Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
April 2020, Part One

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

NEW RELEASE PICK: Trees Speak, Ohms (Soul Jazz) I was turned onto this Tucson, AZ outfit via their self-titled 2017 debut on the Italian Cinedelic imprint. The label change for LP two should increase the profile of the group, especially since Soul Jazz hardly ever deviates from reissues and anthologies. Led by Daniel Martin Diaz, rather than jazzy grooving or post-punk, Trees Speak specialize in the psychedelically Krautrocking, but with an unharried approach that could appeal to folks into King Gizzard or maybe even early Tame Impala. I happen to dig what Trees Speak are up to a lot more than those two however, partly because they do it sans vocals (likely why they were on Cinedelic), and additionally due to the heavier (and sax skronkier) passages. The decidedly Germanic keyboard-synth motions are also welcome, as are the spots that again suggest Meddle-era Floyd. Comes with bonus 45. Holding tight! A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Robbie Basho, Songs of the Great Mystery–The Lost Vanguard Sessions (Real Gone) The scoop here is that in 2009 Vanguard contacted American Primitive guitar expert and fingerpicker extraordinaire Glenn Jones regarding a discovered tape of the very great and highly underrated guitarist Basho, who cut records for John Fahey’s Takoma label, Vanguard, and later Windham Hill prior to his premature passing in 1986 at age 45. Turns out the tape was from the same long session that produced his two Vanguard LPs rather than a batch of second-rate stuff for Guitar Soli maniacs, so this is four sides of exquisite playing on guitar and piano (opening and closing the set) plus an abundance of singing (and whistling), so if you can’t abide his voice, then please move along. There are only 1,000 copies in this pressing (on clear wax), and they belong in upstanding homes. A

V/A, Stone Crush: Memphis Modern Soul 1977-1987 (Light in the Attic) Complete with typically excellent liner observations by Memphis expert Robert Gordon, this is an enlightening dive into a run of singles, and everything here was originally issued on 45, that will almost certainly be new discoveries to all but the most soul diligent. I’ll confess that the period covered coincides with a declining personal interest in soul/ funk/ R&B, in large part due to the prevailing commercial sound of the times, but even as a fair portion of the sounds anthologized here bounce around like a dingleberry in Rick James’ jockstrap, the generally modest production values impact the whole in a manner that’s enjoyable, with unavoidable fluctuations, across the set’s four sides. However, things never dip too low as the highlights can get up there pretty high.

Amongst my favorite moments are the linguistic love-tango in “Under Cover Lover” by the wonderfully named Captain Fantastic and Starr Fleet, the swirling DIY of “What Does it Take to Know (A Woman Like You),” by Greg Mason (with crucial input from producer Bernard Haynes), my pick for standout of the bunch, and the sneakily old-school “You Mean Everything to Me” by Sweet Pearl. The intermingled bluesy and fuzzy guitar in Frankie Alexander’s “Take Time Out for Love” and the horn-laden groove-glide of Cato’s “Slice of Heaven” are also dips into earlier sounds. And as Memphis was a music industry town, there are ties to the city’s well-documented past, directly to Willie Mitchell and Ardent Studios, indirectly to B.B. King. Now, you could procure original copies of these 45s, which would be cool but will set you back stupid money, or you can get this, which would be even cooler. You could also do both. A-

Born Ruffians, JUICE (Yep Roc) The sixth full-length from this Toronto-based indie rock act is my introduction to their thing. They appear to have slimmed down to a trio from an earlier four-piece reality; it’s much easier to discern their propensity for anthemic emo-purge instrumental attack, suitable for big crowd swoons at amphitheater shows, as displayed toward the end of first track “I Fall in Love Every Night.” What I like is how Born Ruffians don’t overindulge in this tendency. It’s not all about catharsis, as the opener begins with horns reminiscent of Hi Records (but obviously not as killer) and mid-way through features a sax solo that suggests they’ve been musing over the E. Street Band. Not everything here thrills me, but it’s refreshing to hear an indie album in 2020 that wants to (and can effectively) rock a little bit, e.g. the riffy New Yawk attitude of “The Poet (Can’t Jam).” B+

