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In with the Out Crowd

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog: Party Intellectuals (Pi Recordings)

Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog. Photo by Marco Prenninger.
Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog. Photo by Marco Prenninger.

A jazz musician with a well-honed punk sensibility, Marc Ribot has been a mainstay of New York City’s downtown music scene for more than twenty years. He is not an easy musician to pin down—in defining his work, one would need to employ a stack of hyphens or get rid of categories altogether.

Ribot did spry guitar work on the groundbreaking Tom Waits albums Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. Recently, he plucked the banjo and guitar for a bluegrass band led by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. He’s performed on scores for films like Walk the Line and The Departed and has worked extensively with avant-garde composer and saxophonist John Zorn. He has done session work with everyone from Elvis Costello to kid’s-rocker Dan Zanes. Then there’s his solo work: since the nineties, Ribot has released a slew of albums under his own name or alongside backing bands, like the experimental punk group Shrek and the Latin outfit Los Cubanos Postizos.

Ribot, it would seem, can do pretty much anything, but that doesn’t make him the kind of studio artist whose boilerplate rock riffs we’ll hear on the next Billboard chart-topper. He’s more at home in a place like the Stone, John Zorn’s living room–sized bastion of experimental music on the Lower East Side. It is at the Stone that Ribot has most frequently performed with his current outfit, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog.

Party Intellectuals, the debut release by the trio—which includes bassist and electronics specialist Shahzad Ismaily, who has collaborated with performance artist Laurie Anderson, and drummer Ches Smith, known for his work with experimental indie band Xiu Xiu—is typically genre-bending and confrontational. In its intensity and color, the album brings to mind the explosive music of groups like the drum-and-bass duo Lightning Bolt. For example, the opening track, a bruising cover of The Doors’s “Break on Through,” is completely alien from the original in everything but name. As the band chants “Break on through to the other side” through distorted microphones, the drums skitter and crash. The guitar and bass, each layered in a cloud of distortion, go off into messy arabesques.

Still, Ceramic Dog doesn’t coast on seizure-inducing noise riffs. The group also exhibits, for example, a flair for pop and Latin tunes. “Todo el Mundo Es Kitsch” is a song you could listen to while drinking margaritas on the beach; “Pinch” is something you might play to get pumped up for a Saturday night out. The Latin-flavored “For Malena” is an adorable ditty that features relaxed guitar-plucking and the accent-marks of deep horns.

The best moments on the disc come when Ribot does what he does best: exploring his guitar in a way that might invite the age-old accusation “That’s not music!” Ribot has a distinct, impressionistic technique: while his lines often have a blues tinge, they are exploratory, arhythmic, and unpredictable. Ribot perfected this style working with Los Cubanos Postizos, following the path of free-jazz musicians who looked beyond prescribed song-structures and bebop scales. Accordingly, there are moments on Party Intellectuals where there is no point A or point B for Ribot’s guitar, just an intimate, wandering conversation.

In “When We Were Young and We Were Freaks,” it would seem that there are two sides of Ribot: a humble abbot, and his unrestrained, contrarian doppelganger. The eight-minute-long piece begins with a simple, slow guitar line steeped in reverb. Layered over that is a patch of white noise, some guitar-string scraping, and an implacable jingle-jangle. “Cellophane bags, riches to rags, and we got busted,” Ribot intones. “You did all right in jail. You turned out to be quite a punk.” More scraping and feedback. “You and I live on different galaxies. Mister and Mrs. But I remember the time I spent down there on your planet, when we were young and we were freaks.” At “freaks,” the noise erupts, as though Ribot is ripping the strings off his guitar with a screwdriver. The low-key, reverberated line that began the piece lengthens and evolves into a meandering non-melody. Ribot continues to punctuate more of the monologue with “when we were freaks,” and at each point the noise mutates and grows. Eventually the noise becomes a climactic mess, overpowering everything. Then it all fades off—and this contentious conversation, as it were, comes to an end.

For many people, descriptions like “experimental,” “noise,” and “unclassifiable” signal a frustrating, or even boring, listening experience ahead. Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog has created an album that takes in all of these qualities, but simultaneously deals out the driving beats, funky rhythms, and lively solos of a rollicking rock band. Party Intellectuals just may satisfy everybody: Ribot fans will find their hero’s playing as powerful as ever, if not more so; noise freaks will hear the happy marriage of noise and song. And for the uninitiated, looking for fresh and atypical sounds, it’s a good place to start.


Peter Holslin

PETER HOLSLIN is a freelance writer and music critic based in Manhattan. More writing on Uganda is available on his blog,


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2008

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