Sunday, August 28, 2016

CD Review: Marc Ribot & the Young Philadelphians - Live In Tokyo

Marc Ribot & The Young Philadelphias
Live In Tokyo

Something's missing from "Love Rollercoaster" without the "say what."

A wry sense of humor can be detected in Marc Ribot's music. Way back in the '90s on his Rootless Cosmopolitans album he interpreted Jimi Hendrix's "And the Wind Cries Mary" by deadpanning the words over some atonal funk-skronk that bore no resemblance to the original. In each verse of "Have A Nice Day" he growled that he was ready to rough somebody up for some minor reason, as the band played a thrash riff. Each verse ended with words to the effect of "Hey, wait a minute. I don't have a sister. Sorry about your jacket. Have a nice day."

Conversely, the guitarist has paid tribute to Albert Ayler and Cuban guitarist Alberto Rodriguez in ways that show respect without sacrificing any of his own personality. His 2010 solo album Silent Movies offers one of many examples that Ribot can also execute extremely delicate and lyrical music in addition to the abrasive stuff. In conclusion, he should be consider one of the most diverse, pliable and innovative guitarists the world has to offer.

With that in mind, the idea of hearing him interpret Philadelphia soul music, the kind that was a gateway drug to disco in the '70s, should generate excitement. Whereas "And the Wind Cries Mary" was a revered classic that Ribot playfully brought down a few iconic notches, a Ribot version of "Fly Robin Fly" would presumably take a cheesy disco song and raise it a few notches, making us skeptics realize that, yeah, maybe it wasn't quite as lame as we once thought. Presumably Ribot isn't in the business of straight mockery. He has better things to do than just make fun of people.

The concept of the Young Philadelphians gets better by glancing at the personnel. Joining Ribot as his six-string foil is none other than Mary Halvorson, who brings an equally unique approach to her instrument and can also play with the same amount of seriousness and frenzy (see her band People with drummer Kevin Shea).

But Ribot also uses the band to pay tribute to Ornette Coleman's electric Prime Time, getting the original rhythm section for the Young Philadelphians, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston. (Both were young Philadelphians when Ornette first brought them into his fold.) With a rhythm section that get be funky and heavy, coupled with those guitarists, this blend of Philly soul, harmolodics and a creative perspective on homage should be a slam dunk.

By large it is. The quartet brings all intensity one might expect from a combination of players like this. Ribot rearranges MFSB's effervescent "TSOP (True Sounds of Philadelphia)" so it begins slow and out-of-tempo, creating dramatic suspense before it slams into the minor riff and everyone kicks in. The same goes for Van McCoy's "The Hustle," a punchline of a song that gets a little more respect this time out. Ribot also remembered that string sections gave Philly soul its distinct identity too. A three-piece string section covers that end of the music.

All that's left are the vocals,  which shouldn't be a challenge, considering how spare they are. But that's where things come up short. The Young Philadelphians reduce them to something more like gang vocals, yelled together. Sure, "Fly Robin Fly" only has six words, but they were sung originally, not barked. The Trammps' "Love Epidemic" is a great opener, but the way the group sings it makes them sound like they're rolling their eyes at the tepid lyrics.

And then there's "Love Rollercoaster." Maybe Ribot omitted the "say what" because he thought he'd sound corny doing it. Or maybe the song doesn't need it. But the band also twists the main motif of the song. It's built on a two-measure riff, the first descending and the second ascending. The main lyrics match up with the respective part of the riff. But the band stretches the words out over two repetitions of the riff. It even seems to throw off Halvorson, who is about to sing "...of love" immediately after the first "Rollercoaster."

Am I nitpicking? Probably. But "Love Rollercoaster" elicited the same reaction I have when someone does a Beatles song and flips verses around, or the time I heard a guy actually sing "Maxwell SILVER'S Hammer." The reaction is, you should know this. This is embedded in the fabric of classic music. The lack of impressive vocals wedge Live in Tokyo just a bit closer to ironic territory. No one listens to Marc Ribot albums for vocals, but he could have enlisted someone with some pipes to help out. (Or left it all to Halvorson.)

That being said, Live in Tokyo still comes on with more pluses than minuses. There are moments where Weston lets fly with some snare cracks that reinforce the power of the guitars. Tacuma can hold down the groove and bounce around on top of it, sometimes simultaneously. The group recorded this album early in their lifespan too. Ribot says the group has already advanced further. Check this out and look forward to what their future holds.

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