Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for September 2020, Part One

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Grex, Everything You Said Was Wrong (Geomancy) To begin, this album’s release is being celebrated with the Lockdown Festival 3 livestream on Saturday September 5 at 4pm-9pm PDT, which will be streaming on Facebook and YouTube. Second, the album’s release is a fundraiser, with the proceeds supporting the heroes at the ACLU and the work and health of another great hero, the drummer and teacher Milford Graves. Third and most important, Grex is the core duo of Karl Evangelista and Rei Scampavia, both multi-instrumentalists, though he is distinguished by his guitar playing and she by her singing. Evangelista also provides some words, but they are gruff and at times reminiscent of u-ground hip-hop, which was not something that sprang to mind when reviewing Grex’s prior release Electric Ghost Parade. On that record, I was struck by guitar reminding me of Sonny Sharrock and Nels Cline. The playing here is still sharp but is only one facet amongst many on a sweet post-category release. A-

Jesse Draxler, Reigning Cement (Federal Prisoner) Each of the 22 tracks here is credited to a different person, collaboration or group, so this can be described as a compilation, but it’s better assessed as an audio-visual/ conceptual art project that combines a 100-pg book of Draxler’s photographs and collages, noted as location-specific (Los Angeles), with a vinyl record of music by artists all handpicked by Draxler. To get a little deeper, the musicians were all provided with the same 34 sonic elements recorded by Drexler with which to create their piece; the only additional ingredient allowed was vocals if they so desired. Rather than include the entire list of contributors here, I’ll just say that much of the contents belong to the noise camp, with some entries abstract and others structural in a manner reminiscent of the Industrial genre at its most sonically extreme, but also, Japanoise purveyors like Masonna and Merzbow. However, some selections do depart from a tendency for surliness and abrasion, emitting dance thump and even a few poppish turns. It’s all dark, though. Vinyl+book in an edition of 500. A-

Emily Barker, A Dark Murmuration of Words (Thirty Tigers) This is Barker’s fourth solo album, though she has more than doubled that number of releases as a member of groups and in collaborations spanning back to 2003. A native of Australia, she’s resided in the UK for a while now, and her work has occasionally been tagged as Americana; Barker’s last album, 2017’s Sweet Kind of Blue, was recorded in Memphis at Sam Phillips’ joint. Her work on this follow-up can just as easily be categorized as folk, with the string arrangements (by Barker, Misha Law, and Emily Hall) emphasizing Britishness that’s contrasted by the desire for a more contemporary sound, though this aim should be contextualized as possessing tastefulness, restraint mingled with boldness, and a simultaneous desire to extend from folk classicism as a reservoir of beauty. Barker is a fine singer, her songs carry emotional heft, the playing is rich and instrumentally diverse, and “Machines” even kicks up a little racket. Very nice. A-

Andrew Wasylyk, Fugitive Light and Themes of Consolation (Athens of the North) This is the third in a trio of instrumental records from multi-instrumentalist Wasylyk, who was (and is likely still) a member (as Andrew Mitchell) of The Hazey Janes, a Scottish indie pop act of whom my impression has been mostly positive (he’s also played in Idlewild). The stated intent with these three records is to evoke the Eastern Scottish landscape, and without ever having been there, I’ll say he’s done a solid job of it, The selections on Fugitive Light, as on the prior entries, can be described as cinematic (one might also draw a subtle connection to post-rock). Wasylyk mostly plays guitars and keyboards across these ten selections, but also notably harp in the album highlight “(Half-Light Of) The Cadmium Moon,” which reinforces the influence of Alice Coltrane. As on the prior installment The Paralian from last year, Pete Harvey of King Creosote and Modern Studies contributes string arrangements, but it’s Wasylyk’s input that registers most strongly, and I’ll conclude by saying this is the best of his solo conceptual bunch. A-

Le Couleur, Concorde (Lisbon Lux) This Montréal-based trio, featuring Vietnamese-Canadian singer Laurence Giroux-Do, specializes in a decidedly retro strain of Francophone synth-pop, though by their own admission, the music is a blend of the organic (guitar, bass, drums) and the electronic (programmed rhythms and synths, natch) with Giroux-Do’s vocals holding it all together. For a reference point, think Stereolab at their most poppy, but there’s a whole lot more happening across the album, including numerous spots bringing yé-yé pop to mind, though the throwback chic album sleeve has a lot to do with that. With Giroux-Do posing on the cover, it’s a bit like a fashion magazine one might glimpse in a late ‘60s color extravaganza by Jean-Luc Godard, read in an airport lounge by Anna Karina, sporting a trench coat next to a potted plant with a pistol in her purse ready to fill Michel Piccoli with holes, all while waiting to hop a flight from Paris to Madrid on Pan-Am Airways. But there are other elements at work here, some of them dancy, which is where the comparison to ABBA comes in. Fun and smart. B+

