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

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

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Winston C.W., Good Guess (Whatever’s Clever / Ruination Record Co.) Winston Cook-Wilson sings, plays keyboards and writes the songs in Office Culture, an outfit that’s been described as “literary soft-rock,” a designation that effectively communicates music of sincerity rather than schtick. This scenario, the sincere, the soft-rock, continues on this solo effort (as a trio) by Cook-Wilson, though really, Good Guess is a cosmopolitan singer-songwriter paradise, the atmosphere deepened considerably by the upright bass of Carmen Rothwell; Ryan Beckley completes the band on electric guitar. You’ll notice the exclusion of drums, which is fine, as the songs don’t require them. What’s in abundance is a leisurely contemplation, and seriousness to go along with the sincerity. Soft-rock, or maybe better said, downtrodden urbanite piano pop circa the late ’70s, remains the foundation, with the style magnified in the up-tempo “Birds,” but there are stretches, such as “Swing Time” and the closing title track, where Cook-Wilson pushes outward to splendid effect. A terrific surprise. A-

Carly Johnson, S/T (sonaBLAST!) The strength of Johnson’s voice is undeniable. Based in Louisville, she’s sung jazz in duo with guitarist Craig Wagner, fronted a notable Heart cover band (I Heart Heart), and backed My Morning Jacket, Houndmouth, and Norah Jones, but this is her solo debut, featuring her own compositions co-written with her college roommate, Charlotte Littlehales. Along with the Wilson sisters, another of Johnson’s cited inspirations is Whitney Houston, which is reflected in the presentation here, as the bold expressiveness, if not hampered by slickness, is surely vivid in a manner that embraces commerciality. But stylistically, Johnson is reminiscent of Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones, with the overall thrust of the set being old-school soul and R&B (another prime influence is Etta James). And as the songs unwind, an undercurrent establishes it as a Southern record in the best sense; it’s tangible in the instrumental verve and Johnson’s versatility. Will Oldham, who once guested with I Heart Heart, engagingly duets with Johnson on “For You.” An album as assured as it is powerful. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Divine Horsemen, Live 1985-1987 (Feeding Tube) These days, Chris D is best-known for forming and fronting the essential Los Angeles punk unit The Flesh Eaters. In fact, his stature in relation to that outfit has been pretty constant since the release of their two back-to-back masterpieces for Slash in the early 1980s. But by the second half of that decade, he had moved on to Divine Horsemen, a band that initially cohered to back Chris on his 1983 solo album for Enigma, Time Stands Still. In ’86-’87, Divine Horsemen cut three LPs and an EP as part of the 15,000 or so releases SST Records was putting out back then. By ’88, they were done. This is when I first heard them, at roughly the same time I got hip to The Flesh Eaters, with this overlap of discovery fitting, as the two bands shared some personnel and had a few songs in common. In fact, the name Divine Horsemen is also the title of the last song on The Flesh Eaters’ ’81 monster A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die.

But don’t get the idea that the two were interchangeable. Divine Horsemen were more of a rootsy-bluesy rock band with punkish tendencies in comparison with the wonderfully twisted roots punk of The Flesh Eaters. For us youths who’d gotten fatigued with “classic” rock stylings and headed for the punk offramp, Divine Horsemen may not have provided as immediate and sturdy a wallop. But on the other hand, by the late ’80s, when hardcore was proving to be a consistent letdown, the Horsemen could sound mighty fucking fine. This CD, culled from two shows, one in Huntington Beach, CA, the other in Boston, MA, offers proof of their capabilities and additionally highlights one of the band’s most distinctive qualities, specifically the tandem vocals of Chris and Julie Christensen. The disc flows very nicely with no repeated songs. It’s also great to know that a fresh Divine Horsemen record, Hot Rise of an Ice Cream Phoenix is on deck (a sort of reunion companion to I Used to Be Pretty, The Flesh Eaters’ excellent 2019 return, on which Christensen provided some backing vocals). A-

The Allergies, “Jumping Off” b/w “Gather Around” (Jalapeno) Bristol, UK’s hip-hop-infused block-rockin’ funk specialists The Allergies (DJ Moneyshot and Rackabeat) have already had a productive 2020, releasing full-length Say the Word in July along with three limited 45s (two of them sold out) spotlighting cuts from the album, but this 7-inch deserves some special attention, as both sides offer new tracks, though the A-side does find them sampling Andy Cooper (designated as unofficial third Allergy) as heard on 2017 Allergies single “Main Event.” Re-sourcing your own work is far from a new thing, but the appeal of “Jumping Off” lay in how its sound harkens back to the era when sampling’s creative possibilities were still on the upswing. That is, the comparison to Fatboy Slim is right on the money. I like “Jumping Off,” but prefer the flip, which blends what sounds like a tuba loop (think New Orleans brass, and/ or The Roots) with a vocal sample that put me in the mind of early ’70s gospel-folk-soul. It’s an angle I’d like to hear The Allergies continue to explore. B+

