Double Negative – The Muffins
Cuneiform Records 199
The Muffins: an American institution? Perhaps not, but it’s not for lack of deserving. While bands such as Kansas and Styx brought the pomp and surface fury of British prog to the U.S. in the 70s, the Muffins performed the same service for the thornier, deeper explorations of the likes of Soft Machine and Henry Cow. In the process, they produced one of the few American prog masterworks (1978’s Manna/Mirage) and accompanied Fred Frith as he journeyed towards jazzier, punkish terrain shortly afterwards on Gravity.
Of course, this not only failed to make them an institution but left them struggling to earn a living, which led to the end of their first run in 1981 following the Frith-produced 185. The story seemed over, but the new millennium has brought a second chapter. If 2002’s Bandwidth was the Late Greats’ returning, Double Negative reshapes the tale completely.
Perhaps I’m influenced by having reviewed NRBQ last month, but suddenly parallels emerge. Just as NRBQ apparently don’t view middle age as an obstacle to rolling on with their brainy take on garage rock, The Muffins now demonstrate that it’s not necessary to be young and hungry to pump out odd meters, frenzied sax solos and lofty themes. Granted, convening a few times a year for progfests is not the same as roving between juke joints like the Q, but in many other respects, the story is starting to look similar.
Double Negative’s 78 minutes of music include a few new Muffin ingredients. Although keyboardist Dave Newhouse still composed a majority of the tracks, a whopping six are from saxophonist Thomas Scott. ‘The Highlands,’ from Scott, opens the disc with a surprising blast of Celtic horns, and he also brings the band somewhere close to New Age on ‘Childhood’s End’ and ‘Dawning Star’ (although Paul Sears’s junkyard drums prevent things from getting too restful) and, more amusingly, to ‘dance music’ on ‘Stethorus Punctum.’ For all the deviations, though, Scott’s pieces still sit comfortably with Newhouse’s typically manic, meter/section-shifting excursions.
The Muffins also make their avant-jazz connections more explicit by inviting Sun Ra veterans Marshall Allen and Knoel Scott to blow on a few cuts, and give a bit more time to the string quartet that briefly seasoned Bandwidth. The strings indicate both Double Negative’s potential and its occasional disappointments — their intro to Newhouse’s ‘They Come on Unknown Nights’ is an arresting passage that ought to lead to more than what comes in the second half of this piece.
The bulk of Double Negative, though, shows The Muffins rolling along comfortably. Like Bandwidth, the disc includes both antic jazz/punk-inflected music in the vein of 185 (‘Choombachang’) and mellow, harmonically rich works similar to Manna/Mirage (‘Angel From Lebanon’). If Bandwidth carried some surprise due to the return after a long hiatus, Double Negative is the sound of a band who could keep doing this for many years. Long may they run.