Posts Tagged ‘bill frisell

18
May
16

From the Shelf: Naked City – The Complete Studio Recordings

 

I have a copy of this box, but rather than break it down as one large piece, I instead wrote about all the records separately since I consider them individual pieces of music. I followed the order of release, too, not the sequenced order of the box.

Naked City (1990)

 

The first Naked City record, originally released in 1990, is an interesting showcase for the group. There’s a few covers, a few originals and a lot of blasting noise, bursts of energy and shrieking and wailing. In 26 tracks, it sets the template for who they are and how they sound.

 

You could even argue that the first two tracks do this. “Batman” opens the record with a Bill Frisell’s chugging, twanging guitar and as the rhythm section kicks in, John Zorn’s sax starts blasting and twisting around. On the other hand, a cover of Ennio Morricone’s “The Sicilian Clan” is a slow, moody piece of ambience: both Zorn and Frisell’s playing are restrained and Wayne Horvitz’s keyboards give colour at atmosphere. Between the two tracks, you get a picture of a band that can play both traditionally and in an experimental style, blasts of noise and colour, energy and restraint, and light and dark.

 

Really, the whole album is full of these contrasts. Songs explode out nowhere, turn and crash and dissolve into mayhem; others take influence from surf rock (“Demon Sanctuary”), hardcore (“Fuck the Facts”) and straight-ahead jazz (“Latin Quarter”, “Snagglepuss”). Motifs and ideas pop up for a second and dissolve; other sounds wreck themselves apart before they form into something. At their best on the debut, the band is pushing jazz improv into new concepts of energy and form; at it’s worst, they sound like a bunch of talented musicians taking the piss.

 

Which is where the covers come in: how are people supposed to take covers of everything from Ornette Coleman to the theme songs from Chinatown or James Bond. Is it ironic for A-list New York musicians to cover something so kitsch? I don’t really know. I suppose I could look up interviews or something, but I’m not that interested in the answer. I do know I like their version of “Lonely Woman,” which sounds like it’s being done as the theme song for a police procedural, while the Bond theme leads to some chaotic improv, where the band seems like they’re falling apart but swipes back into form at the drop of a hat. 4/5

 

Torture Garden (1990)

 

A short compilation of miniatures from their firs two records, Torture Garden is fast, furious and to be honest, I can’t always tell these tunes apart unless I’m watching the screen, since they’re all just rapid bursts of fury.

 

Still, there are moments where the band mixes things up. For example, “Numbskull” opens with Frisell’s guitar feeding back, a cool, Fripp-like accent, while “Jazz Snob Eat Shit” is a rapid, almost sarcastic burst of jazzy playing. Personally, I like “The Prestidigitator,” which mixes in crashing glass and barrelhouse piano. It sounds like a barroom brawl. There’s a sense of humour here, although sometimes I wonder if the joke Zorn’s telling is on the listener.

 

Really though, between the samey bursts of noise and a general feeling of confusion, I think this it doesn’t work as well as their other records. It’s experimental and certainly pushes the boundaries, but it lacks the cohesion of their debut and the focus of later recordings – to my ears, this is all tension and no release. Or maybe I just tire easily of thrashing and screaming? 2.5/5

 

Grand Guignol (1991)

 

The proper follow-up to their debut record, Grand Guignol is like an amped-up version of Naked City, right down to the eye-catching, if disturbing, cover of a head that’s particularly sliced open (Big Black did something similar with Headache). It opens with one of their longest performances, the 18-minute title track, which mixes Zorn’s ambient side with scraping bursts of static and playing. It sounds like a collection of their miniatures – and probably it is, if I understand Zorn’s composing style correctly – but as a long suite, I think the alternating waves of dissonance and energy, the way ambient soundscapes give way to furious bursts, makes it work in a way the above compilation doesn’t: it changes the pace every so often; it’s not just ~20 minutes of unrelenting fury and noise.

 

Miniatures largely take up the rest of the album – there are 41 songs here and most of the rest are about a minute long – which I’m hot-and-cold on; see above for my takes on them. However, there’s also several covers of classical tunes by composers like Debussy, Charles Ives and Alexander Scriabin. Here, Zorn and the band glide through them, giving them a slow, film noir vibe. They make Scriabin sound like the opening theme to a Raymond Chandler flick; the tone of Frisell’s guitar gives the Ives cover an ambient and open ECM-style sound. If I’m being honest, this is probably my favourite of their records. 4.5/5

 

Heretic (1992)

 

At the same time, Heretic is both Naked City at it’s best and worst. It’s supposed to be the soundtrack to a S&M film – which seems to me like more of a stunt by Zorn than anything else, but who knows – and the album is basically the group improvising in various forms and styles throughout. They play in different groupings – sometimes it’s Firth, Frisell and Baron, other times it’s Zorn and Firth, etc, etc – and everything was done on the fly.

 

Which means in one sense, it’s a showcase for the band’s chops: at it’s best, the music is driving and fierce, re-inventing itself on the fly. At it’s worst it’s self-indulgent. A British critic once called Naked City a “bunch of musicians having fun” and depending on your mood, you might dig a bunch of guys making it up as they go along but you may also tire of it quickly. You may think what they’re doing is cool and genre pushing, but you may also find it pretentious. The truth is somewhere between those poles.

