Thursday, July 16, 2009

New Fusions

Acoustic Ladyland – Living With a Tiger (Strong and Wrong, 2009)

The name Acoustic Ladyland had a certain logic when the group emerged as an acoustic jazz quartet performing works inspired by Jimi Hendrix. Since then, they’ve become a full-blooded jazz-rock ensemble, with increasing emphasis on the rock. The moniker now begins to look more like a stubborn contradiction.

With explosive guitarist replacing the now departed keyboardist Tom Cawley and Ruth Goller replacing Tom Herbert on electric bass, the band have undergone a major line-up change. This hasn’t radically redefined their sound, but has rather refocused their energies and bolstered their already aggressive dynamic. The resulting album is brutal, insistent and undeniably enjoyable, brimming with riotous energy and enthusiasm.

There’s a playful verve to ‘Have Another Go’ and ‘Death By Platitude’, underpinned by Seb Rochford’s drumming, which is at once rigorous and thrilling. Best of all are probably the swampy ‘Gratitude’ and the closing ‘You and I’. The latter has a primal rhythmic urgency. On the former, Sharkey gets welcome space to demonstrate his chops as well as his array of effects pedals and the group begins to resemble an edgier Led Zeppelin.

Much of the music here is taken at a frantic pace (the opening ‘Sport Mode’ certainly wastes no time in establishing the mood), although the band are sounding increasingly assured with slower grooves too. ‘The Mighty Q’, dedicated to saxophonist and band leader Pete Wareham’s newborn son Quincy is one of these moments, demonstrating that there’s a very human heart beneath the relentless attack. ‘Worry’ even allows a slight hint of melancholy into the proceedings, hinting that Wareham might be able to provide the group with much more light and shade in the future.

‘Living With a Tiger’ is a considerably more confident album than its predecessor ‘Skinny Grin’. That record had its moments – but didn’t sound anywhere near as powerful as this. Perhaps part of this process of refinement has been the abandoning of vocals – although I admire Alice Grant’s original vocal style. On ‘Living With a Tiger’, Wareham’s saxophone playing has the passion, guts and gusto of a bellowing human voice. This could easily be stereotyped as angry music, but I’m struck most by its positivity and joy.

Troyka – Troyka (Edition, 2009)

There’s a great deal of love for Troyka at the moment and it’s easy to understand why. The group is based on a straightforward but original conceit. Here is a conventional organ trio line-up (Kit Downes on organ, Chris Montague on guitar and the truly fearsome Josh Blackmore on drums) playing anything but conventional music. This band deconstructs genre boundaries with a wilful and sometimes brutal intent. The virtuosic ability of these three musicians, not purely in terms of technique, but also in terms of developing expressive musical ideas, is impossible to deny.

The in-demand Robert Harder, who also worked on Acoustic Ladyland’s album, again lends his engineering skills here. The whole album certainly sounds brilliant. There’s a constant sense of drama and tension, frequently found in the contrast between the underlying electronics and Montague’s daredevil highwire acrobatics on the guitar. The drum sound is also impressively crisp, with Josh Blackmore’s elaborately arranged kit voicings influencing the overall impact of the performances as much as the interplay between Montague and Downes.

Yet so much is thrown into the musical melting pot here that it threatens to become both overwhelming and oppressive. The compositions are angular and cerebral, and are frequently characterised by metronomically precise but unexpected interjections of electronic noise and crunching rock guitar riffing. In the short term, the control with which the band executes these changes is frankly breathtaking. The outstanding ‘Clint’ veers from a peculiar groove to a heavy recontextualisation of the slide guitar. But after a few listens, I find myself yearning for just some of the multitude of ideas to be expanded and developed.

Somewhat oddly, Montague’s compositions seem to work best when mercilessly concise. It’s refreshing to hear tunes as short as one and a half minutes in length that somehow sound complete. On the longer pieces, the group seem so keen to squeeze in all of their ideas that it’s often hard to find the common thread. Downes’ contributions, especially the mysterious ‘Golden’, offer breathing space for more lyrical playing.

This is exciting, challenging music and if I sometimes fail to rise to the challenge here, it possibly says more about me as a listener than it does about Troyka as an ensemble. Given time, I suspect this quirky, cerebral beast will reveal more than just an intricate logic.

