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Published: 2003/08/28
by Karl Kukta

Giving Up The Ghost – Robert Walter’s 20th Congress

Magnatude Records 2302-2

Like many bills passed and implemented by our country's legislative body,
Giving Up the Ghost, the new release from Robert Walter's 20th
Congress, evinces an ideological tussle between tradition and progression.
With this record, Walter attempts to persuade listeners that he is not as
conservative musically as many have pegged him to be, but without alienating
those who have grown to love his brand of funky soul-jazz. We are led to
believe that Walter's position on previous bills and debates (see A Town
Called Earth; Money Shot; There Goes the Neighborhood) has not
accurately reflected the entirety of his musical ideology, and that
Giving Up the Ghost is here to clarify – literally – what all Walter
stands for, to release the suppressed spirits within him, lest the
misperception of his retro-ness becomes immutable fact.

Clearly, the excitement of revealing his progressive side is tremendous for
Walter who, rather than butter up his audience with the familiar before
treading new ground, jumps right into the new stuff, hitting a bulls-eye
with "Glassy-Winged Sharp Shooter." But, upon closer inspection, is this
really so new? The track's lackadaisical theme, frothy key work and
quivering pulse are nothing if not vintage Walter. Rather, it is the drum
work of Joe Russo which gives the track a tech sensibility. Like a smart
politician, Walter subtly integrates the new into the established, producing
something that is both fresh enough to turn otherwise uninterested heads and
moderate enough to keep the loyal base in their seats (or, in this case, on
their feet).

As the album progresses and the crowd settles in, Walter gets more daring,
and in more than one direction. "Convex and Concave," "Underbrush" and
"Circle Limit" all call to mind MM., in the songs arrangements as well as in
Walter's playing: the first two refer to the early It's a Jungle in
Here period, the latter to Uninvisible. On the gritty "Dump
Truck" (a tiresome vamp that could be a Word out-take) Walter all but
disappears, allowing the groove to be led by Will Bernard's work on slide
guitar. And on "Clear All Wires" Walter and co. blend synthesizer loops and
trancey drum work with New Orleans brass riffs to create a more extreme (and
satisfying) example of the opening track's MO: fresh, familiar and

The problem with most of these tracks is that, while they are all new
avenues for Walter, they are not fresh directions in general. This could be
overlooked if the songs were stellar compositions within their respective
systems, but the only particularly outstanding progressive numbers here are
"Sharp-Shooter" and "Clear All Wires." Which isn't to say that the others
aren't well-executed, but that after a couple times through, they tend to
lull rather than re-invigorate. We've heard it before, just not from this

This lull may not have seemed so pronounced were the rest of the album not
so satisfying. By and large, the best tracks on Giving Up the Ghost
are those which follow the path set by Walter's previous albums with the
20th Congress and the Greyboy All-Stars. Here, Walter's understanding of
the genres he is working with – funk, soul, gospel, blues, and all
combinations therein – helps to produce groove-laden tracks that find their
originality in the specifics of the individual performances and their
familiarity in the genres per se (a near inversion of the progressive
numbers). "Aquafresh" and "Bygones Be" could have possibly been Galactic
and GBA tunes, respectively, but Walter and his supportive Congress (in
particular, horn/flute player Cochemea Gastelum) swagger knowingly and
passionately through the songs and thereby claim them as their own.

Though the progressive tracks on Giving Up the Ghost generally come
off as scripted, it should be remembered that all forward-thinking
politicians must inculcate and accustom themselves to changes before they
can speak with authority and without a script. Furthermore, that the band
does succeed briefly in untested areas is a sign of an incipient maturation.
The first steps outward may be a bit shaky, but when you have as solid a
foundation as does the 20th Congress, these can be overlooked until the
fine-tuning is completed.

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