Wednesday, July 18, 2012

CD Review: Arts and Sciences - New You

Arts & Sciences
New You
(Singlespeed Music)

The members of the Oakland, CA quartet Arts & Sciences all spent time in a conservatory or two. In addition to learning their instruments on campus, nearly all having logged time in the odd pop band tUnE-yArDs. They also all have an affinity for prog-flavord free improv and composition. In particular, they seem to have digested a good bit of Tim Berne's oeuvre. Admittedly they cite the alto saxophonist's Bloodcount band in their bio, but the quartet seems closer to Science Friction, his more electric group. It could attributed to Michael Coleman's electric keyboards which build structures for Jacob Zimmerman (alto) and Matt Nelson (tenor) to develop, or knock down, depending on the situation. Drummer Jordan Glenn completes the band and adds aggresive feeling to the playing, sometimes like Jim Black.

No specific songwriting credits are listed anywhere on the cover, although Coleman's name appears with "ASCAP" next to it. Zimmerman actually penned one of the 10 tracks but by leaving the specifics off the cover, Arts & Sciences comes across like a unit rather than a band led by one particular player.

New You includes a few instances of conservatory geek humor. Case in point: "Baby Boner," a title which the band hopefully will come to regret and re-name. This suite-like episode, like opener "People Really Like Me," also proves that the quartet enjoys abrasive repetition. The latter drifts off with Zimmerman blowing a two-note loop, while one-third of the 10-minute former track gets stuck on an odd-meter lick that only changes in texture and dynamics. Abrasive? Yes. Unlistenable? Not really. Maybe just on the first listen.

Before "Baby Boner" gets to that point, it borrows what I like to call the "scenery changing" solo approach from Berne, where the background changes while a solo happens. The twist comes in who appears to be soloing. In this case, it's Coleman and Glenn, while the two saxmen work and rework the setting. "Scientology" adds guitar and three extra horns (including Singlespeed head honcho Aram Shelton) but the out of tempo piece sticks a little too closely to its slow theme, with just a brief spot for a keyboard/drum break. Better is "Shunting" which starts out free and furious, shapes into a heavy groove and then breaks down again.

The longer tracks are punctuated by shorter pieces that serve like interludes. In fact, the 31-second "Missed Opportunity" feels like the acoustic piano exposition for "Scram,"' which immediately follows and begins with Coleman rapidly spinning a nervy synth cluster. Other times, they hang around long enough to get a choppy melody out there ("Poodle," another tip of hat to Berne angularity), prove that they can play chamber music relatively straightly  ("Step Child") or go through several prog-y shapes in a less than three minutes, including one that sounds like a tripped out quote from Raymond Scott ("Those Lepers").

Clearly Arts & Sciences has a variety of backgrounds and influences to draw on with their work. Sometimes when the ideas get thrown together in a somewhat reckless fashion, the results feel a little scattered. In their case, the uninhibited qualities of these guys work to their advantage.

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