McLaughlin’s ‘Now Here This’ is homogenous, heartless
Album Review | 2.5 out of 5 stars
Published: Friday, October 19, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 19, 2012 08:10
Few jazz musicians today have as much clout as guitarist John McLaughlin. His incendiary flair and virtuosic skill have made him one of the most influential instrumentalists of his generation. His style has segued effortlessly between genres as diverse as jazz fusion, flamenco and classical Indian music with his revolutionary group Shakti. While McLaughlin has always been renowned for his speedy licks and technical accomplishment, most of his career saw him balancing his penchant for meticulously−executed runs with thoughtful phrasing and an emotive playing touch. Unfortunately, John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension’s latest album, “Now Here This,” comes off as a one−track platform for displaying his virtuosity and lightning−fast precision, often at the expense of the expressive value of the music itself.
“Now Here This” commences in the fashion it maintains for most of the album; frenetic drumming and edgy keyboard stabs open “Trancefusion,” which proceeds at a breakneck pace. McLaughlin’s dizzying guitar work laces through the mix as his taste for machine−gun guitar work is thoroughly indulged; the rhythm section provides bombastic yet precise accompaniment. Gary Husband’s keyboard playing tastefully skirts the underlying chords without ever fully engaging them, giving his tightly wrought lines a slippery feel that keeps the listener guessing.
The album’s production may irk some listeners: there is an ‘80s−pop sheen to the bass and drum production that can be invasive when a particular soloist is being highlighted. While the recording is certainly high fidelity with considerable detail in each instrument track, the overall mix lacks the necessary nuance to balance the contrasting approaches of each musician. The bass and drums dominate the sound stage while Gary Husband’s keyboard work, which produces the best solos of any of the group members, is too frequently buried in a mix that favors the high and low end of the frequency spectrum to an exaggerated degree.
Production quibbles aside, the album’s second track, “Riff Raff,” proceeds in the same spirit as the opener. With a tempo and aesthetic much like “Trancefusion,” inattentive listeners may be surprised the track isn’t simply an extended coda from the preceding song. “Riff Raff” contains some of McLaughlin’s best playing on the album, but even this doesn’t set the piece apart from the others on “Now Here This.” Ranjit Barot’s histrionic taste for crash cymbals and heavy bass pedal usage keeps almost every track on the album in full−tilt “rock out” mode for its entire duration. As a result, there is very little dynamic range on the album since each instrumentalist has to go all−out just to keep up with the rhythm section.
This is not to say that there is anything wrong with this kind of macho approach — in fact, it’s one that has frequently displayed McLaughlin at his best — but such bombast only keeps its value when there are other moods to contrast it with. Unfortunately, this is hardly the case with the vast majority of “Now Here This.” Even slower numbers like the bluesy “Echoes from Then” are charged with explosive, needlessly theatrical drum fills that negate any subtlety the rest of the band could have provided.
When the album does slow down, it’s to an almost syrupy pace. “Wonderfall,” replete with cascading piano work and cathartic new−wave synth pads, jarringly segues from the amphetamine freneticism of the three opening tracks to a numbing new−age slump. Husband’s pastoral synth work, which vacillates between slow melodic lines and quick−fire wizardry, is a highlight for an otherwise forgettable track.
So frequently the gem of every album it appears on, McLaughlin’s playing only feels like it has two modes on this album. The guitarist’s taste for tortuous lines and speedy precision is emphasized at the expense of his more thoughtfully−phrased work, which was put on such glorious display in his early work with Miles Davis and Mahavishnu Orchestra and classic solo records like “My Goal’s Beyond” (1970).
Though McLaughlin has and always will have the chops to beat just about any guitarist, his playing as of late begs the question: is this really a good thing?