Record Time is Paste’s monthly column that takes a glimpse into the wide array of new vinyl releases currently flooding record stores around the world. Rather than run down every fresh bit of wax in the marketplace, we’ll home in on special editions, reissues and unusual titles that come across our desk with an interest in discussing both the music and how it is pressed and presented. This month that includes a collection of Johnny Cash’s pre-Rick Rubin albums, the reissued first album from a post-punk goddess and a new trap-pop mixtape from a Korean-American sensation.
Johnny Cash: The Complete Mercury Years 1986-1991 (Mercury/UMe)
The liner notes do everything in their meager power to pitch this set as a vital link connecting The Man in Black’s long tenure with Columbia Records and his return to critical and commercial favor thanks to an assist from Rick Rubin. Would that it were so simple. Johnny Cash’s time with Mercury Records was hardly a creative peak for the country star, marked as it was by attempts to regain some of his lustre as a legend through moves like re-recording two LPs worth of his classic singles (1988’s Classic Cash: Hall of Fame Series) or reconnecting him with a trio of artists he came of age with—Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison—for a piecemeal session (1986’s Class of ‘55: Memphis Rock & Roll Homecoming). Or connecting him with the rest of the country music landscape on 1988’s Water From the Wells of Home by bringing in a cast of thousands, including Roy Acuff, Emmylou Harris, Glen Campbell and members of the Cash family, as support. This era has the stink of a marketing meeting all over it.
Listening to the six albums nestled into this new set, Cash comes away in much better shape than he has any right to, but nowhere near as clean as he should have been. He’s clearly invested in these albums, giving the material his all even as the music gleams behind him like a motion-smoothed episode of Bonanza. And when he returns to the songs that he made into country standards, like “Ring of Fire” and “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” they fit his voice and persona like a favorite pair of jeans. The only truly embarrassing moment found here is Class of ‘55. The performances by all four of the top-billed artists comes across like a shoddy Las Vegas revue than anything resembling the artists’ best work. Thank goodness Rubin found him when he did.
Yaeji: What We Drew ??? ???? (XL)
Korean-American artist/producer Yaeji has spent much of her young life using music to cultivate community—through Brooklyn hangs where she served food and invited friends to play their latest tunes or refining her own work with the help of a loyal crew, including regular co-producer Nick Sylvester. That communal vibe continues on her new mixtape What We Drew ??? ????. Originally released in April, but now getting its vinyl debut, this new release includes a bevy of guest vocalists and rappers, including YonYon (from Tokyo), Canadian drag artist Victoria Sin and Brooklyn rapper Nappy Nina. Yaeji still gets top billing due to the work she puts in, intermingling these various voices with her clear vision of hip-hop and pop’s future. The core concept is her globalist spirit. Yaeji moves her vocals between Korean and English with ease while still keeping a tight flow, and her music finds modern trap cozying up to the drone and pulse of ‘70s German electronic music, the gloss of Japanese environment pop, UK broken beat, and the adorable aesthetic of anime.
PJ Harvey: Dry/Dry Demos (Island/UMe)
The news that Island Records would be reissuing PJ Harvey’s discography on vinyl—along with accompanying LPs of the demos she recorded for each album—was exactly the ray of light music fans needed in this dreary year. And they release schedule is following the timeline of Harvey’s impeccable career, which meant starting with her 1992 debut Dry and Dry Demos, a collection of home recordings originally included with the first UK pressings of Dry. 28 years after the fact, the music still has the power to startle and electrify. While the rhythm section of drummer Rob Ellis and Steve Vaughn cartwheel and trundle and wrestle, Harvey holds firm with choppy downward strums and a voice that could crack concrete. Remastered with care by original co-producer Head, Dry is hackles raising, mouth watering post-punk perfection. Even in its more stripped down form on Dry Demos, the music still electrifies—and provides a testament to just how clear Harvey’s vision was for these songs. You can spot the little changes and adjustments she and her backing band made getting the songs to the finish line, but otherwise the framework for her explosive opening salvo remains solid and commanding. ion.
