Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
March 2021, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for March 2021.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Arab Strap, As Days Get Dark (Rock Action) Reuniting in 2016 and releasing their first LP in 16 years with As Days Get Dark, Arab Strap, which for those unfamiliar is the duo of vocalist Aidan Moffat and multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton, display an admirable disinterest in approximating the essence of their ’90s sound. To clarify, these 11 tracks do cohere into what’s still clearly an Arab Strap album, but one that’s unmotivated by the temptations of easy nostalgia. There is a considerable tendency toward electronics throughout the record, along with some dancy rhythms, even getting borderline disco-ish in spots, plus string section largeness, and a few flurries of saxophone that gesture toward pop erudition without becoming too sophisto. And all this amid a production scheme that’s as bright as Moffat’s subject matter is reliably dark. That’s dark but not dour, because who needs dour in times like these? And Middleton’s guitar is not sidetracked. Sweet. The bottom line is As Days Get Dark is head and shoulders above the norm for reunion albums, and it ends fantastically. A-

Mouse on Mars, AAI (Thrill Jockey) AAI stands for Anarchic Artificial Intelligence, which is a dead solid description of what Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma, the individuals who have comprised Mouse on Mars for a quarter century now, have crafted on their latest release. In short, they are engaging with the idea of Artificial Intelligence both as a narrative driver for this record’s 20 tracks (totaling a smidge over 61 minutes) and as a compositional tool. Or to elaborate, using AI as a musical instrument, with St. Werner and Toma collaborating with AI tech collective Birds on Mars and with Rany Keddo and Derek Tingle, both former Soundcloud programmers, to build a sort of “bespoke software,” which was then fed the voices of writer and scholar Louis Chude-Sokei and DJ/producer Yağmur Uçkunkaya as a model. From there, St. Werner and Toma manipulated the AI, changing the speed and altering the vibe. Percussionist Dodo NKishi completes the list of contributors on a record, available on double vinyl, CD and digital, that is both conceptually rigorous and bizarre as fuck. A splendid combination. A-

Rachika Nayar, Our Hands Against the Dusk (NNA Tapes) Available on cassette and digital, this is the full-length debut from Brooklyn-based ambient-electronic composer Nayar. As described in her bio, Nayar’s compositional process begins with her guitar playing, which is looped and then digitally processed into pieces of considerable range, indeed expanding beyond the descriptor of ambient-electronic. Now, the consecutive tracks “Marigolds & Tulsi” and “The Edges” certainly did strike my ear as being ambient in nature, but across the set, her compositions possess both intensity and movement. To put it another way, things are happening, and those things are powerful. Nayar’s work wields an experimental edge that is quite appealing. Also, I dig how she broadened her sound even more with Zeelie Brown’s cello in the closing selection “No Future,” and how Yatta’s singing in “Losing Too Is Still Ours” breaks with the non-vocal template. Finally, there is an organic warmth in Nayar’s work that’s in welcome contrast to the often clinical sounds proffered by others in the electronic field. A-

Vapour Theories, Celestial Scuzz (Fire) Vapour Theories features John and Michael Gibbons, who are brothers, and also the guitarists for Bardo Pond. Those Philadelphians endure as one of the finest of heavy psych units, so if you’re familiar with what they’ve been laying down since the early 1990s, you’ll have an inkling of what’s happening with Celestial Scuzz. However, a few more observations are in order, foremost, that the dual guitar attack delivers plenty of amp sizzle (the Scuzz of the title) with an absence of thud (as there are no drums in Vapour Theories’ scheme). Instead, this baby soars like an absolute champ (which is where the Celestial comes in). Amongst this record’s treats is a version of Eno’s “The Big Ship” (from Another Green World), with Fire opining that the results are like ol’ Bri tangling with Sunn-O))))). Good gravy. Great gravy even, but lemme just add that at a few spots across this slab my thoughts turned to Popol Vuh, and that’s a superb thing to ponder. Other than half a split with Loren Connors in 2014, this is Vapour Theories first release in 15 years. ‘tis very welcome. A-