 

Generally, I think this record holds it’s own. There’s a few interesting tricks – is Horovitz drumming the inside a piano on “The Brood?” – and their playing is generally in top form. At the same time, other experiments are interesting but not as compelling. On “Sweat, Sperm and Blood,” Eye duets with Zorn in a series of scats and shouts, wailing and shrieking. It’s interesting in how well they compliment each other, but it’s not the sort of thing I’d put on when friends are over.

 

Out of all their records, this is them at their most uncompromising and arty. I think it’s generally pretty cool, but also I find it kind of self-important, too: the idea this was meant to accompany a skin flick doesn’t sound so much sex-positive as it does too clever by half, Zorn’s idea of being edgy and provocative, in the same way his covers are. 2.5/5

 

Leng Tch’E (1992)

 

Here’s where things all kinda come to a head. On this record, the ensemble plays a long, drawn out composition, “Leng Tch’e.” Recorded on a single day – Janurary 11, 1992, says Wikipedia – this droning, sludgy epic is both sort of powerful and kind of repetitive. All the energy from their short, frantic pieces is here but it’s been slowed to a crawl; Bill Frisell’s guitar roars and dominates the record while Fred Frith’s bass and Joey Baron’s drumming push and propel things forward. And although it’s more of a sit-down-and-listen kinda record than, say, Naked City was, it’s compelling in it’s own right. Especially once Eye starts screaming and moaning and Frisell’s guitar goes nuts.

Of course, I haven’t mentioned the cover art: a picture of someone undergoing Death By A Thousand Cuts. The victim is being flayed apart alive, like a medieval saint getting tortured, but was dosed with opium and has a sickening grin, even as his body is getting ritually destroyed. It’s of a piece with the music, slow but pummeling, with Eye shouting, moaning and screaming as the tempo builds and Frisell’s guitar roars, Zorn’s sax wails in a high register and the band keep pummeling, pushing and driving. It’s perhaps not them at their most accessible, but it’s one hell of an artistic statement. 4/5

 

 

Radio (1993)

 

Call it a counterpoint to Leng Tch’e. On “Radio,” Zorn had the idea of a record of shortish pieces that slowly build up and grow in intensity. Not that it opens with like, “Solar” or anything: “Asylum” is driving, frantic jazz with Zorn twisting and turning at high velocity, while “Sunset Surfer” is packed with surf-rock style riffing, but Horvitz’s keyboards lend a nice ambient texture to things. And on “Triggerfingers,” Frisell goes nuts, running all over his fretboard.

 

But yeah, throughout the course of things, this one builds up in intensity. By songs like “Razorwire,” there’s a growing dissonance and droning, with Zorn making stabs with his horn, while “Krazy Kat” alternates between open spaces and bursts of fury. By record’s end, on songs like “I Die Screaming,” “Pistol Whipping” and “Skatekey” the band is playing hard and fast, blasting waves of noise. And by the end, Eye is screaming, the band is pounding and they slowly fade into the night, starting and stopping and making all kindsa noises.

While it’s an easier listen than some of their earlier stuff, at the same time it feels a little flatter than stuff like Heretic or Naked City. The playing is intense, but doesn’t have the same spark of energy or ambition. Things move and shake, but it’s hard not to think they were running out of ideas; the most interesting parts of this record are when they fall back onto clichés, like the country rhythm they dip into on “American Psycho,” the kind of trick they could pull in their sleep. And compared to earlier stuff, when they fall back on things, it’s not in a way that’s funny or provocative (see: “Eat Shit Jazz Snob”), but feels more like a change of pace. It’s not a bad record, but for all the pounding and fury, I think it shows them running out of gas. 3/5

 

Absinthe (1993)

 

And here’s where it all comes to a halt. On their previous record, the music faded to a finish of ambient sounds and playing. Here, the music starts slow and full of reverb and never kicks into the high-intensity music of their earlier records.

 

This isn’t to knock the record, which is interesting in it’s own way. It’s just a different kind of thing than what they’d done previously: the music drones and vibrates, echoes and shakes. It’s experimental in a way nothing they’d done before was, bringing to mind stuff like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music or Nurse With Wound’s Soliloquy For Lilith.

 

The title’s a fitting one: the music sounds just a shade off, almost hallucinatory. Frisell’s guitar is atonal, while the keyboards create thunderstorms of swirling doom and gloom. Perhaps fittingly, the album ends with static; allegedly, it’s Frisell rubbing his guitar cord around the amp’s input jack.

 

It’s hard to place this one in the context of their other records since it’s so deliberately different, occasionally deliberately unlistenable. As an experimental concept, it’s hard to judge: how do I assign a rating to noise? And at the same time, it evokes earlier artists as influences, but never betters them. I like Naked City more than I like Nurse With Wound, but even if Absinthe reminds me of them, it’s not replacing my copy of Soliloquy any time soon. As a goodbye statement, maybe it just reflects Zorn, who was bored or exhausted with the concept of Naked City and wanted to move on, so they intentionally made a record ended with noise and fuzz, like a radio station going out of range. All things considered, it’s not bad, but it’s not something I find myself listening to really at all. 2/5

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