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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Astroturf Noise, S/T (577) Here is one of 2020’s sweetest surprises. It delivers an unpredictable and consistently rich blend of jazz, Appalachian roots, and in the wildest turn into left field, electronics. Sam Day Harmet plays mandolin/fx, Sana Nagano violin/fx, and Zach Swanson string bass. Snappy dressers all, they welcome guests Billy Martin on percussion and Sarah Bernstein on violin. If you are familiar with those names, you’ll likely suspect that this is much nearer to the avant-garde of jazz than some lame-ass library commons area yawn fest, a scenario that extends to their approach to hill roots, as the overly polite aura of contempo Americana is nowhere to be found. I’ll just say that if you’ve dug Eugene Chadbourne’s style shifting over the decades, you’re going to love this one. A

Maria McKee, La Vita Nuova (Afar – Fire) Fucking wow. McKee is the former singer and guitarist for the ’80s country-rock outfit Lone Justice. That band continues to be occasionally tagged as cowpunk, which isn’t wrong, though they did undergo a pretty quick refinement that found me increasingly less interested. Well, she’s been involved with all sorts of things since, including solo work, but I’ll confess to familiarizing myself with little of it, and anyway, this is her first solo effort since 2007’s Late December. As the opening phrase of this review probably makes clear, La Vita Nuova is a doozy. An homage to Dante’s opus on unrequited love, it draws inspiration from John Cale, Scott Walker, and Bowie plus Brit poets Keats, Swinburne, and Blake (initially based in L.A., McKee has relocated to England), but lands securely in Brit-folk/ chamber pop territory. Already borderline excellent and very likely a grower. A-

Sunn Trio, Electric Esoterica (Twenty One Eight Two Recording Company) The world is fucking burning. Maybe you’ve noticed. The music of Sunn Trio is deeply tied to this circumstance, with particular attention to the Middle East. Although based in Phoenix (as is the 2182 label), this outfit, with the core member being guitarist Joel Robinson (at times, the group’s number has been significantly larger than three), dishes desert music that’s considerably (and ethically) world cognizant, as befitting a relationship with fellow Arizonans Alan and Richard Bishop (more on them directly below). The influences of free jazz, improv, psych, and punk are also noted and are integrated here in a manner that, due to obvious practice, is nearly seamless, but with an abundance of grit and danger. A beautiful thing. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Sun City Girls, Live at the Sky Church – September 3rd, 2004 (Twenty One Eight Two Recording Company) This is the first new music from Sun City Girls since Funeral Mariachi back in 2010, but as the title conveys, it’s also archival, documenting a Seattle show from 2004. Charles Goucher, who was a third of Sun City Girls, passed in 2007, leaving brothers Richard and Alan Bishop to carry on in various modes, including as custodians of the group’s legacy. This album, which is accompanied by a DVD of the performance (that I have not watched), captures them at particular heights of psychedelia, antagonism and the perplexing. Note: this is Vol. 2 in the Mount Meru Anthology Series. Vol. 3 is directly above. Vols. 1-4 are being issued in a wooden box set in an edition of 75. A

Black Market Brass, Undying Thirst (Colemine) From Minneapolis, Black Market Brass are 11 members strong, a number that worried me a little more than a bit, as the higher the number of contributors in a brass ensemble situation, the more likely it will be some crummy vamp-fest. That equates to a good time for my 8th grade music teacher (who wore a Jackson Pollack-inspired necktie and was really into Blood Sweat & Tears), but not for me. However, Black Market Brass are described as a decidedly Afrobeat-influenced affair, and as this set unwinds, I can hear it and do appreciate the overall thrust. But right away Undying Thirst productively leans into a ’70s action movie OST angle, and with a few freak-outs that leads me to think this’ll appeal to fans of Naked City as much as folks into Budos Band. Nice. A-

