By Rebecca Bulnes
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Marc Ribot is best known for contributing a singular guitar racket to several Eighties-era Tom Waits albums put out by a major label, Island Records. In the years since, though, the record industry has grown so conservative that it's now something of a surprise when a Goliath firm signs anyone other than a sixteen-year-old former Mouseketeer. As a result many artists with creativity on their minds have been dropped by majors or have fled to independent imprints: Waits, for instance, allowed the punky upstarts at Epitaph Records to issue his most recent disc, Mule Variations. So why on God's green Earth did the suits at Atlantic Records decide to ink the fortysomething Ribot?
"I have no idea," Ribot admits, chuckling. "I'm just as bewildered as anyone else." And well he should be. Yet Atlantic's interest in Ribot isn't entirely incongruous. Nine of the ten songs on Ribot's new CD, Marc Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos (Marc Ribot and the Prosthetic Cubans), were written by Arsenio Rodriguez, who, during the Forties and Fifties, was one of the chief popularizers of the Cuban musical form known as son. As such, label decision-makers likely saw the project as an opportunity to capitalize on the renewed stateside interest in classic Cuban sounds of the sort played by the Buena Vista Social Club and the subsequent boom in Latin pop, a sensation so scorching that ABC recently devoted an hour of prime time to Latin Beat, a news-magazine special.
If so, Ribot upset expectations. Postizos doesn't so much reproduce Rodriguez's music as it reimagines it from a decidedly avant-garde perspective. Instead of opening the album on a let's-party note, the lead track, "Aurora en Pekín," moves at a noirish pace, with Ribot's echoey, atmospheric picking ringing out like a forgotten theme from Twin Peaks. Elsewhere, "Aquí Como Allá" finds the guitarist delivering the tune's catchy hook with curious deliberation over percussion that clunks more than it swings; "Postizo" (the sole Ribot composition on hand) features a very un-Cuban swell of feedback, and heavy riffing and spectral atonalities courtesy of guest keyboardist John Medeski; "Los Teenagers Bailan Changüí" offers a fascinatingly warped variation on danceability; and "Choserito Plena," which spotlights brother Gregory Ribot's baritone sax honking, comes across as wonderfully exuberant and undeniably twisted. Just like Ribot himself.
Even more unexpected are "No Me Llores Más" and "La Vida Es un Sueño," on which Ribot sings like what he is: a guy from New Jersey. His decision not to feign a cultural background he doesn't have was a conscious one. "I wanted to make it really clear that I'm not pretending to be Cuban. So what better way than for me to sing in Spanish?" he remarks. He's familiar with the language after twelve years of living in a New York City apartment building occupied "mainly by Puerto Ricans," he says. But his deficiencies with pronunciation became obvious during a recent tour of Spain. According to Ribot, however, "there were no bottles thrown. At least none that connected."
Risking bodily harm for artistic reasons is nothing new for Ribot, who has never been shy about wandering off the beaten path. As a teenager in Newark, he rocked out with hardcore garage bands while taking lessons from Frantz Casseus, a classical guitarist raised in Haiti. By the time he'd reached his twenties, he was splitting his time between jazz sessions with the likes of organist Jack McDuff and live support for aging soulsters such as Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke. Then in 1984 he joined the Lounge Lizards, an eccentric neo-jazz outfit fronted by John Lurie, familiar to cult-film lovers as the star of the Jim Jarmusch flicks Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law. Ribot's tenure with the band gave a wide variety of musicians an opportunity to hear his original axe work, which mates accessibility with adventure, and serious chops with deadpan humor. Most of them liked what they heard. In addition to Waits, Ribot has appeared alongside Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithful, Phish's Trey Anastasio, Arto Lindsay, the Jazz Passengers, Allen Ginsberg, Tricky, and even Patti "Mrs. Bruce Springsteen" Scialfa. Far from feeling as though he was lowering himself by becoming a sideman for hire, Ribot says he learned to love having the pressure firmly resting on shoulders other than his own: "It's much more relaxing just to be in somebody else's band. Besides, sometimes things are so crazy in my life that going onstage is a refuge. It's the only place I feel safe."
Of course musical safety is something Ribot tries to avoid. His résumé also includes membership in Bar Kochba, a typically outré creation from idiosyncratic jazzer John Zorn, who in 1997 put out a faux-soundtrack by Ribot called Shoe String Symphonies on his Tzadik label as part of a series of discs collected under the Filmworks umbrella. Moreover Ribot's own groups have always emphasized weirdness over commercial potential. Witness Shrek (Yiddish for horror), which is represented by Yo! I Killed Your God, a 1992 recording just released by Tzadik. About the album, Ribot says, "It's kind of Albert Ayler-influenced punk rock," a blend unlikely to start Casey Kasem's toes tapping.