Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Bill Frisell

  • Before We Were Born [Elektra, 1989] B+
  • This Land [Elektra/Nonesuch, 1994] A-
  • The Intercontinentals [Nonesuch, 2003] B-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Before We Were Born [Elektra, 1989]
He can get too abstract in both jagged and atmospheric modes, and the eclecticism signals a sideman's record: it's more impressive than meaningful to pass from hoedown to skronk in a second and harmolodic hymn next cut. But it is impressive--also fun. And unlike his predecessor Pat Metheny, Frisell needn't turn to Ornette for urban grit or deep content--which isn't to say Julius Hemphill doesn't sound right at home. B+

This Land [Elektra/Nonesuch, 1994]
For the groove-minded, Frisell is a frustrating case. Unlike so many jazz guitarists, he can get loud and rock out, but for him those are but two compositional options in the grand plethora. So while most of his albums are graced by great moments or nice mood, in the end I'm too rhythm-bound to want any part of the new live one or the two new soundtracks or the one where he covers Madonna or (especially) the one where he falls for a synthesizer. This beautifully constructed sextet record I come back to. It rocks out primarily by association; in fact, many of the avant-garde rags and elegiac ballads feel early 20th-century as they bounce off each other like motives in a symphony. But as is often claimed and seldom achieved, the sheer sound of a few bars of guitar can evoke the whole electric blues gestalt, just as the alto-trombone-clarinet combo can evoke all horns. On his Madonna record Frisell also covered Aaron Copland, who I keep meaning to get to. In the meantime I have this. A-

The Intercontinentals [Nonesuch, 2003]
Jazz sophisticates who long ago followed Frisell into the fog won't gainsay his groove at this late date. Swing isn't on his product list, and as for swing's West African or Brazilian equivalents, isn't that what now-Parisian percussionist Sidiki Camara and now-New York guitarist Vinicius Cantuária are on board for? Hardly. They're there for color. Frisell cares about color the way Sigur Rós cares about color, and if his hues are somewhat brighter, he doesn't have Iceland for an excuse. Every once in a while a drone or pattern emerges, reminding me of what I treasure most in "world music"--articulated rhythm. Then he gets some tech genie or steel player to throw on another synth substitute and it's back to the miasma. B-