Desertion Trio is a group led by (until recently) Philadelphia-based guitarist Nick Millevoi, a longtime friend of BA; we’ve covered a bunch of projects he’s been involved with, including the skronky power trios Many Arms and Form and Mess, the two-guitars-trombone-and-drums outfit Haitian Rail, as well as his solo work. (He contributed a track to Eyes Shut, Ears Open: A Burning Ambulance Compilation, which you can buy here.)
The fourth Desertion Trio album, Numbers Maker, is out this week. The group got its start on the 2016 album Desertion, credited to Millevoi, which was a collection of psychedelic country-rock instrumentals, like a cross between ZZ Top‘s “Asleep in the Desert,” from 1976’s Tejas (maybe that trio’s weirdest and most underrated album), and Neil Young’s soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch‘s Dead Man, with some latter-day Earth thrown in. At that point the lineup included Johnny DeBlase on bass, Ches Smith on drums, and Jamie Saft on keyboards. (For the group’s second album, 2018’s Midtown Tilt, Kevin Shea took over behind the kit, and they called themselves Desertion Trio with Jamie Saft.) That album added slightly more jazz and even some surf music to the blend, and it included the first version of “Numbers Maker.” It was a sort of late-night lounge piece, with just-shy-of-cheesy organ and guitar that hovered between the sound of a vintage early ’60s rock instrumental and the hard rock/proto-metal of a decade later.
On 2019’s Twilight Time, Desertion Trio added vocalist Tara Middleton (from the Sun Ra Arkestra) and keyboardist Ron Stabinsky for an album of 1950s and early ’60s pop songs like the title track, Gene Pitney‘s “Town Without Pity,” Les Baxter‘s “Busy Port,” Joe Meek‘s “I Hear a New World,” Santo & Johnny‘s “Sleepwalk”…you get the idea. The versions were somewhat noisy and rocked-up — Shea’s drumming was quite avalanche-esque at times — but it was justa little too smirky for my taste. Maybe it’s because I’m a child of the late ’80s/early ’90s “alternative”/”indie” music scene, but I’m extremely sensitive to potential irony poisoning, and I run the other way anytime anyone wants to play “lounge music,” even/especially if they try to turn it into noise-rock or free jazz.
Fortunately, Numbers Maker moves in the opposite direction. The group has changed drummers again, with Jason Nazary taking over for Shea, and perhaps as a consequence of that decision, they’re making heavier, more scorching music that will appeal to fans of Many Arms, Skryptor (a group featuring members of Dazzling Killmen, Craw, and STATS), Ava Mendoza‘s Unnatural Ways, and the like. It was recorded live at Firehouse 12 in 2019, and mixed by Colin Marston, and surprisingly, it’s their first actual trio release — no guests.
Perhaps because it was recorded live, the album feels jammier than anything they’ve done before, and more raucous as well; on the nine-minute “Buist,” Millevoi rockets so far into the stratosphere you might start to think you’re listening to an Earthless album. “Powers,” a slow, stomping track that’s the shortest piece on the record, shifts back and forth between metal crunch and jazz-rock fluidity, a strategy fans of the Hedvig Mollestad Trio will recognize. They revisit “Taboo” from Twilight Time (unsurprising, since they were likely touring in support of that record when this one was made), and without the keyboards it’s much more spacious and eerie, with long sustained notes floating over DeBlase’s deep, dubby bass and Nazary’s pounding tom rolls. Numbers Maker concludes with a more than 11-minute version of the title piece. Like “Taboo,” it’s been altered pretty radically; the lounge-act elements are completely gone, replaced by a twitchy energy from the rhythm section (DeBlase plays like he’s bouncing from foot to foot, waiting for a race to start, and Nazary kicks out some almost martial beats), and Millevoi deploys some sharp-edged, post-Nels Cline effects to send his gnarled bursts of notes spiraling out to infinity.
Although this is a “live album,” there’s no crowd noise, and the sound is absolutely pristine. The music has the looseness and close collective listening of a truly excellent show, though, the kind of thing you walk out of vaguely amazed that you were allowed to be there for it. One day there will be close-quarters live music again, and players like Nick Millevoi will be ready.
If you enjoy Burning Ambulance, consider supporting us on Patreon.