Chris Campbell: Things You Already Know

The misleading cover photograph by Alec Soth on Things You Already Know, Christopher Campbell's third album for Innova (following 2011's Sound the All Clear and the recent collaboration with Grant Cutler, Schooldays Over), provides advance notice that one should come to the album ready to be surprised. That's especially so when Campbell's music is such a mercurial entity, hard to grab ahold of and, mongrel by nature, genre-defying. He brings an open-minded sensibility to both his compositions and the musicians and resources used to bring them into being.

For the new recording, Campbell assembled a large cast of musicians, including members of the Saint Paul Chamber and Minnesota Orchestras and members of the groups Zoo Animal (Holly Hansen) and Aaron and the Sea (Aaron Rice), to play homemade instruments (propane tank drums, bowed psaltery, singing bowls), strings, guitars, keyboards, and drums. Having done that, Campbell proceeded to manipulate the resultant sounds further by running them through amps and pedals. He's involved, by the way, on the project not just as a composer but as a performer, too, who's credited with contributing guitars, bass, keyboards, voice, and stringed instruments to the tracks. Hanson and Rice are also significant presences on the recording, as they contribute not only vocals but play homemade instruments, too.

Strings, guitars, and percussion boldly collide during the shape-shifting “Lord Byron,” sometimes violently and at other times serenely. Here and elsewhere, the music creaks and groans, its rough edges fully evident as it comes messily into being. Often, it's the bowed strings that bring stability to the material and act as lyrical counters to the bold strokes of guitars, keyboards, percussion, and homemade instruments that colour the sound. As an example of the recording's character, the album's longest piece, the heavily episodic “Water Variations,” includes passages that suggest a junkyard hoedown, an Asian improv from centuries ago, and a woozy nightmare of sickly convulsions. While the material is oft characterized by flux, it's not wholly chaotic as there are judiciously placed episodes of calm, as exemplified by the closing moments of “Torso of a Bodhisattva” and the gentle piano reverie “Things You Already Know.”

In some ways, the thirty-four-minute recording invites reference to Campbell's previous releases. A case in point, the brief opening piece, “Form = Emptiness,” accompanies hushed vocalizing with simple piano playing in a manner that recalls the delicacy of Schooldays Over; by contrast, much else on Things You Already Know exudes a spirit of raucous, free-wheeling experimentalism that's more in line with Sound the All Clear, even if the newer material seems more formally structured and coherent by comparison. At the very least, no one can accuse Campbell of playing it safe.

March 2014