Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
March 2020, Part Three

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

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Jon Hassell, Vernal Equinox (Ndeya) & Jon Hassell/Farafina, Flash of the Spirit (Tak:Til/Glitterbeat) First issued by Lovely Music, Ltd. in 1977, Vernal Equinox is the debut album from Hassell, the master of smeared trumpet and a true groundbreaker in ambient music; additionally, it carries the distinction of laying the foundation for what’s now long-established as Fourth World Music. Subsequent examples include Hassell’s follow-up Earthquake Island and a handful of records by Brian Eno, with Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics a collab featuring Eno and Hassell; it’s a record the trumpeter hasn’t always been particularly fond of. I’m guessing he feels differently about Vernal Equinox, and well he should, as it remains a healthy dose of calmly unfurling oddness and beauty.

He didn’t do it alone, as the contributors to the album (which is available on vinyl for the first time in 42 years) include Naná Vasconcelos on percussion, David Rosenbloom on synth, and William Winant on kanjira. Jumping forward a little over a decade leads us to Flash of the Spirit, a co-billed collab with the Burkina Faso group Farafina, originally on the Intuition label (and Capitol in the US). The album is less gentle than Vernal Equinox, at times far less so, and the overall thrust isn’t as strange. Therefore, I don’t rate it as highly, though I am impressed by how well its intersection with the then burgeoning World Music genre holds up (particularly as it was produced by Eno and Daniel Lanois fresh off The Joshua Tree). But expanded to 2LP (no extra stuff, though), it still offers its share of worthy moments. A/ A-

Game Theory, Across The Barrier Of Sound: PostScript (Omnivore) My enthusiasm for the work of the late Scott Miller is well documented. Game Theory was Miller’s band, one of them anyway, and arguably the outfit for which he’s most remembered (might depend on whether you’re an ’80s or ’90s child; Miller went on to form The Loud Family). Omnivore has done a bang-up job in reissuing Game Theory’s stuff, and now here are the band’s final sessions, cut with the last lineup, which toured but never released a proper album. The personnel here includes Michael Quercio from the then recently broken up Three O’Clock and Jozef Becker, formerly of True West, Thin White Rope, and Miller’s prior band Alternate Learning, so it was far from a case of Miller scrounging up a bunch of scrubs for a tour.

And Across the Barrier of Sound bears out that everybody was fully engaged, whether it was for home recordings, in the studio, or live. Miller’s songwriting is consistently sharp, which is no surprise, as a fair amount of the contents here turned up on the first LP by The Loud Family, Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things. He’s also in fine voice (I’m just going to say that Ted Leo fans who don’t know Miller should do themselves a solid and check him out), which feeds right into one of this set’s strong points, a mess of covers, including The Beatles (“All My Loving”), The Nazz (“Forget All About It”), Eno (“Needle in the Camel’s Eye”), The Monkees (“The Door into Summer”), and on the CD, Big Star (“Back of a Car”), and Three O’Clock (“A Day in erotica”). Altogether, it’s so much more than a batch of leftovers. A-

Arbouretum, Let It All In (Thrill Jockey) With guitarist-vocalist Dave Heumann at the fore, Arbouretum are a prime example of folk-rock that’s undeniably of the old-school (as opposed to indie-folk, for one example), but also lacking in the qualities that could regularly drag the style down, such as sappiness and the eagerness to embrace cliché as a virtue. Heumann is what I’ll call an ace, with his talents utilized by Will Oldham, a stalwart in the same sorta scene, but the whole band here is as sharp as they’ve been on prior efforts and they hit a particular sweet spot, both expansive and crisp, in “No Sanctuary.” There is variety as well, with the synth-y action in “Night Theme” redolent of a late ’70s private press, the title track extendedly hard-rocking, and the closer “High Water Song” blending The Band (courtesy of Hans Chew’s piano), early ’70s Dead, and concluding horns that suggest It Still Moves My Morning Jacket. A-

Crematory, Unbroken (Napalm) Dishing out Goth-metal with occasional Industrial flourishes, Germany’s Crematory have been at it for nearly 30 years, but I’m just cozying up to them with this release, which has its up and downs. The guttural growl (one of two vocal styles on the record) doesn’t negatively affect me, but I do wish the lyrics were in German. There are a few points where the chunky riffing reminds me too much of Nu Metal, but these moments pass pretty quickly, as elsewhere said chunkiness is more reminiscent of the intersection of Wax Trax and Combat Core. At times, this leads me to think White Zombie fans will dig Unbroken general thrust. But other stretches run to the operatic, the anthemic, the balladic even, and during these portions I’m not exactly thrilled. Again, how closely all this adheres to what’s on their 14 prior albums (not counting live sets and comps), I can’t say. B-

Eye Flys, Tub of Lard (Thrill Jockey) I dug Eye Flys’ 2019 debut EP “Contact” quite a bit, and this full-length follow-up (though only a little over 25 minutes long) doesn’t disappoint. As the principals all play in other bands, it’s befitting that they live in different cities, but these distances aren’t perceptible in the sound of Tub of Lard, which is brutal, precise, and yes indeed, metallic. The album’s title is an insult that was thrown at guitarist-vocalist Jake Smith in his youth, and in opener “Tubba Lard” he vents his spleen at such behavior and establishes the album’s lyrical themes as being a few notches above the norm; other topics include the military’s exploitation of the poor (“Predator and Prey”) and misogynists who mask their tendencies with a veneer of decency (“Nice Guy”). Throughout, the music doesn’t let up. A-

