Pop music is a fairly arid affair. Much of radio is dominated by retro stations, re-playing the hit parade of the forties, cascading forward into the heavily commercialized alternative hits of the nineties. It’s difficult to find much originality anymore, unless you have plenty of cash to visit the Knitting Factory’s on both US Coasts.
Fortunately, The Louisville Kentucky group The Commonwealth has found inspiration where few have ventured before. The Commonwealth is a free folk group, adding elements of classical, experimental edginess and rock into a rare musical hybrid.
It’s not a new concept. The blending of rock, folk, experimental, and classical can be traced back to the sixties, with composer Gavin Bryars’ Portsmouth Sinfonia, and picked up in the early seventies by the late multi-instrumentalist Simon Jeffes with his Penguin Café Orchestra ensemble. In the nineties, the sound was re-processed by fellow Louisville band Rachel’s, who put a more traditional bent on Bryars’ concept. On He Thinks He Scares Us, The Commonwealth has inherited elements of each of these groups, although is probably closer to the early work of Penguin Café than to Rachel’s or Portsmouth Sinfonia. Bassist vocalist Liz Adams, violinist Rachel Blanton, guitarist, vocalist and banjo player Daniel Duncan, Jacob Duncan on tenor, alto saxes and clarinet, drummer Gary Pahler and guest cellist James Vaughn produce a slurry of minimalist instrumental pieces that back sardonic lyrical commentary on the self-indulgent culture inhabiting the 21st Century.
He Thinks He Scares Us is a tasty concoction. The album begins with an almost proto punk/classical style, the instrumental work flying at incomprehensible speed at times, similar to the prodigious Glenn Branca. However, Adams and her band are keen on keeping their melodies from going completely off the rails, offering smooth transitions from the frenetic pace of the opener “Gravity” to the haunting arrangements of “The Small of Your Back”, which features Evelyn Hasselden on the likembe, better known as an African thumb piano. The carnival-like “Bloody Genes” juxtaposes jazz sax with highly rhythmic strings which almost jump right off the wood. “Right Hand Man” is a tribute to sixties free-jazz, with a spirited Dylan-esque political theme.
The album has as few faults, namely the misplaced sax of Jacob Duncan which tends to interfere with the subtle, intricate string work, and the unreliability of Daniel Duncan’s vocals. Daniel talk-sings his way through most of the pieces, and his limited range does injustice to a few of the compositions. He is at his best on the more rollicking numbers, where his broad inflections emphasize the generous humor of the group.
These small problems aside, He Thinks He Scares Us is a beautifully wild album. The Commonwealth brandishes a lively brew of styles, attacking each with vigorous sensibility. In a musical world heavily populated with dull re-creations of styles best left in the past, He Thinks He Scares Us adds a new dimension to a nearly lost art form.