Rubin Witz is a guitarist/songwriter (and fumbler of bass and keyboards) hailing from Seattle. His music is a unique fusion of genres, which Mixing Engineer Jeremy Serwer describes as ‘off-road jazzy stunt rock’ or simply ‘out-jazz’. More specifically, it’s a potent meld of jazz, rock, folk, Americana and indie strongly influenced by two avant garde artists who fused rock, blues and jazz, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. Lyrically, there is an influence as well, with the dry, sardonic humour of Zappa and the verbal prankster style of Beefheart.
Indeed, to fully appreciate this eight track album it pays to be musically and culturally literate, with references ranging from Thoreau and Nietzsche to the A-Team. Musically, while in parts it hits the surreal heights of the Captain’s uber-bizarre magnum opus Trout Mask Replica, generally it is more along the lines of his later more accessible Doc At The Radar Station era. The quirky vocal style by longtime collaborator Tragic Jack Jorgenson is more in line with Zappa for the most part, delivering with deadpan wit and understatement.
It starts with The Inadequacy Of The Light Of Nature, beginning with arpeggios on clean jazz guitar, then combined with some biting lead guitar courtesy of Patrick Carmody. As the music shifts through some angular chord changes, the first lines show Witz uses words in the same challenging and intelligent way as he does music: “As we work in vain for what we think is transcendent, Thoreau not thorough enough, Everything not forbidden is now compulsory”. No one could accuse him of dumbing things down….
Next comes a section of wall-climbing guitars and Zappa-centric jagged riffs before settling down into a dreamy slow-paced section. It circles round beautifully to the opening introductory section and a final verse. A restlessly inventive opener.
They Never Left is another fascinating condition of jazz and blues, with a rather melancholic lyric about people seemingly trapped in one place. It features some great accents and syncopations, punctuated by brass with murmurs of mournful viola throughout. Witz mostly employs fairly simple time signatures, but the rhythmic variety in each section is very creative.
Duelling Mullets is perhaps the most manic piece of Trout Mask-esque musical Dadaism on the album, melding disparate sections in a riotous manner. It starts out sounding like Tom Waits fronting a metal band on crystal meth, gorgeous but brief laid-back guitar interludes and intense heavy rock duelling with blues and progressive jazz. Tragic Jack really sounds like he’s channeling the great Don Van Vliet when he roars, “There hither – the whiskey witch, guard your loins against her pitch.”
Living Downtown is simply a continuous fireworks display of jazz, blues, soul, funk and rock with spoken word interventions that add a little more to the avant-garde vibe. This musical kaleidoscope is highly influenced by the colourful sound and intricate arrangements of Zappa’s classic Hot Rats.
Ubermensch in the Yurt perhaps sums up Rubin Wits best, and feels like the centrepiece of the album. It is where we first find our album title, captured in the hilarious lines: “Rainy days don’t always, if ever, get me down but Mondays often do. The ubermensch in the yurt won’t spend the time to kvetch. If we do the rain god might come down and gonna smack us, come down harder than B.A. Baracus….”.
As with the first track, the lyrics appear to be satirizing the sanctimonious tone of New Age spirituality: “You told me things in this lower, preliminary state that engage our interest are transitory and corruptible but I told you I lived in a yurt, so….”.
This highly humorous lyrical tone continues into AYTD (Amusing Yourself To Death) with inspired lines like, “That prison scrawl decorating your phalanges tells me that you bathe in East L.A.’s spiritual Ganges….”. The backing vocals are absolutely superb on this one, with some dizzying electric guitar near the end before exploding in a brass blowout. The title track is a gem, a slinky fast-paced piece of out-jazz with a truly bizarre second section and lyrics simply described as ‘standard non-Gentile kvetching’ (kvetching is complaining, for the uninitiated.)
The final track There Must Be A Murder, is perhaps the most accessible thing here. It’s the closest to a traditional song albeit one about a strong dislike of the sleep disturbing qualities of crows! Perhaps unexpectedly, it delivers a fantastically anthemic chorus that Kings Of Leon would be proud to have in their arsenal: “I’m angry at the crows for breaking us….”. It’s the albums epic at six minutes and a fantastic way to finish, with a storming final section.
Overall, Kvetch is simply one of the most original albums I’ve ever heard. Taking the abrasive, avant-garde edge and wilful surrealism of Beefheart and Zappa, combined with his own natural gift for melody and unique lyrical style, Witz has created a heady musical brew that repays the listener for repeated listens with intricacies that keep you coming back for more.