Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
May 2020, Part Six

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

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Three LPs from Smithsonian Folkways. The massive archive of this esteemed label (better described as a jewel of public works) is not difficult to investigate, but original vinyl can be hard to come by and occasionally pricey, so the decision to reissue selected titles (in sharp reproductions of the distinctive tip-on jackets that define a significant portion of Folkways’ output prior to founder Moses Asch donating the entire discography to the Smithsonian in 1987), has been appreciated, and covered pretty extensively both in this column and in larger reviews in TVD’s Graded on a Curve. Unsurprisingly, the focus has largely been on folk, blues, old-time, bluegrass and Americana recordings, but Folkways’ interests also spanned into experimental and avant-garde regions, which is reflected in the three most recent reissues, all out tomorrow, and all spotlighted directly below.

The Entourage Music and Theater Ensemble, The Neptune Collection. Of the artists responsible for these three LPs, this group, with connections to Baltimore and Connecticut in the 1970s, likely has the highest profile, due in part to their music getting sampled by Four Tet, but more recently, through the release by Tompkins Square of the Ceremony of Dreams : Studio Sessions & Outtakes, 1972​-​1977 3CD (which also has a scaled back single LP edition). This album, Entourage’s second, recorded in Silver Spring, MD in May 1975, features recordings exclusive to the album, so if you have and dig either or both of those comps, you’ll probably want this one, too (their debut was reissued in 2012). Featuring Joe Clark, Wall Matthews, Rusti Clark and Michael Smith, they collectively composed for dance-theater, with this the home stereo equivalent. Listeners into world-jazz should find its contents appealing, though it often goes beyond that sorta thing, “Space Needle Suicide” in particular. A-

Craig Kupka, Crystals: New Music for Relaxation 2. Okay, so I’ll confess that music specifically made for relaxation hasn’t been a high priority in my life. That means I’m not familiar with Kupka’s prior effort, Clouds, which came out in 1981, also on Folkways. After “extensive field testing found this lovely album as popular as Mr. Kupka’s first” (you have no idea how much I enjoyed reading that on the back cover), this one followed in ’82, featuring Kupka on trombone, MXR digital delay and Arp synth, Norman Beede on Fender Rhodes and Siel synth, Bob Ose on trombone and Kenny Sawhill on bass trombone. That’s a lot of trombone, enough that the nearly 20-minute “Trombones of Lithia” on side one had me thinking of it as a possible distant cousin of ’70s NYC Minimalism, which isn’t a terrible stretch, as Kupka’s other recorded work is three volumes of Modern Dance Technique Environments. Side two’s 21-minute title track goes easy on the ‘bones but lands in early electronic territory to pleasurable effect. A-

Ann McMillan, Gateway Summer Sound: Abstracted Animal and Other Sounds. Across the decades, Folkways has released recordings of speeches, interviews, recitations by poets, authors and educators of their own works or those of others, field recordings of rain forests, junk yards, and cable car soundscapes; there’s even a self-hypnosis instructional album. But one of the more popular “non-musical” LPs, at least in my experience, as I’ve seen it in so many collections, is Sounds of North American Frogs. I own it. I enjoy it. But I appreciate McMillan’s work here a lot more, as it’s intriguing in its abstraction, blending aspects of sound collage, field recordings and early electronic music as she manipulates the sounds of frogs, insects and birds, but also children’s voices, sounds of land, air and sea traffic, pan percussion, harpsichord, and even Frederick Kiesler’s sculpture “The Gong.” There are parts that hit the ear like sound effects for a ’50s sci-fi film but are probably just a hoot owl. ‘nuff said. A-

The Courettes, “Want You! Like a Cigarette” b/w “Night Time (The Boy of Mine)” (Damaged Goods) When I last checked in with the Brazilian-Danish married duo of Flavia and Martin Couri, it was through their 2018 LP We Are the Courettes (their third) for the Sounds of Subterrania label, and it delivered a fine mix of scuzzy gal-throated Sonics-style garage thump interspersed with a some teen pop post-Spector moves that were handled by Flavia with aplomb. Well, this fresh 45 for a new label is a teaser for their next full-length, and the two songs go down just fine while emphasizing the pop side of their thing. There’s still plenty of Flavia’s fuzzed-out guitar on both numbers, it’s just that Martin is spending some quality time with his drum set tambourine, and that’s just fine. The retro pop here hits me a bit like some of King Khan & BBQ Show’s stuff, but with more instrumental layering (including some keyboard) and studio attentiveness, which is where ol’ Phil comes in. B+

Brigid Dawson & The Mothers Network, Ballet of Apes (Castle Face) Dawson is deservedly high of profile through her contributions to well over a dozen albums for Thee Oh Sees. Her role in that long-running, personnel-shifting band was often to bring the distinctive vocal accenting, which short-shrifts her but only to drive home that Ballet of Apes places Dawson in the foreground throughout and to splendid effect. Crafting this record in Australia with Mikey Young (natch) and on both coasts of the USA with members of Fresh & Onlys, Sic Alps and her former band on the left side and the psych band Sunwatchers on the right, the results have been pegged as torchy, and well yeah, but it also stirs up visions of shadowy figures wearing robes woven of heavy, coarse, brown cloth and holding big-ass round white candles.

