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Medeski, Martin and Wood: End of the World Party (Just in Case)

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An apocalyptic mood fills the air in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, and Medeski, Martin & Wood, in titling their fifth Blue Note release End of the World Party, attempt to leaven their collective dread with wry humor. MMW has furloughed producer Scott Harding (aka Scotty Hard), opting this time for John King of the famed Dust Brothers, whose sonic innovations include Beck’s Midnite Vultures and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. Sex Mobbers Steven Bernstein and Briggan Krauss drop in for the biting “Sasa,” as does fellow Downtowner Marc Ribot, who stays for three other numbers.

First thing that jumps out? The hefty tone of Chris Wood’s acoustic bass, particularly the bowed riffs on “Anonymous Skulls” and the title track, but also the pizzicato of tunes like “Reflector” and “Ice.” While MMW has little if anything in common with the Bad Plus, John King’s low-end theory brings to mind BP producer Tchad Blake’s. The record is thick with breakbeats of the “illy B” variety, not to mention Medeski’s coal-dirty vintage keys. King adds unpredictable white-noise effects, street-corner samples and, as the liner says, “a little of this, a little of that.”

There is a Gothic flavor to the opener; it sounds like something experimental electronica artist ?-Ziq might dream up. The mood remains somewhat dark until track five, “New Planet.” Ribot is at his rockingest, setting a Hendrixian tone on the closing “Queen Bee,” although Medeski’s palette here recalls the Doors or even the Guess Who. “Curtis” finds the band at its most noodly and least interesting; far better, the mini-medley “Midnight Poppies/Crooked Birds” segues from a downtempo murmur to a party groove reminiscent of Pizzicato 5.

Despite their occasional meandering, MMW shows once again that retro and modern, analog and cyborg, can flow quite naturally in the same musical sentence.