Swiss multi-instrumentalist Cédric Vuille’s main gig is the Euro-folky instrumental outfit L’Ensemble Rayé, whose often light and quirky approach is well encapsulated by the fanciful, whimsical, and surreal artwork of German children’s book illustrator Tatjana Hauptmann on the covers of L’Ensemble Rayé albums Même en Hiver/Comme un Pinson Dans L’Eau, Quelques Pièces Détachées, and Les Contrepoints Cardinaux. In sharp contrast, the front cover of Vuille’s 2007 CD, #804 Center Street, features a photo of a residential streetscape, the shot dominated by a quintessential American Foursquare-style house with a spacious front porch and a single dormer jutting out of the third-story roof, facing a cluster of wispy trees in the easement by the curb. This doesn’t look like L’Ensemble Rayé territory. The brief liner notes reveal that Vuille spent one of his mid-’70s high-school years as an exchange student with a family in Oregon City, Oregon, where he absorbed West Coast musical influences from the likes of Hot Tuna, It’s a Beautiful Day, and Little Feat. He dedicates the album to musicians Jorma Kaukonen and Tom Hobson, along with West Coast poet and short story author Raymond Carver (perhaps apt given the CD’s concise 39-minute length and 14 brief tracks in the two- to four-minute range). Here, Vuille is on a nostalgia trip, and American country, folk, and blues styles are a bit more in the forefront than the typical L’Ensemble Rayé effort, although the album doesn’t greet your ears in a way that much different than any number of other discs by « the striped ensemble. » As expected, the sound is beautiful, crisp and clean yet deep, thanks undoubtedly to the mixing and mastering of longtime musical compatriot Momo Rossel. Vuille loves the brightness and clarity of acoustic strummed and plucked instruments like ukulele, banjo, cuatro, and kalimba along with his guitar, but meticulously layers them over electrified instruments and also throws in such unexpected sonic delights as sitar, theremin, and E-bow, not to mention his occasional clarinet embellishments. He multi-tracks all of these and more, assisted on selected tracks by L’Ensemble Rayé members and fellow travelers like guitarists Julien Baillod and Jean-20 Huguenin, drummer Daniel Spahni, and reedman Peter A. Schmid. Vuille is never indulgent, and if you search for a grandstanding solo from him or anyone else, you will not find one.
Entirely instrumental with sound effects scattered throughout suggesting cameras, trains, airport terminals, and other travel-related imagery, the CD’s musical journey begins with the opening « It’s All in the Mind, » a sprightly little number with Vuille all over the mix, staccato picking his electric guitar in country-funk mode, underpinning the rhythm with an insistent ukulele strum, and interjecting a melodic keyboard fill in Hammond B-3 style while Schmid’s bass sax and clarinet punctuations funk the tune up even further and Spahni pushes the groove along. The tune seems to reflect anticipation for an upcoming voyage and its promises of adventure and discovery, with images to be captured both musically and — as the CD package and the tune « Polaroid » make clear — photographically. Less than two minutes long, « Polaroid » demonstrates the qualities that elevate Vuille far above the ordinary. He plays all the instruments (aside from an actual Polaroid camera that loudly spits out photos in a couple of spots), his sustained guitar lines intertwining with lovely clarinet harmonies while banjo arpeggios chart the song’s underlying chord progression. Vuille makes it sound beautiful, evocative, and entirely natural, until you realize that this could be a strange hybrid of Fripp & Eno jamming on a country-cabin porch with that backwoods kid from Deliverance. A slide guitar solo might fit nicely over the uptempo country-blues-funk backing of « Fishing Party, » but Vuille instead chooses a theremin, suggesting that the robot Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still paid a visit while Cédric and his American pals were casting about for steelhead. Some of the peculiar juxtapositions provoke a smile, but elsewhere the music is bold and beautiful, with Vuille up to some serious musical business, as when his burning distorted electric guitar cuts through all the picking and strumming on the dramatic midtempo avant-prog folk of « The Letter, » complete with clarinet interjections in the turnaround. This is Leo Kottke on acid. It all ends in a wash of memories with « Slide Show, » as Vuille layers his acoustics and electrics with clarity and deep resonance à la Michael Rother, ending with a prolonged descending cascade of sound, positioned in an ambient space between the electronic and acoustic worlds and slowly fading into silence. Notwithstanding the mid-’70s inspirations and memories that guided Cédric Vuille on #804 Center Street, a touch of surrealism on the CD cover would have worked as well as that photo of a big, solid American house. ~ Dave Lynch, All Music Guide
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