Anna Burch, If You’re Dreaming (Polyvinyl) Burch, who hails from the Motor City and who is no stranger to this column either solo (2018’s Quit the Curse) or as part of Failed Flowers (who recently surfaced as part of Slumberland Records’ anniversary singles club), has the kind of voice that could potentially falter into the cutesy. Think a slowed-down twee cover of an ’80s-’90s alterna-pop tune accompanied by strummed ukulele in a commercial for organic multi-grain cereal. Don’t do it, Anna. My urging is due to the pleasurable consistency of the dozen songs on this, her second solo album. Throughout, she hangs at the intersection of smart indie pop and strummed singer-songwriter introspection that’s adult and yes, alternative-tinged without succumbing to the blandness of maturity. Instead, the aura of classic is delivered with freshness. Fans of her cohort Fred Thomas shouldn’t hesitate to check this out. A-

Busted Statues, “Ashes and Relics” EP (First City Artists) If you want to get a handle on the highly fertile ’80s u-ground rock scene in the USA, you could start with this archival EP by Boston five-piece Busted Statues. It expands their ’89 7-inch with three tracks from the same session. The accompanying PR describes them as local legends, but cognizance of their existence reached to any shelves that held copies of the compilations Bands that Could Be God (on Gerard Cosloy’s Conflict label) and Let’s Breed! (on Throbbing Lobster). While those LPs date from ’84, the passage of time and the long gap in activity (with personnel changes) weren’t detrimental to the group. “Red Clouds” (A-side of the 45 and the highlight) and “Relics” (unreleased) were co-written with Mission of Burma’s Clint Conley. A-

Evan Caminiti, Varispeed Hydra (Dust Editions) Caminiti, formerly of Barn Owl, has a whole bunch of stuff out, but I mainly know his electroacoustic-based work through the 2017 release Toxic City Music. That’s a very Burroughsian title, and it also gets to that record’s urban focus. Varispeed Hydra follows it up by shifting attention to the rural, though it’s not like he’s radically adjusted his modus operandi. A connection between musique concrete and dub is cited, which is on target, but the whole is much nearer to the former, as the thrust is abstract without being disruptive. On this note, the prior record brought non-dance Industrial to mind, and while a few moments here do the same, it’s important to mention how this record lacks a tendency toward the attitudinally dark. That’s refreshing. A-

Day Dream, Originals (Corner Store Jazz) The third meeting in a decade of pianist Steve Rudolph, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Phil Haynes fits so securely into a piano trio zone that it’s all a little surprising to these ears, which haven’t heard their first outing, described as focused on ballads, or the second backing up vocalist-songwriter Nick Horner. The surprise is due to the edgier and exploratory tendencies Gress and Haynes have displayed in their bodies of work, though the bassist also has extensive inside credits spanning back to the ’80s. For Originals (which has compositions from all three participants) Rudolph gets on the straight-ahead piano trio highway and never takes an offramp; to call his playing at the start subdued borders on understatement, but the pace and energy do pick up. I’m impressed, but not blown away, which given the nature of the exercise, kinda seems like the intention. B+

Fire in the Radio, Monuments (Wednesday) Fire in the Radio hail from Philly, and with Monuments now have three full-length records under their belts, but this one serves as my introduction to their thing and pleased to meet ya! I say that because they take the tried-and-true rock lineup (the number of belts in this band is four), with guitarists Richard Carbone and Jonathan Miller sharing vocals while Ed Olsen and Adam Caldwell handle the bass and drums respectively, and give it a solid, energetic indie rock kick (keeping those anthemic qualities in check) that is likely to be met with enthusiasm by fans of Spoon and The Walkmen, and even older hands (like me) into Hüsker Dü (there is considerable punkish drive) and Archers of Loaf. If you fit that age description and are currently COVID-19 quarantining with a son or daughter who’s really into The Killers, playing this could easily inspire some family bonding. Just be sure to keep the proper distance during that basement rec room dance party, okay? A-

