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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Gwenifer Raymond, Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain (Tompkins Square) You Never Were Much of a Dancer, Welsh guitarist Gwenifer Raymond’s debut from 2018, was a knockout that underscored the perseverance and the sheer reach of the American Primitive style while driving home the pure skill and the youthful energy of its maker. Now, ability is an essential baseline ingredient in the expression of the American Primitive, but the spirit of young is by no means a prerequisite. In Raymond’s example across this oft exquisite set of eight pieces, the spark is distinct, in her estimation punkish, and coupled with raw power and edge that took me to some rather unexpected places; during “Gwaed am Gwaed” for instance, I couldn’t shake thoughts of Sonic Youth, which might not seem like a big deal, except that it’s just Raymond playing an acoustic guitar in her basement flat (the album was recorded in quarantine). The artist describes this LP as an expression of Welsh Primitive (channeling her country’s folk horror in the process), which unwinds here as a striking new development in Guitar Soli. A

Sam Burton, I Can Go With You (Tompkins Square) Burton hails from Salt Lake City, UT but currently resides in Los Angeles. Although he’s had a CDR and a pair of cassettes released on the Chthonic label, this is his proper full-length debut, and it’s a wonderful trip into the folky singer-songwriter zone. In the PR for this release, John Tottenham describes Burton as extending from the “downer folk” subgenre and specifically names Bob Desper, Dana Westover, and Tucker Zimmerman as antecedents. I think that’s cool, but I’ll merely add that these 11 songs also strike my ears as reflective of Fred Neil and the Tims, Hardin and Buckley…make that prime Tim Buckley. Now, many capable contempo songwriters can strap on a guitar, step in front of a mic, and play the approximation game (which might be why Tottenham chose a different route of comparison), but Burton elevates matters significantly through compositions that reveal nary a hint of anxiety over any perceived similarities. The production by Burton and Jarvis Taveniere is faultless, and the playing is simply exquisite. One of the surprises of 2020. A

Susan Alcorn Quintet, Pedernal (Relative Pitch) Alcorn is well-described as a pioneer of the pedal steel guitar in improvised music, though most of her work has been in solo or duo settings. However, along with the size of the band, Pedernal is further distinguished as the first release devoted to Alcorn’s compositions. Her cohorts here are Mark Feldman on violin, Mary Halvorson on guitar, Michael Formanek on bass, and Ryan Sawyer on drums, a group of stellar players that can bring these elevated pieces to life without a hitch. There is familiarity here, as Alcorn plays in the octet of Halvorson, and with the guitarist and Formanek comprising 2/3rds of Thumbscrew. Indeed, a stated goal of Alcorn’s was to make this album with friends, but the pedal steel/ guitar/ violin melodic core and the sheer individual distinctiveness of the three raise Pedernal to rare heights. Formanek and Sawyer are expressive in the rhythm spot, and Alcorn’s compositions are splendid; I adore finale “Northeast Rising Sun.” Note: the CD and digital are available 11/13 but pressing plant delays have pushed back the vinyl until December. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Love Tractor, S/T (HHBTM) For the October 23 drop of Record Store Day 2020, Love Tractor released new versions of two songs from this 1982 album, the Athens, GA band’s first (which has itself been remixed for this rerelease). The year of release positions them as one of the foundational acts in their scene, which became a huge deal in the College/ Alternative rock scheme of things, but if you are unfamiliar with Love Tractor and are imagining some variation on bookish jangle mumble, well don’t. If this non-vocal unit is reminiscent of any of their Athens contemporaries, it’s Pylon, but only a little bit, and mainly because the songs on this record possess an undercurrent that could be considered dancy. Really though, Love Tractor’s instrumental nature and the slightly Wavy angle of the songs has me thinking of the Portland, OR band of the same era, Pell Mell. Many outfits that operate sans a singer attempt to impress the listener with sheer ability. Love Tractor’s approach lacks ego, which nearly 40 years hence remains refreshing. A-

Johanna Burnheart, Burnheart (Ropeadope) I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating; whenever I’m presented with a record that proports to blend jazz and techno, I get a little nervous. So it was with Burnheart, which is the debut full-length of violinist Johanna Burnheart, though a point of emphasis is that the album’s title is also the name of her band, which she formed in 2018. My main issue with the jazz-techno combination is shallowness in the execution, but Burnheart’s approach succeeds, largely because she avoids cliché; it should be emphasized that techno in this case doesn’t equate to dancefloor burners, though neither is she going glitch crazy or settling into ambient autopilot. That Burnheart sidesteps established tropes makes its reality as a fun record all the more impressive. Modal jazz is cited as an influence, but I’m specifically hearing flashes of Fusion, which combine with the electronics to hint at post-rock. I can dig it. Did I mention that Burnheart sings? She does, and I can dig that, too. In some ways Burnheart reminds me of Juana Molina. I can really dig that. Overall, a very promising release. A-

