Graded on a Curve:
Six from ORG Music for Record Store Day 2020

Six of ORG Music’s Record Store Day 2020 releases are available on August 29, so we’re spotlighting the wide-ranging selections in a separate article today in hopes of stirring up the desired retail action at the end of the month. The list features reissues from the Nat Turner Rebellion, Marion Brown, and Mia Doi Todd, compilations of ’50s Sun Records blues and contemporary cover tunes initially cut for the Aquarium Drunkard website’s Lagniappe Sessions, plus the debut full-length from Sock-Tight, which is the duo of bassist Mike Watt and visual artist Raymond Pettibon. Cats, let’s get crackin’…

Philadelphia’s Nat Turner Rebellion released a few singles at the dawn of ’70s, discs the ever-diligent brigade of heavy-duty soul diggers are likely already knowledgeable about with eyes peeled for backup copies. Laugh to Keep From Crying collects those 45s and adds a few unreleased selections to shape the outfit’s unrealized LP. It came out last year as a Vinyl Me Please club edition but gets a wide release with a different cover through ORG in an edition of 1,000.

Blending together the budding Philly soul sound of the era, elements of Motown-ish psychedelia, a decidedly Family Stone-like tendency (a la organ and stinging rock guitar), and as the moniker indicates, a heaping helping of socially inclined themes, the record unwinds enjoyably enough, with the (possibly faux) sitar injections lending distinctiveness and the vocal harmonies strong throughout (Major Harris, later of the Delfonics, was a member).

The songs, most written by Joseph Jefferson, are also unusually sturdy for an unreleased album (though again, much of this came out as singles), if not mind-flaying. I guess my biggest hang-up is that a few of the horn charts reminded me a little of “Vehicle” by Ides of March. Ugh. However, the Sly influence comes through much stronger in “Fruit of the Land,” and there’s even a hint of Isaac Hayes in the horn arrangement for “Going in Circles.” This one’s a grower, and I’d say it’s a must for fans of classic soul.

The discography of Marion Brown is one of the true gifts in the annals of free jazz. And I specify his work as a leader, for ORG is correct in their promotion for Porto Novo to observe that Brown is likely best known for his playing on John Coltrane’s Ascension (he’s also part of Archie Shepp’s Fire Music, a superb and historically important document that today is perhaps not as celebrated as it should be). Brown’s own work, which began with in ’66 with Three for Shepp on Impulse and ran through a slew of records into the ’90s on a variety of labels, includes a few masterpieces, including Porto Novo.

Recorded in 1967 in Holland but not released until two years later on Polydor in the UK, Porto Novo didn’t get a US release until ’75 as part of the Freedom label’s catalog of avant-garde affiliated titles, many of them reissues or archival sessions or performances. ORG has already reissued what might be the crown jewel in the Freedom discography, Cecil Taylor’s Silent Tongues, but this album isn’t far behind, and if it’s inspired lung power you’re seeking, Brown’s trio with bassist Maarten van Regteben Altena and drummer Han Bennink will fully satisfy.

Porto Novo is additionally some of the earliest documentation of the Euro avant jazz scene; Bennink is on Eric Dolphy’s Last Date, which precedes this record by a few years, and there is even television footage of the drummer playing with Wes Montgomery,  but this set’s fully formed plunge into free collectivity stands alongside some of the stronger avant jazz albums of the era. So, there’s history and heat, as Brown’s playing is more aggressive here than on his self-titled quartet album for ESP Disk from a couple years prior, without spiraling into total skronk. 1,500 pressed, Porto Novo is essential free jazz.

If you’re a blues nut, Sunrise on the Blues: Sun Records Curated by Record Store Day, Volume 7, the latest in the RSD compilation series dedicated to Sam Phillips’ legendary studio, is nearly as vital, as the store reps who selected the tunes managed to pull together a wide spectrum of deep cuts while sprinkling in a few of the cornerstones of Sun blues. Those heavy hitters include “Mystery Train” by Little Junior Parker’s Blue Flames, “Cat Squirrel” by Dr. Ross, and “Cotton Crop Blues” by James Cotton, which features Pat Hare’s blistering distortion-soaked guitar four years prior to Link Wray’s “Rumble.”

Hare’s own tune “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby” also makes the cut (prophetic, as he soon shot his girlfriend dead), fitting in nicely with varying shades of amped up wildness from Earl Hooker, Joe Hill Louis, and Lost John Hunter & His Blind Bats. Storied Chicago figures Howlin’ Wolf and Big Walter “Shakey” Horton are also in the mix, but the set is noted for its stylistic departures into straight R&B balladry from Johnny Adams and the vocal group flair of The Prisonaires.

