The Universe Will Provide – Mike Keneally
Favored Nations 2400-2
No one could accuse Mike Keneally of repeating himself. When he last graced these pages, he was Dancing with an eight-piece band in 2000. That chapter ended as quickly as it began, though, and after only one release in the last three years (2001’s acoustic Wooden Smoke), Keneally is returning to the market with the stripped-down rock of Dog, due in the fall, and this guitar-meets-orchestra epic.
What comprises Keneally's Universe? He has his avant-ish moments, but by starting things off with the lullabyish "Blue 68" and introducing heavy-metal guitar a minute into "All Of Them Were Quiet," Keneally makes clear that this will not be a skronkfest. Rock and classical take turns dominating the stage, right to the point at the end of "Bullies" where the orchestra hammers out a blues riff, only to yield to a massive, dreamy outro.
Yes, a lot of it sounds like Zappa. That applies both to the angularity of Keneally's melodies and the abrupt juxtapositions that play a large part in his humor, and he also borrows specific notions such as the brass-doubling-guitar-solo of "Archaic Peace Strategies." Another prominent entry in this CD's spot-the-influence game is that Mahavishnu-Orchestra-meets-the-London-Symphony outing Apocalypse, a positive characteristic in my book, though perhaps not everyone’s. Keneally, however, is neither as cynical as his onetime employer nor as guru-driven as John McLaughlin. He explains in the liner notes that this disc "was composed for the enjoyment of eight-year-olds of all ages," and childlike wonder does indeed come often through this music.
Sometimes, that's a bit frustrating, especially when episodes get shoved aside rather than resolved and influences remain unquestioned. However, not many CDs these days have one cut as eventful as "Worrywart Spoonguy," with a manic heavy-riff-plus-banjo-and-marimba section leading to an orchestrated version of a familiar Keneally theme, or one musical puzzle as intriguing as the opening of "Four Slices Of Toast," or one piece as luxuriant as the jazz-rock "Room." (Keneally has this tendency to set up a bumpy entry into his world with the first or second tracks of his discs, as he does here with #2 cut "All Of Them Were Quiet," and then let the listener sit back and enjoy the view with track number three.) The Metropole Orkest deserves kudos for being as comfortable with rock grooves as the classical bits, evading a problem that sometimes stymied Zappa.
During Keneally's two-year absence from the CD release schedule, it was easy to forget about the intelligent, influence-heavy but eminently pleasurable charms of his catalogue up through Wooden Smoke. So welcome back, and let’s hope this Universe provides enjoyment for the sizable audience it deserves.