Sandy Ewen, Cindy, Peter Jefferies & Jono Lonie, Georgia Ann Muldrow As: Jyoti, Jo Johnson, Van Halen, Velvet Underground, M.S.B.R.

SANDY EWEN You Win LP (GILGONGO) Pretty staggering solo guitar LP from 2020, in the ‘low heavy abstractions’ subgenre that I just made up a name for, by a guitarist I know (barely) from her band The Weird Weeds (heard one CDR release back in 2004, thought it was excellent). I keep trying to come up with metaphors to describe the headspace this solo guitar music puts me into (the front cover shimmer of sunlight on dark water, the slow growth of green lichen on grey stone, the stone itself that was forged over eons and broken off the side of a mountain thousands of years ago, tumbling to an eventual resting spot somewhere under the canopy of an Arctic forest), but ultimately none of them fully capture Ewen’s style and approach. So then I try comparing it to another mind-blowing solo guitar LP, Little Treatise on Morals by Donald Miller, because both feature heavy electric guitar sound played and processed in an extremely abstract and surprisingly calm way, but the more I do that, the more different they sound from each other. Ewen’s music feels more like a natural process, something bigger but quieter, or maybe louder but calmer, going on peacefully and beneficially nearby, at its own remove.

CINDY Free Advice (MT. ST. MTN.) Wow, sleepy melancholy guitar pop from San Francisco, softly sung by a woman (not named Cindy), with strumming guitar, gentle keyboard melodies, and VU trance beats. The ingredients are there, but I know we all agree that it’s not enough just to have the right ingredients. The right ingredients have to be invested with certain extra intangibles every time they’re played. Call it soul, spirit, feeling, personality, touch, whatever your metaphor, or don’t call it anything at all and just listen. Chances are you’ll want to listen to Cindy more than a few times, because Cindy has all of the above on Free Advice. Just seconds into the opening track “Discount Lawyer,” before singer Karina Gill even finishes the sweet disillusioned cadence of her opening line, I’m already making a beeline for the nearest couch so I can just collapse, because I am tired, and I am weary.

PETER JEFFERIES & JONO LONIE At Swim 2 Birds LP (FLYING NUN / CAPTURED TRACKS) Every time I read some fanzine going on about some post-punk South Islander in New Zealand recording cosmic folk and rock in a rural cottage overlooking the wild ocean, well, I get jealous. Don’t you? I can hear the music, and smell the salty air. This happened just recently when I read the Maxine Funke interview in Dynamite Hemorrhage #5, or would you just look at the entire liner notes for this Peter Jefferies & Jono Lonie LP that was released in 1987 on Flying Nun Records? “Recorded at Jono’s house overlooking the Otago Peninsula. Ocean, air, light. An antidote of sorts to a previous sound and method of writing. No words. Open structures. Pressure down. — Peter Jefferies.” Recording music in a house while overlooking a peninsula, sheesh. And he’s right about “no words,” this is an album of (surprisingly nervous and edgy) cosmic landscape-rock instrumentals (even though Jefferies is known for some great records of songs with words, sung in his rich baritone voice, perhaps with more ‘closed structures’ than the ‘open structures’ of At Swim 2 Birds). Either way it’s nostalgic for me, because back in 1997, when At Swim 2 Birds was 10 years old and had just been reissued on CD by the Drunken Fish label, DJs Chris Moon and Steve Rolfsmeier played track six “Tarantella” on their Cosmic Egg radio show (Sunday nights, 10pm to Midnight, only on KZUM 89.3 FM, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA). I happened to be listening at home, taping as much of the show as I could fit onto a C90, including “Tarantella,” and its nervous cinematic energy (as well as the other 86 captured minutes of the show) spent a lot of time in my car tape deck for a couple years straight, even after I became a regular DJ on the show myself. Nice to finally have it on wax, along with the rest of this mystical album.

GEORGIA ANN MULDROW AS: JYOTI Ocotea (SOMEOTHASHIP CONNECT) Georgia Ann Muldrow as: Jyoti is a smooth way to say this is an alter ego, a side project, or a new concept for Muldrow, and an all-instrumental one in fact. The music is pretty striking, kinda progressive quiet-storm space-funk, with tons of stuff going on, but no vocals, and not a whole lot of real standout melody from the instruments either. It’s not until track 6 “Stevelander” that I really take notice of any particular melody, or theme, and that’s because of its distinct Frank Zappa Uncle Meat flavor (yum), given a futuristic soul/synth twist, and after all Muldrow and Zappa are both creative thinkers from the greater Los Angeles megalopolis. Muldrow’s music has always been like this, fascinating in its intelligence, creativity, and execution, but I can never remember how a single song by her goes, even “Stevelander.”

JO JOHNSON Weaving LP (FURTHER RECORDS) Been listening to this modular synth solo LP online since it came out in 2014, and finally bought my own vinyl copy this weekend. Listening on the internet does lead to record sales! Secondhand sales on Discogs, at least… ok, nevermind, back to the point: there’s been seemingly thousands of modular synth solo LPs released since 2010 alone (OK, hundreds), but something about this one just hits me right; it did in 2014, and it still does today. Sure, at a glance it could sound like some standard ‘2010s generic’ music, your basic interchangeable instrumental synth score to a sci-fi thriller on Netflix, but Netflix hadn’t quite started making their own sci-fi thrillers yet when this album came out in 2014 (how soon we forget), and these are timeless tracks anyway, each with a distinctive and memorable melodic/harmonic theme, however minimal, that comes from the heart and soul. Side 2 opener “In the Shadow of the Workhouse” certainly starts out Netflix-typical, with that classic ‘strange arpeggiation’ cliché (there’s been a variation of it on the soundtrack of at least three shows I’ve watched this past year, or am I supposed to say “binged” this past year: Stranger Things, The OA, and Orphan Black), but Johnson transcends the cliché with that aforementioned heart and soul, applying subtle slowly morphing filters that take us through beautiful gradations.

