May 7th, 2008 — Rich, abstract imagery is the inspiration behind composer, producer, bassist, and pianist Todd Sickafoose’s new record Tiny Resistors, scheduled for release June 10th on Cryptogramophone. Throughout its 68 minutes of music, the record evokes images: the mysterious flora of a future epoch, the revelation of a secret message scribbled in invisible ink, an exodus of buzzing bees, and the silent sadness of an underwater piano, drowned in the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. It is these visions, and others, that inspire the 11 original compositions on Tiny Resistors, Sickafoose’s third and most lushly-produced release to date.
The record’s robust arrangements feature an oversized band – two drummers, two guitarists, the bassist’s battery of keyboard instruments, and violin, hitched to a 3 or sometimes 4-piece horn section. The bulk of the musicians are from Sickafoose’s working New York band (Adam Levy, Mike Gamble, Shane Endsley, Ben Wendel, Alan Ferber, Skerik, Simon Lott, Allison Miller). Adding their magic are two guests: the inventive violinist and singer-songwriter Andrew Bird and iconic folksinger Ani DiFranco.
The result is a mini-orchestra which gives weight and depth to Sickafoose’s writing. Singing melodies slowly wind their way through the musicians, taking patient turns with each section. Other instruments form small polyrhythmic motors and churn along, developing at their own pace. There is a focused intensity but also a feeling that things might suddenly shift gears, as if the band was lighter on its feet than the listener realized.
Everywhere is Sickafoose’s fluid bass playing (which is such a propelling force that the bassist is known for his work in drummer-less bands). If Sickafoose learned anything from his years on the west coast studying with mentor Charlie Haden, it was how to create a band from the bottom up. The opening notes of “Future Flora” signal the paradigm shift. A three-note bass figure sets the overture in motion, giving legs to an inquisitive, unfolding melody in the guitars. The figure pivots down to the dominant, momentarily joined by the drums, then pivots back again. The opening melody recedes and as the bass figure holds steady, a new meter emerges above. The cinema of it is clear: it is as if the picture frame is opening to reveal a wider view.
Throughout Tiny Resistors, the band shines. Shane Endsley’s trumpet and Ben Wendel’s tenor sax swoon in a wild Ornette-like unison at the climax of “Invisible Ink, Revealed”. Alan Ferber’s trombone sputters alongside Skerik’s baritone sax as they send “Paper
Trombones” into the realm of Beatles-esque whimsy. Halfway through “Whistle”, the band hands the wheel to Adam Levy, whose acoustic guitar provides the perfect, quiet rhapsody. Mike Gamble’s guitar ostinato opens “Bye Bye Bees”, the album’s centerpiece, in a mood reminiscent of Radiohead’s Kid A, making tiny shifts between major and minor and creating a trick pulse. Andrew Bird leaps in and improvises a staccato melody, doubling his pizzicato violin with whistling. When Allison Miller and Simon Lott enter on drums, percussion and handclaps, the real pulse is illuminated. Later, Ani DiFranco’s distorted vocal tracks spill in like a warning. (“Colony Collapse Disorder” is a technical term for the disappearance of bees).
If Tiny Resistors paints abstract images, then it also does so in an abstract musical language. Jazz, indie-rock, acoustic music, electronic improvisation – genres all lose their boundaries as Sickafoose melts them together. This isn’t too surprising given his musical roots. Growing up on the West Coast, Sickafoose learned instruments as he got big enough to play them, arriving at the double bass at 12 (and not sure where to go from there). Piano, drums, and clarinet were early obsessions. But he also studied the Balinese gamelan, wrote string music, made 4-track recordings, and read Harry Partch as a kid. Things got most interesting when they got most mixed up. By the time Sickafoose moved to New York in 2004, he had already spent years knee-deep in San Francisco’s noisy jazz sphere, the burgeoning West Coast singer-songwriter scene, and buried in heady classical scores at CalArts. It was all getting used, all the time. Now in his fourth year of a steady touring and recording collaboration with DiFranco, it is clear that Sickafoose’s multi-faceted talents have found another perfect match.
Most evident throughout Tiny Resistors is Sickafoose’s overarching vision as a composer, bandleader and producer (he also mixed the 11 tracks in his Brooklyn studio). Using all of his skills at once, Sickafoose has created an album of grand melodies, layered rhythms, and shifting textures, and the results have never been more compelling.