Marc Ribot’s mind is always leaping forward to embrace the next idea. In conversation, his responses exude equal measures of reflection and spontaneity; he addresses each statement and answers each question thoughtfully, but it seems that he’s already considering subjects that haven’t yet been raised. His music is similarly diverse. Whatever ensemble he employs, and in whatever style he plays, unpredictability is a major component of his M.O. Silent Movies is no exception, and his formidable technique services music that continually thwarts expectation.
This is an album of music composed around the idea of cinema, as accompaniment for silent films, for various cinematographic projects and for films existing only in the composer’s imagination. There is a cinematic quality in the way the tracks are programmed, as when the wistfully modern “Variation 1” leads into the old-world charm of “Delancey Waltz.” The sustained and distorted tones of “Natalia” are suddenly replaced by subdued picking in triple time, and the effect is at first jarring, then idyllic. Ribot also demonstrates a penchant for return, as the music of “Empty” seems to be derived from “Variation 1”’s material.
Beyond the many transformations in playing style and the genres they evoke, the album is replete with what I assume to be field recordings. They are often languidly atmospheric, with the notable exception of the nightmarish opening moments of “Postcard from NY.” The fact that such slow and bittersweet music can emerge from the chaos of pounding feet, screams and alien plucking and scrapings seems incongruous at first, but its gradual increase in volume and the ghost tones pervading it link it back to the opening’s hellish soundscape. Usually though, we are given lush streetscenes in altered perspectives, like the one that concludes “Sous le Ceil de Paris” These recordings often bring a sense of detachment and gentle dislocation to the familiar, providing moments for meditation punctuated by an occasional reminder of environment — traffic, a disembodied voice, the comforting undulations of water. In this way, as with Annea Lockwood’s pioneering recordings of rivers, very specific environments are universalized.
The juxtaposition of soundscape and music might appear superficially cliché, but in this case, it’s a winning combination. The playing is, as always, excellent, each note bringing with it a sense of deliberation and precision, as if it could not be anywhere else. The music is largely subdued, the guitarist’s whimsical sense of humor coming to the fore only in “Fat Man Blues.” For those who enjoyed Ceramic Dog’s over-the-top zaniness, Silent Movies will afford a chance to view Ribot’s talent from a very different but equally refreshing angle.