The Muffins
Double Negative


It's quite easy to call The Muffins the nearest thing to a group from the "Canterbury School" that one could find in the States. The group came out right at an end of an era - the end of the 70s - and so the quartet was immediately labelled as a "curious anomaly" - i.e., a line-up from Washington D.C. that considered Soft Machine, Caravan and Hatfield And the North (and the European Rock In Opposition) as their sources of inspiration instead of emulating the pompous prog rock groups that lived (and prospered) on both sides of the Atlantic. It was easy to like their first album, Manna/Mirage, and also its follow-up, 185, an album that saw the participation of former Henry Cow and Art Bears Fred Frith - let's remember that Frith invited the Muffins to participate to the sessions for his widely acclaimed (and perennially in-print) album Gravity. Then the group split, with only some collections of unreleased tracks (check Open City) as consolation for their fans.
Two years ago, quite unexpectedly, they returned with a new album, Bandwidth. It's obvious that in cases like this one's strong fear is to be confronted with a tired-sounding, lukewarm CD, but this was not the case. We had again a strong rhythm section (Billy Swann on bass and Paul Sears on drums), Thomas Scott on wind instruments and Dave Newhouse on keyboards, baritone sax, bass clarinet and composition. Doug Elliot's trombone was a nice addition. A strong musical rapport, absolutely no bad aftertaste. Sure, it was not the album that one would have suggested as the best example of "musical innovation, 2002", but Bandwidth was definitely worth a listen even for those who are not big fans of the "genre" (by the way: is it only my impression or albums by "prog" groups are required to pass more severe tests than albums featuring other musical styles?).
After the joy for their return, questions remained to be answered, both career- and music-wise. Double Negative seems to leave a lot questions unanswered, while posing even more problems. There's more jazz than before - there's also the great Marshall Allen as guest artist on a couple of tracks - and this is definitely not a bad thing. Some themes (Exquisite Corpse, They Come On Unknown Nights, Cat's Game, Angel From Lebanon) are to be recommended. Again, Doug Elliott's trombone is a nice addition. But there are problems. The string quartet that's featured on a few tracks makes it possible for the group to widen their stylistic palette, but sometimes the actual results are not so great. Some climates, which would be perfectly appropriate for a movie soundtrack, sound a bit out of place. Above all, a very clear but very cold-sounding digital recording acts against the warmth and the "credibility" of the music (what happened to the drums?). And yes, I know that nowadays one cannot use the wha-wha organ from Angel From Lebanon for a whole album anymore, but was there really no alternative to those annoying, anonymous timbres?
In closing, I wonder whether I will be accused of asking that albums by "prog" groups pass more severe tests than albums featuring other musical styles.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004 | Dec. 12, 2004