A couple of years ago, the Duke McVinnie Band (hereafter DMV Band) seemed to be performing practically weekly, enjoying extended residencies at BSP and the Bearsville Theater. These were good times for anyone who was hip to this outrageous group. I am hard-pressed to think of a more interesting and arresting live band ever to waltz, tango, rhumba, drone, swing, storm, stumble and spaz through these parts.
Exhilaratingly dramatic and dynamic even as they perform seated, the DMV Band occupies a unique sweet spot on the style curve where an arty, atmospheric modernism rides atop deep roots undercurrents, transmuted jazz, blues, Latin and pre-rock grooves and colors. Bridging the ether and the earth is McVinnie’s convincing post-beat persona as a lyricist and vocalist: smoky, Mephistophelean, street-operatic, rasping songs that are equal parts American hobo myth and surreal, deep-image prophecy. And both roles feel completely natural and earned. McVinnie probably has done time with the circus. And he probably does endure involuntary illuminations of the kind that troubled Rimbaud.
Now, in a move reminiscent of Tom Wait’s simultaneous release of Alice and Blood Money or – Heaven forbid – of Guns and Roses’ epic what-next, Use Your Illusion 1 and 2, the DMV Band has emerged from a lengthy performance hiatus with not one but two fabulous new CDs (and a third in the can, it is said). The storied music-industry vet McVinnie has been at this a while. The Spartan titles – 9 and 10 – signify the numerical place of these releases in his solo discography. But “Band” is the key word here, as these records attempt to document and to deliver the peculiar, heightened chemistry of this peculiar, heterogeneous ensemble of Hudson Valley notables: principal songwriter and guitarist McVinnie; cellist Jane Scarpantoni; guitarist, co-producer and stomp-box magician Matthew Cullen; drummer Manuel Quintana; and bassist Colin Almquist.
DMV Band 9 and DMV Band 10 are cut from the same cloth and from the same sessions, branded as one thing with two faces and subtle in their differentiation. 10 – perhaps not even intentionally – emphasizes the moody chamber art and atmospheric/instrumental dimension of the area’s premier art band, meaning a noticeably larger role for cellist Scarpantoni. 9 rocks more consistently, features a few more conventional song forms and seems more inclined to call upon McVinnie’s breathtakingly subtle and subversive command of the American groove lexicon. But the DMV Band’s fusion of grit and cosmos, of tradition and experimentalism, is some pretty deep atomic-level alchemy – no mere daubing of space echo onto a psychedelic blues – so it can be safely said of DMV Band 9 and 10 that both are both.
Track one on 9, “Pompeii,” is both a tone-setter and a red herring. It’s a one-gear, glacial groove tune plowing without much deviation through a web of wispy and pawing atmospherics, giving no forewarning of the kind of complex epics and detailed, hypermusical compositions that immediately follow it. What “Pompeii” does establish effectively, however, is the ominous and apocalyptic lyrical tone of the whole project, combining of-the-moment, journalistic social observations with the opaque symbolism of dream journals and sacred texts.
Track two, “It” (co-written by Quintana), introduces us to the kind of devilish musical trickery of which this band is capable. Its indeterminate groove assembles slowly from the corners, daring you to find the one and to trace the shape of the phrase as it shifts under your ears in ways that call to mind Rorschach and Escher. Your reward for riding out its unsettling (and awesome) perspective tricks is the relative normalcy of the next two songs: the delightful Latin noir of the Cullen-co-written “The Roar” and the slack honky-tonk rock of “Down the Road.”
The dark, groovy psychedelia of “Astronomy,” the final track on 9, seems to point in the direction of the more expansive sonic textures and mood pieces that prevail on 10, the centerpiece of which is the nearly nine-minute, mostly instrumental space poem “Dizzynence,” a portmanteau title that seems to encompass dizziness, dissonance and perhaps even a little Disney. But the secret charmer of this second disc may be its shortest track: the harmonically delicate and distressed, warped ballad “Afternoon Ghost.”
The Almquist-co-written “Sisters” takes home 10 with an acid-rock twist. The DMV Band and Duke’s songs resist easy comparison and influence-identification (notice that I have barely even tried), but one solid reference point on 9 and 10 (especially 10) is early Pink Floyd and the Canterbury scene of Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, Soft Machine and Gong, updated with a delicate post-rock sense of refined, chamber arrangement, delivering Duke’s imaginative and stirring live-from-the-apocalypse poetry in ways that are beautiful and disturbed and, on the level of groove and musicianship, unfailingly boss.
The DMV celebrates the release of these ambitious and complementary twin CDs at the Falcon in Marlboro on Sunday, October 19 at 7 p.m. Connor Kennedy opens with a solo set. Per usual in Tony Falco’s cathedral of serious music, there is no cover, but generous donation is strongly encouraged.
DMV Band with Connor Kennedy, Sunday, October 19, 7 p.m., the Falcon, 1348 Route 9W, Marlboro; www.liveatthefalcon.com.