Review: Don Caballero – “World Class Listening Problem”

This is the story of a phoenix.

Forged in Pittsburgh back around 1991, Don Caballero wasted little time in refining and perfecting its thunderous modus operandi: all shifting time signatures, pummeling drums, and crunching instrumental refrains calling to mind collapsing metal skyscrapers and other oddly timed industrial catastrophes.

The fruit of the band’s labors could be blood-boiling (For Respect), refreshingly complicated (What Burns Never Returns), and, at its best, simply epic (Don Caballero 2). But, after much merited acclaim and a series of increasingly complex outings on Touch and Go, the group sadly went the way of so many of its peers, its members parting after 2000’s American Don.

Six years passed. And, here we are again.

Well, sort of.

Only Damon Che, the octopus-armed drummer, remains to represent the original Don Caballero lineup in the group’s newest incarnation, which marks its public birth and ascent from the ashes with the release of World Class Listening Problem. The Don has returned, to a degree. And that seems to be the thesis of the new record, whose 10 instrumental tracks are seeing the light of day courtesy of the Relapse label.

World Class Listening Problem seems anxious to prove it is part of the original, oft-celebrated Don Caballero canon and also equally interested in arguing that it is something distinct and new. The mixed messages, though, somehow work, making the disc feel like both a continuation of earlier conversations and an attempt to stir up something fresh.

The noise begins with songs like “Mmmmm Acting, I Love Me Some Good Acting�” and “And and and, He Lowered the Twin Down” — yes, the strange titles remain — choppy, crunching numbers that are the record’s closest descendents of, say, Don Caballero 2. (“Mmmmm Acting…” can be particularly blistering.)

But while the group’s new fare may call to mind earlier offerings, it doesn’t mimic it, often replacing the jazzy undercurrents, bizarre time-shifts, and post-punk explosiveness of the Touch and Go days with a more straightforward approach. It works. And rather than dwell on a personal history lesson or take a trip down memory lane, the band moves quickly and fleshes out the proceedings, offering tightly wound math-rock (“Sure We had Knives Around”) and songs that follow carefully choreographed scripts only to unfurl into guitar-squalor or spacey repetitions (“I Agree … No! … I Disagree”).

Then, things go a bit off-course. The record doesn’t weaken, really, but it does become more conventional and maybe even a little safe. “Palm Trees in the Fecking Bahamas” can feel downright poppy, its passages punctuated with almost hook-driven choruses. The record’s title track, rather than becoming unhinged through Che’s trademark, sprawling delivery, seems anchored by a linear framework that doesn’t leave much room for expansion or experimentation. In its second half, “Railroad Cancellation,” whose impeccably executed opening makes great use of layered guitars and climaxing percussion, falls back on reprised bridges instead of shaking up things or pulling the listener elsewhere. The record closes with some strange but enticing returns to form (the quirky “I’m Goofballs for Bozo Jazz;” the sometimes-scathing “Savage Composition”), but World Class Listening Problem never seems to deliver fully on the promise of its early moments.

This isn’t to say the release is a lackluster one. Far from it. But, after six years of waiting and countless rumors of splits and regrouping, the expectations are set understandably high.

So, what’s the verdict? Can any of the new songs hold their own among tracks hailed as the pinnacle of 1990s math-rock? Can Damon Che still knock down listeners? Is the new Don Caballero an extension of the tried and true? Well, yes, yes, and maybe.

The record clearly will trigger much debate among longtime fans of Don Caballero and probably help the group win over a few new sets of ears.

World Class Listening Problem may be no Don Caballero 2 but it’s pretty damn good, and that’s saying quite a bit for a band taking its first steps out of six years of hibernation.  – Delusions of Adequacy, May 12, 2006

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