I was recently watching a documentary on the making of Goodfellas, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker discussed with great enthusiasm cutting the final third act of the film, the frantic, final coke-fueled day of Henry Hill’s life as a gangster. Working with Martin Scorsese, the duo used quick edits and frenetic camera movements to capture the paranoid mind of a drug addict. It occurred to me that not only was Goodfellas a defining cinematic moment, but it also was the unofficial launching pad for the kind of fast-paced “edgy” production styles that would run rampant through the ‘90s. In a bid to capture what was perceived to be the short attention spans of Generation X, producers everywhere assailed their audiences with seizure-inducing visuals. Now, 16 years later, it’s not surprising that one of the defining devices of our time is one that lets the users control both the audio and video content they want to watch or listen to with the flick of their thumb. The iPod is the ultimate aural and visual stimulant, offering complete interactivity and the ability to change content on a whim.
The reason I bring this all up, is that at face value, the Big Eyes Family Players simply weren’t made for these times. The brainchild of songwriters James Green and David Jaycock, the duo have, over the course of four albums, crafted chamber music influenced by folk traditions and modern composition. For their fifth album, the awkwardly titled Do the Musiking, Green and Jaycock have assembled a remarkable cast of collaborators to help realize their vision, including Rachel Grimes (the Rachels) and Jeremy Barnes (A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Neutral Milk Hotel). However, the resulting disc isn’t as stodgy as it might sound. With 29 tracks stretching over 78 minutes, Do the Musiking certainly isn’t your parents’ classical collection.
The album’s best and worst points are its excessive running time and lengthy tracklist. The production, helmed by Green and Shumsky, manages to balance an astounding array of instrumentation without ever losing the mood of each piece. The album does approach Phil Spector territory at times, but one is overwhelmed not by sound, only by the running time. Not many albums can sustain seventy-eight minutes without some lulls here and there. That said, Do the Musiking does have its fair share of highlights. “Ballad of the Blue Lantern” is a wonderfully evocative piece, bringing to mind Morricone blended with spaced-out prog guitars. Other tracks, such as “For Gorecki” and “Owlet Moth”, follow more traditional structures, employing harp, violin, clarinet, and drums, but emphasizing Green and Jaycock’s excellent compositional skills. However, it’s the tracks that step out of the formula that truly stand out. “Olive” is a wonderfully minimal piece that elegantly moves through its movements with only a piano, melodica, and harp. There is a lovely yet slight chaos to the track, yet the piano by Rachel Grimes acts as anchor, keeping the players on track. On “Clock”, it’s simply the beautifully timed sample of fireworks at the song’s finale that adds an extra oomph to an already beautiful piece.
Unfortunately, there is also an equal amount of misguided experiments or substandard tracks that must be waded through. “The Night Jar”, “Going Home”, and “Printmaker’s Dilemmas” are dull and feeble freak folk tracks that hardly step out of their genre conventions. A few tracks that employ singing are best left forgotten, while tracks like “Eight Wrong Choices”—which begins with a most irritating grinding noise that sounds like someone running a pick from the neck of a guitar to the body—should have been left off the disc entirely.
Despite its patchiness, Do The Musiking is iPod-ready. With most of the songs running three minutes or less, Big Eyes Family Players is the perfect band to have loaded onto your iPod to offer something a little adventurous when its playing on random. And it’s mannered and gorgeous enough that among all the electronica, hip hop, indie rock, and episodes of Lost it might just grab your attention.