Graded on a Curve: New in Stores, March 2018, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued wax presently in stores for March, 2018. 

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Steve Barton, Tall Tales and Alibis (Sleepless) Barton is known mostly as a member of (the still active) San Fran New Wave-era guitar band Translator, but he’s cut a slew of solo efforts, and this 3CD set is his latest. The main snag with Translator was unevenness brought on by commercial concerns, but Barton is unshackled by such matters here. The original idea was to release three individual albums simultaneously, though the decision to issue them together was wise, as the contrasts are complimentary. Two of the three discs are truly solo and are mostly guitar focused; Star Tonight occasionally brings Ted Leo to mind, while parts of Shattered Light give off a pre-hobo Tom Waits vibe. Before I Get Too Young features a full band, it bests any of Translator’s ’80s (non-comp) LPs. A-

Trees Speak, S/T (Cinedelic) This 2LP debuts the psych project of Daniel Martin Diaz (ex-Blind Divine and Crystal Radio), who’s veteran accompaniment includes members of Black Sun Ensemble, Giant Sand, and Myrrors. Described as a sound laboratory as much as a band, there’s a definite experimental edge to the proceedings, but it comingles with an emphasis on rock, with a high quotient ’70s Germanic. It’s safe to say that fans of The Oh Sees will find much to enjoy here, but it’s also important to note that this doesn’t fit the garage punk scenario; Trees Speak also does its thing sans vocals. The first album is loaded with shorter tracks with elements of kosmische and even a little Meddle-era Floyd in the mix, and the second spreads a long multitiered piece across two sides. The packaging is magnificent. A-

REISSUE PICKS: V/A, Voyager Golden Record (Ozma) As a young blues fan, I was utterly chuffed to learn that this ambitious project of the Voyager Interstellar Record Committee (chaired by astronomer and educator Carl Sagan), launched on a tour of the solar system via the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts in 1977, included Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” These days, I’m far more struck by the gesture of goodwill in communication. Yes, it was assembled to, maybe, one day, be absorbed by possible lifeforms somewhere “out there,” but meanwhile, listening to its contents (which encompass so much more than music) in the here and now is a beautiful reminder that humankind is far more capable of decency and beauty than ugliness and atrocity. Let it give you a boost. A+

Sandra Bell, Net (Drawing Room) Bell’s discography stretches back to an ’84 cassette she made with fellow New Zealander Kim Blackburn, though she really caught the attention of those hungering for u-ground Kiwi sounds with ’91’s Dreams of Falling, which came out on tape through Xpressway and was cut with the contribution of Peter Jefferies. Net was its excellent ’95 follow-up, initially issued only on CD by the IMD label. Upon first listen, Bell’s voice and phrasing will likely conjure thoughts of Patti Smith, but overall, her work fits snuggly into the ’90s lo-fi/ noise milieu, with the important distinction that she’s a song-based artist, one as likely to connect with fans of early Cat Power as lovers of Dead C. This is a terrific vinylization made even better with an extra LP rounding up two of her period singles. A-

Candace, New Ruins (Self-released) Candace isn’t an artist of single moniker but a band, a Portland, OR-based three-piece in fact. They were once called Is/Is, but after a handful of releases changed up the name and then released New Future in 2016. This is all new news to me, as I just discovered ‘em, and I’m glad to have made the acquaintance. Candace’s specialty has been designated, at least once, as dream-rock, and I’m picking up what that adjustment is laying down. Where a whole lot of what’s called dream-pop strives for the ethereal to the point where it can connect as insubstantial, there is beneficial drive and weight here. But the songwriting’s still unabashedly (quite classically) pop, which is cool. B+

