75 Dollar Bill
It’s not so common to encounter a long song that, after it’s done playing, makes the listener think, “I wish that track was twice as long.” That’s the case with the new, second album (not counting self-released cassettes) Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/Rhythm/Rock from 75 Dollar Bill, featuring the core duo of percussionist Rick Brown and guitarist Che Chen.
Minimalist approaches can sometimes be tedious and punishing, but not here, where they are often hypnotic, entrancing, and even nourishing.
Brown has been musically active for over three decades, best known for his work in groups such as V-Effect, Fish & Roses and Run On, and with 75 Dollar Bill, his percussion setup is stripped down—primarily a plywood crate and shakers—and possibly akin to something you might see a street performer in a third-world country using.
Chen has a rugged, flowing style that isn’t exactly streamlined, and he favors a particular dirty, distorted guitar timbre; with ornamental grace notes galore, his fluid guitar lines suggest west African/Saharan rock influences, with the improvisational wanderings of an Indian raga.
The group is just getting warmed up on the opening “Earth Saw,” followed by the real heart of the album commencing with the 6/8-time “Beni Said,” enhanced with guest musicians playing saxophone, bass and viola in unison on choice composed runs. Eventually, it sounds like Chen uses an envelope effect—perhaps a wah pedal varying in the smallest of increments—to change his timbre, and the track has a satisfying, slow build and culminates in a rich, swirling mix.
“Cummins Falls” features guest drummer Carey Balch beating a Bo Diddley-esque beat on a floor tom, with Brown urgently shaking maracas like his life depends on it; Chen’s unrefined bluesy-rock licks are like woozy stabs with a rusty knife.
The album closes with the 15-minute “I’m Not Trying to Wake Up,” with an acoustic guitar intro that leads to Chen’s T. Rex-esque electric guitar tug; key notes are bolstered with sax and trumpet declarations, and the track settles into a smoldering slow burn.
One key to what makes 75 Dollar Bill compelling is the group’s careful way to maintain a pattern while making subtle variations—if you have too little variation, it’s boring and monotonous, but if you have too much, then the hypnotic spell can be broken.
The Childhood of a Leader
Scott Walker has had a long, improbable career, from being a ‘60s pop crooner heartthrob in The Walker Brothers to the deeply cryptic and unsettling operatic wailer.
It’s also a success story of an artist resisting the pop-trend-assimilation of his early career who became an intriguing and nuanced songwriter and interpreter—his Jacques Brel covers are particularly brilliant—and now can do whatever the hell he wants, artistically.
Take for example, his last two full-length albums: Soused, a collaboration with the deafening, uncompromising drone-metal group Sunn O))), and the impenetrable, nightmarish Bish Bosch about—among many other odd things—a deformed 5th century jester, the work of Hieronymus Bosch and flagpole sitters.
Walker’s latest release is his original soundtrack for the film The Childhood of a Leader, about a fascist’s upbringing based on a Jean-Paul Sartre short story. This isn’t his first soundtrack—Walker scored the ponderous French art-house Melville adaptation Pola X in 1999.
Listeners also got a taste of his instrumental excursions on the EP And Who Shall Go to the Ball?, created to accompany a dance performance. The Childhood of a Leader is more aligned with that EP than any other release, in the realm of thorny modern classical music, conveying either a moody darkness or a visceral discordant force.
The album’s longest piece, “Opening,” has a rigid intensity with chugging strings, accented with brass bursts, and “Dream Sequence” is a soundscape with drone spectres and eerie tones. “Printing Press” suggests literal industrial music, evoking machinery with metallic clicks, and “Post Meeting” offers distress signals from flutes, percussion flash bangs, and yes, more string chugging. “Finale” makes it clear that something has gone terribly wrong, with its sinister clatter.
Is Walker a composer on the level of, say, György Ligeti or Krzysztof Penderecki? No, but this writer has little doubt that this soundtrack probably serves its film well.
That said, this is far from the best starting point for diving into Walker work—try Scott 2 or Scott 4 for earlier material, and Tilt or The Drift for late period albums, which aren’t for the faint-hearted.
While it’s good for what it is, honestly, even fans probably will listen to this soundtrack once or twice before shelving it.