Steve Almaas, Everywhere You’ve Been (Lonesome Whippoorwill) Those passionate for early punk rock might recognize Steve Almaas as a founding member of Minneapolis, MN’s first punk band, the Suicide Commandos. But for folks with an affinity for ’80s college rock and alternative, it’s Almaas’ work in Beat Rodeo that will perhaps ring a bell. Although the Commandos have reunited a few times and released Time Bomb in 2017, Almaas has primarily been busy recording solo records, of which this is his sixth, available on LP, CD and digital. Bookending the record with slices of pedal steel-infused neo-honkytonk, a whole lot of pop territory gets covered in between, with the tracks unified by Almaas’ classique and occasionally pre-R&R sensibility, best heard in the country boogie-ish “Cigarettes, Coffee or You,” with the guest gal vocals putting it right over the top. It and “1955” feature an oddball streak that never undermines the set’s highly accessible nature. This aspect and the classic pop angle remind me a bit of the Flat Five. I bet fans of 2020’s Another World will also find much to dig in Everywhere You’ve Been. B+

Corvair, S/T (Paper Walls / WIAIWYA) The debut LP by Portland, OR’s Corvair was largely recorded by members Brian Naubert and Heather Larimer during COVID-19 shutdown in the spring of last year, with assistance from drummer Eric Eagle and engineer Martin Feveyear. It’s a hearty serving of melodic rock with tinges of power pop and indie flavors that benefits from the participants extensive backgrounds in the scene, with Larimer a member of Eux Autres and also a Jick for a time with Stephen Malkmus, while Naubert has played in a bunch of bands including The Service Providers and Ruston Mire in addition to recording a solo record under the name Hoffabus. There is no immediately observable impact of the pandemic on the music, which is to say, it rocks catchily, but with time spent, the cited influence of Naubert and Larimer’s record collections on this set’s contents really shines through. Names like Judas Priest and Steve Miller are mentioned, but although there are a few instances where Corvair wants to fly like an eagle (to the sea), just as prevalent is a similarity to Imperial Teen. But new wavier. I like that. B+

The Red Step, S/T (Pravda) Formed in Belgrade in 2015, The Red Step features The Black Heart Procession’s Tobias Nathaniel on vocals and guitar with keyboardist Boris Eftovski, bassist Rudolf Cibulski, and drummer Vladimir Markoski, the three all members of the noted Serbian garage rock outfit Kazna za uši; completing the band on cello is Sarah Jane Seatherton, who hails from London. The Red Step’s sound is hard and raw, but with a sizable streak of darkness that is unsurprising when considering that Nathaniel has played with David J. of Bauhaus. That’s not to tag The Red Step as a Goth entity, but I will suggest that folks into Goth who also like it heavy will find this set fitting comfortably into their bag. To expand a bit, there’s an avoidance in going overboard with the mood, which is refreshing, as this sorta combination frequently results in too much atmosphere and not enough racket. The Red Step’s command of dynamics is also impressive, as this is the band’s debut. The consistency is also worthy of note, though “Reset” into “Temporary Loss” cohere into a sustained highpoint. A-

The Wedding Present, Locked Down & Stripped Back (HHBTM / Scopitones) You might glean from the title that this is a home recording by this enduring UK band, but more specifically, it finds David Gedge and company tackling a batch of tunes from their vast discography in those intimate digs. As expected, the sound fits the nature of the undertaking, stripped back but still energetic and full-bodied. It strikes me that this LP is an example of the best kind of pandemic exercise, avoiding straining for the profound in a fucked-up time, instead getting down to business and with results that carry legit weight, something that has only infrequently been the case when watching people singing and playing in their houses as captured by their mobile phone cameras. It’s interesting that these versions came about as The Wedding Present’s contribution to the virtual version of Gedge’s yearly At the Edge of the Sea festival in Brighton. The contents span back to an ’86 single, plus a couple from George Best and one from Bizarro as they add an unreleased track and a new song, providing an extra nudge for the heavy-duty fans. B+

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