Along with Parker, Rosco Gordon and Little Milton inject some horn-laden urbanity into Phillips’ Southern fried equation. But there’s nothing too slick. Hell, Milton sounds like he could’ve sped up the blues highway to Chicago and cut some sides for Cobra Records. And at the opposite side of the spectrum from Adams’ sophistication is the country blues styling of Sleepy John Estes. Now, a few of these cuts might not hit as mightily as the more canonical Sun blues stuff, but it’s refreshing to hear a few less vaunted tunes on a digestible LP rather than in the deep weeds of a box set. 3,500 copies.

For me, the immediate comparison that jumps to mind when considering the covers compilation Lagniappe Sessions, Vol. 2 is not another vinyl record of interpretations, but the AV Club’s weekly online live in studio covers project that ran for a couple summers a few years back. I largely enjoyed that endeavor, but I dig this album a good bit more, in part because there is a loose but still unifying aesthetic here that in a nutshell is very Aquarium Drunkard.

To expand, the album blends contempo folk action (Steve Gunn’s endearingly oddball version of The Misfits’ “Astro Zombies”), psych ripples (Six Organs of Admittance’s rethink of the Melvins’ “Night Goat”), and low-key rock excursions (Zachary Cale’s take of The Stooges’ “1970”) plus singer-songwriters (Mountain Goats doing Bon Iver’s “Blood Bank”) and general beauty moves (the highlight of the set for me, sequenced last, Joan Shelley’s reading of Sinatra’s “I Would Be in Love (Anyway),” with Erin Rae’s version of Scott Walker’s “Duchess” runner up).

Unsurprisingly, there are numerous tracks radiating the tangible vibe of one human alone in a room with a guitar, maybe a rhythm machine and a tape recorder, like Scott Hirsch tackling of Dire Straits’ “So Far Away,” Nap Eyes’ indie pop auteur reading of Lucinda Williams’ “2 Kool 2 Be 4-gotten,” and maybe the most leftfield cover here, Damien Jurado dishing the theme to the ’80s sitcom “Gimme a Break” (which brings Timmy Thomas to mind, very cool), but I’m guessing most of these 1,400 copies will be bought by folks eager to own Kevin Morby doing Silver Jews’ “Random Rules.” And yeah, it’s a good one.

Smudge by Sock-Tight, which offers Mike Watt on bass and Raymond Pettibon at the microphone, is also something of a compilation, rounding up the four tracks from the project’s 2012 2×7-inch on the German Edition Fieber label, of which only 200 copies exist, with the three cuts from their 2018 45, which was released by ORG, plus two fresh tracks.

Pettibon’s inclination for post-Beat spoken ruminations spiked with wisecracks and obscenities had me thinking of another Watt project, Spielgusher with former rock writer-prose warrior Richard Meltzer, but the preponderance of chewy, hard-honked saxophone (there is an assortment of guests on the record, including Vince Meghrouni and the late Steve Mackay on the horn and Dirk Vandenberg on drums) does recall James Chance a bit.

Except there’s a definite left coast art-punk-funk aura which continues to remind me of something that might’ve eked out on New Alliance (the label co-founded by Watt) back in the early ’80s, or maybe even on the weird side of one of those Life Is… compilations. I can’t deny that Sock-Tight sound best in short doses, but the lessened impact through duration is fairly minimal here, and the package, with a gatefold sleeve featuring four artworks by Pettibon, is worth the price by its lonesome. 1,000 copies, half on blue wax, the other on standard black. It’s a mystery which color you’ll get until you dispense with the shrink.

This brings us to the vinyl debut of Mia Doi Todd’s very worthy 2008 release GEA, an ambitious but focused effort that paired the Los Angeles-based indie singer-songwriter with producer Carlos Niño and string/ horn arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. The ambition is articulated immediately through the 10-plus minute two-part composition “River of Life / The Yes Song,” though the feat is how she manages a high level of intensity after that without a hint of strain.

Those arrangements are colorful but never so florid that they pull the attention away from the power of Todd’s strumming and especially her singing. That’s not to imply that the record’s not often pretty; it is, but more consistently, the contents are better described as heavy (yet graceful). But maybe it’s more appropriately stated that Todd avoids the insubstantiality that too often hinders indie folk.

There is ample harmonium in the grooves, but I thought less of Nico than of a heartier ’70s Joni, and that’s sweet. The same can be said for the whole line of ORG Music’s August 2020 releases, but there are only 700 copies of GEA, so if it sparks your interest, don’t get sidetracked.

Nat Turner Rebellion,
Laugh to Keep From Crying
B+

Marion Brown,
Porto Novo
A

V/A, Sunrise on the Blues: Sun Records Curated by Record Store Day, Volume 7
A-

V/A, Lagniappe Sessions, Vol. 2
A-

Sock-Tight,
Smudge
B+

Mia Doi Todd,
GEA
A-

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