Guitarist Marc Ribot has been party to many harebrained schemes (mostly sensational) throughout his long career. He was a crucial aspect of both Tom Waits’ and Elvis Costello’s moves from troubadours to sonic landscapers, bending his chords while they warped their melodies, and he aided in the birth of free-jazz’s punk-est moves as a Lounge Lizard and brought crunk to saxophonist John Zorn’s chunkiest recordings. Sometimes that same spiky energy has reached Ribot’s solo projects (the howl of Rootless Cosmopolitans, the cracked Latin éclat of Cubanos Postizos, several Zorn-label recordings). Sometimes you get the feeling Ribot left his brusque vibrancy on other musicians’ doorsteps.
With Ceramic Dog, Ribot’s “post-everything” power trio starring bassist Shahzad Ismaily (Laurie Anderson) and drummer Ches Smith (Xiu Xiu), Ribot found the spunk and the punk he usually gives away. Cascading through a hard-edged brand of crackling electro-funk the likes of which haven’t been heard since Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (“Party Intellectuals”), Ceramic Dog shows its hand as risky card sharks who like deeply angled polyrhythms and chicken-choked solos reminiscent of Adrian Belew’s time with David Byrne, fascinating because Ribot’s a Belew contemporary and not a follower. Still, it’s a brand of crotchety cool the Dog seems to like best: the slippery soul of “Todo El Mundo Es Kitsch,” the Brazilian-tinged gallop of “For Malena,” the prickly party ball of “Fuego” and the cold noisy pop of “Girlfriend,” all with Ribot either screaming, chatting or nattily crooning through what sounds like a water bong. Those bits are great and show Ribot the idealist in league with Ribot the cranky free-jazzbo.
When Ribot allows the power side of his power trio to take over—stuff like the metal harangue that crushes his cover of the Doors’ “Break on Through”—he’s no good. The Dog don’t hunt. Luckily those times are few and far between.