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Gary Lucas & Gods and Monsters - The Ordeal of Civility

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Artist: Gary Lucas & Gods and Monsters

Album: The Ordeal of Civility

Label: Knitting Factory

Review date: May. 10, 2011

Much is made of the technical virtuosity of Gary Lucas, the guitarist for Beefheart’s extremely difficult “Evening Bell,” the co-writer of Jeff Buckley’s incandescent “Mojo Pin” and freewheeling “Grace,” the collaborator with downtown heavyweights and global syncretists. His ease with multiple, difficult idioms — rock, free-jazz, classical, blues and various kinds of folk music — is impressive, a tribute both to finger skill and a restless, omnivorous intelligence.

Lucas’ band members are capable, too, in a variety of genres. Billy Ficca, Television’s drummer, holds intricate, conflicting rhythms accountable in the more difficult songs, then backs off to a rumble in the quieter ones. Ernie Brooks, the bass player from the Modern Lovers, plays off these rhythms in interesting, often unexpected ways. Saxophonist Jason Candler switches from jazz to pop to the subtlest suggestion of texture, while Joe Hendle plays organ and piano and occasionally trombone. They are all capable of the wildest kinds of cacophonies, spinning out every which way yet somehow landing safely and in one piece. And yet, despite the display of skill here in The Ordeal of Civility, the most striking songs are the simplest ones.

Forget, for a minute the blues-swaggering, prog-snarled ball of complexity that makes up “Hot and Cold Everything” (the one that will remind you most of Beefheart) or the lightning rapidity of bluegrass “Whirlygig.” Set aside the studied outrageous-ness of “Peepshow Bible,” where a concordance’s worth of biblical references is held at arms length and smirked at, secular humanist style. There’s a firestorm of activity, a bravura display of intelligence here in this Ordeal of Civility, but Lucas’ most affecting moments are quiet, graceful and spare.

In several places, Lucas gives a nod to the simplest, most familiar forms of folk music, with a quotation from “Shortning Bread” in “Chime On,” a snippet of “Amazing Grace” embedded in “Peepshow Bible.” “Lady of Shalott,” coming about halfway through the album, is the first track to really pare itself back to folk essentials, the first to make an impact primarily through its beauty rather than level of difficulty.

Yet, in some ways, the whole album, in all its honking, strutting, swamp-boogie-ing multiplicity, seems to lead squarely to “Jedwabne.” This closing track, a lament in shadowy waltz-time, remembers the Jews of a village in Poland slaughtered in World War II. Lucas’ half-whispered lyrics, the subtle flares of sax, the melancholy twist of the tune — it all combines in a song which is lovely and sad without the least hint of sentimentality.

It’s a reminder that just because you can play guitar with dizzying skill, or write lyrics with a Yale English grad’s subversive wit, you don’t always have to. Sometimes the greatest technique is understanding when technique would just get in the way.

By Jennifer Kelly

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