This is the fourth release for On Fillmore - rhythm section duo Glenn Kotche and Darin Gray - a partnership that has gained a great deal of respect in the 10 years since they came up with the idea (at a Meltdown festival in London). Kotche's pedigree is without question, having released compositions for Nonesuch and been part of Chicago's vibrant art-music scene, it also doesn't hurt that he's a member of Wilco. Darin Gray has a great feel for the upright bass - a really beautiful player whose sound compliments Kotche's tuned percussion so perfectly.
As the album started it put me in mind of ECM records where the emphasis is on the spaces between the music, but it soon becomes apparent that those spaces are not going to be left un-filled, as each composition is overlayed with a fairly bewildering array of field recordings, and bird noises (made by Dede Sampaio). I appreciate the intent of this as an element of ambience in the composition, but the overall effect is not a good one because the ambient elements have been pushed very high in the mix - so much that they become intrusive and distracting. Conceptually this sounds like it ought to be very very soothing music - Vibraphone, Upright Bass and tropical bird sounds. In reality it sounds like they recorded this delicate textured music in an aviary at feeding time, or in a studio next to a building site where (oops!) someone forgot to close the window.
This is a real shame because the music is beautiful - if Tom Waits ever abandons his lo-fi junkyard approach and returns to clean recordings, he should get himself on a train to Chicago and have a word with these boys - but that beautiful music is obscured. Surely a much better effect could be had by having a clean version of the tracks released with the listener having the option of opening his or her windows. If you live in the country you'll get bird noises and some fantastic natural reverb. If you live in town, you'll have a symphony of swooshing cars, chatter and rumble, plus you could control the balance between the instruments and the ambience. But it would seem that it's more deliberate than that - On Fillmore want you to hear it this way, with those elements so loud and proud in the mix - in which case I have to declare this one a spoiled idea. There are moments when it sounds exactly as it should - moments where you could lie in the bath listening to this without thinking "I wish someone would shoot those fucking parrots".