Ceramic Dog’s Your Turn – unkempt and unrestrained

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I did not pick out this week’s record specifically because it’s so radically different from last week’s, it just happened this way and I’m glad it did.

It’s interesting to compare the two guitar-driven works. They are on opposite ends of the musical spectrum just like the two respective guitar-players, both brilliant for different reasons, have powerfully contrasting styles and an antithetical approach to songwriting.  One  is a technique-driven virtuoso with an almost scientific approach to songwriting and melody and the other is an avant-garde, experienced session-master with a vast and diverse repertoire, who takes melody, throws it in a meat-grinder, then sets it on fire, puts it in a hammerlock and hits it with a bull-wrench.

I’ve written about Marc Ribot before and I think he’s one of the most entertaining musicians of the modern era. He’s also very much an acquired taste no matter which one of his many projects you check out.  With works that range in scope, sound and delivery (not to mention decibels), Marc Ribot, one of the most versatile guitarists and songwriters in the world, seems to be having the most fun on his Ceramic Dog records. At least that’s how the music comes off to the listener.

The sound is unkempt and unrestrained, a liberating experience for both band and audience as the three musicians spend little time worrying about the norms and conventions of modern music.

The aforementioned band consists of Shahzad Ismaily on bass and Ches Smith on drums, both powerful players and impeccable technicians and, of course, Marc Ribot on guitar and sometimes vocals. The variety of sounds is amazing for a band that consists of only three musicians.

The trio’s 2008 debut record Party Intellectuals was a ton of fun and it’s a work that still manages to sound fresh. Now, five years later, Your Turn  proves a worthy successor; a more consistent but also more conventional record that documents the three musicians’ growth as a band.

In my review of Party Intellectuals I said the record had “multiple-personality disorder”, meaning that the styles and sound of the songs contrasted powerfully which gave it its diversified sound but also its not-always-consistent quality. It was definitely a roller-coaster-ride but it felt like it lacked a common thread.

Your Turn, on the other hand, manages to take a page out of Tom Wait’s book and offer variety while maintaining a distinct character throughout. It’s less experimental-noise and more hard rock which I think brings it closer to what Marc Ribot had in mind for Ceramic Dog in the first place. This consistency in its structure also makes it a tad more accessible as some of Marc’s avant-garde work (and I’m thinking primarily of his Rootless Cosmopolitans and Shrek phase) at times proved too hard to digest even for the most stubborn connoisseur.

The album starts off with “Lies My Body Told Me” a somewhat low-key track (at least for this record) that offers great interplay between Marc’s guitar and his vocals. Speaking of that, the record is fairly evenly divided between instrumental tracks and vocal songs.  Marc is aware of his pretty much pedestrian voice and he makes brilliant use of it by intentionally employing it as burlesque instrument of sarcasm through which the message is delivered all the more raw and convincing. Some of the vocal tunes carry a powerful punch, like the clever and cranky “Masters of the Internet” which follows the technically impeccable but otherwise unremarkable title track. “Masters” is a brilliant, straight-forward song that lashes out against music pirating but can be applied to any art-form in the Internet age. Against a (sort of) Arabian theme Marc yells:

We have a new business model, We’ll blow you for a nickel

And if you like our CD we’ll blow you for free and if you don’t you can bite our heads off

As a freelance writer I personally feel a special connection to this particular track. I can’t help but get chills down my spine when I hear “our labor has no value/content is our name”. I believe this single line is the most pertinent commentary I’ve ever come across on what I call the “contentization” of art (but you can just go ahead and call it the “content craze”, it has a much better ring to it)

This being The Music and Myth, I also have a little story:

I’ve recently conducted an in-depth interview  with Al Di Meola and what resulted is probably the most extensive article I’ve written for this website. It features my recount of the struggle of getting the 30 minute sit-down, a review of the concert as well as the interview in its entirety. A reader told me she thought the article was absolutely great, that  “you can see it is well documented, and written with great passion” but that it is “too long to read when you don’t have much time but are dying of curiosity”.

Her well-meaning feedback which completely missed the contradiction, painted a great picture of a society that craves quality and information but cannot stomach anything beyond readily-available light-on-content distractions and free entertainment. “Masters of the Internet” sums this up brilliantly. I also have to commend the excellent percussion on this song.

