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Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009

Medeski Martin & Wood

Radiolarians 1 (MRI)

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Medeski Martin & Wood, by now everyone's favorite organ trio, continues their venture into pluralistic weirdness on Radiolarians 1, an attempt to turn the write, record, tour chronology on its ear. Starting with nothing but song sketches, MMW fleshed out their latest effort in front of audiences on tour, before finally returning to the studio's confines to hit "record." If the process sounds like driving backward during rush hour, so do much of the results.

Hitting like a bad MDMA trip that segues into traditional finger-snapping bop and then comes back again (all on track one), this first offering in the band's planned trilogy gives one part danceable goodness to every two parts high-brow, hodgepodge experimentation. Sure there's New Orleans piano on "Professor Nohair" and dusty urban soul on "Free Go Lily," but the well-known characters that reside in each would probably have little to do with the haunted ambiance of the likes of "God Fire," or the harsh electric-bass driving "Reliquary."

Usually it's keyboardist John Medeski's avant-garde spirit that bogs down the like-it-used-to-be, Jimmy Smith-esque grooves. Here it seems the relative lack of structure impedes the accessibility that made hipsters fall so hard for MMW to begin with.

The band's Web site defines "radiolarians" as "amoeboid protozoa that produce intricate mineral skeletons." Sound a bit cerebral? It can be, but there are just enough "ah yes" moments ("Sweet Pea Dreams") in between to make the brain-work somehow seem worth it. Certainly the coolest dorm-room stoners the country over will find their flavor of the month, while traditional jazzers will shake their heads nostalgically for the group's formative years down in the groove. In turns, both are right.


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