Circle Jerks, Wönderful (Porterhouse) Keith Morris and company’s best album is Group Sex; succinctly, it’s a rapid-fire, over-and-done-with-in-15-minutes must for any punk-HC collection. The next two LPs have some moments, but by this ’85 set, the first of two originally for the Combat Core label with a refreshed lineup, they were frequently tagged as has-beens by punk sticklers. In 2018, Wönderful hasn’t aged like wine. Of bummy songs, there’s more than a couple. But I can’t deny that this hard rock-punk merger (which sidesteps the speed of metal-core) is much easier to swallow today. So, if far from great, this hasn’t soured like vinegar, either, though ’87’s VI remains a modest improvement. For choosey ears the first three will suffice, but those with longer punk shelves might want to make room for this one. B-

Jorge Elbrecht, Here Lies (Self-released) Along with visual art and record production (for, amongst others, No Joy, Frankie Rose, and Tamaryn, who guests here), part-time New Yorker Elbrecht is noted for brief participation in Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and his own projects Violens and Lansing-Dreiden. A promo trailer for Here Lies is entertaining, partly due to a backstory that’s pretty clearly invented, stating that the songs, which can be broken into countless subcategories (though only four are mentioned) were created roughly 15 years ago during a transitional period. Overall, what’s here is synth-poppy in nature, but with occasional wrinkles, such as the noisy bursts in LP closer “Mirrors” (there are three bonus cuts on the download). Maybe not jaw-dropping, but the attention to form is hard to deny. So, I won’t. B+

Sam Gendel, Pass if Music (Leaving) 4444, saxophonist and guitarist Gendel’s LP from last year, was essentially a contempo (but far from trad) jazz outing that was significantly lessened in my estimation by the artist’s decision to sing. For this cassette release, Gendel sets aside the six-string and focuses completely on the sax in the creation of a commissioned score for Daniel Oh’s yet-to-be-released film, The Labyrinth & The Long Road. The online press sheet for this nine-track release states that all the sounds were made with his alto (with some obvious effects and looping), and the results, which land firmly in the territory of experimental soundscapes, are much more up my ear’s alley. Some of this is recognizable as sax, much of it isn’t and I’ll bet fans of Jon Hassell will find it of interest. B+

Ilsa, Corpse Fortress (Relapse) The sound of this Washington, DC five-piece can be summed up by the title of the second song on the first side of this, their fifth full-length and first for Relapse (after a 2016 split with Coffins). That would be “Nasty, Brutish.” Additionally, sludgy and per the label, “horror-obsessed” as they “weave together tales of depravity and devil worship.” The stylized lettering of the band’s name on the appropriately black, white, and gray album cover clinches that they’ve been inspired by the once notorious ’75 Nazisploitation series. Yes, the contents of this disc (which comes with two bonus tracks I’ve not heard) checks off all the stylistic prerequisites, but it’s obvious they’re not bringing anything new to the dissecting table. That’s no artistic crime, of course. I think I’m going to give it a B.

Iron Reagan/Gatecreeper, split (Relapse) Richmond, VA’s Iron Reagan and Arizona’s Gatecreeper delivering crossover and death metal respectively, on opposing vinyl sides. I’ve covered Iron Reagan before, and while these five songs in ten minutes (as opposed to the 18 in a half-hour on their LP) deliver the right dose for this type of heavy and precise ranting and chanting mayhem, my overall assessment of their sound hasn’t changed much; I kinda think to really appreciate what they’re doing, I’d need to be sucking on a lukewarm Miller High Life in a Knights of Columbus while keeping an eye on that one dude (there is always that one dude) in a DRI t-shirt throwing elbows at the edge of the pit. Overall, I’m a bit more amenable to the bombast, thud and growl of Gatecreeper. B/ B+

Vivian Leva, Time is Everything (Free Dirt) Lovers of trad Appalachian string-bands might know Leva as part of the Onlies, but she was a new name to me; a testimonial from the great Alice Gerrard made it plain I should check out her debut solo record, and I’m glad I did. Yes solo, but with backing, including her Onlies bandmate Riley Calcagno, Jack Devereaux, and Joseph DeJarnette, at whose 808A studio in Floyd, VA the songs (eight originals and a swell cover of Paul Burch’s “Last of My Kind”) were cut. Taking influence from the old-time root, sibling harmony from the Stanleys to the Everlys, classic country/ honky-tonk, and more contempo strains of Americana, the whole offers rich playing (lots of good fiddling) with a focus on Leva’s songs, but even more so her terrific voice, which never falters. A-