Colin Stetson: Color Out Of Space OST (Waxwork)
If you were to make your viewing decisions based on whomever composed a film or TV show’s score, I wonder what kind of headspace you’d be in if you only watched work that made use of Canadian artist/composer Colin Stetson. Over the past decade, he has provided the music for some uniquely unsettling pieces of cinema, including Ari Aster’s breakthrough horror film Hereditary and the harrowing WWI drama La Peur. It’s music that you can feel in your bones, even without the visual accompaniment. Which is why he was the perfect person to provide the score for Richard Stanley’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space. Stetson’s smeared, gooey saxophone lines, often rendered unrecognizable by effects pedals, and the addition of strings conjures up the same hyperreal shades that infect the film and its protagonists—and have been reflected upon with the slightly nauseating colored vinyl edition of the soundtrack from the great Waxwork Records. Even in its quietest moments, the music almost demands a physical reaction from the listener, be it a slight stomach gurgle or full on fetal position terror.
Louis Armstrong: Live In France (Dot Time)
The estate of Louis Armstrong is still turning up treasures from their archives—a surprising turn for an artist whose every move during his 69 years on this planet seems to have been well-documented and analyzed closely. The recordings here come from Satchmo’s performance at the Nice International Jazz Festival in 1948—originally broadcast on French radio and captured on what sounds like acetates. Mastering engineer Casper Sutton-Jones has done a remarkable job of cleaning up the audio from those original discs. An inescapable bunch of surface noise remains in the background but the performances by Armstrong and his incredible band, which at the time included trombonist Jack Teagarden and pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, are still vibrant and snappy. Satchmo was in the heat of his swing era, when small combos like his were building off their Dixieland and blues roots and stomping toward the bebop years. Like much of Armstrong’s work, this sextet directed their rhythms toward the dancefloor—heading first for the hips and letting the brain catch up after the song splashed to a conclusion. And the audible, rollicking joy these men brought to this concert, even some 70 years later, remains infectious.
Aksak Maboul: Figures (Crammed Discs)
Aksak Maboul first came to life amid the fervently creative post-punk period of the late ‘70s, led by Crammed Discs founder Marc Hollander and fellow Belgian musician Vincent Kenis. And during their initial run, they welcomed in British musicians like Fred Frith and Chris Cutler into their orbit, creating a sound that skewed toward free jazz and musique concrete. Fast forward three decades and Hollander has rebuilt this project into something far more accessible—shades of French yé-yé pop, heady industrial rock, and groovy library music combining to hearken back to the cultural clashing the group indulged in years ago and eyeing a similarly daring future. The vinyl pressing of the group’s latest LP Figures is the perfect vehicle for what Aksak Maboul is presenting to the world. The music sounds full and vibrant stretched over two LPs. And the release includes a well-designed lyric booklet, with the lyrics printed in both French and English, to more deeply appreciate the philosophy and poetry of songs like “Qu’est-Ce Que C’est ‘Mot’?” and “Sgraffites” as well as the veins of humor that run through much of the album.
Oneness of Juju: African Rhythms 1970-1982 (Strut/Black Fire)
James “Plunky” Branch, perhaps taking hints from his contemporaries George Clinton and Sun Ra, released music under a number of different monikers—Oneness of Juju, Juju and the Space Rangers, and sometimes just Juju—but his musical remit was settled with the album that shares its title with this compilation: African Rhythms. No matter if he steered those hypnotic beats into the worlds of free jazz or disco, Branch filtered every note he wrote and played through Africa. Originally released on CD in 2001, these selections from the various albums Branch made for the D.C. label Black Fire join messages of Black liberation with the delirium of the dancefloor on the surprise club hit “Every Way But Loose” or Afrofuturist jazz as heard on the previously unreleased free-flowing epic “Bootsie’s Lament.” And like Clinton and Sun Ra, Branch wasn’t alone on his journey, as nearly every track has the same cast of characters—his brother Muzi on bass, vibraphonist Lon Moshe, percussionist Al-Hammel Rasul, among them. They are a nimble ensemble, cutting between musical modes with zero strain and no loss of quality or intensity throughout this three-LP set—sometimes achieving that blend on the same track as on “Chants/Don’t Give Up” where the minimalist vocals and percussion back and forth slips smoothly into a blistering funk gallop.