Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Minibus Pimps LP proves Jonesy'll do anything to progress in new ways and old

Say there is a new album featuring John Paul Jones. You'll never know what to expect. Come on, the guy's hard to pinpoint. The top session bassist and in-demand arranger in the 1960s, Jones has always been all over the map, arranging strings for the Rolling Stones and Dusty Springfield, playing bass for Tom Jones and Memphis Slim, and maybe even subbing in on bass for the Yardbirds in the studio (though he denied that vehemently when I interviewed him a dozen years ago).

The soundtrack to this post:

No matter what instrument or how daunting the musical task at hand, here is a man whose career has been defined by a constant (if not nagging) mantra of "Jonesy'll do it." There was the custom manufacture of a triple-neck guitar -- mandolin neck included -- exclusively to accommodate everything he had to reproduce simultaneously on live renditions of "Ten Years Gone" with Led Zeppelin, all while Jimmy Page was satisfied with two guitar necks at once. As a rule, Jones was always expected to handle bass duties even if it meant with his feet because his hands were otherwise engaged with other instruments. If there was a female call-and-response vocal part to cover at live shows, "Jonesy'll do it." This was demanding work!

Even apart from being a major contributing force in Led Zeppelin's songwriting and musicality, Jones persisted in finding time to dedicate his varied talents to discs by the likes of Roy Harper and Madeline Bell. Whatever the session called for, he's been there.

For instance: Need string arrangements on four -- count 'em, four -- of R.E.M.'s singles in 1992? "Jonesy'll do it."

If you were avant-garde singer Diamanda Galás in 1994 and you wanted to write a full-length album with somebody on bass who would also bust out a lap steel guitar to complement your unique voice, who else would you naturally turn to but the same guy who'd just co-produced the last Butthole Surfers album? "Jonesy'll do it."

The same guy composed three Spanish-language songs for a CD recorded by the Harp Collective called Amores Pasados, released in 1995. When that music resembled baroque from the 1600s, the question became inevitable: Is there anything Jonesy won't do?

While the decade proceeded, Jones's focus progressed. Frustrated that the perennial sideman hadn't been considered as a sideman for the widely acclaimed Page/Plant projects of the '90s, he concentrated on putting out two proper solo albums under his own name. On 1999's Zooma and the 2002/2003 release The Thunderthief, Jones really branched out, grabbing anything he could play, be it that triple-neck guitar, various keyboards, mandolin, ukulele, harmonica, koto, autoharp, mandola, yadda yadda yadda. By the second album, he wasn't even content with just instrumentals; he relented and even recorded his own lead vocals. (It really wasn't his first time singing lead on a John Paul Jones album; two cuts he sang on and cowrote with his daughter Jacinda made their way onto the 1985 movie soundtrack for Scream for Help, which was his first full-length solo project.)

Perhaps a more notable attribute on that pair of solo releases was Jones's demonstrated mastery of a burgeoning digital soundscape environment known as Kyma. This sort of thing was nothing he hadn't attempted even in the Led Zeppelin days. When music reviewer Julian Marszalek recently called to mind the mysterious droning intro to the In Through the Out Door track "In the Evening," Jones was quick to take credit for most of the sound. He boasted:
Oh, thank you! That was me! Jimmy put some guitars on it, too, but I did that on the Yamaha GX-1. I found this programme where you have all the filters on the edge where they break up and keep trying to do something else and they keep coming back again. Yeah, that was great, that.
Consider Kyma as just an updated way of achieving a seemingly unlimited array of sounds, which allowed Jones's 1999-2003 solo recordings to take on whole new levels. Thus, if asked to name an artist who at that time was providing a new kind of fanfare for the millennium, one proper response would have been, "Jonesy'll do it."

In 2005, Dave Grohl said he wanted the Foo Fighters' next album to be a double album harnessing the broad musical diversity found on Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti 30 years earlier. Jones, who found himself in Los Angeles for the Grammys anyway, hopped on over to the Foos' recording studio and wound up guesting on the album. Need piano on an acoustic song called "Miracle"? "Jonesy'll do it." Need mandolin behind the harmonica solo on "Another Round"? "Jonesy'll do it."

