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Clogs - Stick Music

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Artist: Clogs

Album: Stick Music

Label: Brassland

Review date: Mar. 1, 2005

Clogs aren’t the missing link between new chamber music and improv, but this four-member coterie of close-knit collaborators from New York have all the training to be the former and all the chops to be the latter. What you get on their latest batch of compositions set to tape, released late last year on Brassland, is a dark dance through edgy improv on traditional instruments. Though this territory is familiar enough to the avid indie-rock listener, the Clogs harbor astonishing complexity when compared with other artists who straddle the border between classical and popular music.

Founding Clogs members Padma Newsome and Bryce Dessner are the featured performers and composers on Stick Music, joined by guests Jennifer Choi (violin), Erik Friendlander (cello) and Tim Feeney (percussion). All four regular group members, Newsome and Dessner plus percussionist Thomas Kozumplik and basoonist Rachael Elliott, are seasoned performers and improvisers, having played with a list of ensembles and recordings too long to name. Like many bands of their kind, a large part of the Clogs’ composed sections are borne of extended improv sessions, with the arrangements working the best to their liking making the cut. Naturally, these prepared moments provide the basis for comfortable deviation, making a distinction between what’s written and what’s improvised almost too fine to draw.

Never limiting themselves to a strict musical direction, the quartet has evolved significantly over the course of two albums, joining elements of jazz, post-rock, arty vocal pop and ambient drone to varying degrees of coherence. Stick Music proves more tactile than their earlier explorations by dint of its percussion. Even the guitar and viola, usually drawn out to give an ensemble more body, are frequently plucked and scraped as percussive instruments. Newsome and Dessner lead the ensemble, but allow guest performer Feeney to shine through variations of marimba work on “Pencil Stick.” Kozumplik’s influence is all over these arrangements – he is a former member of the Robert Hohner Percussion Ensemble and student of marimba expert Robert van Sice.

The album develops only gradually and settles into stride in the final few tracks, moving from solo-instrument themes over the barest bed of accompaniment to places where the instruments begin to exhale into bursts of drones, although even at the album's climax on "Pitasi," it never reaches what one could call loud. This is music that breathes a solitary chill into bone, barely supported by its elegant dissonance and spider-web silk textures.

By Joel Calahan

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