Zed-U – Night Time on the Middle Passage (Babel, 2009)

Zed-U, a trio featuring Shabaka Hutchings, Neil Charles and Tom Skinner have variously been described as thrash jazz or dub jazz. Inevitably, these generic terms don’t come anywhere close to capturing their subtle combination of dreamy fantasia and punchy improvisation. ‘Night Time on the Middle Passage’ is less concerned with browbeating its audience with its innovative credentials, instead concentrating on mood, texture and space. For this reason, it demands concentration and repeated listens, but may actually be the most successful of these recent records aiming to redefine what jazz musicians can play.

Those who have seen saxophonist and clarinettist Hutchings play live will be aware that he can play with an imposing and impassioned authority. This side of his personality emerges less frequently here and is all the more striking as a result. ‘Chief’ is characterised by a fiery intensity and crafty staccato unison lines. Even better is the gradual crescendo of ‘Roki’, which builds from a restrained introduction into tempestuous repeated phrases.

Elsewhere though, the focus is more on his spare and elegant clarinet playing, frequently manipulated through effects and sampling. What is most impressive about this music is the way the instruments leave space for each other, with Hutchings’ direct, clear motifs interweaving with Neil Charles’ expressive basslines. Charles and drummer Tom Skinner do so much more than simply anchor the group – they inform the texture and intensity levels with intuitive musicality.

There will no doubt be tedious debates about whether this constitutes jazz or not. For the adventurous and open-minded listener, it won’t matter much how it’s classified. It certainly falls into the bracket of improvised music – in live performance, the group use this music as a springboard for further exploration, with tremendously exciting results. No two performances will be the same. In this sense, it fits my personal notion of what constitutes 'jazz', and represents a clear attempt to draw from that tradition and make it more relevant to a younger audience both in London and beyond.

Some have criticised the record for foregrounding texture and sound at the expense of composition, but I’m not sure I agree with this. There are formalities and rigours to the music here. It’s arguable that the pieces seem to be based more around phrasing and articulation than around conventional melodies but in some ways this makes the music more fresh and intriguing. The clipped, rhythmic motifs of Kraftwerk’s. Similarly, structure and dynamics play an important role. From start to finish, the album sounds fantastic, with a careful attention to detail and a consistently mysterious, sometimes unnerving mood. Zed-U’s novel synthesis can no doubt be further developed, but this is a brilliantly realised first step.

Soundbites Part 1

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (Honest Jon’s, 2009)

I’m not sure there’s much mileage in this conceit beyond one album, but what a tremendously enjoyable album this is. Juxtaposing the full force and authority of a New Orleans-style brass ensemble with some righteous hip-hop inspired grooves (courtesy of outstanding drummers Malcolm Catto and Sola Akingbola) results in music with unstoppable urgency and insistence. There wouldn’t be quite such an energy rush were the arrangements not so convincing and the playing so jubilant. The likes of ‘Rabbit Hop’ and ‘Alyo’ are celebratory blasts, brimming with enthusiasm.

Levon Helm – Electric Dirt (Vangard/EMI, 2009)

I foolishly missed Levon Helm’s excellent comeback album ‘Dirt Farmer’ when it was first released a couple of years ago but have since immersed myself in its brilliant journey through the American folk tradition. Its immediate follow-up is better still, as its title suggests offering up more of the same with extra amplification. Former Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell again produces and, although there’s only one original Helm song here, it must be noted that this is a far more inspired journey through blues, country and soul than Dylan’s ‘Together Through Life’. Helm’s voice still has considerable power, particularly remarkable given his recent battle with throat cancer. He also plays drums on every track, his dusty shuffle grooves still impeccable. The whole experience is elevated by Steve Bernstein’s wonderful horn arrangements, which bring a modified version of New Orleans to the proceedings. The vocal arrangements are similarly impressive, adding sophistication to an already effortless band delivery (Larry Campbell’s ‘When I Go Away’ is probably the best example of this). This is gutsy, soulful music with spirit and feeling. In its mapping of the connections between Appalachian folk, country, soul, gospel, blues and early New Orleans jazz, it’s one of the best records of the year so far, and arguably the best trip through American folk music since Steve Earle’s ‘The Mountain’.

