All Is Gladness in the Kingdom
No one who caught an earful of Fight the Big Bull’s debut CD, Dying Will Be Easy, will be surprised to learn that Steven Bernstein has come aboard for the band’s sophomore release. Granted, there are few places that the ubiquitous slide trumpeter doesn’t turn up these days, but FTBB’s boisterous mélange of postmodern reference-flexing and vaudevillian exuberance is straight out of the Bernstein playbook.
The CD is the end result of a jam-packed 10-day residency that Bernstein undertook in the band’s native Richmond, Va. He contributes two compositions and one arrangement, the Band’s “Jemima Surrender,” blurred into a hungover honky-tonk burlesque. The remainder of the pieces are by bandleader/guitarist Matt White, but the M.O. is the same throughout: sudden dynamic shifts from quiet atmospherics to controlled chaos, knowing winks to the past embedded in a muscular modernism.
The horn-heavy 10-piece (Bernstein’s addition, in true Spinal Tap fashion, turns the band up to 11) has a penchant for bludgeoning riffery, as deployed on the grungy steamroller of “Gold Lions” or Bernstein’s “Mothra.” The latter contrasts uptown Ellingtonian horns with an ominous rock lurch through which White scythes with a squealing faux-Hendrix freakout.
The leader’s chameleonic guitar morphs effortlessly from such heavy metal force to the woozy lilt of Bernstein’s exotica tribute, “Martin Denny.” But for all their power when corralled, the ensemble is uneven with regards to soloists, too often swamped by the crazy-quilt arrangements. They’re ably anchored by the inventive percussion tandem of Brian Jones and Pinson Chanselle, but here’s hoping that through future projects (and there are plenty already in the offing) individual voices begin to emerge from the bold collective shout.