Mar 20 2018
Look, there’s nothing tragically awful about Frisell’s new album. I enjoyed it, I suppose. Music IS has its moments. But I’ve been saying this about other recent Bill Frisell recordings, and that’s got me depressed as hell.
This is Frisell’s first solo album since 2013’s Silent Comedy, though a far better comparison for his latest offering is the 2000 release Ghost Town. The singular vision of Ghost Town imagined a place where ambient and folk and jazz bubbled up from the same body of water, and Frisell gave it shape and form with a deft use of loops and effects. There’s an immaculate cohesiveness to it all, even as the poignancy built into the nuance made it seem expansive as the horizon, and a sense that there was no end to the possibilities. Music IS incorporates many of those same ingredients, but it falls flat where Ghost Town leaps, slogs along where Ghost Town soars.
But like I said, it’s not bad.
“Thankful” is one of the highlights. The layering of the melody, growing increasingly textured as the song progresses, is a thing of near beauty. It’s a nice use of effects, with the music looping back over itself like layers of sunlight upon an icy pond. It also gains a delicate volatility, not unlike the way his classic tune “Tales from the Darkside” jacks up the voltage without shattering the prevailing serenity. And on the brief two minute track “Kentucky Derby,” Frisell flips on the afterburners, and the song takes off. The loops fall exactly in the right spots, and the waves of distortion land clean, and the melody is just the right amount of catchiness to still keep its bite… God, why couldn’t there more of this? “Thankful” and “Kentucky Derby” should’ve been the building blocks for starting over from scratch, and the rest of that underwhelming mediocrity should’ve been mercifully stomped to death.
A rendition of “Rambler” (from his 1985 recording of the same name) is interesting in that way a reduction of a dish down to an amuse-bouche can spark curiosity. Rambler was an odd recording for the ECM Records label. Frisell gave the music an introspective nature, but presented it with some electro-funk action via a guitar synthesizer. It’s interesting hearing Frisell break down that track these many years later. It’s also interesting to hear it presented more as a folk tune. It allows the melody to shine strong. But were it not for the inquisitiveness its context inspired, I’m not sure it would’ve made much of an impression. It’s fine.
A rendition of “Monica Jane” is like shopping for groceries.
Frisell returns to his old ECM Records catalog with the rendition of another title-track, this time to his 1983 recording In Line. It’s like the start of an idea. The new rendition lets the melody simmer quietly atop a creeping tempo, whereas the original had an appealing motion like a staggered march accompanied by sudden surges of intensity. It isn’t until near the end of the rendition that Frisell revisits the cascading melody that marks the original as its own thing. This doesn’t happen until the song has eaten up two-thirds of its duration, and it’s the exact moment this version comes to life. The effect is that everything that happened before is revealed as just unmemorable passages. The three minute mark is where it all should have begun, and then launched off from that plateau to even greater heights.
“Made to Shine” possesses all the electricity of brushing teeth first thing in the morning.
Many of these pieces come off like they’re meant only as a little riff of an idea, sometimes with the electricity amped up or some effects tossed about. This in itself isn’t a bad approach to take, except that they don’t really go anywhere on Music IS or seem to have a point or even act as a bridge for the preceding and subsequent tracks. And all of that could’ve been forgiven if it were at least a little bit interesting.
The thing of it is, it’s not like the guy has lost it or anything. Just five years ago, Frisell released the solo recording Silent Comedy, and it features an electric barrage of Frisell musings… tiny inspirations that play out in hellfire feedback, curious curls and loops, and glittering shards of melody. It’s clearly crafted in the Tzadik label aesthetic (well, one of them, at least) and features all of the wild creativity that (I imagine) John Zorn encourages from his fellow musicians. And I haven’t yet touched upon the pure gold of Frisell’s other recent recordings on the Tzadik label as part of the Gnostic Trio. This family of albums are some of the most beautiful music you will ever hear and that’s still going to be true even if you live to be 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years old. Meanwhile, two years ago, Frisell and Okeh Records teamed up for the forgettable When You Wish Upon a Star.
I don’t want forgettable music, especially not from Frisell. Not sure there’s a musician more dear to my life than this guy. Bowie? Monk? The three of them right there at the top. And it’s not like I don’t expect a favorite artist to disappoint. In fact, I expect it. If the musician keeps exploring new creative roads, it’s gonna happen from time to time that one of ’em won’t be up my alley. It’s when the tire gets stuck and spins out on that path, that’s when I’m going to begin questioning why that mud was even there in the first place. That’s where I come in. I want a return to the days when a new Frisell recording was a reason to celebrate, because it meant the potential for something brand spanking new that the world has never before heard. Perhaps it would be through inventiveness and maybe it would be something familiar but expressed with a beauty that fills a heart with light and joy. But it wouldn’t be forgettable and it wouldn’t be disappointing, and the response wouldn’t be it’s nice, I suppose.
From now on, all decisions for new Bill Frisell recordings get run past me first.
Your album personnel: Bill Frisell (guitar).
Released on Okeh Records.
Music from NYC.
Available at: Amazon