I remember the day I got this record, straight from the hands of Southern Lord's Greg Anderson late in 2007. He had just received a box of finished copies at the office and was all aglow with excitement. Anderson was more stoked on hyping a moody jazz album by a virtually unknown quantity than he was hyping the upcoming Ascend album or the Burning Witch re-release, both of which had him on 'em. I find myself half-empathizing with the guy, in that I'm not totally sold on Stebmo for its jazz merits, but it's great to finally hear a full-length statement from Steve Moore (aka Stebmo), who has floated around the Pacific northwest for years as a collaborator and peripheral member of a great many fantastic bands.
Metal listeners will know Moore best for his role in the rebirth of Earth as excavators of deserted dust bowl towns. Moore's trombone called ghosts to Hex; his organ, wurlitzer and piano seeped into the wide-open spaces of this year's The Bees Made Honey In the Lion's Skull. On these albums, as well as the Sunn0)))/Boris collaboration Altar and his extensive work with occasional Sunn0))) guest Jesse Sykes, Moore has proven himself a formidable colorist and master of atmosphere. Same goes for Stebmo, 'cept this time Moore's rich textures fill warm jazz shapes instead of desolate drone-metal expanses.
'Course this being the genre-agnostic Moore, Stebmo references jazz in a whole variety of ways, only occasionally invoking the traditional "heads 'n solos" bop jazz structure (see the Vince Guaraldi-grooving "Blind Ross"). More typical is the loopy soundscaping heard in "Happy Ending" and "Majika," with their loping beats, sweet melodies and woodwind beds courtesy of Doug Wieselman. Improvisation ruffles the edges of Stebmo but doesn't define it. Personally, I would have preferred more chances for the individual band members and guests to shine. Eyvind Kang's viola mesmerism on "Dark Circles" deserves more time. Moore can be a wonderfully outside-the-box piano soloist, but on "Rathdrum" and "Tough Luck" he's just vamping aimlessly.
What results is an album that's pleasant but uninspired. Groups like Tin Hat Trio and the recent ensembles led by Todd Sickafoose (he plays upright bass on Stebmo) work at the same combination of jazzy interplay, old world wistfulness and chamber ensemble elegance with less pedestrian results. Moore and producer Tucker Martine (Jesse Sykes, Sufjan Stevens) are going for a certain aesthetic here, one that places mood and color above all else. There's a lazy charm to the slow-shifting chords and textures on Stebmo; the album does display plenty of compositional sensitivity and musical subtlety. Ultimately it doesn't eclipse Moore's extensive work as a sideman, and in fact sounds pretty bland on successive listens.
Visit the Stebmo web page.