Review Summary: Trout Mask running from White Masks.
“I am a child of the wind, even Daddy said so / we used to race and I would always win” Matana Roberts exhales, of course, breathlessly, her backing band feverishly trying to keep up with her, a squall of alto sax, guitar, bass and fight-or-flight percussion encircling her incantation, playing atonally and discordantly not necessarily out of design but because it’s the only musical style the wheezing pace of the album will allow, not coincidentally certain discordances emulating the sound of an amateur erring while attempting to play a piece too fast, occasionally collapsing and tripping before resuming Robert’s cacophonous accompaniment. I am three tracks in to Roberts’ latest installment in her Coin Coin series, this one centred around Memphis, and I already feel as though I’ve committed my lungs to anaerobic exercise.
One of the things I have always admired about Roberts’ Coin Coin series, of which this one is the fourth, is that it avers to a position on racial politics while refusing to elide from individual strands and stitches of the tapestry, and is always willing to experiment with form and structure in ways i've never heard (is it Jazz? Improv? Who Cares when it's a sound her own) to achieve this. While cleaving to a meta-narrative built on post-colonial history and the lingering effects of slavery in America, she, along with the late, great Toni Morrison also has the intelligence and thoughtfulness to realise that not every story, or place, is going to coalesce.
So we have four discrete places and four discrete stories, which isn’t to say that collectivisation or unity isn’t valid, but which is to say the complexity of the issues she tackles means stories won’t be repeated: each installment tells a vastly different one, offering dignity to unique experiences and the individual while concomitantly refusing to conform to easy homogenization. Memphis, fittingly, is brimming with the ferocity and unremitting sense of peril I associate with it through both it’s Hip-Hop, Blues, early Rock ‘n’ Roll. The phrase the album’s protagonist employs, “I am a child of the wind, even Daddy said so,” begins as an assertion and wends its way into motif, repeated throughout the album, every place of shelter transient and looming with volcanic-strength threat. Even the final three tracks, which form a reprieve, seem fraught: “I’m going to let it shine” and “live life, out loud” may waltz along mellifluously, but her voice sounds as alert and ready as a radar screen.
Which is to say Roberts and her ensemble aren’t necessarily musicians but excavators, using howling saxophone and banging drum to dig beneath dirt, sediment and limestone to reveal rivers of blood flowing and criss-crossing underneath; the album from In the Fold onwards (and really, In the Fold and Raise Yourself Up might be two of her best “accessible” tracks, though for those unfamiliar with free jazz-cum-improv-cum-blues note the inverted commas) is the analysis and result of the vials of the substance taken from the source. The album demands that we keep the Black experience and it’s fraught, multi-faceted history in living memory, as vital and alive as the hearts pumping our blood as I type this.
It wouldn’t just be inappropriate to listen to Coin Coin Memphis casually, while playing a video game or doodling in the background, it would be impossible, so arresting and bracing is the experience. We are invited to become amateur phlebotomists ourselves, tracing a genealogy and a lineage borne of America’s shame whose consequences are extant, enduring and to a certain extent culturally simplified. For the squeamish, remember on whose blood the city was built. A baying yelp, usually barely audible and carried on the wind, recorded in high fidelity and screamed into one’s ear: an astonishing achievement and as the decade draws to a close an essential document keeping alive something that threatens to be lost: while her Coin Coin series are cult classics now, one can only hope they become cornerstones in a greater discourse outside of genre or even arbitrary scores, numbers on a page, about what America is and what it could become - but most importantly, what it was. Let it shine / let it shine.