By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
By Laurie Charles
By Falyn Freyman
By Hans Morgenstern
In classical music minimalism is a term that, through overuse, has come to mean nothing very specific, and the fact that Paul Dresher is described as a "postminimalist" composer reflects the mutation of minimalism as a catch phrase but not much else. Given the scope of his activities, which take him from guitar-and-multitrack-tape-loop experiments to the artistic directorship of his own ensemble and involvement in contemporary theater, dance, and opera, it makes more sense to refer to him as a "post-Renaissance Man."
Never mind how to describe him, because good music transcends labels, and Dresher's music can be very good indeed. Casa Vecchia contains four works. Of them, "Underground" and "Other Fire" are virtuosic manipulations of tape loops. The former, trancelike and compellingly new-agey without that genre's typically soft center, is the aural equivalent of a camera's slow pan. The latter electronically morphs pure and modified ambient sounds into a subtly disquieting melange. Robert Black's evocative electric bass and other electronic effects are transformed into a lyrical and spidery ballet in "Mirrors." Finally, the title work, originally commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, is performed here by the double string quartet Ensemble 9. It's the odd piece out, not just because it's completely acoustic, but also because it covers well-explored territory. Three out of four ain't bad, though, and Starkland, a plucky little label from Colorado, deserves praise for supporting work by Dresher and other underexposed electro-acoustic composers.
There's a rare beauty to this disc, a kind of mournful simplicity that drives straight to the heart. The Inbreds are just two fellas from Kingston, Ontario: Mike O'Neill plays bass and sings lead, while Dave Ullrich lays down the drum and harmony tracks. There ain't no guitars. But when you write the kind of songs these guys do -- instantly recognizable, even though you've never heard them before -- guitars are basically a distraction.
Mind you, O'Neill is not beyond using a capo and a fuzz pedal to expand the range of his instrument, but the fourteen gems collected here are stubbornly unadorned: one chord progression, one beat. No fancy bridges or tricky outros. Murky openings that give way to soaring choruses. Add O'Neill's quavering tenor and Ullrich's rich baritone backups and you'll wonder why anyone bothers with Stratocasters or Les Pauls. Then there's the matter of O'Neill's lyrics, which are as powerful and spare as the tunes they top. The hypnotic "She's Acting" maps out the demise of a relationship in exactly 28 words: "She acts just like she's listening/But she don't hear a word/Sometimes it occurs to me to lie/But then I change my mind/Till it's over." The album's first single, "Any Sense of Time," calls to mind the earliest (which is to say, the finest) work of R.E.M., minus Michael Stipe's pretentious mumbling. And the truly infectious numbers, such as "You Will Know" and the drum-driven "Round 12," are on a par with vintage Lennon-McCartney pop.
Despite the dearth of instruments, the Inbreds prove surprisingly capable at power pop. The raucous "Cruise Control," for example, squalls and grinds at a breakneck pace. "Scratch" features O'Neill's bass churning out a glorious fuzz to match Ullrich's spastic syncopation. And, when it's called for, the tandem is not beyond a bit of elaboration: A sweetly reverberating cello occasionally surfaces, and the minor-keyed "Don't Try So Hard" is enriched by a tinkling piano. For the most part, though, Kombinator is just one richly textured rhythm section.