Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for September 2020, Part Four

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

NEW RELEASE PICK: Chris Smither, More From the Levee (Signature Sounds) Singer-songwriter Chris Smither is from the old school. When I listen to him, I hear echoes of Townes Van Zandt, Spider John Koerner, Eric Von Schmidt, and even a key influence on Smither, Mississippi John Hurt, as the fingerpicking on this album is impressive. Smither cut two records for the Poppy label in the early ’70s and then a third one for United Artists that went unreleased for decades. In fact, he didn’t record again until 1984, but since then, he’s been steadily productive, with More From the Levee his 18th album, though the songs date back to 2014 and the recording of his 16th, Still on the Levee, which was a 25-track double set featuring fresh versions of songs from his substantial repertoire. Well, that record wasn’t the entire session, with these ten cuts right up there with the prior 25 in terms of quality. Similar to Randy Newman’s Songbook albums, the new treatments hold up like someone just bought them a pair of suspenders, with “Lonely Time” and “Caveman” my favorites so far. But the whole thing is a delight. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Willie Colón canta Héctor Lavoe, Cosa Nuestra (Craft Recordings) This was the first gold record for the union of trombonist and leader Colón and vocalist Lavoe; it is often cited as Colón’s first masterpiece and occasionally ranked as his best album. As I haven’t heard all of Colón’s work, I can’t verify the latter statement, but that Cosa Nuestra is a masterwork is easy to affirm, as it’s a flawless document of constant structural magnificence that, as the eight selections unfurl, strikingly mingles sheer verve and heightened finesse. As the fourth record to team Colón with Lavoe (all of them for the Fania label), with Johnny Pacheco again serving as recording director, it found them truly hitting their stride as the NYC scene transitioned toward salsa. Make no mistake; this is the sound of a band with no weak link, though the dual trombones of the bandleader and Eric Matos are a total gas, as is the piano of Professor Joe Torres. The rhythms punch with flair, and Lavoe is a gift of assured expressiveness. A+

Alfredo Linares Y Su Sonora, Yo Traigo Boogaloo (Vampisoul) As detailed directly above, most of the Latin retrospective heat to recently hit my ear canals has come via Craft Recordings and their welcome Fania reissues, but here’s an exception, cut in Peru in 1968 and originally released by the MAG label, the second of two LPs from the band led by noted pianist Linares. Per the title, the boogaloo style is prominent across these 13 tracks, but the sound also incorporates Latin jazz and descarga (the Cuban jam session style) while pointing toward salsa, as the sounds of New York were influential on what was being harnessed in MAG studios. While the heft of the swinging collectivity here isn’t as gripping as on Cosa Nuestra, it’s still an utter treat from start to finish, and I especially like Charlie Palomares’s vibraphone. 500 copies, so don’t futz around. A

Camille Yarbrough, The Iron Pot Cooker (Craft Recordings) A record that should have a much higher profile (beyond its sampling by Fatboy Slim) gets a deserved reissue. The reason for my esteem is threefold. First, Yarbrough is a ’70s street-poetess, performance artist, and social activist of the first order, a total equal to Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets, and with a command of language strong enough that I also thought of Wanda Coleman, Nikki Giovanni, and Jaki Shelton Green. Second, the instrumental accompaniment across the record is consistently rewarding, legitimately enhancing the proceedings rather than simply providing standard “spoken-word” backup, which directly relates to reason number three, specifically, that Yarbrough is quite talented as a singer, best heard in this context in the sequential tracks “Ain’t It a Lonely Feeling,” “Take Yo’ Praise” (the one Fatboy sampled), and “Can I Get a Witness?,” enough so that The Iron Pot Cooker also brought Nina Simone to mind. Such a powerful recording, with closer “All Hid” unnerving in the context of the moment. Edition of 2,300. A

