Since its inception, the music of Portland, Oregon’s 1939 Ensemble has always explored the relationship between rhythm and melody.
On the quartet’s new EP Beats & Saints, that connection — between pulse and phrase — is turned inside out. The record finds multi-instrumentalists José Medeles, David Coniglio, Josh Thomas, and Knate Carter in a loose, playful mode, interpreting songs by Charles Mingus, Björk, the Breeders, and Stereolab, alongside two new 1939 originals.
Melodic, surprising, and rhythmically dense, the band teamed up on Beats & Saints with the late, great experimental music legend Ralph Carney, known for his work with Tom Waits, Bill Laswell, Jonathan Richman, Martin, Medeski, and Wood, and many more, along with guitar contributions by Josh Klinghoffer (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dot Hacker). Demonstrating the bands inside humor, a Korg Rhythm 55 drum machine also receives a “guest” credit. Hunkering down in the band’s own headquarters and B-Side Studios in Portland, the ensemble indulge in the time-honored tradition of musicians simply blowing off steam, seeing what happens when combustible elements are combined.
“We tried to have fun with it — that was the most important thing,” Medeles says. “There was a sense of ‘How far do we take this thing?’”
The answer ends up being “pretty far out.” Opener “Bullseye” strings together noir cinematics, G-funk grooves, and thick ambience. Next, 1939 takes on Björk’s “Pluto” nudging the song forward with a heavy, percussive synth bass under Thomas’s electronically treated trumpet. On Mingus’s “II B.S.” — “You gotta be crazy to play a Mingus song without a bass,” Medeles laughs — the combo translates the song’s familiar melody to vibes, Carney’s sax adding a bawdy heft. The original “Illinois Lead Shot” and Stereolab’s “Percolator” prove exhilarating workouts of the band’s cool jazz/lounge sensibilities. The group’s take on “Off You,” a Kim Deal classic from 2002’s Title TK — Medeles’s first with The Breeders — feels like an audible swoon with Klinghoffer’s liquid guitar locking in with acoustic and electronic vibraphone, cascading over shimmering surf motifs. “Our tip of the spear is making music we really enjoy,” Medeles says.“We hope that translates to people out there. I think this record is a cool snapshot into 1939’s world.
The record is an example of open collaboration. “It was such a great energy,” Medeles says of the band’s collaborations with outside musicians. “It was really about friendship and energy as much as anything.” Since 2013’s Howl & Bite, recorded by Coniglio and Medeles as a duo in 2010, 1939 Ensemble has expanded its parameters with each release, adding members like Thomas and Carter as time’s gone on. Beats & Saints finds that expansion playing out stylistically, tying together and ultimately transmuting disparate threads of groove, noise, and rhythm. It’s a casual assemblage, “a nice collage of songs,” Medeles says, but a picture of a band “recording music in their own space — on their own terms.” The resulting recording is a demonstration of that sonic vocabulary used to stun and wow — the musical equivalent of a friend laying some knowledge on you just because they know you’ll like it. – ROB JONES