Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee

Ambient is a tricky genre to pin down. Under the umbrella we have artists like Brian Eno, Alvin Lucier and Tim Hecker, all with very distinct voices—so different from one another that it almost renders the genre meaningless. With her latest album, Matana Roberts brings another unique vision to the ambient world.

Released on Feb 2, “Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee” is the third installment in saxophonist and singer Matana Roberts’ twelve part Coin Coin series chronicling the story of female slave Coin Coin. Running themes in the Coin Coin series are feminist and African-American identity, slavery, racism and religion. Each album thus far is emotionally hard-hitting and powerful, almost to the extent where someone feels drained yet utterly moved at the completion of each listen.

While the first two Coin Coin albums, “Gens de Couleur Libres” and “Mississippi Moonchile” are bombastic free jazz records performed by large ensembles, “River Run Thee” is a step in an entirely new direction for Roberts. On this album, Roberts takes the reins and performs the music all on her own, implementing electronics, field recordings and overdubbing to the album along with the familiar vocals, spoken word (which Roberts calls “wordspeak”) and distinct saxophone that we saw on the previous two albums.

The title, “River Run Thee,” is potentially a reference to the first sentence of James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” and if so, it is more than fitting. Much like the novel, the album is dense, impassioned and chock-full of material to dissect and analyze. With its underscoring layers of saxophone drones topped with wandering flourishes, beautiful vocal harmonies that lie underneath more distinct passages of singing amid the wordspeak, and electronics that add a soothing but at times discordant element to the music, “River Run Thee” is an immense document in the Coin Coin saga.

One could listen to this album hundreds of times and still uncover new facets found within the music with the knowledge that more of these elucidations are bound to occur. A large part of this depth rests in the lyrics. In what composer Rod Stasick dubs “black history soup,” the lyrics are rife with historical references, personal observations and compelling narratives.

Perhaps almost as interesting as the music itself is the manner in which it was recorded. The field recordings come from a lengthy trip through the South that Roberts took both as preparation for the album as well as an education on her own history and identity. After layering and looping these recordings into a sonic document, Roberts introduces improvisation into the mix. Each of the subsequent layers of saxophone, voice and electronics atop the field recordings were recorded in real-time as opposed to the distant and calculated nature of most overdubbed recordings.

This album is other-worldy, so much so that putting on the record results in the sense that time has slowed to a stop. “River Run Thee” is an album like no other, with its jumps from ethereal to intense to emotionally stricken while retaining an overall stranglehold on the listener’s ears and mental state.

Upon my first completion of this album I was awestruck as I sat in silence, pondering what I had just heard. I listened to it again, and then a third time. Each listen was as impressive and potent as the last, solidifying my love for this album. Having heard around 30 albums from 2015 so far, I can easily say that this is the best that I have come across and that it sets the bar almost impossibly high for any of this year’s upcoming albums. “River Run Thee” is a stellar addition to the Coin Coin series and it makes me extremely excited for what else Roberts has to offer.


Christophe Bassett

Published February 4, 2015