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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges: B+

“What war is that? What town could this be?"

Laurie Anderson asks this question two tracks into New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, and with it, exemplifies what I imagine most people were thinking at that point into the din of Colin Stetson’s second album. On paper, Stetson sounds like your standard classically trained musician, a bass saxophonist that has played with orchestra-friendly artists like Tom Waits and Arcade Fire. However, I guarantee that Judges is an album you have never heard anything like, and, furthermore, I guarantee you will never hear anything like it ever again. Stetson does not play anything like modern classical with the three or four instruments featured on Judges. Instead, he forges dark, bizarre landscapes that both confound and fascinate. You know those one man bands you see on street corners that make children laugh when they step, triggering a hit to the bass drum on their back? Put Stetson on a street corner and watch in glee as children run in fear of the monstrosities he concocts with just himself and a tangible frustration with the complacency of modern music.

It should be noted that, aside from some vocal performances and one trumpet ensemble, all of New History Warfare was taped live and in one take, with no overdubs whatsoever. That’s right. Except for the performances by Laurie Anderson and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, every sound that comes out of your speakers is coming from one guy, all at the same time. Let’s take “Judges” for example. That tribal backbeat of percussion and harmonized bass? That’s the sound of Stetson fingering the keys at the bottom of his saxophone, not only creating those notes, but that tactile clinking. That voice? It’s Stetson literally singing into his instrument, picked up by a mic placed deep into the saxophone’s opening. You see, the sound of New History Warfare is the intricate mixing of many tracks, all taking in the same sound of the same man sitting in the same room, but placed in radically different places; inside Stetson’s instrument, on the man’s neck, on opposite sides of the room. As a result, New History Warfare is not just the sound of Stetson’s saxophone, but of Stetson himself. We can hear him whet his mouth at the end of “A Dream of Water,” rhythmically breathe through his nose on “In Love and Justice” and violently smack his reed to create the ping pong-like percussion of “Red Horse (Judges II).” Stetson’s body is its own instrument, and Judges utilizes this principle in the first “meta-instrumental” album I have ever heard.

So it’s clear that New History Warfare is a crowning achievement of instrumentation, one of the most impassioned performances of all time, and I truly mean that. But, as I listen to the album more and more, it becomes more of a concern to me as to whether or not Stetson’s arrangements are actually translating into coherent songs. Unfortunately, for the most part, they do not. When taken out of the context that Judges is the most unique album in quite a few years, its cracks begin to show as an album that may take the “experiment” in “experimental” a little too seriously. Many songs hardly evolve from the ornate melodies that Stetson initially lays down. Too often, he defaults to a wallowing drone and the beauty of “The Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man” is diminished when considered that it is the third song on Judges that features very similar flittering alto saxophone arpeggios.

Unsurprisingly, the best moments of New History Warfare are when Laurie Anderson and Shara Worden pull Stetson’s arrangements toward a meaningful end. Worden’s filtered voice fits perfectly over Stetson’s sepulchral drones in “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes.” The original song is a blues number from the 1920’s, but Stetson and Worden bring it to a new level of sinister, striking spine-tingling gold when Worden quietly bellows, “When she first left me, I thought I’d grieve for a little while.” Anderson’s spoken-word poetry works well with Stetson’s beatnik arrangements and she gets in some truly fantastic lines on Judges. “And here they come, the people from the Bible,” she neutrally observes as a choir ebbs and flows for an enlightening thirty-seconds. Anderson's performance in “A Dream of Water,” where she repeats that line that so well embodies Judges, is excellent, her couplets getting more frantic as Stetson’s swirling notes become more belligerent.

Worden and Anderson team up for the album’s highlight “Fear of the Unknown and the Blazing Sun.” “Of all the wires, it was the wires / That were the wires of empathy,” Anderson proclaims, with a wonderfully subtle hint of vulnerability in that last word, and so begins Stetson’s funeral dirge of clanking keys and shapeless voices. Anderson gives devious advice to the listener as Worden’s disembodied coo floats in and out to complete the narrative of true deliverance through negativity. Like many of New History’s best tracks, it ends a little too early, but it’s the most perfect song Stetson could have written that utilizes his most notable techniques without tediously repeating them.

Ultimately, New History Warfare may be remembered for Stetson’s performance, not so much the songs he creates. People will probably say, “Oh my god, the guy’s so good with the saxophone,” rather than, “Oh, remember that one song?” Honestly, to be one of the greatest instrumentalists this or any decade has to offer is enough of an accomplishment, and those who read my problems with Judges should not disregard the entire album because of them. With the immense amount of effort that Stetson clearly puts into each and every moment of Judges (just watch him perform one of his songs live), it’s almost criminally unfair to criticize him for what he has neglected. The bottom line is to listen to Judges, because it is an album that will deservedly be remembered for years to come, and you can completely disregard my opinion on anything if I don’t take note of it come December. If anyone tells you that nobody’s making original music anymore, promptly shove Judges so far up their asses they won’t need a saxophone to squeal like a motherfucking banshee.


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