Barrett Martin Group, Transcendence (Sunyata) Seattleite Martin’s credits list is long; he was in Skin Yard, drummed for Screaming Trees, was part of Mad Season, logged extensive session work, released solo albums, won numerous awards, taught music at Antioch University, and has been ordained as a Zen monk, which surely ties into this disc’s title. Fortified with strong players including guests Peter Buck and Wayne Horvitz, this disc offers instrumental jazz-rock (I use that term rather than fusion due to Martin’s background) with a frequent funky inclination. The grooves here are solid (Budos Band fans should take note), and the sax solos add edge. But in terms of edge, I wish there was more; the more tranquil stuff largely loses me. Jazz-rock mavens (which I’m not, really) and Buddhists (ditto) will perhaps disagree. B

The Oscillation, U.E.F. (Fuzz Club) Demian Castellanos is The Oscillation, and he’s described by Fuzz Club as being an “almost-mythical force” amongst goings-on in the London psychedelic u-ground. He’s got a bunch of records out (other than a split 10-inch single with 10000 Russos, this is his first for Fuzz Club) and an accumulated rep as something of a sonic shape-shifter that’s verified by listening to U.E.F. alongside Monographic and the “Evil in the Tree” 7-inch (both from 2017); for this new one, he exits a psych-rock state of mind for a pair of 20-plus minute druggy techno excursions. The combo of psych and electronica has too often been an elephant bellbottoms and floppy hat-clad nightmare, but not this, even as it’s reminiscent of rave days long past. But there’s also kosmische and plenty of guitar. A-

Popincourt, “The Brilliant Missing Link” b/w “ImprovISAtion (Part 1, 2 & More)” (Jigsaw) If, like me, you dug French pop auteur Olivier Popincourt’s debut LP A New Direction to Modern Love back in 2016, you’ll want to get this, as the flip combines and augments the pair of “Improvisation” tracks from that set into a sweet whole. The piece, especially the Miles-ish trumpet at the beginning, nicely encapsulates the ’80s Style Council/ Aztec Camera erudition of the album, but this A-side offers an unexpected but totally welcome Brit power-pop angle that idles in a Stiff Records zone but without overindulging any retro moves. The guitar is sharp, the keyboard accents just right, the vocals redolent of the era without mimicry, and most importantly, the song is a good one. A very good one. A-

Alfonso Carlos Santisteban, Spanish Moog (Adarce) In the notes for this reissue of a ’75 LP, Don Sicalíptico describes the album’s maker as an anarchic genius, but what I’m hearing is library music, and for the most part, a solid example of the genre. Santisteban’s stuff was reportedly used extensively by the ’70s Spanish film industry, and a lot of this radiates like the soundtracks to the action flicks of the era (car chases, cocaine deals gone bad, and yes, even a little romance), with emphasis on Blaxploitation-style funk. There are also flashes of bossa nova and Spanish guitar in evidence, and Moog hounds don’t worry, as the title is truth in advertising. While I’m far from blown away, the music is reliably interesting, with a low ratio of cheesiness. I especially enjoy the injections of fuzz guitar. B

Suuns, Felt (Secretly Canadian) The four-piece Montreal-based Suuns formed in 2007 and released their debut album Zeroes QC three years later. Along with over a half-dozen singles and EPs, Felt is their fourth full-length (excluding a 2015 collaborative LP with Jerusalem In My Heart). A frequently mentioned aspect of their endeavor is how they blend the organic and the clinical, and so it continues here; it’s far from a combination without precedent, but where many strive to create friction between those elements (or at least play up the contrast) Suuns meshes them together so that the focus is ultimately on the songs, which can range from pop (“Make it Real,” “Peace and Love”) to more intense (and abrasive) experimental/ art/ industrial territory (“After the Fall,” “Daydream,” “Moonbeams”). A-

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