Oddly alluring outing for former Muttonbirds guitarist

Summary

David Long – Ash And Bone (Rattle)

You can hear his music in Peter Jackson’s movies and he once played guitar for The Muttonbirds. GARY STEEL reviews David Long’s new album.

Don McGlashan’s new solo album hit the number one spot on the NZ charts this week. Meanwhile, the latest release by fellow former Muttonbird David Long is probably destined to remain a secret to all but the select few who are aware of it and its multifarious charms.

 

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Ash And Bone (what a name!) is an unusual record, even by the Rattle label’s exploratory tendencies. When he’s involved in the production, Rattle owner Steve Garden tends to soak his projects in sparkling audio clarity. Garden’s production aesthetic is absent from Long’s album, which was recorded at the Adam Concert Room at Wellington’s Victoria University. It would be stretching things to call the recording raw or rough but there’s certainly graininess in places and a tendency to experiment with microphone placement. This contributes to the overall sonic character of the project. It’s unclear as to whether the album was essentially recorded live, or layered with overdubs. My gut feeling is the former.

It feels like Long’s entire musical history – perhaps with the possible exception of his three years in The Muttonbirds – is somehow woven into Ash And Bone, for which he’s assembled an eight-piece ensemble consisting of a highly unusual range of instruments like harp, tuba, trumpet, bass clarinet, clarinet, flute, banjo, electric guitar and “electronics” (and performers from NZSO).

Quite apart from the compositions themselves, the way these instruments cohabit the space and play with and against each other makes for a fascinating range of sonic signatures. The grain, the tonal differentiation… Long seems to have decided right at the beginning that these eight pieces required some musical contra-indications.

Right from the get-go on the nearly eight minutes of ‘Underground’, Long seems to be challenging his listeners. This is easily the most abrasive piece with the rampant dissonance of what sounds like (but apparently isn’t) raw catgut strings keeping it edgy as hell. Bowed banjo, perhaps? Whatever, it re-emerges as a drone underneath a section in which flutes and clarinets provide a unison melodic foil. A study in concurrent contrasts, eventually the harp gets to play a minor role while tuba and trumpet join the fray for some happy melodic action.

This is a strange rag-tag orchestra that would have held some interest even if the compositions themselves had been less adventurous than the composition of the instrumental makeup. But that’s not the case. Long’s experience working on film and television soundtracks (Lord Of The Rings and The Luminaries included) might mean that parts of Ash And Bone could potentially be repurposed to a very unusual visual project, but it feels uncompromised and almost like a fuck-you to the generic expectations of some film and television producers/directors.

David Long in The Muttonbirds

There’s a lot to love about Long’s approach. He clearly likes raw and sometimes crude-sounding tones and textures and even sounds that might annoy some listeners, but playfully, can’t resist adding enjoyable and skilfully deployed melodies. Perhaps this transgressive approach is something he brought from his days with the Braille collective, where jazz, improvisation and an appreciation for even the grittiest sounds available from acoustic instruments were all part of the eclectic mix.

Each composition differs from the last while employing the same lineup and therefore, tone colours. The title track boasts an austere chamber feel and the harp dances in harmony with the flutes and horns. But that’s not all: listen attentively and you’ll notice that the performance falters and stutters occasionally, a technique that’s built into the composition.

Several of the tracks have a mournful character without being at all dark. These include ‘I Follow It’ and ‘You Want To Fight Everything’. Mournfulness may not have even been intended; it’s just the emotional impact of harp against the drawn-out unison lines of flutes and clarinets. The latter piece is also unique for what sounds like the repeated lines of a slightly degraded recording of a banjo being echoed by the same instrument in real time.

Each track has its own quirk, and perhaps the most eccentric is ‘The Long Long Walk’, which pits flute and harp against what sounds like a rogue Theremin performing from a down a hallway leading into the studio. It’s a bizarre sonic contrast.

But perhaps the most unusual tracks come near the end: ‘A Second Chance’ with its parping tuba and trumpet, banjo and glitching electronics, and the electronic mutations of ‘Wash Your Mouth Out’, an unwieldy jig that ends in pure static.

I haven’t heard the new Don McGlashan album yet but I’m sure it’s a beautifully crafted selection of songs that all have something to say about life as we know it. But with the world as we know it in a state of great flux and danger, I’d rather immerse myself in the ambiguity of adventurous instrumental music. I guess that means I quite liked Ash And Bone.

 

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