Jarvis Cocker – Further Complications (Rough Trade, 2009)

I don’t write this blog to waste time by being a carping critic. Generally, I prefer to enthuse about music I like rather than rant about what I dislike. But here is one of those examples of a record I want to like a great deal more than I actually do. Has Jarvis Cocker's solo career appears like a journey away from pop stardom towards some sort of outsider status.

The trouble with this is, whilst Jarvis was a tremendous pop star, he doesn’t make for such a good alternative icon. Some people have lauded this album for the fruitful results of Steve Albini’s production, but I don’t hear this. It’s hard to be an unreserved Albini enthusiast – his laissez-faire approach works well when there’s a great band playing original and captivating material. Unfortunately, Jarvis’ current backing group are lumbering at best and the songs here are mostly derivative or half-baked. The lack of garnish in the production further exposes their limitations.

Jarvis himself mostly sounds completely adrift, with very little to say. The most pervasive subject appears to be sex – or at least meaningless carnal desire. Perhaps appropriately, Jarvis has little profound or novel to say on the subject. There are a handful of endearing bad puns (‘I met her in the museum of Palaeontology but I make no bones about it’) but the central idea of the album’s best track (‘I never said I was deep but I am profoundly shallow’) sadly seems to encapsulate Jarvis’ lack of inspiration.

What happened to Jarvis’ witty and incisive social observation? The rather patronising character study of ‘Angela’ can’t really qualify for this. With the brilliant ‘C*nts Are Still Running The World’, it seemed that Jarvis’ solo career got off to a flying start, but the subsequent solo albums have presented him as an artist in apparent terminal decline. It’s all too tempting to describe ‘Further Complications’ as an artistic mid-life crisis. I really hope he can reverse the trend.

Cortney Tidwell – Boys (City Slang, 2009)

Sometimes artists sound less distinctive with each subsequent release. On her debut self-titled mini album and first full length, Cortney Tidwell emerged as an individual vocalist with a good ear for sound, both otherworldly and bewitching. On the much delayed ‘Boys’, she frequently starts to resemble other artists. During ‘Watusii’, I can’t help thinking of Laura Veirs, ’17 Horses’ could slot very easily on to PJ Harvey’s ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’, whilst the intimate ‘Son and Moon’ so closely resembles Bjork circa Vespertine that it could be accused of imitation. Elsewhere, there’s an indie brightness that makes for a more conventional sound. I’m not sure this should detract too much from the quality of this record though – the material is still strong, with considered and effective production. The dusty opener ‘Solid State’ and the duet with Jim James on ‘Being Crosby’ are deceptively simple acoustic gems, whilst propulsive pounders like ‘So We Sing’ and ‘Watusii’ vary the tempo and mood. Another obvious reference now seems to be Hope Sandoval and Mazzy Star, but there’s just that bit of additional weirdness – the peculiar, fuzzy, haunting atmospheres of ‘Palace’ or ‘Oslo’ for example – which help Tidwell remain in her own space. The tracks with the most space, and where her voice is at its most tender and delicate – ‘Bad News’ and ‘Oh, China’ particularly - are beguiling.

Wilco – Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch, 2009)

Admiration for Wilco has perhaps lead to this album being slightly indulged by critics. There’s definitely a sense now that Jeff Tweedy has settled into a dependable groove, the results being that this flippantly titled album is, like ‘Sky Blue Sky’ before it, a bit of a mixed bag. There are some great songs here and the presence of Nels Cline on guitar continues to temper the occasional lapses into hazy blandness. For the most part though, Jeff Tweedy is resolutely refusing to break new ground. Having said that, I’m someone who admires ‘Summerteeth’ nearly as much as ‘A Ghost Is Born’, and there’s something straightforwardly appealing about the summery harmonies of ‘You Never Know’ and especially about the ornate chamber pop of ‘Deeper Down’. It would take a complete miser to resist the considerable charms of ‘You And I’, a saccharine duet with Leslie Feist which makes for a nice mirror to Feist’s own ‘Intuition’ in shedding new light on human relationships. ‘Bull Black Nova’ presents the band in excoriating form, but it’s basically an edited rewrite of ‘Spiders’ from ‘A Ghost Is Born’. Elsewhere, a soft, hazy and amenable sound is very much in abundance – nice enough, but hardly revolutionary.