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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Osees, Protean Threat (Castle Face) Having undertaken yet another shift in moniker (which actually commenced with the release of the two-song “The 12” Synth” EP late last year), this highly productive Cali band (most prominently known as OCS and then a handful of variations on The Oh Sees) puts another full-length in the bins with nary a trace of creative fatigue. The contents are less prog-tastic than on their last couple, as they more often tap into a blend of art-punk and heavy psych but with a focus on grooves that can, at times, become considerably funky and less Krautrock-derived than on prior records. Plus, there is persistent synth gurgle and splatter that on a few occasions had me thinking of Chrome. Opening with enough speed and fuzz to give a room full of hardcore freaks a squeeze right where they want it, this aggressive forward motion gets alternated with some post-Wavoid herky-jerk spazz, but highly muscular, as is the Osees way. Things just roll from there. The record’s initial conception as a flowing, continuous piece is still quite tangible, and that’s just fine. A-

Jon Hassell, Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) (Ndeya) This set’s predecessor, Listening To Pictures (Pentimento Volume One), came out in June of 2018 and was the groundbreaking trumpeter’s first album in nine years; it also launched Hassell’s own label, which brought out a sterling vinyl reissue of Vernal Equinox, his 1977 debut, in March of this year. And so, Hassell’s achievements have been impacting my consciousness lately (Flash of the Spirit, his 1988 collab with Burkina Faso group Farafina, was reissued in February), but what’s foremost in my mind after soaking up Seeing Through Sound is how the man has not only not lost a step in terms of quality, but additionally, how fresh this album is in the context of the ambient genre in general and as a continuation of his Fourth World ethos more specifically. Occasionally, pioneering musicians end up getting overtaken by subsequent advancements from the hoards they influenced, but that’s not the case with Hassell, in part because his work is so eclectic that it remains resistant to imitation. That’s why Seeing Through Sound is up top. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: V/A, The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us From Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business (Archeophone) Of the three Archeophone releases covered in this column this week (which shape up the label’s Spring 2020 entries to their catalog), this one is the most purely enjoyable while simultaneously providing revelatory insight into the recorded history of early jazz, so it gets the archival pick even though it’s CD-only. It does come with a 31-page booklet loaded with info from essayist Colin Hancock, the text detailing Gus Haenschen’s long career in music, which started in St. Louis with tutelage from Scott Joplin shortly after the turn of the 20th century, with the formation of his own orchestras (responsible for the first six cuts on this set) following. After that, he served in the Navy during WWI, then moved to NYC, where he became the Director of Popular Music for Brunswick Records. Essentially, he was a talent coordinator, record producer, and occasional session player (his writing of tunes, which was sometimes pseudonymous, is less in evidence as the disc progresses).

Haenschen’s own bands were boldly innovative, but what makes The Missing Link such a treat is how the subsequent music he directed pushed jazz forward rather than simply popularizing it. As evidence, “San” by the Mound City Blue Blowers features Frankie Trumbauer on C-Melody saxophone. That track’s jumpy jug-band zest is one of this CD’s highlights, coming late in the sequence, so don’t worry about a dissipation of gusto as the tracks progress. Charlie Chaplin’s guest conducting of Abe Lyman’s California Orchestra on “With You, Dear, in Bombay” is additionally of note, though I never would have known if they hadn’t told me (‘twas a publicity stunt). That the closing version of Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” cut in 1924 by Herb Wiedoeft’s Cinderella Roof Orchestra, is as pleasurable as the one recorded by Haenschen’s Banjo Orchestra in 1916 reinforces The Missing Link’s worthiness both historically and as pure listening experience (provided of course, that one digs material of this vintage). A

Billy Brooks, Windows of the Mind (WeWantSounds) For some, the scoop on this 1974 set, originally released on Ray Charles’ Crossover label (he also produced the LP), is that its closing track, “Fourty Days,” was sampled by A Tribe Called Quest in “Luck of Lucien” (from their 1990 debut), but it’s also notable as a mostly successful excursion into the jazz-funk big band realm, with Brooks (a largely unheralded session guy reaching back to the ’50s) playing a double-barreled trumpet allowing for some striking effects in his solos. He doesn’t overdo it though, which lands the album securely outside of gimmicky range. I say mostly a success, as “Black Flag” is a flute-heavy buzzkill at the end of side one, but otherwise this grooves pretty solidly, avoiding the overly vampy with inspired blowing and a pair of swinging bluesy numbers that I’m sure had Charles reminiscing about the old days (while being contempo enough to fit into the soundtrack of a ’70s action flick (this applies to much of the set, in fact). A few cuts, like opener “Rockin Julius,” are distinctive structurally, a credit to Brooks as arranger. B+

Little Richard, The Rill Thing & King of Rock and Roll (Omnivore) Due to his recent passing, the great Richard Wayne Penniman has been in the thoughts of a lot of folks lately, me included. While Little Richard’s musical rep will surely (and rightly) always rest on his world-altering ’50s work for the Specialty label, his comeback albums for Reprise are worthy of attention and are too often underrated, indeed sometimes outright dismissed; frankly, that’s fucking ridiculous. Omnivore’s CD reissue of this pair (with more on deck) will hopefully bring some overdue reevaluation to the later work from this pioneer and survivor. Of the two, the first, 1970’s The Rill Thing, is the stronger, as it offers the opening one-two punch of “Freedom Blues” and “Greenwood, Mississippi,” both of which charted as singles that year. It’s a worthy combination, but the latter is especially notable, as it features a sweet mess of fuzz guitar from Travis “It’s Karate Time” Wammack.

