Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for January 2020, Part Two

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

BOOK PICK: Billy Vera, Rip It Up: The Specialty Records Story (BMG) The fourth installment in BMG’s RPM series tackles one of the crucial R&B-R&R labels of the 1950s as formed and operated by Art Rupe, with the story told by a man who was integral in setting Specialty’s reissue course right at the dawn of the CD era. Vera’s also a noted musician who was deeply influenced by the sounds that Rupe was responsible for gifting to the world, and his love shines through, though he’s not uncritical. This applies to some of the artists and individuals in Rupe’s employ, as Specialty’s owner-operator, like Excello Records’ Ernie Young (covered in an earlier RPM volume) is revealed to be a fundamentally decent guy. He’s still with us, at 102 years of age.

Like Young, Rupe was especially taken with the music made by blacks in mid-2oth century USA (with a particular affinity for gospel), but unlike Sam Phillips, he was never able to land a major caucasian R&R crossover. However, the book makes clear that he really didn’t try that hard; as Rip it Up’s title and cover photo underscore, he had Little Richard, at least for a little while, and that secured him a ton of sales in the booming rock market. Vera’s authorial approach is to proceed roughly chronologically while spotlighting many of the singers and players who shaped one of the strongest discographies of the era (and beyond). There is also attention paid to how crooked the biz was then (Alan Freed is here in all his heinousness), enough so that Rupe retired from music and made his fortune in oil. A solid read. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Throbbing Gristle, A Souvenir Of Camber Sands, TG Now, Part Two – The Endless Not (Mute) Formed in 1975 in Kingston upon Hull, UK, Throbbing Gristle are in many ways the dictionary definition of Industrial music in its raw form, which is to say, prior to the style’s hybridization and dilution with dance beats. Emblematic of a societal bleakness that led many to take up instruments and set punk rock into motion, Throbbing Gristle didn’t react to it/ rail against the desolation but rather internalized it and then spat it back out in often chilling fashion. They remain most revered for their initial string of albums (plus a pair of expansive box sets of live material, the first holding 24 CDs, the second 10), which decades after their emergence could still unnerve.

Reforming in December 2004 for an All Tomorrow’s Parties Nightmare Before Christmas event dedicated to John Balance (aka Geoffrey Nigel Laurence Rushton, who founded Coil with TG member Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson), who’d died the month prior, A Souvenir Of Camber Sands documents them in strong form. Notably, this two-disc set was available in CDR form minutes after the performance; this is its first time on vinyl. The ambience isn’t as abrasive and confrontational as it often was back in the late ’70s, but that’s understandable and actually preferable, with much of the set list revealing a disinterest in merely repeating themselves. In studio form, Some of the tracks do derive from TG Now, which dipped a toe into the reformation pool to find the temperature favorable.

Released on LP and CD in March of 2004 and originally available to attendees of RE-TG Astoria, which was the group’s first live performance since touring the US in 1981, TG Now’s studio origin, even at roughly half the length of Camber Sands, nicely magnifies the indifference to retreading earlier achievements (there’s no need to dish out a version of “Hamburger Lady” for the assembled faithful, natch). But it’s really 2007’s Part Two – The Endless Not that drives home Throbbing Gristle’s desire to strike out for fresh territory. But it’s also familiar to the style that TG helped formulate, as “Rabbit Snare” is a bit reminiscent of Jim Thirlwell or even Angelo Badalamenti. Altogether, these three releases constitute a vital portion of this uncompromising and often brilliant outfit’s legacy. A-/ A-/ A

Roy Clark, Greatest Hits (Craft) Until this rotating rock goes kaboom, Clark will surely be known foremost as the cohost of musical variety cornball humor program Hee Haw, where he showed off some of his prodigious skills as a guitarist. He also played banjo and violin, and was quite capable as a singer, which meant he was ushered into country music’s middle of the road, where he had some hits, the biggest of which are all here, including his #1 “Come Live with Me,” which opens side two and really emphasizes Clark’s comfort with the Countrypolitan approach. This reissue appears to be a vinyl press of Clark’s 1995 Greatest Hits CD, which expanded an earlier LP on ABC/ Dot. If it’s humor you fear, that’s largely kept in check. His string prowess is highlighted with the instrumental “Riders in the Sky.” B

