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New Music Friday: Our Top 8 Albums for April 30th

New music this week from Sarah Louise, Innov Gnawa, Zouo and more courtesy of the Vinyl District.

The Vinyl District

NEW RELEASE PICKS:

Sarah Louise, Earth Bow

Sarah Louise Earth Bow album cover
Buy at Amazon (Self-released)

Once upon a time, Sarah Louise Henson was primarily known for her skills as a fingerpicking guitarist and then a little later, as half of the progressive Appalachia duo House and Land with Sally Anne Morgan. But with her pair of LPs for Thrill Jockey, Deeper Woods (2018) and Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars (2019), she began making expansive headway that has come to some beautiful conclusions with her latest, Earth Bow. The blend of New Age and kosmische and drones and psychedelia might not seem like much of a big deal, seeing as how variations on this combination have been pretty common over the last decade or so, but a few things are working in Sarah Louise’s favor. Foremost, she’s deeply invested in song form, even flirting with pop here and there. Second, those songs can get quite intense. Earth Bow didn’t help me to relax; it took me for a ride. Third is her voice, powerful and beautiful, deepening the attentiveness to matters of nature and healing and bringing added dimension to the LP. It’s called sincerity. It means a lot.

Innov Gnawa, Lila

Innov Gnawa, Lila Album Cover
Buy at Amazon (Daptone)

Based in NYC, Innov Gnawa is comprised of five Moroccan expats led by Mâallem Hassan Ben Jaâfer, who sings and plays the guembri, the three-stringed African bass (also called the Sintir), the featured instrument of Joshua Abrams on the latest record by his band Natural Information Society (a new release pick in this column just two weeks ago). The sound of the guembri here is traditional in nature, amply anchoring and propelling a style that’s been tagged as Sufi Blues. Please note that this sound is distinct from Malian Desert Blues, as Innov Gnawa’s four other members, Amino Belyamani, Ahmed Jeriouda, Samir LanGus and Nawfal Atiq, along with singing richly in response to Ben Jaâfer’s powerful lead, all play metal castanets called qraqebs. An exception is the closing track “Hamdouchia,” which features Ben Jaâfer alone, his guembri playing as the start reminding me of Jimmy Garrison’s solo preludes in performance with John Coltrane (e.g. Live in Japan). Lila (which translates to “night” and describes an all-night Sufi musical healing ceremony) is utterly sublime. A

REISSUE/ARCHIVAL PICKS:

Michael Nesmith, Different Drum: The Lost RCA Victor Recordings

Michael Nesmith: Different Drum Album Cover
Buy at Amazon (Real Gone)

The albums Michael Nesmith cut for RCA, six from 1970-’73, are still too often overlooked today, a circumstance that directly extends from their general neglect by consumers when they were new in the racks. While not flops (Magnetic South, his debut with The First National Band, produced the Top 40 hit “Joanne”), they certainly undersold in relation to RCA’s hopes for the man freshly departed from The Monkees. Now, for those with a long abiding love for Nesmith’s distinct strain of country-rock worthiness (abetted by the pedal steel of O.J. “Red” Rhodes, drummer John Ware, and bassist John London, under the supervision of Chet Adkins and Felton Jarvis), this CD is a sweet dish 22 tracks deep from across his time with RCA. Yes, it’s loaded with alternates and the back end is mostly instrumentals, but there’s distinctiveness in the versions and the playing is as shit-hot as skillet gravy. So I guess that means this set will male a fine primer for those having not yet plunged into Nesmith’s solo stuff. A-  

Zouo, Agony憎悪Remains

Zouo album cover
Buy at Amazon (Relapse)

This set is the second in what’s hopefully an ongoing series of reissues by Relapse diving into 1980s Japanese hardcore; the first, Detestation, the debut LP from the highly influential band GISM (I’d call them legendary, but they appear to be currently active), emerged late last year. Agony憎悪Remains collects the debut 4-song 7-inch EP by Zouo, originally released in 1984, and adds two comp tracks from the same year to complete side one. The flip offers nine live cuts culled from Relapse’s 41-track digital release. It’s not clear if the vinyl editions (there appears to be four different color variations available but selling quickly) come with a download card; this review focuses on the 15-tracks grooved into the wax. Metal-core was too often hackneyed, but at its bizarre and extreme best, Japan’s strain was in a class by itself. Speed is integral, but it’s never the soul objective. Pristine fidelity gets nixed as murk and echo are abundant; indeed, some of the live stuff sounds like it was recorded in a metal culvert by a single microphone from 25 feet away. This is just as it should be. A-

