Crown Larks – Population (2017)

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Often compared to psychedelic post-rock outfits like Broadcast and Oneida, Chicago’s own Crown Larks can be thought of as jazz’s answer to Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, or indie rock’s answer to Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, depending on how you look at music. On the quartet’s Bandcamp page, you’ll see the music described as ranging from “polyrhythmic post punk” to “free jazz-inflected krautrock” and you know what, they’re on the mark. Their fresh release Population is that simmering stew of fringe music styles that often boils over.

Crown Larks didn’t start here; their first full-length effort Blood Dancer came out in 2015. But while most combos refine their sound over time, Crown Larks seems to be going against the grain, further deconstructing their music in pursuit of freeform nirvana within a garage band ethic. Co-led by its vocalists and primary composers Lorraine Bailey (keys, alto saxophone, flute, synth bass) and Jack Bouboushian (guitar, organ, processing), Crown Larks is completed by Bill Miller on drums/percussion and Matt Puhr on bass. An outer ring of supporting players add an extra horn here, an extra keyboard there or just more scream. Though Bouboushian and Bailey partake in singing, the guttural, reverberant delivery is a message in itself even more so than the lyrics, something that Yoko Ono so effectively showed us decades ago.

The galloping “Howls” sets the stage for Crown Larks’ fascinating ambiguity: it’s definitely rough around the edges but tough to pin down. At one moment it might seem punk and a slight change in the mood could send it off into the abyss of free jazz. Trippy drones and an organ comingle with unsettled polyrhythms on “Circus Luvv,” recalling classic krautrock like Can. “React” turns up the psychedelia a notch as Alan Vega’s bellowing vocal becomes an improv device dancing about the repeating figure before Bouboushian turns to his guitar to serve as a front line foil.

Bailey’s voice floats above the artfully whimsical “TFZ Interlude,” and “Lithops Life” likewise has an odd but funky beat. Guest musician Peter Gillette’s trumpet — as well as Patrick Sundlof’s tabla — appears out of nowhere, like it wondered in from a jazz song but the strangeness is also the appeal of its appearance. A cascade of hallucinatory sounds overwhelm “Swoon (For Fred Hampton)” and Gillette asserts himself more here, his fearless stabs helping to make this a song that that would fit comfortably on a Rob Mazurek album.

The jungle rhythms of “Burn It Down” pair well with Bailey’s sax while Bouboushian tosses out barbs from his guitar. “Watchful, Spellbound” goes from lithe folk balladry to rapid, sustained free-form explosions in the blink of an eye, the echoing vocal of Bouboushian being the only constant. After a hushed start, the melody emerges on “Goodbye” amid shards of sustained guitar feedback. And lastly, “Stranger (Unce Down To The New Store)” is most like a straight-ahead rock song with some well-defined riffs, if not for the ghostly vocals and muddy, lo-fi resonance knocking the song squarely off the mainstream.

If it was mainstream, though, it wouldn’t be Crown Larks because all of the interesting stuff happens on the side roads and off roads. Averse to the familiar, Population embraces the path that cuts between experimental rock and free jazz.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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