By May 2020, Marc Ribot had begun to find being depressed depressing. The guitarist and his Ceramic Dog trio—bassist/multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith—hadn’t played for months. So, all involved decided to head to Ismaily’s Figure 8 Recording studio in Brooklyn to record what would become Hope, set for release June 25 on Northern Spy. “Originally,” Ribot says, “we were going to call it Better Luck Next Time, but that felt… somehow unnecessary.”
The band, which has been releasing music since 2008, devised an order of operations to enter the studio, wash their hands and set up at a safe remove. Ribot, Ismaily and Smith never actually saw each during the sessions because of the safeguards; they were working to keep the bassist’s “fucked up” lungs from compromising his health. But because of Ismaily’s technical facility, they all “heard each other better than ever,” Ribot said. With precautions in place, the trio set about capturing eight originals that reflect the era’s uncertainty and cap it with a reimagining of Donovan’s “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” where the trio turns the idealistic psych-folk effort into a ruminative, spoken-word piece. Harnessing pent-up artistic longing, the sessions also yielded enough material for What I Did On My Long ‘Vacation’, something of a teaser for this current dispatch back in October 2020. “When I took a taxi over to the studio with my amp, that was the first time I’d been in a cab in three or four months,” recalled Ribot, who’s performed with Tom Waits, Jack McDuff, Diana Krall and countless others. “And I only took a cab once; the other times I went on my bicycle. I was a very good boy.”
“Wanna,” a tune on the new album, simply reflects the band’s incalculable joy at being able to play some rock ’n’ roll again. But on a few songs [check out “B Flat Ontology”] Ribot flexes minimalist storytelling skills to sketch life’s ennui—a kind of pointlessness that goes far beyond existentialism.
“My ‘No Wave’ roots are showing” Ribot said about “They Met In The Middle,” a tune that pulses and shuffles, and benefits from the outside contribution of alto saxophonist Darius Jones. “It’s a song about not going anywhere. You can go nowhere by staying in the same place, or by going in circles. This song is about people who go places and then go back. There are a lot of ways to go nowhere.”
Some of Ribot’s recordings have been more immediately political. His Songs of Resistance 1942-2018 from 2018 was unapologetically agitprop, and Ceramic Dog’s YRU Still Here?, from that same year, spanned the perennially poignant “Muslim Jewish Resistance” and the punky “Fuck La Migra.” On Hope, “The Activist,” is more satire than rebuke. “I wrote that after sitting at the millionth political meeting that didn’t get anything done,” said Ribot, “So, in this song, I was channeling people who really enjoyed mouthing a bunch of radical sounding shit, as opposed to actually doing what urgently needed to be done.” Smith further contextualized the tune, and the album overall: “This record, versus that last one, has more of the effects of political burnout.” ***
Resisting musical, historical and political categorization, “The Long Goodbye” and “Maple Leaf Rage”—a pair of instrumentals toward the end of Hope—move through moods and attitudes while providing a 23-minute ballast to Ribot’s poetic commentary. “I think Marc has a painterly way of following his intuition about whether we need an instrumental moment or not after some lyrical, text-based music has happened,” Ismaily said. “I think it’s just following the subtle intuition of balancing the scales and what’s taking place in a listener’s emotional experience.”
Even as the bandleader crafted detailed snapshots of pandemic-era life for Hope, the overriding passion that drove Ceramic Dog back into the studio last spring is palpably audible on every track. “We were so happy to be playing, recording, and making music again,” Ribot said. “In future times—if there are future times—when people look back on the last year, they’re not going to believe it. But this record was our witness… and our life-line.”
*** Ribot, on the steering committee of MusicWorkersAlliance.org, now goes to more meetings than ever.