BLACK FRAMES | CHEAP SHADES & SOLAR FLARES

There are musicians that come your way from time to time that act like keys to the doors of perception. Once we encounter them the way we hear music is changed. Maybe only slightly, maybe profoundly but once they get into the bloodstream things sound different. New lines of connection emerge; the world inside our ears grows a little bigger, richer, deeper. Skerik is one of those ‘keys’ in my life.

In 1997 I picked up the first release from Tuatara, a so-called super group including amongst others Peter Buck of REM. While much of Breaking The Ethers had a prog rock bloatedness, there was this wild saxophone that bobbed & weaved with the percussive backdrops. Checking the liner notes I found the name Skerik. Further research brought me little info on this guy since the Internet was not then what it is now a short half decade later. Then I hear more sax that gets my head twisted in the nicest ways on the Hi-Fi Killers’ Loaded and Mark Eitzel’s West. Each time I opened the booklet and found the name Skerik listed. Finally I just asked about him at Amoeba Music in Berkeley and I got this knowing smile from the clerk. He led me over to the Critters Buggin section and handed me Host. Without hesitation I plunked down my money and rushed home to listen. As the wigged out sonic mayhem spilled from my speakers I lit incense and stared at the crazy painting on the cover of a insectoid alien imparting knowledge to a trio of soul-patch sportin’ guys. I was welcomed into an aromatic marketplace full of exotic noises anchored by a sinuous pulse. I felt like my head had been cracked open and a new type of light flowed in.

Besides Skerik and his self-described “saxophonics” that album introduced me to percussionist Mike Dillon and bassist Brad Houser. Actually I was already familiar with both of them and didn’t know it. Dillon had played on recordings by the nutty fun Brave Combo and psycho whitey MC 900 Ft. Jesus. Houser was a member of Edie Brickell and New Bohemians. Their playing had been good on those tracks but it didn’t even begin to hint at the kind of genre splattering brilliance they conjure with Skerik.

From that day on I’ve kept my eyes peeled for all three of these guys on any recordings. If I see their names in the line-up for a show I start to count my pennies and arrange rides. They lack any prejudice about what kind of music they’re willing to play. One night it might be jazz, the next a meeting with the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Next day it’s a session with a rock crooner or a loose gig with Stanton Moore of Galactic. What unifies all of these seemingly disparate threads is a nose for quality and a stoic resistance to selling out. They work with the best and they never hog the spotlight. Their playing is always top-notch; at times it’s classy & tasteful yet always capable of turning on a dime to peel off into the atmosphere at shocking speeds. Many players wear their diversity as a badge of honor. These three just hear music in a lot of different places in a lot of different ways and never apologize or explain the range of things that interest them. The music speaks loudly enough for anyone with the ears to hear.

All of which brings us to their latest project, Black Frames, and their first release Solarallergy. The band’s own hype from the Critters website reads like the rants on bottles of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap:

3/4 of the Size of Critters Buggin in Texas at 10 Finger Jack's Saloon Presenting Earl Harvin in the Back Parlor Rolling his Skin and Up to Something Down Right No Good Funky! But the Enigma of the Matter more Mystifying than a Convention.

Nonetheless, It's True: By Listening to this Music: You become Saved!

As with many of the things Skerik and the others in the group have said, I get the sense that I’m not so much being guided into the music as being sent off rambling aimlessly. Much like T.S. Elliot’s bogus, whimsical notes for The Wasteland there can be added entertainment value in calculated misdirection.

Saturated in more marimbas than a Les Baxter record, Solarallergy has the icy beauty of a gorgeous man or woman sitting at an outdoor cafe wearing sunglasses and avoiding every eye that falls on them. These nine instrumentals are lonely and stirring and restrained in a conscious way. It’s also bat shit loony in spots and thick as good downtempo. It is it’s own thing and while I think words will fail me I gotta give a shot at relaying what I heard.

Joining Dillon, Houser & Skerik is Texas jazz drummer Earl Harvin who normally leads a fab trio with Fender Rhodes whiz Dave Palmer. All four are credited with playing percussion besides their other musical duties. Ancient instruments like the sentir and the tabla skip along with vibes, guitars and ‘fancy’ sax. In the Black Frames where there is dissonance it is joined with melody, where there is silence expect sound to rise Tsunami like. It is opposites that have no need to attract because they are one and the same. So, the question arises, as it always does with these dudes, what the hell kind of music is this?

To answer that one has to look across the Atlantic to European iconoclasts like Willem Breuker, Misha Mengelberg and Peter Brotzmann or dig into real U.S. fringe riders like Nels Cline, Graham Connah or Eugene Chadbourne. Jazz is the springboard but the music itself creates it’s own space, free of traditional definitions, becoming it’s own genre as it is made. Perhaps it’s also the listener that’s involved in the process, the cause and the effect intermingling. But unlike the angular, often jarring music of the folks listed above the Critters boys possess a knack for skull humping funk these other musicians are incapable of. They were dipped in the same baptismal waters as George Clinton or Fred Wesley but their vision was less traditionally gospel. The divine message they received when the golden chariot lifted them up to the heavens was more like the freakish burning imagery of Revelation. It is too much beauty to be absorbed by any one soul and they cry out at not being able to convey all that they know inside.

Within the rough hour of music on Solarallergy there are universes expanding and collapsing. The opening track, “25 Million Stars Per Human” clues us into this. It starts with a coolness that brings to mind the dystopic visions of films like "Silent Running" or John Carpenter’s "Dark Star." The whole thing jumps into hyper drive leaving the listener hurtling through the blackness of space, aware of the smallness of man in such a big sky. Much needed warmth arrives in the next cut, “French Farce” and one begins to wonder if the Frames in their name are also a nod to the influence of celluloid on their process of creation. “Farce” is an Earl Harvin composition and falls like a confection on the tongue of the mind leaving chocolate smears and smiles. After that it’s a polyrhythmic free-for-all through drum & bass, ambient textures and good ‘ol jazz burning. Beat falls upon beat, mallets sing and wood dances. An older Critters Buggin tune, “Mullet Cut,” gets revised as “Mallet Cut,” a spaced out bliss trip in the vein of Impulse Records period Pharaoh Sanders. That the engines cut on this joyride at “Lucky Dog,” an oddly straight jazz tune by Houser, makes perfect sense and further proves what these guys can do.

There is always more that could be said about the music when Dillon, Skerik and Houser get going. With an inspired partner in crime like Harvin egging them on it’s even more tempting to prattle on. I’ll resist. Just sit in a comfortable spot. Clear your mind. Take a good long look at the photo of a brutha with a mad process on the cover. He is like the Chocolate Elvis of Kruder & Dorfmeister beckoning you with a face caught somewhere between a smile and a snarl. Now hit play. There will be no need for more words once the music begins.

Words by: Dennis Cook
Photos by: Hallie Hughes Hawkins
JamBase | Bay Area
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[Published on: 10/23/02]

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