John Corbett and Heavy Friends

I’m Sick about my Hat

Atavistic: ALP1116CD

John Corbett (guitars, montages, voice), Jane Baxter Miller (voice, one track only), Peter von Bergen (reeds, one track only), Jeb Bishop (trombone, one track only), Hamid Drake (percussion, one track only), David Grubbs (voice, one track only), Mats Gustafsson (reeds, voice), Terri Kapsalis (voice, one track only), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello)

Although there are eight “heavy friends” on the credits here, this record is entirely Corbett’s show. His guitar and his tape or turntable montages dominate every track, and the results are, well, slippery. The setting is familiar enough: studio ambiance, clunky acoustic guitar playing skewed

white-boy blues, cut-n-paste micro-sampling, a few blasts of free jazz sax, a large dollop of bad FM reception and some crackly old vinyl for added aura. But far from a kind of souped-up industrial improv, “I’m Sick…” delivers something very weird indeed.

For a start, apparently straightforward tracks like “Ready Kilowatt” — Gustafsson and bone-man Bishop wig out over Drake’s drums — turn out ugly, lumpen and awkward. Drake plays a mid-tempo rock rhythm and Corbett doctors their performance with some extremely intrusive processing, as if demonstrating his new effects unit to a friend, or as if working against any expectations that we might have had of this being a nice quartet blowing piece. We oughtn’t to have had those preconceptions by that stage, because we’ve already had “Parapoli Rosa E.“, whose title sounds like something by Duchamp and which lives up to it. A cacophony of out-of-tune vocal and violin samples from somewhere in the Indian subcontinent are underpinned by a faltering fifth-root bass line clunked out on Corbett’s guitar like a beginner playing country and western.


It feels nihilistic, a deliberate de-prettifying of several things at once, like beating up Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with a fake hookah bought from Neal’s Yard. Just as one is becoming accustomed to it, and beginning to feel an uneasy solidarity with what might be a sardonic attack on Western ethno-fetishism, it turns all lovely, with the layered samples briefly forming neat, orchestral mesh. What does it mean now? That’s anybody’s guess.

Exhibit number three might be “Cold Sweat“, on which he has Terri Kapsalis recite a stream of James Brown cliches through a George Clintonesque wrong-speed voice. Her diction gradually becomes slightly menacing. Is this a crude pastiche of pop’s recycling mentality, or an incredibly sophisticated pastiche of such crude pastiches? Maybe, at an even higher level of irony, it’s a genuine tribute. Or is it just crap?

This record is either brilliant or terrible depending largely on your frame of mind. It’s bitty, ugly, irritating and gawky. Yet, for the determined postmodernist, there are enough tremulous layers of possible meaning to keep one amused, wondering with a wry smile whether Corbett is really intoning that toe-curlingly purple paragraph by Clark Coolidge because he likes it or because he thinks it’s funny. Who knows? Richard Cochrane