75 Dollar Bill – Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/Rhythm/Rock (2016)
It’s a strange week. After having largely lost the faith, I find myself skirting into the outer territories of Rock & Roll for the third time. My affection for 75 Dollar Bill is no mystery. I’ve written about them in the past. The fact that both members, Che Chen and Rick Brown, are dear friends, doesn’t color my feelings. The band is a force. In different ways, the two have been steady contributors to New York’s sonic outer reaches for years – Rick’s dating to the late 70’s, and Che’s to the early 2000’s. Rick was the drummer for V-Effect, Run On, Timber, and Fish & Roses. He’s also embarked on various collaborations with Sue Garner, Tortoise, Matmos, Yo La Tengo, Charles Hayward, Fred Frith, Malcolm Mooney, and Elliott Sharp, among others. Che first gained notice as a member of of True Primes, but quickly began to make waves under his own name in collaborations with Jozef van Wissem, Andrew Lafkas, David Watson, Maher Shalal Hash Baz, Che-Shizu, and as part of Tony Conrad’s ensemble. In addition to creating music, he’s also responsible for the incredible O Sirhan, O Sirhan zine, and Black Pollen Press, which released that astounding Pauline Oliveros / Eliane Radigue / Yoshi Wada / Sun Circle LP a while back. The two began collaborating somewhere around 2012, after which they fell from view of their friends, becoming immersed in the shadows of their practice space. We all knew something was afoot before they emerged to play their first show later that year. That night was a revelation for the scattered crowd who made up the audience. Even in their earliest stages, the project was clearly something special. As Che traced through blistering, distorted guitar lines, drawing from North African traditions and beyond, Rick battered out complex rhythms from a large plywood box. Polyrhythms rose from a collection of broken cymbals and scraps of metal collected at his feet, and jaws began to drop. No one had heard anything like it.
After Che returned from a trip to Mauritania to study Griot guitar techniques with Jeiche ould Chigaly in 2013, the band embarked on a what seemed to be an endless stream of performances and recording sessions. A week rarely passed without offering a chance to see them play. I rarely turned it down. The next few years saw the emergence of a number of brilliant self-issued cassettes and an LP on Other Music’s imprint, each pushing at the bands elastic bounds. The audiences at their shows began to grow, and their fans became close to ecstatic – often dancing in a frenzy at their feet. Even the New York Times took note. During the couple of years I spent in NY after a decade in London, I must have seen them 100 times. I can’t recall a disappointing moment. There was a simple reason. Most bands practice to nail down their sound. 75 Dollar Bill is the opposite. Though it’s undeniable that they got tighter and more refined as they went, they constantly pushed themselves, always looking for ways to stretch, expand, and throw a wrench in the cogs. One of the ways they did this was by asking a steady stream of musicians to collaborate with them – notably Sue Garner, Andrew Lafkas, Karen Waltuch, Cheryl Kingan, and Steve Maing. You were never sure of who or what you’d get. Without losing what made it great, their sound began to evolve and fluctuate. Elements of droney Psyche, Stoner Rock, and Modal Jazz began creeping in. Two of their three cassette releases offered insight into this expanding palette, focusing on collaborations with those mentioned above, while their more well distributed LP Wooden Bag returned them to a duo. On Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/Rhythm/Rock, out on June 2nd via Thin Wrist Recordings, I was excited to see the line-up once again expanding. In addition to Chen and Brown, it also features contributions by Carey Balch, Cheryl Kingan, Andrew Lafkas, Rolyn Hu, and Karen Waltuch.
Most discussions surrounding 75 Dollar Bill (including my own) have focused heavily on their relationship to the musical traditions of North Africa. Though an undeniable component in their broad sound, it takes more to describe it. Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/Rhythm/Rock goes a long way toward rectifying this. The LP opens with one of their long standing live “hits” Earth Saw which fall’s closer to the territory charted by Earth (the band) than anything I’ve ever heard emerge from Africa. It’s slow repetitive guitar lines and rhythms are deeply hypnotic, coaxing us toward the record’s unfolding clarity. Because there is no band that I’m aware that sounds like them, I’m resistant to offer references, but the grungy communal adventures of of Amon Düül, International Harvester, and Red Krayola come to mind. The second and third tracks (Beni Said and Cummins Falls) are blistering psychedelic jams of the sort which have increasingly come to define their live sets. It isn’t until the fourth and final song I’m Not Trying To Wake Up, that they pull the rug out, forcing me to question my understanding of the band and their music. Some of this draws from how well I know the material, but most rests with the track itself. I can’t entirely describe how it’s different, the defining elements are all there, but the construction strays into new realms. Their conscious avoidance of easy categorization is more pronounced. As the rhythms and tones unfold, they seem more carefully considered, while increasingly confrontational and tense. The result is brilliant, and leaves me anxious to know what comes next.
Whether you’re hearing about them for the first time, or one of the many that have danced at their feet, Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/Rhythm/Rock is a scorching adventure into where Rock & Roll should be. It’s unfamiliar, laden with risk and rebellion, and embodies the cross cultural collision that we should all hold as an ideal. You can get it from Thin Wrist Recordings, or from your favorite record shop when it hits the streets. The only fragment currently in the public sphere is the trailer seen below (shot by my equally talented friend Steve Maing), check it out and enjoy.