[22 June 2008]
Marc Ribot has never stayed in one place for too long. In the 1980s, the Newark, New Jersey-born guitarist lent his splinter-and-scratch freak-blues technique, an idiosyncratic style unmatched by any of his peers, to projects by musicians as diverse as John Zorn, John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, Elvis Costello, and Tom Waits. (He had an especially strong impact on the fractured pop experimentations of Costello and Waits, and has since become an in-demand session player for a wide variety of artists, including last year’s collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.) More recently, Ribot has jumped between tributes to the Cuban rhythms of Arsenio Rodriguez (Los Cubanos Postizos) and the free jazz of Albert Ayler (Spiritual Unity), while still releasing solo albums that defy classification (Soundtracks, Vol. 2) and push the definition of guitar beyond its commonly accepted boundaries (Saints).
So far this year, Ribot has appeared on new albums by Zorn, the Black Keys, Dan Zanes, and T Bone Burnett, and released Exercises in Futility, a record of solo etudes—an eclectic list that illustrates the fearless breadth of his talent. For the year’s best heretic deconstruction of power trio clichés, however, look no further than Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, an amorphous scavenge of rock braggadocio, downtown avant-skronk, and stone-faced kitsch. Ribot, bassist Shahzad Ismaily, and drummer Ches Smith take their name from the French chien du faience—literally ceramic dog, idiomatically it describes a face “frozen with emotion” in a pre-confrontation stare-down. The band’s music tends to be more bang-up tussle stuff than face-off tension, but the name is nonetheless an apt moniker for a trio that is as uncompromising as it is daring.
Ceramic Dog is Ribot’s first true rock band to call his own, but it’s also an experiment in accessible dissonance—a rock band that spikes the rudimentary nature of the form with aggressive improvisation and noodly turbulence. (The album’s very name, Party Intellectuals, is itself a pun that suggests some scrutinizing force has overtaken the dance floor.) The trio kicks things off with a thrash-lounge cover of the Doors’ “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” that begins as an irreverent reduction (Gene Krupa beat, distorted vocals that roboticize the already thin melody) and becomes a euphoric mess that, well, breaks on through to the other side. It’s followed by the title track, a digi-funk groove with slap bass and cartoony synths that, with the bullheaded refrain “party party party party party party party party”, is more than a little tongue-in-cheek—think Andrew W.K. in a yellow Devo suit. “Todo El Mundo Es Kitsch” pushes that tongue deeper in cheek; it’s a sleek bit of Starbucks soundtracking that couches globetrotting clichés (“In Paris, we sipped a coffee!”) in smooth elevator funk.
The more challenging tracks on Party Intellectuals are the epic mood pieces that freak out in frame-by-frame slow motion. Both “Digital Handshake” and “Midost”, the latter boasting a thick Sabbath-worthy riff, exceed the ten-minute mark, but due to their somewhat rambling improvisations, can seem up to twice that long. “When We Were Young and We Were Freaks”, which clocks in at eight minutes, sprinkles eerie, experimental noise around spoken word, but there’s a conscious build-up and flow to the piece that is lacking in tracks like “Digital Handshake”. Similarly, “Bateau” pits a pretty electric guitar melody against tense, unreliable noise, invasive bits of audio shrapnel that only amplify the beauty of Ribot’s playing.
While a lot of the tracks on Party Intellectuals delight in ripping conventions apart (or, in the case of those epic tracks, deliriously attempt to discover some new ones), most also allow for some truly batshit crazy guitar solos by Ribot. He plays clean and dirty in the sticky Spanish funk jam “Pinch” and lets loose shards of wah-wah in “Never Better”. During the band’s improvisations in the second halves of “Break on Through” and “Party Intellectuals”, Ribot’s punishing, scatterbrained leads sound as if they’re trying to find something that’s lost in the geography of the guitar frets. “The day destroys the night / Night divides the day,” he sings like a man making an announcement at the train depot, and then destroys and divides some things of his own.