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

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

NEW RELEASE PICK: Lee Ranaldo & Raül Refree, Names of North End Women (Mute) Lee Ranaldo is world-renowned as one of the guitarists in Sonic Youth. Spaniard Refree (aka Raül Fernandez Miró) isn’t as well-known perhaps, though along with record producing he is also a guitarist, so it comes as sort of a bait and switch that this release isn’t a fiesta of bent strings. I say sort of, as Ranaldo has been long noted for his range of talent. Underrated as a vocalist, this aspect of his artistry is in ample evidence here. Refree also has range, starting out in Spanish melodic hardcore band Corn Flakes before branching out to work with singers Rosalía and most recently Lina, in projects respectively focused on modernized explorations of flamenco (Los ángeles) and fado (Lina_Raül Refree).

Mute informs us that the music here was composed on marimba, vibraphone, samplers, and vintage tape recorders (guitar can be heard). Additional contributions come via Haley Fohr (aka Circuit des Yeux) and Katy and Yolanda Sey (of the Sey Sisters) with some lyrics by novelist Jonathan Lethem. As Refree produced Ranaldo’s prior album Electric Trim, there is palpable rapport here that’s beneficial to the record’s success. Also, there is a consistent stream of technology running through the songs that is very much of the moment without ever straining for the contemporary. I like that very much. Note that the sequence of the CD/ digital release and the LP slightly differ; the version of “Humps” on the CD/ digital is “Humps (Espriu Mix)” and the version of “At the Forks” on the vinyl is “At the Forks (Edit).” A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Henning Christiansen, Peter der Große / Gudbrandsdal (Institute for Danish Sound Archaeology) Born in 1932 and deceased in 2008, Christiansen was a Danish composer, sound artist and visual artist who fell in with the Fluxus movement (and his country’s Experimental Art School, Eks-Skolen) in the 1960s, and notably, became a collaborator of the artist Joseph Beuys, meeting him in 1964 and working with him until his death in 1986. As detailed in the PR for this very attractive 180gm 2LP in a reverse printed gatefold sleeve, Christiansen and Beuys’ relationship was particularly fertile in the second half of the ’60s as the composer honed his skills as a purveyor of tape music, often using multiple tape machines while on stage during multidisciplined Beuys’ art actions.

The label states that Christiansen ditched Fluxus in the 1970s and began composing neo-Romantic works such as waltzes, symphonies, and material in the mode of Danish traditional song. This turn isn’t at all unusual, as groundbreaking artists often migrate (the common descriptor is backsliding) toward older and more conservative forms as they themselves increase in age. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, though the situation often comes with a bunch of unattractive baggage. But far less predictably, Christiansen returned to Fluxus, (per the PR, again, as prior to being sent this release, my knowledge of Christiansen’s background was fairly limited) or more specifically, he reengaged with his “own vision” of Fluxus. This was during the 1980s, the decade from whence this album derives.

If you’re a massive fan of Henning Christiansen, this release is still a grand development, as neither of the two works, Peter der Große op. 174 from 1986 and Gudbrandsdal op. 178 from the following year, have been released before. Experimentalists often move intensely through phases, but the close proximity of these pieces eschews the monochromatic, with the earlier work unique in its use of synthesizer and crackle box, while the later employs echo and manipulations of tape speed. And yet the whole exudes stylistic coherence; the composer was assisted on both works by sound engineer Ernst Ludwig Kretzer. Gudbrandsdal was intended to be a collab with Beuys, though after his death it shifted to a project with artist Bjørn Nørgaard. For fans of avant-garde electronics, I’d rate this as essential. A

All the Real Girls, Movie Star Handsome (Self-released) This Seattle outfit, a four-piece with additional instrumentation, shares a name with the 2003 film by David Gordon Green that effectively belongs to that director’s mid-period, landing after his indie breakout George Washington and before his stoner comedy phase. This likely doesn’t register as especially pertinent info regarding this band, but All the Real Girls, on their third full-length and it appears vinyl debut, land in their own sorta middle zone betwixt old-school Alt-country and more recent Americana-tinged rock. Plenty of moments across this record border on the too-well-mannered, but in the group’s favor, they aren’t afraid to get anthemic; many of these cuts are growers. “Empty Glass of Ice” even reminds a bit of Steve Goodman. Neat. B+

Wild Billy Childish and the Chatham Singers, “All My Feelings Denied” b/w “I’m Ready” (Damaged Goods) It has been proposed that the work of Billy Childish all sounds the same. Specifically, that it springs from the three-pronged UK Beat rock-garage rock-punk rock impulse. If true, this wouldn’t exactly be a demerit, but in reality, Childish exudes variation within those parameters (which can be said to represent the core of his sound) and also wields range beyond, with this 45 a fine example. The a-side is a nugget from Thee Headcoats revamped in Chicago blues style complete with Walter Jacobs-like mouth harp howling and with cavernous echo like it’s 1954. The flip is a tune from the book of W. Dixon familiar from the catalog of Muddy Waters. It has the rawness and respect in the right balance. A-

Lowrider, Refractions (Blues Funeral) These Swede stoner-rockers put out their debut LP Ode To Io back in 2000 (after a pair of splits, one with Nebula, in 1998), followed by bupkis, at least in terms of physical product, until now. Refractions isn’t going to win any trophies for originality (though they are considered by many as stoner pioneers), but like garage rock outfits, Dixieland jazz units, and Elvis impersonators, standing out from the crowd as inventive isn’t the goal. Instead, the aim is to simply embody the essence of the chosen style as effectively as possible. This is no great observation on my part, nor is that for bands working in dicey genres it’s a considerable achievement. Stoner rock can definitely be dicey, but Lowrider avoid sliding into boogie-isms and largely eschew negative ’90s traits. Welcome back. B+