The Boys Next Door, Door, Door (Rhino) Those nutso for Nick Cave very likely know The Birthday Party, but before they took that name they were The Boys Next Door, cutting this album in Melbourne prior to a move to London, followed by the name change and developments into a much more interesting, and extreme, band. In a nutshell, Door, Door documents a bunch of youths navigating a melodic, at times flirting with downright catchy (with backing vocals and everything), post-punk sound (with a few New Wavy moves) without the benefit of strong songs, at least until Rowland S. Howard joined (the standout is the finale, Howard’s oft-covered “Shivers”). Prior to his arrival, they’d recorded a whole album, but then scrapped half of it and returned to the studio; side one here is what they kept, and the four songs on side two feature Howard (he wrote all but one), which is when things started to get more interesting. Likeable but quite modest, it’s still cool to hear Cave fronting the near power pop of “The Voice.” B

The Feminine Complex, Livin’ Love (Modern Harmonic – Sundazed Music) My introduction to The Feminine Complex came through the 1996 CD reissue of this record on Teen Beat, the label of Unrest’s Mark Robinson, who also put out a second collection of additional demos and live material as To Be in Love. The track sequence for this 2LP reissue of Livin’ Love appears to be the same as Teen Beat’s CD, which is swell, as the added tracks don’t just extend the portrait of this ’60s Nashville-based all-gal band, they make for a far more invigorating listen, in large part because the group actually played on the demo stuff (unsurprisingly, they were replaced with studio musicians on the LP, which came out on the Athena label in 1969). Those 11 songs aren’t dismissible however, as ten of them were written by guitarist-vocalist Mindy Dalton (the exception is credited to bassist Jean Williams). There are also a few production techniques on the LP that are…interesting, in a period sense. But sides three and four are really where it’s at. It’s sweet to hear this again after far too long. B+

Parish Hall, S/T (Craft Recordings) Based in the Bay Area, the band Parish Hall featured vocalist, guitarist and pianist Gary Wagner, bassist John Haden, and drummer Steve Adams working in blues-rock power trio style, cutting one album in 1970 for the Fantasy label through the auspices of Ray Shanklin (who composed the scores to Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic). The 10-song LP they made has, apparently, been compared to the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which, to my ear, is a serious stretch, as the JHE was one of the very best bands of their era (arguably the greatest rock trio of all time), and Parish Hall…isn’t either of those things. That’s not to suggest this record’s a turkey. In their favor, the songs are all originals, and if not amazing constructions, they do avoid just regurgitating standard form moves, with the added bonus that Wagner was an emotive but unstrained singer. In terms of comparisons, Parish Hall strikes me as nearer to the sound of the late-’60s post-Cream Brit blues-rock brigade, so if you’ve been digging the Groundhogs RSD reissues, I’ll bet this’ll be right up your alley. B+

Squirrel Nut Zippers, The Inevitable (Hollywood) Younger folks might not know it, but back in the 1990s there was a fleeting “swing revival,” with this North Carolina band often shoehorned into it. That wasn’t necessarily wrong, but rather, next to the competition (which was mostly pretty damn heinous), was just a major shortchanging of the North Carolina-based outfit. But to get to the heart of the matter, pegging the Zippers as playing retro-swing is a shaky maneuver, as they are much more correctly assessed as a blend of small-band hot jazz with nods to hokum, blues, and pop of the ’20s and ’30s. Perhaps the confusion stemmed from vocalist Katharine Whalen, as she sang in a manner resembling Billie Holiday (this comparison was sometimes overstated), who did sing with swing bands. Whalen sounds great here, but to my ear the standout track is “La Grippe,” about “a flu bug that’s getting passed around” (very timely), a song that helps to place them (to me) in the tradition of Kid Creole and David Johansson (as Buster Poindexter), which is to say, simply embodying an anachronistic flavor in a modern time. A-

