Graded on a Curve:
New in Stores for
March 2021, Part Three

Part three of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for March 2021. Part one is here and part two is here.

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Janet Simpson, Safe Distance (Cornelius Chapel) This is the first album for Birmingham, AL-based Simpson, but she’s recorded extensively, in her own groups (Delicate Cutters, Timber) and backing others (Wooden Wand, Will Stewart), and the prior experience is palpable. Gazing at the sleeve for Safe Distance, I kept imagining a mid-’70s private press LP heavily influenced by Joni Mitchell, but that’s not Simpson’s deal. Instead, think prime Lucinda Williams, but a tad more rocking, as if the players were recruited from Paisley Underground bands. Now, that isn’t to imply psychedelia, but rather Neil Young; Simpson’s Americana is appealingly tough. I also dig her preference for Fender Rhodes over pedal steel, though her use of the keyboard is nicely understated, as she’s not shooting for a retro vibe. There are a few tracks that broaden the spectrum a bit, including “Mountain,” where Simpson’s vocals conjured thoughts of Chrissie Hynde, and also finale “Wrecked,” which in its closing seconds had me thinking of, well, Joni. How ‘bout that… A-

Deniz Cuylan, No Such Thing As Free Will (Hush Hush) Based in Los Angeles, guitarist Cuylan delivers an impressive debut that manages to assemble a wide array of styles without coming off like a hodgepodge. It’s an integrated approach that’s as likely to please ears attuned to neo-classical as it’ll gently goose fans of fingerpicking. Cuylan’s folk side has some affinities with Bert Jansch (particularly circa Avocet), though his playing in “Flaneurs in Hakone” is reminiscent of the Takoma sound at its most florid. That’s great. But the sturdy patterns of “Purple Plains of Utopia” nicely back up the comparisons made elsewhere to Steve Reich and the Durutti Column, while the atmospheric swells and Brian Bender’s cello in “She Was Always Here” help to establish the connection to contempo classical gorgeousness. But fear not, for the calm beauty in these pieces is accompanied by weight and edge that easily fends off the dangers of insubstantiality. And while his playing is clearly dexterous, that’s never Cuylan’s point, which only reinforces the depth of the LP. An unusually rewarding debut. A-

Plankton Wat, Future Times (Thrill Jockey) Like a lot of folks, guitarist Dewey Mahood started out playing in a punk band. He’s come a long way since then, collaborating and contributing to numerous contexts, with the prolific outfit Eternal Tapestry having the highest profile (alongside Plankton Wat), but I mention those punk beginnings because Mahood’s inclination for cosmic drift and psychedelic expansiveness possesses a bit more bite when compared to many other like-minded practitioners. Indeed, for extended portions, Future Times gets downright strange as the guitar is as agitated as it is exploratory. There is a substantial thread of darkness spanning across the record as well, which is fitting given Mahood’s focus on the state of the planet as revealed in track titles “The Burning World,” “Modern Ruins,” “Dark Cities,” and “Defund the Police.” But I’ll emphasize that Future Times is still a highly transportive experience, and ultimately quite positive, especially as it concludes with the fuzzed-up beauty move and slow fadeout of “Wild Mountain.” A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICK: Knoxville Girls, In a Ripped Dress (Bang!) Featuring Jerry Teel (Honeymoon Killers, Boss Hog, Chrome Cranks), Kid Congo Powers (The Cramps, The Gun Club, The Bad Seeds), Bob Bert (Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, Bewitched), Jack Martin (Five Dollar Priest) and Barry London (Oneida), this bunch, who cut three records for In the Red from ’98-’01, aren’t girls, and neither are they from Tennessee (the name likely derives from a murder ballad, recorded by, amongst many others, The Louvin Brothers, The Country Gentlemen and…The Lemonheads). These demos of songs that mostly turned up in finished form on third LP In a Paper Suit sound like they were cut in a shack on the outskirts of a swamp but were actually recorded in NYC. Rubbing scuzzy, fuzzy R&R against damaged hick sensibilities, greasy sparks do fly. Hank Williams and Hasil Adkins get covered, but so does “Sophisticated Boom Boom” by The Shangri-Las. London’s organ brings some garage zest to the party, and the fiddle in opener “Any Reason to Celebrate” sparked thoughts of the Mississippi Sheiks. A-

