“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
– Hunter S. Thompson
With the release of their eighth album, Seattle’s own Degenerate Art Ensemble achieves everything the Animal Collective has ever tried, and frequently failed, to achieve. They began as a jazz sextet in the early ‘90s and have expanded to a full strength 45-piece orchestra at one time or another, but it’s with minimal numbers here that they aptly traverse the plains of sampled ambient sound, homemade instrument noodling, symphonic caterwauling, electronica, art house jazz, post-punk, and all out noise. However, no matter how far out there they get, they never forget that essential mother’s heart soul of all music: the beat. Remember that general measuring time thing that used to be all the rage back in the ‘50s? It’s back.
The DAE isn’t a self-serving, one-dimensional, indie wank-tank. This ensemble was born out of a live touring theatre company, matching the band’s visceral music with Butoh inspired dance and abstract physical presentation. Having to keep the performers’ timing more or less in mind grounds the band in ways that promote a more positive experience for the random listener, contrasting the majority of the Animal Collective’s go-nowhere-for-no-reason meanderings. DAE pieces, commanded by conductor Joshua Kohl, grants vocalist/choreographer Haruko Nishimura free reign to ramble in Japanese, English, or complete nonsense as she sees fit. The key word there is that it fits. It’s not just trendy flavour of the week fulfillment at market prices.
Cleanly produced by Robb Kunz and Jherek Bischoff (Xiu Xiu), Cuckoo Crow is a veritable cornucopia of styles executed with lucid perfection to drench any haphazard listener in pristine pools of ethereal wonder and soul grit. “Checkersplitter” sounds like someone finally gave Tom Waits his own Cirque du Soleil show under megaphone vocals and a grimy, bass guitar bassline. It’s certainly one of the busier tracks given the lunging beat propelled by flute, violins, and bass clarinet, leading to plenty of Haruko vocal nonsense and a bubblegum plucked second half. Other tracks, like the simple indie-rock and horn/string progression that is “Spacegirl 9”, humbly hum along like a newborn fighting off sleep, inspiring quiet awe in those who can slow down long enough to appreciate such small things. Though I can only imagine the actual visual aspect of this work, my head bounced between swaying and bangin’ for the duration of the experience. Cuckoo Crow the album is undoubtedly the best advertisement for the Degenerate Art Ensemble live extravaganza. At this point, I’d kill several immigrant cows just for the opportunity.
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