Marc Ribot is the guitarist you go to if you want someone whose choices will never be formulaic or expected. In addition to working on his own in various trios, quartets and other configurations as well as solo, he has played with countless indie and mainstream musicians in numerous styles in a 40-year career. My main exposure to him has been through his work with Tom Waits and Jolie Holland, but I also love his live trio set from the Village Vanguard in 2014, which contained killer improvisations on standards “Old Man River” and “I’m Confession’ (That I Love You)” as well as original material.
His Ceramic Dog noise rock trio is a vehicle for some of the most experimental of this highly experimental artist’s works (and also one where he employs his voice in addition to his prodigious guitar skills). And Ribot seems to be a very restless soul, so in the early months of the pandemic lockdown in 2020, he worked out a way for Ceremic Dog to record safely. That was especially crucial in the case of Shazad Ismaily, the genius multi-instrumentalist who mostly plays bass guitar here, because of his serious health issues.
Probably as long as he’s been a musician, Ribot has been an activist for labor and especially musicians’ rights. The politics and other goings-on of the past few years, not to mention the pandemic, have left Ribot with a lot to say, and a hefty dose of it ended up on Hope. Is Hope an ironic title? That’ll be up to each listener to decide.
The centerpiece isn’t at the center, but at the very beginning. “B-Flat Ontology” is a nearly six-minute low-key rant against what Ribot sees as the effects of late capitalism and certain post modern philosophers (Žižek and Latour) on the modern art world’s pointless existentialism. Or existential pointlessness? Either way, it’s not nearly as dry as it sounds when I describe it, though it is kind of subtle. Here’s a live version.
Tongue perhaps in cheek, Ribot calls it ” …the most depressing song ever written. Much more depressing than Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. Way, way more depressing. When our ordinarily laconic drummer Ches Smith heard it, he looked at me and mournfully asked: ‘don’t you think anything is good?’ I responded by silently gazing at my shoe.”
There are a couple of other spoken word pieces. The hectic and hilarious political satire “The Activist,” sets the ravings of a radical over a bed of deep funk from Ismaily’s running bass line and Ribot’s eye-rolling wah-wah guitar. Ribot doesn’t have a particularly powerful or distinctive singing voice, but it seems made for this type of performance. “I wrote that after sitting at the millionth political meeting that didn’t get anything done,” said Ribot. “So, in this song, I was channeling people who really enjoyed mouthing a bunch of radical sounding shit, as opposed to actually doing what urgently needed to be done.”
“They Met In The Middle” features some oblique storytelling backed by a driving bit of twangy fusion, with intervals of Darius Jones’s sax skronk. Think Trout Mask Replica with better sax and a less annoying voice. “There are so many ways to go nowhere,” Ribot says. “Some stay in the same place. Others go in circles. This song is about two people who go different places and then return. Judging by the music, it would seem to be taking place in America, but it’s impossible to be certain.”
The closing track kind of qualifies as spoken word. They’ve taken ’60s psychedelic folk icon Donovan’s song “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” and slowed it way down, with Ribot speaking the poetic lyrics set to the trio’s improvisations on the song’s chord progressions. I find it pretty moving.
The disc is also liberally laced with some amazing instrumental (or mostly instrumental) pieces. “Wanna” is a minimalist rocker – stabbing guitar, rumbling funk bass, looped drum machine – that sounds for all the world like a reharmonization of Tommy James’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.” (Except, if you listen closely, the occasional highly distorted vocal refrain is, um, not typical of bubblegum music.) They follow up the frantic logorrhea of “The Activist” with the cool funk of “Bertha The Cool,” which is as close to straight ahead jazz as Ribot gets – Shazad’s bass is way out front and Ribot’s George Benson Smooth knob is turned to 11. Then before you get to “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” you get 23 minutes of instrumentals that move through a range of colors and moods, “The Long Goodbye” and “Maple Leaf Rage.” The whole disc is well sequenced, which is an art of its own.
“I think Marc has a painterly way of following his intuition about whether we need an instrumental moment or not after some lyrical, text-based music has happened,” Ismaily said. “I think it’s just following the subtle intuition of balancing the scales and what’s taking place in a listener’s emotional experience.”
“The Long Goodbye” opens with solo guitar plus some ambience, sketching out a semblance of a melodic line. Layers are slowly added: Droning bass, fingerplayed drumheads, and playfully pingponging electronics, all of which segues into deep guitar jazz rock fusion. Eventually there are three or four guitars and a saxophone screaming with apocalyptic intensity. With about 3 minutes left, it rapidly devolves into a quiet denoument of flutters. Fluttering sax, guitar, drums, synth, then a coda that restates the opening section. “Maple Leaf Rage” spends the first six of its 13 minutes in minimalist territory: single plucked notes on guitar and bass with flittering brushed snares and faint electronic drones. It rather suddenly launches into a guitar rock stomp that builds to a peak before winding down with an entropy of random chords and drum riffs.
Ceramic Dog is predictable only in its unpredictability, and in its capacity to surprise and sometimes shock the listener. This entire project moves through so many moods it’s difficult to quantify them. Their cumulative emotional impact though, just could turn out to be something akin to hope.
(Northern Spy, 2021)
Listen to two tracks, preorder the album, and read more about what went into it on Ribot’s Bandcamp site.