Marc Ribot’s “Silent Movies”: An Adventure in Audio Realism
The song is always the most important thing and many a wonderful tune has been ruined by bumptious guitar playing. The guitar should work with a song and not against it; shredding certainly has it’s place, but not on every tune in an artist’s repertoire. Simplicity is always a guitar picker’s greatest asset. Just ask John Fogerty or James Burton, my two favorite players of all time. John Fahey will always beat out Joe Satriani. Maybe not in the eyes of the guitar magazines and other such bullshit, but definitely in the eyes of the fans who want to hear music instead of flash.
I’m sure that most of you have heard the name Marc Ribot. Best known perhaps for his work with Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and as the go-to axeman for T-Bone Burnett, what you probably don’t know unless you’re a free jazz enthusiast is that Ribot has been releasing superb solo albums since the early ’90s that incorporate elements of virtually every genre into one singular artistic statement. His latest album Silent Movies is a solo guitar album featuring film music: some for classic silent films Ribot scored for his own pleasure, others for films he was actually commissioned to score, others for films that were entirely in his head, and one cover of the theme from a classic French film.
The fact that this was film music was my one reservation going in. Sitting and listening to film scores just isn’t something I normally do. A good score will work in the context of the film, but it’s generally not something you want to buy and listen to over and over. The exception to this, of course, is Ennio Morricone who was hands-down the greatest composer of the 20th century. (And I will be checking out the score Trent Reznor did for The Social Network, because…well, it’s Trent Reznor.)
Ribot’s film music is different. It probably helps the cohesiveness of the album that not all of it is really from a film, but this record has more in common with John Mellencamp’s No Better than This (which Ribot played on) or the upcoming debut by the Secret Sisters than it does the music from the latest summer blockbuster. It is very bleak music that feels like it would fit into another time and place, a time when things were hard. A Great Depression. Then, of course, you wake up to find the unemployment rate hovering somewhere in the vicinity of 10%, home foreclosures all around you, and the middle class slowly disappearing. And that’s when you realize that everything has come full circle. The old is new again and still as relevant as it was in the past.
The album was recorded almost entirely solo and with no overdubs on Ribot’s 1960 Gibson ES-175 and it begins with “Variation 1,” which sets the mood for the rest of the record, both in tone and in the sparse nature of the song. Ribot follows the up with “Delancey Waltz,” a gloomy ballad from the unreleased film Drunk Boat.
“Flicker” has a sort of dark optimism that I really like, as if it’s the soundtrack of a final and unlikely chance at redemption, but a chance nonetheless; but alas, in a brilliant piece of sequencing and what could be a metaphor for today’s world, the following piece, “Empty,” destroys even that final glimmer of hope.
“Natalia in E♭ Major,” from the documentary El General begins as an angry feedback-drenched noise rock tune before quietly returning to the theme from “Variation 1” in it’s second half. “Solaris” follows with it’s seeming disorganization. The melody is always eventually overtaken by the chaotic rhythm of the piece. Another metaphor perhaps?
The gloomy “Requiem for a Revolution,” also from El General is the darkest piece here and it’s also the one I couldn’t get out of my head. After the desolate and brooding soundscape presented in that track the mood simply must be lightened somehow and it is on “Fat Man Blues,” a blues guitar jam that is easily the most accessible thing on the album without sounding out of place.
“Batteau” is a gentle, wandering piece that’s followed by “Radio,” a melodic rocker with ragtime-influenced undertones and a hushed feel. In other words, this is probably from the part of the movie where one of the characters is keeping a big secret.
“Postcard from N.Y.” seems to me to be about the effects of the recession on Ribot’s hometown and, as such, it is appropriately somber.
He follows this with “The Kid,” which is the heart of the entire record. As Ribot points out in the liner notes, this album came about after he performed his re-imagined score for the 1921 Charlie Chaplin film of the same name as live accompaniment at a screening of the film. He said that he noticed a sadness in the film that is often lost behind the slapstick humor. As he says himself, “I was surprised at how the silent film which, when I saw it as a teenager seemed walled off in a past so safely distant as to be automatically funny, seemed 40 years later to be absolutely contemporary. The Chaplin character’s poverty-stricken attempts to create a family life with his abandoned “kid” strike me now as more sad than funny, not distant at all, as if something- maybe our current economic problems, maybe something less tangible or more personal- has opened a window in time…” So even if the song isn’t the best here, it is the key to understanding the entire album and the reason for it.
The record ends with Hubert Giraud’s theme from Sous Le Ciel de Paris, a 1951 French film.
Marc Ribot is quite simply a master of composing film music, even if one gets the feeling that Disney won’t be giving him a call anytime soon. Silent Movies is one of the most depressing and somber albums in my massive music collection and, as such, it isn’t right for every occasion. For example, I won’t be taking it with me when I have to cover over 100 miles of highway tomorrow. It just isn’t that kind of album. It’s the type that, given it’s premise, should easily be background music, but Ribot won’t let it. He makes the music come out and grab you, casting a dark cloud of musical realism over your entire day. And sometimes that’s just what we need.