Graded on a Curve: New in Stores for December 2021, Part One

Part one of the TVD Record Store Club’s look at the new and reissued releases presently in stores for December 2021. 

NEW RELEASE PICKS: Beauty Pill, “Instant Night” (Northern Spy) The title track of this 4-song EP came out digitally last year. In his notes accompanying this physical expansion (clear vinyl in a transparent plastic sleeve and a clear CD with a silver center in a transparent jewel case), Beauty Pill’s singer-guitarist-producer-chief songwriter Chad Clark describes the song’s political-protest genesis, it’s poetical (rather than polemical) sensibility, and it’s unexpectedly quick finish via socially distanced recording (on a rooftop), so that the cut was rush released by Northern Spy in hopes of inspiring citizens to vote in the Presidential election in November of 2020. The track is also noteworthy for its lack of drums and for highlighting Beauty Pill’s woodwind quartet. Clark says it sounds like Phillip Glass music, which is detectable but not blatantly. The main thing is that the song is built to last rather than carrying the rapid-fire datedness of so much political music. The drums roll back into the picture on the other cuts, and the horns stick around for the swank “You Need a Better Mind,” which gets a nifty remix. A-

Robert Ashley, eL / Aficionado (2021) (Lovely Music, Ltd.) Per the title, this is a 2021 recording of an opera by the late avant-gardist Ashley, a work that premiered in 1987 with many performances following over the next seven years and a prior recording released by Lovely Music in ’94. Until October 21-23 of this year at Roulette in NYC, the opera was last performed in 1995. This CD, released on 10/22, features the cast of the 2021 production, with mezzo soprano Kayleigh Butcher stepping into the role formerly played by baritone Thomas Buckner. eL / Aficionado offers a series of conversations between an “agent” (Butcher) and her three interrogators (Brian McCorkle, Interrogator No. 1; Bonnie Lander, Interrogator No. 2; Paul Pinto, Interrogator No. 3). Espionage and intrigue are essential components in the work, but Ashley’s intent wasn’t to construct a spy story, not even a post-modern/ nonlinear example of such. Instead, the unwinding complexity seems focused upon the friction between public personas and private-inner lives. Tom Hamilton’s orchestration, recording, and mixing are essential. A-

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS: Robert Ashley, Foreign Experiences (Lovely Music, Ltd.) For this 1995 recording of Foreign Experiences, an opera that’s part of Ashley’s early 1990s tetralogy, with Perfect Lives and Atalanta (Acts of God) to follow, Sam Ashley is Don and Jacqueline Humbert is Linda, characters familiar from Improvement (Don Leaves Linda), which preceded Foreign Experiences in said tetralogy, first recorded for Nonesuch in 1991 (a new recording of Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) was released on CD in 2019 by Lovely Music, featuring a new group dedicated to realizing Ashley’s work). For this release of Foreign Experiences, the ensemble consists of Robert Ashley himself along with Thomas Buckner, Margareta Cordero, Joan La Barbara, and Amy X Neuburg, this group having interpreted Ashley’s work from 1992-2012. Here, they are recorded by Tom Hamilton and Cas Boumans, with the release mixed and edited by Hamilton. Even at this relatively early point, the “band” is in prime form, and the prose is some of Ashley’s very greatest. He was an absolute master of language. A+

Calvin Keys, Proceed With Caution (Black Jazz – Real Gone) Keys got his start in the ’60s backing up a slew of soul jazz organ heavyweights, and on Shawn-Neeq, his debut as leader from 1971 (reissued early in 2021 as part of Real Gone’s Black Jazz reissue program and already sold out at the source), it’s not hard to tell, as he has a crisp, lithe, clean approach that’s occasionally reminiscent of Grant Green. Keys notably nixed the organ for Shawn-Neeq, electing instead for the electric piano of Larry Nash, a decision retained for Proceed With Caution, though the pianist this time is Kirk Lightsey. Those allergic to Fusion need read no further, but ears open to the style should understand that while Shawn-Neeq is a solid effort, its follow-up is an all-around improvement; the scope is broader both instrumentally and compositionally, there’s plenty of heat and edge, and nary a trace of smoothness. The year was 1974. Had this been released by one of the major labels in the mid-’70s, say Columbia or Warner Brothers, my guess is it would be perennially in print rather than getting its first-time vinyl reissue in 2021. A

