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(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/12/2013)
The rise of the jam band scene over the past decade and a half has produced groups that have taken their approach to improvised rock in different directions. There are, what I suppose could be called the old-school bands that take their cue from the psychedelic-era groups like the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers Band, and even back to the Doors and the Iron Butterfly. It was music that was best appreciated with, let's say, some chemical enhancement. They would improvise at great length with the enjoyment of their audience being as much for the atmosphere of the "happening," rather than the content of the music. There's an old cruel joke that goes like this, what did the -- fill in the band's name -- freak say when his drugs wore off? "Man that band sucks!"
On the other hand, the 1970s brought the jazz-rock fusion scene with a bunch of virtuosic jazz musicians coming to electric music from the acoustic jazz world. Sometimes they got a little too carried away with the electric instrumentation -- causing quite a fair number to go back to acoustic music after a while -- but on the whole, the fusion scene generated a good deal of interesting music, though obviously it was not for everyone.
The rise and extraordinary popularity of the band Phish in the latter 1990s gave us a more rock-based style of electric improvised music but with a considerably higher level of musicianship than some of the psychedelic bands. In other words, you did not have to be stoned to enjoy the music. The String Cheese Incident bought the level of musicianship even higher with their sophisticated and eclectic material, a tradition that the band Moe. has been carrying on. More recently, Umphrey's McGee have combined the jam band approach with some of the elaborate arrangements of the Art Rock scene.
This week we have the latest recording by a group that has been touring on the jam band circuit, though their music is more at the level of the fusion players. The band is Tauk, spelled T-A-U-K, who hail from Montauk, Long Island, and their new release is called Homunculus.
Tauk plays music that is outwardly rock in sound -- not really with rhythmic or instrumental textures of jazz -- but with the energy and electric drive of rock. It's quite sophisticated musically, with tricky rhythms and a very high level of musicianship. The three founding members of the band, guitarist Matt Jalbert, keyboard man Alric "A.C." Carter and bassist Charlie Dolan have been playing together since middle school, so their level of musical communication is quite extraordinary. After high school graduation, all three majored in music but at separate colleges. They got together when they could, but then reconvened the band and began touring in 2007. At the time, they had an excellent lead vocalist named Alessandro Zanelli and a different drummer from the current lineup. They released their CD Brokedown King which we featured on this series. It showed some great composing and first-rate playing, and was one of our picks for the Graham Awards in 2010.
Apparently due to medical reasons, Zanelli left the group and they decided to continue as an instrumental band, and picked up Isaac Teel as drummer, who proved to be an ideal match for the group, with a great feel for the band's rhythmic complexities, but with a subtle, supple approach. In 2011, they released a CD-EP called Pull Factors in their all-instrumental configuration, which highlighted their musical sophistication which more than made up for the lack of a vocalist and lyricist. The band toured extensively around that time, and -- full disclosure -- I had the opportunity to work with them in the studio as they appeared on WVIA's Homegrown Music series, which further impressed me.
Now after journeying to California and elsewhere and working with the same producer who handled Brokedown King, Tauk are out with Homunculus, a full-length CD that features new compositions that, in most cases, were pieces that the band had been already playing live. Once again the group uses fairly straightforward instrumentation, guitar, keyboards, bass and drums, with little apparent overdubbing to create electric music that is strong in both the quality of the composing and in the playing. The instrumental textures that the band uses can have a kind of retro sound, with what at times sounds like vintage synthesizers.
Based on this album, Tauk is not what I suppose you would call a typical jam band. The compositions are not very long -- there are no tracks on the album longer than six minutes -- and they are rather tightly structured. The opportunities for lengthy improvisation are few, but it makes for great listening if you're a fan of the fusion scene.
That is highlighted on the opening track Dead Signal. The outward sound is straight rock, but beneath the surface there lots of interesting musical ingredients, including the band's trademark tricky rhythms. <<>>
Unlike many jam bands, Tauk's compositions vary in mood and texture quite a bit. Hello Narwhal is a more laid-back contemplative-sounding piece mainly in waltz time. <<>>
Also ruminating in mood, with while keeping the sound quite electric, is a piece called The Spot. <<>> During Matt Jalbert's guitar solo, the rhythm section also shows what it's made of without taking the focus off the guitar. <<>> AC Carter takes a short solo on piano and it provides one of the rare moments on the album that sounds like more conventional jazz. <<>>
Carpentino's Rebirth is one of the highlights of Homunculus, it's a great composition with a wonderfully twisted rhythmic figure that makes the piece sound as if it wraps around on itself. <<>>
Dirty Mouth also takes that kind of convoluted rhythmic approach, but it can sound African at times. <<>>
Speaking of World Music, I think the strongest track on the CD is one called Afro-Tonic. There is some of the African rhythmic influence, but the piece also goes to a lot of other places musically. <<>>
Probably the most laid-back track on the album is a composition called Curtain Call. The group handles it with their typical aplomb. <<>>
The CD ends with its most all-out rock-sounding tune, In the Basement of the Alamo. It may rock with a cranked up sound, but it wouldn't be the Tauk band without interesting twists in the composition. Matt Jalbert's guitar work is especially strong on this one. <<>>
On their new CD Homunculus the quartet Tauk has again provided more than adequate reminders as to why they are probably my favorite currently active rock band. The provide the energy of rock with a lot of really interesting compositions and with the kind of things that keep fusion and art-rock fans smiling. The playing by all is also really outstanding, even for the way they interact. None in the group are set out to be flashy soloists, but they thrive on exceptional ensemble playing. And where there are solos, at least on the CD, they are succinct and offer a lot of content in a short time, rather like older jazz recordings that were restricted to the side of an old 78 record. The band's very long-time personal association, going back to playing together in middle school has engendered an almost sibling-like level of musical rapport. Their compositions are all listed as being joint band efforts, and their playing is less jam and more like on-the-fly orchestrations.
Unfortunately, where it falls down is in the area of sound quality. The mix is decent, but the recording is badly over-compressed to the point that clarity is lost. The recording is cranked up to be maximally loud all the time, and when the music does build to a crescendo, it has nowhere to go. And because that kind of sound naturally makes you want to turn down the volume, it ends up sounding thin. However, it's still a little better than many recordings in these days of dumbed-down sound.
Sonic considerations notwithstanding, Tauk's new CD Homunculus is a fine new record by one of the most musically savvy rock bands to be found anywhere.
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