Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for February 2021, Part Three

Part three of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for February 2021. Part one is here and part two is here.

NEW RELEASE PICK: V/A, Brighter Days Ahead (Colemine) As was the case with most of us, when the pandemic-related reality of 2020 became fully evident, Loveland, Ohio’s Colemine Records found it necessary to shift focus. Instead of following through with a hefty release schedule, owner-operator Terry Cole began offering individual tracks from acts affiliated with Colemine and Karma Chief Records and placing them under the thematic Brighter Days Ahead umbrella in hopes of spreading positivity and strengthening a sense of community, both for the label and for those listening at home. Now here’s this 2LP/ CD/ digital set compiling elections from the whole undertaking. It coalesces into an unfailingly enjoyable and occasionally even splendid representation of the label’s ethos.

For newbies, that means a predominantly neo-soul and funk situation, though with breadth that spans from vocal harmony sweetness (Thee Sinseers, The Resonaires) to reggae-inflected action (Jr. Thomas & the Volcanos, The Soul Chance) to organ-soaked grooving (Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio) to gospel-soul in a vocal group mode (The Harlem Gospel Travelers) to larger ensembles launching from a hard-driving funk foundation (The Winston Brothers) into rock-tinged pan-stylistics (Ikebe Shakedown) and lush, jazzy, cinematic scenarios both instrumental (Ironsides) and with vocals (Ghost Funk Orchestra). But moving deeper into the set, Brighter Days Ahead offers some energetic psych-kissed guitar pop (Rudy De Anda) and ’70s-infused pop maneuvers a la folky singer-songwriters (Andrew Gabbard) and AOR R&B miners (Young Gun Silver Fox). There’s even a slice of blues-rock with nary a hint of paunch (GA-20). And this isn’t even everything. Featuring 22 tracks in all, the good vibes are abundant. Brighter days are ahead, indeed. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Bad Brains, “Pay to Cum” b/w “Stay Close to Me” (Bad Brains Records – ORG Music) Over the decades I’ve listened to friends, associates and strangers at parties and bars enthuse over the greatness of Bad Brains. Occasionally, I’ve been that friend, associate, etc. Sometimes this gushing ordains the DC outfit with the title of Greatest Hardcore Band Ever. This is of course arguable, as is singling-out their best recording, which is especially relevant currently as this remastered press of their debut 45 is kicking off an extensive vinyl reissue campaign that is stretching into early 2022. Now, to call this 7-inch Bad Brains’ finest recorded moment would be perverse, particularly as the Mod-soul-tinged reggae-rocker “Stay Close to Me” isn’t representative of their future trajectory (But Rasta reggae? That’s another story, and a Bad Brains topic that’s highly debatable as time has marched forward). “Pay to Cum” however, is one of the band’s signature songs, and I’ll argue this 1980 recording, with its wonderful concluding guitar lick, is its finest version. An absolutely essential punk document. A+

Johnny Adams, Best of Johnny Adams – New Orleans Tan Canary (Mardi Gras) The New Orleans-based Johnny Adams was a strong, frequently exceptional singer (as expected with the handle Tan Canary) who scored a few R&B hits in the 1960s-’70s, though his most productive period began in the ’80s with a long string of albums for Rounder. Or at least it could seem that way. This 2LP does a fine job documenting Adams’ progress on labels other than Ric, SSS International (home of his biggest chart success), and Atlantic, though it does include “Release Me” (leased to SSS Intl.) and “Reconsider Me” (cut for SSS proper). However, the bulk is from the Watch label and imprints run by or connected to key Nola figure Senator Jones like JB’s, Hep’ Me, and PAID. Most impressive is the consistency in this non-chronological set, which applies to Adams’ always engaging vocals plus the playing and arrangements, so that the late-sequenced disco cover of “Spanish Harlem” kinda snuck up on me, and hey, I knew it was coming. Tis cool. In striving for hits, there are refinements but not desperation. This is a big deal. A-

