Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
May 2020, Part Four

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

NEW RELEASE PICK: Pharis & Jason Romero, Bet on Love (Lula) Residing in Horsefly, British Columbia, Canada, the married folk-Americana-bluegrass duo of Pharis & Jason Romano also make instruments. Specifically, they build banjos, and Bet on Love, the fifth album for the Juno Award winners, was recorded in their shop at home. It’s a delightful record evincing strong ties to the old-time folk root while flowing forth with bright, crisp production that places the album as a contemporary release, if one unburdened by any trends of the moment. Put another way, the Romeros aren’t throwing back to the past, but instead, being deeply invested in tradition (as instrument builders, more so than most), are carrying the old styles into the present with clarity that’s reflected in Bet on Love’s expert musicianship.

The reliable anchor of Patrick Metzger’s double bass and the strumming and occasional flourishes of John Reischman’s mandolin aside, Bet on Love ultimately lands nearer to Americana than the elevated ensemble flair of bluegrass. But happily, the record lacks the mild-mannered sensibility that hinders, at least for this listener, so many current practitioners of the Americana style. This shouldn’t suggest that the music here isn’t primed to be soaked up without a hindrance by as many receptive ears as possible, it’s just that the beauty with which this album is infused is delivered with considerable power. Part of this intensity derives from the sturdy folk foundation, but a larger reason comes down to the sheer gorgeousness of Pharis Romero’s voice, which hits a peak in the record’s title track but sounds splendid throughout. She also plays guitar as Jason utilizes a variety of banjos and guitars; while often pretty, the playing is better assessed as possessing great verve. A magnificent set, on vinyl and compact disc. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: V/A, Early Works: Funk, Soul & Afro Rarities from the Archives (ATA) Whether it’s releases by The Sorcerers, The Magnificent Tape Band, The Lewis Express, Abstract Orchestra, Rachel Modest, or Tony Burkill, the ATA label, based in Leeds, UK, has made it crystal clear that contemporary funky soulfulness in a classic vein isn’t exclusively the provenance of US labels like Daptone, Big Crown, and Colemine. The label of Neil Innes & Pete Williams, ATA commenced operations in 2013 and not long after had their initial work compiled by the Here & Now label in an edition of 300 copies that sold out in weeks. With new artwork, notes that illuminate the label’s origins, and a slightly altered title, this is a welcome reissue.

That Innes and Williams are involved with everything lends cohesiveness to the whole, as does the largely instrumental nature, which helps the label to standout a bit, though the approach does bring them into the general proximity of Big Crown. Still, ATA’s stuff hits hard but is noticeably distinct from the work of Leon Michels, frequently coming off as a neo-library music experience. However, the sitar and flute in “Thought Forms” by um, Ivan Von Engelberger’s Asteroid is tasty neo-psych. I also adore the ripping baritone sax in “Hawkshaw Philly” by The Yorkshire Film And Television Orchestra, which is a late standout. There are also two vocal cuts courtesy of Cleveland Freckleton, though for one he goes under the handle Reverend Barrington Stanley. Represented by three cuts, The Sorcerers bring some Ethio-jazz to the table with “Elephant,” while The Cadets cinch up a soul-jazzy finale with “What Are We Made Of.” This album is great for dancing in your sock feet on the hard word floor of the living room. I tried it. A-

The Dears, Lovers Rock (Dangerbird) This is the eighth album for The Dears of Montreal, who burst onto the scene in a big way in the early ’00s with a brand of indie rock centered around the guitar and vocals of founding member Murray Lightburn and the keyboards of his wife Natalia Yanchak, who joined in 1998. I checked into them back in 2003 when their second LP, No Cities Left was fresh out, and while I liked what I heard will confess that I didn’t commit to following them. When this set hit my radar I was curious but trepidatious, as eight records deep is when many bands are either struggling with or resigned to going through the motions, not just a creative danger but a potential ritual of daily life, one that’s lyrically referenced in this set’s fourth track “Is This What You Really Want?”

