Monday, December 17, 2007

The Twelve Days of Listmas: Day Three

21 Joe Morris (w/ Ken Vandermark, Luther Gray), Rebus

Connecticut’s Joe Morris is among the most compelling guitarists in the world of free music. The fact that he’s self-taught is either inspiring or maddening, depending on your vantage.

His latest release for the Portuguese Clean Feed label teams him with tireless reedman Ken Vandermark (who gets my vote for musician of our age) and percussionist Luther Gray for six improvised pieces entitled “Rebus.” Just like Rebus, the blue ACD with whom I share a house, the results are exuberant, ill-behaved, challenging and, if only briefly, calm and restrained. Vandermark, who limits himself here to tenor saxophone, is in full throat, effectively leading this trio, while Morris’s contributions are contrastingly bop-like in their structures, relying as they tend to on single-note phrasing. He almost sounds like a modern Grant Green. Well, alright, not really, but you get my point.

The album - presumably named after a word puzzle, and not Ian Rankin’s most famous creation (or my dog) - offers no solutions, no simple melodies, no easy way of approaching these improvisations. In that sense, it’s true to its name. But close listening unlocks the rewards of the uncanny group interplay, and that makes this wordless word puzzle worth the time.

20 Okkervil River, The Stage Names

There is a moment on The Stage Names, very near the end, when a very good album suddenly becomes an overarching statement of maturity by a very good band. Depending on where you got the album, “John Allyn Smith Sails” is either the last or the second-to-last track (some downloads append “Love to a Monster” to the album’s usual 9 tracks), a song about Minnesotan poet John Berryman, whose life and subsequent swan dive suicide have proven popular subjects for songwriters (see also The Hold Steady’s “Stuck Between Stations”). What sounds initially like a bridge (ha!) soon becomes a springboard into a spirited rendition of “Sloop John B,” and Okkervil main man Will Sheff’s point is clear: We’re part of a tradition; follow us into history. Too often indie rock’s creation myth repeats a narrow and overly select lineage, canonical offerings which, we are told, contain the seeds of the modern connoisseur’s rock (i.e. not what you find on the radio). What that moment, and all of The Stage Names is trying to tell us is that such a view is shortsighted and limiting. Pop is pop, and excellent pop music - like this collection by one of the best sad bastard indie/jangle/rock bands around - is among the greatest pleasures we can still share.

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