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The Skip Heller Trio: Mean Things Happening In This Land

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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It's increasingly difficult to tell when someone is being ironic or sincere. Skip Heller, more than a little manic and an unquestionably gifted guitarist, might not be able to tell us himself where the sincerity ends and the irony begins on this record.

Start with the music. It's an energetic guitar/organ trio date, driven by the ingenious and heavily rock-inflected drumming of David White. The musical cues are not unexpected for an organ trio, especially a definite late-'60s soul jazz feel. The playing and the production are highly polished. Heller plays a lot of the time with a clear, clean low-treble tonal palette, turned up a bit so that there is an attractive distortion around the edges of the sound.

In fact, the highly burnished surface of the music distracts from moments of real musical depth. The long lines Heller develops during his solo on a cover of X's "Motel Room In My Bed" (the highlight of the record on many counts) are worthy of the improvisational grammar of pianist Bill Evans. (Heller told an interviewer he has 115 Evans records in his collection—if that's not mania, what is?) On his solo for "Punk Rock Girl" (yes, the Dead Milkmen's ersatz punk novelty number), Heller manages to quote not only Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas," but also Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart Again." And it is instructive to play Heller's Spanish-tinged "Katrina Mon Amour" with its low-register guitar plaint alongside the the uncannily similar "New Orleans Under Water" on Jane Bunnett's Radio Guantánamo (Blue Note, 2006).

Now according to a rigorously formalist approach, we should stop right there. But in addition to a musical conception, Heller has a message of political critique (to which the title alludes) that confuses the way we hear the music.

Take the example of "Heckuvajob": the title clearly refers to President Bush's ill-advised public congratulation of hapless former FEMA director Michael "Brownie" Brown in the wake of Hurricane Katrina last year. And the music is bright, sunny, indeed goofy. The cartoonish music is clearly not meant to be taken seriously; as with the similar "President Nero?," Heller expresses contempt for his dedicatees by playing music that is emotionally and formally contemptuous.

Or does he? Because a few tracks later, he's using the same cartoonish elements to express (presumably genuine) romantic love on "Beautiful Bright Blue Skye Eyes." I'm confused. Does this mean he really loves Brownie, or does he hold his beloved in contempt? While we may divine the answer to these questions, the music doesn't provide many clues.

Don't get me wrong. It's not Heller's responsibility to craft an unambiguous political message. And you're probably going to really like this record; I certainly do. In a land where mean things are happening, this music might help sustain us. Is that the musical-political "message" after all?


Track Listing: Dear God; Katrina, Mon Amour; Heckuvajob; Motel Room in My Bed; Beautiful Bright Blue Skye Eyes; Hideout In the Sun; President Nero?; The Kind of Beauty that Moves; Punk Rock Girl; Aragon Mill.

Personnel: Skip Heller: guitar; Chris Spies: organ, clavinet, electric piano, Radio Shack synth; David White: drums, percussion.

Title: Mean Things Happening In This Land | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Ropeadope

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