If a good album is like a journey, and a good journey seems to go by in a flash, Medeski Martin & Wood’s latest disc, Uninvisible
, is a very good album.
Like a journey - some kind of road trip shared by variety to weird, crazy or dangerous hitchhikers - Uninvisible
takes listeners past, through and under many sites of interest, all of them characteristically dreamlike. Unlike some of MMW’s previous groove fests, this trip moves along at a speedy clip, leaving you wanting to linger longer at each stop instead of looking ahead to what’s next.
Perhaps one reason this disc moves so well is the circumstances under which it was recorded: The trio got together in a studio in Brooklyn, N.Y., and just jammed, laying down loads of tracks from which they selected 14 pieces to develop with producer/engineer Scotty Hard (The Word, Prince Paul, Deltron 3030, Wu-Tang Clan).
There’s nothing that new to this methodology, especially for MMW, which has thrived on spontaneity from the start, but there’s an upbeat funkiness, more of a sense of humor that was found lacking on earlier discs like Tonic
and Shack Man
. Maybe it was the roster of guest musicians adding extra spice to the mix: Brad Roberts (Crash Test Dummies), the Afro-beat Antibalas Horns, turntablists DJ P Love and DJ Olive, and others. These guests vary the textures and moods so that while the 14 tracks hang together with the consistency of a fine album, every one sounds fresh and full of energy.
The opening title track is an apt example. Spooky whale calls make way for Wood’s bouncy opening line followed by a few forceful bars by drummer Martin before Medeski comes squonking in with a signature dirty organ theme. The Antibalas Horns drop in with some superhero licks. It’s standard MMW, but there’s something new: a strong center that keeps the ensemble anchored even through the far out forays.
"I Want To Ride You" follows with a sound more like bubbly boogaloo a la Robert Walters than psycho-groove MMW. Later, "Ten Dollar High" tickles with Medeski’s hip, goofy Quincy Jones-like organ, Martin’s quirky percussion work, Wood’s bass speaking like a curious robot, and DJ P Love’s chirps and squeals. Both are fun, often funny little four-ways that underline what is so different about this 2002 release.
"Your Name is Snake Anthony" features a story narrated by Col. Bruce Hampton - the 21st-century heir to Lord Buckley. It eases along, cool but on the edge, vivid but warped, like a painting by Hieronymus Bosch or a walk through the park with William Burroughs. Guitarist Danny Blume and DJ Olive fill out the fluid, dreamy landscape with effects that scuttle and creep.
Wood takes the wheel through "Smoke," while "Off The Table," the closing track, sounds like a scan of the dial on the car radio in a David Lynch film. "Pappy Check," a short, dirty track, is mostly a vehicle for Love’s well-placed scratches.
Some tracks are nearly ambient, bringing to mind Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream, though they demand attention rather than sitting in the background like a poster on the wall. "Retirement Song," for example, ticks with the insistence of a second hand, the ambitious pace never faltering, even through a dozen or more variations and iterations. The shadowy "Take Me Nowhere," featuring percussionist Eddie Bobe, shifts and changes with every breeze, moving from sea-deep groove to disturbing arrhythmia. "Reprise" is a little sample of the Muzak that awaits those of us destined for Hell, and "First Time Long Time" is full of electronic beeps and fuzz that have a refreshing lack of respect for traditional musical structures.
The overall effect is one of driving through a surreal land. Medeski, Wood and guests provide the scenery out the window and the free-flowing conversation that takes place all night long in the cab of the battered sedan. But Martin, a solid timekeeper who keeps the pulse going in always interesting ways, especially helps impart this sense of movement. The tracks don’t always flow together easily or seamlessly; sometimes it’s abrupt and jarring, the way you come up over a rise in the road to discover Las Vegas or go around a bend and nearly hit a moose. Uninvisible
is a welcome change from the trio’s former trance groove stuff, which often seemed too easy. These tracks are loaded with ideas, truly unique sound effects, startling and even funny juxtapositions, and some noticeably masterful music making.