If you ask your Ouija Board about the latest-greatest, brand-spankin’ newest 21st Century music that simultaneously channels Captain Beefheart, Howlin’ Wolf, Adrian Belew and Mike Watt it might well spell out the name of Owen Maercks’ and his new album Kinds of Blue.
This new recording — out this week on Feeding Tube Records — was reportedly laid down in one three and a half-hour session so it has a remarkably organic band feel. Kinds of Blue features performances by legendary Northern California DIY musician Owen Maercks with some friends who happen to reside among today’s most respected players such as Grammy-nominated Guitarist Henry Kaiser (who has played with everyone from David Lindley and Richard Thompson to The Grateful Dead), Saxophonist John Oswald (of Plunderphonics fame) and (also) Grammy-nominated Drummer Scott Amendola (Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, Jim Campilongo, Pat Martino, T.J. Kirk, etc.).
So I suspect by now you may be asking: Who is this Owen Maercks?
Well, first you should click here for my review of his first album Teenage Sex Therapist, from 1978 which I reviewed here several years ago. There I explain his background and how I became aware of this super talented musician (and super music collector — his eclectic vinyl collection is kind of legendary in social media circles!).
Kinds of Blue is Maerck’s first new album since 1978 and it is here partially due to public response to Feeding Tube Records’ reissue of that debut a couple years back.
It also helps that Owen’s friend Henry Kaiser called to nudge him about making a blues album that they’d talked about doing since college days. Kinds of Blue is thus very different from his first album and yet it feels like a logical next step for Maercks. It has often comically dark moments and is probably about as far from a blues recording as one can get and still use the term “blues” to describe it.
It is also a lot of fun!
The album opens with a super slide guitar driven slinky blues boogie original called “Wild Time” that is sort of like what might happen if King Crimson tried to play Z.Z. Top. Of course, the mighty Crim would never play a straight blues and that is clearly the point here. They would take it into the stratosphere and Owen Maercks does exactly that, wonderfully so, giving guitarist Henry Kaiser the launch pad for atmospheric soloing. And that is just the first track on the album!
“Burnin'” continues the swamp groove with more Kaiser-fueled guitar pyrotechnics blazing snake paths through the rushes…
“Iceland Boogie” opens Side Two like some lost Mike Watt (Minutemen, firehose, Missingmen) acid blues punk romp that teeters just sideways of Captain Beefheart. Saxophonist John Oswald lets loose some serious mad skronk here! The band’s version of Thelonious Monk’s legendary “Blue Monk” is a wonderfully off kilter take with the lead guitar holding down the melody as the drums and bass dance around the heart and soul of the song. I think Monk would approve of this.
“Prayin’ on Me” made me smile when it referenced an old Zappa line (“great googly moogly!”) which actually (I was just reminded, thank you Interwebs) was a phrase in an old Howlin’ Wolf tune “Goin’ Down Slow” (the title of which thematically has more to do with this song of (ahem) infidelity… but that is another story entirely).
The song starts out as straight forward staggering blues but soon spreads out into Fripp-and-Frith-meet-Coltrane’s-Ascension territory with manic arpeggiated chord progressions and mad soloing by Kaiser. Amendola’s drumming flies all over making this latter half improvisation a joyous supersonic rocket-ship into the ether. I love how the tune suddenly shifts gears at the end, which finds solo Owen ploinking away on an detuned acoustic guitar deconstructing an old 1940s lyric you’ll probably know and pitting it against a broken melody from a 1960s psychedelic band (but that is all I will tell you as I don’t want to spoil the surprise!).
The vinyl pressing on Kinds of Blue is excellent. Mastered and manufactured by A to Z Media, this LP is dead quiet and perfectly centered, it sounds great when you turn up the volume to play it loud (and this is one you should play at full volume for maximum impact). The recording was made in high resolution 96 kHz, 24-bit digital and sounds great, remarkably warm and round. The album comes with a CD-quality download, which is perfect for playing in the car or your mobile devices.
Kinds of Blue is already one of my favorite releases this year. You should listen. This is the good stuff!