Keith Rowe and Christian Fennesz
Live at LU
n mathematics it’s simple. Two positives combined will always yield another positive. Always. If only real life were the same. If only combining two great performers would automatically yield a stunning performance. If only. Erstwhile would almost seem to prove that this is in fact the case, but after a long streak of truly incredible releases, the label has finally released an album that lands just north of the pleasant mark.
Continuing Erstwhile’s tradition, Live at LU finds Keith Rowe and Christian Fennesz performing together for the first time as a duo. So far, so good. The problem is that unlike many of the label’s other titles, it’s rarely hard to tell that this is the case. Sounding more like a practice session than a performance, the forty-three minutes of the disc often feel like the two are playing a game of cat and mouse. Given Rowe’s fondness for the Brothers Warner, it isn’t hard to imagine Keith cast as the consistently-on-top Jerry and Christian as the always-just-a-step-behind Tom. It’s not that Fennesz isn’t creative enough, it’s just that he’s just outshined at every turn.
Mr. Fennesz spends much of the disc blatantly avoiding the “pretty” sound that he’s perfected elsewhere. Unfortunately his alternative offerings sound alien, even to him. Rowe, in the past, has stated he tries to approach the guitar from a unique point of view before every performance. Was Christian trying the same? If so, it doesn’t come across nearly as well. When he tries to be the minimal counterpart, he’s barely there. When he tries to go to head-to-head with Rowe’s dirty, abrasive style, the results often sound beyond cliche, like the pitch-bending exercise throughout the disc’s fourth track. At no point does he sound horrible, but he rarely sounds on top of things either. He’s experimenting in the truest sense of the word, but as with many experiments he practically invites failure by heading too far out of his comfort zone.
Rowe, on the other had, sounds masterful as always. His radio play on the opening track works exceptionally well (and there’s no denying Fennesz’s synthesis complements the FM dial spectacularly) and his guitar is as fierce as ever throughout the middle half of the album. That isn’t to say he’s without fault though. While he plays leader in the most obvious sense, he never manages to bring Fennesz up to his level and only, in few moments, even manages to find a common ground.
Rowe’s known for playing coy with the audience, being intentionally obtuse; but throughout a majority of the LU concert, it feels as though he’s doing the same thing with Fennesz. As an improvising musician myself, this doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t feel a connection between the two of them, making it even harder for me to connect with the disc. I don’t mind chasing one performer to the farthest corners of potential sound, but when there’s another guy audibly stumbling along the path and getting in the way, it’s that much harder.
When the last glitchy rumble and faint voice on the radio fade, the bottom line is that Live at LU is a good CD that bears the burden of having two great names attached to it. After my first listen I’m sure I was within an inch of hating the album. Even though repeat listens have brought new things to the surface, they still can’t seem to overpower the negative aspects that initially turned me off. I hear last month’s Rowe and Fennesz collaborations here in the US went quite well, and hopefully they were recorded in full. Even though LU doesn’t do much for me, it has me intrigued. And the law of averages has me thinking at least one of the performances was nothing short of brilliant.
Reviewed by: Mike Shiflet
Reviewed on: 2004-06-10