In a world positively overstuffed with guitarists, Marc Ribot stands out. It’s not necessarily because of his technical abilities, but because he can squeeze more feeling out of the three notes that make up “Hot Cross Buns” than most young hotshots can out of a complicated Bach fugue. It’s been a long career for Ribot — over 20 years as a solo artist at this point, and deriving longevity from simplicity is no game for weaklings. This is why a solo (re: no band) offering from Marc Ribot is such a welcome thing: it shows an already brilliant musician in an even more brilliant setting.
Silent Movies drops two years after Ribot one-two punched us all in 2008 with Exercises in Futility and Party Intellectuals. The former, released on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, took the idea of solo acoustic guitar to an abstract, atonal breaking point, while the latter was the debut album for his first “rock” band, Ceramic Dog. Silent Movies, meanwhile, is pure, melodic solo guitar with just a twist of weird, courtesy of Keefus Ciancia’s soundscapes. Heavy on atmospherics and light on histrionics, this has got to be one of Ribot’s best recordings.
In the liner notes, Marc writes “This is an album of film music: some were pieces originally composed for movie scores, others for films I turned down but found myself writing for anyway, still others for projects that never existed outside of my head”. By keeping the context nice and vague, we can only guess which of these numbers are from “real” scores, and which are set to imaginary films. The only specific indication that we get is Ribot explaining that he performed live music for a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid earlier in the year. The track “The Kid” is a wonder unto itself, overflowing with harmonic tricks and a safely syncopated vamp that keeps the piece from committing to neither jazz nor contemporary folk, yet casting reverent glances to both. And it’s something that can hummed.
Considering these 13 tracks were recorded in three days with few overdubs, Marc Ribot does an exceptional job of sustaining mood. “Bateau” gets a repeat performance from Party Intellectuals, predictably stripped of the random background noise that almost reduced the song to being a shiny apple unseen in the pumpkin patch. On Silent Movies though, it is marvelous in its self-accompaniment. “Radio” is definitely the closest Ribot comes to sounding like a canned soundtrack to an old silent film on the album, most likely the use of a certain microphone or filter on his guitar. The introduction to “Natalia In E Flat” could be the furthest he gets from the silent film mystique, just barely controlling the feedback and string noise on his guitar. “Postcards from N.Y.” and “Requiem for a Revolution” both take a different approach altogether, letting Ciancia’s effects set the scene before Ribot steps into the center of the sound with his unassuming yet affecting compositions. When it comes to “Solaris”, I can only assume it relates to the films based on Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction novel. I’ve read the book and watched both film versions, and trying to match Ribot’s tense finger rolls to interplanetary scientists puzzling over their personified pasts is a stretch for me.
But like that matters. Silent Movies is able to take all of the disparate descriptions above and press them into one unifying album. Marc Ribot really ought to have the opportunity to score films more often, because the results can be breathtaking.