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Critic's picks: California Guitar Trio, 'Big Blue Ball'

Critic's Picks

California Guitar Trio

Echoes

Various artists

Big Blue Ball

Certainly much of California ­Guitar Trio's charm over the past two decades has been its ability to reinvent everything from classical preludes to surf, pop and jazz classics, as well as its original material, into progressive-minded string music with three acoustic guitars doing most or all of the melodic heavy lifting.

On Echoes, the trio's interpretive skills are emphasized (an album devoted to its own music is in the works) and the results are a riot. Recorded in Louisville over four days in May 2007, the repertoire, by CGT standards, is child's play. There is the dizzying minimalism of Penguin Café Orchestra's Music for a Found ­Harmonium, a surf-savvy rethink of Beethoven's Unmei, and an ultra-faithful take on the Queen staple Bohemian Rhapsody, which the trio has turned into a sort of beer-hall sing-along at concerts in recent years.

But the repertoire and instrumentation reveal considerable resourcefulness. Mike Oldfield's trademark Tubular Bells is reduced to a suitably spooky eight minutes that, once it passes the popular theme used for the movie The Exorcist 35 years ago, blossoms with orchestral grace and the complementary support of several CGT pals. Among them: bassist Tony Levin, theremin player Pamelia Kurtsin and even the group's producer/sound tech Tyler Trotter, who adds a playful touch of melodica.

The title tune similarly pares down a spacey 1971 Pink Floyd opus into 12 minutes that also skips sleekly between the intimate and the wildly trippy.

Wildest of all is the arena-rock warhorse anthem Free Bird, which chugs here to a neo-reggae groove and vocals from Louisville indie celeb Bonnie “Prince” Billy.

It's easy to view the resulting music as mere novelty. But settle into the gentle yet straightforward intricacy of Beethoven's Pastorale and you discover what a gimmick Echoes isn't. From devout classical references to prog-ish accents to its most inviting pop summations, warmth circulates about this music. You might recognize and even celebrate the familiarity of these compositions. But the music's light acoustic fabric and even livelier sense of respect and cunning gives Echoes a distinctive resonance.

Big Blue Ball operates with a similar collective spirit, but the ­approach is more global. The album is a miniature of the world music vision Peter Gabriel has designed from his Real World Studios. But Big Blue Ball also possesses a broad East-meets-West feel.

Gabriel is at the helm. Not surprisingly, the streamlined album-opener Whole Thing, led by Gabriel, with World Party's Karl Wallinger on guitar, Tchad Blake on drums and a vocal chorus supplied by Tim Finn and Andy White, is a highlight. But the beautifully ethereal Rivers, fronted by Hungarian vocal minx Márta Sebestyén with guitar-synth colors by Vernon Reid, is a bigger and braver reach.

Wallinger takes over for the finale title tune, a very un-World Party-ish meditation (“big blue ball, no trouble at all”). Add Gabriel's punctuated keyboards, co-producer Stephen Hague's accordion runs and the cheery beat of famed French drummer Manu Katche, and the tune takes on a summery glow.

Gabriel's imprint is all over this music. But so is the sense of playfulness and camaraderie that gives Big Blue Ball ample bounce.

Walter Tunis, Contributing Music Critic

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