Club d’Elf’s You Never Know is a stirring example of inspiration through adversity. The group’s third studio effort over the course of its twenty-plus year career might well be nothing more than a pastiche of styles if it weren’t for founder and multi-instrumentalist Mike Rivard’s fusion of his own skills as musician, bandleader, arranger, producer, all of which concentration occurred in the wake of his encounter with some serious health issues. The somewhat bizarre cover images may be indicative of his journey through this sequence of events.
The album pivots around two major cover choices in the form of the knotty, challenging likes of Frank Zappa’s “King Kong” as well as the Miles Davis/Joe Zawinul collaboration “In A Silent Way”/”It’s About That Time.” Noting those two selections is not to disparage Rivard’s original compositions such as “Golden Hour” or “Dark Fish,” but only to better illustrate the rhythmic and melodic motifs upon which all these selections are based; the latter, grounded in melting transitions in original form, here metamorphoses into a virtual firestorm of instrumental interplay from Club d’Elf: it’s a series of jagged and abrupt jumps from segment to segment that still manages to conclude on a restful note.
Meanwhile, the former arrangement of the late Mother of Invention’s number may be the most straightforward piece on this approximately seventy-five-minute album. As a closing to the ten tracks, however, it is ideal, a skeletal outline of the approach Rivard and company use on this double album to interweave material from a variety of sources, festooning arrangements with everything from harmonica (Thorleifur Gaukur Davidsson) to tabla (Amit Kavthekar) plus saxophone (Andrew Fogliano), trumpet (Phil Grenadier) and lap steel (Kevin Barry). The lucid continuity here, in fact, might be the greatest asset of this effort, especially in the way this revolving cast of musicians manages to foster and maintain a tangible spontaneity; the presence of long-time stalwarts such as percussionist Dean Johnston no doubt accounts for the stability.
“Boney Oscar Stomp,” generates the most prevalent effect of this music, a mesmerizing groove that posits an alluring opening. What ensues in its wake will occasionally require some patience, for instance when the gruff vocal appears somewhat abruptly on the second selection, “Zeed Al Maal;” as the other vocal interludes, it can be jarring, but can also lead to robust chant along as on, for instance, “Allah Ya Moulana.” Alternatively, there are also times on You Never Know where the sound becomes too easy a listen: the overly-smooth nature of “Now Open Your Eyes” veers a bit close to muzak and might work better for the purposes of pacing as the album winds down rather than appearing so soon in the track sequencing.
A single CD plus digital configurations offer one track sequence for this work, while the vinyl offers another, modified slightly due to the time constrictions of LP sides as much as for optimum audio. The ebb and flow of the album can thus differ markedly in each format (and further if the listener chooses to realign the track sequencing on compact disc), Regardless, the results of sessions recorded live to analog tape in the studio, with minimal overdubbing, then mixed by Danny Blume and mastered by Alan Silverman, results in dense audio quality of near-3D proportions.
As a result of that engineering expertise, the collective sense of engagement is readily discernible and thoroughly infectious as it emanates from the participation of such personages as the versatile instrumentalist/singer Brahim Fribgane as well as keyboardist John Medeski and guitarist Dave Fiuczynski. With rigorous workouts for the feet arriving in more instances than just “Dervish Dance,” You Never Know ends up a joyous balm for the mind, body, heart, and soul.