I don’t mind bands contriving a sound in advance, something that there isn’t much of going around or even something totally new and original for the sake of being experimental or challenging. Hell, we wouldn’t be where we are now without George Martin’s laborious pre-digital tinkering, Kool Herc’s third deck or Kurt Cobain reinterpreting the punk aesthetic 15 years after its cartoonish origins. But if Mother’s mix of free jazz, avant-rock and traditional Greek folk sounds too busy that’s because it often is. We may call it a melting pot of influences but what we want to cook up is a rainbow of delicately balanced flavours, not the muddy soup you get just by stirring everything together. And on occasion Xylouris White fall on the soupy side of the fence where more is less.
However the band have a natural home on Bella Union, and in Cretan lute player George Xylouris and Dirty Three drummer Jim White, a proven pedigree in experimental and slightly absurd traditionalism. This, their third album together, lollops (it’s a little ungraceful at times) from hypnotic and brooding on ‘Daphne’ and ‘Achilles Heel’ (although the latter is over before it has begun) to elegant and emotive on ‘Spud’s Garden’ and ‘Woman from Anogeia’ (also frustratingly short). In between, Mother is often expressive albeit with an intuitive mystery lurking underneath. The elongated silences after ‘Daphne’ and ‘Only Love’ are like dark portals to an alternative version while the recurring brevity often doesn’t let the plethora of musical ideas breathe. It’s a challenging listen, for sure, the traditional arrangements aren’t immediately palatable to a constitution fed on easily digestible verse/chorus nuggets but on second or third listen Mother is more coherent.
‘Motorcycle Kondilies’, reminiscent of ‘Norwegian Wood‘ in its structure and progression if not White’s discombobulated rimshots and Xylouris’s frenetic vocal and dancing lute lines, is winsome but intentionally unsettling. ‘Call and Response’ bounces freeform lute and percussion off each other and is the most obvious Guy Picciotto (Fugazi, who produced again for the duo) moment on here. The staccato rhythms wouldn’t sound out of place driving one of Picciotto’s trademark scratchy riffs. However closer ‘Lullaby’ is lazy and unrealised. Anna Roberts-Gevalt of old-time folk duo Anna & Elizabeth, whose ghostly viola and sighing vocals can be just about heard towards the end of the track.
The result is an album of some musical accomplishment that offers so much but falls a little short. Three albums in but with plenty of niche source material still to mine and with some choice collaborators on board it’s a shame Xylouris White don’t push the prog boat out a little further or conversely strip it down quiet/loud. A big grower I suspect though, so put the champagne on ice and let’s see if Mother might creep into a few of the more high-brow year-so-far lists.
Mother is released on 19th January through Bella Union.