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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Lloyd Miller with Ian Camp and Adam Michael Terry, At the Ends of the World (FOUNTAINavm) Last year the Now-Again label reissued Miller’s Oriental Jazz, a very interesting excursion into what we’ll call global spiritual fusion with a Persian musical bent; Miller was a specialist in the region’s sounds, and for a fuller scoop please consult the December 5, 2019 edition of this column, where Oriental Jazz received a review. Miller recorded a whole lot more and has in fact stayed active, as this collaboration with multi-instrumentalists Ian Camp and Adam Michael Terry (the latter also the founder and operator of the FOUNTAINavm label) makes clear. Part of what raises my estimation for At the Ends of the World is the obvious disinterest in attempting to reprise the sound of Miller’s earlier stuff, either from the ’60s or of more recent vintage, such as his joint record with The Heliocentrics, which was released by the Strut label in 2010.

Slimming down to three players increases the intimacy and deepens the dialogue, which is quite welcome. Along with Camp and Terry, Miller is a multitasker, credited with piano, flutes, trumpet, Dilruba, Kamancheh, Santu and “various world instruments.” Indeed, there is a load of percussion from all the participants, as I’m pretty certain some overdubbing occurred. Camp’s upright bass is terrific, as is Miller’s trumpet, but of additional note is the warmth and clarity of the record, which is partly attributed to Terry, as he is cited in the promo description as producer. To elaborate on that role, he’s specifically credited with field recordings and “various ambient textures,” additives which strengthen the ties to what I’ll call rain-forest-style New Age. And that’s alright, as touches of psychedelia are also in the mix. And I’ll close by mentioning that “Dystopia Wind Dance” reminds me a little of Aussie’s The Necks (it’s that bass), which is a total positive. The same is true for the spots that suggest Alice Coltrane hanging out in a glade. A-

Trees Speak, Shadow Forms (Soul Jazz) With their second full-length of 2020 (Ohms came out back in March, also on Soul Jazz), the Tucson-AZ duo of Daniel Martin Diaz and Damian Diaz continues to impress. The basic info if you haven’t heard them is that they specialize in a boldly hued non-vocal psychedelia that’s informed by Krautrock spanning from motorik to kosmische, plus soundtracks of ’60s-’70s vintage, with a tendency toward Euro genre flicks; one might possibly pick up on Soul Jazz’s interest in such an outfit, but it’s worth noting that the label that issued Trees Speak’s S/T 2017 debut was Cinedelic, who also released the first record by Calibro 35. While nothing on Shadow Forms is funky exactly, there are a few stretches, like the vibraphone and fuzz guitar-laden suspense builder “Tear Kisser,” where I could’ve been bamboozled into believing that this was the Italian crew, though in fact much of this record (including a free bonus 7-inch with the first edition) is focused on cyclical and swirling synth motifs. But there is still plenty of rhythmic heft and forward motion to be had here. A-

Howlin Rain, Under The Wheels: Live From The Coasts, Vol. 2 (Silver Current) With Howlin Rain, the band’s founder Ethan Miller has progressed so far into crowd pleasing ’70s-style bluesy and jam-tinged, yet highly melodic (anthemic, even) rock action, that casual listeners might be stunned to learn he was once in a band of considerable heaviness, namely Comets on Fire. If I didn’t know, it’s possible I’d be a tad surprised myself, but the reality is there’s really no dissonance on hand: Howlin Rain was formed to scratch a certain stylistic itch, and in doing so with panache (that is, legit songs, dynamic precision and instrumental flair) they’ve developed a fanbase encouraging them to keep at it. And so, the second installment in the band’s live series. Like some of their contemporaries, Howlin Rain exude a few similarities to the Dead of the early ’70s, but this is largely fleeting. More prevalent are Allmans-like characteristics blended with a few servings of Humble Pie. And I’ll add that I can easily understand why Chris Robinson is such a fan. A swell soundtrack for sitting next to a keg in the early morning hours. A-

Alexander Massa, Water Music (ears&eyes) Currently Chicago-based but South Dakota-born and raised, trumpeter Massa has brought together five estimable Windy City musicians to join him on this recording, available on vinyl and digital, of his compositions, inspired by the stories and actions of water conservationists (specifically, Water Protectors) across the USA. Featuring Mai Sugimoto on alto sax, Artie Black on tenor, Anton Hatwich on bass and Isiah Spencer on drums, the music they and Massa create is expansive, with opener “Black Snake: Peace, Prayer, Protection” nearly reaching 18 minutes and the concluding “Suite for Flint” breaking 15; the album’s other piece, “The Water Thief” totals a tidy seven and change. And yet the results are wonderfully structural, with cited influences including the AACM, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra. I hear them all, but I can also detect the root of late ’50s-early ’60s protest jazz a la Mingus and Max Roach (building from the compositional excellence of Duke) but executed with contempo Chi-town verve. Outstanding. A