Aoife Nessa Frances, Land of No Junction (Ba Da Bing!) Here’s the debut album from this Irish vocalist, guitarist and songwriter (first name pronounced ee-FA), with the results reinforcing the accompanying descriptor of psych-pop, though there are appealing layers kissed by art-pop and blowing discerning folky smoke rings; the comparisons to Nico and Broadcast are apt. But Frances’ stuff is warmer (i.e., less emotionally chilly) than Nico’s stuff could be, and while she has a full band here (Cian Nugent, who also coproduced, plays bass and lead guitar), in contrast to the work of Broadcast, this set consistently (but subtly) exudes the aura of singer-songwriter. Still, “A Long Dress” into “Less is More” highlights both references. The upbeat ’60s-tinged psych-rock of “Libra” stands nicely apart. A-

Satoko Fujii & Joe Fonda, Four (Long Song) The title signifies how many times pianist Fujii and bassist/ flautist Fonda have recorded together; they’re occasionally augmented with the trumpet of Natsuki Tamura, who contributes to a pair of the seven tracks on this CD. Notably, the two pieces with Tamura are the penultimate and final selections, emerging only after the duo foundation has been solidly established. On bass, Fonda is tactically wide-ranging (pulling, bowing, scraping) and his approach to flute is consistently appealing, which is something of a rarity with the instrument. He’s especially strong in the lengthy “Stars in Complete Darkness,” the first track with Tamura, where the trio really spits out some free jazz sparks. By now, it’s quite clear that Fujii is highly unlikely to deliver a creative letdown. A

Green-House, Six Songs For Invisible Gardens (Leaving) This cassette is the debut of Los Angeles-based non-binary artist Olive Ardizoni, and with it, they have at once met and diverged from the expectations attached to a recording that’s explicitly made for the benefit of our plant companions. To elaborate, there are certain qualities that jump into my mind when greeted with this sorta scenario; calmness, chirping birds, the ebb and flow of water, ambient drifting synths. This tape has them, but there are also elements that stick out as moderately distinctive, like Ardizoni’s use of electric keyboard right off the bat. As the music progresses, the synth tech really comes to the fore, and in a decidedly ’70s mode that brought both Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and the BBC Workshop to mind. Your plants will love it, I bet. A-

The Innocence Mission, See You Tomorrow (Thérèse – Bella Union) I became reacquainted with this outfit through their tenth album, 2018’s Sun on the Square, which was a positive turn of events only partially intertwined with nostalgia (I’d heard them quite a bit in my younger days, roughly circa their self-titled 1989 debut for A&M). Additionally, the group I remembered was a four piece, with their last album and this one (and a handful before that) documenting their trio incarnation, the better to illuminate the guitar prettiness of married couple Don and Karen Peris, plus the latter’s often exquisite voice and considerable skills as a multi-instrumentalist (Mike Bitts completes the group on upright bass). Sometimes fragile but never cutesy, this is a fine blend of folk, chamber and dream pop. A-

Lightning Bolt, S/T (Thrill Jockey) The duo of Brian Chippendale and Brian Gibson bid adieu to the 20th century with this bruising, mauling, squalling, thumping hunk of noise rock. While doing so they helped usher in a wild decade of stylistically sprawling noise-based activity offered on a wide variety of formats, from home-dubbed cassettes to CDRs to lathe cut vinyl (hell, lathe cut repurposed laser discs, even). Lightning Bolt are often synopsized as blasting out audience flailing pummel (repetition being a major part of their thing), but this set brandishes range that’s sorta in microcosm to the aforementioned ’00s action. It reissues the expanded CD version with the last two cuts (including the 33-minute “Zone”) offered as digital bonuses with purchase of the 2LP. An impeccable racket as statement of purpose. A

Mr. Elevator, Goodbye. Blue Sky (Castle Face) Accompanied by a raft of press release comparisons, this synth-driven thing initially put me in an early ’80s Euro-trash cinema soundtrack frame of mind. But then second cut “Love Again” offered sustained euphoric high-school gymnasium slow-dance shimmering, and after that, there were Krautrock-ish avenues, library-esque mellotron and flute combos, and even a surprisingly rocking New Wavy stretch. And more. The human being responsible for Mr. Elevator is Tomas Dolas, he of the current lineup of Thee Oh Sees, an association which likely aided in this record scoring a Castle Face matrix (there are prior releases under the expanded moniker Mr. Elevator and the Brain Hotel). Overall, this is as enjoyable as it is unpredictable, but it’s not exactly a life changer. B+

