There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Marc Ribot has forgotten how to rock. Party Intellectuals, the debut of the guitarist’s indie power trio (with bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith), is the product of his first rock band since high school. But where Ribot is renowned in jazz for his angularity and unpredictability, he seems to have decided that the way to build a rock song is to find one or two licks and beat them to death. Ribot—who here doubles as a vocalist—attempts this trick in several different styles, and often pulls them off: He nails Hendrix pastiche in “Never Better,” and the lounge-pop “Todo el Mundo Es Kitsch” is both clever and on the nose. Unfortunately there are no interesting frameworks, except “Kitsch,” on which to hang this mastery of genre. Riffs and phrases are deadened by repetition, whether or not they’re any good. (Ribot’s tale of ennui on “Girlfriend” is set to an ugly little vamp; on endless repeat it sounds like a schoolyard jeer.) Amplifying the problem is Ribot’s singing. His voice is unexpressive, his lyrics often tepid; the wispy, reverb-and-vocal “When We Were Young and We Were Freaks” tries to evoke a sort of haunted nostalgia, but it’s hard to empathize with such adolescent clichés (“Listen, man! People are fuckin’ sleepwalkin’! They’re just sleepwalkin’, man!”). Instrumentally, of course, Ribot fares better. To be precise, the man’s a six-string whiz, and his imagination yields a jungle of textural experiments, even managing on “Digital Handshake” to make his ax sound like an Atari video game. His accompanists (and they’re neither more nor less) impress. Ismaily shows the most dexterity, playing punk-funk on the title track and a subtle pulse on the eerie “Bateau”; Smith’s drum lines are by the book, but he finally gets his rocks off with the heavy-metal “Midost.” As players, the members of Ceramic Dog do their best to breathe some life into Party Intellectuals, but they come back to the same problem: The material is flat and repetitive. The trio tries to compensate with rock’s one surefire ingredient—energy—but deprived of inspiration, their enthusiasm often seems like going through the motions. Ribot is a brilliant talent in the cerebral world of jazz, and perhaps because of this he’s forgotten that rock is a visceral music; the way to get its listeners thinking is to rile their passions. Nobody gets passionate over a musical treadmill. —Michael J. West