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September 2007

Matt Chamberlain/Bill Frisell/Tucker Martine/Lee Townsend
Floratone
Blue Note Records

Floratone has a complicated premise. In 2005, guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Matt Chamberlain, the instrumental half of the Floratone quartet, recorded a free-improv session together. They then gave the tapes to the production half, Tucker Martine and Lee Townsend, who hewed 11 song-length tracks out of them and returned them to Frisell and Chamberlain for overdubs with bass (Viktor Krauss), cornet (Ron Miles) and violin (Eyvind Kang). The final product of two years’ work is a set of saturnine, post-everything sound paintings, ambient yet strangely earthy.

Mostly, it works. The pieces on Floratone are hypnotic, usually arresting and occasionally, as on “Mississippi Rising,” even boisterous. Townsend and Martine let their respective loves of dub reggae (“The Passenger”) and country and folk music (“Take a Look”) set the pace for much of their behind-the-board work, with Frisell’s jazz pedigree and Chamberlain’s pop sensibilities meshing within the raw material. At Floratone’s best, these disparate elements converge into evocative, delicately beautiful music, especially on the ultramodern penultimate track, “Frontiers.”

Where the group falters is in its tendency to overcook: “The Future,” for example, is so belabored and sound-saturated that any spark it had gets buried. Floratone also sometimes values atmosphere at the expense of substance, in places seemingly designed as backgrounds for a Jim Jarmusch film or an NPR program. In other words, Floratone can be somewhat shallow. The surface’s allure counteracts that shallowness—though considering the hoops the Floratoners jumped through to make this music, its payoff may be ever-so-slightly wanting.

Originally published in September 2007
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