VAN HALEN First seven LPs (WARNER BROS.) The passing of Edward Van Halen this month at age 65 has sent me down the rabbit hole along with everybody else. Been watching tons of videos, like this 2004 guitar duet with his young son that, full disclosure, brought me to tears, or this quite funny 1998 tour of his home studio 5150. Of course I’ve pulled out their first seven albums too, a non-stop run of essential brown-sound party classics, starting with Van Halen from 1978 through 5150 from 1986, and played through ‘em all at least once these past couple weeks. These copies date back to my high school years; I joke that even growing up in the sticks where I did, punk still got me, but Van Halen got me first. Though I am remembering now that 5150 was the last album of theirs I bought new. The next one, 1988’s OU812 was OK at the time, but it was a step down from 5150, and started their annoying ‘stupid album titles’ run. I didn’t buy any of their subsequent releases either. Who needs to, when you’ve got those first seven? What a run of Universal Heavy Californian Party Rock’n’Roll, and there is absolutely no doubt, if there ever was, that Edward was a true musical master, not only one of the greatest freewheeling rock guitar soloists who ever lived, but also a grandiose contemporary pop rock classical composer who wrote huge and lively riffs, chord melodies, and resolutions. (Just check the chord movement under the keyboard solo of “Jump” — we take it for granted because we’ve heard it so much.) But man, the lead playing (and it wasn’t just during solos, it was everywhere, jumping in and out of the rhythm parts with joyous and flawless abandon), not only that blues-rock base, but constantly pushing beyond into sharply phrased free-fall improvisational instrumental dexterity worthy of Charlie Parker, and into a parallel avant-garde direction as well, taking extended hands/fingers technique and various hardware limitations and permutations into new vocabularies that start to ring like such arch-experimentalists as Keith Rowe and Derek Bailey. Meanwhile the songs surrounding all this genius guitar action are basically classic California sunshine pop, hook after hook, a super-metallic Beach Boys. And then there’s brother Alex Van Halen, playing the drums almost as well as Edward plays the guitar, the two of them spending almost their entire lives together learning together how to create an orchestral impact with just two instruments, when (for one example) Alex’s ringing snare hit overtones blend into the overtones of Eddie’s masterful rhythm guitar and/or keyboard chording. Again, they call this the “brown sound,” because like Eddie says in the 5150 studio tour video linked above, “It’s music theory, not music fact. There are no rules.”

VELVET UNDERGROUND Sweet Sister Ray 2LP (NO LABEL) The 2017 redo (with strangely familiar handwriting… hmm) of the classic 1980s double-LP bootleg of some key 1960s live Velvet Underground recordings that capture three different epic performances of what is ostensibly the the same epic song, “Sister Ray,” spread over four LP sides. Now, I love Richie Unterberger’s VU Day-by-Day book, and he’s written well about many other great bands too, but let’s just say that he and I have aesthetic differences. For example, he writes dismissively of the 39-minute version that takes up Sides A and B here, and it happens to be one of my personal most cherished pieces of rock music. Yep, a single April 1968 performance, at a nightclub called La Cave in Cleveland, of the song now, and maybe then, known as “Sweet Sister Ray,” a seemingly intentionally endless variation on the band’s notorious and already very long studio recording of “Sister Ray,” as released on their second album White Light/White Heat three months prior to the La Cave gig. Unlike that raging slab of rock’n’roll tectonic shift, this variation in a half-empty nightclub is, in Unterberger’s words, “a rather languid and mostly instrumental bluesy jam.” It’s such a variation that, as Unterberger suspects correctly, there is not even a drummer on the track. (There is talk that Moe Tucker is playing bass on this, though that isn’t mentioned in the book.) The lyrics also seem completely different than on the LP version, Unterberger writing that “the hazy fidelity makes Lou Reed’s occasional, apparently off-the-cuff lyrics all but indecipherable.” This is all correct — the sound quality is terrible — but I still love it. The one positive that Unterberger puts forth sounds like recommendation enough to me: “the band does manage to coax some interesting pirouetting riffs, feedback surges, and fluttering, shimmering effects out of their instruments.” Those glorious guitar sounds are indeed why I love it so much, basically an early and gloriously unrefined prototype for what could become My Bloody Valentine and shoegaze music. And hey, I can understand some of Lou’s lyrics, like when he says “electroshock.”

M.S.B.R. Metal Stricken Terror Action (BANNED PRODUCTIONS) Japanese noise legend Koji Tano, aka M.S.B.R., aka Molten Salt Breeder Reactor, probably released something like 60 or 70 or 200 albums before his untimely death at the age of 44 in the year 2005. And you know what? They’re all good. I’ve only heard like 5 of ‘em myself, but I already know they’re all good. You could listen every single one of his albums, or a mere 20, or 10, or 5, or just one of them over and over, like I do with this one. It was originally released on cassette in 1995, and I think it could be his best, even though that seems to be true of whichever M.S.B.R. you’re listening to at the moment. Something about Metal Stricken Terror Action does hit the spot, though. A lot of different textures and approaches, each one like a warm noise blanket, like you’re moving non-hierarchically through an audio Top 10 list called “Top 10 Things I Want A Harsh Noise Record To Sound Like When It’s Playing.”