Blues Control
Valley Tangents
Drag City

  • Drag City
  • Russ Waterhouse and Lea Cho in Lehigh Valley, PA
I usually resist the impulse to write about instrumental music, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy it. On the contrary, my record collection is filled with soundtracks, and I even hosted a jazz show on KCMU in the early-'90s, but I find it easier to spin the stuff than to try to describe it.

When lyrics come into play, I can reflect on the ideas an artist is putting across. And I've always been fascinated by the sound of the human voice. Take those ingredients away, and I'm at a bit of a loss, so I put all thoughts of narrative aside—even if the players have one in mind—and lose myself in the feelings the music engenders.

On Valley Tangents, their fourth full-length since 2006—and follow-up to their celebrated FRKWYS split with zither master Laraaji—I can't tell if Lea Cho (keyboards) and Russ Waterhouse (guitar, synth, tapes) have any sort of message to convey, but I like the way they combine the piano jazz of the '60s, namely Vince Guaraldi and Dave Brubeck, with avant garde and experimental elements. Other writers have cited Carla Bley, Bruce Hornsby, and Cluster.

As featured on FRKWYS Vol. 8 (Rvng Intl., released 11/15/11).

The PA duo finds the sweet spot between accessible and adventurous: it isn't easy listening, but nor is it abrasive. As Cho told Bad Vibes, "We love all kinds of pop music; we're definitely influenced by it. I hope that's obvious, not a secret."

After playing the whole thing several times, I can see why they made "Love's a Rondo" and "Iron Pigs"—I wrote about the former here—available first. "Rondo," in particular, reminds me of fusion-era Miles Davis (In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew) even if there's nary a trumpet in earshot. It's the most conventionally pop-oriented track on the album, though the other four are just as compelling.

Unlike the lyrical "Rondo," "Iron Pigs" is brash enough to provide the score for a military movie calling out for a blast of sonic excitement—Casio horns, gunshot drums—to juice the story along. The title implies Black Sabbath, i.e. "War Pigs," but the tone is more celebratory than critical (they took the name from a local stadium). If they had released it a few years earlier, it could've played over The Hurt Locker's final sequence as Jeremy Renner returns for another tour of duty.

And their taste ranges widely, because I also detect a few prog references. The flute-playing on "Opium Den/Fade to Blue," for instance, brings Jethro Tull to mind, but without Ian Anderson's pesky vocals to kill the buzz. At 6:15 minutes, it seems short, even if it isn't (the longest track, "Gypsum," clocks in at 8:09). I'd love to hear them stretch it out in concert, except they haven't scheduled any West Coast dates yet. Fine as it is, I bet this record sounds even better live.

Valley Tangents is out now on LP, CD, and cassette (yes!). Stream it at Ad Hoc.