Faten Kanaan, A Mythology of Circles (Fire) Based in Brooklyn, Kanaan is an analog synth specialist who creates without using samplers (an exception here would be some VST sampled choral voices), sequencers, or arpeggiators, with everything on this album played in real time. For some, these realities would simply be a boast, but in Kanaan’s case, it’s part of a larger strategy. For starters, A Mythology of Circles, per the label, “explores cyclical repetitions in nature & time, and the allegories attached to them.” Let’s elaborate: in abstaining from the rigidity of programmed devices, she encourages subtle variation in the repetition of her pieces, which can make for a more interesting listen, but just as importantly relates to Kanaan’s ambivalence over the forward march of technology. Furthermore, the record is split into two thematic sides, “dusk to evening” and “underworld/dream state,” and features an autobiographical dimension, though the lack of a lyrical aspect keeps this record’s content as appealingly mercurial as its form. Playfully intriguing while intermingling serious concepts. I like it. A-

Liraz, Zan (Glitterbeat) Israeli-Persian singer Liraz debuted in 2018 with Naz for the Dead Sea Recordings label. Zan is her follow-up, and right about now you might be thinking that Zan is Naz spelled backwards. If so, you are not wrong (you are, in fact, as right as rain), but it’s important to note that Zan means “women” in Farsi, and that the record is a celebration of Iranian women, both from Laraz’s family and from “all over the world” (she’s spent time in Los Angeles where she acted in Hollywood films). Further illuminating this theme are contributions to the record made in secret by musicians who are based in Iran, a circumstance that deepens the urgency of these ten tracks, many of which are pop focused. But pop shouldn’t imply that Liraz is striving to capture the sound of the moment, as she and her band brandish knowledge and mastery of earlier styles, many dating from before the Iranian revolution of the late 1970s. The prevalence of lively rhythms is another positive factor, which hits a peak in the standout track “Joon Joon.” The electro pop and disco flavors are also appreciated. A-

Snowdrops, Volutes (Injazero) Snowdrops is the French chamber duo of Mathieu Gabry (piano, mellotron, MS2000) and Christine Ott (Piano, Ondes Martenot), though for their debut Volutes they are joined by Anne-Irène Kempf (viola), which both broadens and intensifies the sound, a noteworthy circumstance in a style that can suffer from timidity and/ or overwrought pleasantness. The style of which I speak is neo-classical, but in the case of Snowdrops that’s just one aspect blending with rich, at times edgy electronics and an adroit command of texture that relates to Gabry and Ott’s initial tandem work in film scoring. There is no shortage of glistening across Volutes, but there is also heft and occasionally even abrasive qualities delivering moments of welcome surprise to the whole and in particular to standout track “Odysseus,” which fittingly opens like the soundtrack to a nautical hellscape only to soar forth and then offer a sweet blend of tense piano and swirling electronics that ends up in the vicinity of Germany in the 1970s. I also though briefly of Terry Riley, and that’s always nice. A-

V/A, Vol. 4 [Redux] & Best of Black Sabbath [Redux] (Magnetic Eye) This label has been assembling covers tributes for a while now, with the subjects of their affection including Jimi Hendrix, Helmet, Pink Floyd, and Alice in Chains. This time out it’s Black Sabbath, a choice fitting this metallic-focused label’s scheme more snuggly than spandex tights gripped the ass cheeks of Osbourne. These releases, Vol. 4 on LP/CD/DL and Best of on 2LP/2CD/DL, provide examples of Magnetic Eye’s variations of approach, with the former traversing the original Sabbath album in sequence via covers by assorted contributors and the later landing in the more traditional zone of the various artists tribute album. The “Best of” presentation is appreciated, but it should be noted that the sequence doesn’t follow that of any Sabbath collection that’s been released, at least to my knowledge; versions of some of the band’s biggest songs are included, such as “Paranoid,” “Sweetleaf,” “The Wizard,” and “N.I.B.,” but there are also some striking omissions and a few choices that are pretty obviously the personal faves of those playing them. Vol. 4 manages to transcend the predictability inherent to the endeavor without undermining the concept. B+ / B+

The Vacant Lots, Damage Control (A Recordings) Comprised of Jared Artaud and Brian MacFadyen, the Burlington, VT to Brooklyn Vacant Lots have been at it for a decade, releasing three full-length records along the way, including Interzone just this past June on the reliable Fuzz Club imprint. But the duo has also issued a certifiable ass-ton of singles and EPs, and Damage Control collects two of them, the 2016 “Berlin” EP (so named because it was recorded in the German city at A Recordings honcho and Brian Jonestown Massacre linchpin Anton Newcombe’s Cobra studio) and 2019’s “Exit” EP. That The Vacant Lots have fostered a relationship with Newcombe’s label might tip you off to the neo-psych nature of their endeavor, but it’s necessary to clarify that Artaud and MacFadyen can conjure a splendid drumbox punk sound, which is most prominently displayed on the “Exit” material, with “Funeral Party” a highlight. The 2016 EP strikes me as nearer to Sonic Boom’s work as Spectrum (not surprising, as Kember collaborated on the Lots’ 2014 LP Departure), but there’s some Suicide in there, too. A-

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