Midway through her new album, COIN COIN Chapter Three: River Run Thee, Matana Roberts calmly states, “I like to tell stories.” Anyone who’s been following Roberts’s work can attest to this. For the past four years, she has been using her COIN COIN series to tell stories about black history, through some of the most original and stirring jazz music produced in a long time. Roberts, primarily a saxophonist and bandleader, released the series on Constellation Records, a label best known for post-rock pioneers Godspeed You! Black Emperor (with whom she has collaborated in the past).
In 2011, she released the first chapter in the COIN COIN series, COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres. That record blended spoken word, art-song, lullabies, and heart-wrenching screams within a jazz framework somewhat reminiscent of Pharoah Sanders’ work in the early seventies. The next chapter in the series, Mississippi Moonchile, focused much more heavily on jazz alone, having only a few short spoken word segments and singing occasionally throughout the record.
Now, with River Run Thee, Roberts has completely reversed that trajectory. River Run Thee strays far from jazz into drone, noise, and avant-garde music, and her storytelling is much more surreal now than on previous installments. While this makes for her most challenging and least accessible record by far, repeated listens reveal that this also may be her most accomplished and fully-realized album yet.
In the first two chapters, the spoken word was very much in focus, high in the mix. On River Run Thee, spoken word segments come and go without clear beginnings or ends, recorded low in the mix, producing a very surreal quality. Roberts adds to the surrealism of her storytelling with the great variety in source material.
While Chapter One mostly focused on one narrative, Chapter Three draws from a number of sources, including field recordings from the American South, the ship’s log of an abolitionist in East Africa, and a speech by Malcolm X. The album opens with the lines, “your sadness grows as years roll by / you grow remorse, may even cry / woe to live, afraid to die / the weeping of the willow.” These words of despair frame the album, establishing themes of sadness and black liberation, and tying together the diverse stories that follow.
The music behind the narratives fits very well, its abstract elements mirroring the fragmented words. Sax drones, pulses of electronic noise, and wandering, eerie vocal performances weave in and out of the mix, creating a kind of hallucinatory ambiance. The storytelling and soundscapes come together to make the listener feel as if the album is just one long dream.
The lack of melody and structure does not make for easy listening, but after an initial shock, River Run Thee becomes very immersive. The pieces all seem to fit together very well – River Run Thee, like Mississippi Moonchile, was conceived of as one continuous piece rather than the distinct movements of Gens de couleur libres. The result is abstract yet beautiful, evoking a powerful dread or unreality. Roberts sounds more inspired on River Run Thee than ever before, which makes braving the difficult soundscapes definitely worth the effort.
COIN COIN Chapter Three: River Run Thee was released February 3 on Constellation Records.