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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Sylvie Simmons, Blue on Blue (Compass) I was pretty taken with Sylvie, the 2014 debut from Simmons, who’s still probably best-known for writing biographies of Leonard Cohen, Serge Gainsbourg, and Neil Young. Sylvie was produced by Howe Gelb, who returns for Blue on Blue, the recording of which started in 2017 but was delayed by Simmons’ accident resulting in broken bones, nerve damage, and an unusable left hand. After surgeries, Simmons, who sings and plays ukulele, wrote some new songs. The resulting album is uniformly strong with a few highlights of magnificence. It’s important to repeat whenever praising Simmons that her wielding of the uke never once succumbs to preciousness (the Cohen influence is palpable, but nicely understated); instead, the instrument can remind me more of the harp, but less ornate, and that’s fantastic. Simmons’ singing is also a treat as the band playing with her is strong and the songs are excellent. A gem. One of 2020’s best, even. A

V/A, Imaginational Anthem Vol. X : Overseas Edition (Tompkins Square) I’ve never thought of physical formats and the purely digital experience as being an either/ or proposition, and my perspective has only deepened in our post-Covid 19 world. Along with the positivity that has resulted from assorted benefit releases, it’s a flat fact that for many artists, the main or indeed the only source of revenue right now (beyond government assistance) is their music; promptly offering new stuff at the moment generally means going the digital route, as pressing plants were already backed up prior to temporary pandemic shutdowns. The same goes for labels. Now, Tompkins Square already had a few digital-only items out before all this coronavirus madness commenced, but the majority of their discography has been on vinyl or compact disc (CD the norm for their superb line of box sets). However, over the last few months, most of the label’s titles have emerged without a physical option.

This means I was initially a tad disappointed upon learning the tenth installment in Tompkins Square’s series of post-American Primitive fingerstyle guitar compilations wasn’t coming out on LP or CD. But as the contents of Overseas Edition are so uniformly strong (and with recurring elements of distinctiveness, which is a consistent facet of the whole Imaginational Anthem thing), my letdown turned all the way around to deep appreciation that Josh Rosenthal (head of the label since the beginning) is persisting in getting the music out there. For this set, overseas essentially means Europe, with participants ranging from the UK to the western and central regions of the Continent including the Nordic countries and Czechia. This isn’t purely Guitar Soli, as there are a couple duos, namely Šimanský Niesner and Son of Buzzi, both from Switzerland, and it’s not even totally guitar, as Adaya (also from Switzerland) plays a nylon string Blue Moon banjo, but anybody passionate for the classic Takoma sound can rest easy that this is right up to snuff, as compiler Marcus Obst’s deft sequencing enhances the experience. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Duck Baker, Plymouth Rock : Unreleased & Rare Recordings, 1973-1979 (Tompkins Square) This collection is intended as an extension, or in Baker’s words from his most-excellent accompanying reminiscence, a companion piece to Tompkins Square’s 2018 Baker archival set, Les Blues Du Richmond, which I rated as one of the best of that year. Plymouth Rock hits the same levels of quality, opening with a medley of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (with the playing bringing Joseph Spence to mind) and “America the Beautiful” that’s elevated by a brief transitional tune-snippet so killer I just can’t spoil it. As outlined by Baker, due to the existence of later recorded versions, the tunes heard here weren’t chosen for Richmond. Now, if you’re a newbie, you might be thinking the contents are best suited for hardcore Baker fans, but that’s a rather severe misapprehension of the situation as it pertains to one of the finest guitarists the US of A ever produced. Hopefully, this’ll be on wax soon with Baker’s notes splashed across the back cover. A

Black Marble, “I Must Be Living Twice” (Sacred Bones) Brooklyn cold-wave/ synth-pop affair Black Marble is the handiwork of one Chris Stewart. He’s covered five songs here, starting with “Johnny and Mary” from Robert Palmer’s decidedly new wave-tinged album Clues, which brings back memories of watching this syndicated weekday afternoon new wavy dance party TV show for a few weeks (it didn’t last long on the air) back in the early ’80s. As he gets the sound of new wave being absorbed into the mainstream exactly right, I can appreciate the gesture, but the selections that follow avoid falling into any sort of predictably retro trap (they are from Lives of Angles, Wire, The Field Mice, and Grouper) as Stewart maintains an approach to synth-pop that still reverberates as classique. But ultimately sturdy, that’s the key. His EP bio (readable on the Bandcamp page) is also refreshing and illuminating. The vinyl for this arrives in September; the cover pic cracks me up and will look sweet blown up to LP size. B+

Kath Bloom, Bye Bye These Are the Days (Dear Life Records) Like a lot of folks I guess, my discovery of Kath Bloom came in connection to the work of Loren Mazzacane Connors. The music they made across a string of records that have gradually acquired a deservingly legendary stature was avant-folk with a distinguishing influence of the blues, but that was a long time ago, specifically the late ’70s through to the mid-’80s in NYC. These days, Bloom is still working in the folk mode, but her songwriting is considerably less avant-tinged, which is just fine, as the tunes are solid and her guitar and harmonica playing are robust. She is joined on this set by David Shapiro on lead guitar and Flow Ness on percussion. Bloom’s singing is also distinctive with more than a couple trips to the border of idiosyncratic, so freak folk lovers looking for a fix who don’t know Bloom should investigate. But if you prefer your folk non-freaky, this set isn’t off-putting. Bloom is just an underheard American original. Check her out. A-

Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters, S/T (American Laundromat) This Connecticut-based label is noted for their thematic releases, many of them tributes by various artists to a specific band or a solo act. Last year they issued Juliana Hatfield’s full covers album of songs by The Police, which was just swell, and now here comes Donelly, a former member of Throwing Muses and leader of the defunct Belly, teaming up with singer-instrumentalists the Parkington Sisters, who like Donelly are from New England, for an album of inspired interpretations ranging from an opening dive into The Go-Go’s “Automatic” to the closing gorgeousness that is their reading of Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “You Will Be Loved Again.”

