After Ceramic Dog’s 2013 album Your Turn, I did not think it was possible for guitarist Marc Ribot and his “rock” trio to lunge any harder towards our collective throats. Then again, I never could have predicted the American political climate of 2018. With the arrival of YRU Still Here?, the Occupy Wall Street rants of Your Turn now sound almost quaint by comparison. Ten years on from their debut album, Ribot, along with drummer Ches Smith and bassist Shahzad Ismaily, Ceramic Dog slammed their collective hand onto a truly volatile moment to capture some appropriately volatile music. In a time when nationalism seems to be far too en vouge for comfort, you can always count on certain voices being raised (shouted?). Ribot was one of those voices before, and there’s no way he’s going to shut up now.
There are three stingers on YRU Still Here? that the reader needs to know about before entering (just in case you don’t like to mix politics and music). The first is “Pennsylvania 6 6666”, with Ribot singing original lyrics by Ismaily. Given the song’s message of intolerance, I incorrectly thought it was referring to Pennsylvania Avenue. Instead, it’s Ismaily depicting his formative years in Danville, Pennsylvania in a rather sarcastic fashion: “Pennsylvania, want to live there / Place where everybody is white / Love your neighbor like your brother / Every day and every night.” The chorus’s melody is almost child-like in its simplicity, and it’s one hell of a disarming technique. “At first they hung me out the window / Threw my cake out in the rain / Called me ugly and disgusting / Because I was not Christian.” Ribot peppers the interludes with solos from the Wes Montgomery book, a good call for such a laid-back number riding on an easy groove.
But you can’t say any of that for “Muslim Jewish Resistance”, Ceramic Dog’s most strongest stab at the current American administration. Ribot and his band do a vocal call and response where the title is answered with “We say ‘never again!'” and “We mean it!” As the song builds up steam, Ribot’s shouts of “Never again!” are answered by Smith and Ismaily calling out names of individuals and organizations that have spurned the resistance: neo-Nazis, fascism, Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, Scott Pruitt, and Donald Trump. It all sounds rather hopeless on paper, but the accompanying music is, if nothing else, extremely powerful. It’s protest music at its most potent. The third song in question is “Fuck La Migra”, a rattling scat number from the perspective of a Mexican immigrant: “You call me illegal, but you’re working for a criminal.” Oh, and there’s a reference to the president being dumber than an artichoke.
If it were up to a different artist or band, these three songs would overshadow other album tracks. But since this is Marc Ribot and Ceramic Dog we’re talking about here, nearly every track rises to the occasion — even if it’s instrumental. If you stripped the blues of its structure, you might get “Shut That Kid Up”, kicking up a sandy guitar solo for over eight minutes. “Orthodoxy” rides east while “Rawhide” trots west. “Oral Sidney With a U” is dysfunctionally funky while “Agnes” sounds like a lost tape from the CBGB soundboard. And as long as Ceramic Dog have a song like “Personal Nancy” at the ready, no one can even accuse them of never turning the cynical finger inwards. “I got a right to speak like an idiot / I got a right to bitch and moan!” Anyone with a Reddit account couldn’t possibly be shocked by a lyric such as “I got a right to say ‘Fuck you!'” Placing the song first on the album, however, is a gamble.
YRU Still Here? is full of bluster, but the title track is probably the most tranquil thing on it. The keyboard hovering over the steadily strummed acoustic guitar isn’t exactly relaxing — ditto for the rhetorical question that keeps hitting the listener again and again. “Freak Freak Freak on the Peripherique” may sound like an awful lot of bouncy fun, but the album’s undercurrent muddies the water just enough to remind the listener that Marc Ribot and Ceramic Dog will never take the easy way out, even during the best of times. Sometimes, that’s how you stumble upon a future classic.