Pictish Trail, Thumb World (Fire) This label’s expanded reissue of the third Pictish Trail record Future Echoes effectively served as my intro to the work of Johnny Lynch, resident of the Scottish island of Eigg and a savvy studio blender of electronics, acoustic instrumentation, and songs. Future Echoes was a lot to digest, but Thumb World is a trimmer, typically album-length experience, which works in its favor, though I won’t say it’s a stronger record than its predecessor. His earlier stuff could remind me of the Pet Shop Boys, which was fine, but there are a few spots on this one that struck my ear as reminiscent of The Beta Band, though don’t go thinking that anything here is as catchy as “Dry the Rain.”  But Lynch’s approach is largely different, at times incorporating squelchy video game sonics to winning effect. B+

Raspberry Bulbs, Before the Age of Mirrors (Relapse) A New York group featuring members of Bone Awl and Rorschach, Raspberry Bulbs have put out a sizeable mess of stuff since 2008, though this is their first for Relapse. By extension, it’s the first I’ve heard. There are references to the occult and H.P. Lovecraft in the band’s bio, along with an emphatic nod in the direction of Black Metal. But what this release really brings to my mind is a blend of ’80s u-ground (non-glam) metal and the same era’s weirdo punk with noise leanings. There’s a lot of chugging and growling going on but with textures mildly reminiscent of San Francisco’s Chrome. One could think of this as an aesthetic hybrid of stuff issued on the Combat Core and Touch and Go labels and that’d be right in the Bulbs’ zip code. Appealing stuff. A-

Seablite, “High-Rise Mannequins” (Emotional Response) This San Franciscan four-piece released their debut full-length, Grass Stains and Novocaine, last year on this very label, and it was a good one. Quite good in fact, as they dug into the topsoil near the intersection of shoegaze and dreampop. This isn’t untrodden terrain, and the traversals have often been rather boilerplate. The LP brought comparisons to Lush, in part due to the gal vocals (the lineup is three women and one man) and the similarity persists, though they are branching out a bit on this 4-song 10-inch, specifically in a neo-’60s direction. You might think this fits the dreampop side of the equation, and at times yes, but “Skipping Stones” chimes rather than hovers and finale “Pretend” has a surfy vibe. “Skeleton Couch” resonates like Heavenly. Dope. A-

Dave Sewelson, More Music for a Free World (Mahakala Music) As a facilitator of gruff resonances that are in sweet consort with the march of modernity, the baritone sax is one of the greatest of all instruments. Of course, it needs a pair of lungs, fingers and a creative mind capable of tapping into its full potential. Sewelson is that person here. Those deep and rough cadences combine well with the trombone, so it’s a shame those horns aren’t combined with more frequency. They join forces and tangle here however, with Steve Swell handling the ‘bone with his typical adroitness. Upright bass giant William Parker is on hand, as is drummer Marvin Bugalu Smith, and altogether, this quartet delivers a masterpiece of wholly improvised jazz motion. It’s an overflow of wildness and beauty. A

Sightless Pit, Grave of a Dog (Thrill Jockey) Sightless Pit is Lee Buford of The Body, Kristin Hayter of Lingua Ignota, and Dylan Walker of Full of Hell, making this a supergroup in the realms of what Thrill Jockey simply peg as heavy music. The band moniker, the LP name and a few of the song titles prepared me for the aural equivalent of those extreme horror movies that kinda make you want to take a shower after watching (Fatih Akin’s The Golden Glove is a recent example, at least based on the reviews, as I haven’t scrambled out to see it). Happily, this release is nowhere in the ballpark of that sorta corrosiveness. There is a horror element, as Walker’s vocals carry forth a sorta demonic possession sensibility, but that’s offset by the beauty of Hayter’s singing. Overall, this set cultivates a post-Industrial/ dark folk atmosphere that I’m fairly certain folks into the Nurse with Wound scene will dig. A-

Wrekmeister Harmonies, We Love to Look at the Carnage (Thrill Jockey) Given that the band is named after a personally esteemed film (with a slight adjustment in spelling) by Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr (a master of long, and some have said slow, cinema), it would stand to reason that I’d be more familiar with the work of this Brooklyn by way of Chicago outfit led by JR Robinson and Esther Shaw, but that sadly hasn’t been the case. As their prior stuff remains easily available, I only have myself to blame. I have heard enough to comprehend their evolution from a guest-heavy large-ensemble experience in the neighborhood of art-metal to an excursion tighter in scope but often chamberlike and no less dark. Notable additional hands are still prevalent, with prior collaborator Thor Harris on board once again.

If you’re a total Wrekmeister Harmonies newbie and know Harris’ work in Swans, then you’ll have an inkling of what transpires across this 5-song 41-minute LP. Likewise, the engineering of Martin Bisi, who was once (and it seems, remains) one of the go-to studio guys for brooding thud. Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu is also here, playing electronics, though his contributions don’t exactly stand out. This isn’t a slight, but instead points to the cohesiveness of the sonic thrust overall. It bears noting that We Love to Look at the Carnage doesn’t really thud, but it is heavy, with the strings occasionally bringing Godspeed to mind (the approach here is largely distinct, however). Influenced by Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Stoic philosophy in general, the record inspires reflection without becoming ponderous. A-

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