Dom Flemons, Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus (Omnivore) One of sweetest musical events I’ve experienced almost eluded me, as I got to see the late Mike Seeger play in a roller rink in Berryville, VA in the early ’00s only because I noticed the flyer for the event the day before tacked to a corkboard in my local record store. Since then, I’ve caught Dom Flemons three times, once when he was still in the Carolina Chocolate Drops and twice on his own, and will undoubtedly see him again, because, like Seeger, he is a treasure of pre-WWII American folksong in its myriad forms. This 2CD set is nearly 90 minutes of Flemons in songster mode, which means there is considerable range on display (as a songster could keep the party rocking all by themselves), and if you’re thinking the results are going to be likeable but quaint, please check out the fife and drum excursions “Gotto Beat” and “Going Backward Up the Mountain.” Doing so will recalibrate your expectations.

Flemons can also give hokum an infusion of contempo verve that’s so subtle there are no audible traces of strain. This occurs both musically and lyrically, as he can tap into old-time music’s risqué qualities without going overboard, in the process simply reasserting that the general populace has always been a little bit dirty-minded (and that’s way cool). He can also play the bones and the quills (aka the pan pipes) like nobody’s biz, which helps to underscore the sheer instrumental variety on display, as guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and even horns (beyond fifes and flutes) figure in the mix. “Clock on the Wall” is a taste of Chicago blues that could’ve been put out by the Alligator or Blind Pig labels in the ’70s-’80s. Prospect Hill is like the best day of school you ever had. Better, even. A

The Frogs, 1st (End of All Music) Last year this label reissued It’s Only Right and Natural, The Frogs’ second album from 1989, which featured the brothers Dennis (RIP) and Jimmy Flemion in their stripped-down bedroom psych-folk mode. That record defined The Frogs as galivanting along the boundary where bad taste meets questionable subject matter, but this archival release of the session that was intended the be their first album (hence the title) highlights the desire to provoke as a seed just sprouting. It also captures them as a rock band. This was the scenario with their actual first album (self-titled and initially self-released in ’88); in fact, three cuts from The Frogs are also here: “And So You’re the King,” and bonus tracks “Layin’ Down My Love 4 U” (two versions) and “She Was a Mortal.”

The reason 1st languished in the can was because Dennis’ felt the session held too much reverb. For it’s belated release, said trait has been cleaned up. Listening now, it’s understandable why Twin/Tone, home to fellow Minneapolis bands The Replacements and Soul Asylum, were interested, and by extension, why so many high-profile acts, from Smashing Pumpkins to Pearl Jam to Kurt Cobain to The Breeders to Sebastian Bach to Evan Dando, who recently finished a West Coast tour with Jimmy Flemion to promote the reissues, figure in the Frogs’ story. But as said, the root of the outfit’s frequently transgressive sensibility is on display here, particularly in “I Killed ‘em White Guy” and “Guru” (which has three versions). On the other side, “Hellsville Baby” and “Is Anyone Home 2 Love?” are psych-pop flavored nuggets pointing toward the more twisted instrumental motifs to come. A-

The Grateful Dead, Dick’s Picks Vol. 24-Cow Palace Daly City, CA 3/23/74 & Road Trips Vol. 3 No. 2 Austin 11-15-71 (Real Gone) As the dates make clear, the Dick’s Picks release was recorded later, but this edition, the second in Real Gone’s vinyl initiative into the extensive live series, was reissued earlier than the Road Trips 2CD, with the 4LP set already sold out at the source. I include it here so that any interested parties who happen to see a copy in stores (or given the current COVID-19 situation, in a store’s online inventory) won’t hesitate in scooping it up, for it is a very good one, borderline excellent even, and notable as the debut of the Wall of Sound PA and the last time they did the “Playing in the Band/ Uncle John’s Band/ Morning Dew/ Uncle John’s Band/ Playing in the Band” medley.

