Pray for Brain, None of the Above (indie)
Fair warning number one: the music on the premiere release from Pray for Brain, featuring Mustafa Stefan Dill (guitars, oud), Christine Nelson (bass), and Jefferson Voorhees (drums, percussion), may induce you to dance naked in the backyard and howl at the moon.
That may also be a good way to describe the genre of music the trio writes and plays.
Arabilly, indofunk, sufisurf, and countryeastern—terms the group has coined in an attempt to convey what they do—don’t quite cover it.
It’s easier to say what it isn’t. It’s not power-trio rock, surf music, or funk. It’s not Sufi devotional music, bhangra, or jazz. It’s not bluegrass, jam band, or flamenco. In fact, as the title says, it’s None of the Above, but it does incorporate
elements from all of the above, sometimes within the same song. It’s an ecstatic dance party perfumed with coriander.
The trio started out as the Sama Duo, with Dill on sarod and Voorhees on tabla, serving up freely improvised music that roamed all over the musical genres stretching from Los Angeles east to Calcutta. Over time, the two moved to playing song forms. Dill switched to fretless guitar with sarod tuning and added the oud and his big, hollow-bodied Gretsch to the proceedings. Voorhees abandoned the hand drum in favor of what he calls “a highly personalized drum kit” that enables him to be equally comfortable in electric funk or acoustic devotional settings.
Not long after they started in this direction, Nelson appeared on the Albuquerque scene.
Apparently having grown tired of dropping out of helicopters into wildfires up in Idaho, she’d
returned to her native city. She crossed paths with Voorhees, who invited her to jam with the duo. Her seismic bass pulse was exactly what the duo needed, so two became three, and the song forms tightened around the spine of the bass.
Depending on where you drop the needle on this album, you might think for a moment that you’re at a country hoedown, an Iraqi circus, or a Sufi meditation. Despite the myriad
influences, the wild conglomeration of styles, the music coheres—just as a curry comprises a generous amount of multiple bold spices but produces a singular, though kaleidoscopically
layered flavor sensation. This sonic curry is held together by the grooves—and by the explicit
intention of the musicians to lift you to a better place, which they deliver on.
Though this is a trio of peers, Dill is the versatile front man. On the searing opener, “Drop the Needle,” with its funky wah-wah–driven guitar, Dill sounds like he’s wrestling with a live wire over the crisp syncopation of Voorhees and Nelson. Though he can blister your ears with white hot licks, he can soothe with the tender and devotional. His oud on “Taksim Lami,” a short track that introduces “Sufisurf,” deposits the listener in a peaceful oasis, and his guitar on “Waltz” takes you on a dreamy trip. Throughout, whether on fretted or fretless guitar, Dill masters
microtonal subtleties, but on the fretless instruments, he bends and stretches tones into
extended meaning, as if he were playing a sarod or sitar. His deft use of pedals adds another
dimension to the sonic stage.
“Circus” may be the track that best demonstrates his wide-ranging versatility. After a spacey opening, Dill descends into a finger-picking frenzy, country hoedown style, and his solo takes that to the limit. Just when you think that he must have lost his brakes, he whips his solo around a curve into progressive jazz territory, spiced with a touch of Tex-Mex, before returning to the high-speed hoedown. It’s an exhilarating ride.
Nelson and Voorhees keep Dill on his toes. Nelson, who played electric bass exclusively up to about two years ago, has grown quite comfortable with the acoustic. She’s got a pulse that won’t quit, and she knows when to let her lines friction across Dill’s, raising a frisson of danger. Her bass speaks in woody eloquence, as she allows tones to bloom and decay expressively. She can bend the bejesus out of those heavy strings, too, getting sarodlike microtonals that rival Dill’s on “Leo,” titled in honor of Leo Kottke. She really lets it fly on “Hawk and Mouse” and solos nicely on “Bhangrabilly” and “Drop the Needle.”
Voorhees, whose individualistic drumming draws from African, jazz, progressive, rock, Indian, and other musical traditions, navigates the tricky time signatures and rhythmic shifts without a helmet. He has a wide range of sound at his disposal and can shift the entire feel of a song through his choices—as he does on “Sufisurf,” moving from a traditional Middle Eastern sound to a rock feel to complement the shift in themes. He’s crisp and concise and funky as he wants to be, and on jams like “Leo,” he keeps his ear to the ground, supplying just the right rhythmic impetus to push his colleagues forward.
The tunes are tightly composed and arranged, though they allow for loose and playful
development. There’s an abundance of catchy heads, and most songs move through two or more contrasting sections, an approach that keeps listeners—and dancers—on their toes.
The album, cleanly recorded by David McRae and Dana Sampson and nicely mixed by McRae at Third Eye Studios in Tijeras, has a great sound. They captured the distinctive voices of Dill’s
instruments and the array of timbres on Voorhees’ kit beautifully, and they got all the nuance in the booming bass. Cass Anawaty at Sunbreak Music mastered the album with equal skill.
Fair warning number two: When I mentioned to the band that on first hearing the album, I had the impulse to dance naked in the backyard and howl at the moon, they immediately asked me to send them a photo if I was moved to actually follow through. They want to use it for the cover of their next album. I’m tempted, as long as the focus is a little soft and the shot a little distant.
You can catch Pray for Brain live at Duel Brewing in Santa Fe (1228 Parkway Drive, Santa Fe, 505-474-5301) on April 4. If I make the gig, I promise to stay clothed.
At the moment, live gigs are the best way to get the album, though it will be widely distributed, including India and Bangladesh. Street date is April 15, and you can find it at City Hall Records, which is now taking preorders.
© 2014 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.