The record continues with the instrumental track “Ritual Slaughter”, another vehicle for the band to show off their amazing skill and intuitive timing, after which “Avanti Popolo”, an interlude that would have seemed out of place on any other record (but not on this one) leads us to  “Ain’t Gonna Let Them Turn Us Round” (or what Marc calls the Affordable Health Care Act song). I’m not an American so I don’t feel I have the right to comment on the context but I can make the statement that I feel this song delivers its message very efficiently.

Speaking of delivering messages efficiently, the prime example is the record’s flagship track “Bread and Roses”. Inspired by the eponymous poem by James Oppenheim, the song adapts the lyrics to fit its dynamic and explosive structure:

As we go marching, marching / through the beauty of the day

A thousand kitchens darkened/ A thousand mill lofts gray

Are touched with all the radiance/ a sudden sun discloses

Yeah, it is bread we fight for/ Bread and Roses

Powerful lyrics and passionate vocals, coupled with the angry energy of the instrument and the flawless timing of the musicians make this one of the most well-crafted songs I’ve heard in a long time. Also Marc’s “industrial” guitar solo is truly something magnificent, my favorite since his emotional guitar work on “La Vida es un Sueno” from his first Cubanos Postizos record.

For “Prayer” Marc goes back to his roots as a Rootless Cosmopolitan (I can never pass up the opportunity to make a bad pun) as the band gets to go crazy with what I’ve already affectionately called “seizure music”, once again displaying masterful cohesion in an instrumental tour-de-force. They follow it up with the laid-back, bluesy and surprisingly catchy “Mr. Pants goes to Hollywood” and the mock-nostalgic “The Kid is Back” before taking a crack at Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5”. I’ve always been a fan of Marc’s cover songs, he adds his entertaining and eccentric spin on them ( see “The Wind cries Mary” or “Dame Un Cachito Pa Huele”); again, he does not disappoint.

The record closes off with the funny, if somewhat juvenile,  “We are the Professionals” in which the band parody the sound of the Beastie Boys followed by “Special Snowflake”, a quick instrumental mish-mash to close the curtains on another great album.

I generally have nothing but praise for what Marc Ribot brings to the music industry, whatever form his projects may take. I find his entire body of work fascinating but I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Ceramic Dog.

In the company of the musically like-minded Shahzad Ismaily and Ches Smith, Ribot seems to be at his most comfortable. The band  takes the elements that make Ribot’s various projects great and combines them to produce the distinctive sound of Ceramic Dog.  Their sophomore release is a commentary on the multi-faceted music industry but also it is simply one wild ride.

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Mark Knopfler “Privateering” – Live in Budapest, 22/06/2013

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Let me get state this right off the bat: I’ve made no secret in the past that this is a highly subjective blog. I am in no way an authority on music; I’m just passionate about this art form when it’s done right.

“The Music and Myth” is not merely a review blog; it’s more of a place where I try to promote the music I love and where I write about my experience with a certain piece of music, musician or performance.  You’re not going to get hateful reviews of how much a certain Avril Lavigne record sucked because I just don’t take the time to write about poor quality music

The records and artists I do write about are some that I already love and have a great opinion of much to the dismay of people who would like to read cynical and mock-intellectual reviews that try to put down certain artists and records. That’s just not me. When it comes to music, if I can’t say something good about it then I’d rather not write about it at all (though I’m sure a blog full of hate and poison would get ten times more views).

Anyway, the reason I’m starting my article with this little disclaimer is the fact that this weekend I got to see Mark Knopfler live in Budapest at the Laszlo Papp arena as part of his Privateering tour. If you know me at all you will know that I’ve been a huge fan of Mark’s for fifteen years and that getting to see him in concert was always on my “bucket list” so I’m not the right guy to make a subjective comment about the quality and structure of the concert. Hell, he could have spent two hours playing Bulgarian folk songs and I would still have gone home happy such is my love and admiration for this man. Still, I’ll try to keep this review as objective and professional as I possibly can.

When it comes to Mark I’m a fan of everything he did, from his Dire Straits era (both the “Sultans of Swing” and the “Brothers in Arms” incarnation of DS) to his solo work. I’m definitely not one of the people who expect to see a new Dire Straits record out any time soon only to be left disappointed and in the past I’ve likened those people to the unfortunate souls who think disco is coming back or that Elvis is still alive. In fact, I’m very fond of Mark’s solo work and, on my review of Privateering, I wrote that the record “again goes to prove that while Mark’s biggest hits came in his Dire Straits-past his best music and most interesting stories belong to the present.” It is with this mindset that I’ve attended the concert and it’s because of this mindset that I’ve enjoyed it so much. In fact, for a tour designed to promote the record the concert had a little bit of everything.

I was a bit surprised by the fact that there was no opening act and when, all of a sudden, Mark and the gang appeared on stage I was completely caught off guard. The aforementioned “gang” consisted of Richard Bennett (guitar), Guy Fletcher (keyboards), Jim Cox (piano, organ, accordion), Michael McGoldrick (whistles, uilleann pipes), John McCusker (violin, cittern), Glenn Worf (bass), and Ian Thomas (drums) – who made an excellent impresson on me.

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They went right to work starting the set with “What It Is”, Mark’s undisputable anthem of the post-Dire-Straits-era and a perfect song to get the crowd in the mood. They continued with “Corned Beef City”, one of only three songs they played from the new record (the others were “Privateering” and “I Used to Could”). I was surprised that they only played three of the generous twenty tracks from Privateering but I have to say I was also happy about that in a way. Since it’s my first time seeing Mark live I was glad that the selection of songs he played was more varied. Now, regarding “Corned Beef City” and “I Used to Could” I went on record saying that I’m not necessarily a big fan of his blues-influenced tracks (which abound on the new album) but I have to admit that they make for some great live performances. As far as “Privateering” is concerned, I think it’s one of the best songs of his solo career and it sounds just as good live as it does on CD.

I was happy that we got to hear “Song for Sonny Liston” which I love and especially “I Dug up a Diamond”, a song that has a very special meaning to my wife and me for reasons that have everything to do with our wedding and the wedding DVD. Since he doesn’t always play these two songs on the Privateering tour I think we were most fortunate to get to enjoy them live (and in case you were wondering, they were awesome!)

The combination of “Father and Son” and “Hill Farmer’s Blues” was very emotional and a feel-good moment for band interaction as was “Postcards from Paraguay” while “Speedway at Nazareth” was absolutely intense. I’ve always stated that Mark’s greatest value as a guitarist is in the fact that he never gave into the temptation of putting the instrument before the song, a common fault of many of the world’s greatest guitarists. One of the most celebrated and innovative guitar-players in the world Mark has always been wise enough to never feature his instrument beyond what a certain song calls for, making him a storyteller first and a guitarist second, a most fortunate quality in a songwriter. “Speedway” is a song in which you get to witness Mark in full guitar-god mode while never taking away from the story of the song which is a rare and precious occurrence in music.

The Dire Straits nostalgia moments were provided by “Romeo and Juliet” and “Telegraph Road”, the latter being the set’s closing track, an excellent choice. If I’ve managed to maintain a degree of objectivity and professionalism so far it all flies out the window now that I write about “Telegraph Road”. The song is not only one of my favorite MK/DS tunes but one of my absolute favorite songs of all time and I’ve been in love with this track for fifteen years with a love that never once waned. To experience it live was as though I got to relive the last fifteen years of my life in ten minutes, with all its incredible ups and abysmal downs, an emotional roller-coaster ride that I cannot compare with any other musical experience I’ve lived so far and one that I think represents the pinnacle of what music can achieve.

After leaving the stage and leaving behind a roaring crowd the band quickly returned for an encore consisting of “Our Shangri-La” and “So Far Away”. I’ve heard someone complain that it wasn’t “Sultans of Swing” or “Brothers in Arms” but, as a person who tries to understand the structure and mindset behind performing music, I can understand the decision. While I would have also liked to have heard those classics I am not at all disappointed with the encore that featured two powerful and very sentimental tracks.

In its entirety, the concert was a display of perfect professionalism from one of the music industry’s few veritable gentlemen. Musically, it was irreproachable and my only disappointment was the structure of the stage, namely the lack of a screen. We had great seats but, even so, it would have been nice to have a screen showing close-ups of the band performing. I’m not sure who is responsible for this aspect of the performance, whether it was the guys at the Laszlo Papp Arena or Mark’s own staff but that’s one thing that I would have liked to have seen. Still, only a minor gripe in what was otherwise an incredibly positive experience.

There is something to be said about experiencing excellent musicians live and when it is someone whose work you’ve been listening to and who you’ve been looking up to for a decade and a half the experience is incomparable. As a citizen of a country that has only recently gained a more dynamic mindset when it comes to seeing their favorite performers live I’m a bit sad that I haven’t attended more such concerts in my life and I’ve made it a point to see Mark perform any chance I get. It is most certainly worth it!


Hey everyone, if you like my articles on The Music and Myth, perhaps you will also enjoy my novel Mindguard. You can find it exclusively on Amazon.

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