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Published: 2003/03/25
by Jesse Jarnow

This Is! – Ralph Carney

Black Beauty Records 72001
One of the things that intrigued me when I first started listening to
jambands was the novel combination of genres and approaches the groups
seemed to embody. Rock and roll crossed with jazz crossed with atonal skronk
crossed with bluegrass crossed with zydeco crossed with… you bloody well
know the drill. Lately, though, it seems like that particular way of making
music has become nothing if not a well-known drag. Post-modern trope-fucking
is out, intense focus on one sound is in — or at least, that’s the way it
seems the more creative music is being made these days. All of which is why
Ralph Carney’s This Is! album on Black Beauty is such a weird and
pleasant surprise. Carney’s novelty factor is driven by a sense of
playfulness as opposed to gimmickry. It’s something that seems to have
gotten lost in this approach of late.
Ralph Carney is certainly an improbable name for a man of his disposition,
one who works towards recovering the pure exhilaration of dazzling
eclecticism. Known primarily as Tom Waits’s hornman for the past decade,
Carney is an unabashed kitchen sink instrumentalist. And, on This
Is!, he plays all the instruments, catalogued meticulously in the liner
notes — tenor banjo, washboard, trombone mute jug, tenor and baritone sax,
clarinet, snare, spoons… and that’s just the LP’s first track, "Jug Gland
Music" (a title which might well describe Carney’s music as a whole). The
whole album fairly reeks of top-grade demented Americana — a combination of
Brian Wilson’s Smile-era Dixieland freakouts, Waits’s sideshow
laments, and the raggedly radical Lower East Side jugbandery of the Holy
Modal Rounders.
Like Ralph White’s sadly overlooked Trashfish, This Is! seems
to be an aural tour of one man’s idiosyncratic sonic wunderkammern —
a dream-lined cabinet of strange fantasies and indulged pleasures. When
Carney sings, as he does on a few songs, it comes as a surprise (maybe for
him as well as the listener). The lyrics are, of course, suitably surreal.
Carney warbles in the finest tradition of Les Claypool and the Residents’
lead eyeball — a high-pitched, vibrato-rich tenor filled with equal parts
smarm and charm. "Man Don’t Come", in fact, sounds an awful lot like a
Residents’ number stripped of those nasty synths and reimagined as mountain
Genre-wise, the references are somewhat clear: jugband ("Jug Gland Music"),
noir soundtrack ("Tis Sad"), free jazz ("Marshall Allen Plan"), for example.
In many places, This Is! feels like it is consciously employing
genres as opposed to doing it entirely out of instinct. This is what
connects it to the world of jambands. But it passes between the two ideas so
fluidly and frequently, like a solo moving from a restatement of a melody on
into outer territories, that the whole thing comes together in a marvelously
cartoonish whole.

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