Both Kinds of Music
Leo Lab / CD060
Misha Feigin / balalaika, classical guitar, in duet with Elliot Sharp / dobro, Davey Williams / electric guitar, LaDonna Smith / violin, dancing on a woden box, Craig Hultgren / cello, Eugene Chadbourne / banjo, guitar
“Both kinds of music” refers, of course, to “Country” and “Western”. Rediscovering country music has been something the avant garde has enjoyed doing in a tongue-in-cheek, knowingly urban way for decades, but more recently something less deliberately parodic has been going on between the two seemingly incommensurable genres. The Bubbadinos certainly play some species of white American folk music, but it’s hardly Nashville, and Misha Feigin is a free improvising Russian Balalaika player; it’s not even clear which kinds of music are being played, exactly, any more.
We’re Really Making Music Now
Zerx / 014
Mark Weaver / tuba, Stefan Dill / guitar, trumpet, Bubba D / ap steel, bass flute, piano, drums, Mark Weber / vocals, guitar, violin, harmonica, Ken Keppeler / violin, mandolin, banjo, accordion, harmonica.
The Bubbadinos call what they do “honkey tonk music”, but don’t expect ragtime here. This isn’t the music of the honkey tonk brothels of the deep south, or even music of the city at all, but deliberately rural, “pure American” redneck music which intends to make you squeal like a piglet. “It’s ‘bad’ awful”, explains Weber in his helpful sleeve notes, “Seriously, if you’ve got a jones for correctness, such as metrical rhythms, proper intonation, western ideas about harmony, then this band is definitely not for you”.
Well, that might be going a bit far. These boys know the chords to old songs like “Oh Bury Me Not On The Trail”, and not-so-old ones like “Fading Into The Sunset”, they do indeed mostly have nice 4/4 metrical rhythms and Weber’s voice is pure moonshine. What they do manage to do is create something very special within those parameters.
Their songs seem to struggle with a wall of reverberating, slightly dissonant violins and feedbacked wierdness, and the recognisable world of blues and cowboy songs is delicately balanced against the band’s tendency towards strange textures and noisy outbursts. Far from a what-will-they-do-next experience, however, listening to this disc has a satisfying gestalt quality which is not at all easy to achieve.
Don’t believe a word of their appeals to “front porch style” music, and certainly not “the blood songs of the American working class” (thirteen of the twenty tracks are original compositions). This is a highly electrified, very contemporary band creating an image of America which is extremely sophisticated but which isn’t to be taken for the real thing, which it rather self-evidently isn’t, and which is all the better for it. One of the most puzzling and fascinating of recent releases, this is also very enjoyable, and can even be played at parties (the sedate sort where you can get away with Tom Waits, I mean).
This writer has remarked before that folk musics seem to be making something of a comback in free improvisation and free jazz, particularly the latter. Well, Misha Feigin’s album is free improv, but that touch of country and western is there in the title and it’s there in much of the music, too. The disc is composed of seven duets — one with each of the guests except Sharp and Williams, who get two each. That’s an excellent format for us to get to know Feigin, and it gives some variety to a style — all-strings acoustic improv — which can be a little taxing to say the least.
The country feel isn’t everywhere here, but it’s certainly there on the tracks featuring Sharp and Chadbourne. Sharp’s country affiliations have been well-documented, and married to his love of the blues and his virtuosic but completely unconventional approach the results are wonderfully compelling. Feigin is a little lost in the first piece here, where Sharp plays loud and fast for much of its twelve minutes, but he’s there, always adding something constructive and intelligent.
The second track they do, “Zohar Cafe Blues”, shows Feigin to be an imaginative chord-player with an unusual preference for sticking with an idea and developing it, although again, and as throughout this disc, the balance is very unfavourable to Feigin and this listener felt the need to adjust it (this is easy to do, as the duettists are panned hard left and right). The long jam with Chadbourne has an almost rocky intensity, packed full of riffs, strange ideas shooting off in different directions and Feigin making odd noises through, at times, a distortion pedal.
British guitar strangler Davey Williams is on top form for this session. Never the most technically complicated of players, he unleashes a very creditable version of his free jazz blues on “Balalaikofrenia”, and does something downright peculiar on “BBQ-Powered Mission To Outer Space”. Feigin’s classical guitar on this track is particularly good, with the furious unstoppability of Derek Bailey but with his own, cleaner tone. Feigin, like Williams, generally seems to prefer notes to timbral manipulations, which is interesting considering the kind of music they both play.
This track is one of the highlights; “String Theory Revisited”, which is nearly exactly the same length, is the other. LaDonna Smith was a new name to this writer, but his violin has a very vocal quality which works wonderfully with Feigin’s rolling arpeggios and flurries of notes (again on classical guitar). There’s just the slightest country lilt to his sound, just enough to remind you of the title of the disc and no more, but there’s that singing melodicism which cuts across many different folk styles. Craig Hultgren’s track, “Moondance”, is another essential cut, this time developing very slowly from the cellist’s reserved and sensitive long-note approach. Feigin gets plenty of room to stretch out here, and Hultgren’s playing is at times ravishingly beautiful; not a description one often needs in free improv, but there it is.
In short, this is a wonderful disc. Feigin’s balalaika does tend to get obscured by his more muscular peers with their larger instruments, but that’s easy to remedy on your hi-fi and his classical guitar, at least, comes through loud and clear without any balance-tweaking. The company he’s in here is sufficiently distinguished that it can defeat the expectation that this is a showcase for a new talent anyway. In fact, it’s a disc of beautiful music, with the first track (featuring Sharp) the only let-down; Feigin seems to have little to say to him, and although both play well enough the music never really catches fire. That can’t be said about what happens next, which is constantly inventive for the remaining hour. Highly recommended. Richard Cochrane