Ron Samworth: Dogs Do Dream
Drip Audio

Sick Boss: Sick Boss
Drip Audio

Two adventurous outings from the equally adventurous West Coast imprint Drip Audio, the first an eclectic set from the Sick Boss collective and the second a narrative-driven suite by Ron Samworth inspired by the dream life of dogs.

Twelve musicians are listed in the credits for Sick Boss's self-titled debut (five of them guests), but three constitute the band's nucleus: guitarist Cole Schmidt (Pugs and Crows), bassist James Meger, and drummer Dan Gaucher. With that trio at the helm, Sick Boss changes shape throughout the nine-track set according to the personnel involved. Known quantities such as cellist Peggy Lee, trumpeter JP Carter, and guitarist Tony Wilson take part alongside Tyson Naylor (synthesizer, organ, piano, accordion), Jeremy Page (clarinet), Ted Crosby (bass clarinet, clarinet), Malcolm Jack (MFB-502 drum computer), and singers Molly Guldemond and Debra-Jean Creelman.

The album's material didn't come together in slapdash fashion; on the contrary, sessions at Vancouver's Warehouse Studios generated fifty-plus hours of material that were subjected to a year of shaping and polishing before reaching its final, sprawling form. Each track presents a coherent personality, but with so many being so different, the sum-total assumes a rather collage-like character. Contrasts abound when raw instrumental freakouts and fragile vocal ballads rest side-by-side, and one never knows what the next track will bring until it arrives.

The blazing opener “Amadman” might have come from the Pugs and Crows songbook, so stoked is its urgent instrumental blend. Though Wilson sits in, the track's less a guitar-driven exercise than one whose sinuous themes are driven by Lee, Carter, and Page, even if the guitarists contribute their fair share of atonal grit and grime. The broadly textured jazz-blues setting “Bad Buddhist” sees clarinet and bass clarinet tangle with Carter's robust declamations and Naylor's burbling organ. With Jack's drum computer pulse as a base and Creelman's treated vocal at the forefront, the noisefest “Bug Ya! (Pt. 1)” takes flight as a psychedelic exercise in Beatles-esque pop. Dramatically different in kind, its instrumental counterpart “Bug Ya! (Pt. 2)” derives its considerable thrust from a punchy, Tortoise-styled groove.

As fiery as the album sometimes is, Sick Boss shows itself capable of playing with sensitivity and nuance. Delicately wrought woodwind and cello textures lend “Ruthless Waltz” elegance, whereas “They've Got Tombstones in Their Eyes” sees the group birthing a miniature, Godspeed-like dirge. On the vocal front, “See You Out There” plays like some showdown between Broadcast-styled dreampop, C&W twang, and Weimar-based cabaret, while the album exits memorably when an aching vocal turn by Creelman elevates the lilting folk ballad “Troubled.” Mercurial and unpredictable it might be, but the forty-six-minute collection offers no small number of pleasurable moments.

There's some degree of overlap between the Sick Boss and Samworth sets. Lee, Carter, Naylor, and Meger play on both releases, each features a large cast of players, and the range of styles covered is in each case broad. But Samworth's is a much different creature for presenting a travelogue that couples instrumental passages with narrative content delivered by Barbara Adler in a somewhat deadpan manner. In essence, Dogs Do Dream presents stream-of-consciousness musings that arise during a dog's tour of Vancouver locations and in response to experiences a canine might have, among them Frisbee playing, beach swimming, and encounters, both vicious and amorous, with other dogs.

Along with those already mentioned, a number of others help the guitarist-composer leader realize his vision, namely Skye Brooks (drums), Iris Pomeroy (voice), Torsten Muller (bass), Dylan van der Schyff (drums, marimba), Bill Clark (trumpet), and, by way of Seattle, Robin Holcomb (piano) and Wayne Horvitz (DX-7). Adding to the music's impact, many participants are granted spotlights during the sixteen settings, among them Holcomb and Lee, respectively, in “Reflection” and “Evening Crows.” The diversity of timbres and sonorities afforded by such a lineup serves the recording well in matching the range of experiences and emotions the dog might have over the course of a day. During “Rapid Eye Movement,” for example, Muller's bowed bass convincingly approximates a dog's cry, while textures generated by the musicians in other tracks conjure the impression of a busy cityscape. Carter's blustery trumpet is regularly called upon, as are Naylor's accordion textures.

Accompanied by subdued musical musings, our four-legged protagonist awakens at Strathcona Porch in “Sleeping,” after which the day-long adventure begins. Sequences of atonal skronk, post-rock, free jazz, ambient dronescaping, mellifluous balladry, and even hard rock emerge in turn, though the volume level typically de-escalates to enable Adler's voice to be heard clearly during the recitations. Interestingly, certain passages appear to reference the music of other artists. That foreboding electric guitar intro to “Swimming” certainly exudes a rather Mahavishnu-esque quality, for instance, while “The Underbrush” could pass for a high-energy homage by Samworth to Miles's Star People period.

Dogs Do Dream has been performed live, which would seem to be the best mode of presentation for this suite-like project, as engaging as the recording is. The image of the musicians performing Samworth's compositions onstage, with Adler narrating the texts and video footage of the Vancouver locations ideally projecting behind them, is a powerful one.

August 2017