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12/31/13

Ben Allison
The Stars Look Very Different Today
Sonic Camera

Bassist-composer Ben Allison puts together such great bands you can’t help but regret his tendency to record each of them only once. But with standout guitarist Steve Cardenas remaining a constant through the changes, and each new group capturing you with its own distinctive effects, you’re too caught up in the moment to dwell on the past.

On The Stars Look Very Different Today, Cardenas is teamed in a powerhouse quartet with Brandon Seabrook, a young wild card on guitar who as a cameo player on Allison’s previous album, Action-Refraction, helped moved him into a rock aesthetic. Here, Seabrook’s snarling lines and extreme tonality, combined with Cardenas’ more lyrical and shapely playing, feed a decidedly post-rock sound that lies somewhere between the pitched melodies of Sonny Sharrock and the rootsy reflections of Bill Frisell.

All of the songs on the album, which takes its title from a line in David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” are by Allison. (Recording for the first time in many years away from the Palmetto label, the leader also did his own producing and mixing for the first time.) Whether in all-out mode, fueled by Allison Miller’s propulsive drumming or in a folkish vein colored by Seabrook’s banjo, this is compelling music.

Floating a catchy single-note melody over a dark, steadily intensifying phrase, “Neutron Star” has both the mesmerizing power of a space opera and the mystical appeal of a Morricone soundtrack. “Swiss Cheese D,” one of two remakes of previously recorded songs, is even more of a feast for the ears with its fat guitar chords, stately bass tones, dynamic drumming and dollop of banjo. “Improvisus” surrounds the leader’s probing bass with guitar-driven tape loops to eerie, entrancing effect. In the end, you’re left looking forward to another album by this terrific band. It doesn’t hurt to hope.

Originally published in December 2013
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