If the spoken word, shaggy-dog story at the centre of Zen Dogs’ self-titled album is to be believed, Ian Brown’s son Ben was born mimicking the guitar playing of Jimi Hendrix. Now, I don’t know how I would react if I encountered such a premonition, but it all seems to have worked out for this Vancouver father and son duo. Under the name Zen Dogs, they have composed an all-instrumental acoustic album that might not feature the guitar pyrotechnics of Hendrix, but is as playfully skillful as it is maliciously deconstructive.
Zen Dogs’ oxymoronic band name – as I’m fairly sure most dogs are too busy being excited by squirrels and sticks to achieve true inner peace – gives you an initial idea of their willfully off-kilter nature. Any hopes of a silky smooth-jazz passage to enlightenment are quickly dispelled by the opening track “Playground.” The song initially sounds like Keith Jarrett duetting with a noisy bag of potato chips, until it is gatecrashed by a percussion that suggests that Ben Brown’s centre might be a little out of sync. There’s an irregular, jumbled nature to a lot of the playing here – akin to peering into a musical cabinet of curiosities – especially with the percussion, which switches wildly between drums, bells, chimes, railings and seemingly anything else they could get their hands on. The album features a push-and-pull of order versus chaos throughout, as the campfire jam-session of “Firelight” is interrupted by a guitar being down-tuned, until it makes a very broken-sounding clicking noise. “Well” presents itself as a studied exercise in acoustic composition. “Music For Breathing” ends the album with cymbals, chimes, and what sounds like furniture being rearranged, fading into a lovely piano solo by Ian Brown. It speaks volumes about Zen Dogs that its most surprising moment might be this fairly conventional – and beautifully played – piano outro.
It might sound to anyone reading that Zen Dogs is a bit all over the place, a dog’s breakfast of ideas and instrumentation – and it is. But it should never be underestimated how much talent it takes to sound this absurd, as well as this varied. No two subsequent tracks share the same instrumentation, as piano’n’drums are swapped completely for Spanish guitar and upright bass, which is then later changed for bowed double bass and guitar-as-percussion. Maybe it’s the family connection, allowing them to chop and change without any fear of slipping up. While lovers of musical constancy, unity, and stability will probably run screaming, that will be their loss, as those that stick around for the unpredictably wild ride of Zen Dogs will find much to appreciate.