REVIEW – Steve Lawson: ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’ album, 2002 (“a nifty bantamweight with a remarkable ear for timbral decoration”)

8 Aug
Steve Lawson: 'Not Dancing For Chicken'

Steve Lawson: ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’

Steve Lawson’s second solo album shows that he’s taking assured strides in all directions. His relaxed, informal debut (2000’s ‘And Nothing But The Bass‘) was a generous concoction of looped and jazzy bass guitars, vivid electronic textures and welling ambiences. It showed what could happen when benevolent prettiness intermeshes with a generous pinch of sound-warping avant-garde tendencies.

Lawson’s latest solo efforts display a more kaleidoscopic approach while losing none of that endearing friendliness. “Not dancing for chicken” is a war-cry – something to do with buckets of junk food, the waning star of MC Hammer and the fight between commercialism and art. To be honest, Lawson can sit that specific war out. He can mash up sound with the best of them (as he’s done with the French improvisers Franck Vigroux and Jerome Curry), but the warrior/guru moves of the dedicated avant-gardener aren’t really his style. Instead of responding to sickly market pap with ferocious spills of obvious disruption, he marries simple, memorable rivulets of melody to a broad field of sonic treatments. In doing so, he creates music which rather than turning its back and raging will instead sail right in under the commercial radar to tickle people’s senses. If that makes him an armchair revolutionary, at least he’s the kind who offers you the armchair first.

To define this better, one could quote one of his own song titles: Lawson believes in “the virtue of the small.” Sticking to a single-take, bass-guitar-only rule (and pursuing his experiments with sound processors, EBow sustainers and loop technology), he continues to hit the elusive target of making music-for-everyone. Centred on a deft, tuneful and jazzy core, his music avoids the predictable calisthenics of fusion and the stolid members-club beefiness of mainstream jazz and post-bop. Instead, he’s a nifty bantamweight with a remarkable ear for timbral decoration, and an obvious love for his listeners.

No More Us And Them displays this perfectly, showing Lawson at his very best. Cascading curtains of gorgeous submarine texture tumble in waves over particularly poignant fretless bass figures and a questioning melody which hovers marvellously between mourning and hope. By way of contrast, MMFSOG offers a goofy Hawaiian celebration. Lawson squeezes out a typewriter rattle of tabla-styled slap groove before anointing it with layer upon layer of mischievously camouflaged bass sounds. Most notable is the giddy, slippery steel guitar impression, roller-blading precariously across the verses; but there are also cicada choruses, stunt-plane zips of backwards melodies and blankets of Warp-styled electronica burble on offer. Eventually Lawson cheerfully runs the song into the swamp and leaves it there to marinade, taking up more mutant funk on Channel Surfing in which a stupefied, robotic slap line chunters merrily under a pale, ringing line of tumbledown chord arches. Various queasy jazz riffs and funky wriggles squeeze past it as best they may.

Although Lawson delights in cooking up this kind of loop stew, ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’ doesn’t reject tradition. On Regretting The Rainbow (the most complex piece on offer) he employs his six-string contrabass to blend elements of jazz guitar smoothies Martin Taylor and Joe Pass in a luscious and breezy study, steered subtly towards some difficult questions via an intrusion of quizzical harmony. Danny And Mo lets Lawson’s fretless bass and EBow gently sing the praises of underrated British bass heroes: a nice counterbalance to the endless musical tributes to Jaco Pastorius tumbling from other bass players.

A couple of pieces (the relaxed Brazilian lilt of Amo Amatis Amare and the stumble-blues of Tom Waits For No Man) are one-man-band opportunities to fool around with some familiar forms, to Lawsonify them, and to take advantage of some truly appalling puns. Two ballads – Need You Now and Jimmy James – showcase Lawson’s humble-yet-richly-romantic solo tone, as well as his flair for understated counterpoint via a couple of artfully poised loops. The latter (a valediction to a lost friend) moves away from simple Windham Hill prettiness thanks to the eerie fingertip-on-glass textures that circulate behind its warm, sleepy fretless melody.

The stranger music sends Lawson into a different area again. Exit Sandman is a lurking mood piece, a sour work-song riff wafting up into vaporous blue-grey wails of E-bow. No Such Thing As An Evil Face is a ghostly African death-song. The amnesiac Ubuntu is a similar set of waves reaching the beach, Lawson’s backing loops providing tinkling tabla tones and prinking noises like cooling shrapnel.

The finale, Highway 1, brings all of Lawson’s work together. The rich, free-ranging travellers melody sits on gently swinging cradles of clicks, pops and ghost notes and on shimmering shells of chords. It’s carried in turn by a sweet, blues-y wah-tone like a swamp foghorn, then a shimmering ripple of backwards basses, then a sky-borne E-bow wail which flutters like a giant and beautiful moth. Lawson conjures up heat-hazes and mirage-doubles of parts and melody out of his loops pedals, and will-o-the-wisps dance counterpoint but never obscure the relaxed momentum of the tune as it heads onwards to a permanent perfect sunset and fades out; still travelling as hopefully as the smiling man on the bass.

Steve Lawson: ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’
Pillow Mountain Records/Bandcamp, PMR 0013 (no barcode)
CD/download album
Released: 1st July 2002

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

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