Jeff Tweedy, at least, is content to diversify within his chosen field. Along with percussionist Glenn Kotche and part-time Sonic Youth stringbender Jim O'Rourke, Tweedy just released a record called Loose Fur (Drag City). Though there are only six songs on it, the disc clocks in around the length full albums used to run - neither EP nor LP, readers who endured the '70s will be happy at least to hear that this supergroup's record isn't an ELP.
Instead, it's a convenient spot for the trio to take some detours that would've sounded out of place on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. "Laminated Cat," for example, sounds like a YHF outtake with three minutes of smart guitar solos added to it. It's not until the second track that you realize the record's as much about O'Rourke and Kotche as their better known partner; in between the banjo fills and avant-jazz percussion, O'Rourke sings almost as much as his pal. Maybe now people will finally start paying attention to the solo discs he cut for Drag City in between higher-profile gigs.
Maybe the addition of Wilco will also draw some deserved attention to The Minus 5, that revolving-door band fronted by The Young Fresh Fellows' Scott McCaughey. Their new Down With Wilco (Yep Roc) is for fans of Wilco's Summerteeth, crammed full of Beach Boys harmonies and vintage keyboards. You can read the title two ways, but the songs - cheerfully embittered, disappointed and disillusioned but not quite hopeless - don't much sound like a declaration of war. If McCaughey really has an axe to grind about his colleagues' success, he certainly makes it hummable.
Sadly, the moonlighting Morphine's Dana Colley and Billy Conway are doing isn't by choice: Their bandmate, singer / songwriter Mark Sandman, died in 1999 after suffering a heart attack onstage. For those who never heard the band, Rykodisc's new Best of Morphine is just that, an ideal introduction to a truly unique group. Replacing guitars with tenor and baritone sax, and bass with two- or three-stringed instruments, Morphine sounded appropriately narcotic; Sandman's voice fell well below tenor as well, a seductive rumble that, no matter how hot and heavy the rhythm-section throb got, was as intimate as a dark corner at the back of the bar.
That voice is gone for good, and the band was smart not to seek a replacement. They've gone on to form Twinemen, whose self-titled debut came out recently on Hi-N-Dry Records. They're still a trio, but this time the singer is a woman - Laurie Sargent, happy to linger in the echoey darkness with the band instead of upstaging them - and they've gotten over their fear of guitars, even if the songs don't rely on them. The songs don't rely on much, in fact: They poke around and run free, exploring improvisational tangents rather than clinging to familiar structures. They care less about conquering you than Morphine did; instead they slink into your living room and make themselves at home, then turn your living room into someplace considerably more exotic.
When piano wunderkind Matthew Shipp announced his retirement from recorded music a while back, it was a big fat lie. Thank goodness - jazz would be a less interesting place without him, and the collaborations on his new records point toward an adventurous future. Shipp's association with free improvisers may have scared mainstream listeners off in the past, but Equilibrium proves once again that there's no reason to fear the man. Fronting a quartet including a very welcome Khan Jamal on vibes (and with occasional synth help from FLAM), Shipp finds the beats inherent in modern jazz. He plays off the vibes beautifully, letting Jamal have the melody while he lays down chords and vice versa, building into irresistible grooves on such tunes as "Vamp to Vibe."
Shipp charts a wilder trajectory on Antipop Vs. Matthew Shipp, a team-up with the hip-hop / electronica collective Antipop Consortium (AvsMS and Equilibrium are both on Thirsty Ear's Shipp-curated "Blue Series"). One of the most organic of all the rap/jazz hybrids to date, Vs. sounds like a meeting of peers instead of another project in which a savvy producer lends hipness to a composer by sampling him exclusively - here, the beats and the melodies appear to have been created at the same time. While the Antipop guys aren't the most compelling vocalists around, they definitely know what to do in the studio; the record is thick with layers and loops, embodying the all-embracing, label-defying agenda of the Blue Series. If only this were something you could recreate on a stage ... but then, how many venues in San Antonio are both big and adventurous enough to book such a show? •