Graded on a Curve: Nineteen Thirteen,
Music for Time Travel

Victor DeLorenzo and Janet Schiff comprise Nineteen Thirteen; the moniker stems from the year Schiff’s instrument was produced, though the music they create is very much of the nonce. If DeLorenzo’s name rings a bell, it’s likely due to his status as a founding member of the Violent Femmes; still based in Milwaukee, he lends the rhythm as Schiff composes and pulls the bow. Music for Time Travel is their full-length debut, and it’s out now.

Victor DeLorenzo undeniably possesses the higher of Nineteen Thirteen’s two creative profiles, but he’s not the unit’s dominant personality; while much of the music thrives on equality, it’s Janet Schiff’s instrument, its tones bright and woody as they get layered and looped throughout their first album, that makes the deepest impression.

It’s in no way a putdown to the former Violent Femme that Schiff’s cello resonates so strongly in Nineteen Thirteen’s context, but make no mistake, DeLorenzo is certainly more than an accompanist here; his frequent and distinct brush-work provides the main link to his prior group, and his contribution is accomplished and engaging all-around as his role underscores a disinclination to usurp the spotlight from his counterpart.

Instead, he accentuates, deepens, enlivens, and indeed, gets more than a couple of moments at the forefront of Music for Time Travel’s overall scheme. And while the record is pretty far afield from the work of The Violent Femmes, there are a few chapters in the ‘80s college rock mainstay’s narrative that can be retroactively viewed as forecasting the maturity and stylistic range of Nineteen Thirteen.

For starters, consider the Femmes’ second and most divisive LP Hallowed Ground (easily this writer’s favorite from their catalog) and then ponder upon Corpses of Foreign Wars, a nifty slab by category-defying guitarist Eugene Chadbourne cut back in ’86 with support from DeLorenzo and Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie (who also put out a batch of fringe solo material, most of it for SST, starting in the late ‘80s).

But to reiterate, Music for Time Travel sounds nothing like the Violent Femmes, so if one is looking for another “Blister in the Sun” or “Add It Up,” well, one is going to be heavily disappointed. However, if what one is desiring is a commingling of cello, percussion, and technology that manages to stoke the intellect while eschewing the academic severity often associated with bowed strings, this album is a solid winner.

Achy cello thickness briefly but authoritatively resounds at the front of the opening title track, bordering on an Eastern European folk feel, and after a smash cut it’s followed by an even shorter passage of rhythmic sprightliness. It leads into a moodier environment as “Time Step” combines a deep, foghorn-like motif from Schiff with drone-friendly keyboard tenseness, DeLorenzo belatedly entering via increasingly assertive abstraction.

Part of the duo’s strategy is a lack of excess, as the majority of Music for Time Travel’s selections clock in at two minutes or less. So it is with “The Reason Why” as 1:44 proves an adequate span for the exploration of Nineteen Thirteen’s larger concerns, specifically the interweaving of old ideas and well-aged instrumentation with contemporary elements such as the aforementioned loops and keyboards.

As said, Schiff’s axe dates from 1913; furthermore, the cello and its stringed relatives arguably attained their creative zenith in the centuries leading up to the 20th. Heard today, these instruments can swiftly trigger the atmospheres of eras gone by, and it’s to the pair’s credit how well their blend of past and present functions, reaching its apex in the set’s final number. This is much more than the chamber rock Nineteen Thirteen has been labeled as, though “The Reason Why” fits the descriptor well.

“Absolute Time” most definitely does not, as its percussion pattern takes on an almost gamelan feel, the keyboard surging at steady intervals and the sinewy cello emerging last; the exotic mysteriousness is at a near diametrical opposite to the rhythmically infectious (nay, danceable) “Bye-Bye,” an unabashedly pop-inclined ditty infused with the smoothness of DeLorenzo’s vocals and given additional verbal interjections from Schiff.

At first jarring to a decidedly serious scenario, the song’s lightness and humor as aided by Schiff makes for a real grower. It ultimately connects like an innocuous slice of ‘80s art-pop, and it effectively resets the stage; “Spatial Loneliness” acquires a darker subterranean aura as the cello’s strings get plucked with aplomb, while “Minutes, Hours, Days” (time is a considerable theme here) spreads out a bit and reengages the chamber-rock sensibility to fruitful result.

More than on most records, these pieces are components in a forward-moving whole, but the prettiness of “Joyous Return” stands out, additionally because it gives DeLorenzo a chance to shine at the traps. “Shock Therapy” opens with a gush of keyboard tech before strings and rhythm enter the picture; halfway through and the cycle is repeated except this time DeLorenzo lays out. If Music for Time Travel leans to the concise, “March of 1913” can be fairly assessed as a fragment, though repetition and intensity insure a successful proposition.

“Vision” begins the homestretch with Schiff’s strongest excursion into a Modernist chamber realm, and “A Beautiful Sound” finds her oozing drone-laden bottom-end nicely fortified with abstract brushes. It sets up the closing “Summertime” featuring vocals from regular Nineteen Thirteen collaborator Monia and noted upright bassist Rob Wasserman.

The vital contributor is Marguerite Schiff, Janet’s late grandmother as captured playing the Gershwin standard on organ in 1961. Did I say standard? As DeLorenzo has commented, the tune has been plagued by unexceptional readings, but he dug Janet’s grandma’s version, and the combination of Monia’s soaring and then sultry voice, Wasserman’s huge doghouse notes, and DeLorenzo’s more than satisfactory jazz movements put this treatment on a sturdy course.

The trite way to join these two threads would be to start with Marguerite and then gradually grow in contemporaneousness, but her organ doesn’t arrive until the midway point (after Janet, in fact), and when it does Nineteen Thirteen has delivered an atypical doozy. “Summertime” brings Music for Time Travel a fine finish; it’s a record both Sun Ra and Marcel Proust would be likely enjoy.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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