Ambient Strains 

Drinking in the oh-so-subtle sound of Brother Otis

Maybe it’s a sign that you’re getting a little long in the tooth to be writing about Jungenmusik when you don’t fully understand the terminology. There’s nothing new about describing things as “ambient” in an adjectival sense when talking about music. Music for Airports or Thursday Afternoon, those were ambient Brian Eno records, right? But as a genre or a general category of music or whatever, the terms still sounds kind of weird to me. It makes me think of textured dark wallpaper or rheostat lighting in a posh restaurant: things that suggest or enhance a mood but don’t really intrude on it.

But it also makes me think of tofu or eggplant, two foods whose role in cooking isn’t to impart flavor, but to absorb it from other ingredients. Some would say that ambient music creates a mood or, aaack, a certain vibe to the action it surrounds (that’s part of what ambient means); I would suggest that the action is what imbues the music with its worth.

Either way, the term implies a very passive listening experience. Possibly deadly when used in the pejorative sense, especially if ambient music was the last thing a band set out to make. Perhaps I should point out that I find the term “acid jazz” equally insipid.

The A-word leapt to mind when the Brother Otis CD, Cooling Machine Mystery, started rolling on the test listen. “The Halfzware Shag” kicks off the CD with a kind of indifferent smoothness that was appealing enough but didn’t bode well for a band I knew would be playing in a chatty bar like the Old Post. It works its subtle magic: mood-enhancing extras like ratchet and muted trumpet pop up here and there, blending smoothly into that ambient (hey, hey, hey!) mood without punching any holes in the velvet bedrock. Real good, then, I figured. What we have here is the EZ Jazz equivalent of what you’d have if you handed, say, blues to the Swiss and told them to produce a facsimile by Monday morning: competent, precise, mostly inconspicuous and naturally sterile.

“The Halfzware Shag” is actually a nice little composition, but Brother Otis soon strike for other territories. “Egypt” will not present anything wholly unfamiliar to fans of the new crop of jam bands with nicely harmonized vocals. Ditto “The Grasshopper Song,” which starts out with the acoustic goofy chords that suggest a band kicking off their Tevas and playing barefoot on the second stage of a big Colorado jam festival. Many of the songs follow suit, but there are enough inexplicable gems of the unexpected on the CD to warrant a couple back-ups with the search function: “Second Window Story” is one of these, an odd bit of New Wave vocal influence on the jam pattern with a little reggae thrown in for good measure. And there’s a killah bass line to the album closer, “The Main Course,” with more fuzz than a forgotten orange.

Is Brother Otis going to commandeer your undivided attention? Only if you want them to, which is more of a compliment than it probably sounds.

Brother Otis plays the Old Post on Friday, June 9 at 10 PM. It’s FREE.

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