Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: Jackie-O Motherfucker – Fig. 5

on May 22, 2010, 8:00am

I really can’t say what initially drew me to Jackie-O Motherfucker… Hell, it was probably the curse word in the name (which was rare, in my world anyway). But, after Fig. 5, I was entirely hooked. Multi-instrumentalist Tom Greenwood (no relation, as far as I know, to those famous Radiohead Greenwoods) and saxophonist Nester Bucket created the “band” as a sort of cyclical, collaborative experiment fusing jazz with psychedelia and noise. The list of former and current members, if ever a complete one were to be compiled, would be massive, including Valet’s Honey Owens, White Rainbow’s Adam Forkner, and Gang Gang Dance’s Josh Diamond. While Bucket’s gone, Greenwood remains at the center of the rotating storm of sound, consistently releasing interesting material.

But, Fig. 5 is the one that drew me in. After the group’s first few albums were more or less jazz-based, this record took off in a new, dronier, folkier direction. “Analogue Skillet” opens in sweeps of mechanical sound, a distorted, far-off, percussive sample driving forward. Analog synth and square-wave sounds sweep from side to side as stuttered, extended technique string plucks work their way into the background. “Native Einstein” comes next, a repeated, eerie, bassy guitar line paired with an insistent, off-key bowed string note and strange, chanted samples. All the while, tinkling bells and chimes, honked saxophone neck and occasional cymbal splashes envelop the piece.

“Your Cells Are In Motion” clearly owes something to Chicago post-rock mainstay Tortoise. Greenwood and co. take Tortoise’s penchant for simple, rhythmically important passages, and add a dash of woodsy twang to it, the simple guitar and drum line repeated ad nauseam as the slides and scoops of another guitar swing around. Occasionally, peeks of a moaning female vocal break through the surface to float away seconds later. Six minutes in, though, the guitar slowly churns itself into a major key, the rhythm suddenly upbeat rather than foreboding. Rather than relying on dynamic crescendo, the piece uses emotional crescendo to compel the listener.

The choir on the haunting traditional tune “Go Down, Old Hannah” revels in the tune’s minor flourishes, keeping the prison work song as dreary as it must have been to begin with. The scattered percussive clumps and sparse, anxious acoustic guitar that acompany the vocals are stormy, dark. The group’s take on “Amazing Grace” is just as intriguing. Violin, banjo, and harmonica stutter and spill at different speeds, furthering different causes, occasionally finding harmony, occasionally dissonance. It’s Eric Dolphy in overalls in the mountains, free jazz barefoot, and wandering through the forest. Expressionist drums and another extended technique string instrument keep a rhythm of sorts as a tenor saxophone wails out a Coltrane-inspired rendition of the melody. The ten minutes of “Beautiful September (We Are Going There)” that follow are a complete out-of-left-field kind of thing: The song has a clear, rock-friendly structure, with clear vocals and “normal” instrumentation. It’s dreamy and nice but feels a bit out of place with everything else.

After a brief, 16 second bit called “Chiapas! I Must Go There!”, the album’s standout track, “Michigan Avenue Social Club” thrums its way in. The driving, tribal percussion sounds of the drums and guitar line set the background for a few wind instruments as they flutter here and there like hummingbirds. Gutting, Morricone-esque guitar spills into the picture as the winds fly away, but the driving rhythm prods on. The winds come back, the guitar gets a little weirder, a little more scattered. It begins to sound a bit like a locked groove (something Jackie-O have done on vinyl), but the drone melds and swerves, adding feedback, lilting guitar. Here, nothing fades away, everything drops out of the picture, leaving one saxophone and one set of clinking chimes to wobble around before dying too.

Fig. 5 established Jackie-O Motherfucker (Tom Greenwood especially) as masters of melding disparate genres into a unique sound. No one else can so perfectly blend Appalachian folk with industrial drone, John Coltrane with John Cage and John Fahey.

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