by Casey Dolan
“Matorning” (Nineteen-Eight Records) Most rock listeners will not know who the hell these guys are, coming up, as they do, from the modern jazz ranks. That’s an injustice and just ridiculous. Rudder should be major. This is neither jazz in the strict sense nor rock, nor any of the conventional notions of fusion, although Rudder owes much to all three traditions. It is music, call it Party Whomp, that should appeal to an extremely wide variety of listeners — from lovers of new electronica to jam band enthusiasts; from the most discerning jazz musos to crunchy rockers (despite there being no guitar in the band); from trip hop isolationists to acid jazzers of every stripe.
The second album from Keith Carlock, Tim Lefebvre, Henry Hey and Chris Cheek doesn’t depart too far from their 2007 eponymous debut. The same comical, herky-jerky heads, the deep, molasses grooves, a pretty ballad (“Lucy,” with a seamless arc of crescendo in the arrangement) — they are all there with each player adding his signature style. In other words, there are few surprises, but there are some. Tenor sax player Chris Cheek seems to have added more effects (no saxophonist alive works a wah-wah like him — check out “Tokyo Chicken” and “One Note Mosh”) and bassist Tim Lefebvre, conversely, seems to be playing with more organic sounds this time and less coloration. Not so with keyboardist Henry Hey who uses his usual bag of tricks that seem to lift as much from bad science fiction films as from the chitlin circuit. The undeniable center of Rudder’s universe, though, the quasar, the eye of God itself, is drummer Keith Carlock, one of the greatest drummers in existence.
Think I’m talking hyperbole here? That’s because you don’t read drummer polls or hang out in New York jazz dives. That’s because the musician’s world of musicians is not a concentric universe with radio play, or the appallingly (un)hip music magazine focus or whatever awful thing makes it on a TV soundtrack these days. Please, take it from me. Whether your percussive God is John Bonham, JackDeJohnette, Al Jackson, Mastodon’s Brann Dailor, Bill Bruford, Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, Neil Peart, whomever…Carlock will make you weep. Live, he is an electrified muppet, multi-limbed like Shiva, but he dominates the proceedings (and not in an overbalanced sense) on both the first album and “Matorning.” It is Carlock (with some help from Lefebvre) who will make you bounce around your house uncontrollably with a cattle prod up your bottom and not merely because of his tribal thumping, but the sound of it as well (listen to his beautifully hollow kick drum on “Jackass Surcharge” or his snare on “Innit”).
But Rudder is not a showcase for Carlock, it is a band. And a band that displays much humor. There’s a Funkadelic cartoon feel to some of the tunes, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have subtleties. The album is far from painted in primary colors. The 7/4 whomp of “Jackass Surcharge” has a soft, insinuating horn arrangement that sounds like cats mewing or distant traffic (Lefebvre is astonishing on this, popping away). There are the fun games with meter: “Lucky Beard” has Carlock laying down a funky 6/8, but Cheek is playing in 4 with a bar of 6 thrown in, and it works beautifully. “Daitu” has Lefebvre channeling Jack Bruce’s distinctly trebley bass against an acid jazz background. “Neppe” (possibly the most otherworldly track on the whole album) weds an “Addams Family” sax to trip hop. And Hey deserves special recognition as a keyboardist who really knows when to play it simply and be most effective. The closing track, “CDL,” has him playing eighth-note chords almost throughout, lending a Radiohead feel to the track.
If “Matorning” has an inherent cautionary tale for its participants, it may be to always keep things lively and fresh, to not become complacent with a sound. This is such a fine aggregation of musicians that they should be willing, on occasion, to put the Party Whomp aside and stroll into unheard territories, to consider greater use of electronics, tape manipulation and digital editing, maybe to even add an instrument or two. (What would happen if Four Tet, Danger Mouse, Dan Deacon, Adrian Sherwood, or one of those bhangra nutjob remixers did mixes? Could be monstrous). The second half of the album begins to do that, but it might be a good idea for album number three to go further and eschew even that solid stomp that Carlock supplies (at least part of the time). I believe Rudder has the capacity to do almost anything and the compositional skills of all three writers — Cheek, Lefebvre and Hey — could lead the band into greater recognition and success.
This is a video from the 2007 Fall tour in the Rex in Toronto. “Circle of Jerks”: