In his 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, author Thomas Pynchon introduced the character Kenosha Kid, an indefinable presence that may or may not be a projection of the protagonist’s subconscious mind conjured by a dose of truth serum. Pynchon, in his impenetrable and postmodern way, never makes anything easy for the reader.
For Dan Nettles, the leader, songwriter and guitarist behind the ever-changing Athens jazz and post-rock outfit Kenosha Kid, adopting the name of Pynchon’s disruptive literary device takes on more weight than ever before with the group’s latest album, Missing Pieces, released Feb. 12 via Vanity Records.
“The title, the songs and everything else about the album have to do with the parts of your life that are missing,” Nettles says. “As you get older, more and more people leave you, and you’re left with an incomplete photo, like a jigsaw puzzle that you’ve put together and find that there are important pieces missing. You learn to live with those gaps and make something sensible out of what you do have.”
To hear Nettles talk about the album in such tangible terms feels like a new window is opening up, revealing new depths to the mostly instrumental outfit’s personality. After a period of intense sadness and isolation punctuated by the deaths of Nettles’ mother, his dog and his dear friend and Athens musician Carl Lindberg, and at the end of a relationship with his longtime partner, Nettles retreated into music, writing much of the album’s material in June 2014, rewriting songs between 2015–’17 and, finally, recording the album between 2017–’18.
“I made it a point to write for eight hours a day,” he says. “I demoed everything, and we recorded a total of 20 songs. Ten of them made it onto the album.”
Missing Pieces resonates with softly wilting sounds that shrink from their instrumental pronouncements—two guitars, bass, and drums—to create a cycle of broken quietude that’s gently settling into place.
Kenosha Kid was born during a residency at the now-gone 283 Bar circa 2003. Nettles wanted to helm a project that placed his songs in the hands of some of the most accomplished musicians he knew. The lineup featured Nettles playing baritone guitar, drummer Jason Nazary (who has since performed with Bear in Heaven, Helado Negro and Anteloper), mandolin player Rob McMaken (of Dromedary and Jonathan Byrd) and trombone player Dave Nelson, whose resume includes a laundry list of impressive names, including Lonnie Holley, The National, Sufjan Stevens, Mumford and Sons, Joanna Newsom, David Byrne and St. Vincent, Vampire Weekend, Spoon, Father John Misty and Beirut. Over the years, other players have come and gone.
Kenosha Kid is often labeled a jazz band, and improvisation and horns have played a prominent role in recordings such as 2008’s Steamboat Bill Jr. and 2017’s Outside Choices. Rarely, however, has the group embraced the brass dynamics or skronking rhythms of classic bebop, hard bop or free jazz.
The early incarnation of Kenosha Kid yielded the 2005 debut Projector. Songs such as “Orphan Theme,” “Tom & Jerry” and “Waltz for the End of Time” were originally performed as a live score for silent films made by Russian animator Ladislaw Starewicz and others from Charlie Chaplin’s repertoire. For the recording, each number was arranged to focus on the compositional elements of the music, reveling in warm and vivid aural paintings of minor-key textures and playful ambiance. Nearly 14 years later, scores of recordings have materialized. The group’s Bandcamp page boasts more than 60 studio albums, demos and live sets.
“What I’ve learned is that everyone has a voice, and at some point, I had to decide what I was willing to do to make mine real,” Nettles says. “You must sacrifice yourself to your own sound, believe in it and give it everything. Here I am year after year, making these weird, little slanted songs that fit nowhere, and yet make up my entire world at the same time.”
For Missing Pieces, the lineup of Nettles on electric guitar, Rick Lollar on electric and acoustic guitar, bassist Robby Handley and drummer Marlon Patton display equal trust in each other, reinventing the group through the meditative atmosphere of “04 How Would It All Fit?” and the string-driven grooves in “06 Waiting for the Dam to Break” and “07 Simpler.”
On “08 Missing Pieces,” Nettles weaves the voices of Argentinian musician Julián Muro and his late friend Lindberg into a haunting composition. While some of the music’s foundational themes unfold with the instincts of a jam band, a healthy dose of turning post-rock ellipsis keeps each song grounded in the here and now. Everything comes together with the album’s closing number, “10 (Don’t Listen to the) Static,” which finds resolution in tapering melodies.
Throughout Kenosha Kid’s nearly 15-year existence, Nettles has written hundreds of songs, yet few resonate as profoundly as anything on Missing Pieces. The desire to overcome pain is universal. Transforming it into such moving songs is monumental. Nettles’ journey has been anything but easy, but as he shows in his own impenetrable and postmodern way, the only way out is through.
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