The Living Earth Show: Dance Music
New Amsterdam Records

In every large family, there's at least one troublemaker, a hellion intent on going against the grain and ruffling feathers. Label rosters are no different, a convenient case in point New Amsterdam's: for every well-mannered contemporary composer (cf. Sarah Kirkland Snider or Missy Mazzoli), there's an outlier determined to inject some degree of weirdness into the works, the disruptive force in this case being The Living Earth Show, a wildly playful Bay Area entity formed in 2010 by electric guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson. At a glance, one might think that the duo's sophomore outing Dance Music might be some mutant stab at disco or techno; instead, in keeping with The Living Earth Show's penchant for curating and commissioning ambitious creative works, the hour-long recording features dance-inspired pieces authored by composers Christopher Cerrone, Jacob Cooper, Nicole Lizée, Jonathan Pfeffer, and Anna Meredith.

As their refreshingly pretension-free descriptions of the five pieces reveal (Meredith's, for example, is likened to “Terry Riley snorting Pixy Stix in a video game adaptation of Saturday Night Fever”), Andrews and Meyerson aren't precious about their music—which doesn't mean they're not serious about it. The two dig into the material with no small amount of enthusiasm, and neither are they shy about throwing everything imaginable into a piece as a way of livening it up. It's the kind of album where anything might happen, whether it be a freewheeling prog-disco episode or bizarro take on campfire songs. Much of it feels collage-like in structure, with Andrews and Meyerson switching gears on the fly like it's the most natural thing in the world. In these patchwork pieces, all of them delivered with dizzying high-energy, hard-hitting breakbeats, electric guitar patterns, and tinkling glockenspiels regularly collide with degraded samples and roaring synthesizers.

The frantic, ever-intensifying pitch reached on Meredith's “Tassel” is hardly the only time the album turns feverish, and certainly no one could possibly accuse Andrews and Meyerson of phoning in their performances. In “The Bell, The Ball, The Bow-Tie, and The Boot,” Pfeffer uses extended techniques to exploit the sound potential of the duo's instruments in concert with manipulated field recordings of broken-down electronic equipment to create an industrial-strength miasma of lurching convulsions that in its mercurial shapeshifting acts as a microcosm of the album; it's certainly leagues removed from what normally qualifies as dance music, but it is interesting. Immediate relief arrives via Cerrone's becalmed “Double Happiness,” which not only brings the volume level down but soothes the ears with glistening shadings of electric guitar and metallic percussion, The Living Earth Show temporarily transformed into something like So Percussion.

Yet as pleasing to the ears as “Double Happiness” is, arguably the album's most endearing track is Lizée's “Family Sing-A-Long and Game Night,” which wends its way through multiple, oft-absurdist episodes, the most appealing being the duo's warped vocal renderings of “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore,” “Row, Row, Your Boat,” and “Three Blind Mice.” As always, nothing provides a better entry-point to a boldly experimental recording than a wee bit of humanity.

November 2016