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Published: 2004/03/30
by Brian Ferdman

Talking Only Makes It Worse – T.J. Kirk

Ropeadope Records

In the mid-1990s, the San Francisco Bay area was fertile ground for musical
experimentation. One of the most intrepid groups to emerge from this scene
was T.J.. Kirk. Consisting of drummer Scott Amendola, guitarist Will
Bernard, guitarist John Schott, and eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter,
T.J. Kirk's lineup was unique. The band took its moniker in tribute to the
composers of its repertoire: Thelonious Monk, James Brown, and Rahsaan
Roland Kirk. This combination of unusual instrumentation and distinct cover
tunes was short-lived but nonetheless profound.

Recorded at a 1997 concert, Talking Only Makes it Worse showcases
T.J. Kirk's dexterous interplay in a live setting. With three guitars in
one quartet, one might expect one guitarist to be relegated to strumming
rhythms. However, that is not the case, as all three take multiple shots at
lead lines, often simultaneously creating swirling runs with bizarre
harmonics. Couple this with Amendola's stereo-mixed drums crashing cymbals
from the left channel to the right, and the listener is often caught inside
of a vortex of delicious weirdness.

After analyzing their take on the cover songs, it often seems as though T.J.
Kirk is trying to create jazz interpretations of funk tunes and funk
interpretations of jazz tunes. The latter is far more successful than the
former, with the James Brown selections seemingly begging for a heavier
bassline than Hunter can provide with his three strings. Nevertheless, "The
Pay Back" succeeds as the highlight of the Brown/Fred Wesley canon, largely
due to its more laid-back, less-driving groove that requires less bass
dedication from Hunter. Amendola's tight rhythms and sound use of the bass
drum provide the cosmic glue that holds this chart together while the
guitarists settle into more traditional lead and rhythm roles. "The Pay
Back" is the easily most by-the-book track on _Talking Only Makes it
Worse_, but it remains far more successful than T.J. Kirk's unorthodox
attempts at covers of "Soul Power" or "Damn Right Im Somebody."

By contrast, the group seems to revel in the obtuse figures of Thelonious
Monk, utilizing his distinct phrasing as a launchpad for their own sonic
explorations. "Epistrophy" is probably the most adventurous effort on the
entire album. Beginning with a tropical rhythm before downshifting into a
swing backbeat, traces of the original melody are soon few and far between.
A brief re-visiting of the tropical rhythm occurs before everyone dives into
a wonderful Bob Wills-style western shuffle. This groove lasts only
momentarily as humor plows its way into the song in an endless array of
tongue-in-cheek 1970s classic rock teases. A short funk movement concludes
the expansive five minute and 41 second journey, and then a smooth segue way
leads to the aforementioned cut of "The Pay Back."

The music of Rahsaan Roland Kirk gives the band some much needed variety.
"Now Please Don't You Cry, Beautiful Edith" is the only ballad on the entire
album, and it arrives as a breath of fresh air. Amendola gently brushes his
drums, while the guitarists revel in soft tones. Each soloist glides along
in his own way — one by utilizing a pure and clean sound, one by soothingly
bending notes, and one by skipping around, drenched in lush reverb. When
not soloing, each guitarist provides sparse but haunting accompaniment to
create a very interesting blend of sounds. Recognizing the depth of
performances on "Now Please Don't You Cry, Beautiful Edith," it is
unfortunate that aside from a brief snippet of "Meeting at Termini's
Corners," this is the only Rahsaan Roland Kirk song on the album.

The sound of T.J. Kirk was much different than the generic
jazz-funk/funk-jazz that seems to dominate today's jamband scene. Here were
four guys taking lots of risks, occasionally falling on their faces, but,
more often than not, turning the world on its ear and creating unique
re-inventions of timeless compositions. Their approach was anything but
conventional, and at first listen, Talking Only Makes It Worse can be
a bit jarring to listeners, especially those who are accustomed to hearing
the more funky, solid rhythms in the later work of Bernard and Hunter.
However, after repeated spins, more and more layers emerge from the disc,
and one can begin to appreciate the intricacies of this eccentric album.

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