Dogs of Great Indifference is the fourth Winter & Winter CD by Jim Black's extraordinary AlasNoAxis quartet, a band that sometimes seems the perfect embodiment of internal contradictions. This is a jazz group that prefers rocking over swinging and often limits improvisations to relatively minor digressions from simple melodies. Those melodies are attractive, but balanced by floods of distorted noise. Leader/composer Black is without doubt one of the most hyper-rhythmic drummers in the world today, yet even when the quartet settles into a rocking mode, rhythmic quirks, odd syncopations, and offbeat time signatures can subvert the notion of a straight-time groove. And the musicians themselves can appear to come from different sonic universes, particularly when Chris Speed's intentionally fragile and even tentative-sounding tenor saxophone is almost disturbingly threatened by guitarist Hilmar Jensson's post-grunge/noise guitar attack. OK, it would be an exaggeration to say that each and every track on Dogs is an exercise in self-negation: a listen to the very first moments of opening track "Oddfelt," as Jensson picks subtle harmonics beneath Speed's quietly lovely initial stirrings, reveals a band in subtle consonance, an impression only strengthened as Black and bassist Skuli Sverrisson enter with understated support and the piece drifts in and out of focus knitted together by Jensson's arpeggios, building and retreating as Speed holds back and then finally states a beautifully melodic theme. But while the title track eventually coalesces around Speed's thematic statement and then settles into a comfortably spacious midtempo groove with the saxophonist flitting about over the top, the path to this point wasn't quite straight-ahead, with Black laying down a groove that simultaneously stops, starts, and cruises forward unimpeded while the simple bass and guitar parts bump against each other over a 7/4 pulse.
The eight-minute "Tars and Vanish" begins as dance music for slow-motion staggering with Speed in his role as AlasNoAxis' principle melodist, circuitously introducing the theme as the intensity builds behind him — it all suddenly explodes with a high-energy rock riff into which Black throws an extra beat accented by a sharp cymbal smack in your right ear. In the hands of a more conventional bandleader, "Everybody Says the Same" might be arranged as an understated and heartfelt ballad — like the next tune, "You Know Just Because," actually is — but Speed is nearly buried under an onslaught of guitar/bass sludge so overdriven-sounding that you'd think the bandmembers had been sent on a mission through the alleys of Brooklyn to forage for blown speakers before recording the track. If not for scattered moments of sonic clarity, you might also imagine that Jensson got some further use from a blown speaker during the CD's longest track, the nearly ten-minute multi-sectioned epic "Desemrascar," which with its killer uptempo jam, slow and moody middle interlude, and digressions into free-form sound and noise exploration is one of Dogs' most impressive pieces overall. The concluding "I Am Seven" is another highlight, an effective bookend to the opening "Oddfelt" that likewise begins in spaciousness and rumination before falling into a four-square beat with an understated vibe; the piece builds into an instrumental indie rock anthem that reveals the song's title is likely referencing a time signature rather than the composer's age — although on the surface the tunefulness does suggest a certain innocence and naïveté. Casual listeners — and perhaps Jim Black's jazz fans — might tend to focus on the indie and noise rock surfaces of his music on this and other AlasNoAxis CDs, not paying close attention to the rhythmic and textural complexities within, elements that at the very least make the quartet's releases worthy of deeper investigation. Maybe a bandleader as accomplished as Black sees Dogs of Great Indifference merely as fun indie rock, but there's also the possibility that in all its contradictions, this music has perfectly captured the Zeitgeist of the mid-2000s, a time when nobody actually agrees upon a common Zeitgeist yet everybody is in it together.