The Skip Heller Trio: Mean Things Happening In This Land (2006)
Like a man possessed, Skip Heller continues his prolific creative flow. His latest trio reconvenes the band which appeared on his last release, Liberal Dose: Chris Spies (organ) and David White (drums, percussion). In addition to the originals, Heller plucks four extremely unlikely covers with wonderful results. While his encyclopedic knowledge of music has provided some inspired song choices from older material, here he culls three eighties classics, two flat-out punk rock.
X's "Motel Room In My Bed goes from a hectic hydroplaning car ride to being genuinely road-weary, and in the process Heller's revelatory arrangement finds unexpectedly sweet blossoms amidst the brambles of the original. That two main architects of X's sound, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake, boast deep jazz roots should have been a tipoff, yet who but Heller heard the hard swing and abundant melodic possibilities? An even more unlikely choice, the Dead Milkmen's "Punk Rock Girl, retains its sunny disposition, which warms considerably with Spies's rich-toned variations, then boils over with Heller, who finds a little Rollins hidden within and quotes "St. Thomas.
The set opens with the group's take on XTC's blasphemous "Dear God, its message never so relevant. David White kicks into a funk rhythm and Spies contributes reggae-inspired organ chords. Sampled soldiers cross the bridge, and playing with a tad more fuzz than usual, Heller spins rough-edged variations. Spies easily spins slippery, thick-handed chords. Speaking of fuzz, Heller states the theme of his dark tango "Katrina, Mon Amour with bass strings sounding like they were borrowed from Davy Allen. White's shaker-led percussion keeps the rhythm crisp. "Heckuvajob retains the multitracked percussion with a whimsical theme. Heller's Grant Green-like clear tone dances over the surface, and Spies shakes up the sound with improvisation on electric piano.
A naked romantic, Heller wrote the pretty, optimistic "Bright Blue Skye Eyes for his #1, and the melody line seems to continually ascend. Spies again opts for the lighter sound of the electric piano. "Hideout In the Sun takes Heller into the rarefied world of surf jazz. Spies keeps the groove in swing time, but with White on bongos, Heller convincingly stakes his claim as the fifth Venture.
The bouncy calypso "President Nero? showcases the guitarist's playful, inspired dexterity. On "The Kind of Beauty That Moves, Heller plays the chorded lead with a palpable ache. All humid lust and sensuality, Spies' electric piano gives the piece more of a Nashville feel. Finally, the collection ends with the fourth cover, Si Kahn's "Aragon Mill. Lisa Christian gives a sober reading to the lyrics, depicting one instance of the fallout in America's outsourcing. Heller's accompaniment is Pop Staples via Curtis Mayfield.
The tight grooves and close ensemble playing betray this band's lengthening association. And while times are indisputably hard, at least they provide inspiration for Heller & Co.
Track Listing: Dear God; Katrina, Mon Amour; Heckuvajob; Motel Room in My Bed; Beautiful Bright Blue Skye Eyes; Hideout In the Sun; President Nero?; The Kind of Beauty that Moves; Punk Rock Girl; Aragon Mill.
Personnel: Skip Heller: guitar; Chris Spies: organ, clavinet, electric piano, Radio Shack synth; David White: drums, percussion.