Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2017’s New Releases, Part Two

As we continue, there’s guitar abstraction, jazz, and rock of various stripes, with inspirational history and hope sharing the top spot.

Find them all for purchase from our friends at Discogs at the links below, or at your local mom and pop, indie record shops via The Vinyl District Record Store Locator app—free for your iPhone here, free for your Android here.

5. Chain & the Gang, Experimental Music (Radical Elite), Escape-Ism, Introduction to Escape-Ism (Merge) + Juana Molina, Halo (Crammed Discs) Sporting a new project and a major spurt in activity from his current combo, Ian Svenonius has had quite a year. It’s a burst of goodness that extends an already impressive list of achievements including, but not limited to, Nation of Ulysses, Cupid Car Club, The Make-Up, Weird War, David Candy, and XYZ, as well a book writing, talk show hosting, filmmaking, and general thinking.

All this from a guy whose explosion onto the early ’90s scene, while certainly welcome, didn’t exactly seem poised for longevity. That’s okay, as much fine rock ‘n’ roll isn’t, but regardless, he’s just knocked out three killers in 2017 with Chain & the Gang; Best of Crime Rock (instead of a straight comp, the cuts are rerecorded, and it works), Live at Third Man (self-explanatory), and Experimental Music, which is the strongest (by a nose). Introduction to Escape-ism is truly solo, conjuring thoughts of Suicide and early electro, and it reinforces Svenonius as nowhere close to running out of creative gas.

Juana Molina only released one new record in 2017 (I just consulted Discogs to check), but it’s a doozy. She’s been musically active since the mid-’90s, which is when she decided to end her career as an actress (she was a star in her native Argentina) to concentrate on the recording studio and live stage. Initially poorly received at home, the critical tide has turned in her favor, but she’s still been naggingly underrated. In fact, the only thing more reliable than not enough people digging her stuff is the increasingly high quality of her work, with Halo shaping up as her best album so far.

As she emerged as part of the folktronica field, that’s doubly impressive. Not to knock on the style, but those practicing it haven’t exactly be noted for longevity; Molina’s exception derives from a non-clichéd blend of elements and strength of construction; at this point, her stuff should likely interest fans of Os Mutantes and Animal Collective, and hey, if one album isn’t enough, her swell 2008 set Un dia has recently been reissued on wax by her new label Crammed Discs.

4. Bill Orcutt, Bill Orcutt (Palilalia) + Michael Beach, Gravity​/​Repulsion (Spectacular Commodity) As noted in part one of our best 2017 reissues roundup, the possibilities of one musician expressing themselves through a guitar are not spent; the releases highlighted in part one, namely by Marisa Anderson and Glenn Jones, may not belong to this year, but they were recorded in the relatively recent past, and both artists are still quite active.

Bill Orcutt did come out in 2017 however, and in a year flush with string bending, it ranks as the strongest I’ve heard. Unlike most of his contenders, which includes Jones, Orcutt has been following a decidedly more abstract path in an examination of American popular song, i.e. tunes your grandparents thought were old, for a few years now. This finds his work productively paired with Anderson’s reissue, though again, Orcutt’s more abstract. He is tangibly more accessible on his latest, which is to say that attentive listening to “White Christmas” reveals it to indeed be “White Christmas.” ‘tis the season.

Michael Beach also plays a guitar, but does so in service of a sound the abovementioned grandparents would likely know to be rock, even if they don’t recognize all the influences. However, the impact of ’60s and ’70s rock, specifically flashes of psych integrated into melodic forward motion and a post-Dylan emotive and lyrical thrust that’s big but cool, might not be too difficult for your forebears to suss out.

Hey, if Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop lived something of a hip existence, they might even detect some similarities to Richard Hell and New Zealand’s Verlaines. Beach is no stranger to TVD’s best new releases list, and on his sterling prior effort Golden Beach he brought NZ’s The Clean to mind, so there’s unity on Gravity​/​Repulsion as well as growth, and if a slim record, the time spent in its making is apparent.

3. Grandpa’s Ghost, The Carnage Queen (Transduction) + The Feelies, In Between (Bar/None) In the first half of this list, I take a few mild shots at pop and rock, but as Gravity​/​Repulsion’s inclusion here emphasizes, when rock is done well, it’s still a treat for the ears (in a manner quite akin to solo guitar), and so here are two more rock-inclined discs that pulled my chain in 2017.

