CHANDLER TRAVIS THREE-O – This Is What Bears Look Like Underwater

Album: This Is What Bears Look Like Underwater

Artist: Chandler Travis Three-O

Label: Iddy Biddy

Release Date: March 05, 2013

Chandler Travis Thee Oh

www.chandlertravis.com

 BY MARY LEARY

 Five grizzly guys, some of whom seem to be dressed as tribal elders or witch doctors, are barely visible on the cover of This Is What Bears Look Like Underwater.  Leaving aside the possibility of an intentional visual joke, it’s hard to imagine a less viable approach to getting attention from anyone who doesn’t already know Chandler Travis’ work. But maybe that’s a moot point, as it’s unlikely that the general populace, including many who consider themselves alternative or “Indie” mavens, would dig what Travis is doing here.  If Travis and his cohorts were a sortie of young  hotties, this album’s eclectic mix of standard (in the best sense of the word) pop, jazz, and rock could still look forward to little more than a makeshift tent pitched on one of contemporary culture’s more neglected streets. Even when NRBQ started something somewhat similar, in the late ‘60s, it took a few cute guys, a high voltage guitarist, and exhaustive touring to get the attention of more than a handful.

 The Q reference is inevitable. Not because the Three-O sounds, exactly, like Q, although it brews a magical, minor key flirtation on the chorus of “Make The Small Things Pretty.” The quietly romantic feeling of Terry Adams/Joey Spampinato-era Q is one of TIWBLLU’s common threads, along with the where-will-the-car-take-us freedom of seminal Q (Adams and Spampinato with Steve Ferguson).  The Three-O covers Terry Adams’ early Q gem, “Things To You,” in a way that captures the original’s delicate merging of profundity with breeziness. And, as with Q’s roots-enriched/loving sounds, Travis’ “One Step Forward” paints two and a half minutes of music that could have been emitted by Louis Jordan or the Nat King Cole Trio.

 While a music history diagram might be drawn to explain these similarities, some of its major lines are pretty simple. Travis has been friends with Q for decades. Adams has recorded with Travis. Joey Spampinato’s brother Johnny formed The Incredible Casuals with Travis about 12 years after Q’s formation; later playing guitar with Q. The Casuals’ sound and feeling was often a lot like Q’s. 

 Both Travis & Co. and Q are versed in American roots music, most notably jump, R&B, and vintage jazz. And as Adams brought his experience of Thelonious Monk and Sun Ra to the Q, Travis channels a similar attenuation, resulting in what might be called avant jazz’s playful cousin. (The Winston-Salem Journal’s Ed Bumgardner described either the Three-O or its beefed-up brother, the Chandler Travis Philharmonic, as “… a strange, wonderful, totally distinct ode to musical mastery and nonsense. Imagine Andy Partridge of XTC and Beat poet Gregory Corso, wandering between Saturn and New Orleans to sit in with the Sun Ra Arkestra.”)

 A couple of the songs on TIWBLLU, such as “January,” could masquerade as decent contemporary Indie pop/rock, almost fooling one into thinking this album won’t be as good as it is. “January” is the first in a series of pop/rock pebbles emerging between evocative, woodwind-narrated instrumentals and quiet narratives. Some of those pebbles – “Paper Roses” and “Make The Small Things Pretty” jump to mind – morph with impressive velocity from quietly fresh songs to addictive gems. The album’s almost uniformly ridiculously good, with just a few dull and/or gratuitous interludes (“Born To Disappear” and an uninspired cover of “In My Life” come to mind). At 14 tracks, it’s a tad overlong, with several of Travis’s ideas perhaps better utilized as live set-fillers. But this is one of those cases where the freedom required for the very good and great stuff also made way for the album’s few excesses. The great stuff is so exemplary that Travis gets a pass for the weaker moments.

 If an apology for all the Q discussion seems in order, those references are the easiest way to say that almost everything promised by one of music’s most seminally adventurous R&B/rock/blues/jazz outfits – promises that it delivered, in a somewhat different direction – can be found in This Is What Bears Look Like Underwater. Omit some of the macho oomph that Al Anderson brought to Q. Add a more classical orientation, push on the jazz pedal, and don’t worry about being too eccentric. What you have is a collection of music so cumulatively beautiful that imagining its live impact is almost painful.

 Atop any other differences between NRBQ’s early ambiance/promise, and the Chandler Travis Three-O is one that’s especially significant. What do bears look like underwater? In this album’s case, like very intelligent creatures that are drowning. That Travis has chosen the daunting position of an aging artist from which to emit a series of cries that are hungry, sad, beautiful, and funny – sometimes simultaneously – is, in its way, as impressive – or more so – than the excited, exciting music that emerged from a group of young men who had, over 40 years ago, every reason to hope. 

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