The good news is Lovers Rock doesn’t suffer from this malady, as the songs are solid and the delivery is engaged, occasionally scrappy, and raw, even. All welcome qualities, as The Dears emerged during the period when indie rock began faltering into the overly refined. Now, Lovers Rock, which reveals nary a trace of Gregory Isaacs’ influence (the title manifests itself in a nifty manner that feels like a spoiler to reveal, so I won’t), does feature songwriting that validates a comparison to Bacharach, though honestly, it was Difford and Tilbrook that I thought of a few times. That’s just fine, which is an assessment that applies to the record as a whole. If not an earth-shattering affair, The Dears do get bonus points for the mid-song redirect in “The Worst of Us” that sounds like Yanchak plying “Our House” by Madness on the rumbling low notes of a decrepit church piano, and for Lightburn hitting Stephin Merritt levels of lyrical existentialism on “Stille Lost.” B+

Golden Retriever and Chuck Johnson, Rain Shadow (Thrill Jockey) Collaborations featuring participants with extensive backgrounds are often effectively one-time scenarios, and by extension, the musical byproduct of their interaction, while potentially quite enjoyable as it plays, can linger in the mind as inessential. Rain Shadow’s makers came together with much activity behind them, as bass clarinetist Jonathan Sielaff and synthesist Matt Carlson, the Portland, OR-based duo known as Golden Retriever, have amassed a large discography that resonates in the zone between ambient and deep space kosmische, while Oakland, CA’s Chuck Johnson, who plays guitar and pedal steel, has credits ranging from solo fingerstyle guitar to music for film and television to prior collaborations with Amy Wilkinson,  Zachary James Watkins, and Marielle V. Jakobsons.

Johnson has also played in bands (I first heard him as a member of the North Carolina instrumental group Shark Quest), which is perhaps part of the reason why Rain Shadow rises above the level of likeable no-big-deal, though a bigger factor might be that Johnson has an MFA in Electronic Music and Intermedia Art from Mills College. That is, the four tracks here, two long at 13 minutes each and two shorter at six minutes a piece, suggest a project cohering from shared experience and equal ground. And the blending and depth of the selections, which favors tranquil drift but with gradually ascending intensity that in “Sage Thrasher,” crescendos with raw noise-drone gush before dissipating, is all the more impressive for being created through remote interaction. But to circle back, I really like how Rain Shadow is described as this collaboration’s debut album, intended as a beginning rather than as a one-off affair. The digital is out May 15, with the vinyl available June 19. A-

Steve Goodman, Live ’69 (Omnivore) Sporting a cover photo of Goodman looking as clean-cut as a young George Jones, this is, unless I’m missing something, the earliest known recording of the late singer-songwriter, a performance captured in the University of Illinois’ auditorium, as the show was booked by student Rich Warren, who was then hosting the folk music radio program Changes. For lovers of the ’70s singer-songwriter shebang, this is surely a major find, even as it features an hour-long set comprised almost entirely of covers (The brief “Where Are You Going” is the exception; “The Wonderful World of Sex” is associated with a later Goodman recording, but was written by Michael Peter Smith). If this reads as a disappointment, it really shouldn’t be, as Goodman’s ability to hold a crowd’s attention (what landed him on this stage in the first place) is in full evidence, and hearing him dish a batch of other people’s stuff is preferable to getting an extended serving of his own writing in embryo.

However, there is no shortage of Goodman’s personality on display, specifically his sense of humor, which shows up early but thankfully doesn’t come to dominate the proceedings, as his folkie roots get spotlighted to appealing effect. Now, the closest he comes to political commentary is a version of Tom Paxton’s “Ballad of Spiro Agnew,” though wrapping up a late-set medley with Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” can be interpreted as a political gesture at the time. Instead, Goodman’s folkish interests lean toward The Kingston Trio and reach back to trad British booze songs (the double dose of “Byker Hill” and “John Barleycorn”). While he’s not alone for the performance, accompanied by Bob Hoban on bass, fiddle, and some backing vocals, Goodman is very much in control of the proceedings, interpreting Willie Dixon, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and Merle Haggard. Much more than a curiosity for diehard fans, it’s currently available only on CD and digital. B+

NIIKA, Close but Not Too Close (Self-released) This is the debut LP by Nika Nemirovsky, who’s a resident of Chicago and native of Uzbekistan; she and her family traveled to the Windy City as refugees when Nika was a year old. Close but Not Too Close is an often-striking plunge into experimental pop with an appealing flavor of contemporary R&B, impressive for a first album (there is a prior EP) and more so because it’s said that Nemirovsky didn’t pick up a guitar until age 21 (though her upbringing was an immersion in art, both musical and non). Perhaps the strongest element in this album’s complex yet flowing weave is Nemirovsky’s voice, which on first listen briefly remind me of Lara Logic’s. The big difference is Nemirovsky isn’t really shooting for punkish disruption in her experimentalism. Instead, her goal of creating something between The White Album and Solange’s A Seat at the Table underscores a high level of assertive ambition. For fans of Fetch the Bolt Cutters, this set is highly recommended. A-

