Graded on a Curve:
Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, YRU Still Here?

It’s should (hopefully) be no secret that the politics and social climate of the USA has undergone a troubling turn. Thankfully, large segments of the population have been in no mood to keep their mouths shut about it, and by extension, no shortage of artistically gifted folks have created work speaking to the tenor of the times. Add to the list guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Shahzad Ismaily, and drummer Ches Smith, together known as Ceramic Dog. Genre eclecticism has always been a major ingredient in the band’s recipe, but the sense of irritation expressed on their third album YRU Still Here? reinforces their effectiveness as a power trio. The record’s out on LP, CD, and digital April 27 through Northern Spy.

After the 2016 Presidential election, there was an idea floated that “punk rock was going to be so good now” (and no need to pinpoint who said it, as it was said by more than one person). This prediction was frankly rather annoying, as it presented a “look on the bright side” scenario to individuals that, no matter how sympathetic to progressive politics they happened to be, were ultimately buffered from the harsh realities of the way shit was going to unravel.

Don’t look on the fucking sunny side; instead, get angry. It means a hell of a lot more than merely consuming someone else’s rage. And yet a problem with expressing anger in our heightened environment of social connectivity is an oft-fatiguing echo chamber of ranting, yelling, and disgust. That’s when the individual perspective and spark of societal engagement, in combination with sharpened creativity, can usefully serve as a tonic in the continuation of the good fight.

It helps when the artist’s political awareness is more than a couple of years old. That’s the case with Marc Ribot, though many would primarily describe him as a versatile extender of the avant-garde. Make that extremely versatile, as he’s as comfortable expressing his punkish side (in a manner comparable to his frequent associate John Zorn) as he is exploring jazz’s multiple angles (both inside and outside) and building upon an extensive résumé as a collaborator and session player.

This means that Ribot’s range gets communicated through the wealth of his overall activity. But with Ceramic Dog (and other projects), the sheer breadth is itself a vital component, with a non-standard approach to punk, jazz, pop elements, and consistently sharp musicianship all intermingling. Regarding this last aspect, Shahzad Ismaily (Secret Chiefs 3, Barbez, Will Oldham, Ben Frost) and Ches Smith (Xiu Xiu, Secret Chiefs 3, Mary Halvorson, Elliott Sharp, Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant) are integral, and as this is a trio (with guests, mostly horns on this album), every point of the triangle gets foregrounded.

YRU Still Here?’s opener “Personal Nancy” delivers an immediate gush of vitriol at the current state of political affairs, with Ribot unfurling a list of things he has a right to do, including scream, bitch, moan, shout, be unhappy, and most of all, say “fuck you.” The guitar swirls, darts, and flails, with Farfisa hovering menacingly in accord, and as the rhythmic thunder kicks in, the punk thrust hits its apex.

The cathartic release is appreciated, but “Pennsylvania 6 6666” swings into jazzy-pop territory to relate a tale of community intolerance in Ribot’s youth, saliently observing that our contemporary situation has deep roots and is a case of a pot boiling over. The point is made loud and clear, but in a stimulating tactic, some of the album’s vocals get mixed in a manner that makes the words difficult to discern, not necessarily to simply place the bluesy-punky stomp (with mid-section Moog passage) of “Agnes” at the forefront, but perhaps instead to mirror the difficulty of being effectively heard in the present-day din.

One of the recurring problems with protest music (especially of the folk and punk varieties) is the all-consuming primacy of message, but fitting for seasoned avant vets, Ceramic Dog are consistently attentive musically, with the stuttering art-funk of “Oral Sidney with a U,” the slow build rock heaviness of “Shut That Kid Up,” and the sitar-infused “Orthodoxy” all effective instrumentals.

Just as rewarding is the existential (rather than strident or didactic) sensibility of the title track, which prior to the guitar taking flight exudes an almost coffeehouse feel (methinks it’s the congas). Not that classic modes of protest aren’t fruitfully expressed, as “Muslim Jewish Resistance” employs “Never Again” in the reliable folk mode of the chant as the enemies get called out by name and the music tackles a rich merger of rock and free jazz. “Fuck La Migra” (aka the border patrol, or ICE, specifically) pinpoints a target and then kicks out a wild rock-rap-jazz attack that astoundingly works on all levels.

“Freak Freak Freak on the Peripherique” injects some late funky fun into the proceedings, and closer “Rawhide” features vocodered voice amid a surfed-up spy-flick atmosphere. Outraged but never irrational, and far from a one-note expression of justified pissed-off feelings, YRU Still Here? offers a fine extension to Ceramic Dog’s two previous discs. Railing against the tumultuous injustice of the moment, after the dust settles it will linger as representation of those who channeled their anger in a refusal to stand idly by.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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