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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Michael Thomas, Event Horizon (Giant Step Arts) Sometimes, the label releasing a record can serve as a doorway to more music of a similar stripe, or if not in the same style, than just stand as a signifier of quality. For obvious reasons, this scenario is now almost exclusive to independent labels as the big companies have long been predominantly profit driven. Well, Giant Step Arts, the label started by noted photographer Jimmy Katz, isn’t obsessed with profit. In Katz’s words, the label doesn’t even sell any music, but rather strives “to help musicians make bold artistic statements and to advance their careers.” In addition to premiering performances, recording them, and compensating the artists, once a project is complete, 700 compact discs (the complete run) and downloads are given to the leader of the session, who importantly retains ownership of the masters. Giant Step Arts also provides promo photos, videos and PR for the release.

If this reads more like a philanthropic concern than a label in a traditional sense, well yes and no; as insinuated by the name of the label, Katz wants those invited to create masterpiece-level work. This entails dedication that isn’t synonymous with prolificacy, with this set from Grammy-winning saxophonist Michael Thomas only the fourth Giant Step Arts release since 2018. For the recording, Thomas assembled a quartet featuring trumpeter Jason Palmer (leader of Giant Step Arts 001, Rhyme and Reason), double bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Johnathan Blake (leader of GSA 002, Trion, and the drummer for GSA 003, saxophonist Eric Alexander’s Leaf of Faith). The results, spanning across two discs (all of the Giant Step Arts releases except Alexander’s single disc are 2CD sets), do rise to the level of masterpiece. Notably, it’s a live performance, a setting absolutely essential to the jazz idiom.

Now, studio recordings are also crucial, with two of Katz’s models for Giant Step Arts being Miles’ Kind of Blue and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. But in promoting works unveiled on a live stage, there seems to be a simultaneous desire to elude the pressures, stresses and obsessiveness that can undermine studio recordings made within or outside of current commercial settings (the mersh settings that produced Blue and Supreme don’t really exist anymore). In short: work your asses off in prep, but then get on the bandstand and let it fly. Thomas and his crew do just that, exploring eight of the saxophonist’s compositions (plus solos intros for bass, sax, and drums) in an elevated manner (through the strength of familiarity) that’s truly searching while never straying that far from the richness of jazz in its classic Modern mode. That is, Event Horizon isn’t warmed-over turkey, not for a second, as its creators make abundantly clear that brilliance bursting forth from established jazz traditions is still a possibility. A

Matt Evans, New Topographics (Whatever’s Clever) Amongst drummer-composer Evans’ credits is Man Forever, the band-project of esteemed drummer John Colpitts, but this release of synthetic-acoustic ambient-drone-experimentation is a distinct beast, recorded in December of 2018 during a month-long residency at Brooklyn art space Pioneer Works. It is the byproduct of an extended immersion into the musical possibilities of “hyperobjects,” which professor-philosopher Timothy Morton defines as “objects so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend spatiotemporal specificity,” e.g. “global warming, styrofoam, and the internet.” Here, the engagement with hyperobjects gathers the sound of ringing bells, rips, rattles, hums, buzzes, clinks, clanks, and importantly, a writing utensil at work.

Crucial to the record are assorted transcriptions by Evans of the Richard Brautigan poem “All watched over by machines of loving grace,” first written by Evans by hand (and heard as such in “Cold Moon” and “New Moon”) but also imagined as a musical language and translated into braille and Morse code and utilizing radioteletype; these transcriptions became the guiding process for nearly every track on New Topographics. Now, if this reads as academically dry, that’s not my experience, as parts of this reminded me of Hassell’s fourth world stuff, with melodies a natural part of the scheme and unsurprisingly, rhythms even more frequent. Available on CD and cassette with cover art by the recently deceased Devra Freelander; this album and Ben Seretan’s Youth Pastoral (reviewed below) are dedicated to her memory. A-

