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(Trouble in Mind)
The California-based musical megalomaniac Frank Maston amazingly plays every instrument on his proper debut album Shadows, with the exception of the harp, and even more astoundingly, it’s recorded with the timbres and sound quality of certain authentic ’60s predecessors, making the listener think incorrectly on more than one occasion that perhaps portions are sampled from decades-old records.
Maston’s Brian Wilson influence is most obvious, practically coming out and throttling the listener on the opening “Strange Rituals,” with piercing, metronomic organ chords that scream “Beach Boys.” It works perfectly to set the scene, suggesting a fog of intrigue with a mysterious tremolo electric guitar melody, suggesting spaghetti western soundtracks, and also more playful, choice guitar strums that hint at Esquivel’s inventive space-age pop. With glockenspiel and trombone glides, among the many various flourishes, some might find the “everything but the kitchen sink” instrumentation to be ostentatious, but it works here. The next track in the salvo, “(You Were) in Love” shamelessly continues the Beach Boys love, but this time there’s a more sunny disposition with a not-perfectly-tuned saloon piano pulse and Maston’s obscured vocals that venture into the falsetto range. “Young Hearts” offers clearer vocals and a few twists on the now-familiar Brian Wilson obsession, with details poking their heads out of the ground in the form of brass responses and floating organ chords.
Although its highlights are impressive, at times, when the cores of the songs themselves aren’t as strong, one might think that Shadows favors style much more than substance. At a lean 27 minutes, the album is certainly vibrantly and expertly recorded, but a few things are holding it back; a little more vocal variety would be welcome, if Maston relinquishes just a little control to other singers perhaps, and Shadows seems like it would have been a perfect EP, if it cut some of the less vital songs.
The band name Little Women only makes sense if it refers to what the band eats for breakfast. This Brooklyn quartet’s previous releases, Teeth and Throat, for the most part were balls-to-the-wall, over-the-top, insanely intense affairs, going beyond such hyphenated genre mixtures as thrash-jazz or noise-rock. The group is fronted by two saxophonists who are rising stars on the downtown jazz scene and skilled and formidable players, Travis Laplante on tenor sax and Darius Jones on alto; electric guitarist Andrew Smiley and drummer Jason Nazary complete the fearless lineup. Going from the titles of the band’s releases, there’s an obvious biological theme, and the group has described its four members as each being one chamber of a heart, maintaining both a group identity as well as individual personalities. One might be tempted to call it free jazz—and aficionados of more extreme free jazz may enjoy Little Women—but instead of having free-for-alls or choreographed free-for-alls, the quartet uses group improvisations in order to put the pieces together for solidified compositions.
The new album Lung, all 42 minutes of which are intended to be heard in one uninterrupted sitting, is a bit of a departure from the band’s trademark bone-shaking, dense onslaught. True to its name, the album features ample time to breathe, with lots of space to let notes resonate. Beginning quietly from a blanket of silence, eventually a few soft percussion taps set the scene before the saxes and guitar enter calmly. This leads to sustained-tone vocalizations before a shattering sax squawk acts as a milestone; woozy electric guitar strums and pitter-patters evoke uncertainty before another wave of silence. Lung is Little Women’s most complicated piece yet, not content with loud-soft-loud cartoony dynamics and unfurling with bleats, fluttering, thrashings, slashings and tender counterpoint at various stages. Conveying the “downfall of something beautiful,” in the band’s own words, Lung is a labyrinthine journey that confounds, soothes and stimulates, revealing a band that’s much more complex than previously imagined.