From Pocahontas, Illinois, Grandpa’s Ghost have been around since ’95, releasing a whole bunch of music, in fact eight CDs’ worth in ’07 alone, and have received some national attention over the years without getting anywhere near a major label. Starting out in alt-country mode, their gist has become considerably more experimental, and The Carnage Queen extends this scenario. It’s a long 2LP, besting 80 minutes, and along the way Neil Young is recalled numerous times, in large part through the timbre of Bill Hanna’s voice. But everything comes together, and the four sides of vinyl are easily justified.

The Feelies are a band I’ve long loved, so much so that I drove roughly six hours to Hoboken to see them play a New Year’s Eve show a few year’s back. Yes, they were sharing the bill with Yo La Tengo, but that’s what’s called icing on the cake, as The Feelies were in the headlining spot. Across their set they didn’t put a foot wrong.

They’ve also never released a bad record, or for that matter even gotten close to such a low, which is a big part of why I made that drive. Also, given that the band was inactive for roughly 16 years, their consistency is a feat worth noting. Frankly, In Between has no business being this good, and it’s damn good. Their sound has certainly developed since the days of Crazy Rhythms, maturing here into a sorta strum-pop that’s appealingly laid back, but with those Velvets roots still showing. It’s enough to inspire another six-hour drive.

2. Wadada Leo Smith, Najwa, Solo: Reflections, Meditations on Monk (TUM) + Trouble KAZE, June (Circum-Disc), Gato Libre, Neko (Libra) If the forms of pop and rock, solo guitar and the Feelies aren’t creatively tapped out, then neither is jazz, which probably pains those who can’t get over the fact that they don’t “get” the style.

Once again trumpeter Smith is at the forefront of jazz’s advance. He secures a spot on this list by looking back on past masters, engaging with their artistry, and paying homage through creative extension. Najwa is a solidly post-fusion experience featuring a four-guitar lineup (with Henry Kaiser on board), with tracks dedicated to Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and Billie Holiday. Solo is what its title states, Smith alone on trumpet exploring four Monk compositions and adding four originals inspired by the pianist. Both discs show the breadth of Smith’s artistry.

Smith also plays on Aspiration, a quartet disc that has pianist Satoko Fujii’s name in the leadership role. It’s a fine recording (trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and electronics specialist Ikue Mori round out the group), and it joins the ranks of Peace by Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo, Invisible Hand, a 2CD of Fujii in solo piano mode, or Kisaragi, her duo with Tamura.

But the works by Fujii that rise to the top of her prolific recent output are Neko by Gato Libre, a trio led by Tamura with Fujii switching to accordion and Yasuko Kaneko on trombone, and June by Trouble KAZE, which features Tamura and Christian Pruvost on trumpet, Fujii and Sophie Agnel on piano and Peter Orins and Didier Lasserre on drums. With the addition of Agnel and Lasserre, Trouble KAZE’s dual trumpet quartet lineup expands to a French-Japanese sextet that dives deep into free improv territory. In part through Fujii’s accordion, Neko is the more approachable of the two; June gets nicely hairy.

1. Barbez with Velina Brown, For Those Who Came After: Songs of Resistance from the Spanish Civil War (Important) + Colleen, A flame my love, a frequency (Thrill Jockey) As stated in part one yesterday, current events have inspired a deserved rise in protest, and it’s an impulse that’s taken various forms. But anger and resistance, while certainly crucial, aren’t the only ways to effectively strive for a less broken world.

Education is also key. For Those Who Came After pairs the Brooklyn-based outfit Barbez with vocalist Velina Brown and pays tribute to the many thousands of global volunteers who formed the International Brigades and traveled to Spain to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Unfortunately, fascism has once again reared its ugly head, and Barbez and Brown’s magnificent LP provides a look back at resistance past and inspiration and perspective for the fight moving forward. But the folk-infused and stylistically wide-ranging playing, and Brown’s superb vocals, intensify the inspiration multifold.

The latest record by multi-instrumentalist Cécile Schott, who records as Colleen, is a striking document of instrumental growth as she focuses upon the Critter and Guitari Pocket Piano and Septavox synth while setting aside her reliable viola da gamba. But it’s also an intensely personal album, shaped by the November 13, 2015 terrorist attack in Paris, which occurred while she was visiting the city.

A flame my love, a frequency has been called the closest Schott has come to a concept album, and as it plays, it offers a portrayal of hope winning out over fear. If intrinsically tied to death, the record’s glistening, reverberating soundscapes, when combined with Colleen’s vocals and words, are ultimately infused with positivity; it’s a record I’ve kept coming back to for emotional uplift amid the year’s numerous dark spots, and it’s sure to provide additional inspiration as the struggle continues into 2018.

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