Few people get to make more than one first impression. Yet Tommy Guerrero has repeatedly reinvented himself to a spectrum of people varying in ages and interests. As a teen in the ’80s the San Francisco native became an internationally recognized professional skateboarder. As a young adult he made the transition to the business side of the sport by co-founding Real Skateboards. Along the way he also played in ’80s punk band Free Beer. And by the 2000s he had become a solo musician recording for hip labels like Mo’ Wax and Quannum, as well as a member of the musically curious (and not-so-commercially-known) Jet Black Crayon. Guerrero’s varying degrees of success in each venture is overshadowed by his ability to transform himself with Dude-ian ease and grace. Such lack of pretense makes approaching any Guerrero project both easy and welcome to anyone.
No surprise then that Guerrero has found a new bag on his fifth album Lifeboats and Follies. It shares similarities to parts of his past projects: it is helmed and executed principally by himself; and it is a record of deep, instrumental grooves and beats. The main difference is his arrangements and instrumentation have become more varied and nuanced. He no longer doodles brief downtempo sketches like on his 2000 effort A Little Bit Of Somethin’, or programs slackened beats like on 2003’s Soul Food Taqueria. He has shifted his repertoire towards live instruments ranging from traditional guitar-bass-drums to the dub-appropriate melodica. Latin-rock clacks (“March of the Masses,” “Que s’est-il passe,” “Puesta Del Sol”) and the occasional cool jazz shuffle (“Cut the Reins”) form the common rhythmic threads through which riffs and brief solos are woven. Such a stewed approach to an instrumental record may sound like Madlib’s Yesterdays New Quintet project, but Guerrero’s head is noticeably clearer. YNQ warms the entire body with its thick, dank chili, whereas Lifeboats And Follies alternately shocks and cools like a gazpacho.
Guerrero is not an exceptional musician in the traditional technical sense. Instead his gift is an ear for honing in on the right groove. This ability guides how ideas are expanded just shy of overkill and what should be committed to tape. The results shine at unexpected moments, like the subtle intervals he picks out on his guitar at the end of “Yerba Buena Bump” or the choice amounts of melodica melodies and dub effects on “Bullfights on Broadway” that keeps it from becoming a classic psychedelic rock fusion cliche. This instinct also applies to the handful of guest appearances. Trumpeter Marc Capelle is a solid choice as the most frequently heard musician on the album besides Guerrero. He blows just enough without knocking one out the park unnecessarily. Jet Black Crayon member Monte Vallier also stops by to provide some subtle paint can percussion work on “Cut the Reins.” In a literal sense, Guerrero maintains Lifeboats and Follies at an even simmer.
What makes Guerrero’s work consistently charming is the effortless wit behind each project. Be it in the colorful illustrations that adorn them or the throwaway titles (“Nomadic Static,” “6 Feet For 6 Figures”), every album feels breezy and compact — no fat. Subsequently, the record doesn’t resonate much. Put it on and do something or nothing. Either way it’s pleasant and you can move on. At least there is never an air of excessive effort or months of premeditation (not to suggest his process is entirely sweat-free). Much like the album’s cover image, he presents himself as nonchalant with a hint of slyness hidden behind a winking eye.