John Zorn – The Dreamers

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Love the cover art – there’s something similar in my dentist’s studio, which apparently helps soothes the children. That and the name of the album (later used as the name of the band for the sequel, 2009’s O’o) gives you an idea of what The Dreamers sounds like. These two albums, as well as 2001’s The Gift(which had a lot of the same players, and like this one, only featured one track where John Zorn takes on an instrumental role) make up a trilogy of sorts of John Zorn’s most accessible releases.

Unfortunately, a lot of The Dreamers uses “accessibility” and “atmosphere” as crutches – compare any of these tracks to “Sunset Surfer” from Naked City’sRadio (the most accessible John Zorn record as part of Naked City) and you’ll notice that the musicianship is only here in patches. For example, “Forbidden Tears” is pretty, but once you’ve heard “Mow Mow” or “Uluwati,” there’s no reason for it to exist; “Uluwati,” in addition to packing melody that goes down as easy as virgin rum and coke for the virgins who’ve never had rum and coke, features an extremely fun and fast-paced solo that neither of those tracks offer. “Forbidden Tears,” has such a predicable melody in its slow climbs up and down that you’ll never need to hear it more than halfway through to get the jist. Similarly, “Nekashim” only manages to stand out because the prominent use of vibes, but it’s more a “Cool, listen! Vibes!” vibration than it is anything else – Kenny Wollesen’s contributions to “Toys” are much more interesting in comparison. Elsewhere, I don’t quite get the praise around “Anulikwutsayl,” mostly a chance for guitarist Marc Ribot to get his Carlos Santana on, but the problem is the prominent riff gets really tired around the umpteenth time he plays it on the longest track of an otherwise short and sweet album comprised of short and sweet tracks, as if he’s playing it to fill time while he remembers / improvises what he’s going to do next. I think the praise has something to do with the fact that it’s also the most Zorn-like track on an album that’s mostunlike Zorn – things finally get exciting at the 6:20 mark onwards when screams can be heard in the distance and drummer Joey Baron is allowed to do something more than just exercise restraint, but it’s an exhausting trek to get to that point.

That being said, there’s plenty of good stuff. “A Ride on Cottonfair,” with its rolling piano (think: Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy”) gives bassist Trevor Dunn a chance to shine – hell, it’s practically his show as soon as he steps in. Elsewhere, the long tracks on the second half of the album are mostly Marc Ribot-dominated, but unlike “Anulikwutsayl,” the rest of the band isn’t just keeping time for him. The band add extra effects to both “Of Wonder and Certainty” (devoted to Lou Reed but not the Lou Reed people think of when they think of Lou Reed) and “Mystic Circles” that separate them from “Anulikwutsayl.” The cresting waves on the first half of the former give it a calming quality before it eventually picks up pace, while the latter starts you off in a swamp with what could be recordings of chilling frogs before Zorn and co. submerges you underwater. There’s also an entire zoo’s worth of animal noises dispersed throughout closer “Raksasa.” Meanwhile, the spotlight constantly shifts between Ribot and organist Jamie Saft on “Exodus,” who’s equally prominent on “Raksasa” before he’s eventually drowned out by the return of Trevor Dunn (not literally, but other than “Raksasa” and “Cottonfair,” Dunn’s barely heard on the record). And though I wrote off Joey Baron previously, the use of hand-drumming add an exotic flavor on “Uluwati” and whatever exactly he’s banging out contributes to the psychedelia on the second half of “Mystic Circles.”

The most interesting track though, is “Toys.” To me, one of John Zorn’s most endearing qualities is his predilection for playing with as many genres in the shortest span of time. As a whole, The Dreamers doesn’t really let him do that: aside from “Cottonfair,” the album’s pretty evenly divided between surf rock and psychedelic rock. “Toys” lets John Zorn be John Zorn – it’s also, as mentioned, the only track where he plays instruments. Like the rest of the album, it packs a considerable melodic punch (after starting with a tiny hint of exotica, no less), before Jamie Saft goes absolutely nuts on the keyboards (aided with splashes of vibes), returning to the main theme and descending again into insanity, this time alongside John Zorn’s familiar saxophone playing – all in under 3 minutes!

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