Obay Alsharani, Sandbox (Hive Mind) This cassette, the debut of Alsharani, a Syrian migrant and current resident of Sweden, is as inspiring as it is soothing, with a lo-fi, DIY, mildly hallucinatory edge that’s mighty pleasing. Although this is Alsharani’s first album, he’s been making music for nearly a decade, beginning in Syria in a more beat-driven mode using the moniker Khan El Rouh. As the civil war in Syria worsened, Alsharani fled the country for Sweden, with Sandbox recorded after he’d been granted residency. With the Swedish landscape and the Northern Lights, the soundtrack to the video game Minecraft, and the music of Boards of Canada and Colleen as cited inspirations, the music blends environmental field recordings and electronic elements, but the main thrust is ambient and with textures derived from the nature of the recording. We’re talking tape hiss, folks. Released in a Maltese Cross package with the tape and ten art cards presenting stills from Alsharani’s experiments with video feedback art, it’s an appealing package. Musically, it’s recommended for fans of the Kranky empire. Note: 100 copies, available exclusively through Bandcamp, with the label’s share of the proceeds benefiting the Refugee CouncilA-

Antlered Auntlord, Daniel Johnston Covers (HHBTM) I’m sure some dyspeptic curmudgeons are sitting at home waiting out the pandemic in malodorous easy chairs grousing that covering a bunch of Daniel Johnston songs is a surefire way to secure 15 minutes of something or other, but from my perspective interpreting the guy’s stuff is a tricky biz. Yes, Johnston’s songs are, for the most part, fundamentally pop, but too often folks tackle them too straightforwardly, striving to attain a standard of the accessible that was never in Johnston’s grasp. It’s an approach that some huckster might hear and then exploit in service of selling oatmeal on television, and where the fuck is that? Not any place I want to be. Thankfully, this isn’t the tack taken by Antlered Auntlord of Athens, GA, who feature members of Tunabunny and Eureka California and who initially intended to back up Johnston in performance rather than release an album of covers. These songs are energetic and playful but focused on a ragged guitar-pop sound that is thoroughly compatible with Johnston’s work. Fittingly, issued on cassette. Also, CD. B+

Rats on Rafts, Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs a Net of Rabbit Paths (Fire) Based in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Rats on Rafts deliver their third LP (excluding an eponymous collab with fellow Dutch act De Kift) with Excerpts From Chapter 3, the sheer length of its full title suggesting a high level of (perhaps literary) ambition on the part of the band. This is underscored by their stated desire to cut a concept album and is borne out by the music’s non-rudimentary construction. It’s related that the conceptual intentions didn’t work out so well, and in the unraveling became a concept record of a different stripe. It happens. Stated influences include Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, Scott Walker’s 3 & 4, and the Beach Boys’ Smile, but the sound is still raucous and descended from post-punk but assembled with precision and with honest-to-goodness songs. The anthemic “The Rise and Fall of the Plague” is of note in particular. I’m impressed but not blown away. Also worth mentioning is the limited edition (400) on green wax with an origami sleeve with obi strip and a bonus 45, also with origami sleeve. B+

Virginia Wing, private LIFE (Fire) Based in Manchester, Virginia Wing is Alice Merida Richards, Sam Pillay and new member Christopher Duffin, who returns them to a trio configuration after Sebastian Truskolaski departed post Measures of Joy in 2014. private LIFE is Virginia Wing’s fourth full-length overall (not counting the 2017 collaboration with XAN Duo, Tomorrow’s Gift) and it’s their boldest and brightest, and also their most eclectic. Virginia Wing have been compared to Broadcast more than once, but by now the similarity is really just one influence amongst many, as overall, private LIFE is fleetingly reminiscent of Laurie Anderson and Lizzy Mercier Descloux, and more often evinces similarities to Ryuichi Sakamoto, both solo and in Yellow Magic Orchestra. But more importantly, the album methodically combines ’80s synth-pop and art-pop with the vivid intensity of contemporary production, as the mise-en-scène is askew to varying degrees. Fits easily into the experimental pop category, I’d say. Ends strong with the gorgeous “I Know About These Things.” A-

Michael Wimberly, Afrofuturism (Temple Mountain Records) Up to checking out this release, I was mostly familiar with drummer-percussionist Michael Wimberly through a large batch of recordings from powerhouse free jazz tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle, though he also contributed some percussion to alto-man Alan Braufman’s nifty The Fire Still Burns just last year. This recording, which appears to be digital-only (hopefully that will change), is a much different affair, being more reflective of Wimberly’s associations with Funkadelic and D’Angelo. Notably, Wimberly has taught at Bennington College (as the hand-picked successor of the great and recently deceased Milford Graves), and is a proponent of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s persevering “ancient to future” concept, which helps to raise this recording’s embodiment of its titular aesthetic to a profound level. To expand, there are funky maneuvers aplenty, but their robustness is enhanced by a series of rich excursions into African root grooves, with the instrumentation including the kora, balafon, and djembe. Wholly satisfying. A-

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