Red Snapper: Pale Blue Dot
Lo Recordings

The 1999 outing Making Bones was a Red Snapper high point not only on account of its muscular delivery and compositional polish but because it presented a cohesive group identity, something noticeably lacking on the 2000 follow-up Our Aim Is To Satisfy—which failed to do so when the album sounded like the work of multiple outfits, not one. 2003's eponymous collection and subsequent remix set Redone were thought to be the band's swan songs but the group now returns with the mini-album Pale Blue Dot, and the natural question is whether it should have. An accompanying press detail—“And once again it's impossible to define the sound they make...afro jazz, krautrock, rockabilly, hip hop and funk all bubble in their dub melting pot”—doesn't bode well and neither does the fact that the new release's half dozen songs are padded with remixes (by Kelpe and Subway). But let's not be too hasty: it's certainly possible that a coherent identity will assert itself, given that the core trio of double bassist Ali Friend, guitarist David Ayers, and drummer extraordinaire Rich Thair remains intact and is supplemented by one member only, Tom Challenger on saxophone, clarinet, and melodica. That the album was recorded live in concert (with Darius Kedros handling mixing duties) and live in the studio (with Tim Holmes of Death In Vegas) also gives hope.

“Brickred” gets things off on the good foot with the spirited honk of Challenger's clarinet echoed by Ayers's guitar, with Friend and Thair working up a solid backbone. The ensemble playing's tight, the melodies strong, and the funky tune kicks up dust in all the right places—so far so good. “Lagos Creepers” finds the band in aggressive G-Man mode, with the rhythm section stoking a slamming pulse for Challenger to blow over, after which Ayer's power chords light fire in the blustery blues-rocker “Wanga Doll” (a few quiet moments allow the melodica's sweet cry to be heard). Though the quartet temporarily suspends the group sound established in the opening cuts for the requisite dub showcase “Moving Mountain,” Challenger's clarinet playing ensures that some degree of continuity remains. A brief foray into soul-funk (“Clam”) sets the stage for the lovely ballad “Deathroll” whose beautiful arrangement allows glockenspiel accents and a sinuous clarinet theme to rise to the top. Subway's “Brickred” and Kelpe's “Clam” remixes are passable but frankly superfluous, suggesting that the guests' cuts should be regarded as nothing more than bonus material. While past Red Snapper albums included multiple vocal turns, Pale Blue Dot includes none—a positive move it turns out since it prevents the focus from shifting from the band to guests. It's a promising enough return, then, even if a mini-album containing six new songs amounts to a rather tentative one.

October 2008