Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd join forces once again for Still Life with Commentator, something of a follow-up to In What Language? Both these projects are decidedly different than Iyer’s albums as sole leader, in that Ladd’s poetry is up front and the music plays a somewhat smaller role in terms of the focus. Still Life with Commentator is a series of poetic ruminations on information inundation in today’s society. The music is often dark and claustrophobic, with beats that mimic teletype machines or clattering keyboards — a musical analogue for the constant streams of information bombarding us on a daily basis. Ladd’s lyrics are dense and layered, and coupled with the music create a slight (and sometimes not so slight) sense of malaise. Iyer’s wonderful piano playing only surfaces in short bursts, like the ending of “Cleaning Up the Mess” and “Holocaust Blog.” “Mount Rather (Commentator Landscape #3: Dan Rather)” also has a really nice coda featuring some tasty guitar work by Liberty Ellman. Things loosen up a bit toward the middle and end, with both the hilarious “Fox ‘n’ Friends” and the playful “Cybernut Bucolia” offering a bit of respite from the more serious proceedings. There are also two instrumentals toward the end: a solo piano piece (“Redemption Chant”) and the somber full-band number “Blog Mom’s Anthem.” If you’re looking to hear Iyer’s jazz inclinations, look elsewhere. Still Life with Commentator is a dense, thought-provoking piece that takes some effort to internalize. It’s of a piece conceptually, if not in execution, with Rob Swift’s War Games. Neither of these albums preaches and neither takes sides; they examine and expose ways in which our society is changing that no one can prevent or predict. Ultimately, it is only through scrutiny that understanding is gained. Still Life with Commentator isn’t an easy listen, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Review by Sean Westergaard