The Ed Palermo Big Band, The Great Un-American Songbook Volume 3: Run for Your Life (Sky Cat) Palermo’s skills as a bandleader, arranger, composer and saxophonist have been extensively documented on a string of releases from his big band that stretch back to the late ’80s, though he really set things in motion with the first of his Zappa-themed discs, Plays the Music of Frank Zappa, in 1997. Since then, Palermo’s expanded his tribute sights to include Todd Rundgren and the 2CD predecessor to the volume under review here, which focused on ’60s-’70s rock music from the UK. This installment is Beatles heavy, though others integrated into the weave include The Hollies, Thunderclap Newman, Traffic, Procol Harum, Jethro Tull, and The Moody Blues. Palermo also can’t resist working Zappa into his heightened approach to medley; frankly, it would be a surprise if he didn’t. And speaking of surprise, it’s remains striking how well Palermo’s combo of straight-ahead big band and rock songs works. Much of it is down to the arranger-conductor, but his players are sharp, violinist Katie Jacoby in particular. B+

Jason Stein & Adam Shead, Synaptic Atlas (ears&eyes) This one’s currently a digital-only name your price DL on Bandcamp, but it’s such a magnificent excursion into duo exchange, specifically featuring Stein on bass clarinet and Shead on drums, that I can’t not give it an enthusiastic mention. The eight tracks are all freely improvised and were recorded live at performances held in Chicago at locales the Hungry Brain and Café Mustache earlier in this very calendar year (I’m guessing pre-quarantine). Now, you might be thinking the term duo exchange (taken from a classic early-’70s free jazz recording from saxophonist Frank Lowe and drummer Rashied Ali) is getting to be overused in this column (and maybe elsewhere), but as Stein relates in Peter Margasak’s PR essay for Synaptic Atlas, neither he nor Shead solo on this recording. Instead: “We deal with language.” Paring it down to two individuals cuts to the chase and amplifies the immediacy of the dialogue. And while the playing is gloriously abstract, it’s also flowing, so fans of Dolphy should investigate. There’s also a Euro angle bringing Han Bennink to mind. A

Thaba, Eyes Rest Their Feet (Soundway) This album documents the collaboration of Cape Town, South Africa-based singer-songwriter Khusi Seremane and NYC’s Gabriel Cyr, the producer-musician having connected with Seremane back in the days of Myspace Music. The shared inspirations included kwaito, ’90s R&B, and classic downtempo, and what was initially intended to be a guest spot by Seremane on a track from Cyr’s project Teleseen morphed into an entire record, this record, which was constructed remotely over a number of years with the bedrock a 2016 studio session in Cape Town. The post- Mbaqanga style of Bubblegum has a considerable impact on Thaba’s sound, but there is also mention of Grace Jones and Sade, Roxy Music and Talk Talk, namedrops that are quite understandable as Eyes Rest Their Feet persists in exuding a ’90s vibe. What I dig is how the music is infused with sincerity that nixes any traces of retro styling or throwback irony. The love and seriousness shine most brightly in Seremane’s vocals, which only deepens the sad news of his untimely death in July of this year. RIP. B+

The Usaisamonster, Amikwag (Yeggs) Back in the mid-’00s I attended an indie music conference that doubled as a weekend music festival, where the venues were spread out across the central VA college town that was hosting the event. Late on the first night I was hanging between bands in a spot and debating whether to head across town to see Usaisamonster, or just remain where I was to insure I wasn’t tardy in returning to catch a set by Sunburned Hand of the Man. Did I mention that it was late? It was, and I was tired. Enough so that I (and most others) decided to lay down on the carpeted floor as Sunburned prepared to play in what I think was a university conference room. As the set commenced, it became quickly apparent that the music was highly appropriate for supine listening. A few minutes in, with my eyes closed for a stretch, I raised up to get a glimpse of the band only to discover that the drum duties were being handled by a reverse centaur of sorts…which was actually just John Moloney (I think) in silhouette (the lights in the room had been turned down), wearing an imitation horse’s head.

I quickly got my bearings, but still, it was a momentarily discombobulating experience (imagine if I’d been on drugs), and one that obviously lingers in the memory, not only when I think of Sunburned, but also Usaisamonster, which the above should make clear. Staying to catch Sunburned was a good decision; the same can be said for Usaisamonster getting back together and releasing new material after a break of ten years. Back in the day, the duo of Colin Langenus and Tom Hohmann tilled and planted seed in a prog-noise field that didn’t have many contemporaries, though they were surely part of the New Weird America that blossomed just after the turn of the century. For their return, they retain aspects of their prog past (structurally and thematically, as the record’s subject is apocalypse) but are more often psych-tinged, in part because they’re not as noise-inclined. That may disappoint some old fans, but then again, maybe not, as merely “picking up where we left off” is sorta antithetical to what these guys were about. Bottom line is that Amikwag engagingly documents growth. B+

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