Purple on Time (Drag City) might seem like a radical departure for U.S. Maple. On all four of their previous recordings, the band changed time signatures, tone, density, and melodic direction every few measures, building tension and frustration but denying the listener any resolution. But though the music sounded chaotic, it was in fact mapped out with stunning precision, and by 2001's Acre Thrills the process had begun to calcify into formula. On Purple on Time, the group's first album with drummer Adam Vida (who replaced Pat Samson in late 2001), the quartet takes a superficially more traditional approach to composition: Al Johnson, famous for his whoops, wheezes, and whinnies, occasionally sounds like he's really trying to sing; Vida's heavy-lidded thumping follows cyclical, if not fluid, patterns; and the band actually follows the changes on a surprisingly tender cover of Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay." Todd Rittman and Mark Shippy's guitar lines are as tangled and peripatetic as ever, but within Vida's more stable rhythms they sound less confusing; Johnson's lyrics are still indecipherable and his delivery is still unsettling, though traces of banjo, organ, and cello take a little of the edge off. But if they're playing it straight now, as some reviewers have claimed, then so was Captain Beefheart. Cheer-Accident and Rope open. Saturday, December 20, 10 PM, Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace; 773-478-4408.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Todd Rittman.