Click here to [close]

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The John Lurie National Orchestra: The Invention of Animals (Amulet, 2014) ****½

By Martin Schray

When it was announced that there would be a new John Lurie album I guess not only Paul and I were very enthusiastic. There hasn’t been new music by Lurie for more than ten years and the last National Orchestra album is from 1993. But when “The Invention of Animals” was released it turned out that it was also music from the early 1990s. It seems that there is hardly a chance that Lurie will ever record again.

The reasons are really tragic. In the 1980s and 90s Lurie, the mastermind of the influential Lounge Lizards, was one of the most charismatic artists at all. He successfully combined a stylish punk attitude with jazz, he starred in Jim Jarmusch’s cult classics “Stranger than Paradise” and “Down by Law”, he had a show on television (“Fishing with John”), and he was also a gifted painter. He was good-looking, could purse his lips like no other, and had a fascinating, unique baritone – he actually was the personification of coolness.

In 2002 Lurie went to a restaurant and from one moment to the next he found out that he couldn’t move, he described it as a “creepy, ignoble, wormlike force” rising up in him. After a veritable odyssey of consulting doctors he was diagnosed with late persistent lyme disease which prevented him from leaving his apartment. He was not able to play the saxophone anymore, all he could do was concentrate on his painting. And as if this wasn’t enough he was the victim of a mysterious stalking affair which forced him to withdraw from the world for a longer period of time. Considering all these facts “The Invention of Animals” is a beautiful surprise although it is not really a “new” album.

The National Orchestra is Lurie on saxophones and Billy Martin and Calvin Weston, both on drums and percussion. On the one hand the album consists of material known from the “Fishing with John” soundtrack and an alternative version of the title track of the band’s 1993 album “Men with Sticks”, but on the other hand this is not only a sampler, the album also presents two previously unreleased live recordings: ”I Came To Visit Here For Awhile”, which was recorded at the Threadwaxing Space in New York City on May 7, 1993, and the title track, “The Invention of Animals”, a performance captured on February 12, 1994 in Thessaloniki, Greece. The first one is a meditation with Lurie’s sax in the focus, the second one a 19-minute energetic, free saxophone ride over loop-like drumming, a live expedition into hypnotic trance music based on subtle shifts of  rhythm and harmonies. It is as if you attend a weird heathen ritual, dancing round a campfire, high on drugs, blood pumping through your veins.

As usual the music is very percussive, there are oriental and African seeming sounds, even the miniatures are explosive and intoxicating, e.g. “Ignore the Beast” with its irresistible groove. It is pure dance stuff, and Lurie’s saxophone lines dance so elegantly over the beat that the track seems to take off.

Billy Martin once said: “John and I share the idea that this is like someone discovered a field recording of a lost civilization. Some strange and beautiful tribe unlike any other known to man.” Listen to this marvelous music and you know what he means.

“The Invention of Animals” features a John Lurie painting as cover art. It is available on CD and on LP as a limited collector’s edition of 180 gram vinyl.

Get an impression what the National Orchestra sounds like here: