So, I finally got my hands on Houseplant, the fifth disk from Jim Black’s Alas No Axis band. (If you like, you can read the self-indulgent history of how I first heard of the band in 2000.)
Black plays in a variety of out-jazz contexts. He can be a wonderfully delicate and subtle artist, but he also rocks out hard when permitted — a factor that makes for some standout tracks on Unwound , the 3-CD set from Tim Berne‘s Bloodcount. Alas No Axis nurtures that side of his playing, with compositions that let him bash away at a steady rhythm, but the band also takes long sojourns into drifting, languid territory, sometimes made powerful by a descending sax or clarinet line from Chris Speed, like a rainfall of dark feathers.
“Inkinos” opens the album in a bobbing, toe-tapping way. The drums and bass define a quick, straightforward rhythm behind slowly crystalline sax and guitar sounds. It’s a little different at first, but then the lead guitar/sax lines turn to long tones exploring different dissonances, as the band often does. Speed and Jensson eventually kick it into gear for a nicely rocking moment. “Malomice” is another piece that tickles the indie-rock center of my brain. It starts with a hard snapping rhythm and builds to a noisy ending.
The title track, “Houseplant,” is pretty and melancholy in a raucous way. “Naluch” burrows into a quietly heavy intensity, a slow beat with thick layers of guitar fuzz and the kind of plaintive melody line Speed is known for. It’s also got some long blaring sections that sound overdubbed, something I don’t recall hearing on past albums.
There are long, calm stretches too, as on the peaceful “Littel” and the quiet start to “Elight.” The track “Cahme” even has strumming acoustic guitar for a melodically folky touch.
The final track, “Dowstrum,” starts out calmly enough but wraps things up with a blaring howl.
At first listen, I’m not hearing Houseplant deviate from the formula in any major way, but that’s fine. The band has tapped a good, rich vein here, with a sound that comes not just from Black’s compositions but from the group’s collective arranging; Speed, Hilmar Jensson on guitar, and Skúli Sverrisson on bass play particularly creative roles that drive this band.
Now, if we can just find a way to get them to California for a few shows. If you’re reading from the NYC/Philadephia area, you can click the picture above for details about a June 23 show at Public Assembly (part of the Skirl party), and an unlisted June 24 show in Philly at the Art Alliance, which got a writeup in the Philadelphia City Paper.