Tuesday, April 14, 2020

CD Review: Curt Sydnor - Deep End Shallow

Curt Sydnor
Deep End Shallow
(Out Of Your Head) www.outofyourheadrecords.com

Curt Sydnor saw something when he was young that left a strong impression on him. His hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia had a public swimming pool with elaborate cut stone in the gazebo and the pool itself. In 1961, rather than take the advice of civil rights advocates, who wanted to integrate the pool, local leaders decided to drain it, and walked away from what would have been a beautiful public space. The Riverside Park Pool still exists, only now it's become a modern ruin, with grass growing out of the pool floor. Young Curt saw that space when he was growing up and wondered what would motivate someone to take such a drastic step, denying everyone of this opportunity in the process.

Deep End Shallow is not a concept album, but keyboardist Sydnor muses about the Riverside Park Pool in two songs, the title track and "Fall Behind." The latter features him singing fragmented lyrics on the subject: "Let's describe to the high industrialists/ Fields mown fallow/ the deep end is shallow/ Don't fill it in, men/ Think of the children."

Unless you know it's there, the lyrical punch might be easy to miss. While Sydnor has the chops to pull of some prog-jazz - which occurs throughout the album - "Fall Behind" leans a little closer to psychedelic electronics heard in bands like Black Moth Super Rainbow and the solo work by their front man Tobacco. Voices are distorted to the point where it's hard to tell if Sydnor is singing lyrics or simply vocalizing. If the message is buried in translation, it puts more emphasis on the layered music surrounding the words.

Out of Your Head, the label spearheaded by bassist Adam Hopkins, lays claim to a catalog that includes complex jazz by Hopkins and Dustin Carlson, as well as Michael Attias' dexterous saxophone/piano performances.  Sydnor sounds nothing like either of those things, which is part of the charm. Along with the latest Destroyer album, Have We Met, Deep End Shallow has taken vintage keyboard sounds that were once novel voices used minimally by '80s bands and has given them a serious role in creating progressive music . The album also includes a seemingly far-flung group of players: Deerhoof's Greg Saunier on drums, Matisyahu collaborator Aaron Dugan on guitar; Michael Coltun of Mdou Moctar on bass; and saxophonist Caroline Davis.

Sometimes the instruments blend together. "Rus in Urbe" sounds like an aggressive version of mid '70s Soft Machine where it's hard to tell Davis' horn from Syndor's overdriven keys, since the saxophonist ran her instrument through a guitar amp. This comes amidst Dugan's shredding breakdown. Just as things start getting veering towards proggy soundtrack music ("Them"), Syndor jettisons the band and sits at the acoustic piano for "Fieldgaze Variations," a contemplative Romantic piece that's bookended by a sizzling sound that might have come from the amps that he, Davis and Dugan just finished ravaging on the previous tracks.

Curt Sydnor has a lot of ideas of what kind of music he wants to play. (Now residing in Richmond, VA, he spent several years living and playing in Brooklyn.) In addition to all of the above, "Starewell" launches the album with a keyboard riff inspired by Herbie Hancock. Sometimes the act of putting all your muses in one basket spreads an artist too thin. The mix of styles on Deep End Shallow, on other hand, has yielded an diverse program. It might cause some head scratching but things become clear pretty quickly.

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