Record Time: New & Notable Vinyl Releases (December 2020)

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These New Puritans: Hidden [MMXX] (Domino)

The second album by These New Puritans, the hard to pin down ensemble led by twin brothers Jack and George Barnett, felt, at the time of its release in 2010, like the fulfillment of a promise. The art damaged rock on their debut Beat Pyramid held flickers of grander ideas and arrangements. Those came to pass on Hidden, a glorious, expansive work that brought in elements of Asian traditional music and contemporary classical influences. It elevated the senses as it pummeled the brain into a fugue state. This new pressing expands the album’s scope considerably. The Barnetts provide details, memories and pithy commentary about its creation through a letter they’ve included in each copy. There is new artwork, rendering the blocky black of the original cover in textured white. And, on a second piece of wax, some unreleased material from the Hidden sessions and live recordings. By highlighting the raw elements of certain songs and putting an emphasis at how these dense compositions made an impressively easy transition to a concert hall, the entire album becomes even more enriching and powerful. Coming in just under the wire of 2020, this is one of the best reissues of the year.


The Wild Feathers: Medium Rarities (Magnolia Record Club)

Nashville country-rock combo The Wild Feathers hadn’t planned on releasing a career-spanning compilation this year, as they were set to spend most of 2020 on the road. You can probably fill in the blanks on what happened next. With ample time on their hands, the quintet dug through their archives and slowly put together an LP of b-sides, demos and covers that represents the best of what the Feathers can do. Medium Rarities is the best kind of compilation, in that it offers a complete picture of the band’s past, present and future. It pays tribute to the artists that inspired and informed the group’s sound through covers of the Jayhawks’ “Blue” and David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair,” adds in enough originals to make clear how these five men took those influences and more to create their own sound and throws in a touch of what the future might hold with a trio of tunes written with a new studio album in mind. You get the raw and rowdy attack of the Feathers’ early days along with the more tempered approach that comes through on the fantastic fresh tracks “Fire” and “My Truth.” Medium Rarities is also great vinyl collector fodder as the limited edition release is only available online through the Magnolia Record Club. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Catherine Christer Hennix: Unbegrenzt: Aus den sieben Tagen (Blank Forms Editions/Empty Editions)

In the liner notes for this archival recording of Catherine Christer Hennix’s 1974 performance of Unbegrenzt, a Karlheinz Stockhausen piece that was part of his Aus den sieben Tagen series, it becomes clear that, for as much the musician admired this work, she felt that its composer missed the mark. Her interpretation of the piece was “meant to show…an opening that he could have potentially taken…instead of this very stiff way of doing these improvisations.” She and Hans Isgren accepted the score’s instructions to “play a sound with the certainty that you have an infinite amount of time and space” to heart but let it lead them into a place where the overtones and clang of a gong clashes beautifully with various electronic noises (played on reel-to-reel) and Hennix’s own clattering percussion. Nothing they play feels infinite. Even the drones shimmering in the background ring with an assurance that they will eventually fade to silence. Brittle, icy, and beautiful. Stick around for Bill Dietz’s spiky essay about the original piece on the album sleeve, and the equally prickly conversation between Dietz and Hennix printed on the insert.


Pylon: Box (New West)

The best reissue of 2020, for this writer at least, has to be this multi-disc set that spotlights the first four years of Athens post-punk quartet Pylon, a stretch that ran from 1979 to 1983. It’s a comprehensive collection, as well, featuring remastered versions of the group’s masterful albums Gyrate and Chomp alongside a collection of singles and live material and a vinyl pressing of the rare Razz Tape, the first ever recordings that the band made. All of it sounds spectacular, with the punch and jerk of the studio work storming from the grooves of these new pressings, and even the few live tracks sounding immediate and feral. Even the Razz Tape is clean and crisp, with only a scant bit of audio degradation noticeable due to the source material’s age. The whole affair is capped off by great design work and a hardbound book featuring an essay on the band from critic Stephen Deusner and testimonials from fans like Carrie Brownstein, Steve Albini, and the band’s friends in R.E.M. The full Box might be a little hard to find in physical form, but New West wisely pressed extra copies of the Gyrate and Chomp reissues and have the full boxed set in digital form on their Bandcamp page.


Various Artists: Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987 (Captured Tracks)/Southeast of Saturn: Michigan Shoegaze/Dream Pop/Space Rock (Third Man)

Conversations about jangle pop from the ‘80s and the rise of shoegaze and dream pop a decade or so later tend to center around the hubs for those sounds that grew in Europe and Oceania. But these two recent compilations serve to correct, or at least add a footnote to, the historical record by proving out how those scenes also thrived in the U.S. and surely helped influence the work of American artists of the past three decades. Strum & Thrum spotlights a vibrant scene of pop groups that survived below the cultural radar even as groups like Windbreakers, Salem 66 and Absolute Grey shared stages and labels with some of the biggest college rock bands of the era. Every song on this collection (brilliantly curated by Captured Tracks head Mike Sniper) feels like an alternate universe Top 10 hit replete with heart-melting vocal melodies, heart-on-sleeve lyrics, a sweet psychedelic tang and energy to spare. The music on Southeast of Saturn, a compendium of material from Detroit’s impressive shoegaze and space rock scene, is no less melodic but the 19 tracks on this double-vinyl set often feels like it is trudging through a field of honey. The compilation embraces a wider swathe of sounds, as well, with the smoldering, Spacemen 3 shimmer of Füxa’s “Photon” landing near the velveteen jangle of Thirsty Forest Animals’ “Nape,” and the glittery sway of Calliope’s “Laughing At Roadsigns” arriving after the icy sleet of loveliescrushing’s “youreyesimmaculate.”


The MIYUMI Project: Best of the MIYUMI Project (FPE)

Named for bandleader Tatsu Aoki’s third child, the MIYUMI Project was born out of a particularly novel idea: to marry modern jazz with the sound of traditional Japanese taiko drumming. On paper, an already exciting concept with the promise of intoxicating polyrhythms and roiling energy. But what Aoki and his various accomplices (including some of the finest players in the Chicago jazz scene) did was something far more thoughtful and restrained. Throughout the albums that the MIYUMI Project has released since 2000, the music remains steady and sincere—the product of active listening as these players work to find a common ground on which to plant their feet and improvise. They often find a steady, cosmic groove to rest upon, collectively entering into a kind of spiritual fugue state. This new double LP set celebrates the work of Aoki’s ongoing project, grabbing a handful of tracks from the group’s studio recordings and live dates. A perfect overview of a tremendous artistic achievement with tracks that would work well in a playlist alongside recent releases from Kahil El’Zabar and Sun Ra’s Arkestra.