Apr 2 2012
There is something wise in how the opening track to Floratone II is titled “The Bloom Is On.” It implies a return of something that existed in previous seasons returning yet again. In that the sound presented on the ensemble’s follow-up album is very similar to the spot where Floratone’s 2007 album left off, the thought of a new bloom of an old flower fits right in with the scheme of things. And just as the new bloom of Spring is a welcome sight every year, so is the release of Floratone’s second collaboration.
Floratone is a core quartet of guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Matt Chamberlain, with producers Tucker Martine and Lee Townsend (given credit as collaborators). New members to the ensemble include Mike Elizondo on bass, and long-time Frisell partners-in-music Ron Miles (trumpet) and Eyvind Kang (viola).
Floratone’s sound is quite unlike anything else on the scene. An industrial bluegrass, an Electro-Americana thing… mixing rustic instruments with modern looping and effects, channeling old music through new machines, organic sounds carried over frequencies of steel. It makes for an odd dichotomy. It’s also appealing as all hell.
Let’s talk about that sound…
Opening track “The Bloom Is On” is a march of staccato rhythms, asymmetrical guitar lines, and a skewed melody. Bright notes fight through the strange dissonance until they become indistinguishable from one another. Second track “Pluck” opens with more staggered rhythms, but Ron Miles’ trumpet eclipses the percussion with bold pronouncements and soaring arcs of sound. There is not much to differentiate the first two tracks in terms of theme; or said differently, if one were to trace the creative ancestry of the two songs, they would lead back to the same muse.
At this point, a difference between first album and second has become apparent… the second album aims the spotlight directly on the interplay between Frisell’s guitar and Chamberlain’s percussion. The debut album was a more democratic blend of each ensemble members’ voices, but, here, it’s the voices of Frisell and Chamberlain who stand alone at the front of the stage.
Third track “Snake, Rattle” begins to shake any preconceptions that the first two tracks may have instilled. Inciting images of a cemetery haunted by the ghosts of bluegrass musicians, Chamberlain’s spooky percussion added to Frisell’s voodoo guitar notes paint an ominous canvas. The ill winds of keyboards and electronic effects blow through the song, and Elizondo’s booming basslines sound like a countdown to a moment of dread. That the ensemble constructs this track into something that the foot can tap along to is a revelation that can’t help put a smile on a jaded ear.
Fourth track “Parade” kicks the tempo back into gear, with the bounce of horns and march of drums, angular guitar lines, quavering electronics, scattered keyboards, and then those sublime interludes that the Floratone ensemble specializes at… like breaking from an overgrown forest into a valley clearing, with long cool swaths of prairie grass, a clear sparkling stream, and all the sunlight one could ever ask for. The group’s talent at seamlessly ushering compositions into these peaceful moments and then returning again to the dissonance of the “forest” is a highlight of both first and second albums. The ability to shift from chaos to peace to chaos is not new to music, but it is a maneuver not often excelled at. Floratone proves with their follow-up that the expertise they displayed on the debut album was no fluke.
Fifth track “Not Over Ever” is a brief beautiful interlude. Ron Miles, who arguably has come closest to matching Miles Davis’s evocatively frail sound on trumpet more than any other horn player since, voices one wavering note after the other as Frisell accompanies with ephemerally shifting notes and Kang makes his viola sound like a mournful howl of a lonely heart in the dead of night. There is an undercurrent of lush drone. This interlude is an album highlight. It also leads right into a blistering tune full of fight and fire, a pace that is broken only when guitar and keyboard play simple single notes over top of the still sprinting rhythm section. The juxtaposition of a smattering of pretty notes atop frenetic percussion is as cool as it is delicious. But make no mistake… it’s Chamberlain’s percussion that carries this track. His furious gallop creates an environment where no other instrument can do wrong, where all other instruments can feel free to express themselves however the mood shapes them, because he makes it known that the song rides on his shoulders. Arguably the strongest album track.
Seventh track “Do You Have It” settles into a nice groove. Chamberlain lopes ahead along with bass. Frisell lays down a smart pattern of guitar bursts to accentuate the rhythm. And just when it seems like the song has shown all its got, Frisell walks up and down the line with sharp steel twang and Brion’s keyboards in tow.
Eighth track “The Time, the Place” has a Southwestern funereal sound to it. With Frisell on steel stringed, Chamberlain’s snare and percussion, and Miles’ plaintive trumpet calls, the images of a procession across desert plains, expansive big sky, and a silence so complete that even the gentle breeze sounds like a shout.
“No Turn Back” returns to the album’s opening sounds, yet with more zeal and more electronics, and a bit more hurried. Even when Frisell lays down some distortion and Chamberlain rocks out on drums, it still apparent as a facet of earlier statements. It’s nice to hear a different presentation of a common theme, but I can’t help but feel like they’re trying a bit too hard on this track. It just doesn’t sound like it came naturally to them.
“The Time, the Place (Part 2)” is another interlude, mostly Ron Miles playing slow and soft over the blip of electronics and wandering guitar notes. It leads into “Gimme Some,” a mixed jumble of sounds that comes off as being a bit muddled. At only two minutes in length, it perhaps is meant to serve as more of an interlude or was simply a bit of improvisation that never reached fruition that the group wanted to include on the album anyway. The tune’s heart is in the strange percussion, though the wild leaps Frisell takes on guitar grab some attention.
Following the brief interlude of “Grin and Bite,” the album ends with the serene “Stand By This,” a pastiche of fairy tale bells and chimes, lullaby strings and moonlight trumpet, drums like soft sleepy breaths… a sonic distillation of the sound of good dreams.
So, where does that leave us? There were times, many times actually, when I found myself thinking back to the debut album and wondering if they were performing new versions of old compositions. There is a profoundly strong cohesion of sound between first album and second, though whereas the first album leaned more toward the softer melodic side of the spectrum, the current recording is far more expansive in terms of the percussive elements. It makes for rougher edges and breathtaking dynamics.
The way it all shakes out, if you loved the first Floratone album as much as I, then the release of the follow-up album is a reason to celebrate. If you liked the first one, but were hoping for something more, something different, then you might be left feeling a bit underwhelmed. And though I fall into the former category, it’s not much of stretch to see things from the point of view of the latter. Me, personally, I’ll be keeping this album in my regular rotation for the foreseeable future.
Also, you can stream many of the tracks from their first (and second albums) on Floratone’s site, here.
Here’s the EPK video for the album…