Chris Forsyth is a lauded guitarist, composer and bandleader whose work assimilates art-rock textures and vernacular American influences. Long active in underground circles, he’s recently released a string of acclaimed records of widescreen guitar rock, and in 2013, he assembled the Solar Motel Band.
Anyone who knows me has, at some point in the last 10 years, probably heard my theory about how rock is the new jazz. In brief:
Once the pop music of their day, both genres are obviously past their prime in terms of commercial vitality. Rock, while still less removed from its popular heyday than jazz, is starting to slide into a niche position in the same way jazz did after World War II. It is now becoming, like jazz post-bebop, more an art music than popular music.
The tropes that define the forms are known, analyzed, and argued over by the fans, now more connoisseurs than casual listeners. And the kids have largely moved onto other things.
But, so what? People still paint. People still play jazz. People still go to see the orchestra (or Arkestra) even.
In the Information Age, rock may be largely “dead” in the marketplace (or at least diminished), but its practitioners and adherents now have the whole history of the music to play with, learn from, and mutate, should they choose to get heady about it.
I hear this all reflected in One Step Behind, the new album by the Brooklyn-by-way-of-New Jersey band Garcia Peoples, in both in the title and in the way the group fearlessly fuses a dizzying array of influences with finesse, precision, and chutzpah.
One Step Behind consists of just two pieces, the nearly 32-minute title track and the eight-minute “Heart and Soul.” Structurally, this is the most audacious rock record I’ve heard since Boredoms released Super æ in 1998.
I count at least nine parts in the painstakingly arranged “One Step Behind.” Without spoiling any surprises for first-time listeners, suffice it to say that it has the sweep of a prog epic, but with all the annoying excesses of prog drained away, revealing a clear-eyed, creative band unafraid to confound, fusing genres and ideas seemingly at will.
Unlike their previous releases, I wouldn’t necessarily call One Step Behind a “guitar record.” While there are moments of fantastic string weaving bliss from guitarists Tom Malach and Danny Arakaki, the overall sound is largely defined by the wide range of textures Pat Gubler draws from his buzzing synthesizers and jaunty keyboards and, notably, the alternately ecstatic and spacy saxophone of ‘70s session killer (and father of Tom) Bob Malach. It all sits atop the unhurried, rolling grooves of drummer Cesar Arakaki (Danny’s brother) and two different bass
players — Derek Spaldo on the title track and Andy Cush on “Heart and Soul.” Garcia Peoples are both a family band and a group with a somewhat rotating membership.
“One Step Behind,” is centered around a song section with great bemused lyrics of stoned philosophy sung by Danny Arakaki (“You don’t care what anybody says/Life’s too short, I’m sure you’ve heard/I know you know /You know I know /At the most you’ll live to see the day/That you can change in better ways/Just live to ride/Don’t live to die”) that, like its guitar riff, wouldn’t sound out of place on a classic Meat Puppets record.
But then again, the track also moves through ecstatic jazz, droning minimalism, completely rippin’ guitar breaks, watery drift, anthemic power chords, and a section of Germanic boogie under a seriously Late Night sax solo.
It’s ambitious and full of incredible sonic detail and it almost shouldn’t work, but it all sounds inevitable, logical, and, well, rather perfect. Upon completing my first listen to it, I thought, “Wow, this must be how the Minutemen felt when they first heard Zen Arcade — a combination of awe, admiration, and ‘OK, well, this ups the ante, people.’” (I even Tweeted it, look it up.)
And then comes the pure musical whiplash of album closer “Heart and Soul” — a staggeringly sincere heartbreak ballad written and sung by Spaldo in a style that evokes the stark emotional fragility of Will Oldham or Rick Danko. Where “One Step Behind” comes off like some sleek highly engineered rocketship of unrushed musical ideas, “Heart and Soul,” is just an unvarnished crusher.
In fact, it sounds like it belongs on another record!
But when you’re treating the music of the second half of the 20th century as a palate from which to pick and choose (and own) and employing those ides with conceptual virtuosity and technical brilliance, well, you can kind of do whatever the fuck you want.
And that’s precisely what Garcia Peoples have done on One Step Beyond, a record that combines thorough knowledge and control of a whole range of past musics but put together in a way that reflects the archival curiosity and freewheeling juxtapositions of 2019 listening habits.
As one of their other songs says, it feels so good.