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Saturday, December 21, 2019

75 Dollar Bill -- I Was Real (Thin Wrist, 2019) *****

Attention lovers of ecstatic music: I Was Real, the third full length from the New York duo 75 Dollar Bill -- Che Chen (guitar) and Rick Brown (percussion) -- is the group's most significant statement yet. The double record is a sprawling collection of singular music, suffused with blues, West African guitar music, Henry Flynt/Tony Conrad connected NY Minimalism, punk ethos, celebratory spirit and joyfulness. Through all of these layers however, Chen and Brown maintain an unmistakable sound that is 75 Dollar Bill.

I Was Real finds the duo working newly in collaboration with a host of musicians. With Chen's tumbling guitar and Brown's insistent percussion always at the core, said collaborators serve to flesh out the soundscape, making this particular record a sort of 75 Dollar Bill on overdrive.

The songs center on a repeating guitar phrase, which interlocks with Brown's percussion, building to a hypnotic drone. This drone isn't static though -- it's active, limber and evolving. Chen and Brown have spent years playing and improvising together, and their close relationship is readily apparent in the tight yet fluid foundation that they lay for their songs. 

The center piece of this set is the nearly 17 minute title track, which serves as a thesis statement, of sorts, for the duo. The slow but chugging bluesy riff locks in, sitting over a bed of strings droning
beneath. Brown's simple, syncopated percussion lurks nearby. 

The melody is repeated over and over, eventually morphing ever slightly, adding another note or two.
75 Dollar Bill are masters at the art of appropriate and perfectly timed melodic ornamentation. Eventually the build makes it way to a full chord. The duo's patience pays off, and the heights of this song are well earned and it hits hard. The title track too is a perfect example of 75 Dollar Bill utilizing their filled out ensemble, as the addition of strings augments their already existing aesthetic beautifully.

We hear this work on the "Every Last Coffee or Tea" too. After two and half minutes of brooding introduction, Chen starts up another signature guitar line, this time doubled by strings and saxophone. After this initial unison, they drift from each other, weaving melodies around and pocketing a tight trance groove. Elsewhere, "WZN #3" is a great piece in the style of the faster, Appalachian sounding, violin forward Henry Flynt music. Again, the group sits in the harmonic spot it starts in for the whole piece, finding new nooks melodically that splinter and rejoin. The ways in which the group adds and subtracts is so inventive. Listen to "There's No Such Thing as a King Bee" or "WZN #4" for a vintage duo only version of this. Simply by description this isn't music that should quite "work" -- but Chen and Brown's resourceful connectivity creates a sum greater than the perceived parts.

75 Dollar Bill's music is simultaneously of many influences but entirely non-derivative. You can hear very clear points of reference, but to me it never leans on this too heavily. It's also, at once, deeply improvisational as it is thoughtfully compositional. Chen and Brown know their strengths, and they build worlds with them. You can listen to every moment of every piece, or you can sink into the ambiance they create. Again too, this is joyful music, and the spirit of the musicians that made it is front and center. I Was Real is an important work from this special duo.


Richard said...

Wow, I loved their album "Wooden Bag", but haven't thought about this band in years. This will be an immediate purchase. Thanks, Spencer.