Coin Coin Chapter Three is one of the best albums of 2015. How do we know this already? Because in the modern era, there has never been a year in which ten albums were better than this one. Matana Roberts is a true original, and this album is a true original; there’s nothing else like it on the market. It’s not even like the last two installments of the 12-chapter series. This may confound recommendation engines, which may pick up hints of Gil Scott-Heron or The Last Poets, but otherwise be thwarted.
The deep, bluesy jazz of Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres (2011) is nearly absent here, sublimated into hints and mirages. But gone also are that album’s plaintive, out of control screams (“Pov Piti” – ouch!), reduced to a single, soft, off-key “come away with me” late in the album. The big band that made tracks such as “Song for Eulalie” so enticing is also gone, back to the streets and swamps; the lyric poetry is broken into fragments and loops. The deeper we go into Roberts’ series, the more perspective we have on earlier works. The first chapter now seems like a confrontational overture, a promise to use subtlety and excess in equal measure.
Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile (2013) ended up in our Top Ten for the year, and received some of our site’s highest accolades. David Murietta wrote, “Matana Roberts’ 12-volume project … is shaping up to be one of the great works of our (short) times.” Later, Jeremy Bye added, “This is not merely one of the best albums of the year, it’s a singularly important document for this generation.” The album took what many might call a drastic right turn, reducing the size of the ensemble while adding a male opera singer. The artist proved herself willing, in fact eager to take risks, following her own muse. Would she have enough in the tank for Chapter Three? More than enough; we can’t recall another artist who has flipped the script on three subsequent albums and emerged on top each time.
No more big band. No more band. No more opera singer. No more stream-of-consciousness. No more dissonance. Coin Coin Chapter Three is an intensely personal album, Roberts sheering her production so that it might grow new wool. While earlier albums included suggestions of quilts, river run thee is a pure sound collage, comprised of Matana’s looped voice (spoken and sung), field recordings, dialogue snippets, readings from abandoned texts, and a recording of Malcolm X. New melodies are interwoven with old hymns. New words are stitched to old diaries. Roberts suggests listening to the album alone or with a loved one, uninterrupted, in the dark. She’s right. This is an immersive, integrated listening experience.
Until now, Roberts has been described as a chronicler of the African-American experience, focusing on what it means to be African-American, or more deeply, what it might have meant to be a slave in the American South. But on river run thee, she goes even further, challenging our assumption of what it means to be human. When she reads the text of a slave owner, describing a slave “so delirious” that he tries to run away, the listener can’t help but ask, “How did we get it so wrong?” The reading arrives late in the album, demonstrating a patience that leads to a larger payoff. It’s also the first time Roberts has used such soft tones to shock, eschewing the confrontation of the first two chapters.
This is also the first time we’ve heard Roberts use drone as a weapon. These intimidating tones first come into play at the end of the magnificent, ten minute opening track, but return, stronger and more abrasively, deep in the set. We’re used to hearing artists cross genre boundaries: jazz to post-rock, ambient to electronic. But we’re not used to artists jumping fences between disparate fields without catching a foot on the fence and falling in a heap of disheveled clothing. The excitement of listening to Roberts as a musician, apart from any literary content, is knowing that her minds makes connections that never occur to others, and that she is confident enough to commit them to vinyl and disc. A secondary pleasure, apparent in all three chapters but highlighted on river run thee, is to hear how the layers of her music work together: at one point, three or more layers of her own voice in whisper and song, accompanied by pure alto sax, drone and field recording; and nothing seems out of place.
Where will Roberts head next? For a while, she was living on a houseboat in Brooklyn, but by now she’s resumed her travels. We suspect that her sonic travels will continue as well. We would not be surprised to hear subsequent chapters delve into tribal roots, hip-hop, modern classicism and club culture. She’s telling a story – a long story – and while much of it is still unwritten, we suspect that the overall narrative is lodged in her head. By the time she’s completed this project (at this rate, 2033), new genres will have been invented as well. The United States will also have reached a tipping point in which persons of color will outnumber Caucasian-Americans. Roberts is in the perfect place to chronicle this shift, and to continue to challenge assumptions of history, perspective, and race. (Richard Allen)