the early ’70s BYG/Actuel catalog) can be a little disappointing. I say this because many of the examples I’ve heard are rooted in composition, which Entity certainly is, but with the major difference that Fujii is no ordinary composer (she’s the leader of five different geographically based orchestras).

Instead of padding out (and weakening) some strong ideas with underwhelming ensemble vamping, Fujii is invested in imbuing every moment with vitality. As she says: “The music cannot be boring with these musicians.” This leads us to her outstanding taste in personnel, with saxophonists Oscar Noriega, Ellery Eskelin, and Tony Malaby, trumpeters Herb Robertson and Natsuki Tamura (Fujii’s husband), trombonist Joe Fiedler, guitarist Nels Cline, and drummer Ches Smith all on board (amongst others in a 13-piece band that endures with nine founding members). But the strongest plaudits go to Fujii; as she refuses to succumb to standard form moves, her influences reach all the way back to swing. If Entity dated from the late ‘80s and came out on Silkheart, it’d be rated a classic. It’s destined for that status, to be sure. A

Ivar Grydeland and Henry Kaiser, In The Arctic Dreamtime (Rune Grammofon) Of the two guitarists shaping this 65-minute CD, I’m far more familiar with the US-based Kaiser, a wildly prolific cornerstone of expansive-progressive-experimental guitar with appealing ties to rock and avant-jazz. I know Norwegian Grydeland more by reputation (his list of collaborators is impressive), though I have heard his work with the group Dans les arbres. This meeting, which took place in an Oslo studio in January of 2019, was secured with the intention to create a score for a Norwegian silent film, with the chosen movie, Roald Amundsen’s 1925 documentary Ellsworths flyveekspedition 1925, being just one of the candidates.

The PR mentions this particular film as being one of the least likely to be selected, and that they initially intended for the sounds heard on In The Arctic Dreamtime to be a test recording-warm up. That this is a one-take score is striking, although the low stress levels that accompanied what began as a practice run possibly aided in the moments of brilliance heard across these five selections of spontaneous joint creativity. Having not watched the music’s visual inspiration, I can’t comment on the ratio of success in enhancing those images, but I can relate that I experienced extended passages of beauty and tranquility that registers as appropriately arctic. More surprising are a few spots reminding me of math-rock and Robert Fripp, with some shredding occurring late. Also, the film’s length is nearly two hours. That means they didn’t just dump the whole recording onto CD and then call it a day. That’s nice. A-

Miss Tess, The Moon is an Ashtray (Miss Tess – Tone Tree) If my calculations are correct, this is full-length number seven for vocalist-guitarist Miss Tess, which includes two with credited backing band The Talkbacks (there is also an EP and a 7-inch; at this point, The Moon is an Ashtray is CD-only). Her style can be described as Americana, though she covers a lot more territory than is the norm for contempo practitioners of the style. Make that a whole lot more. Raised in Maryland, Miss Tess attended college in Baltimore prior to a move to Boston where she studied at Berklee College of Music (subsequently, she resided in New York and now Nashville). Folks who view modern Americana as too damned polished might look askance at the Berklee connection, but as this set unwinds it’s a totally non-toxic affiliation.

Right from the start Miss Tess isn’t trying to fool anybody into believing she’s been spending all her time singing and picking guitar on some rural back porch. Instead, she weaves a blend of rich songwriting, jazz club smokiness and aspects of blues, country and pop that can perhaps be assessed as sophisto-classique. At numerous points, this album recalls the work of Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams, but again, Miss Tess’s stylistic net covers so much territory that she’ll surely appeal to fans of country-boogie a la Asleep at the Wheel, cornerstone cult band NRBQ (maybe the original Americana act), and fans of more current artists like Madeleine Peyroux, She & Him and a significant portion of the Bloodshot Records roster. Here’s hoping this gets a vinyl pressing soon. It’s fully deserving. A-

Mute, S/T (Fresh Sound New Talent) A quartet featuring all Asian membership, with two Chinese Americans in reedman Kevin Sun (playing C-melody saxophone and clarinet here) and pianist Christian Li, and two South Koreans in bassist Jeonglim Yang and drummer Dayeon Seok, as reflected by their choice of moniker, Mute are something fairly unusual in the current jazz scene; a working band of equality rather than a one-night stand or an assemblage for a leader date. Therefore unsurprisingly, this debut CD features nine original compositions (but interestingly, nothing credited to the whole group). The music can be synopsized as advanced post-bop, and sorta by definition it never cuts loose too hard. But not once did I get a Neo-Trad feeling, and that’s great. The playing is sharp from start to finish. A-

V/A, 12 Bombazos Bailables (Vampisoul) Back in 2017, Vampisoul began reissuing collections of material from Discos Fuentes, which at 85 years old is cited in the PR for this set as the longest running independent record label in the world. Pictured on the inside of this digipak CD (‘tis also available on vinyl), are the covers of Vampisoul’s dozen Discos Fuentes releases (all apparently reproductions of the originals, with a few leaning to the “cheesecake” side of the things if that’s how you roll). This set grabs one track from each for a fiesta of Latin groove fire, and with the expected ratio of jazzy finesse. As the front cover makes clear, the contests span a variety of styles, but the range is pleasurably cohesive throughout. Folks dipping into Craft Recordings’ Fania reissues should investigate without delay. A-

V/A, Instrumental Gems: Spanish Funk & Groove 1973/1977 Vols. 1 & 2 (Adarce) Stylistically, these LPs come as advertised, but in terms of quality they are a mixed bag. This directly relates to how these bands made their bread-and-butter by playing what Adarce describes as “Spanish popular songs and international hits” in nightclub settings. Stepping into a recording studio, occasionally pseudonymously, likely allowed for some cutting loose, and the possibility does intermittently shine through across these four sides of wax. But don’t go thinking we’re in Chains and Black Exhaust territory. Fuzz guitar is present, but these are much more well-mannered affairs. Vol. 2 has a few more unusual juxtapositions but is lighter and a little goofier at times. Fans of Starsky & Hutch will probably want them both. B/ B+

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