Grex Second Marriage

[SUA; 2011]

Styles: art rock, progressive, indie pop, creative improvisation
Others: Henry Kaiser, Experimental Jet Set-era Sonic Youth, Carla Bley, Neil Young, Jack Bruce, Roscoe Mitchell, Fred Frith

Pan-stylism presents a challenge, in that in order to focus on doing something well, something else has to be done less well. That’s not to say there haven’t been interesting, valuable, and compelling artists, bands, and composers who have worked pan-stylistically (and rigorously so), but reaching an effective synthesis is an elusive prospect. The Bay Area outfit Grex, consisting of guitarist-vocalist Karl A.D. Evangelista and his partner, vocalist-keyboardist-flutist M. Rei Scampavia, are confounding because they have taken syncretic interests and created a near-seamless blend of modern jazz, contemporary structuralist composition, indie rock, and blues rock in which no impulse suffers by strange association.

Second Marriage is the third Grex full-length in just under two years, following 2010’s Live at Home (SUA) and the digital-only At Trinity Chapel. Here, the duo is augmented by drummer Jordan Glenn, reedman Cory Wright, and bassist Jason Hoopes on a program of 11 originals and a cover of The Cardiacs’ “The Whole World Window.” Technically, this record collects two digital EPs, A Very Long Engagement and The Wedding Party, onto one disc, but as they hold together quite well, this review will consider them singly. If there’s any difference to be felt, the second half is a bit “brighter” in texture. Evangelista and Scampavia have been working as Grex from their time at Mills, where both did graduate work — the former in music, the latter in biology (though Scampavia is a classically-trained pianist). Evangelista studied under such improvisational and compositional heavyweights as Roscoe Mitchell, Fred Frith, and Myra Melford, and he’s currently working on the Filipino/Pan-Asian compositional suite Taglish.

There’s a fairly wide aesthetic gulf between the excellent, somewhat frayed Live At Home and the music contained among these 12 pieces, and the fact that such a short time has passed is a testament to both hard work and vision. Whereas the first album sounded something like if Blues Control recorded for K Records after a months-long AACM listening binge, Second Marriage is clean and shored up. That’s not to say they aren’t still rough around the edges and daring, but these shots in the dark sound focused and guided. After an invocation of bells and looped, distorted guitar (one wonders if Grex faces the East), “Bistellar” opens out into the distinct vistas of noise and pummeling drums or delicate, keening progression. Both options are distinctly part of the Grex world, though as duetting vocals are carried by fuzzed-out crash, one gets the feeling that the collision of free jazz and power pop could get out of hand at any moment.

“Stump Fuckers” seems like a slight variation on the preceding tune, Evangelista’s convoluted and gritty wail filling out the interstices between Scampavia’s plaintive voice and piano. “Up Popped the Snake” begins with a terse slink à la mid-90s Sonic Youth (Evangelista’s voice recalls Thurston Moore at times) and becomes mind-bending as the piece shifts into an atonal, pointillist piano-guitar duet. Such a conflation of impulses seems impossible — if it occurs, it seems like rock musicians seek the alternate challenge of improvisation, but Grex are taking the rarer path of off-kilter rock as an evolutionary step from creative improvisation. The musicianship exhibited by the core duo is staggering: Evangelista’s wiry facility is drawn from Hendrix, Kaiser, Ray Russell, and Eugene Chadbourne, while Scampavia’s shaded classicism provides a compelling and robust foil. The two mostly instrumental pieces that close the disc’s first half are prime examples of their interplay, as they let loose with smart pyrotechnics against textured details. For example, the tense initial minutes of “Ouroboros” are an exercise in complex and nearly oppressive color relationships, unfolding into flinty, minimal whispers of song.

Following the second half’s opening cover of “The Whole World Window,” Grex acquit themselves very well in the context of jaunty modern jazz with “Bip-Bop.” Guitar and piano work through cycles, as bass and drums maintain a rounded clip as Cory Wright brings his fleet, stomping tenor. Echoes of Kaiser and John Abercrombie abound in Evangelista’s clambering, fuzzy intricacy, and the piece would not sound out of place among the programs of fellow Bay Area jazzmen like Aram Shelton or Darren Johnston. Gauzy sentiments imbue the brief, plaintive ballad, “Down,” while Moe Tucker and Karen Dalton converge with breezily harmonized rock on the excellently off-kilter “Anything for You.” The Wedding Party’s centerpiece is the 10-minute-plus “The Ballad of Eric Dolphy,” bitingly revisiting the spiritual aftermath of the reedman’s accidental death (in 1964) with a swaggering barroom waltz that recalls Carla Bley and Mike Mantler, replete with tortured guitar scramble and screaming tenor. “Omicron Persei 8” merges undersea guitar and bony piano chords with Scampavia’s gorgeously-hushed voice for a dreamlike, minimal, and acidic closure.

There is still much to understand about the music of Grex, but they have thus far produced some of the most incredibly affecting and simply accessible avant-garde “rock” this reviewer has heard. Although their progress will be worth documenting, for now Second Marriage is essential current-and-future listening.

Links: Grex - SUA

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