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Darin Gray - St. Louis Shuffle

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Artist: Darin Gray

Album: St. Louis Shuffle

Label: Family Vineyard

Review date: Apr. 15, 2003

Shuffles, Slides, and Boogaloos

When Perdition Plastics released Kevin Drumm’s first solo album in 1997, critics laid some well-deserved acclaim on his distinctive approach to guitar playing. Despite the untitled chunks of rippled textures, Drumm had a sense of practicality to his work, a sense of estranged curiosity and growing impatience and irritation. Like Keith Rowe, Drumm’s approach to guitar specifically focused on the electricity passing through the instrument, the magnetism between microphone-like pickups and steel strings, a certain, industrialized abstraction. This friction eventually mounted into larger scale experimentation with crushing, meticulously textured drones in works like Comedy and Sheer Hellish Miasma.

No one had an approach or vision comparable. Even playing with Axel Dörner, Taku Sugimoto, Martin Tetrault; all had sparse, sharp, vivid and focused attentions, unique in their own right, yet faced with the sounds of Drumm canceling his guitar, they were all lyrical in contrast. Only the collaboration with electronic/tape manipulator RLW even began to touch the surface. The year, now 2003, welcomes the release of Darin Gray’s solo bass guitar album, concerned very deeply with themes Drumm seemed to instigate, yet several octaves lower. It’s not fair to say Gray is purely imitative, though. Trying to fathom the amount of guitarists suddenly preoccupied with their pick-up switch since Drumm is terrifying. Gray has paid his dues, and though it’s hard to ignore that Drumm has carved a niche on a similar wavelength, St. Louis Shuffle is a definitively personal album.

From the Ruins meets Mud sounds of Grand Ulena to the collapsible wade of On Fillmore to the numerous guest spots on dozens of albums, Gray is clearly establishing himself in the same hard-working, broad tradition of so many other avant-garde musicians. His catalog of released improv work up to this point has been pretty much defined by his duos with Loren Connors, which, according to Eric Weddle of Family Vineyard records, are deeply sensual and gut wrenchingly human. If his work in the Connors/Licht Big Band that resulted in Hoffman Estates is any indication, I’m sure there is no reason to doubt it. All of his playing was sensitive, belonging to a feeling of skewed melodicism, yet none of this begins to explain the sound of St. Louis Shuffle.

Starting with the concept, more than half of St. Louis Shuffle is dedicated to St. Louis artists. Even putting music aside, it makes quite a case for giving St. Louis a predominant artistic identity. Gray pays humble tributes ranging from obscure painter Bessie Lowenhaupt to legendary poet like T.S. Eliot. There is a laudable attention to women artists, jazz poet Shirley Leflore, director Karyn Kusama, and Kate Chopin, something that is usually an unfortunate rarity in male-dominated experimental music. The other titles serve as something of a narration; “Get Rid of St. Louis!” is the opening track, “Mild Peril”, “Lemur Attack”, and “Where Are You Number Seven?” follow.

As far as the music goes, however, Gray seems to eschew the immediate reference point of Drumm, in favor of William Burroughs, director Andrei Tarkovsky, and obscure composer Helmut Lachenmann as points of intersection. This might hit home why this album is, in fact, so unique, or at least so reliant on scattered rearrangements of extended instrumental technique. Gray is clearly aiming for something different, a unique, deliberate mixture where cutting and pasting is microscopically tiny, and paced with silence.

Throughout St. Louis Shuffle, its crippled grains of rattling sand, vibrating suspension bridge hum, finger-folded creases, and outright violence, there is profound personal imprint on the work. It feels like sifting through Gray’s notebooks, making sense of why one torrent of sound is similar to its artist in dedication. It’s as though Gray has used a broken tape recorder to make field recordings from his city, taking the tangible design in his work, the red and yellow, the banana-laden cover, the humor and fallibility, and layering it into each track. The album is a moth-trajectory amplitude parabola, each sound is undermined by its absence, yet it all culminates in the cataclysmic wavering tone on “St. Louis Boogaloo”, while Gray’s bass shoddily rumbles along underneath.

Where Drumm is sarcastic, Gray’s Shuffle is optimistic. While still a steady stream of abrasive wreckage without much reprieve, underneath a preliminary glance Gray clearly cares about the texture and intrinsic musical quality of the noise, finding phantoms of pitch and rhythm in the most austere palette. While St. Louis Shuffle isn’t quite accessible, it is certainly engaging enough to provoke the listener to consider the music several times over. Thorny and ornery, and densely packed. Good luck.

By Matt Wellins

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