I can’t help it, I read reviews. I’m mad for them, reviews of stuff I’ve done, of things I’m into, of CDs I don’t want or don’t like, of things I’ve never heard of. And because the distance between a drunken rant and a published article has decreased somewhat, there are loads of them. And despite warnings of the “End Of Music“, a veritable torrent of recordings continue to pour out, provoking a kind of secondary flow of online comment in which everyone from the scholarly to the brainless, the outraged to the starstruck, gets their respective oars in. Speed is of the essence; reviews come out before the recordings are released. We all need to know if it is any good, and we need to know now.
There used to be this programme on the telly. “The Generation Game”. Objects would go past on a conveyor belt. The “cuddly toy” and the “fondue set” stick in the memory for some reason (and if I ever had one, I would have to buy the conveyor belt to go with it) . The contestant then had to recall as much as possible of what they’d seen in order to win it, victoriously trundling happily home with an armful of mismatched crap. A simple game of recognition and recall. Often reviewers will only get a chance to listen to something once, and in a sense they will find themselves in a similar situation. What are the first impressions? Can you hear the Pygmy rhythms, the Beatles references, the eighties pop attitude? The cuddly toy?
I pulled this out from my CD shelf the other day having not listened to it for about 15 years. As it happens, I chose it by picking two random numbers which, like “battleships”, involve vertical and horizontal coordinates (shelf number and count from the left respectively). However, had I been actually looking for it, I could have seen it from down the street…
Look at those colours! Pretty garish. This is what this recording is about; the clash of unmatchable colours, genres, sounds, eras, harmonies. But rather than lay it all out like a collage where the different materials retain their sense of place and history, Frisell somehow combines these things into a single, identifiable style, a language even, where the guiding principle seems to be a kind of directness. The way a song sung to a sleepy child is direct, or a three chord power ballad, a wonky riff. Often elements of these things appear in the same tune, sometimes even at the same time.
I should go back a bit.
John Zorn started all this. Naked City, his thrash metal/punk/classical covers/surf/60s cinema/S and M/improvised/heavily composed group, came bulldozering over the jazz and improvised scene in the early nineties.
And they could play; they alternated mind-melting virtuosity with an incredible sensitivity to colour, mood and texture. It was as if Zorn had sat down and thought “How do I make music that is as different to Wagner as is humanely possible?” Where the former values purity of language, development, unity of themes both musical and philosophical, Zorn…well….he just crams stuff together, impossible jump cuts through history, country and western, Webern-esque pointillism, thrash metal, film noir, lopsided riffs, jazz, but in a wine bar, not to be listened to but to be “sensed”, music that put you in a series of familiar places, only to whisk you off seconds later. High and low brow stuffed together in a way that took out the high and the low. His skill is in the way he varies the pace, manipulates the shock of the listener, who is frequently left feeling like he or she has run at top speed into a quaker meeting, or fluttered down like a feather into the path the Grand National. It felt very new; a view of music that refused to linger long enough in any one place to look around.
Frisell, along with others like Tim Berne, Bobby Previte, Wayne Horvitz and Elliot Sharp came later for me. And they were like the second wave. Zorn went and smashed everything up, Frisell surveyed the wreckage and started to build things from it that remind us of how things were before it was all knocked down. What sounds like fragments of old Viennese waltzes are put together into epigrammatic melodies, only to be trampled on by a Hendrix-styled guitar solo…except, listening again, there’s no trampling – not really. Like two friends who appear to be arguing when in actual fact they are engaged in their own form of good natured banter, Frisell’s disparate materials seem to find some kind of common ground. Melodies can be explored again, elaborated upon, a banjo can be louder than the distorted guitar which shadows its lines. In “The Way Home”, a constant reiterating chord is at once familiar, almost naive, and yet the spaces it opens up allows the almost vocal inflections of his lead guitar to morph into noise and effects.
Simple and complex. It’s full of these opposites that are forced to cooperate and get on, to occupy the same space. Nostalgia and chaos, delicate melody and frantic mayhem, it feels like a record that challenges our prejudices about what things could go together. And it sounds so good. It’s not a snapshot, it’s not “what happened on the day” (these records can sound good too of course); it’s a lovingly crafted piece of affectionate avant-garde, a complex construction of bits and bobs through which Frisell and his array of guitars weave with the delicacy of a calligrapher. Even the “Chain Of Fools” cover, the one track that never got me…years later, on better headphones, I can hear how the familiarity of the tune allows the sheer detail of his sound to come through.
This CD came out a long time ago. I listened to it obsessively for a year or so, at least until his next album came out. I stole from him as carefully as I could in my own music, I tried to cover my tracks as best I could. My main alibi was that his music is so guitarish. And I’m a pianist, and I had a band with two saxophones in it. Finally, I had to leave it alone for fear of losing myself in it, and I forced myself to be curious about other things.
Now, years later, it feels like a good time to hear it afresh; things change over time. This is a different record now to what it was back then. More music has come after it, and what goes before now seems less immediate. Frisell himself has now found a space in a kind of revitalised bluegrass style, where he can explore his fondness for texture and simplicity without too much gear. His twists and turns are quieter, more modest somehow, but they are there. “Half A Million”, the penultimate track on “Is That You?”, seems almost to be taken from one of his most recent recordings. That changes the way you hear it. At the time, it was just one of a number of directions he was hinting at. You have to wait fifteen years before these things can reveal themselves. And you can listen again.