Jessica Pavone morphs, Bob Drake surprises.
Violist Jessica Pavone’s new vinyl-only album Knuckle Under is characterized by its methods and attitudes, and not by any genre. If listeners are to use the album’s title as a clue regarding the proceedings, to “knuckle under” means to to submit to someone; in this case, Pavone extrudes wild sounds, using distortion and effects-manipulation, from pure notes, yet she demonstrates an acute control over them, reining them with the illusion of freedom.
In certain examples, Pavone will use an individual sonic idea—a motif or even a single note—and take it as far as it can possibly go.
On the opening and closing tracks, “But Not Here” and “Plutonium,” Pavone plays double-stops with the lower notes being open-string pedal notes and the upper notes mapping out melodies, exploring sound contours that favor bow pressure and attacks over intonation to be expressive. On “But Not Here,” the dissolving digital-delay echoes transform gradually into oppressive, sharp-edged blocks, as if pumped out of industrial machinery; “Plutonium” forks into a different path, with Pavone’s sung notes being mirrored by distorted pizzicato.
“Salute Flying” begins with another simple premise, using the repetition of two notes separated by an octave, with the second note being a crystalline harmonic; gradually, more sustain is added so that the note feeds back, almost to the point of no return on a slippery slope—however, Pavone holds the notes on a leash, directing their dissolutions precisely.
Later, her manipulated viola notes sound like electric piano tones, slipping into mysterious softness before an abrasive sonic scouring, contrasted with interjections in the form of untreated notes.
The album’s title track uses a crackling ball of squeaky harmonics with forceful, percussive bowing, joined by a ghostly chorus fog, with the marshaled chaos resembling supernatural fiddling. While methodical, the fascinating Knuckle Under never sounds clinical, and although Pavone keeps everything in line seemingly systematically, the original tones morph, bubble and char from the applied heat, assuming new shadowy lives of their own.
Sometimes—very rarely, actually—a new musical discovery can make this writer not feel like an insufferably jaded curmudgeon. Bob Drake was known to this reviewer as a recording engineer, who did miraculous remastering work on the 40th anniversary Henry Cow boxed set among other projects, but only recently was he exposed to Drake’s brilliant solo work, when a friend played some excerpts from the new album, Lawn Ornaments.
“This is insane! Who makes pop music like this? MUST...CONSUME...” are thoughts that came immediately to mind. Smitten, this writer swiftly bought Lawn Ornaments and seven other Bob Drake albums, in one fell swoop; remarkably, there isn’t a dud in the bunch.
Bob Drake is in his own category, making ostensibly pop-centric music that is wildly complicated, with the complexity of progressive rock and unrepentant, unrelenting short-attention-span genre-hopping (think John Zorn’s Naked City or Mr. Bungle). Many of his songs are concise, often under two minutes each, with longer tracks each containing an album’s worth of ideas; Drake plays and sings almost everything himself, with spotless recordings and an utterly flawless musicianship.
Lawn Ornaments takes the listener on a stroll through an eccentric’s manor and sculpture garden come to life, featuring a sinister meerkat, flying foxes and a wolf with an extraordinarily discerning olfactory sense. It’s a combination of spooky fantasy with a smile-inducing, goofy sense of humor, peppered with S.A.T.-worthy words.
Like a haunted house, there’s a surprise lurking around every corner, with joyful explosions of prog virtuosity with breathtaking runs and diversions that warp, yet never derail each song.
It’s one of the year’s highlights, being an overflowing fountain of ideas that refuses to be confined to the structures of typical pop songwriting. Yes, it is busy and labyrinthine, rarely settling into a riff for very long, and those averse to such rigorous methods could accuse Drake of trying too hard; this writer thinks that everyone else isn’t trying hard enough.