Jimmy Sweeney Without You (ORG Music) If you don’t have a stiffy or a wet spot for Elvis, Sweeney is likely to be an obscure name. He was an African-American musician mostly based in Nashville who sent a demo to Sun Records around 1954 that impressed Sam Phillips as he subsequently played it for Elvis in hopes that he’d record it as his first single. Presley reportedly gave it a shot, and feeling he couldn’t better the original, choose “That’s All Right” instead. As Phillips was unsure of the name on the 18rpm 10-inch acetate, it took until 2017 to authoritatively place the singer as Sweeney; in the years between, “Without You,” which opens this collection, was elevated to the status of legend. Now, if you’re thinking of Elvis’ early days and surmising that Sweeney was a smokin’ R&B guy, well, you thought wrong, as pop was his strong suit, specifically crooning (this album includes a version of “Danny Boy”), and often adorned with vocal group backing.

That Phillips wanted ol’ El to cut “Without You” is a curious thing; let’s just say Sweeney’s song is time zones away from Arthur Crudup. Accompanying himself on guitar with additional musicians as the circumstance demanded (the Varieteers are credited on a few tracks on side one), the contents here, released under a few different names (Jimmy Destry, Jimmy Bell), deliver a sharp portrait of an artist who wrote a bunch of songs for Marty Robbins, rather than as a purveyor of raw gusto. And with a voice like his, it’s not hard to understand why. Sweeney is what used to be called a journeyman musician, clearly talented while never breaking through to stardom, though he had a little chart action in Canada. The tracks on side two do reveal Sweeney updating his sound, with “Sick, Sick, Sick” reminding me of…Elvis, though more prevalent is a similarity to Roy Orbison, and that’s some of the record’s best stuff. There’re also a few gospel motions, including the closing “Deacon Brown.” Historical and enjoyable. B+

WÜRM, “Poison” b/w “Zero Sum” (ORG Music) It was on Black Friday in 2018 (it seems like so long ago), that ORG Music released WÜRM’s Exhumed, that set rounding up the band’s posthumous 1985 album Feast and adding a second LP of unreleased material and demos, plus their 3-song 7-inch from 1982. WÜRM is notable as the band of one Chuck Dukowski, having come together prior to his role in the formation of Black Flag. However, if WÜRM were slim of discography, it seemed they were on every compilation SST put out back in the day, but along with the connection to Black Flag, they are of additional importance for integrating hard-rock/ early metal into a punk equation, a combination that was contentious at the time. Well, Exhumed’s release was such a positive that WÜRM cut two fresh songs that pick up right where the bombastic sludginess left off. The vocals in “Poison” are a kick. The speedier B-side kinda sounds like a B-side, but it’s on the correct side, so it chafes me not at all. B+

V/A, This Are Two Tone & V/A, Dance Craze (Chrysalis) For me, back in my younger days, when it came to ska, it had to be the uncut Jamaican goods or nothing at all. Over time, I’ve relented and can now enjoy the 2 Tone-era stuff (but not the subsequent US ska-punk material I’ve heard), though I must add that it’ll never be my favorite regional style. It was a housemate’s beat-up copy of the first Specials album that began turning me around, with This Are Two Tone largely finishing the job. While that comp was heavy on material from The Specials (including later tracks as The Special AKA, one here with Rico Rodriquez, one with Rhoda Dakar), including the iconic “Message to Rudy,” it also gathered solid entries from The Beat, Madness, The Selecter, The Bodysnatchers, and The Swinging Cats.

A big point in This Are Two Tone’s favor is how it underscores an interest in more than simply skanking it up, and that the groups mostly had recognizably distinct personalities (if not necessarily approaches). Dance Craze, which features live material from all the same bands with Bad Manners added, does something comparable as it serves as the soundtrack to a documentary film of the same name directed by Joe Massot (also known for directing Wonderwall with a soundtrack by George Harrison and the Led Zep concert film The Song Remains the Same) released in 1981. Reportedly, Massot initially wanted to do an entire movie about Madness, which partially explains why they get three tracks here, coming off pretty well in the process, though listening fresh, it’s The Selecter, with Pauline Black on vocals, who reassert their underrated status. A- / A-

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