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His Name Is Alive - Xmmer / Sweet Earth Flower: A Tribute to Marion Brown

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Artist: His Name Is Alive

Album: Xmmer / Sweet Earth Flower: A Tribute to Marion Brown

Label: Silver Mountain

Review date: Jan. 17, 2008

On Xmmer, as with other His Name Is Alive albums, head prefect Warn Defever builds a model of his universe, populates it with musicians and melodies, and then goes on roundabout travelogue. Often, that world will unerringly reflect a particular popular genre, as Defever’s omnipotent, magpie eyes always survey surrounding terrain before lifting both appropriate and incongruous elements. There’s often a touch of the absurdist to Defever’s desires, and he’s possibly the modern artist most sympathetic to Pop Art’s fondness for both making-popular and making from the popular, though the outcome doesn’t really tally with received wisdom of what constitutes a Pop Art statement.

Xmmer is modular and cyclic compared to other His Name Is Alive records, working through rhythms and patterns in much the same manner as certain kinds of African music. These simple, recurring riffs are generally played on glittering acoustic guitar, clanking, distorted mbiras or martial snares, and their snowball effect propels Xmmer to its conclusion in “Come to Me,” where the album’s various threads meet in a kind of hypnotic chewing-gum pop that masticates obsessively over its own texture, but without losing its flavor. There are breaks in the continuum – despite its title, “Go to Hell Mountain” is the sunny face to Detrola’s “I Thought I Saw,” another angle on Defever’s revisiting of the 1970s singer-songwriter, a field also explored on “Put It in Your Mind” – but Xmmer is mostly single-minded. In a final nod to the album’s circularity, the opener “Young Blood” shares lyrics with “Come to Me,” but the former sets them in shifting layers of gilt-edged strings.

In a recent interview with Joel Calahan in Signal to Noise, Defever explains one reason why a tribute to Atlanta, Georgia-born saxophonist Marion Brown was so appealing: “He does something few other similar improv musicians do, which is [that] he redoes the same songs. So there’s a fluid notion of albums, of the recording process.” His Name Is Alive have followed that model since they begun, as their releases are populated with mutant re-takes, visions of versions, similar songs travelling under several different names at once. Defever is also fond of the melody head that blossoms through permutation, as such songs as Last Night’s “Someday My Prince Will Come,” his Afrobeat lift, attest.

But Sweet Earth Flower is more a re-imagining of Marion Brown’s music than mere ‘tribute.’ Defever and his cohorts, made up of members of Antibalas and Nomo, among others, bolster Brown’s songs with new energy while taking them at an easy clip. There is intimate consort here between sax, Rhodes/Wurlitzer, guitar and drums, and the moments where acoustic and electric keys duel, as on “November Cotton Flower,” are breathtaking. Indeed, most all the playing on the set is absolutely beautiful, particularly on live cuts like “Capricorn Moon,” and the new takes on “Geechee Recollections” are as warm and open as the original recordings. This reinforces the kernel of Brown’s music: it is free and spontaneous, yet it admits great structural integrity, something Sweet Earth Flower reinforces. These new versions also tap into a vein of quotidian mysticism in the air among American free jazz players of the 1970s. Sweet Earth Flower might be His Name Is Alive’s most straightforwardly appealing album yet, testament to both this particular line-up’s resilience and fluidity, and the strength of Brown’s originals.

By Jon Dale

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