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Just like a teen idol forever associated with an early bubblegum hit, guitarist Marc Ribot made his indelible mark on the public ear early on with his "wrong-note blues" sound on key '80s albums by Tom Waits. But in the decades since, he has proven a nimble and adventurous composer and performer, seemingly unable or unwilling not to try new things. He always sounds like himself, but the surrounding context teleports all over the stylistic map, often given a twist thanks to his wry sense of humor. (He has a particular knack for song titles—"Pennies From Hell" is a favorite.)
Big Ears features Ribot live in a number of his musical guises: solo (performing a live score for Charlie Chaplin's silent film The Kid), with Cuban-flavored project Los Cubanos Postizos, and with his current rock-band-sorta Ceramic Dog. And there are even more Ribot sounds and attacks that are likely only going to be available to you at this point through his wildly eclectic recording career, so here's a primer to a handful of the best entries from a discography that defies neat superlatives.
Requiem for What's His Name (1992)
Though not his first solo outing, it functions as a sampler of the various interests and quirks he would delve into in the coming years: joyful noise, puckish mock punk, skronky blues, agitated etudes, and the occasional transformative cover—for the latter, a churning version of the Juan Tizol/Duke Ellington tune "Caravan" that sounds a bit like an unbalanced washing machine getting its twerk on.
Don't Blame Me (1995)
Perhaps the closest thing to an album-length extension of his Waits-era approach, this spartan (but not always somber) solo recording finds Ribot worrying a handful of standards, blues tunes, and gnarly interludes. Atmospheric and astringent.
Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos (1998)
If there was ever going to be a "big break" for a restless, spiky solo guitarist/composer who doesn't really sing, this was likely to be it. After lovingly transcribing dozens of pioneering proto-salsa pieces by the late Cuban composer Arsenio Rodriguez, Ribot arranged a brace of the tunes for an adroit band he dubbed Los Cubanos Postizos—the Prosthetic Cubans. Unfortunately for him, the genuine Cubans of the Buena Vista Social Club resurfaced the very same year, swamping his charming tribute. Still, y Los Cubanos Postizos (and its equally delightful follow-up, Muy Divertido!) remains a frisky yet soulful recording that stands as the one album of his you could recommend to almost anyone. Seriously.
Scelsi Morning (2003)
This collection of pieces composed for dancers finds Ribot in avant mode, his incandescent playing flaring across small-group arrangements that cycle and shimmer in a most beguiling way. Ribot has recorded any number of challenging albums, for which this is the most likely to serve as a gateway drug.
Spiritual Unity (2005)
The influence of free-jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler had been made manifest in Ribot's work before (he covered Ayler solo on Don't Blame Me and 2001's like-minded Saints). Here he goes all in with a whole set of Ayler tunes played with collective cathartic gusto by a quartet highlighted by the first recorded performance in nearly 40 years by bassist Henry Grimes, a member of the saxophonist's seminal '60s band.
Asmodeus: Book of Heads Vol. 7 (2007)
Dare one use the term "shred"? John Zorn drafted Ribot to take the lead on a guitar-driven set of compositions attached to his long-running Masada project, and in the process gave his longtime collaborator as close to a straightforward platform to kick out the jams as he's ever had in his recorded career. Toggling between blues-rock grooves and avant-rock scorch, Ribot channels the epic guitar hero he has never quite otherwise ever resembled.
Your Turn (2013)
Ribot's new trio, Ceramic Dog, brings him nearly full circle, with an eclectic assortment of garage-based crud, noisy rave-ups, and various other flavors of rock music as it is generally practiced in contemporary society, featuring some brave vocal performances from the leader (e.g., the tongue-in-cheek, vaguely lounge-y "The Kid Is Back!"). As a singer, he won't make the dude from the National lose sleep, but he sounds like he's having a lot of fun, and it's infectious.
Marc Ribot performs music for Charlie Chaplin's The Kid at the Bijou Theatre on Saturday, March 29, at noon; with Ceramic Dog at the Bijou Theatre on Friday, March 28, at 8:15 p.m.; and with Los Cubanos Postizos at Scruffy City Hall on Saturday, March 29, at midnight.