Listening to some samples of previous projects on Philadelphia-based guitarist Nick Millevoi’s website—ear-splitting solo work, high-intensity duos with Toshimaru Nakamura and Weasel Walter, and the raucous Many Arms trio, among others—does little to prepare you for the cinematic and inviting Western-inflected compositions on Desertion, to be released in May on Clean Feed’s Shhpuma sub-label. The Desertion quartet consists of Millevoi on guitars, Johnny DeBlase (of Many Arms) on electric and upright basses, Jamie Saft on Hammond organ and piano, and Ches Smith on drums, supplemented in places by trombonist and frequent collaborator Dan Blackberg and violinist June Bender.
“Desertion And The Arsonist’s Match” opens the album with a series of lush and brooding chords—the aural equivalent to establishing shots of Monument Valley—before falling into a plodding tom pattern over which Millevoi slowly builds a melodic but fiery solo. The stylized bad-ass cowboy attitude treads a fine line between send-up and homage, but the playing is too good, the spirit of enthusiasm and fun too evident, for the result to be anything less than compelling. In a nod to the group members’ typical freer tendencies, near the climax of the track the piece overflows its rhythmic container, with an organ workout over chaotic cymbal crashes.
From there, the album visits some related idioms—for example, the country/folk of the follow-up, “Just For A Moment I Stood There In Silence,” with its acoustic picking, solemn string section, and stately 6/8 beat. Even with the example of the previous track (and especially compared to Millevoi’s work mentioned above), here the earnest commitment to the conventions of the genre and the familiar beauty they can produce, may be a tough sell for some readers of this blog. Still again, if you listen with an open mind, putting labels aside, you’ll hear the Desertion quartet playing some wonderfully tasteful and moving music.
Besides, this isn’t to say you can’t find noise and adventure on Desertion. “Where They Do Their Capers” preserves the sinister Western mood in a more atmospheric setting, with textural drumming, arco bass, and electronic processing. After some more straightforward rock and folk (“Disneyland In Hamtramck” and “The Big Moment Is Always Out There Waiting”), the album ends with “The Fire That Partially Damaged City Hall,” a great example of the album’s approach of extremes: to draw from its title, the track showcases the “fire” of improvisation and exploration without completely destroying the familiar and established territory of genre and emotion. From any perspective, a highly listenable album not without surprises.