The titles of Vernon Reid’s post-Living Color albums—Mistaken Identity (1996), Known Unknown (2004) and this year’s Other True Self –place the issue of his identity front and center. Not “black enough” for black radio, “too black” for white radio and too intelligent and musically adventurous for either, Reid has to think a lot about who he is and how he is perceived and represented. As a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition, he has been able to help fellow musicians forge their musical identities and discuss issues of race and genre. But how does one discuss and express complex issues such as race and personal identity in the context of an instrumental rock record? In the case of Reid, the answer is, “With ease and aplomb.” In his second album with his band Masque, he pours his stunning technical chops, broad musical knowledge and artistic sensitivity into evocatively named compositions that are worth a thousand words.
The first track, “Game is Rigged,” is a perfect example. Drummer Don McKenzie and bassist Hank Schroy lift a line from the quintessential Mardi Gras Indian party tune “Big Chief,” but lay it down in an ominous minor key while stripping it to the rhythmic bone. Over this alienated New Orleans second line, Reid rains down cascading sheets of descending notes, a hurricane of guitar distortion. Eventually, the track mutates into a jaded-but-exuberant blues, Reid’s wild solo joyous despite itself, before returning to the opening motif. The song’s title, musical allusions and raining notes of outrage leave little doubt that this is a wordlessly articulate response to the injustices of Katrina. That it is followed by an instrumental cover of Radiohead’s “National Anthem” only strengthens the case.
Like Radiohead, Reid has a great love for musical technology, especially as applied to the tone of his guitar, which he variously distorts, detunes, delays, oscillates, filters, stutters and otherwise deconstructs. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood knew he’d never be the world’s greatest guitarist, but set out to be the most creative, experimenting with timbre and melody and producing novel results. Reid, on the other hand, might actually be the world’s greatest electric guitarist for all I know. In any case, it is always refreshing when a player whose technical ability already makes him stand out decides to be as experimental with tone, melody and song selection as Reid is.
Masque’s reworking of Depeche Mode’s moody synth pop number “Enjoy the Silence” proves that such experimentalism can be emotionally engaging as well as intellectually stimulating. Reid’s arrangement is hard to classify generically—his jazzy interpretation of the melody gives way to an amazing solo that somehow manages to be maniacal and moving at once. Part of what gives this cover its pathos is Leon Gruenbaum’s gospel-tinged B-3 organ work, which reveals an emotional power to the chord changes that was, by comparison, merely latent in the original. Yet Masque doesn’t go for merely “pretty”—throughout the song, Reid’s guitar detunes unexpectedly, sounding like a tape grounding to a halt, then speeding up again, adding tension and complexity.
A postmodern shred version of an old MTV synth pop hit shouldn’t work, let alone stand out movingly on an otherwise strong disc. This is just the kind of surprise that Vernon Reid fans have come to look forward to from an artist impossible to pigeonhole. His recordings repeatedly raise the question, “Who is Vernon Reid?” Their answers are multiple, complex and continually unfolding.
Posted by Mack Hagood