The trouble with “jazz-rock” is that, too often, its whole adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Listen to the MC5 motor through hypercharged rawk riffology – that‘s exciting. Listen to the Five blow their wad on a rama-lama rendition of Sun Ra’s “Starship”…that’s more like embarrassing. And have you ever actually listened to what a jazz musician likes to think of as “rock?”
Poetry’s relationship with popular music has been similarly fraught. Think Allen Ginsberg’s flirtations with “music.” Think a straight-faced Jim Morrison bellowing about “the Lizard King.” Sure, there are exceptions to every rule: prime Captain Beefheart, for example, was a living monument to that obscure crossroads where rock, jazz and spoken word successfully meet. But for the most part, from the Soft Machine to Blinking with Fists to the Bozo Dionysus himself, mixing the loose spontaneity of jazz and poetry with the terse, orgasmic grit of rock’n’roll is a risky proposition at best.
So we’ve at least established that Unknown Instructors, a loose-limbed post-punk supergroup with a mission to merge poetry, rock and jazz, have balls. “Jazz-rock,” much less jazz-rock with quasi-Beat poetry for vocals, hasn’t been in fashion since, oh, 1975. To release a record like The Way Things Work in a year when “indie” music is best summarized by the soundtrack to The O.C. is to effectively surrender all hope of actually selling any records. But forget about mainstream accessibility (who needs it?). The most intriguing thing about this utterly strange, beyond anachronistic record is that it actually works. Neither a jazz album nor a rock album, The Way Things Work manages to stand just fine on its own.
Helmed by poet/vocalist/saxophonist Dan McGuire, with back-up from guitarist Joe Baiza (formerly of SST jazz-punks Saccharine Trust) and Minutemen/fIREHOSE rhythm section Geoge Hurley and Mike Watt, Unknown Instructors don’t deal in songs so much as formless, freewheeling jams. However, unlike the festival-friendly collectives one usually associates with the word “jam,” these boys aren’t about spreading good vibes. Give a listen to the drunken, foreboding vamp that perpetually forms and dissembles beneath McGuire’s surreal Jim Thompsonesque nightmare “Starving Artists”: this is dissonant stuff, mood music only if you’re in the mood for dread. The opening bassline and guitar noodling of “Punch Out * The Layoff * Gratuity” suggests James Chance at his most aggravating; elsewhere, the cacophony of dueling atonalities in “Punk (is Whatever We Made It to Be)” frequently threatens to drown out McGuire’s verse.
Not that it matters much. Like the best rock poetry, McGuire’s lyrics are more about sound and imagery than highfalutin “meaning” or coherency. His dark, urban vignettes sound like the work of a younger, more volatile Tom Waits. In his best moments as a vocalist, he’s just as responsible for keeping the jam in orbit as the stellar Hurley and Watt. Still, while the lyrics can certainly make the song, there are a few moments on The Way Things Work when they threaten to sink the ship entirely. The aforementioned “Punk” is the worst offender: McGuire threatening to succumb to boho self-parody as he hollers sloganistic clunkers like, “let’s say I’ve got a number/that number is 50,000/that’s 10% of 500,000” and “the working classes are manipulated!” I’m all for stretching the boundaries of poetic expression, but isn’t blurring the lines between art and socialist pamphlet just a bridge too far? The rest of the band aren’t quite off the hook, either. “Jams” though they may be, the musical backing dovetails ever so slightly in the last clutch of tracks, resulting in a listening experience that ranges from new and inspiring to frustrating and monotonous. Meanwhile, the most interesting grooves are consigned unfairly to the song’s shortest tracks: the jazzy “Something Eternal” clocks in at only one minute and 24 seconds, while “The New Bluesman,” with its sinewy bass work and saxophone textures (not to mention a spot-on Beefheart impersonation by McGuire) barely exceeds the two-minute mark. Unfettered improvisation, as these two tracks testify, has its limits.
But it can also provide moments of surprising heft. Take “Where You Find It,” kickstarting the record with an ironclad drum and bass rhythm while Baiza’s feedback and McGuire’s yelped, evocative description of a dingy rock’n’roll club dart in and out of the beat. There’s a reason why variations on “Where You Find It” bookend the record, at tracks two and fifteen: it’s the heart of the album, the reason why this interesting experiment is actually worth listening to. In what could have been an unbelievably pretentious project – borderline fusion, for Chrissakes – Unknown Instructors paradoxically remind us why we loved pure, unadulterated rock’n’roll in the first place. “Where You Find It” is heartfelt…nostalgic, even. An ode and a eulogy for anyone who’s ever worshipped the mutual racket of “four numbskulls who work at the gas station, the Pizza Hut or not at all.” It’s the thrust and the draw of rock music encapsulated in a few verses and a simple, undulating bassline; its jazz/poetry affectations brought down to the level of the masses, rather than the usual, ridiculous goal of “elevating” rock music to a higher cultural standard. This ain’t the usual grad student jazz-rock, in other words, and that’s precisely what makes it so good. Where does high art meet low grime? McGuire, Baiza, Hurley and Watt were right: this is where you find it.
Reviewed by Zach Hoskins
This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.