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Ken Egbert, Tone Clusters, no 74, 1 décembre 1999

Our excitable Executive Editor, or our executive Excitable Editor, Chuck Burns, views this foursome with a suspicious eye: “When they play live,” he says, with his teeth in his mouth and his bare face hanging out (please, you’re frightening our dear readers--Ed. ), >do they overdub the bass and drums after everybody leaves?" Hmmm, one of those questions that will probably never be answered in our lifetimes. Just as well. Still and all, this mostly live recording (from 1997 gigs in Europe) proves that letting four melodic instruments hang in the air with no root functions can provide for scandalous fun, to say nothing of the fact that Chuck talks too loud. But don’t expect 75 minutes of ants-scrabbling-on-a-lap-guitar noise either; note the easy-rollin’ Red Rag, a Fred Frith composition with delightfully bluesy chording and odd petit mal seizures from René Lussier (to say nothing of Mark Stewart or Nick Didkovsky doubling on kazoo MIDI), or Mark Stewart’s Speedy Feety, which interpolates Commander Cody’s 1974 rockabilly hit, Hot Rod Lincoln. If you’d rather hear Fred and company tear the strings off their guitars and chew on them purposefully, they do that too, say, on Say Slinky. There Nick does his Hendrix-bottom-out slow-motion chainsaw bit (If you remember Jimi’s low Mars Delta guitar growls during the Big Finish of Purple Haze at the Monterey Pop Festival in ’67, you’ll know what I mean. Now that’s a historical command of the instrument) while René keeps blowing the stop-work whistle. To all their credit, no one pays attention. Other evidence of a highly-developed collective sense of humor can be found mid-way through Antaeus, where at one point we seem to have René and Mark imitating dueling grandfather clocks. A completely unrecognizable Out to Bomb Fresh Kings is also good clean fun (except for the central riff which in this version has all its paint blasted off). René’s Tout de suite is a bravura slice of everything the Quartet does well: transistorized flip-flop riffs, everybody else playing 1-2-3 Red Light while Fred chops onions, moments of quiet introspection before the tsunami next door comes calling and bows in the roof. I do wish Stewart had written more for this CD, but Frith is not hard pressed to come up with such gems as No Bones, a loose-limbed country swing (think Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys) deeply buried inside a Shanghai noodle factory (Traffic reference not intended). Most of the heavy equipment is malfunctioning and tossing cogs in all directions. And for those of you who always wondered where Nick D. gets his composition names from, I suspect it’s all those AM cartoons on the WB network: To Laugh Uncleanly at the Nurse (with its garlands of cheery semitonal nonsense and compositional dead ends) is what the Animaniacs do every chance they get on their TV show of the same name. “HEL000000, NURSE!!!" Ha ha, and you thought he got them from Paul Eluard or Tristan Tzara. Guess it’s proof that watching cartoons does not rot your mind (Don’t your kids read this mag?--Ed. ). Not a chance, Chief. And for more proof that the Quartet all together is no dip at improvising; note Stinky Eye, with its Oriental veneer and decided debt to late period Moby Grape (“Chinese Song," from their 1975 recording, 20 Granite Creek, on Warner Brothers. Now out of print, may the Warners’ names be blotted out). No, if you were expecting covers of middle-period Anthony Braxton or four stiff guys in stiff tuxedos, get ye hence to Lincoln Center; there may yet be tickets remaining to Wynton Marsalis’ AII Rise. This is improvisational. This is music of the moment, and essential for modern guitar fans. And no, nobody plays bass.

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