Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sky Road Songs

Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane.  Sky Road Songs, with special guest Hubert Sumlin.
Yellowbird Records, 2012.  Sharp:

Stylistically, Elliott Sharp is either a brilliant multi-tasker, or all over the map, depending upon your point of  view and what kind of music you like.  He has made himself quite a name in avant-garde and experimental circles in New York, using mathematical concepts to compose his works.  He also performs jazz, blues, and techno, writes film music, makes sound installations, and plays several instruments as well as creating new ones.  Damn.  In some ways his career reminds me of James Blood Ulmer’s, bouncing back and forth between experimental and traditional forms.  Sky Road Songs is one of his blues-oriented releases, with Terraplane, and seems to be his latest, but he’s so prolific that it’s hard to keep up.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Sharp moved on to various places in New York State for musical study.  I don’t know if he comes back often.  He’s been part of the New York City music scene since the late 1970s, moving in whatever direction his muse takes him.  Sometimes it’s the blues, in electric style but hardly in the Chicago lineage.  As with everything else, he puts his own spin on things, with elements of psychedelic rock, jazz, and things not quite nameable in the mix.  The result is uniquely his in outline, but he clearly depends upon members of Terraplane, not just for instrumentation, but for songwriting as well, with Tracie Morris writing much of the lyrics for Sharp’s music and others contributing their own tunes.  They've been at it since the 90s. Joe Mardin, apparently new to the group, offers the closing tune, plays a lot of stuff, and helped record and produce.

The CD opens with a short intro piece with Sharp on various stringed instruments sounding like something from the John Fahey school.  “Endless Path” brings on the vocals, with Tracie Morris’s fine, edgy voice, backed by lots of electric guitar.  Other songs feature Eric Mingus or Joe Mardin on the singing chores, and all are very effective, each in their own way.  The lyrics tend to be on the more serious side--less about love and more commentary on the world.  “Down on the Block” is a good example, with Mingus growling about his environment, backed by the band driving like a machine.  We start to hear what could be labeled “psychedelic blues” with the next track, something that might have come from an early 70s progressive blues band, or perhaps Hendrix.  Sharp’s guitar soars again in the solos.  Hubert Sumlin, guesting on electric guitar, only appears on one track, “This House is for Sale,” and you can immediately tell the change in style to a more traditional one, and Mingus tries hard to sound more like Howlin’ Wolf (but nobody can).  Sumlin gets a solo, and as you’d expect, it’s great.  

The tracks continue, some getting more spacy (“Off the Hook”), some more jazzy (“Fade to Noir”), and some in the vein of blues rock (“I Blame You).  There’s a lot of variety with each song taking a different tack, and three vocalists trading off.  Nothing is easily anticipated, and every song is a unique experience.  Sharp provides the continuity with his stinging and crying guitar work, which never fails to intrigue.  This is a sophisticated take on the blues idiom, worthy of a wide audience.  (Note: Don't be fooled by the silence at the end of "Inward." "Banking Blues" will come along as a 'hidden' track.)

Performers:  Elliott Sharp (electric & acoustic guitars of various kinds, electronics, mandocello, mandolin, and other stuff), Tracie Morris (vocals), Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), Alex Harding (baritone sax), Dave Hofstra (electric bass), Don McKenzie (drums), Eric Mingus (vocals), Joe Mardin (vocals, drums, bass, chank guitar, vibraphone, vox harmonica, plastic bag percussion, shaker, handclaps, other stuff).  Songs by Elliott Sharp, Tracie Morris, Eric Mingus, and Joe Mardin, in various combinations.
Tracks:  Outward, Endless Path, Down on the Block, Dangerous Lands, Banking Blues, This House is for Sale, Fade to Noir, Off the Hook, Off My Mind, I Blame You, The Common Extreme, Sky Road Song, Inward, Banking Blues (alternate take).


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