As the first album in Lost Tribe Sound’s new series Built Upon a Fearful Void, The Letdown is anything but. It’s also the first William Ryan Fritch album that doesn’t sound like William Ryan Fritch, which is quite an accomplishment given the fact that he’s dozens of albums into his discography and already has an alter ego. One imagines the album successfully fooling a contestant on The Wire’s Invisible Jukebox.
The album is “meant to be fun” and we’re asked not to “read into it too much,” which is rather amusing given the name of our site. But we’ll play along, with one exception: the term “non-jazz” is used in the notes, but this is definitely jazz! So we’re hoping the description is tongue-in-cheek. The rub is that the album represents multiple types of jazz, from brushed drum nightclub chic to cinematic detective score to darkjazz (growing progressively more abstract as it proceeds), all with hints of modern composition and rock. At one juncture, the listener may think James Bond, at another juke joint.
And yes, the album is indeed fun! “Free Radical” is the sort of quick-riffing piece that a vaudeville performer might add between sets while the rest of the band is getting cigarettes. The finger snaps of “Going Through the Motions” are groovy, man. “Initiative” may remind some of Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme. We’re happy to hear the liberation Fritch feels constructing a set without an imposed framework. This is what jazz sounds like to him, so if he want to call it “non-jazz,” that’s okay too; the phrase falls into the same category of “post-rock,” because post-rock is still rock.
The bass-dominant title track sounds as if it has been filtered down through the generations. Add a little crackle and we might think it was a 78 playing at the wrong speed. After this point, the album turns further from its roots, including dark ambience (“Hesitation”) and abstraction (“Shuttered,” which makes one think of a movie with a similar title and an erstwhile gumshoe enunciating the words, “a hospital for the criminally insane.)” “Broken Barriers” descends into a sonic sludge punctuated by wind chimes, slowly drawing the curtain closed; but at the very end, Fritch makes a cautious return to sanity. “What’s Left Unfilched” sounds like the beginning of a circus, before the performers have had their coffee, stumbling outside the tent to get their first glimpse of the sun.
The Letdown marks a perfect start for the new series, as it prepares us to expect the unexpected. The set marks a fine departure for the artist, whetting our appetites for the music that will arrive over the next year, including a quartet of albums from Fritch himself. We can’t wait! (Richard Allen)