Frank Zappa once asked if humour belongs in music, and I’d like to ask the same thing regarding whimsy. Is there a place for it in ‘quality’ Western music? Can a piece of music be simultaneously serious and whimsical, or playful, or childlike, or naïf? Or must something be po-faced and sober to be considered for elevation to such rarified airs? These are age-old questions, applicable not only to Western music, but also to the fine arts, literature, cinema and television. In their search for art that is ‘serious’ rather than merely ‘entertaining,’ many people will forgive a lot of stylistic approaches that might not always seem an obvious fit: Deliberate offensiveness, weirdness, overt intensity, violence, pain, trauma, abrasiveness, confrontation, and so on. And yet, of all of these, humour and whimsy seem to be the two approaches that many people won’t forgive, as if their sheer presence is anathema to seriousness.
LIVE, the debut album from American instrumental six-piece BANANA, comes close to being the perfect fusion between these two incredibly disparate stylistic approaches. Its blend of restrained sobriety and freewheeling playfulness will convert any chin-stroker believing that whimsy and seriousness can’t exist side-by-side.
Led by multi-instrumentalist Josiah Steinbrick and featuring members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Warpaint, BANANA utilize instruments common to modern classical music, post-rock, South East Asian ceremonial performances and exotica in the creation of their hybrid sound. Chiming vibes and gentle pianos sit comfortably alongside honking saxophones and squeaky clarinets; single-string guitar lines, regimented percussion and cold synthesizer backgrounds sit comfortably alongside cascading gongs, woody marimbas and plucked rinky-dink banjos – it’s as if Tortoise or The Steve Reich Ensemble are jamming with The United States of America, or Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn during the time they were recording the soundtrack to Ravenous. Tightly controlled repetitive patterns predominate, the type of patterns especially common to modern classical and post-rock. And yet their rigidity is often disturbed by messy saxophones and clarinets honking and squeaking over the top of them as they search for melodies and freedom; or by an over-the-top amplification of these tropes through multi-layered showers of gongs, chimes, vibes and marimbas, resulting in a sheet of sound that resembles rain or a waterfall more than anything you would normally think of as music; or by sudden moments of self-aware dagginess or just plain silliness.
The ultimate impression is of something deadly serious that is constantly winking at itself, and constantly undercutting its own lofty ambitions and puncturing its own hubris. Each and every time I listen to it, I can’t but help smile…