Andy Cooper, L.I.S.T.E.N. (Unique) Along with his input to The Allergies, Cooper is a third of the California hip-hop outfit Ugly Duckling, where he’s flourished as a rapper of uncommon dexterity and with a cadence that suggests hip-hop’s 1990s heyday, which totally fits, as Ugly Duckling emerged early in the decade. To get more specific, L.I.S.T.E.N. is designed to rock the party, whether the get down is transpiring in a house, outdoors, or in 2020, somewhere by your lonesome, it really doesn’t matter. At the start, it matches Cooper’s lines with a big fat upright bass in a manner that recalls The Low End Theory, and from there the tempos remain lively as the cuts are loaded with samples and peppered with scratching. But all the while, there’s equal importance placed on the rhythms required for body moving. Occasionally, when hip-hop records are so intent on stirring up communal celebration, they can decrease in weightiness and even get a little cutesy. That’s not the case here, and the tidy runtime is a perfect fit for repeat spins. A-

Kool and the Gang, S/T (Real Gone) New Jersey’s Kool and the Gang, led by assist Robert “Kool” Bell, later adopted both an ampersand and lead vocals, but for this 1970 debut, they were an all-instrumental band with an and. To be clear, voices do emerge intermittently across the album, as the jazzy, soulful R&B is the kind of stuff to make one grunt and exclaim. Now, the band would surely get funkier before they moved wholeheartedly into the mainstream, but unlike many first albums, this one isn’t tentative, embryonic or marred by rookie mistakes. And while they surely bring the heat here, an amiable sensibility occasionally surfaces during the set that can remind me of the instrumental sound of Philly that was just around the corner. But maybe the most important ingredient is the level of melodic refinement in the horn arrangements. While the propensity for grooves is not sacrificed, they manage to avoid overzealous but underwhelming vamping. Now, a person might suggest that Kool & the Gang return to their opening theme a bit too much on side two, but that person is certainly not me. A-

Glenn Morrow’s Cry For Help, 2 (Rhyme & Reason) Morrow’s a Hoboken kingpin (The Individuals, Rage to Live, owner-operator of Bar/None Records) whose self-titled debut with/ as Cry for Help came out in 2017 and was well-received in this column. These 12 songs don’t quite maintain the same standard, but they don’t fall short by much. If you don’t know it, Morrow’s essentially a pop-rock guy, but ambitious, so that his ’60s-rooted songs avoid rehashing moves that were at risk of the hackneyed over 40 years ago. His artistry is admirable throughout, and if there are tracks that initially connect as a little lesser, every selection offers something; a guitar solo, a chord change, a chorus, a lyric, that elevates matters and situates 2 as growing like ivy up a lattice. And as of right now, there are two gems on the record, opener “Yellowed Pages” and “G.B. & Co.” This one is digital download and streaming only, but I’ll speculate that the lack of physical is due to the circumstances of 2020. The debut is still available on vinyl and CD, so if you dig 2 and want more, you can pick up a copy for the shelf. (Out 12/18) B+

Voice Imitator, Plaza (12XU) The members are Per Bystrom, Justin Fuller, Mark Groves, and Leon O’Regan, all from Australia, and all active in other bands/ solo endeavors. Now, you might think supergroup, but the better descriptor is theirs, that is, “collaborative project.” In this sort of situation, it’s not always clear who is responsible for which sounds, but Bystrom is known as a drummer, Fuller for guitar and electronics, Groves for bass and electronics and O’Regan for text, concrète sound and vocals (both trad frontperson bellowing and “close-miked voice”). Plaza, which appears to be Voice Imitator’s first record, finds the participants infusing post-punk-tinged noise-rock with electronics, frequently with an industrial temperament. Fuller’s guitar also attains gnawing psych qualities that in “Vilification Brunch” brought Spacemen 3 to mind, but more often carries on the Down Under-Stooges connection. The wild card is O’Regan’s contribution, which ranges from gruffness I associate with ’80s post-hardcore to intriguing spoken passages occasionally mixed to the border of indecipherability. A-

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