Far Lands, There Be Monsters

Far Lands, There Be Monsters Album Cover
Buy at Bandcamp (Get Loud Recordings)

This is the second full-length by Portland’s Far Lands, of which Andy McFarlane is the main motivator as vocalist and songwriter, with the first record being Oh What an Honor, Oh What a Drag, released in 2017, also by Get Loud. The scoop is that while cutting the debut, producer Matt Drenik snagged Ivan Howard, he of The Rosebuds, GAYNGS, etc., for some backing vocals. Flash forward to the recording of this follow-up, and with Drenik having moved to California, Howard gets tapped for a more prominent role (he’d already joined the touring band on bass). It’s still very much McFarlane’s show however, and it’s a show with ambitions running a little deeper than the standard indie singer-songwriter shebang. At his best, McFarlane conjures up an aura comparable to the pop auteurs of the ’80s post-punk era, while also clearly extending from the decade of indie refinement that was the ’00s (making Howard’s involvement quite appropriate). Not every track hits with the same impact, but ’60s influence surges toward the end, and that’s nice. B+

JENNIFER, SINCERELY

Jennifer, Sincerely Album Cover
Buy at Bandcamp (Whited Sepulchre)

JENNIFER, aka Denver, CO-based Zachary Thompson Spencer, delivers two long doses (each lasting exactly 21 minutes and ten seconds) of New Age minimalism (to adopt his term) on cassette in an edition of 100 copies. To my ear, that self-assessment is pretty astute, as for the most part, neither of SINCERELY’s two progressions sound like the sort of thing heard 35 years ago in shops that sold crystals and mats for meditation. There is mention of the sort of small press archival stuff that was the backbone of Light in the Attic’s I Am the Center collection, and yeah, that’s definitely an appropriate comparison, but I’m more struck by the mention of Stars of the Lid, which I can hear, and La Monte Young, which I don’t really hear but do understand. That Spencer’s background is in Skin Graft/Load Records-style noise-punk is also totally comprehensible (not that even a trace of abrasiveness is heard here). And lastly, I did write for the most part above, which is to say that as the finale nears, side two gets nicely transcendental. Enough said. You should know if you’ll dig this… A-  

S.H.I., 4 死 Death

S.H.I., 4 死 Death Album Cover
Buy at Bandcamp (Relapse)

Japan’s S.H.I (short for Struggling Harsh Immortals) is the current band of Katsunori “Cherry” Nishida, he of Zouo (given the reissue/archival pick above) and later of Danse Macabre. Hardcore and metal remain cornerstones of influence for Nishida, though in contrast to the scalding breakneck strangeness of Zouo, S.H.I. is heavier and more precise as Industrial and noise influences impact the scenario. When metal and Industrial meet, ridiculousness often ensues (e.g. later Ministry), but Nishida and crew (and drum machine) avoid faltering into goofiness, though the fact that my comprehension of the lyrics is pretty much zilch likely helps in drawing this conclusion. Conquering the language barrier is a solid disdain for constricting societal norms, a perspective reaching back to Nishida’s ’80s band (I’ve not heard Danse Macabre). Zouo transcending mediocrity was an odds-beater. That S.H.I. doesn’t sound horrible lingers on the precipice of amazing. The vocals are gruff, the rhythms have a thudding elasticity, and the upshifts in velocity never register as overcalculated. B+

Tristan Welch, Temporary Preservation LP

Tristan Welch, Temporary Preservation LP Album Cover
Buy at Bandcamp (Self-released)

Based in Washington DC, Welch creates soundscapes made with an electronically treated guitar. He’s also a licensed funeral director trained in embalming, which is from where the title of this record derives. I’ve been aware of Welch’s work for a while, but this is my first sustained exposure, and it’s been quite satisfying. The record came to me (as records do) with a few comparisons, and a couple, Noveller and Tim Hecker, really help to illuminate Welch’s mode of operation. It’s not that he sounds especially similar to either; instead, he’s using guitar and electronics to make an instrumental LP that’s something other than a “guitar album” or an “electronic album,” or for that matter, the two interwoven. Like Sarah Lipstate (she who is Noveller), Welch’s motions possess an occasionally cyclical heft that pushes beyond ambient (but without any significant currents of prog). He’s described his sound as “maximal minimalism,” which gets to the relationship of brevity and impact, as Temporary Preservation features nine songs, and is a tidy listen. A- 

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