BrhyM – Deep Sea Vents

NYC chamber ensemble yMusic complete Bruce Hornsby’s transformation into avant-pop savant

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It’s unlikely anyone will hear anything much stranger this year than BrhyM’s “Platypus Wow”. “Got webbed feet, rubber bill, fat-ass tail, furry chill,” a multi-tracked Bruce Hornsby mumbles to a peculiar accompaniment of squawking, cawing woodwind, adding “dark purple-green coloured fur/I’ll stick that ass with my poison spur.” Soon he’s quasi-rapping, joined by mournful strings, unpredictable piano runs and doo-wop harmonies, before concluding, “I light up the world, only for you.” The sentiment might sound Disneyesque, but Disney this is not.


The third track on Hornsby’s first full-length with yMusic – the chamber ensemble favoured by, among others, Bon Iver, The National and Paul Simon – is generally indicative of the enigmatically titled Deep Sea Vents’ experimental nature. It may, however, come as a surprise. No-one, after all, introduces Bruce Hornsby without mentioning ‘that’ song. Almost four decades since The Range’s second single, “The Way It Is”, topped the charts in America, spending eight ubiquitous weeks in the UK Top 40, it remains his greatest legacy. Earlier this year, kicking off Radio 2’s Piano Room Month with the BBC Concert Orchestra, he began with an extended version.


To be fair, the classic track’s a poignant, near-universal reflection upon poverty, sampled by Tupac for “Changes” and for many years a treasured feature of Grandstand’s football league tables rundown. Nonetheless, today’s Hornsby is a very different model. Since his invitation to record with Justin Vernon’s former band, DeYarmond Edison, for a 2016 Grateful Dead covers album, overseen by The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, he’s engaged in a series of unlikely collaborations. A 2016 appearance at Wisconsin’s Eaux Claires festival, curated by Vernon and the Dessners, was followed by another at Coachella the next year with Bon Iver, whose “U (Man Like)” Hornsby co-wrote for 2019’s i,i. Vernon in turn offered backing vocals on Hornsby’s startling Absolute Zero, its wonky character pointing towards his latest offering.

The roots of Deep Sea Vents are submerged in Eaux Claires, where yMusic co-founder CJ Camerieri glanced side of stage to see an unlikely gentleman in his sixties rejoicing at the sextet’s alliance with The Staves. An ensuing conversation led to their own contributions to 2019’s Absolute Zero, while a tour together, curtailed by the pandemic, provoked this new album’s title track. Written after an invitation from Camierei’s musical partner, Rob Moose, the joyous, swing-time number, like Randy Newman kicking up his heels in a speakeasy, was performed as their encore, Hornsby singing – like you do – of “Cephalopod dreams/Lounging in beds marine”. No wonder, when it was clear Covid was sticking around, Moose reached out again.

Hornsby responded quickly to their ‘progressive’ ideas with finished songs, and though what emerged is, musically and lyrically, often cerebral, his relish for spontaneity remains intact. Embracing jazz, the avant-garde, contemporary classical, electronics, chamber music, even funk, but rarely losing sight of pop’s melodic demands, it succeeds in playing to yMusic’s strengths while bringing out, with gusto, a rarely showcased side to Hornsby. He’s no stranger to partnership, though, touring as part of the Grateful Dead from 1988 until Jerry Garcia’s death and collaborating with the likes of Ricky Skaggs, Charlie Haden and Spike Lee. 2004’s Halcyon Days, his second album with touring band The Noisemakers, even featured Sting and Elton John, while his Radio 2 presentation concluded with “The End Of The Innocence“, co-written with Don Henley.


None of this hints at the extremes of Deep Sea Vents, which, aside from Hornsby’s broadminded maritime themes, remains admirably capricious. “Wild Whaling Life”, inspired by Moby Dick, combines dulcimer, jagged strings and flitting piccolo lines with a far nimbler beast’s energy, while “(My) Theory Of Everything” follows Ed from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who’s busy “taking water samples, checking in for phosphates” as ticklish woodwind tosses gentle waves. On “The Wake Of St Brendan”, Hornsby’s voice shimmers as if underwater, any early tension resolved like a Van Morrison redemption, while “Foreign Sounds”’ piano and strings suggest a frugal Peter Gabriel – also evident on the rippling “The Baited Line” – before “Deep Blue” pairs existential meditations with minimalist, Prince-like swagger.

Inevitably, Hornsby’s older fans, resistant to refrains like “I am the platypus”, may baulk at Deep Sea Vents challenges, while others might carp at more esoteric moments, not least “Barber Booty”’s flailing strings. That, however, is just the way it is, and don’t you believe them. Those willing to immerse themselves in this vibrantly imaginative, inventive world may recognise that, though some things never change, it’s inspiring when they do.


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NYC chamber ensemble yMusic complete Bruce Hornsby’s transformation into avant-pop savantBrhyM - Deep Sea Vents