Tuesday, December 15, 2009

CD review: Seabrook Power Plant & Jeremy Udden

There are some CDs that have been sitting around that I swore several months ago I would write about. Now that the end of the year is coming, I figured it was time to do it as a way of looking back. So even though some of the things have been out for several months, there's no better time to sound off on them.

Seabrook Power Plant
(Loyal Label)

Brandon Seabrook has a great idea - playing noisy, improvisational and sometimes heavy music with a banjo. After all, Steve Martin once told us you can't play sad music on a banjo, so presumably all of this would extol a certain joie de vivre. Few people outside of Eugene Chadbourne have utilized the ol' string box this way.

The problem is, if this music is joyous, that feeling gets lost as it moves out of the heads of Seabrook Power Plant to the listener's ears. The first track on the album with banjo (Seabrook also plays electric git-box) come off almost a novelty noise number, or a generic attempt at emulating a great classic rock band. "Peter Dennis Blanford Townshend" finds Seabrook raking his instrument at lightning speed while his brother Jared unleashes machine gun drum rolls. It has stops and starts a la hardcore, but it really sounds, as the press release states like a cassette stuck on fast-forward. But not in a good way.

It could be the Seabrook trio (rounded out by bassist Tom Blancart) intends to unnerve listeners. That could explain why the last two-and-a-half minutes of the six-minute "Waltz of the Nuke Workers" consist of an abrasive arpeggio on the upper part of the guitar neck played over and over and over and over and ........... you get the idea. The trio heads in a bone-crushing metal direction on "I Don't Feel So Good," which could mow down everything in sight, but then they never move beyond the initial riff.

That approach brings down a lot the album. Several songs show Seabrook has some great ideas about how to use the banjo in a new context, but he needs to cut out the repetition that makes a lot these songs sound like sketches.

Jeremy Udden
(Fresh Sound New Talent)

As a support player, Seabrook really fleshes out the songscapes of Jeremy Udden on Plainville. Seabrook and Pete Rende (Fender Rhodes, pedal steel and most significantly pump organ) lend a cinematic quality to backgrounds that are equally as important as the alto saxophonist's spare but riveting melody lines. In effect, the music ends up sounding like a rural version of In a Silent Way, especially on the closing track, which slowly unfolds over rubato guitar and banjo strums and droning organ. Eventually it begins to catch fire, though not in a way that implies chaos so much as a reawakening.

Plainville features many pastoral moments like this, from "The Reunion" which seems like it could serve as the soundtrack to such an event, to "Christmas Song," a lyrical Udden original where his alto plays a melody that sounds like it's written for a vocalist. In some ways these tunes feel tranquil enough to be background music, but the difference is sonic wallpaper doesn't have anything in it to grab your attention. Udder's music, on the other hand, has all sorts of little elements that tug at the ear.

The band can also rock out if they feel so inclined. "Big Lick" pounds a bit, with Seabrook producing a trebly, brittle sound similar to Marc Ribot, thereby making this track recall late '80s Lounge Lizards. "Curbs" also dips into mutant surf twang, while "Red Coat Line," a delightfully rigid waltz, includes some plinking and feverish banjo strumming from the string man. Udden, who also plays soprano sax on one track, holds back in comparison as a soloist. But his simplicity
sounds deliberate, and in the best interest of the mood, rather than a lack of ideas. Keep an eye out for this guy.

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