Eugene Chadbourne and Warren Smith: Odd Time (2012)
All art is activist; or at least it should be when it challenges established and accepted forms that play to the laissez-faire, the reactionary and the antisocialand the greater good of the greater number of people experiencing (or trying to experience) it. The music of Beethoven was just so, the composer cancelling the dedication of his mighty Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica") to Napoleon Bonaparte after the Frenchman declared himself Emperor. So, too, has some of the finest music of modern times been activist, whether stemming from the folk tradition, the blues or jazz. Every time this has been forgotten a bard has raised his head and voice: Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus...and Eugene Chadbourne... and of course, the mighty Warren Smith.
The artist-as-activist has been a role that bards and troubadours have accepted and played for centuries, and in contemporary times most artists have, after a brief burst in the 1950s and '60s, been too afraid to do so lest they be muzzled. So hats off to Steven Walcott of Engine Studios; and hats off to Eugene Chadbourne and Warren Smith, the "Wis" who have come together to create Odd Time, a forceful, darkened mirror of music that reflects the sign of the times. A lot of protest music thins in significance because the narrative lacks lyricismeven a rough, one, but not the music of Odd Time.
Here is music that catches the wave that rocks the pulse of a disenchanted generation, with concrete poetic imagery acutely melded in with angular and obtuse music. Simplistic titles such as "The People With Too Much" are forgiven when Chadbourne delves into the language of the dispossessed, mixing Frantz Fanon with Bob Dylan, and Eugene Chadbourne with Jerry Garcia. His cause is enhanced with the dark parabolic elevations of Warren Smith's Gatling gun-like snare and tom-toms, punctuated with depth bombs on the bass drum.
The obtuse atonality and flat nature of the harmonies are a dramatic rather than musical device, suggesting social madness that culminates in the thump of an echoing gong which ends "New New War War. This dramaturgy is also carried through on other charts, such as "Checkers of Blood" and "Xubitunt."
"Mourning of the Praying Mantis" is a fine improvised tune and features Chadbourne's breathless banjo work and inspired atmospherics on vibes, marimba and other percussion objects. But nothing can prepare the ear for the tactile assault on the senses of the sensational "Odd Time for Two," which destroys rational concepts of tempo as well as harmony. The complete madness of this Chadbourne-Smith sonic expedition is resolved in the end as it morphs into a song with burnished harmonies, but not before the duo challenges the status quo with music that is humorous and ahead of its timeboth literally and figuratively.
Track Listing: The People Who Knew Too Much; New New War War; Mourning of the Praying Mantis; Checkers of Blood; Xubitunt; Water Song; Odd Time For Two (Free Improv); Put Me Back in the River; Choppin' Down Weeds.
Personnel: Eugene Chadbourne: 12-string banjo, banjo, vocals; Warren Smith: drums, tympani, marimba, percussion, vibes.