Auscultation, III (100% Silk) The music of Portland, OR’s Joel Shanahan is unquestionably techno, and it’s safe to guess folks heavily invested in the style know his work as Auscultation, a moniker the promo helpfully explains is a “term for listening to sounds within the body as a method of diagnosis.” Shanahan’s music is new to me however, maybe partly because he hasn’t had anything out since 2016; as you might suspect, III is his third but first on vinyl. Now, part of the reason for the gap in activity relates to unfortunate personal circumstances including the Ghost Ship warehouse fire; Shanahan was scheduled to perform there. This background info surely adds emotional heft to this record’s six tracks, but as they unwind there is depth that elevates the whole, occasionally bordering on the melancholy but more often surreal, and in an unforced way, nearer to the terminology’s root in dreams and in slowly dissipating memories. Recommended, even for non-genre aficionados. A-

Elysia Crampton, Orcorara (Pan) Prior to releasing the 12-inch mini-album “American Drift” in 2015, Amerindian Aymara electronic-experimentalist Crampton released a bunch of music as E+E, though it seems that all of it (except one compilation track) was digital-only. However, with the exception of one single, all of her work as Elysia Crampton has been released on vinyl, including Orcorara, which is her fifth full-length, with all proceeds going to American Indian Movement West/ AIM SoCal chapters. Crampton welcomes a host of contributors, most prominently Jeremy Rojas, who speaks in a tone as calming and deep as it is large in the mix, which greatly enhances the meditative quality of the nearly 15-minute track “Morning Star-Red Glare-Sequoia Bridge.” But Crampton’s work here resists pigeonholing as the following cut, “Grove” offers folkish guitar, poppish singing, electronic layering, and a hooting owl. Crampton’s piano is a recurring element across this rigorous but striking album. A-

Cup, Nothing Could Be Wrong (Aagoo) The last record I heard from Cup, 2018’s Jitter Visions, which may indeed be the last record they put out before this one, had me surmising the influence of Killed By Death-style punk and even San Fran kingpins Chrome and Crime. In short, unpolished early punk rock with psych touches. On this new one, there are still a few moments, such as “When We Ride,” that bring KBD to mind, but the sound of death rock is much more prevalent across this LP, which shouldn’t be a surprise, as the record came with this description. Also, the photo on the sleeve captures a band that looks like they could have a long discussion with you at the merch table about the history of .45 Grave. Actually, that snapshot captures a four-piece in what appears to be varying stages of telling the photographer to fuck off. This change might read as a letdown, but Cup’s sound is raw enough to remind me of a mid-’80s band who were almost signed to Enigma but self-released their only LP instead. B+

Erik Hall, Music For 18 Musicians (Steve Reich) (Western Vinyl) Hall, who’s known for releases under the name In Tall Buildings and for playing in NOMO, Wild Belle, and His Name is Alive, plus scoring films including Rick Alverson’s The Mountain, grew up and studied music in Chicago and currently lives in Galen, MI, where his solo version of Reich’s 1976 masterwork was recorded. In this case, solo means exactly that, with Hall recording his version by himself over the course of February 2019. It’s important to understand this is not a stunt. Although Hall’s version is described as “fundamentally different,” with the instruments shifting (xylophone becoming muted pianos, violin becoming electric guitar and the bass clarinet constructed via Moog synth), there is a respect for the original work that shines through and ultimately puts this in the same league as the handful of subsequent versions of the piece I’ve heard over the years. Digital is out today; CD and vinyl are scheduled for release June 5. A-

