[20 May 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Of all the projects guitarist Bill Frisell has been involved in, Floratone is the one that can’t be replicated on stage…at least not that easily. For their 2007 self-titled album, Frisell and drummer Matt Chamberlain handed some loosey-goosey jams over to producers Lee Townsend and Tucker Martine for fine tweaking, making Floratone strictly a product of the studio environment. Many song titles reflected the easygoing vibe that all involved were evidently going for, such as “Swamped”, “Mississippi Rising”, and “Louisiana Lowboat”. And while it did bear many positive hallmarks of a Bill Frisell release – a blue, pastoral guitar, wide open Copeland scapes, music that blurred jazz, country and blues but tried hard not to be any of the above – the end result sounded like it put too much faith in the process. Frisell and Chamberlain passed along things that barely hinted the existence of songs with neither Townsend nor Martine going to any lengths to spice it up. National Public Radio prematurely called it “some of the most riveting music to emerge this year”.
Floratone, the band, is giving it another shot with Floratone II. This time, things have changed. The number of musicians contributing has grown while the songs’ lengths have been trimmed. With 13 tracks under 40 minutes, the band wastes little time getting to each song’s central theme. And as far as these themes go, almost all of them are surprisingly accessible for a band that just spends their time twiddling about with improvisational jams. Frisell states the melodies more clearly, Chamberlain tightens the grooves considerably and the doctoring performed by Townsend and Martine is neither subtle nor indulgent. Unlike their first, Floratone’s second album seems to be in perfect balance. These are all changes that can be felt even within the first track, which puts a finer point on the whole thing.
The guest roster doubles the size of the band, though Floratone is still considered a quartet. Mike Elizondo brings the low end and Eyvind Kang the viola. Jon Brion records the slightest peek-a-boo keyboard tracks while trumpeter Ron Miles reinforces many a melody, often with overdubbed harmonies. “The Time, The Place”, “Grin and Bite”, and “More Pluck” are probably the kinds of things that give jazz purists nightmares, seeing how one man is caught playing two horn lines at once thanks to studio trickery. The glitch-tick percussion in “More Pluck” and the stomach growls of “The Time, The Place (Part 2)” probably don’t calm the fevers either. It is these traits, not Bill Frisell’s guitar, that make Floratone even more technically idiosyncratic. Frisell’s guitar effects are easily replicated onstage as he’s demonstrated for decades (over three of them, come to think of it). His sound is by and large untouched under the Floratone umbrella, likely because Lee Townsend seems to follow him around everywhere. But with musicians like Kang and Miles in tow, Townsend and Tucker Martine appear to have more stuff to play with. And when the focus shifts ever so slightly from Bill Frisell’s guitar, it makes such a side project more unique and rewarding for the listener.
Not that I want to tune out the man’s guitar. I’m guessing that if I wanted to, I could listen to his guitar all day (I have yet to test this theory). It’s just that after so many years of hearing Frisell’s guitar travel uninhibited through Townsend’s production boards, the Floratone project comes as a nice surprise. And Floratone II sharpens every shortcoming that the first album had. The pieces are tighter, melodies better pronounced, and the studio manipulation never offers too much or not enough. I’m not going to say that this is one of the best albums of Bill Frisell’s career but I will warn you that it can get stuck in your head.