Ned Lagin: Cat Dreams
Whether one has been waiting 40 years for Ned Lagin to follow up his 1975 debut or not, his long-time-coming Cat Dreams is bound to surprise. Far more consonant than the often harsh bio-music of Seastones—released by the Grateful Dead’s Round Records and co-credited to Phil Lesh—Cat Dreams reveals a musician at play. The 17 wordless tracks move through a variety of approaches over 77 minutes—from solo electronic pieces to fullband double-drummer jams, from pedal-steel reveries to MIDI fantasias, from short improvisations to suites.
And while a handful of tracks are mired in synth swirl, they are outnumbered by the ideas and space that the album conveys. On “The Creek,” over the gentle rush of water, Lagin’s rich MIDI guitar counterpoint fits right alongside new post-John Fahey/Robbie Basho guitar heroes, while the evocative “Sun Cats” recalls the plinking dreaminess of “Nannou”-era Aphex Twin. Those hoping for more of the far-flung abstractions and modular weirdness of Seastones might be disappointed; the closest the album gets is a trio of floating and deeply textured Native American flute duets.
Also high on the list of surprises: the unexpected ways that the album channels the Grateful Dead. “Cat Licks” begins as a flurry of C&W, abetted by Barry Sless’ pedal steel, and increases in density until it feels like a constantly cresting jam-peak. One of its partners in the three-part “Big Cat Dance” suite, “Cat Samba,” sounds like something the Dead might’ve come up with in the ‘90s, give or take a few different creative turns, with a slinky groove whose lead melody is provided a MIDI-sampled voice. In these places and elsewhere, it’s not hard to imagine Lagin’s former jamming partner Jerry Garcia easily adding in his quizzical guitar.
If the album didn’t find such a natural flow between more outré moments and “simpler” compositions, then like the semi-straightforward instrumental ballad “Teddy Sings a Love Song (How His Heart Sings)”—Lagin on synth cello, naturally—all of the mode-switching might feel like creative overload. And though Cat Dreams sometimes seems like a musician racing to catch up with himself, it is also unquestionably the work of a musician still chasing the future.