Blue Heron, “Black Blood of the Earth” b/w “A Sunken Place” (self-released) Blue Heron are a doom-sludge-stoner four-piece from Albuquerque, NM, which means they can be legitimately described as desert rock. Appropriate for their orientation, the band likes to spread out. Although I’m not holding a copy of this 7-inch in my hands, it no doubt spins at 33.3 rpm, as the A-side breaks the seven-minute mark, with the flip landing right at the border of five. “Black Blood of the Earth” is also quite multifaceted structurally, while also hanging in a few zones long enough to work up some potent thud-grooves, meaning there’s spring action in Blue Heron’s rhythmic pummel (abundantly so early in the cut). As matters progress, the guitar playing is more than solid and even borders on heavy psych during the solos (this is where the stoner qualities really shine). Vocally, there’s growl, shout, straight-up singing, and even a spoken passage in the waning moments. It all works. The flip is less varied but dishes the groove even harder, making this debut a two-sided winner. Here’s hoping for a full-length. A-

Satomimagae, “Colloid” (RNVG Intl.) Satomimagae is the moniker of Japan’s Satomi Magae, her work combining acoustic guitar-based songwriting and ambient qualities to arrive in a zone that sounds a whole lot like acid folk to me. But in the work’s favor, it’s never quite as simple as all that, which is to say, it never strikes my ear that Magae is particularly conscious of genre boundaries. She’s put out four full-lengths since 2012, with her latest, the quietly beautiful Hanazono, released in April of this year. This EP offers four offshoots from Hanazono, none on the album proper but all essentially cut from the same sonic cloth. Again, her songs (and she never fully turns away from songs) are beautiful, but not florid; instead, a mysterious tension can emerge (especially in the gem “Dango”), that can linger around the border of the eerie. Indeed, the similarities to acid folk are considerable, but Magae’s work connects as particularly 21st century to me without falling into the indie folk bag. Like I said, genre doesn’t sound like it’s a particular concern. Lathe cut vinyl in an artist edition of 25, pretty affordable at $60. A-

Daniel Wyche, Earthwork (American Dreams) Wyche is a composer and improvisor based in Chicago who works with multi-channel, prepared and processed guitar. His prior recordings span back to 2011, and have been released mostly on cassette, including Long Day, a very enticing tape of a trio with percussionist Ted Byrnes and saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi from 2020. Earthwork is available on vinyl and CD as well as digitally, offering the 17-minute “This Was Home,” recorded live at the Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago as part of the Oscillations series in December of 2015. It features Wyche, Andrew Clinkman and Michael Nicosia on guitars, Lia Kohl on cello, Ryan Packard on vibraphone, and the audience on electronics and filter manipulation. If the crowd’s recruitment as a collective contributor leads one to the expectation of looseness in the piece’s sonic conception, that’s not borne out in the recording, which is abstract but highly focused and ultimately quite gripping. Packard’s vibraphone is particularly appealing.

On side two, “Earthwork” documents Wyche solo in the silo at the ACRE Residency in Steuben, WI in the summer of 2016 (with additional recordings in 2017 and 2019), playing guitars, metal objects, tuning forks and the silo. Here, something comparable to looseness does emerge as a facet, though it’s undergirded by discipline, never meandering or aimless, so that the progression toward a noisy rockish flourish as the piece nears its conclusion (after a sly false-ending of sorts) becomes even more striking. “The Elephant-Whale II” is the most recent recording on the LP, dating from January of this year, finding Wyche back at Experimental Sound Studio on guitars, electronics, tuning forks and objects, in duo with Jeff Kimmel, who plays bass clarinet and electronics. It’s also the most structural of the selections that comprise the set, with the main guitar riff dating back to Wyche’s days in high school. Completed with a digital-only bonus single edit of “This Was Home” (which itself accompanies a video), Earthworks is a hearty and diverse serving of experimentation. A-

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