It’s the end of the set, and Kevin Shea appears to be climbing his drum set. On the first attempt to ascend the kick’s curved top, he slips back a bit, but gripping first the snare, then cymbal, he makes it up. Behind him, Matt Mottel has abandoned his synthesizer and is holding the other cymbal. Somewhere, this scene probably makes sense.
At the small, unassuming Lucky Cat, on this night, it almost makes sense, after the bill leading up to this moment. Shea, balanced now on the kick, starts to straighten, and Mottel helpfully abandons his cymbal to give him a boost. Now Shea’s sort of draped over Mottel, bracing off the Cat’s fake wood paneling. Mottel opens his mouth — in explanation? Nope. “We’ve got CDs,” he says, “and a record. Thanks for coming.”
I offer this closing episode not because it’s a meaningful part of the set, so much, but because it’s the sort of weird embellishment Talibam! doesn’t need, but throws into the mix anyway. They also didn’t need the mind-reader interlude, where Mottel donned blind-guy shades and narrated Shea’s purportedly unseen and “definitely unrehearsed” actions behind him (his telepathy allowing him to foresee, but not catch, Shea’s tossed right shoe. They didn’t even need Shea’s usual manically near-intelligible stage banter, which, this time, involved time-travel and herpes. Talibam! (the name appropriated from a true New York Post headline classic, referencing bombings in Afghanistan) don’t need these things because their music is completely capable of conveying their full esoterrorism all on its own.
Talibam! can perhaps be most concisely described as a sort of noise-jazz. This effectively gets at the backgrounds and skill of the constituents, and perhaps at the discordance and sixty/forty improvisation to composition flexibility, but it can’t get at the whole picture by any means. Shea and Mottel approach their work with a sort of twitchy precision, a sense that everything is right in its place, even if that place isn’t entirely clear (and certainly not predictable) to the listener. Even when Mottel’s notes blurt out at their most jarringly conjoined, watch his hands. Those snaps and jabs have a surgical precision that suggests he knows exactly where he is and where he’s going. Shea’s drums, for all their jittery arrhythmia and side-strike skitter, never actually lose track of the beat holding things together. Combined, their sounds lurch and dart like mass of lemmings at cliff’s edge, but somehow never quite go over. Making things simultaneously stranger and more familiar, Mottel seems to have begun singing sporadically over certain songs, suggesting that there may be something like pop somewhere in there (key melodies break free to back up this impression).
The duo has one last show this week (Sunday at the Charleston in Williamsburg) before jetting out for a European tour (playing, for instance, with No Kids and Mt. Eerie in Gotenburg, Sweden). When they return they’ve got some kind of absurd slew of material on the way — at last count three vinyl splits (all at different sizes), two cassettes, a split CD with Peeesseye, and, at some point in the hazy future, a sophomore full-length.
Apt opening sets were provided, on this occasion, by San Francisco sax/drums duo Ettrick and local quartet Little Women. The trick with Ettrick is that both members play both instruments, and they have two of each, leaving any drums/sax combination possible and milked for all possibility of scrapes, whines, murmurs and explosions. The other trick is that they name all their songs as if they were a black metal band, which helps the instrumental fury they conjure find reference and center.
The trick with Little Women is that they truly straddle the inter-genre lines, cartwheeling from brisk near-rock riffs to free-jazz sax skronk with uncanny ease. Like Talibam!, any given song tends to switch gears regularly between composition and improvisation, lending a rolling unpredictability that snaps into tight coordination whenever needed. But the real trick comes at the end, when Darius Jones and Travis Laplante drop to their knees and seem to be literally sobbing into their respective saxophones, Jones poised over the bell and Laplante seemingly eating his entire mouthpiece, the sounds issuing out slurpy and muffled. A gimmick, perhaps, but one that seems highly fitting. Their work is always somewhat confrontational, and after some of the straighter cacophony in the set, the freakish emoting of the finale seems like the most in-your-face move they could have chosen. As they fade out at last, one audience member tries to slow clap over them, but they only end with their dying whimpers once he’s given up. Then, real applause from everyone else.