There is no greater sound in the world than that of a group of talented musicians doing whatever the hell they want.
That’s the guiding philosophy behind Tuesday Morning, and in fact my life as a music fan. When circumstances, passion and talent align, the result is more often than not sublime. A really great piece of music, written and recorded by great musicians with no concerns other than the artistic, can bring you closer to whatever God or guiding force that holds the universe together. It can speak of better worlds just out of the reach of this one, and provide windows through which you may glimpse them and believe.
Unfortunately, 90 percent of all recorded works don’t even attempt to draw back the blinds and reach for whatever waits beyond. 90 percent of all musicians are blinded, clouded or otherwise held back by financial or personal constraints that prevent them from even trying to act as the conduit to something greater. Of the remaining 10 percent that try, most of them fail in one way or another. The sheer number of coincidences that can derail even the finest and purest artistic plans point towards the making of a truly great creative work as a statistical near impossibility.
If this is getting a little too metaphysical for you, well, let me bring it back to earth. I’ve recently been taken to task (not unkindly, mind) twice by two separate readers for the rules I use to formulate my Top 10 Lists. Most pointedly, these readers both agree that my decision to only include those albums released stateside during a given year is bogus and ill-conceived. More than likely, I’ll be changing the rules at some point to accommodate my newfound worldwide audience (which I still can scarcely believe, so if you’re reading this someplace outside of the continental United States, thank you), but I’d like to point out that I’ve broken them before. One band has forced my hand on at least one occasion to include their discs on the list, even though you can’t find them in record stores, because the music was so original and fantastic that not including them would be criminal.
That band is Maine’s own Cerberus Shoal.
Without my time at Face Magazine, I might never have stumbled across this band, and I’d never know what I’d been missing. I got the opportunity to meet them as well, and to discover just how artistically driven they are. At the time of our interview, the band had just restructured itself into its boldest and best six-man lineup, and was just about to embark on a musical trip with no clear destination. I caught them at the cusp, and they knew just how great they could be then. Four years later, they’d burned brightly and dissolved, but they left behind a three-hour testament to art for art’s sake.
The sextet lineup, which included the three members of local soundscapers Tarpigh, made three albums. Designed as a trilogy, the discs came out slowly. The fascinating, layered Homb descended in 1999, followed by the stranger, denser Crash My Moon Yacht in 2000. Both featured webs of exotic percussion wrapping around intricate guitar and trumpet melodies, augmented by dozens of instruments from around the world. The resulting sound is nearly impossible to describe. Dreamy, atmospheric, cascading, heavy, unfettered and almost entirely wordless, Cerberus had practically created a new art form all their own.
The final part of the trilogy languished, delayed and incomplete, for more than a year. During that time, the band split amicably, with the Tarpigh trio striking out on their own again and Cerberus taking on two new members (and an entirely new sound) and moving forward. Their final album together, rumored to be a double disc that would set the other two records on their ears, looked as though it would join the annals of the great lost recordings.
But lo and behold, Mr. Boy Dog is here. The rumors were right – it’s a double disc set, even though the 68 minutes of music it contains would fit nicely on one CD, and it sets the other two records on their ears.
The unfortunate thing about pure art, from a reviewer’s standpoint, is that it defies efforts to reduce it to words. Mr. Boy Dog has confounded my attempts to review it for a few days now. I can’t pin it down with proper comparisons or contexts, so I’m reduced to fluffy adjectives that tell you pretty much nothing. I can only compare it to other Cerberus Shoal albums, because I know of no other band moving in the direction they moved to arrive at this work. I can only tell you that it is a destination point, a grand finale, a huge and daunting final sprint across the finish line.
Whereas both Homb and Moon Yacht were exercises in drawing out moods, the nine longer tracks on Mr. Boy Dog are relatively concise. The songs are infinitely more complex and dizzying this time out, drawing influences from acid jazz, progressive rock and tribal rhythmic circles, usually all at once. Melodies spring out of nowhere, building on the steadiest foundation this band has ever laid down. The album feels tense and dramatic, even when the melodies are not, as on “Vuka” and “Nod.” This tension makes the 11-minute release of the final track, “An Egypt that Does Not Exist,” seem monumental. In fact, the whole album feels massive, even monolithic.
As towering an achievement as Mr. Boy Dog is on its own, it gains new dimensions when heard as the final act of a trilogy. The occasional aimlessness of previous albums now feels like winding paths toward a well-earned goal. Considering how much the band grew between albums, it’s amazing how much Mr. Boy Dog makes it sound like they knew where they were going all along.
Perhaps the finality of the record wouldn’t sound so…well, final if the band hadn’t split before its release. We (and, I suspect, they) will never really know where they could have gone next. Neither of the musicians’ new incarnations show the promise of Mr. Boy Dog, either: Tarpigh’s new album, Monsieur Monsoon, feels small and scattered in comparison, and Cerberus Shoal, with the addition of two singers, has gone in an off-kilter and vocal-driven direction with their single, Garden Fly Drip Eye. Since both projects’ release preceded Boy Dog, they’re both unfortunately reminiscent of the Beatles’ solo work that came out before Let It Be, reminding everyone that the band was much more than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps sadder than the funereal aspect of Mr. Boy Dog is that relatively few people will ever hear it. It’s been released on tiny Baltimore label Temporary Residence, and is only available through one of two websites: www.cerberusshoal.com or www.temporaryresidence.com. If you agree with the first sentence of this column, and you can think of no sweeter sound than that of a group of talented musicians doing whatever the hell they want, then you won’t find sweeter sounds than those contained on Mr. Boy Dog.
Next week, a big huge column with at least five reviews. You’ll just have to wait and see what they are.
See you in line Tuesday morning.