, February 19th, 2014 02:43
Let's get this out of the way. Moondog Mask is a completely delightful album, born of a neat conceptual conceit that is equal parts homage and collision, taking tribute as a starting point and then playfully pulling at myriad strings until more than a semblance of an original and coherent landscape materialises.
Hobocombo are an Italian trio consisting of Andrea Belfi (whose credits include Mike Watt and David Grubbs) on drums and vocals, Rocco Marchi on guitar, synth and vocals, and Francesca Baccolini on double bass and vocals. We also get (as suitably befits work in the orbit of Moondog) modular synthesizers, woodblock, diatonic accordion, glockenspiel, recorders, bull fiddles and a carnivalesque junkyard of other instrumentation. Oh yes, and boogaloops.
Louis Thomas Hardin, 'The Viking of 6th Avenue', also known as Moondog, might be more familiar. Blinded at the age of 16, he spent many years living homeless in New York City dressed in horned helmet and cape. Despite living from hand to mouth and being continually mistaken for Jesus (quite how I'm not sure) he somehow managed to find the time to invent a bunch of instruments, and create a body of work that pre-empted minimalism and much else with compositions of complex simplicity unparalleled in 20th century music. He could count Duke Ellington, Stravinsky, Charlie Parker and of course Steve Reich amongst his fans. His Hobo-lie existence fed into his creations where bebop rhythms fight out with environmental sounds (of nature, of the street, of the harbours) and exotic(a) textures nestle gently with classical piano lines. And it could be defined as collage as much as it could equally be defined as the living reality of the man himself.
Hobocombo began then as a tribute to Moondog, playing and interpreting his music under a 21st century light which resulted in their debut album Now That It's The Opposite, It's Twice Upon A Time. Three years later, we are presented with their second recorded voyage, Moondog Mask, which once again features several compositions by our Viking Hero alongside a selection of Hobocombo's own compositions and a "deviation" by Robert Wyatt, 'East Timor'. The resulting potlatch is a glorious kaleidoscopic trip around the notion of Moondog being a "fantasy writer", running with the imaginative possibilities offered up by his music and philosophy that draws out lines of flight connecting with a strain of exotica that runs from Les Baxter, to Joe Meek, via the aforementioned Wyatt.
Moondog Mask opens with Hardin's 'Theme and Variations'. It's rendered as an energised accelerating drone, built around a gleeful dance of Sardinian launeddas with a subtle synth melody and modular electronics – just an immediately addictive and enticing fall into an other place. Hobocombo's own Desert Boogaloo is next a Beefheart/Waits-esque blues riff scrapping it out over Nils Ostendorf's trumpet and evocative steel drums. The aforementioned 'East Timor' is extraordinary, with Baccolini's vocal taking the lead before being joined by Belfi and Marchi over a repetitious piano, spacious drums and burbling electronics – utterly exquisite and wide-eyed. You can literally hear the joy coursing through the players veins. This is where the difference between homage and something else comes into play, channelling spirits living and dead across oceans and times, through players sensitive enough to know when to hold back and when to speak themselves.
Hobocombo's teasing out of so many disparate variations of exotica is their most distinctive and rewarding trait. Take their reinterpretation of Moondog's 'To A Sea Horse' for example. For over three and a half minutes they dish out rattling percussion, whistles and some more Waits-stuttering blues, before Morricone/Avenue suddenly get chucked into some kind of vibrating modular Mariachi blender and you don't really know where the hell you are anymore, even though you recognise everything around you from somewhere else. Genres restlessly relentlessly collapse into themselves and always from oblique angles.
Ultimately, Moondog Mask is 43 minutes of this, decked out in a digidelic sleeve that the great Arthur Lyman himself would be proud of. And although Hobocombo began in the spirit of homage, they are now entirely orbiting their own beautiful urban lagoon. Where the hell this music belongs in 2014 is anybody's guess. But you might want to be there more than anywhere else.