The Cow Palace show is also the first time they played “Cassidy” and “Scarlet Begonias.” Again, it’s a sharp performance, especially that medley, but I gotta say I dig the Road Trips show more, largely due to how it alternates between the sound of what I like to call the Dead’s Americana period (Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty) and their earlier, more expansively psychedelic stuff as personified by Live/Dead. And so, “Truckin’” opens the show and “Casey Jones” comes later, but “Dark Star” is also here, though with a take of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” sandwiched in between. I only wish it was on wax. When Real Gone’s first vinyl dive into Dick’s Picks was announced, a Deadhead pal scoffed at the 6LP set (’77 in Rochester, NY), specifically at the prospect of flipping sides six times, but the hotcakes rapidity of sales for both volumes shows others don’t mind and that further installments are inevitable. A- /A

Juju, Live at the East 1973 (Now-Again) & Oneness of Juju, Space Jungle Luv (Now-Again) What began as Juju in San Francisco in 1971 became Oneness of Juju, then Plunky & the Oneness of Juju and finally just Plunky & Oneness; along the way there was a change of coasts with a move to Richmond, VA as leader James Plunky Branch (aka Plunky Nkabinde) worked in higher education. Until last year, Juju was known for a pair of albums on the cornerstone spiritual jazz label Strata-East, but then a couple of performance records emerged. Live at the East 1973 is one of them, initially a Vinyl Me, Please exclusive and now available to non-subscribers to that service. It’s a welcome addition to the annals of ’70s jazz expansiveness, with fans of the Strata-East albums sure to dig it.

Flash forward to 1976, and for Space Jungle Luv, their second LP as Oneness of Juju, a considerable refinement had taken place. This shouldn’t suggest that they’d went to the dogs, but rather that what they were offering was frequently closer to funk than Fire Music. This is especially worth noting, as Live at the East 1973 is quite reminiscent of the work of Pharoah Sanders during the same period (in fact, Sanders has his own live record from this very Brooklyn venue released the previous year). Space Jungle Luv isn’t devoid of jazz elements, with the influence of Sanders rising up at times, but it’s largely Pharoah at his most accessible. And the funk regularly leans to the sophisto, although there are also flashes of grit. It’s a likeable album, it’s just not up to the same level as Live at the East 1973. A- / B

Joni Mitchell, Shine (Craft) It took me until my thirties to begin fully appreciating Mitchell, but I’ll confess that when I want a taste of her artistry, I nearly always go back to her ’60s-’70s work. Reviewing the Love Has Many Faces CD box Rhino put out back in 2014 helped reinforce this tendency, but not everything post-1980 has left me cold. “Hana” from this 2007 record, which debuts on vinyl with this reissue, was one of Faces’ better moments, though the whole of this release is definitely a mixed bag. Mitchell’s a certified jazzbo, but I just wish her way of expressing her love of the style wasn’t so…smooth, as personified by instrumental opener “One Week Last Summer.” This is partly due to the alto and soprano sax of Bob Sheppard, which accents many of the tunes. But much of Shine has Mitchell at the piano singing, and quite a bit of it is more than alright, particularly the penultimate title track. However, the redo of “Big Yellow Taxi” (with guitar from Sweet Baby James) is…okay, I guess. And so… B