Mythic Sunship, Changing Shapes (El Paraiso) A killer set of heavy psych/ space rock from this Danish crew, captured live at last year’s Roadburn Festival, with sax wail from Søren Skov. He also played on their prior studio effort, 2018’s Another Shape of Psychedelic Music, though in a sign of quality, only two of the five tracks here derive from that album. Specifically, Changing Shapes is more than a keepsake for those who were there, man, or a T-bone tossed into the salivating ear-mouths of stay-at-home completists. Instead, it documents what El Paraiso describes as the “most ferocious and courageous” of their three Roadburn sets, and it’s a burning, soaring, expanding delight. Put it this way; if you dig prime Hawkwind and the Stooges in Fun House skronk mode, get this baby in your wax sack yesterday. A-

OOIOO, nijimusi (Thrill Jockey) After a break of six years, the band of percussionist/ guitarist/ vocalist YoshimiO returns as a four-piece, which is how they started out back in 1995. YoshimiO is additionally noted for her membership in Japanese noise-rock masters Boredoms, but this outfit and this LP is riding its own beautifully out-there wavelength, even as the set starts out with the sort of mayhem that’s associated with her prior band. Another thing Boredoms was known for was breakneck intensity in style movement, but while OOIOO is diverse across nijimusi, one is unlikely to acquire a case of aural whiplash while listening. Instead, there’s consistency in the wonderful weirdness, with numerous passages that are almost funky. One could call this post-rock, but it’s just as aptly tagged as psychedelic. A-

Oval, Scis (Thrill Jockey) This set’s companion release, the digital-only 5-track “Eksploio” EP, came out back in early November, but Scis is out this week on limited white vinyl and CD. They complement each other quite well. Oval began in the 1990s as a collaborative affair but has been the handiwork of Berliner Markus Popp for a good while now (with a few hiatuses). He’s amassed a pretty extensive discography, of which I’m no expert, but speaking as a proponent of progressive electronics, Scis’ shots land reliably near the bullseye, maintaining the sorta extreme resonances that hearken back to the days of glitch techno but with depth that unfolds over repeated listens. Although not dancy, there are beats a plenty, and enough traces of the melodious for this to register as alternate universe pop. Right on. A-

Buck Owens & Susan Raye, The Very Best of Buck Owens & Susan Raye (Craft) Mixed gender duets were once an aspect of the soul/ R&B scene, and also straight pop, but they really blossomed in the country field. Think George Jones & Tammy Wynette (and earlier, Melba Montgomery) and Merle Haggard & Bonnie Owens, just for starters. Owens & Raye chalked up some success as well. For folks who dug their tunes as collected on Omnivore’s Owens singles CD compilations, and who wanted a little more, and wanted it on vinyl, this set will take care of those desires very nicely. Gritty individuals who gravitate toward outlaws and hardcore honky-tonkers might sneer at this stuff as lightweight, but for those who dig country-pop ingenuity, this is an ample serving with some added Bakersfield appeal. B+

Susan Raye, 16 Greatest Hits (Craft) As it offers an opening version of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” this one didn’t start out so promising, but with the following Buck Owens’ composition “One Night Stand,” the scenario rises in quality. The uptick apexes on side one with “L.A. International Airport,” which did well commercially in the US but was bigger in overseas pop markets. This crossover success signifies that she’s residing in territory outside the honky-tonk (if the Jackie DeShannon tune didn’t already make that obvious), though the lack of syrup in the arrangements is appreciated. Likewise, the pop motions, likely hoping to replicate her international good fortune, are appealing as they avoid desperation. And there is enough pedal steel to reinforce Raye’s C&W bona fides. Goes down easy. B+

Rose City Band, S/T (Thrill Jockey) Having emerged last year in an edition of 1,000 copies via Jean Sandwich Records, this is technically a reissue, but really, that’s only the case for the 1,000 or so people who snagged a copy of the earlier press. For everybody else, this is a first-time proposition, and for folks into jam-inclined non-noxiously laidback country-tinged psych-rocking, it’s an opportunity they shouldn’t squander. Thrill Jockey is a diverse enterprise, but this recording from Moon Duo’s Ripley Johnson falls a little outside my expectations for the label in a positive sense, holding moments I’d associate more with Mexican Summer or Fuzz Club or even Anton Newcombe’s A Recordings. At times, the music recalls the VU circa Loaded, early Yo La Tengo and the many children of the Dead. A-

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