When nothing is shocking, does musical experimentation mean anything anymore? Talibam! obviously think so. The duo of Matt Mottel and Kevin Shea have gained momentum and modest name recognition through intense, free drum and synth improvisations, with an emphasis on intellectualizing the often nebulous void of young American noise music. Everything I've read about the band has painted them as outspoken missionaries for the avant-garde, an outlook perhaps best summed up by this [TMT interview->http://www.tinymixtapes.com/Talibam] quote (which appropriately appeared in the band's first studio album as well):
Today, I hear so many bands exploiting the improv for merely teleological purposes — as a technique to supplement their folkish psych songs. But neither the improvisations nor the songs are ever too compelling. It’s like a spectacle freak show — "look mom, they’re improvising." They sound like they’re improvising, but it’s an architectural/sculptural device — a tool supposedly promoting a diversity of sound and realism of chaos/unknown, but that, sadly, only functions to sway the listeners into some impression/belief of versatility via some mapped-out poppy to-do. In Talibam!, we pretty much agree rehearsals are for amateurs.
It's great to hear the ideas behind the music, but I also can't help feeling that Talibam! have succumbed to their own set of traps, inherent in so much of today's improvisation (or, as Shea calls it, "spontaneous composition"). In laymen's terms, the music on The New Nixon Tapes, a live radio recording featuring saxophonist/trumpeter Daniel Carter, is free jazz. In spirit, at least, it connects to the adventurous works of Albert Ayler or John Coltrane, relying on intricate interplay most vibrantly displayed between the sax and drums. On a micro scale, the interactions are wonderful to hear. To develop Shea's idea of lazy structures, listening to a pop song involves recalling pre-existing musical templates and superimposing our expectations on top of them — for stimulation to occur, some element of the tune usually has to break from the template, creating fleeting novelty. Talibam!'s improvisation engages listeners on a moment-to-moment basis. Instead of following an overarching structure, you are invited to trace the musician's continuous thought process, an exercise that, in my mind, reveals music's humanity more effectively than any ballad ever could. In a lot of ways, improvisation can become a form of psychoanalysis if we let it — when the music connects as much to a specific person's intent, ego, and motivation as it does to a faceless, ubiquitous musical craft. The parameters of the music are set by mixing a player's knowledge with their tools and intent.
But here's the tricky part: while one of the goals of "free" music in the first place was to open up form and tonality beyond block structures, Nixon Tapes nonetheless sounds antiquated in its familiarity. On a macro scale, the proliferation of free jazz over the last 40-odd years has created a new set of structures that is loosely relied on here — an often subconsciously applied shorthand. In the same way that music reviewers (gulp) rely on established means of describing sound (e.g., "This exhaustive delirium crescendos and then fades into an uneasy comedown with jangling guitar melodies and violin tones that float like dust in sunlight"), so too have musicians absorbed common ways to interact in the context of improvisation.
On Nixon Tapes, these new musical conventions are most apparent on the drum set, which sometimes sounds like genre-parody. Shea is a constant, flurried presence, tasked with setting the recording's overall level of stability, or lack thereof. The most enlightening moments are when he locks in with Daniel Carter, whose more tempered lines lend a serious level of contrast to Talibam!'s sound. On the other hand, Matt Mottel's keyboard plays a more supporting role, coming up for air to punctuate segments with short, silly, repeated bass or melody lines, which Shea often picks up on and then quickly abandons. It's interesting that Mottel usually begins the flirtations with recognizable tempo and structure, as though his synthesizer is drawn away from the more jazz-rooted stylings of Carter. But I digress, because my overall point is that the music on Nixon Tapes has become its own recognizable structure, which seems to clash with the band's statements about progression. It remains an exciting listen, but treads water in the context of Talibam!'s self-spun narrative.
And that criticism is easier to make after listening to the group's other 2009 release, Boogie In The Breeze Blocks (ESP-Disk), which is so risky that it renders a lot of new-jazz records obsolete. It boldly appropriates and perverts various musical conventions with jarring results, exposing the difference between a band pushing themselves and one resting on their laurels. I suppose, then, that Nixon Tapes simply showed up at the wrong time — after all, it was recorded in 2005. We still have a wonderful piece of spontaneous composition on our hands; it just feels a bit aged already.
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