Hannah Georgas, All That Emotion (Brassland/Arts & Crafts) Canadian guitarist and vocalist Georgas has a handful of albums and EPs out, though this one, her first full-length since 2016’s For Evelyn, is my introduction to her work. Produced by Aaron Dessner, who you might know from The National, All That Emotion blends mature indie pop songwriting (contempo style, not C86) with pleasant singing, persistent electronic rhythms and sheen, and a fair amount of Georgas’ guitar. It’s an accomplished record that starts out strong and never really falters, except for that there aren’t any late-album surprises in store. There’s an achy quality to Georgas’ writing that is enhanced by her vocals (slightly bruised, a little breathy but not ethereal) and the general musical atmosphere, which I’ll describe as autumnal. That is, the best of this record’s tracks make me yearn for listening on headphones while wearing a sweater and walking around leaf-covered streets. The good news is the tracks that don’t make me yearn are still alright. B+

Benjamin Vergara & Ben Bennett, Birds of Our Abyss (Orbit 577) The latest from 577 Records’ digital-only sublabel is enticing, in that it features Chilean trumpeter Benjamín Vergara in duo with Philadelphia-based percussionist Ben Bennett, an instrumental configuration heard far less often than other duos, particularly the teaming of sax and drums. Now, there are some noted trumpet-drum duo records, like Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell’s two LPs (Mu, 1969 and El Corazon, 1982, for BYG/Actuel and ECM respectively), Bill Dixon and Tony Oxley’s two CDs (Papyrus 1 and 2, both 2000 and both for Soul Note), the work of the Chicago Underground Duo (numerous albums on Thrill Jockey and Northern Spy from 1998-2014) and Lester Bowie and Phillip Wilson’s Duet LP (1978, Improvising Artists). That last one and Magnus Broo and Paal Nilssen-Love’s Game CD (2008, PNL) are especially germane to Birds of Our Abyss, as unlike the other examples above, the instrumentation on those records and on this one sticks to trumpet and rhythm, which does make it something of a rarity.

A fine sounding rarity, as the two players engage in a fascinating dialogue across four tracks, having met in Brooklyn on 2018 (during Vergara´s artistic residence at Continuum Culture), though they recorded this short set in November of the following year while Bennett was visiting Valdivia, Chile for the Relincha Festival. My fascination is partly due to these pieces serving as an introduction to the improv artistry of both men; along the way, Vergara does occasionally bring Dixon to mind, though more on the hearty blowing side of things than as an extended technique specialist, and that’s cool. He’s especially deft at sustained, contemplative tones that mingle well with Bennett’s playing, which is also more reflective than thunderous or wildly clattery (there is some scraping and creaking, though); I was at times reminded of Hamid Drake. But don’t get the idea that Birds of Our Abyss isn’t intense. It’s most certainly a grabber, and while unequivocally avant-garde in category, the jazz threads are tangible. A-

Adam Wade, The Coed Albums: And Then Came Adam & Adam and Evening (Omnivore) This is the last of Omnivore’s recent spate of CD retrospectives covering the output of the Coed label, and it diverts a bit from the prior four, all of which documented the work of vocal groups. This one compiles two LPs from a guy who in the cover photo for the set looks like he could’ve been a major teen heartthrob (he’s likely better remembered for his later TV acting career) but instead went the full-on orchestral Middle of the Road route a la Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole. I guess we can throw Bobby Darin in there too, except that Wade is a slow ballad crooner who works in lively (or even mid-tempo jazzy) tempos far too rarely for my tastes. The catch is that Wade could really sing, so it’s not like Coed was just propping up some suave-looking mediocrity. Overall, this one reinforces the label’s preference for pre- and non-R&R/ R&B material, and as such is an appropriate wrap-up. But hey, a whole record of swing band-infused cuts like “A Moment of Madness” and “Around the World” would’ve been more to my liking. B-

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