Fence Kitchen Beading the Rook

[Northeast Indie; 2006]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: jazz, chamber music, modern dance score
Others: John Zorn’s Filmworks, Chicago Underground Duo/Trio

As a member of tarpigh and Cerberus Shoal, Tim Harbeson has helped create some wonderfully deconstructed indie rock that's always managed to look beyond bedheaded white dudes with guitars for inspiration. With Fence Kitchen — a solo project that's been aiding and abetting kindred souls in other mediums such as modern dance and theatre since 2002, but is just now making its recorded debut — Harbeson strays even further from rock idioms, to the point that he nearly abandons them altogether. Over the course of Beading the Rook, he dips into the wells of post-bop jazz, compositional chamber music, ragtime, and abstract ambience to beef up the Midwestern post-rock aesthetic he's cultivated throughout his career.

Considering that many of this album's pieces have served as complements to dances, puppet shows, and other forms of performance art, it's worth stressing just how well all of these songs stand on their own. For instance, I can scarcely believe that "Big His Britches" — an eight-minute piano piece in which Harbeson exhibits masterful control of tempo, using his left hand to continually manipulate the song's pace, while pulling down sparkling clusters of impressionistic upper register notes with his right — was originally conceived as a complement to a larger work of art. And yet, as fully fleshed-out as Beading the Rook's 13 tracks are, a sense of absence seems to loom over the listening experience. The absences of the accompanying dancers or actors, a stylistic anchor, and sense of song-to-song continuity cast the longest shadows, but more localized elisions also abound, especially in Harbeson's piano playing, which draws its energy from melodic stutters and hiccups that jar without being completely disorienting. His song forms jerk and pivot like his piano: "Shanty," "Sight," and "Reading the Wit" all lurch between ominous organ and brass drones and spicy uptempo segments that approximate the Cantina scene in the first Star Wars. As defamiliarizing as these turns may be, though, they're never derailments, as even the most disparate segments of the album share the same theatrical flourish and creaky stage plank timbre.

What I really find interesting about this work is the way it thwarts generic expectations. We're socialized into thinking of compositional music as the pinnacle of sound art and jazz as the most well-wrought of pop music's urns, but the absences that bother Beading the Rook diffuse those notions. This isn't a meticulously sculpted Great Work — it's a hodge-podge of tricky songs existing apart from their original context. Everything about it is decentralized — decentralized from stylistic categories, from narrative framework, from its "pure state," even from general coherence. Beading the Rook isn't fussy about being experienced The Right Way, but is instead happy to be experienced in new ways. One might criticize Harbeson for deconstructing for deconstruction's sake in his other projects, but Fence Kitchen herks and jerks magnificently, backing up its sonic underminings with stronger conceptual ones.

1. Shanty
2. Alone in Water
3. Tombstone Pharmacy
4. Reading the Wit
5. Below Brio
6. Shuttlecock
7. Overture
8. Organic Chemistry
9. Hatio Salico
10. Big His Britches
11. Twine
12. Sight
13. Canoe from an Attica

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