This collaboration between Bill Frisell and Hal Willner, the producer, turntablist and Saturday Night Live music supervisor, yields intriguing but mixed results. That Frisell should choose to put his postmodern country twang through a hip-hop filter isn't surprising-he's been a combiner of sounds and idioms from the beginning. But his is not a predictable mind, and Unspeakable is not a shallow hop onto the sampling bandwagon. (Frisell and Willner first collaborated in 1981, on Willner's Nino Rota tribute.)
There are four sonic elements in play: a core band with Frisell, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen; turntables and samples courtesy of Willner; a guest horn section with Steven Bernstein, Briggan Krauss and Curtis Fowlkes; and the 858 Strings: Jenny Scheinman on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola and Hank Roberts on cello. Don Alias plays percussion on six cuts, and Adam Dorn (aka Mocean Worker) gets credit on synth and additional editing. Willner produced, Eric Liljestrand engineered (and cowrote five tunes).
What emerges is an arty mix of the organic and the synthetic, with Frisell's slippery clean tones and distorted growls and cries in the middle. It's nice to hear the live strings, which lend a yearning quality not only on groove tracks like "1968" and "Del Close," but also on Frisell's minimalist sketches, "Hymn for Ginsberg" and "D. Sharpe." The presence, here and there, of Sex Mob's entire lineup is not incidental; their brash eclecticism couldn't fit this music more comfortably. On Willner's laid-back "Sundust" and the cowritten duet "Gregory C." the Frisell/Willner chemistry is on full display. "Who Was That Girl?" is a marvelous piece of borderline camp, a '70s fantasia with a vaguely Caribbean twist.
Without fail, Unspeakable's grooves are infectious. As a compositional whole, though, the album doesn't always hold one's attention.