The Bonniwell Music Machine, S/T (Real Gone) I rate “Talk Talk” by The Music Machine to be one of the great ’60s garage punk singles, so I’ve long known of this record by the later incarnation of the band after they left the Original Sound label and ended up on Warner Brothers. In fact, I did spend some time with this album, dubbed onto a cassette, back in the early ’90s and thought it was cool and surprisingly engaging, if not necessarily consistent as a full LP, as there was a lot of not too detrimental stylistic range, including folk-rock and moments that can be classified as baroque-pop. This is worth noting, as most ’60s garage bands were lucky if they had two great songs in them, much less a fairly solid LP. The Music Machine had two, though they are by two essentially different groups.

For The Bonniwell Music Machine, the band was rechristened, as everyone from their debut except singer Sean Bonniwell bailed prior to release, though a portion of this record does feature the earlier lineup. All this said, this set wasn’t cool enough for me to drop the significant sum the tape dubber was asking for his original copy. I’ve heard it since, as it was reissued on Sundazed’s Beyond the Garage compact disc in 1995 and was given the expanded treatment by Ace subsidiary Big Beat in 2014, but I didn’t buy either of those because, well…CD. And so, this first-time vinyl reissue is a development I can completely get behind, for reacquainting myself with its contents finds it all holding up pretty well. As originals currently go for a $100 or more, this edition is a smart alternative. B+

The Donnas, Gold Medal (Real Gone) Of all The Donnas recordings up to this point (this was the sixth full-length, issued in 2004), this one might be the second least essential; I haven’t heard the next one Bitchin’, but the scoop is it’s the worst of the bunch, and while I recall predecessor Spend the Night, it’s been years. Gold Medal isn’t a disaster. As the guitars haven’t been sacrificed, it’s not even close, but it’s also afflicted with the malady of maturity. Rather than playing it smart and continuing to “make the same record over and over” and letting people absorb the variations over time, The Donnas progressed away from the Ramones template; this was inaugurated on the prior effort (I can remember that much). Gold Medal has a Joan Jett thing happening, but the songs and the sound aren’t consistently there. B

Early Day Miners, Placer Found (Secretly Canadian) Early Day Miners were formed in Bloomington, IN in 1999. This is an attractive 2LP reissue of their debut full-length from the following year, which was first issued by Western Vinyl but only on compact disc. This edition, by the label that put out their 2002 follow-up Let Us Garlands Bring and much of their subsequent discography, adds two songs and lengthens two more (the opening title cut and the closer of the initial sequence “Desert Cantos”). Although they list diverse influences, including Eno, Talk Talk, and John Fahey, the sound is recognizable as slowcore, and pretty immediately so (but really driven home in second track “East Berlin at Night”). Still, I’ve never gotten the idea that the range of inspirations was a case of insincere eclecticism.

If the stylistic term slowcore rings no personal bells, this music does indeed unwind at a measured pace, but Early Day Miners aren’t exactly monochromatic, as significant chunks of this set can be described as heavy, and “Longview” is aptly pegged as sprightly. Still, if you know slowcore but somehow missed the boat on Early Day Miners back in the day, Placer Found will offer few surprises, The original running order does end strongly, but even better, the two instrumental bonuses are a worthwhile addendum (from the sessions for the album) rather than superfluous leftovers, illuminating how slowcore partially overlapped the whole post-rock shebang and reinforcing Placer Found as a solid example of the crossover. Along the way, a few of those above influences do subtly assert themselves. B+

Luke Haines & Peter Buck, Beat Music for Survivalists (Omnivore) Peter Buck is well-known as the guitarist for R.E.M. Luke Haines’ profile might not be as high, but he was the guitarist for The Auteurs, and as he sings here, it’s really his personality that shines through the strongest. Bassist-keyboardist Scott McCaughey and drummer Linda Pitmon complete the band, and indeed, this does unwind like a group effort (and a bit of a supergroup given everyone’s ample prior credits), even if it’s Haines’ talents that are in the foreground. But the record is essentially an overdub situation, which just goes to show that one can’t make assumptions. What’s undeniable is that the 10-song set exudes a subtle but increasingly prominent strain of Brit eccentricity combined with R&R swaggering that highlights how Haines’ paintings of Lou Reed triggered the whole project (Buck bought one). Good stuff. B+