Once he'd sufficiently made the rounds in the bluegrass/Americana/old-timey music circuit, Jones was the natural pick to produce Uncle Earl's third full-length release. Their session for a hoedown fiddle number for cloggers called "Streak O' Lean, Streak O' Fat" saw Jones playing some barrelhouse piano while one of the g'Earls served as a Chinese-language square dance caller. Oh, and what about some excess hollering in the background too? "Jonesy'll do it."

The following year, whilst producing Sara Watkins's self-titled debut album, Jones overdubbed three of his own instrument parts -- electric piano, mandolin and bass -- all onto an original of hers called "Will We Go." Even with the great Benmont Tench of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers band at his disposal, Jones took it upon himself to lay down the keyboard parts on two other songs as well. He joined the three-part harmony chorus of Sara's catchy album opener, "All This Time," while his bass skills graced about a third of the album as well, once again proving, "Jonesy'll do it."

His next in-studio collaboration with Grohl was a writing and recording project conducted in secrecy throughout much of 2009, resulting in a "supergroup" (like it or not) called Them Crooked Vultures and an eponymous disc that was an hour-plus of heavy yet trippy alternative rock. For this release, his supply closet was stocked with an array of keyboards (including keytar) and basses, plus a lap steel guitar and -- why not? -- mandolin. Round things out with some backing vocals, and you've got yourself a job to do. But fear not: "Jonesy'll do it."

If you were California-born bluesman Seasick Steve, and you'd gone in a short time from busking in obscurity to being suddenly pronounced Mojo magazine's Best Breakthrough Act and a festival mainstay, what would you do to further your the whirlwind acclaim you've been experiencing worldwide? Might a little name recognition help push your next two studio efforts in 2011 and 2013? The first time, how about getting John Paul Jones to play bass on two songs and mandolin on another? The second time, how about getting him back to play on no less than nine songs, this time adding to the instrument mix some Hammond organ, backing vocals, and even (yes, it exists) lap steel ukulele? "Jonesy'll do it."

By no means is this a comprehensive list. For more of his session, production and arranging work back in the day, I could have recited the familiar (hackneyed?) litany of names like Lulu, Donovan, Herman's Hermits, Engelbert Humperdinck, among many others. Led Zeppelin aficionados have been reciting these credits of Jones's since the earliest Led Zeppelin press releases at the end of the 1960s highlighted his earlier achievements. Since then, other studio accomplishments of his ranged from working with Sir Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, Ben E. King, the Mission UK, Heart, Cinderella, Robyn Hitchcock, and under-appreciated New Zealand garage rock revivalists the Datsuns, whose Jones-produced 2004 CD Outta Sight/Outta Mind is a personal favorite of mine. Still, that less-than-comprehensive list represents the bulk of Jones's studio work available up until last week.

Bearing all of that in mind, whether or not you're aware of the operas Jones has been composing in his spare time, it was difficult to imagine what to expect when earlier this year the Norwegian indie label SusannaSonata announced the March 3 release of Cloud to Ground, a near 30-minute album featuring four live collaborations between Jones and fellow record producer Helge Sten (a.k.a. "Deathprod"). Together, they call themselves Minibus Pimps.

When you've long been conditioned to expect the unexpected, it may come as less of a surprise to realize this latest John Paul Jones album project resembles almost nothing else mentioned above. The Minibus Pimps album -- sold as a 180-gram LP that's packaged with a musically identical CD -- resides in a category all by itself, all but for the sheer fact that there's a lot of improvisation involved in the music.

Improvising is not a first for Jones by any stretch of the imagination, which anyone who's ever paid attention to any Led Zeppelin's live recordings could tell you. (In the above-referenced interview, Jones is quick to namecheck Zep's funk throwback "The Crunge" as their most avant-garde moment caught on album.) In the case of Minibus Pimps, improvisation is inevitable given their modus operandi consists solely of two skilled musicians battling each other in the live arena using not conventional instruments but stealth weapons of digital software. (There's that Kyma stuff again!)

This disc's four distinct titles were culled from live performances they'd made in multiple concert appearances. Here are eight observations about it after I've had a week to take it in.