Blake Mills, Mutable Set (New Deal Records / Verve) Mills is a singer-songwriter and composer, but he’s also a producer, touring musician and collaborator with credits so wide-ranging that if you weren’t familiar with his records, with this one number four, it’d be impossible to get a handle on his musical personality. And his own stuff can complicate that a bit as well, with Look from last year being called an ambient album, though perhaps a more fitting description is a mostly instrumental soundscapes album. His new set is more vocally inclined and song focused as it benefits from some notable players, though it seems nobody had a bigger hand in assisting Mills than his friend Cass McCombs, who worked with him on some of the album’s lyrics. Those words are fine, as are the compositions, but Mutable Set’s strongest attribute might just be the sustained mood it carries across its ample runtime. This isn’t a cheerful album, but neither is it desolate. It connects as perfectly attuned to the moment. A-

Myrkur, Folkesange (Relapse) Danish vocalist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Amalie Bruun released her self-titled debut in 2006, followed by three EPs then two albums with Ex Cops and finally the start of Myrkur in 2014 with an eponymous EP that found her, somewhat unexpectedly, in the black metal zone. Hers was no dilettantish “I can do metal now, see” sorta move, though Bruun was pushing boundaries by including classical instrumentation and Nordic folk elements. The results were reliably interesting, with the 2016 live vocal choir LP Mausoleum a stunner that found her transitioning into full-on folk territory. Mareridt and the “Juniper EP” followed, and now Folkesange, a record steeped in vocal beauty with instrumentation to match, but sung, played and recorded in a manner to emphasize the power of the music alongside the gorgeousness. Like much in the folk realm, this is more about traditional style and sound than variety, but when the music is this good it’s easy to get swept along. A-

Fabrizio Rat, “Hera EP” (24H) When learning of a record that proports to “fuse classical piano with contemporary techno,” my reaction in most cases is to back the fuck away from that shit, purposefully, but slowly and carefully, like I’d just walked up on a nest of sleeping murder hornets wearing backpacks full of nitroglycerine. I exaggerate, a little. Mr. Rat, who I gather is from France, is both a classically trained pianist and, as this EP attests, handy with the incessantly thumping techno bangers. Okay. Listening also clued me in that something unusual was happening with those 88s, and yep, the piano used for this record was, after several attempts at restoration, scheduled to be taken to the landfill. Things are looking up! Enough so that the promo’s mention of Rat being equally inspired by Jeff Mills and John Cage registers as non-hyperbole. But make no mistake; this stuff will sound best in a club, or maybe in a carpeted basement with a well-stocked fridge and a bunch of beanbag chairs. B+

Ben Seretan, Youth Pastoral (Whatever’s Clever) Checking out Solid Love, the latest from Adeline Hotel (reviewed in the May 7 edition of this column), led me to go back to Youth Pastoral, as Seretan contributed to Solid Love; perusing the credits to Seretan’s record, which came out February 28, I see that Dan Knishkowy of Adeline Hotel had a hand in its making on drums, guitar, and singing, as did sculptor Devra Freelander, who sang beautifully on Solid Love and who the notes for Youth Pastoral relate passed away prior to this record’s completion. Seretan has dedicated the record to her memory, which adds weight to a recording that’s emotional power was already considerable. Instrumentally, it is an expansive LP, ambitious even as it can be categorized as contemplative indie-rock with a wide instrumental palette, but its strongest quality is as a personal statement of unusual depth and intensity.

Youth Pastoral is personal to an extent that it’s tempting to call it a concept album, though in mulling over doing so it ends up feeling insulting, so maybe it’s better to describe it as hitting with the impact of a memoir. Make that an exceptionally well-written memoir, a rare thing and also different in kind from records of songs, no matter how personal. It has something to do with levels of engagement. My first listen to Youth Pastoral lacked much in the way of background context, as is my practice: simply play the music and see where it takes me. While it was clear that Youth Pastoral held personal heft, it didn’t boldly amplify its themes, though I did gather that it was about a crisis, and possibly the loss, of faith. Well, the record is about that very thing and a whole lot more. However, in its rather tidy runtime it never feels burdened with content. This is partly due to the playing, often excellent, but it’s also clear that Youth Pastoral was made with those aforementioned levels of engagement in mind. A-

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