Little Beaver, Party Down (Real Gone) Little Beaver, né Willie Hale, is noted today for his guitar playing on assorted releases on the TK label (K.C. & the Sunshine Band, Timmy Thomas, Betty Wright, Benny Lattimore), for being extensively sampled in 21st century hip-hop, and for landing at the #2 spot on the R&B chart with the title track to this album. Now, if the TK connection leads you to think of disco, that’s off target with this record, which is much better assessed as R&B, warm but not slick, with the expected guitar flourishes and a funk tinge. The two parts of slow groove “Party Down” open the record back-to-back, and while nothing else on the disc surpasses that killer, the ride is consistently enjoyable, in part because of the budget tech, including rhythm machines, on display throughout. It’s very TK. B+

Monophonics, It’s Only Us (Colemine) My main prior exposure to this Bay Area psych-soul crew was “Mirrors,” a 12-inch EP of covers, which came out in 2018 on the Transistor Sound label, but they have a slew of recordings under their collective belt, including over a half-dozen 45s. This is their fifth full-length, and by the looks of it, the third on wax. The big distinction in relation to “Mirrors” is that this new set is composed of original tunes, with the bunch holding up like classics. That’s no small achievement. Now, the brand of psych-soul here is much closer to the strain proffered by late ’60s Motown than to the Monophonics’ San Fran predecessor Sly Stone, but diverse elements get sprinkled in, like a symphonic approach in finale “Day By Day” that’s mildly reminiscent of Isaac Hayes. Yep! A-

Samuel Rohrer, Continual Decentering (Arjunamusic Electronic Series) From Switzerland and based in Berlin since 2003, Rohrer is a drummer with jazz in his background but also elements of electronic music, working as a third of the trio Ambiq, in assorted collaborations, and solo; Continual Decentering is the follow-up to his Range of Regularity from 2017. That Rohrer’s sensibility here derives from the progressive end of the ’90s electronic spectrum is obvious pretty quickly, though his method, which is based on a hybrid system where his drumming triggers modular synthesizer processes, lends this an organic “live” feel that’s subtly distinct from a lot of contemporary electronic-based stuff. Essential to the success of these 13 tracks is that Rohrer’s playing avoids faltering into standard progressions. A-

Seiche, Demo Press (Jackpot) This reissues the sole 1981 LP by a trio of Chicago teenagers whose excursion into prog, hard rock and psych is undeniable. Recorded across two sessions with few overdubs and released in a small edition of 150 copies, they played one gig where, beside hitting the stage for a handful of attendees (many of them friends and acquaintances), they weren’t allowed to leave the dressing room due to their underage status. Overall, this is definitely a private press situation, but it’s not outsider, as these kids could really play, and the production by Joe Klinger (also their manager) was more than just competent. And on the subject of really playing, guitarist Steve Zahradnik dishes an abundance of histrionics that probably wouldn’t be as appealing on a record by a “professional” band.

Funny how that works. But it’s important to note that Zahradnik doesn’t overshadow his bandmates, as bassist Tom Vess and drummer Marc Levinson aren’t exactly shy about their abilities, though they all manage to stay close to the power trio course. Zahradnik and Vess are the singers, with both sounding okay as the lyrics are probably the record’s weakest aspect. Still, there’s nothing terribly embarrassing going on with the words, and a few tracks add range, like the crisp melodicism of “The Wave” (the guitar does eventually step to the fore). Ultimately, the record’s title is right on the money, as this is an effective demo for a band that, had they stayed together, would’ve likely found some level of success. Adeptness and amateurism are rarely found in such a productive tandem. B+

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