Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Inbetweens – Quantum Cowboy; Scrambler Seequil – Secret Passageways

Going to try doing a couple of CD reviews at least once a month, and as Scott Miller sang, "We'll see how long I last."  Starting with a couple of CDs that showed up in my mailbox from Mike Gamble, who's been getting a lot of love lately and from the evidence of these it's easy to see why.

Quantum Cowboy is the first album the Inbetweens have released on a physical label, Layered Music, home of Cougar and Youngblood Brass Band, and it's clearly a point where they start sounding like themselves.  There were moments of beauty on both of the earlier records - and couple of tour CDRs - and always a cracking live band whenever they'd come through Columbus on tour or I'd see them at Bar4 or the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn, but the compositional intent is much clearer and the improv more focused on this album.

Comprised of Mike Gamble on guitar and loops, Noah Jarrett on double bass, and Conor Elmes on drums; everyone makes their presence known as a leader on this.  The New York Times review compared this to Frisell's classic trio and there's certainly something to be said for that, particularly the title track that opens this set's hybrid of Nashville-era and '80s Naked City-era Frisell, with its  fingerpicking and sharp teeth distortion.  But the best moments of this remind me more of those French Frith Kaiser Thompson records without the vocals, from Conor's always soulful, just-loose-enough drumming to Noah Jarrett's bass lines you could sing that never stop nudging the rhythm forward (not holding it down) through Gamble's stinging, singing tone.

This record hits its stride with the gorgeous ballad "Maia", named for Jarrett's daughter, one of those tunes I can promise people are going to start picking up on and in ten years you'll see dozens of jazz - whatever that's going to mean - acts covering.  The electronic glaze spread over the warm notes of this song gives it a comfortable, lived-in feeling, almost a '70s Mwandishi feeling but in the best possible sense of that, with Elmes' best soloing and great, unexpected comping that flows organically right after from the other two players.

That stride keeps it up through my favorite piece on the disc, "Hello Copper", with an easy-going gentle groove that throws in a nice left turn every handful of bars like clockwork to make sure your ears are still working.  The bass-guitar interplay on this tune is particularly good and this track best exemplifies what I thought about the Inbetweens back when I first heard them, they're a trio spitting out pure rhythm, every instrument is a rhythm instrument building towering, intricate blocks of motion.

I'm happy to report that on this album, the melodies have caught up to the rhythm and they're almost indistinguishable and I'm going to be listening to this for a long time.  Heartily recommended for anyone who wants to take the temperature of jazz guitar trios in 2010, alongside 2008's massive Mary Halvoson Trio record and Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog.

I wrote about the Scrambler Seequil EP last year in this blog, and just got the finished full album, Secret Passageways.  I've listened to it maybe a dozen times and almost as many situation - waking up, in the wee small hours, on my ipod trudging through snowy streets, in A's car -and I find it a little confounding, but in the best possible way.

This is a more fully formed statement than the EP (while containing several of the same songs) and, interestingly for a debut, already shows some signs of boredom with the song forms herein.  The core duo of Devin Febboriello on vocals and keys, Mike Gamble on guitar, backing vocals, and keys, and augmented by ringers including Ani Difranco's bass maestro Todd Sickafoose (also a damn fine composer in his own right, check 2008's Blood Oranges), reeds player Tony Barba (of the Barbarians, Brooklyn Qawwali Party, and one of my favorite tenor players), and three very different drummers (the highly technical and funk-based Walker Adams, the aforementioned Conor Elmes, and New Orleans soul sensation Simon Lott II), find cohesiveness even as they duck away from the grip of sameness.

The record opens with "Hear the Sound", all multitracked buttery vocals and lilting, slightly-off kilter grooves, but the weirdness is apparent as early as the one-two punch of the '70s-ballad-on-cough-syrup "Thirteen" with its dusty organ and guitar back-and-forth and flute and the blotter-acid-cut-with-hydrochloric "One Design" which in less than four minutes goes from one of Devin's finest lyrics on the record, "If I forget my mind, I'd simply know I am alive", through some wordless girl-group-punk shouts into a tango that gets swept in the undertow of twinkling keyboards and a guitar line that splits the difference between Tsziji Munoz and Carlos Santana

"Rest For Now"'s bucolic, easy-to-digest folksy charm draws the listener back in but the lyrics make sure you stay edge, "Because there's just not enough faith left in all of this madness / to be anything else but mad", well, the lyrics, the woozy organ and that perfect, chopped-up cymbal.

It really hits its stride a few tracks later on "Dead Grass", an inversion or younger folks take on LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends", with repetitive synth and guitar stabs that get under your skin and backwards drums that would make Adrian Sherwood smile; and a narrative about trying to understand and knowing that just around the corner "we rise, we rise / To catch a glimpse of the brightest day to ever dawn / Then we run, we run / To catch up with everything that we've loved".  This fades seamlessly into a Gamble solo instrumental "Amidst the Abyss" which could've been a lost Squarepusher track if he collaborated with Fred Frith around the time of Music is Rotted One Note.  Then it all comes back with "Us, Be", the mission statement of the entire album, maybe summing up the whole band's aesthetic, "I don't want to live in your hopeless world."

If the object of an artist is to describe their own, idiosyncratic Eden to the world, this does that in the shadows, in a flickering Super 8 document, the way Kore-Eda's movie After Life had amateur theatre versions of a memory for someone to have forever.  And the flaws are part of what makes this stick and makes it as entertaining as it is.  This record is the sound of a band's reach just starting to exceed their grasp without making a perfect album first and the next one, I'm willing to bet, is going to blow us all away.  Until then, there's much, much beauty and fire herein.

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