In an unusual move, Norway's Rune Grammofon label has released an album recorded in New York City. But while multi-instrumentalist/sound manipulator Aaron Jennings hails from the American Midwest, there is a Scandinavian connection. Residing in New York for nearly a decade, and establishing himself as a flexible bassist with artists including saxophonist David Binney and pianist Kris Davis, Oslo-born Eivind Opsvik is an even more diverse multi-instrumentalist, adding percussion, keyboards and theremin as a primary instrument.
Opsvik & Jennings' second release together might seem to be a non-sequitur for Opsvik, who lives largely in the jazz world, and Jennings, who operates more in the realm of experimental rock these days. Still, the multi-layered, stylistically unidentifiable music of Commuter Anthems could only come from two artists with insatiable musical appetites and a drive to combine instruments, styles and the compositional potential of the studio into something that's clearly greater than the sum of its parts.
Some of the music resembles songs just waiting for lyrics. The folksy "The Last Country Village has a pulse, a set of changes and a slightly buried melody itching to get out. But it's also a texturally rich piece that features a variety of guitars, piano, bass, odd tuned percussion, drums and electronic processing. At times the percussion drops away and what's left is a kind of ambient Americana. With Opsvik's behind-the-beat drumming creating an almost lazy amble, it's a curious collage that holds together despite having a shifting and unpredictable form.
Banjo, xylophone, slide guitar, bass and drums combine to give "Silverlake an equally appealing alt-country sheen, the kind of music that skews Bill Frisell's idiosyncratic Americana even further. The title track's sing-song theme is "sung without lyrics by Opsvik and Jennings, but ultimately evolves into an example of just how far a single idea can be taken. With varied instrumentation, stop/start rhythms and shifting changes, it creates an ever-shifting foundation beneath its simple theme.
Elsewhere the approach is less about melody and more about texture. There's a processed pulse throughout much of "Wrong Place Right Time, but it's closer to ambient electronica than idiosyncratic Americana. "Lorinda Sea sits somewhere in the middle, with changes providing structure at times, but equally the result of digital editing that creates a soundscape impossible to produce otherwise. There are a handful of guests on a few tracks, with trumpet, trombone and flute broadening the improvisational aspect of the music.
With all tracks co-composed, and with so much of Commuter Anthem's intriguing blend of textures in contexts that often straddle the line between the abstract and the melodic, it's difficult to know how much of the music came about through experimentation and how much was preconceived. At the end of the day, however, it matters not. Commuter Anthems is an album that manages to be both appealing and adventurous, and is another strong entry in the always experimental and unexpected Rune Grammofon catalog.
: The Last Country Village; Silverlake; Commuter Anthem; Wrong Place Right Time; Lorinda Sea; Port Authority; Ways; I'll Scrounge Along; The Pendler; Apology/Goodbye.
Eivind Opsvik: double bass, electric bass, drums, percussion, piano, organ, theremin, vocals, software; Aaron Jennings: electric and acoustic guitars, lap steel, banjo, concertina, vocals, software and electronics; Ben Gerstein: trombone (3, 5, 9); Rich Johnson: trumpet (3, 9); Peter Opsvik: flute (4).
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