King of Rock and Roll is a little lesser, but the songs are just abundantly energetic, which combines productively with the overboard braggadocio and the Vegas-style moxie of the backing, complete with gal singers. Altogether, the goofiness is endearing and the interpretations on the covers-heavy set are occasionally inspired. “Joy to the World” gets redeemed through gospel fervor, while the CCR double-dip (their reading of “Midnight Special” and “Born on the Bayou,” which closed the original LP) is a solid fit with the foundational Southern heft of Richard’s style; the same goes for “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry.” However, the playing from the band here isn’t as sharp as on The Rill Thing, which was cut at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. For King, nobody even bothered to write down who was backing Richard up. Jeepers. Also, the opening skit-schtick (pertaining to the record’s title), which comes on way strong, thankfully doesn’t become a recurring thematic device. And delivering a welcome twist, King of Rock and Roll’s bonus tracks add some appreciable value to the whole. So, we’re even, Steven. B+ / B+

numün, voyage au soleil (Musique Impossible) Comprised of three NYC-based multi-instrumentalists, namely Bob Holmes (from ambient-psychedelic Americana group SUSS), Joel Mellin, and Christopher Romero (both part of Balinese music specialists Gamelan Dharma Swara), numün’s stated objective is aural and visual; there are videos accompanying at least two of this debut’s six tracks, but the relation to imagery derives just as much from cinematic execution that establishes an inclination toward space exploration, further underscored by the record’s title, which also names the closing track, plus additional selections “tranceport,” “tranquility base,” “mission loss,” and “expanse.” Now, I was going to write science-fiction, but the pieces here lack the increasingly standard tendencies toward mounting suspense and tension-and-release. Instead, there’s a dedication to gradual expansion that underscores the trio’s ambient-psych background. I’ll add that adventurous rock fans are likely to enjoy the bass propulsion in “expanse” and the record’s finale. Nice gamelan instrumental integration, too. A-

V/A, At the Minstrel Show: Minstrel Routines From the Studio, 1894-1926 (Archeophone) As explained by Tim Brooks in the opening to his extensive notes for this 2CD collection, the minstrel show is today almost entirely considered in relation to its racially derogatory language and stereotypes. That means that a lot of what’s here is rough going, so please be advised. But in addition, At the Minstrel Show illuminates how the form persisted for roughly a century, and by extension was documented from the dawn of recording technology right up to the 1950s and television. To elaborate, racial caricature was only part of the equation as it ebbed and flowed in direct relation to the acceptable norms of the time. I’ve encountered some theorizing over the years suggesting the minstrel tradition persevered in direct relation to a reactionary nostalgia for “the good old days,” but Brooks’ writing clarifies that the issue was far more complex. Specifically, minstrelsy was, on a musical level, often quite contemporary, as the performances gathered here tap into songs that were concurrent hits of the day.

That makes them far more of interest to musicologists (both professional and listening-room armchair) than a novice might think. Also, the routines captured here predominantly rely on humor that’s cornball (in Brooks’ phraseology), but deliberately so (references to jokes about chickens crossing the street abound), which emphasizes the connections to Vaudeville, hokum routines, and even to 20th century stand-up comedy (particularly of the straight man-funny man dynamic). Disc one of At the Minstrel Show features three multipart sets, originally on either discs or cylinders, from the Victor, Columbia, and Edison companies, intended to approximate a full minstrel show experience and dominated by the presence of performer Len Spencer. Disc two is comprised of the opening sections of minstrel routines (termed the “minstrel first part”), and in turn can be more consistently musical, though zingers are still frequent. I’ll conclude that the overall appeal relates to the scholarship and how it sheds light on issues of the present day (and the more recent past). A-

The Unique Quartette, “Celebrated, 1895-1896” (Archeophone) This is another striking historical find, further documenting the first African American quartet (formed by Joe Moore in the mid-1880s) to ever make records, specifically wax cylinders, restored here and grooved into 10-inch vinyl and released with an informative 4-page folio. I emphasize further documentation, as a pair of songs by this barbershop harmony group, “Mama’s Black Baby Boy,” and “Who Broke the Lock,” were included on Archeophone’s GRAMMY-winning 2004 2CD Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry 1891-1922. The first of those selections, recorded in 1893 as an Edison cylinder, is represented on this set in a latter version, while the second, which dates from 1895-1896, is very sensibly reprised here, though the other five are all from a recently discovered collection; the historical import (this version of “Down on the Old Camp Ground” is considered the earliest one known) is matched with musical verve that will perhaps be surprising to those who equate barbershop-style harmonizing with quaintness.

As on Archeophone’s 2018 vinyl set “4 Banjo Songs” by Charles A. Asbury (who was a member of the Unique Quartette, though no recordings have surfaced from his time in the group), there is also racially derogatory language here, though it’s less of a factor than I was anticipating, given that they tackle “I’se Gwine Back to Dixie,” which, as the song notes illuminate, was written by Charles A. White as a cash-in on Southern white anxiety over Reconstruction-era reforms, and was soon to be an old-timey chestnut (the real tough going is in “Who Broke the Lock”). Instead, the main value of “Celebrated, 1895-1896” is in the robust harmony (which includes some early yodeling during “Hot Corn Medley”) and how it reframes the barbershop form as a legit and underdiscussed development in African-American musical achievement, falling after spirituals but before jazz and blues. This is in part because most of the recordings from this era have been lost (or are long missing), which makes “Celebrated, 1895-1896” a historical clarification accompanied by the only known photo of the group, also recently uncovered. A-

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