It’s always interesting when a band undergoes a major metamorphosis between albums, yet retains its name. Drummer Luther Gray has been a part of at least two such bands. He plays for guitarist/bassist Joe Morris‘s Wildlife, which started as a trio (Morris, Gray, and tenor saxophonist Petr Cancura) on its 2009 self-titled debut, but added alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs to the lineup on its second release, 2011’s Traits. And he’s the leader of Lawnmower, which on its 2010 debut West (reviewed here) found Gray and Hobbs teaming up with guitarists Geoff Farina and Dan Littleton for an album that blurred the boundaries theoretically separating blues, noise-rock, and free jazz. (Note: Farina, Gray and Littleton recorded an album as New Salt in 2005.)
Well, four years later, the second Lawnmower album is here, and Lawnmower II is a very apt title, as this is a very different album from its predecessor. Gray and Hobbs remain, but both guitarists are gone, replaced by violinist Kaethe Hostetter and electric bassist Winston Braman. The result is a set of jammy, slow-burning pieces that drift away from the at times fierce abstraction of West in favor of trancelike extrapolations of relatively simple melodic ideas.
Things start off fairly upbeat, with “Good Beat,” a loping groove driven by sharp, almost Tony Conrad-with-Faust-ish juxtapositions of violin over throbbing, one-chord bass and tribal-ish drumming. Around the three-minute mark, Hostetter’s violin begins to drift in a cloud of reverb, as Hobbs’ saxophone squeaks like a door. “Jumping Off the Bridge,” the second track, is the most conventionally “jazzy” piece here, Hobbs spinning out thoughtful, subdued melodies as his bandmates drift in an abstract blues zone. “Space Goat,” the longest piece on the album at over 12 minutes, is also the weirdest. Hobbs is relatively restrained, never erupting into free/avant squawking, while Hostetter plays aggressively, through a wah-wah pedal, and Braman’s bass is huge and dubby; at one point, he cuts loose with a fuzzbox and starts to sound like Andrew Weiss of the Rollins Band. The violin work makes the whole piece reminiscent of, of all things, Edie Brickell and New Bohemians‘ “What I Am.” Behind them all, Gray thwacks out a steady snare rhythm—this track, out of everything on Lawnmower II, would be the most likely to appeal to jam-band fans rather than jazz listeners. “Cartoon,” a two-minute eruption, juxtaposes sawing, post-Ornette Coleman violin against whinnying saxophone, as Braman’s fuzzed-out bass and Gray’s avalanche drumming surge and recede below. “Walk in the Park,” a ballad of sorts, showcases Hobbs’ ruminative alto (the first three minutes of the piece are basically a long saxophone solo) as much as his ability to create keening harmonies with Hostetter. On the nearly nine-minute “Tiny Wings,” though, their interaction is less about harmony and more about engaging in some kind of squealing contest, her violin zooming like a theremin as he loops and dives through the horn’s upper register; meanwhile, Gray dances on the cymbals and Braman strums the bass in a range somewhere between Bill Laswell in Last Exit and Jane’s Addiction‘s Eric Avery. The final track, “Ashed,” begins with two minutes of long tones from violin and saxophone, the bass and cymbals only gradually emerging behind them; eventually, it all morphs into a slow-walking blues, taking the album out on a soft, brooding note.
Lawnmower‘s resistance to easy definition makes them one of the more exciting groups around. It’ll be interesting to see what form they take on album #3.
Stream the album on Spotify: