75 Dollar Bill
I Was Real
[Editor’s Note: Since we’ve hit the slow season for new music releases, we’re going to take a trip back through 2019 to review some of the great new music we missed].
75 Dollar Bill is a duo from New York City comprised of Rick Brown and Che Chen. Brown plays percussion, and Chen plays the guitars. They came together in 2012 and I Was Real is their third long-player; it was released at the end of June. The band arises from the late, lamented Other Music in NoHo, where Chen worked for a bit back in the aughts.
75 Dollar Bill has made a name for itself through an eclectic approach to music that, to my ear, sounds heavily influenced by African rhythms, but especially by the desert blues, the sort of music made popular by Tinariwen in recent years. Brown’s percussion is mostly handheld, and more percussive than straight-ahead drums. And Chen’s guitars swirl, kick up a storm, and come spinning right back. Leaning heavily on those bottom three strings on his guitar, Chen creates a beautiful, swirling noise. They get a lot of help on I Was Real from their friends rounding out the basic duo. Brown plays a bit of horn on this album, but they also brought in two more guitarists, bassists, violist, as well as horns and percussion. The result is a well-turned out sound, a deeper sound than their earlier releases. I’d go so far as to say that I Was Real pulls together some of the disparate threads of 75 Dollar Bill’s back catalogue to a fuller, realer sound.
The album starts with ‘Every Last Coffee or Tea,’ and we arrive to the sound of a viola droning and Chen’s guitar, with the distortion turned up, and some percussion. I can’t tell if it is the viola or a horn, but it buzzes in our ear, coming in and out of focus, and lending an almost Middle Eastern influence to the percussion. Chen then settles down on a few chords, and speeds up his playing, calling the song together, which then becomes a bit of a stomper, with a heavy and steady percussive beat, and Chen’s guitar vibrating around the viola and a bass guitar.
‘C. or T. — verso’ starts off similarly, in a haze of distorted guitar, as if the song is once again forcing its way out of the muck and mire of these muddled beginning. Except, it never really does. We remain in this limbo, and after the 11 minute opener, it is kind of a palette cleanser before ‘Tetuzi Akiyama,’ which begins with a simple guitar riff that emerges over a percussive beat, and then the bass kerthumps in, and then the horns over top. But this is not a shambolic track. Not at all. It is built around that propulsive bass and the beat, and Chen’s simple two-chord riff. The horns take the lead from the guitar and drive the song as we cycle around the same basic chords and notes.
75 Dollar Bill make deeply hypnotic music. It is deceptively simple music, too. But that’s perhaps what makes it so appealing. Centred around Chen’s basic riffs and Brown’s propulsive beats, each song is left to find its feet in a an almost primordial mess. And thus, the horns, the bass, the extra guitars all become the tools around which these dense, orchestral, desert-ified blues tracks are constructed. This isn’t to say that 75 Dollar Bill are a simple band forged of simple musicians. Far from it. It is a testament to the skill of Chen and Brown that they can conjure these sounds out of their basic instruments. Even without the additional guitars, bass, horns, viola, the songs on I Was Real are strong enough to stand on their own.
‘WZN3 — verso’ is an almost hypnotic track that sounds like it strolled in from the Velvet Underground’s practice space c. 1967. A pleasing horn riff dances over a ghost percussion track, and the guitar is buried down in the mix. The star of the show is Karen Waltuch’s viola. Here, it takes on occasional fiddle-like sounds, as her notes dance over the track, alternating with the horns, and occasionally creating a great big, hazy sound before the song gently peters out with the viola almost sounding like it’s dying.
The full version of ‘WZN3,’ which ends the album is more fleshed out, the guitars and bass more prominent, the percussion too. And here, it is Chen’s guitar that creates the mood, the smoke and haze as it circles around the percussion and the bass and a rhythm guitar underneath.
Over 9 tracks and 69 minutes, 75 Dollar Bill create something beautiful and transcendent here, as if for those 69 minutes, you can slip on your headphones, put this album on, and forget about all the shit out there in the real world.