THE NECKS

The Boys - music for the feature film
ReRNECKS4

HOUSE BAND
Cycle Maintenance
Louie Records 033

Coming from completely different places — not to mention continents — because of a similar instrumental make up, these CDs end up with more similarities than differences.

What is even odder, however, is that THE BOYS is a studio amplification of the music Australian trio The Necks improvised for the 1998 feature film of the same name, while CYCLE MAINTENACE resulted from spontaneous sessions from a quartet of Portland, Ore. musicians early in 2004.

Both CDs have a similar number of short and medium length tunes — a departure for the Necks who usually play one composition for an hour at a time — and all 15 pieces encompass the same sort of rhythmic impetus. With overdubbing the Necks play a couple of instruments each — Chris Abrahams piano and organ, Lloyd Swanton bass and electric bass and Tony Buck drums and percussion. That gives the group similar textures to those produced by the House Band featuring Mark Bjoklund on piano, keyboard and percussion, Page Hundemer on bass and loops, Mike Klobas on drums and Dave Storrs on drums, keyboard and briefly trombone.

In the end, however, BOYS is a more pleasurable listen than MAINTENANCE. Shorter by almost 18 minutes, soundtrack demands seem to have given the trio a shape and structure often missing in the American quartet’s live work. Described as being the results of “recorded sessions” that took place from January to April, judicious editing could have produced a much stronger disc.

Not unlike what would happen at a Necks performance today, the soundtrack CD’s main theme is stated by Abrahams’ piano. But the short, hypnotic cadenzas keep repeating and recapitulating here because of soundtrack necessities. Furthermore, in retrospect, it appears that the sound is more wedded to early jazz-rock than what the band produces today.

Because of this concept, Swanton adds echoing fuzz-tone electric bass lines at certain junctures, while Buck’s rat-tat-tat percussion includes the sort of strident back beat he would now avoid. Oscillating reverb from add-on electronics is still part of his repertoire, though, and here it brings additional color to the alternately menacing and atmospheric tones that outline the theme.

What’s most surprising, though germane to the performance, is the organ washes that the keyboardist uses as pedal point ostinato beneath his trebly chord groupings. Scene setting, the quivering tones bring back memories of 1960s rock organists, most intimately the riff construction of Traffic’s Stevie Winwood.

Recapitulation of the sparse four-note theme extended by floating piano chords saves the CD from a faux rock banality. A lighter rhythmic impetus courtesy of Swanton’s unvarying bass line and Buck’s shaken and scraped percussion add sophistication to the foot tapping.

Foot tapping and plenty of percussion adventures characterize the other CD as well. But as proficient as some of the playing is, the overlong structure and constant noodling from all concerned weaken the performance. Especially unfortunate is the decision to let the pieces on the second half of the CD run overly long. Nine minutes plus is pushing it for the penultimate three, while 16 minutes is far too long for the final track.

Close associates, the four musicians have been involved in local rock, pop, jazz and improv contexts over the past 20-odd years. Each is more than a fewer steps elevated from journeyman rockers, which is what also makes a track like “Commotion in the Ocean” so frustrating. Between the wah-wah bass line, keyboard glissandi and overcooked drum pulse you’d think one of those rock-funk-(pseudo)jazz bands like the Dixie Dregs or Sea Level had been reborn. Going from foot tapping to head banging is a poor strategy for the four and nothing — not even Storrs’ brief, spewing trombone solo — can rescue a tune whose every note seems electronically overloaded.

Luckily among the incessant vamps there are some memorable moments. If “Push and Pull” didn’t appear to want to camp out in jam band territory most of the time, there could be more appreciation of its virtues. These include Native Indian-like percussion slaps and the rattles of cymbals and small instruments, not to mention phrase-making comping from one keyboardist and high frequency riffs from another. And are those references to John Coltrane’s “Cousin Mary” and Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” that are briefly audible among the licks?

Spooky lines that merge tick-tocking concussions with glass armonica-like sounds are elsewhere as are portamento pitchsliding from the dual keyboards and extended percussion workouts on woodblocks, gongs and bells that bring forth suggestions of gamelan ensembles and other ethnic groupings. Additionally, Bjoklund’s showcases on his own and the group compositions highlight some bright, impressionistic cadenzas. He’s very capable of producing flashing lines and contrasting dynamics, whose seesaw rhythms are set off by sine wave reverb from higher pitched keyboards vamps, plus percolating friction and scratches from the double drummers. But too often when his output isn’t wedded to standard funk patterns, it turns dainty and impressionistic, downshifting the entire band to disconnected licks.

All of the musicians — especially Storrs — have been involved in superior sessions. It would appear that the maintenance needed for this cycle should have included more of a game plan. That organization is likely what make THE BOYS, while imperfect as well, much more notable.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Boys: 1. The Boys I 2. He Led Them Into the Wold 3. Headlights 4. The Boys II 5. The Steps of Champions 6. Fife and Drum 7. The Boys III

Personnel: Boys: Chris Abrahams (piano and organ); Lloyd Swanton (bass and electric bass); Tony Buck (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Cycle: 1. Wide Wise 2. Sideways Portal 3. Commotion in the Ocean 4. Wind Down Summit 5. Push and Pull 6. See Look Stare There 7. Big Stretch 8. Full Cycle

Personnel: Cycle: Mark Bjoklund (piano, keyboard and percussion); Page Hundemer (bass and loops); Mike Klobas (drums); Dave Storrs (drums, keyboard and trombone)