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Wednesday, 24 May 2006 00:00

Crafty, curious Codetalkers

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By Chris Cooper

To say that Col. Bruce Hampton has carved a colorful swath through the music industry is likely an understatement of considerable proportions. Tossing equal parts Zappa-inspired lunacy, gritty Southern rock, spoken word rants from Mars, gospel, funk, jazz and blues into nearly every recording, Hampton has achieved an instantly recognizable sound in spite of all his stylistic schizophrenia.

His project from the early ‘90s, The Aquarium Rescue Unit, set the bar nearly as high as it could go for musicianship and sheer fun in the early days of the “jam band” craze.

So it’s hard not to go into listening to the Codetalkers’ new CD without a little bias — the live album ARU released is one of my personal favorites. Thankfully, Now doesn’t disappoint, and it’s more focused musically and lyrically than previous projects. Though there’s the unmistakable Hampton influence on the CD, the majority of the tunes are written by singer/guitarist Bobby Lee Rodgers, who displays great chops and a sense of humor throughout the 11-song romp that comprises Now.

Opening with “Ike Stubblefield,” the funky side of things is immediately revealed as is the ingenuity of Rodgers as a guitarist and arranger. Since the song itself is about an organ player, one would assume that one of the instruments in the mix is an organ, right? Actually, no. What sounds like a B3 is really a creatively effected guitar and in the context of the song is almost indistinguishable from the real thing. It’s a tone and a concept he uses with great results throughout the CD as on the solo for “Victor the Snakeman” and the Zappa/Parliament goof “Sound Sister.”

But the album has more to offer than comedic funk as demonstrated on “Broken Home” and the crafty pop of “Sagittarius Face” — the former leaning more on an acoustic guitar and percussion than anything else on the CD. “Tumblin’ Down” recalls some of the more gospel-inspired moments of Hampton’s previous bands with Rodgers turning in a burning solo not unlike Denny Diaz’s bop-influenced blues rocking in the Steely Dan classic “Bodhisattva.” In fact, Butler’s exemplary instrumental skills, his fluidity in so many genres makes Now such an engaging listen.

Still, the main order of the day for the Codetalkers is super-tight funk, and the rhythm section of drummer Tyler Greenwell and bassist Ted Pecchio consistently lay down grooves that propel the songs forward, providing Rodgers with an ample palette to layer his guitars over. The interplay of the three guitar tracks on “Saved By The Same Thing” is another brilliant display of crafty arranging as well as using the studio as a tool to fatten the sound when the amount of instruments on hand is limited. It’s not until the third listen or so that it really dawns on you that the band is just guitar, bass drums and vocals. “Million Dollars” is a standout track, and the first song in a long time to make me laugh out loud. “Niagara Falls” works a little Latin feel around a tale of an infatuation gone wrong, revisiting the “guitar-as-organ” in the solo.

All in all, Now is an incredibly well played album that never, ever takes itself too seriously. It combines the best elements of Hampton’s earlier projects into one coherent package and aptly demonstrates Bobby Lee Rodgers’ stellar abilities as a player, writer, singer and producer. Well worth the wait (the last Codetalkers album was originally released in 2001), Now is a must-have for the jam-oriented crowd but well worth a listen for those who find themselves put off by many of the bands in this field. It’s also advisable to grab this album while and when you can because Hampton’s stuff has a tendency to go out of print for no good reason. Go figure.

Dare I say it? As a matter of fact I do. 5 stars.

(Chris Cooper is a guitar teacher at In Your Ear Music Emporium in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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