by Ian Feigle (@i_feigle)
Dead Rider's fourth full-length, Crew Licks, released through Drag City in September of 2017, is yet another strong punctuation mark in the band's nine year history. Dead Rider's idiosyncratic musical syntax has found a place in the edges that are defining how "rock" instruments can be used in today's musical context. With Crew Licks, Dead Rider has expanded away from their strongholds of deep-compression beats, gate-triggered sequences, and sub-sonic electronics that elucidated 2011's The Raw Dents and 2014's Chills on Glass. Instead, it seems to approach and re-conceptualize the tropes of rock instrumentation. Crew Licks often seems more than it is, filling the stereo spectrum with familiar yet foreign production techniques, charming the most sophisticated of ProTools wizards.
Dead Rider emerged in Chicago in 2009 from the creative ashes of frontman/guitarist Todd Rittmann's previous group, US Maple, whose post-structural and avant-garde tendencies stumbled over Chicago's noise rock scene in the late 90s and early 00s. Exploding in disturbing and stunning melodies that dance with the equations of dissonance, US Maple whined and slithered like audiences hadn't heard since Ice Cream for Crow. From their 1995 Skin Graft debut, Long Hair in Three Stages, produced by Jim O'Rourke, to their ultimate 2003 Drag City release, Purple on Time, US Maple produced a stunning discography that continues to mystify rock critics and guitar players. After US Maple's demise, Rittmann took his detuned guitars with him, started singing, and found himself fronting Dead Rider within a handful of years later.
Recorded, mixed, and mastered by Rittmann, Crew Licks nestles into the anxiety-filled nooks of your nervous system. It creeps in and infests your brain with the polyrhythmic syncopations and complex chord structures of drummer Matt Espy and multi-instrumentalist J.K. Samson, punctuated with Rittman's virtuosic yet irreverent guitar playing. Opening the LP is “Grand Mal Blues,” which shuffles awake with stuttering synth tones that crash into a guitar solo that hearkens back to the psychedelia of yore. Backed with minor vocal harmonies and a rhythm section that raps on the doors of psych's opulent cathedrals, Rittmann's guitar playing and voice take center stage––a setting that is sustained through the album. His vocal delivery is dramatic in its pronunciation, “Impossible/ There is an opposable thumb . . . You're a real snare strainer/ air complainer.” His lyrics are as assonant and sinuous as his guitar playing; his performance ascending in continuous creative bounds.
Tracks like “The Listing” and “Bad Humours” show off Rittmann's ability to pay homage to the canon of guitar-moves, but the songs never feel derivative or stagnant. “The Listing” palm-mutes a blazing path through the market as the salesman and the auctioneer take the stage. Rittmann spits in your face, “You can always trade the danger for something much, much worse.” Teetering between the left and right speakers with Latin percussion, tape loops, and down-n-easy riffs, “Bad Humours” incants a sense of Renaissance superstition and wide-spread lobotomies with the chant, “Dance to the bloodletting.” These tracks morph and change in subtle ways that make you question whether there isn't some secret sleight of hand in the production. The same questions and production that have lured weary listeners into the trap of Dead Rider's striking music for the last nine years.
“Ramble on Rose,” a Grateful Dead cover that can easily go unrecognized as such, is lush and romantic. Rittmann whispers you to ease with “Ramble on baby, settle down easy” over a wash of digital chirps and snare rushes, intensely rich fretless bass, surf-jazz hollow-bodies, and a sparse Rhodes accompaniment. This is no homage to the old-time jammers, but a re-appropriation of a story, reset in a new timeline. Maybe the best and most intense song on the album is “The Ideal,” which moves from a pestle-and-mortar introductory phase toward a steel-drum mess of jaunted rhythms counted with the concepts of jazz. Rittmann's voice is delicate but intimidating, “A smile cracks to break/ A beak to take and pluck a prize.” Feedback screeches in between beats and breaths; reversed vocals throw you pivoting on your head in a tight orbit. The song calls back to all the great sounds of Dead Rider's past, it consoles you, “Cry baby, don't cry.” A solo of what sounds like a mix of distorted thumb pianos and steel drums feels like it's falling apart, but it's never wrong. The track is completely inundating and keeps you wanting more, an endless spiral in the cyclone of coalescing percussion.
Dead Rider's discography has been an impressive smorgasbord of well-conceptualized yet free-feeling experimental rock. With the help of a number of musicians contributing to the band over the years, including Andrea Faught and Cheer Accident's Thymme Jones, Dead Rider has remained evergreen. They are fresh and minty, umami and bitter, foreign but never unappealing. And Crew Licks is yet another example of their dialectic delicacy. Todd Rittmann, backed by Espy and Samson, has created a new collection of songs that are to be reckoned as a progressive step across the boundaries of rock. His guitar playing on Crew Licks is more refined and perhaps more prominent than ever. But it's never redundant; uninhibitedly creative but not inaccessible. His voice is anxious yet meditative, timid but confident. The production is sophisticated, innovative, and intimate in a way that provides Crew Licks the framework to display the essence of Dead Rider's discrete musical personality, giving us hope that they will continue making their peculiar music for years to come.