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coverpic flag Canada - Full Moon 165 - 02/28/10

Steve Raegele
Last Century
Songlines

Songlines is quite the go-to label for interesting jazz guitar records at the moment, what with last year's impressive sophomore album by Ryan Blotnick and the explosive world-jazz-folk-rock mash-up of Sean Noonan's Boxing Dreams. And now, with Steve Raegele's Last Century, we have another engaging, atmospheric album of instrumentals for guitar, double bass and drums.

Last Century begins with the title track, a gorgeous, low-level thrum, like a searchlight slowly passing over the walls of a cave, testing to see if any perils lurk in the shadows. But wait! With "Triangle - Sisyphus", bats descend from the walls of the cave, flapping around your ears. Raegele's tangled guitar figures are knocked about by rapid-fire rimshots and hi-hat hits. And then the track eases into the wonderfully titled "Janet Jackson".

"Janet Jackson" is just one of the tracks that showcases the strengths of this ensemble. It begins with some tentative meandering on all three instruments, then Raegele takes the lead with a lovely, building overdriven riff, the bass and drums loping into step behind him. It's the kind of passage that feels simultaneously triumphant yet conscious of the fleeting nature of this triumph. Fittingly, the track breaks down again, this time into slightly more confident explorations, but still punctuated by awkward fits and starts. Some angular arpeggios stagger up the guitar neck, then the song returns to the lazy smears of the intro. An interesting wander that makes the overdriven 'climax' all the more triumphant on repeat listens - it's certainly a sneaky one.

Equally sneaky is Raegele's use of effects. One thing that I find frustrating about most jazz guitarists is their stubborn adherence to a clean, 'jazzy' (ahem) guitar tone. Raegele is smarter than that, pushing his amp into nice, warm break-up when the song calls for it, adding the occasional blur and shimmer of delay, reverb or tremolo. It's enviably skilled. I dig. He also knows when to trace out spindly lines and when to chop out some beefy riffs. This combination of just the right guitar sound with the right melodic/rhythmic feel is bloody satisfying, especially on the wonderful "Stop Short". Perversely, at the end of this track, one of the players is heard to laugh, "I think we should not do that again!" - no, please, do that again! Not jazz enough? Who knows...

The eerie tremolo guitar lines of "Triangle - Daedalus" make for a lovely ambient break before "The Opposite" introduces some welcome new instrumental textures: bowing on the bass and some scratchy punctuation on the guitar. When the driving beat kicks in it's a real fist-in-the-air moment as the trio get their rocks off again. Love it.

As with most jazz albums, I have to say that I do get a little bored in the second half, but that's probably more my penchant for other genres than any inherent failing on the part of the players or the music. There are some good tracks later in the album, such as the epic (and brilliantly named) "Fight Club the Rabbit", which has some strange synth tones blended into its quieter moments. However, sometimes the meandering passages on the longer pieces do give me an itch to skip forward a track. All that jazzy skittering can wreak havoc on a man's nerves.

Regardless, I've felt for a long while that there's a tonne of potential in the fertile middle ground between rock and jazz, and Steve Raegele is sowing his seed there. I dig your crops, man.

Copyright © 2010 Tim Clarke e-mail address

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