critic’s pick 8

marc ribotThis solo acoustic guitar adventure is, at first, almost childlike in its sense of light, playful abandon. The music speeds, slows and then mutates, much like the sound an organ grinder might make were he suddenly distracted. Then scratchy interference enters, a sound like a cat clawing on a door – mostly likely to escape. Slowly the tune, the first of 14 guitar etudes (this one is subtitled Five Gestures) darts about, its notes in search of a purpose, if not a melody. The piece comes to rest in a sea of quiet that is curiously unsettled for music so enclosed by stillness.

And that is just the first five minutes of Exercises in Futility, a wonderful new guitar manifesto by New York guitar chameleon Marc Ribot. Over the past two decades, Ribot (pronounced REE-bo) has collaborated extensively with John Zorn and Tom Waits while cutting a clever dance groove with his Cuban-inspired ensemble Los Cubanos Postizos (The Prosthetic Cubans). More recently, he became the guitar voice for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ joint band. While, regretfully, Ribot won’t be part of the global tour the duo will open this spring in Louisville, he is all over the hit Raising Sand album and a bit of a show stealer on the recent Plant/Krauss CMT Crossroads performance. That’s Ribot sitting alone at stage right making glorious noise while fellow guitarists T Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller establish the swampy, electric atmospherics.

Ribot on his own, though, is quite a different beast. He is a champion of New York’s famed “downtown” improvisational music scene and has designed all kinds of vehicles for his more jagged and confrontational playing, like the new avant-groove band Ceramic Dog which should be issuing a debut album later this year.

Futility offers yet another side of Ribot’s vast guitar profile. Here, he improvises – sometimes with a wisp of a melody, but mostly with no rhythmic baggage at all – at surprisingly modest volume. In fact, Futility‘s all acoustic setting works against the traps that trip up even the most revered avant-garde guitarists, especially the ones whose musical depth is dictated solely by volume and distortion.

Among the album’s 14 etudes is a splash of grace and groove that unfolds into a restless, lyrical ramble (#3: Elvis), a series of playful skirmishes that nosedive into a darker, more spacious foreground (#5: Lame), a fractured Western riff that disintegrates into a scrapbook of scratchy, percussive clips and burps (#6: Cowboy), a fluid but wistful melodic run (#12: Mirror) and a minute-long street parade of brittle, percussive outbursts (#14: Event on 10th Avenue).

The album-closing The Joy of Repetition breaks ranks with the etudes and opts for a more defined compositional platform – but just barely. It starts with Ribot honing a near minimalist theme into a collage of more meditative delights as guitar chords are applied like brushstrokes. The rhythmic patterns soon reveal an inner, almost folkish beauty. The edges then blur and the feel becomes more impressionistic – a sense of disceptive calm that is never far from complete implosion.

That kind of musical brink is what Futility constantly pushes toward. It starts at a plateau of quiet so beguiling that you tend to forget you’ve been led to the edge of a cliff. In short, this is not an album to relax to in any conventional sense. Yet Ribot’s whispery abstractions embrace music that resounds profoundly in a state of gorgeous, contemplative unease.



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