Necks, Three (Northern Spy – ReR Megacorp – Fish of Milk) With their 21st full-length, this Australian trio continue to astound. Like much of their output, Three is CD and digital only; the title is also the set’s number of tracks, with each over 20 minutes long, so it won’t work as a single LP and isn’t a good fit as a double album, either. But alas, when the sounds are this good, I’ll take ‘em however they come. On each selection, pianist Chris Abrahams, bassist Lloyd Swanton, and drummer-percussionist Tony Buck go in distinct directions. While The Necks are generally tagged as a jazz group with experimental and minimalist leanings, opener “Bloom” features a powerful and incessant rhythm that to my ear recalls the wilder side of ’90s techno. “Lovelock” is dedicated to the memory of former Celibate Rifles singer Damien Lovelock,” and it’s as amorphous as it is emotionally involving, while closer “Further” hits their minimalist-groove sweet spot. All-around (typically) tremendous work from a treasure of New Music. A

Lennie Tristano, The Duo Sessions (Dot Time) This is an unexpected and very welcome CD documenting the great pianist Tristano in duo with three different instruments: first, six selections from 1970 with saxophonist Lenny Popkin; second, two cuts from ‘76 with pianist (and Tristano protégé) Connie Crothers, the only time Tristano was captured in a keyboard duet (he did multitrack his own playing though, and notably before Bill Evans did it); and third, eight tracks from ’67/’68 with drummer Roger Mancuso. All three settings are highly rewarding as they illuminate the pianist’s brilliance at the crossroads of composition, improvisation and interaction. The two parts of “Concerto” with Crothers are perhaps the most illuminating in how they begin in a classical zone (per the title, natch) and then subtly integrate elements of jazz into the dialogue without getting into a Third Stream zone.

Tristano, maybe remembered most today as a teacher-mentor to saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, is so resistant to romanticism and other similar embellishments toward accessibility, while at the same time being in many ways a classicist (debuting as a leader in ’46, he’s often associated with the original bebop era), that he’s too “cold” or “cerebral” (a dicey term in my estimation) for many trad ears, and simultaneously not raucous or disruptive enough for folks who like to camp out in jazz’s wilder territories. These duos help to dissipate the man’s chilly rep, as he delivers some engaging forward motion in the exchanges, especially with Mancuso’s drums. Newbies will want to start with the ’49 recordings (released in ’72) on Crosscurrents, or Tristano from ’56, or The New Tristano (solo) from ’61, but fans will definitely want to hear this. The first in a Tristano series by Dot Time, which is great news. A

Jan Wagner, “Kapitel” (Quiet Love) Wagner is a Berliner specializing in ambient electronics; he describes this EP (ample at nearly 29 minutes) as the “second half of a book” picking up where his debut Nummern left off. This leaves me at a bit of a disadvantage, as I don’t know that one (I received this promo by accident, in fact). I can still draw a few conclusions, however. Piano is Wagner’s compositional core, though the instrument is often missing in the finished selections (apparently more prevalent on Nummern). He’s also eschewed naming the tracks beyond the EP’s title followed by a not sequential numeral, a tactic carried over from his prior effort in an attempt to free the music from predetermined interpretations. Wagner’s piano avoids getting too neo-classically serene, his electronic textures eschew the trite, and he successfully adds vocals (Rosa Anschütz’s) to “Kapirel 30.” An engaging experience. B+

M. Ward, Migration Stories (Anti) I pretty much lost track of M. Ward after Transistor Radio, though I do recall liking Post-War based on a handful of listens. That’s roughly 15 years of absence (excluding run ins with She & Him) but sidling up to Migration Stories finds that Ward’s brand of contempo Americana has undergone no radical alterations. This is not to suggest the man hasn’t progressed in the meantime. Ward’s considerable guitar prowess is still very much in evidence (check “Stevens’ Snow Man”), but his singer-songwriter compass seems to be pointed a little nearer to due Pop (as opposed to indie folk with the occasional rock shadings) with an emphasis on the 1960s and a dip back to the ’40s through “Along the Santa Fe Trail.” But again, not a wild departure, as pop has always been a tool in his belt. But those soft-rock horns and injections of synth are sticking out as I get reacquainted. Still, a comfortable LP. B+

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