(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Friday, May 16, 2014

Recording review - John Frusciante, Enclosure (2014)

Arbitrary fragments and electronic agitation

Anyone who knows John Frusciante’s guitar work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and other rock bands will be completely nonplussed by his latest release, Enclosure.

It may even surprise the true fans that already know his avant-garde side. From his first solo album, Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt (1994) through 2012’s PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone, Frusciante’s solo work has always distanced itself from his rock stylings, but it’s striking just how challenging this latest release is. Enclosure features some interesting guitar playing, but it’s positioned more as decoration than the central focus, which is made clear from the very start. “Shining Desert” is a loosely structured electronic soundscape. It begins with a pensive beat and peripheral swells of sound. Frusciante’s processed falsetto overlays itself but remains so low in the mix that it’s difficult to make out all of the lyrics. It’s an intentional gesture that seems to indicate that the words are not nearly as important as the mood he’s trying to create. The guitar doesn’t make its entrance until a full minute into the piece, ushered in with a tom-heavy drum flourish. From that point on, jittery percussion dominates the tune, accompanied by densely layered guitar and keyboard textures. Like a patchwork of corduroy, gingham, and silk, these fragments seemed arbitrarily tossed together without a clear artistic sense. When it can be teased out, the guitar playing is fluid and technically complex, but without a stronger context, it’s hard to appreciate.

This inauspicious beginning is followed by the slightly more coherent “Sleep”, which centers on a theatrical vocal delivery. Unfortunately, the overly busy drum machine beat eclipses the rest of the arrangement, reflecting a short attention span as it jumps from pattern to pattern. The first half of Enclosure stumbles from one experimental jumble to another. It’s not just a matter of defying rock expectations or conventions; the project seems trapped in the echo chamber of Frusciante’s studio-borne flashes of quixotic inspiration and obsessive dabbling. Music like this can sink in and grow on me over time, but the album’s first four tracks never clicked.

Perhaps in recognition of this self-indulgent noodling, Frusciante redeems himself somewhat with the fifth track, “Fanfare”. The simpler electro-pop groove is refreshingly accessible, and he reins in his restless rhythms. With a change of instrumentation, this could find a home in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ catalog, perhaps along with the tunes on By The Way (2002). His lyrical structure is fairly open, but the quiet intensity is pleasant. Eventually, he brings in some guitar during the more aggressive bridge section, but he closes the tune with a cool, Adrian Belew style section, replete with swells of reverse-gated runs. In this case, the outsider approach ornaments the introspective dignity of the piece.

On the next track, “Cinch”, Frusciante finally opens up on the guitar. This instrumental establishes a mournful procession, which provides a good base for his expressive riffing. As the drums sink into nervous, over-the-top fills, the guitar finds a balance between the dolorous foundation and the distracting syncopation. The remaining songs aim for something in between “Fanfare” and “Cinch”. They have a lot more musical structure than the first half of the album, but the scattered drum complexity is a relentless shadow.

A quick sampling of Frusciante’s most recent releases suggests a developing artistic arc. The Empyrean (2009) was more traditionally structured, but incorporated synth elements and a fair amount of production. PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone leaned more heavily on electronic influences, albeit with a Zappa-esque flair, but flashes of drumbeat anxiety do surface. Enclosure magnifies that sense of agitation and embraces it. The promotional push for the album offers another perspective. The album was sent up on a small Cube Satellite and streamed to a custom mobile app for the week or so before the release date. Enclosure’s lack of flow and clarity may just reflect where Frusciante’s head is at these days: somewhere out in the fringes.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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