The official video for “Starwood Choker,” the first track on No Home of the Mind, the third full-length release from emotive instrumental ensemble Bing & Ruth, is something more than just beautiful and mysteriously evocative images meant to accompany beautiful and mysteriously evocative music. Directed by Sébastien Cros, it presents a stream of moving pictures that are at times representational but hardly narrative and which distinguish themselves primarily by the ways in which each image – in isolation and in relation to the others – moves or does not move, as well as the ways in which the parts of each image remain distinct or blur together.
Bing & Ruth is an ensemble led by pianist and composer David Moore. Their first full-length album, City Lake (2010), featured 11 members, which was reduced to a septet for 2014’s Tomorrow Was the Golden Age and now a quintet for this latest album. In addition to David Moore’s piano, the current incarnation of Bing & Ruth features a clarinet (Jeremy Viner), two double basses (Jeff Ratner and Greg Chudzik), and an uncommon (though clearly indispensable) fifth member in “tape delay operator” Mike Effenberger. Though the size of the ensemble has gotten smaller and their sound has from one perspective been refined, that sound has also become more diffuse, spreading out and bleeding together to fill in more of the stereo picture, much like the images in the video for “Starwood Choker.” Whereas the sound of the group’s debut featured all 11 musicians – to the quintet add percussion, lap steel guitar, two cellos, another clarinet, two vocalists, but subtract one double bass – each one distinct from the others, it is now not always clear where one part begins and another ends.
In many ways, this latest effort is not so different from what Bing & Ruth have produced in the past – formally, harmonically, emotionally, atmospherically. In fact, many of the songs from City Lake or Tomorrow Was the Golden Age might go unnoticed if they found their way onto No Home of the Mind (“Broad Channel” or “Police Police Police Police Police,” for instance). And yet this album is effective in ways that the previous ones, though also successful and also enjoyable, just don’t match.
For one thing, the tracks on No Home of the Mind are all of a piece, not just in the sense of their being similar in mood and tonality (and roughly equal length) but also in their being strung together, the edges of each bleeding one into the other so that the tracks have the feeling of dissolving into each other and the album flows more or less seamlessly from beginning to end.
As in the past, Moore’s piano playing is nearly always the focus, with the other instruments playing accompaniment or, perhaps, embellishment. The two double basses, always bowed, alternate between characteristic low rumbling vibrations and lines that could easily be mistaken for cello, though in all cases unobtrusive. The clarinet, meanwhile, is used to great effect. It may sound at first like the lap steel on City Lake (though not nearly as aggressive) as Viner’s playing slides effortlessly from one note to another, often gliding over the rest of the ensemble and, presumably with the help of Effenberger’s tape delay, haunts each track much like the off-stage brass in a Mahler symphony, that is in the same room but not quite in the same space as everything else.
The album begins with piano, the first few notes a trickle, then a cascade that undulates and shimmers without stopping for the next six minutes or so, until emptying out into the opening strains of the album’s second track, “As Much As Possible.” The ecstatic motion of “Starwood Choker” is here contrasted with something slower, more stately, chords in the piano (no longer arpeggios) played lazily, at the pace of a funeral march but with a bliss that feels post-ecstasy – sated yet pensive – while the other instruments hum and sing wordlessly in the open spaces that surround the piano. This contrast between movement and stasis is a theme that helps to hold the album together, each new piece asserting itself as belonging to one category or the other, as if the listener floats down a steady, unbroken stream, alternately enjoying the rapids or the slower, more expansive lengths of the river.
This alternating current plays out within each track as well, the harmonic movement shifting smoothly (and without warning) from light to dark and back again, suggesting a stream of thought instead of water, like the emotional turbulence of the mind. At album’s end, all this motion finally runs out, though not before changing course, with the descending arpeggios of “Starwood Choker” replaced with ascending chords in the piano and slowly rising drones in the other instruments that all together give the impression of slowly rising up to a place of rest above the turbulence below.