For those of you who don’t know Marc Ribot, you probably do. Many big names have collaborated with this talented and versatile session guitarist, names like John Zorn, T-Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello, John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, Brother Jack McDuff, Chuck Berry, Soloman Burke, Marianne Faithful, Arto Lindsay, The Jazz Passengers, Allen Ginsberg, Norah Jones, Akiko Yano, The Black Keys, Jeff Bridges, Jolie Holland and even Elton John. He was also instrumental in shaping the new sound that Tom Waits was emerging with in the early ‘80s, collaborating with him on game-changing albums such as Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years. He also plays in various projects/band pursuing a multitude of musical styles.
Ceramic Dog is supposed to be Marc’s attempt at “hard rock” though, as I’ve mentioned before, things are never quite what they seem with this intense and inventive guitarist. On the 2008 debut album Party Intellectuals, Marc teams up with Shahzad Ismaily on bass and Ches Smith on drums to introduce his own take on rock and, as is the case with most things involving Ribot, the result is eclectic. With a combination of sounds that is, at times “industrial” and bordering on the schizophrenic and then all of a sudden shifts gears to become laid back, goofy and sometimes even tender the record itself seems to have multiple personality disorder.
The album starts off with a mock-cover of The Door’s “Break on Through” a befitting opener in which the band set the tone for what is to come. Ribot’s tempestuous version of the song reminds me of his take on Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” in the sense that it doesn’t remind me of the original. And really, if you’re going to cover one of the greatest bands of all time as well as the most well-known guitar player in music history there’s no point in just copying what they did as it’s probably not going to sound better. Instead, Ribot makes the wise decision of giving the song his own personal touch of crazy and creating something new entirely, in essence a different song (Think of Tom Waits singing “Somewhere” from West Side Story or the countless covers on Johnny Cash’s American Series - there’s a reason it works).
The record continues with the title-track which is not only one of the best songs on the album but also one that I feel best embodies the attitude of this record as a whole. As is often the case with Ribot, whenever his songs feature lyrics (just check out “Skinny White Youths With Atitude” and “Yo! I killed your God”) their message is pertinent social commentary in the guise of idiotic, ridiculous versification (this “theme” repeats in the catchy “Todo El Mundo Es Kitsch”, and “Girlfriend”). His strength lies in taking the topics he approaches very seriously while seeming not to do that at all.
I’ve heard people complain about “When We Were Young and We Were Freaks”, a spoken-word over guitar-noise track with shades of post-beat nostalgia, saying that it felt out-of-place on the album, but I disagree. If ever there was an album where the “flow” and positioning of the tracks didn’t matter and where one could freely experiment with sound this is totally it. In fact, the whole frame of the record is based on the violent contrast between the frenzied, idiosyncratic tracks and the melodic, laid-back ones.
In songs like “Digital Handshake” and the heavyweight hard-rock anthem “Midost” there are times when you could swear the instruments are having a nervous breakdown; something I affectionately refer to as “seizure-music”. “Midost” especially starts with something that I guess you could call a drum-solo followed by the other instruments going apeshit in a spasmodic release that I swear sounds like a helicopter fucking a conveyor-belt, all the while intermingled with a catchy riff that will definitely stick with you. At the other end of the spectrum are the melodic, easy-to-love songs like the laid-back “Todo El Mundo Es Kitsch”, the tender “For Malena” and the otherworldly masterpiece “Bateau”, which is not only the highlight of this album but also one of the best songs I have ever come across in any musical genre (and Ribot must love it as well since he also placed it on his 2010 record Silent Movies – though I like this version better).
The record ends on a bit of a more lackluster note though with “Shh Shh” and “Never Better”. While the former does have its own charm and serves as a good preview for Ribot’s 2010 solo album Silent Movies the latter is really nothing to write home about and is a track I usually skip, probably not so much because it’s a weak one but rather because the rest of the album is so powerful and this one doesn’t seem to measure up. It seems a bit messy, and not in the good way. I believe it might have been better to end the album with “Shh Shh” instead.
Overall, this is a great record and although I am a fan of all incarnations of Marc’s music, Ceramic Dog has to be my favorite. The album delivers great songs and acts as an intelligent and original take on the aesthetics of music. Not for the faint of heart but then again Ribot’s records rarely are.