In between, they tackle The Pretenders (“Kid”), Wings (“Let Me Roll It”), Leonard Cohen (“Dance Me to the End of Love”), Echo & the Bunnymen (“Ocean Rain”), and Split Enz (“Devil You Know”), with their version of Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys’ “Different Drum” their most straightforward cover. But it certainly steers clear of carbon copying the original, reminding me a little of what another frequent interpreter Susanna Hoffs might’ve done with the song. That’s cool. But my favorite cut, at least right now, is the take of The Kinks’ “Days,” though their inspiration was explicitly (at least so stated in the PR for the album) Kirsty MacColl’s own cover from ’89. Overall, this set is a lush and full-bodied yet trim good time.  A-

Jenny O., New Truth (Mama Bird Recording Co.) This is Jenny O.’s third full-length (along with an EP and a handful of singles) but I do believe it’s my introduction to her work (at least under her own name, as her voice has been featured on numerous albums by others including Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Father John Misty, and Conor Oberst); it’s also her first album for Mama Bird, which is partly why I’m hip to it now. Jenny O. can be succinctly tagged as a singer-songwriter with tangible ties to contempo indie-folk, but she’s also comfortable exploring rock textures (“God Knows Why”) and, more frequently, pop terrain. She has the ability to reference ’70s AOR moves without inspiring visions of her lounging on a yacht (“Color Love”), and she can also dish some pleasing post-’80s sprightly jangle (“Even If I Tried”). But mostly, New Truth has the warmly accessible feel of a record that’s well-suited for winding down on the porch with pals towards the end of a late summer get-together. Hopefully, there’s next year… A-

Lack of Afro, I’m Here Now (LOA) Producer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Adam Gibbons is Lack of Afro, with this his seventh album and the first to make my acquaintance. The one sheet outlines Gibbons’ experience as a funk and soul producer, which comes through loud and clear in these 10 cuts, which are given additional depth through a succession of vocalists, with a few, e.g. Alyssa Marie, Kennzo, and Elliott Cole, doing double duty. A few of these turns at the mic steer Lack of Afro toward hip-hop, and that’s cool, but just as often they enhance the aforementioned areas of expertise, as Mica Millar does on the pleasant neo-pop-soul nugget “Wait for Me.”  Across the album, Gibbons is as comfortable with guitar moves as horn charts, blending them together nicely on “Triumph” and “Magical Man,” but even more so on “Game Day,” the one instrumental on the set, with the amp fuzz and the horns coming together in a manner that brought Calibro 35 to mind. B+

Lucy Railton / Max Eilbacher, Forma / Metabolist Meter (Foster, Cottin, Caetani and a Fly) (Portraits GRM – Editions Mego) For the full scoop on this new series of recordings made in connection with the French musical research foundation INA GRM, please refer to my review of Jim O’Rourke’s Shutting Down Here from earlier in the week, as that set is the first release for Portraits GRM. This spilt LP is the second, and for ears attuned to experimental composition with a predilection for electronic textures, I’d say it (along with the O’Rourke LP) is a must. Although it opens with organ suitable for one of these newfangled “elevated horror” flicks set in a perpetually chilly Euro castle, Forma has a whole lot of Railton’s cello but also a fair amount of sonic drift. Nice. The root of Eilbacher’s piece is a recording of a dying fly. That might sound like no fucking fun, but the progression is so varied and restless (and with spoken passages in English and French plus Ka Baird’s flute) that it encourages repeat listens. So does Railton’s side, for that matter. As said, if you’re into this sorta thing, this one’s very necessary. A-/ A-

The Rivieras, The Coed Singles (Omnivore) This week Omnivore is dishing five CD volumes of material from the New Jersey label Coed, an enterprise that specialized in doo-wop/ vocal group stylings, with the company extant from 1958-’65. Rather than spotlighting them all here this week, we’ll feature one a column until all are covered, starting out with The Rivieras. Now, as someone who prefers their doo-wop to be, if not full-tilt bonkers than at least R&B-infused, a fair portion of this entry, which gathers all of this quartet’s singles plus two bonus cuts to present the entirety of their output, is of moderate interest. This is largely because Coed was disinterested in “Rubber Biscuit”-like insanity or “Get a Job” or “Blue Moon”-style syllabic gush, instead wishing to extend, through the rich vocal harmony standard of the era, a post-Glenn Miller-ish sensibility. But hey, once acclimated to The Rivieras’ sophisto approach, nothing here tips over into schmaltz, not even the songs with George Paxton and his orchestra. The singing is quite accomplished throughout, and late cut “Refrigerator” leans into my doo-wop zone. B

Still House Plants, Fast Edit (Blank Forms Editions) Finlay Clark (guitar), David Kennedy (drums), and Jessica Hickie-Kallenbach (vocals) comprise Still House Pants, the Glasgow and South London-based unit releasing their second LP with Fast Edit. It’s the first music from the trio that I’ve heard, and is additionally, alongside Earth to Momma by Hairbone, the nearest to a rock-tangible scenario to have emerged from this still young label so far. But for clarity’s sake Fast Edit isn’t close to any trad dad definition of rock, not close at all in fact, as the comparison derives partly from the instrumentation, with Still House Plants exuding what can perhaps be described as a patient angularity mingling with stop-start tendencies. If No New York is square one, this set nixes any commercial softening as I’m reminded at various times of Essential Logic, the Xpressway label, and a union of ’90s experimental spazz rock (think Skin Graft) and slow-core. But it’s so much more than a pile-up of comparisons. A-

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