Manslaughter 777, World Vision Perfect Harmony (Thrill Jockey) Manslaughter 777 is the duo of longtime collaborators Lee Buford of The Body and Zac Jones of Braveyoung and MSC. Given the name they chose for their endeavor plus the accompanying photo where neither participant is smiling, I prepared for an assault on the senses born of surliness, especially after learning that Manslaughter 777 is a drums and samples affair. But that’s not what this set delivers (though my mom may beg to differ), as the influences include dub, breakbeats, and hip-hop. That means the rhythms are slammin’ but not necessarily brutal, though abrasiveness and thunder are certainly part of the overall weave. Opener “No Man Curse” is loaded with what they used to call Miami bass, reminding me of tricked out jeeps rattling neighboring car windows at stop lights, a sound that reappears later in the LP in a manner more reflective of ’90s techno’s aggressive side. On that note, “Do You Know Who Loves You” closes the set with a higher degree of wildness, momentarily sounding like Kid 606 rolled up in the joint. A-

Palm Ghosts, Lifeboat Candidate (Ice Queen) This four-piece has released a few full-lengths since the middle of last decade, plus a slew of digital singles, but this CD serves as my introduction. According to their bio, Palm Ghosts started out in Philadelphia as more of an indie-folk affair, but a move to Nashville brought not a transition to county but rather post-punk, gloomy but not goth and defined far more by rhythms than an influx keyboards and synths, which sets them somewhat apart from their influences. To get a bit more specific, the driving nature of the drums and bass, a hefty attack occasionally rising to the level of thud, is distinct from the often atmospheric finesse of the Brit outfits that are clearly part of Palm Ghost’s inspiration. While the songwriting here never really knocked my socks off, the tunes are consistently more than passable, with Joseph Lekkas’ singing appropriate for the style without straining for effect, putting many of these tracks right over the top. In summation, Lifeboat Candidate is still plenty dark, and it comes recommended for fans of the sound. B+

Byla Rose, “How Far” (Self-released) For her debut, singer-songwriter Julia Rose Cummings chose to record under her middle names, a succinct moniker that is a pretty good fit for her sound, which she describes as Pacific Coast Folk. But wait. It needs to be clarified that the five songs comprising “How Far” burst out of the speakers in full band mode rather than unfurling as introspective strummers, and as the playing is solid from a crew that’s previously backed Tom Waits, Canned Heat, Mavis Staples, John Hiatt, Roger Waters and more, that’s a welcome thing. Indeed, this handiwork of studio pros, confident but without an overabundance of flair, complements Cummings’ approach quite well. To elaborate, and maybe it’s partly because the CD’s finale is titled “Last Call,” but Cummings touches down in the valley between nails-tough bar-rocking with a country-rock tinge and ’90s gal singer-songwriters. The set comes with comparisons to Mazzy Star and Fiona Apple, both understandable as she is sturdy of song and strong of voice, but frankly, the mention of the Laurel Canyon rings truer. B+

Stella Research Committee, A Proposed Method for Determining Sanding Fitness (Fernald Feed Archives / Cruel Nature) This Cincinnati and Columbus-based trio’s self-assessment gives equal weight to no wave and noise-rock, which helpfully clarifies that they specialize in spastic skronk, abrasion and pummel rather than off-kilter disco grooves. This warms some heart cockles, let me tell you. Plus, the noise-rock side of Stella’s spectrum is less aligned with formal precision and more about loose spillage with a side order of rants. Consisting of Tony Squeri on synths and programming, Kevin Hall on guitar, vocals and piano, and Lauri Reponen on drums and percussion, Stella’s palette is wide, and while their looseness is welcome, the abstraction is heightened by obvious technical dexterity, though don’t get the idea that anything here is flashy. And if Hall’s utterances reveal him as reliably incensed, he delivers something in the ballpark of crooning at the start of “The Blast Cabinet Conference.” But later in the cut, the band hit a sweet spot reminding me of a non-juvie Happy Flowers. Lawdy. A-

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