Tim Stine Trio, Fresh Demons (Astral Spirits) This is the second full-length tape from guitarist Stine’s trio, which features Anton Hatwich on bass and Frank Rosaly on drums, but it’s the first I’ve heard, though I am familiar with Stine’s playing through The 3.5.7 Ensemble’s Amongst the Smokestacks and Steeples, which I reviewed for TVD back in January of 2016. The avant-garde friendly atmosphere of that album makes the intensity of this set unsurprising, even if the trio’s Modern jazz-improv approach lands a little nearer to jazz norms than I was expecting. No matter, as Fresh Demons is no letdown. Unlike other avant-friendly jazz guitarists who embraced distortion as ecstatic abstraction, Stine’s tone is clean, though not necessarily in the classic post-bop way (this promo came with a picture of him playing an acoustic-electric), so it’s not like you’re going to confuse him with Grant Green. Sparks do fly throughout this tidy set, which is out Friday in an edition of 175 copies, the same number as their 2016 debut. A-

Suggested Friends, Turtle Taxi (HHBTM / Fika) Formed through the chance meeting of drummer Christabel Williams and guitarist Faith Taylor, Suggested Friends are completed by guitarist Jack McGinn and bassist Emma Kupa. Everybody sings and adds percussion, but it is Faith that handles the lead singing, along with playing piano, synth, and a little ukulele. The songs on their second album (the first was a self-titled DIY affair released in 2017) are drenched in tough guitar melodicism recalling strains of indie rock catchiness from the 1990s, though ’80s indie pop, punk, and well, just flat-out pop are also prevalent. My promo mentioned that the band would likely claim their music hits the sweet spot betwixt Weezer and Abba, and I can hear that, but the vocal harmonies also brought to mind Wilson Phillips cutting an Alt-pop record with loud guitars a la Blake Babies, which goes down surprisingly okay, likely in part because the record’s a quick bit of business. B+

Chip Wickham, Blue to Red (Lovemonk) Wickham is a UK-based flautist and saxophonist with a penchant for spiritual jazz and two prior full-lengths, 2016’s La Sombra and 2018’s Shamal Wind, that I managed to miss, not deliberately, though had I known about the presence of flute I might’ve hesitated. I say might, because for a while now I’ve accepted that when it comes to spiritual jazz, flautists are going to flute. It’s inevitable. I guess my biggest issue with Blue to Red isn’t the flute, but that, even with the appealing harp of Amanda Whiting bringing Alice Coltrane to mind, the music just isn’t that spiritual, or maybe better said (as there are consecutive tracks titled “Interstellar” and “The Cosmos”), isn’t spiritual in the way I hoped. There’s a lot of overlap between spiritual jazz and free jazz, and frankly, I was eager for this to be more “out.” Still, there’s much to admire here, like Wickham’s Roland Kirk-like blowing in the penultimate track “Double Cross.”  B

Jim White and Marisa Anderson, The Quickening (Thrill Jockey) As I creep nearer to a half century of existence on this orbiting rock, the drumming of Aussie Jim White has been with me for over half of it. I first heard him as part of Venom P. Stinger and then Dirty Three while also enjoying his playing with PJ Harvey, Cat Power, Smog and others. Although the work of guitarist Marisa Anderson has impacted my life for a shorter period (as she started releasing records in the early part of last decade), getting hip to her existence has been one of the deeper pleasures of my recent listening experience. While White began by blasting out subterranean punk-noise scuzz in the ’80s and gradually, methodically matured, Anderson’s playing has lingered around folk, country blues and fingerpicking regions without ever landing, at least to my ear, directly in the post-Takoma Guitar Soli zone.

Anderson’s artistry is certainly adaptable as The Quickening, made without prior rehearsing or performance, establishes her as a first rate improvisor alongside White, whose playing is as strong here as I’ve ever heard it. Now, if the idea of pure improvisation strikes you as formidable, please relax, as this short and engaging platter lands in the ballpark of psychedelia rather than hardcore go-for-broke abstraction. I will add that on my initial listen I thought of Bill Orcutt and Chris Corsano, apart from the obvious guitar-drums duo configuration, mainly because there is a similar level of intuitive spark that produces an unadorned raw beauty, but with meditative passages here that reinforce Anderson’s folk background. The Quickening is a superb, captivating release. Like Golden Retriever and Chuck Johnson’s Rain Shadow above, the digital is out May 15, with the vinyl available June 19. A

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