The Mars Volta bandleader goes solo with a collection of 10 instrumentals that recall the best bits of his main band while leaving its worst aspects out.
On top of being the main composer, guitarist, and general bandleader for the Mars Volta for most of this decade, Omar Rodriguez Lopez has also put out a small pile of solo releases. Apparently it's not enough that the Mars Volta puts out a new album about every 18 months and do full worldwide tours; Rodriguez Lopez himself is even more prolific. Most of his previous solo discs have been released in relative obscurity, but his new label Stones Throw actually seems to want people to know that Old Money is out there, so they've done some promotion for the album. All of which means that this record at least has a chance of reaching outside of the small, super-hardcore audience that tracked down Rodriguez Lopez's earlier solo albums.
Conceptually, Old Money is about just that: the rich tycoons of the late 19th and early 20th century. With song titles like "Population Council's Wet Dream", Family War Funding (Love Those Rothschilds)", and "I Like the Rockefeller's First Two Records, but After That...", you get an idea what point of view Rodriguez Lopez is coming from. But the song titles are about the only clue the listener gets that this is a concept album at all. This is an instrumental record, without any real recurring musical themes or helpful liner notes to explain the ideas behind the songs.
Musically, it sounds like a set of guitar-based rock songs by Omar Rodriguez Lopez. Which is to say, not all that different from the Mars Volta, particularly in terms of sonic choices. Rodriguez Lopez uses a lot of the same guitars and guitar tones here, as well as many of the synth sounds TMV have favored over the past couple of albums. But what differences there are are striking. TMV tend to go on and on, creating songs that, even in the studio, stretch well beyond the 10-minute mark. And it's only on rare occasions that they have enough musical ideas to fill all that time, instead relying on jammy improvisations, noodling solos, or sometimes directionless ambience. In the live setting, these tendencies are amplified, often to the point where the band is nearly unlistenable, creating trainwrecks of noise or trading endless solos in lieu of ever getting to the point. This doesn't even mention lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala's often-unhinged lyrics and idiosyncratic, high-pitched vocals. On Old Money, Rodriguez Lopez reins himself in considerably. Only one song, the album-closing title track, goes past nine-minutes long, and seven of the songs last less than five minutes. This commitment to brevity sheds a lot of the problems inherent with TMV, leaving a solid core of cool grooves, interesting riffs, and impressive playing.
Which isn't to say that there isn't weirdness. Take "Family War Funding (Love Those Rothschilds)". The song starts in the middle of a speedy guitar-and-organ riff, before slowing down into a more measured, bass-driven groove, with oddball dissonant organ in the background. But the more melodic, minor-key guitar keeps the song from getting too weird -- until a synth and laser beam sound effect break in the middle of the song. But instead of going on for five minutes, this interlude lasts for a quick 30 seconds and effectively provides a transition back to the song's initial faster speed and 90 seconds of interesting guitar melodies. Several of the album's shorter tracks serve as downtempo transitions between more full-fledged songs, but none of them wear out their welcome before the album moves on.
Not all of Rodriguez Lopez's ideas work on Old Money, but most of them do. "I Like the Rockefeller's First Two Albums..." has a great title going for it, but the song is a collection of half-baked guitar lines that are neither interesting nor catchy. It's an exception, though. Opener "The Power of Myth" rocks hard with a great main riff and some great guitar solos as well as some loose-limbed drumming backing it all up. The quieter, Latin-tinged "Private Fortunes" is a nice change of pace with creative percussion parts and a bluesy, Santana-stye guitar solo. Even the nine-minute title track acquits itself well, with a focused intensity and strong solos that keep the jammy track from getting boring. This is an album that will be a cool listen for those, like me, who find the Mars Volta interesting but often frustrating. It will also appeal to fans of instrumental rock, but the lack of vocals will still keep a more general audience away.