Hällas, Conundrum (Napalm) This is my intro to Hällas, and by extension, to what comes to me described as Swedish Adventure Rock. But hey, the record is also tagged as “dark retro” with riffs that are “straight-up ’70s,” so I do have some familiarity with what’s going down. And what’s transpiring across Conundrum displays major affinities for the more accessible side of late ’70s hard-rocking prog. So, it should come as no surprise that Conundrum is the third album in a trilogy from the band. Hällas are clearly an adept crew, but they aren’t wanky, and while the songs are no great shakes, neither are they annoyingly hackneyed. There is some organ, but there is also a good bit of synth, and…I kinda wish there was more organ. Closer “Fading Hero” sounds like it could be the “inspirational” theme rocker for an early ‘80s action flick, which is maybe from whence the Adventure Rock terminology sprang. B-

Aruán Ortiz with Andrew Cyrille and Mauricio Herrera, Inside Rhythmic Falls (Intakt) Another exquisite CD from Ortiz, a Cuban pianist deserving of far more recognition. Limiting ourselves to his output for Swiss label Intakt, Ortiz has collaborated with some major names, foremost in duo with clarinetist Don Byron, but also on separate albums by his trio, drummers Gerald Cleaver and Chad Taylor. With Inside Rhythmic Falls, Ortiz enlists one of the great jazz drummers in Cyrille (who has played with Coleman Hawkins, Grachan Moncur III, Horace Tapscott, David Murray, over a half-dozen records by Cecil Taylor and more), adds Herrera for depth and verve, and then dishes some major keyboard expressiveness, at times reminiscent of Cecil, but just as often reminding me of Marylin Crispell and Myra Melford. But mostly, Ortiz sounds like his own self, tangling wonderfully with Cyrille and Herrera. Massive stuff. A

Keith Oxman, Two Cigarettes in the Dark (Capri) I confess that when I want to soak up some heartily blown uncut post-bop jazz, I almost always reach back to recordings from the 1950-’60s. I know I’m not alone in this, as those decades remain the unimpeachable era for the stuff, and there’s so much of it out there that it’s almost like a bottomless reservoir of goodness. But occasionally, a new recording does come along that can hang with the old stuff without a hitch. Two Cigarettes in the Dark, which features a two-tenor lineup with piano (Jeff Jenkins) and rhythm (Ken Walker bass, Paul Romaine drums) augmented on two cuts with vocals (Annette Murrell), is one of those. This CD gets there not by striving to be a replica of a classic Blue Note or Prestige session, nor by digesting the music of that period down to a paste and then regurgitating it with a veneer of newness like so much neo-trad stuff does.

Instead, Oxman as tenor-leader and composer of three tracks, along with his cohorts here, understand the inherent worthiness of the style and then tackle it from the heart. Another strong move is getting Houston Person, who cut a slew of records for Prestige (and other labels) starting in the mid-’60s, and whose skills are undiminished, to be the tenor foil. Next, they mix Oxman’s solid tunes with workouts on compositions by Hank Mobley and Johnny Griffin and then add in the songbook selections, though a major difference here is the participation of singer Annette Murrell. Where dropping in a vocal cut or two can often feel like an intrusion on post-bop records, there’s no such issue here, as Murrell’s approach is warm and vital. And Jenkins’ “Wind Chill” has the aura of a ’60s Blue Note soul-jazz 45. A

Ratgrave, Rock (Black Focus) This is the second album from Ratgrave, the collaboration of Max Graef and Julius Conrad, and their first for the label of Kamaal Williams. The music is a style-soup of funk, electronica (including video game sounds), fusion, R&B, pop and so they say, rock. Regarding the latter, Graef and Conrad have mentioned the influence through frequent listening of Sabbath, Blue Cheer, Zappa and Hendrix (hence the title), though the impact on the album is essentially implicit (up to the very end, at least). I do take them as sincere, however, as there are some rock-tangible guitar motions. This connection does kinda amplify Rock’s already interesting qualities. Another way of saying it is that this duo has come up with a record that’s consistently unusual, if never especially bent. B+

V/A, Velvet Desert Music Vol. 2 (Kompakt) The promo download I received for the second installment in this Jörg Burger-curated comp series came with a culminating “Continuous Mix” that’s 67 minutes long (nearly as lengthy as the tracks preceding it). It’s also available when purchasing the digital from Bandcamp, and I’m assuming it’s included with the accompanying download for the vinyl editions, one a 2LP and the other a 2LP+7-inch. I mention this because, although the assembled tracks do fit pretty snugly into an acid western/ spaghetti western soundtrack niche (but with a coherent electronic sensibility that marks it as a byproduct of the Kompakt label), this collection, like its preceding volume) is primarily about flow. The set really excels through range, but just enough that the arid aural climate never gets out of focus. There are numerous highlights, but I really like Sascha Funke’s “In Der Tat.” A-

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