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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Crazy Guitars - Marc Ribot and Elliott Sharp

The problem with solo instrumental recordings is that they often only tend to be of interest to musicians playing that instrument, probably with the exception of piano. Because of the lack of interplay, the musician will tend to move into extreme instrumental prowess (speed, extended techniques, ...) in order to maintain variety and keep the listener's interest. I'm a great fan of Marc Ribot, because of his versatility and creativity, and I'm less a fan of Elliott Sharp, whose music I often find too self-absorbed.

Marc Ribot - Exercises In Futility (Tzadik, 2008) ****

I have seldom come across a self-depreciating album title which so well fit the music on it. Ribot shows his technique and creativity on the guitar by playing his acoustic nylon string guitar only. Some of the pieces really sound like nothing more than exercises in new technical possibilities, not only with regard to guitar-playing itself, but also musically, trying out bizarre chordal changes, rhythmic twists. The music sounds like guitar practice too : Ribot could be sitting next to you in the same room, giving this recording a very intimate and authentic feel. These exercises are futile, because, interesting though they may be, many of them will never be incorporated in other work than this one. So that's it : you try it out a technique on the spot, you play it and repeat it a few times, and for most findings, it stops there and then. Yet they're also futile in the other sense of the word, as "frivolous, without much importance". And it is fun at times, like "Cowboy", or meditative, like "Ballad", or built on tradition, like "Groove". Ribot seems to revere the smallness of this musicality, to enjoy the intense beauty of tiny shifts and melodic try-outs, or even the pleasure of moving his fingers over the strings, playing his songs calmly and softly, creating tiny music with great charm. "Exercises in futility" could in that sense even be a philosophical statement of "practising small things". Grand!

Elliott Sharp -Octal, Book One (Clean Feed, 2008) ***

On this album Elliott Sharp plays his brand-new custom-made Koll 8-string electroacoustic guitarbass, of which he is very proud and which, if we may believe the liner notes, is a small miracle of special technology. Sentences like "the instrument has a Lollar humbucking eletromagnetic pickup which was amplified through a 1958 Fender all-valve Champ amplifier with 8-inch speaker mic'd with a Neumann TLM170 condensor and simultaneously fed into a direct box, with both running into Sytek preamps" drive me absolutely through the ceiling and the roof with horror. And the two-page liner notes contain mostly sentences such as this one. I mean, who cares? We're talking about music, not an advanced course in electronic technology. Nevertheless, the music he brings is not uninteresting, and some of it even sounds great. Regardless of the technology, his technique is unique and some of the results he produces are astonishing. I'm not sure whether this can be called jazz (nor does Ribot's album for that matter), probably just avant-garde music, in which he incorporates elements from jazz and blues. Sharp does not create melodic music, but rather jumpy rhythmic harmonic and chordal movements, with lots of fast finger picking, plucking and strumming, using his ebow once in a while. As usual with Sharp, the blues is not far away, and tracks like "Modulant" and "Quaternion" are avant-garde blues. Although this album will certainly be of interest to guitar players, some parts of it are also entertaining enough for listeners who do not play the guitar.

Listen and/or download Octal from eMusic.