  1. Most (and hardly not all, right?) pictures of the album cover currently shown online include a yellow sticker that is actually part of the plastic shrinkwrap. Remove the shrinkwrap, and the sticker is gone. So that yellow bit is not really part of the cover art.
  2. There aren't really any liner notes to speak of.
  3. The artist/title/label/catalog number info on the spine, so it's not exactly repeating the feat pioneered by Zep's untitled fourth album.
  4. They do list the song titles on the inside of the record. Side one of the LP consists of "Black Aurora" in four parts, 16 minutes total. It isn't obvious from looking at the vinyl where to drop the needle if you wanted, for example, to start with part 2 or 3 or 4. Discerning listeners can tell from listening where one part ends and the next begins.
  5. The album's flip side consists of three separate titles: "Cloud to Ground," "Arc" and "Superbolt." At roughly four minutes each, these are about equal in length to the four parts on side one.
  6. The US iTunes Store sells the album digitally, and that full album purchase is the only way iTunes lets you obtain "Black Aurora" in all its 16 minutes as one track. The remaining three songs can be acquired separately ($1.29 apiece) without the full album purchase.
  7. The CD included in the LP package contains a total of seven tracks. Evidently, the decision was made to separate "Black Aurora" parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 into CD tracks 1, 2, 3 and 4, respectively. The remaining three titles comprise tracks 5, 6 and 7.
  8. As far as physical copies are concerned, I didn't check everywhere the Interwebz had to often, nor did I even bother my local record store. That being said, my limited comparison on pricing for Cloud to Ground persuaded me to buy mine from Bull Moose, an indie record shop located in Maine, thankfully with a Web presence. Unless I'm mistaken, they're offering the best deal for American consumers hoping to own a physical copy of this limited-edition release. On the Bull Moose site, the LP/CD package was available for $19.97. (Compare to upwards of $50 direct from the Norwegian label when you factor in international shipping to US customers!) Now, Bull Moose charges $3 for standard shipping, but there's a loophole: They offer free shipping for orders of $20 or more. The Minibus Pimps release falls three short of qualifying for free shipping, so all you have to do is find another product in their store priced between $0.03 and $3.00 and you can make out like a bandit. For my shipping-free purchase, I opted to invest in a 2012 Michael Kiwanuka single for the princely sum of $1.97. It's like the place was paying me to put another record in my shopping cart!
Minibus Pimps collaborator Helge Sten, who perhaps most famously worked in the past with the group Supersilent, comes across as an obvious Zeppelin fan. As evidence, I'll refer you to one particular remark he made during Julian Marszalek's joint interview with him and Jones published last month by online music publication The Quietus. Quoth the Deathprod mastermind:
"I think there's so much interesting stuff going on in all of their [Led Zeppelin's] music. There's so much variety and energy going on there and that's what sets it apart from so much other music."
At this point, I must clarify that I myself am no stranger to ambient and avant-garde music. Whenever it's late at night and I'm zoning out, or trying to lull myself asleep, or just simply winding down from an adrenaline-filled night where I've just played a live classic rock tribute gig and still facing a few more hours of driving before I'm home again, I'll tune my radio to WXPN in hopes that a show like "Star's End" or "Echoes" will provide a soothing soundtrack to complement my trip into Dreamland. However, for me, this Minibus Pimps album is a little more nightmare-inducing.

Maybe it's also the pain meds I've been taking to mask a back injury I mysteriously suffered last week. Or maybe I was just off-put by the pitch-shifting sounds my questionable turntable was making when I sought to embark on the record's maiden voyage. Or maybe I'm just plain sour (Sauer?).

But so far, I'm deciding to file this Minibus Pimps release away with Jimmy Page's 2012 archival release, Lucifer Rising and Other Sound Tracks. That particular mood doesn't often strike me, but I'll know where to go the next time it does.

If The Quietus's Julian Marszalek is to believed, he intends to "drop some mushrooms to [the album] and watch the Aurora Borealis." In that case, my only complaint would be the album's length. Is thirty minutes really enough to take it all in?

Moreover, does there remain anything musical Jonesy hasn't done?