Opener “Is the Season for New Incarnations” suggests some anonymous new wavy-post-punkish band circa 1981 wielding a blend of influences including Phil Spector (him again), the Velvet Underground and the Doors cutting a song for the soundtrack to a feature film directed by Kenneth Anger with funds provided by Dino De Laurentiis. And that’s not even the standout track. “Heartbreak Jazz” gives off a similar vibe (though the Phil, VU and Doors elements substantially dissipate) and has some exquisite acid-rock guitar. But that’s not the standout track, either. The title cut adds a massive doghouse bassline and saxophone as it stretches out a bit, with the aura reminding me a tad of Broadcast and Dawson of that band’s Trish Keenan (this is not the first time for this similarity). Standout track? Fucking bingo. Sax also features in “Heartbreak Jazz” and closer “Trixxx.” Dawson excels at slow tempos here, enhancing the torchy aura, but “When My Day of the Crone Comes” is a weird-folky twist. All-around nice effort. A-

Tyler Keith, The Last Drag (Black & Wyatt) This fine label’s raison d’être is contemporary Memphis R&R, but this 10-song effort expands that focus a bit, as Keith, a veteran singer, guitarist, songwriter and more, can be described as a man of the southern USA. Born in Florida with much time spent in Mississippi, including studying literature at Ole Miss with the late author Barry Hannah, Keith also formed the Neckbones, who had some records out on Fat Possum, and next fronted The Preacher’s Kids and then The Apostles, cut a solo acoustic record, and even joined the band Teardrop City. That’s a busy dude. Plus, he put together The Outlaw Biker, a project that seems promising (unlike most biker-aligned stuff that’s far too often just blues-rock retread, stale, bloated or otherwise crummy), specifically because it’s described as a “biker musical,” two words that are rarely if ever placed in that order. I’m imagining Satan’s Sadists directed by Bob Fosse or Stanley Donen, but it’s probably nothing like that.

Another reason I’m holding The Outlaw Biker in personal interest comes right down to the high level of quality throughout The Last Drag, which Black & Wyatt calls Keith’s 13th album, though it flies forth with the energy of a confident debut. Cut with Bronson Tew on drums and aiding in various studio capacities with other friends helping out, the results definitely land in the gist of Black & Wyatt’s thing, but if you’re clueless to what that is, let me say that Keith has a sneery punkish extroversion that kinda makes me think of Richard Hell if he’d grown up below the Mason Dixon line as the raw, oft-garage-ish R&R wafts post-Nuggets fumes that’re less-and-less common these days. I’d also say that folks into Ty Segall would find The Last Drag to be a stone gas, especially “Born Again Virgin” and the shout-along highlight “Scarlett Fever.” A delightfully consistent record that’s available digitally now but with the vinyl delayed until late June-early July due to Memphis Record Pressing’s temporary Covid-19-related closure. A-

Rafael Anton Irisarri, Peripeteia (Dais) Irisarri, who has a weighty discography and extensive production credits, is aptly described as an ambient musician and producer, though I would clarify that he comes out of the drone tradition rather than the electronic dance side of that sphere. Now, there is overlap (frequently in the “genre” as well as in Irisarri’s body of work), and this isn’t to hierarchize the drone over the electro; it’s just an observation. But if you prefer your ambient music to unfurl sans beats, step right up to Peripeteia. One impressive aspect of Irisarri’s work here is its sense of scale, with tracks unfolding in a manner that suggests (well, insists, really) something momentous is happening (but without straining and faltering into the grandiose). Simultaneously, Irisarri’s discipline and purpose are admirable. This is eight selections totaling 44 minutes, and while there are peaks and valleys of intensity by design, my attention never flagged. This is rare with this sort of stuff, and laudable. A-

Spirabassi, Improkofiev (Jazzmax) The name of this group derives from the surnames of soprano saxophonist Stéphane Spira and pianist Giovanni Mirabassi, who are reuniting here and joined in a new quartet by drummer Donald Kontomanou and bassist Steve Wood, and for one track the flugelhorn of Yoann Loustalot, on two Spira compositions, “Ocean Dance” and “After Rain,” Carla Bley’s “Lawns,” Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1,” and filling out this CD’s back end, three excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1. The execution is superb, with the music exuding the crisp, bright, accessible buoyancy that I almost come to expect with the soprano sax. The playing is so elevated that finding fault in this set can feel like nitpicking, but hey: at times Improkofiev is a little too amiable. Yes, I would’ve welcomed a bit more edge (my favorites on the instrument are Bechet, Coltrane and Lacy), but matters never devolve into Smoothness and there are numerous appealing pockets of intensity throughout. B+

Turnstyles, Cut You Off (Black & Wyatt) The duo of guitarist Seth Moody and drummer Graham Winchester hail from Memphis and have played in Jack Oblivian’s band for a handful of releases. Also, along with Moody’s wife Coco, Mr. Jack O. has joined Moody and Winchester in Cassette Set, but here, it’s just the twosome getting down to some raw, sharp and primal R&R. Indeed, at times, like the title track, they are downright garage punkish, though there is post-rockabilly trash and even a few moments recalling the hickey side of old school C&W, e.g. “Lately I’ve Been Lonesome” reminding me a bit of the backwoodsy side of Jeffrey Evens of the long gone Gibson Bros. “Miami” also recalls that sometimes duo, but not as bent, as Cut You Off often connects like a Dexter Romweber album cut in the ’90s for Crypt. Like Tyler Keith’s record above, Memphis Record Pressing’s temporarily closure due to Covid-19 delayed the vinyl release of this record, but in a bit of good news, it’s expected to arrive this week. B+

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