Marc Ribot/Ceramic Dog

Northern Spy NS 139

Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane


Zoar ZCD 086

Moving from avant garde to agit prop two New York-based guitarists used the time forced on them by Covid-19’s lockdown to conceive of semi-thematic albums that deal with the ongoing racial and economic inequalities crippling the US. Although both use a mixture of vocal and instrumental tracks and augment their basic group with guests, each approaches the situations in an individual fashion. Reflecting his 1960s/1970s Folk and Rock influences, Marc Ribot composed a series of stream-of-consciousness, Surrealist-like tunes performed by his regular Ceramic Dog trio of percussionist Ches Smith and bassist/keyboardist Shahzad Ismaily with help from saxist Darius Jones, cellists Rubin Khodeli and Gyda Valtysdottir and additional background vocals from Syd Straw. Pivoting to an earlier form of protest music, the Blues, multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp combines traditional and additional tunes. Besides his skill on keyboards, electronics, strings and saxophone, Sharp and drummer Don McKenzie are spelled by a shifting cast including guitarists Hubert Sumlin and Al Kaatz; violist Melanie Dyer; trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum, bassist Dave Hofstra and three vocalists: Tracie Morris#, Mikel Banks and Eric Mingus

Ribot, whose guitar prowess has been used on pop as well as Jazz situations., is in fine fettle as is the rest of the group, instrumentally create tunes that meld rhythmic power and creative improvisation. With its pseudo-Metal guitar buzzes and crunches harmonized with keyboard runs and drum shuffles, “Maple Leaf Rage” is the most extended variant of this as cymbal slap glance off shuddering string accompaniment. Jones’ shaking slurs and banshee-like screams on opposite tracks help propel “They Met in the Middle” and “The Long Goodbye”. The latter, almost acoustic, is based around vibrating electronic burbles and reed stutters plus guitar riffs. The former adds Country-rock guitar licks, a metronomic bass line and slurping sax split tones to stream-of-consciousness lyrics.

Ribot’s talk-sung voice is serviceable for what he wants to get across, but his words are something else again. While his bleeding heart is obviously in the right place, his anti-capitalist, anti-Trump, anti-materialist, anti-populist sentiments are expressed in an amalgam of Gregory Corso-like Beat poetry with circa mid-1960s Bob Dylan-like imagery. Furthermore the disc would have benefitted from eliminating one foray into Pop-Jazz groove and a Donovan cover given an overly dramatic reading. “The Activist” is probably the best of the purported vocal tracks. Atop churning textural cacophony with pumping tonal breaks, Ribot angrily spits out the tough words. While the sentiments and ideas are challenging, nihilism seems to be the bleak result.

On the other disc, Sharp is shrewd enough to have the lyrics voiced by real vocalists. Plus the reconstructed songs are based on simple Blues sometimes updated without pretention. Instrumental arrangements are powerful enough so that the messages of two of most pointed contemporary tunes are made without words. They are “The Murder of Elijah McClain” and “Tulsa '21”. The former recalls the Black Colorado massage therapist who in 2019 died after suffering a cardiac arrest after being sedated followed unwarranted police take-down. No convictions resulted from the incident. One vigil in McClain’s honor featured a string arrangement, and here screaming spiccato stropping from Dyer’s viola mixed with fragmented guitar licks portrays both the violence and bitterness associated with the incident. More sonic sorrow and sourness permeates “Tulsa '21” which recalls the Tulsa Oklahoma race massacre of 1921 where white mobs destroyed homes and businesses in a part of the city which was nicknamed Black Wall Street leaving more than 800 people hospitalized. Forceful cymbal and drum beats, double bass thumps and barbed and biting guitar flanges suggests the carnage and its aftermath, with the track climaxing with a cumulative whinnying tone coupled with a below-the-bridge guitar rasp.

Alternating vocals Mingus, Morris and Banks introduce varied tessitura to each outing. Morris is prominent on tunes like “Went to Atlanta” with its steel guitar echoes and banjo twangs where her matter-of-fact phrasing underlines Caucasian-African American inequalities. Banks’ gospel-like cry is put to good use on pieces like “Whip and Trigger” that confirms sorts of contemporary Black-White unbalance and feature reflective guitar frails, tremolo synthesizer washes, plunger trumpet and pointed saxophone bites. The potential of Mingus’ rugged growl and strained glossolalia is best featured on tracks such as a contemporary BLM-like chant of “Toppling Statues” with its hard drumming and splayed guitar emphasis; or a dramatic recasting of the 1930s’ plaint “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” that float on supple guitar licks. With a trumpet obbligato, percussion pummels and string slides, Morris and Banks conclude the disc with “Whatcha Gonna Do’ whose tough lyrics and taut guitar flanges suggest both resignation and possible revival.

More astringent than the other session, Century is a fully realized work that with its worldly instrumental palate harkens back to 1960s protest music with a heavy backbeat. Hope too offers hope and similar acid sentiments, but its opaque wordplay undercuts some of its messages.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Hope: 1. B-Flat Ontology 2. Nickelodeon 3. Wanna .4. The Activist^ 5. Bertha the Cool 6. They Met in the Middle~ 7. The Long Goodbye~ 8. Maple Leaf Rage* 9. Wear Your Love like Heaven

Personnel: Hope: Darius Jones (alto saxophone)~; Marc Ribot (guitars, vocals); Rubin Khodeli, Gyda Valtysdottir (cello)*; Shahzad Ismaily (bass, keyboards, backing vocals); Ches Smith (drums, percussion, electronics, backing vocals); Syd Straw (background vocals)^

Track Listing: Century: 1. Tol' Mah Capn# 2. Toppling Statues! 3. Stan’ Boys Stan’+ 4. Exit Strategy~#! 5. Went to Atlanta 6. Whip and Trigger*+ 7. Tulsa '21@ 8. How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?! 9. The Murder of Elijah McClain&@ 10. Money Man^! 11. Whatcha Gonna Do*#+

Personnel: Century: Taylor Ho Bynum (trumpet)* Melanie Dyer (viola)&; Hubert Sumlin~, Al Kaatz^ (guitar); Elliott Sharp (guitars, steel guitar, electric bass, banjo, saxophones, keyboards, electronics, drum programming); Dave Hofstra@ (bass); Don McKenzie (drums); Tracie Morris#, Mikel Banks+, Eric Mingus! (vocals)