Friday, April 02, 2010

New Directions

Polar Bear - Peepers (Leaf)

I don't always admire the work of Paul Morley, but his current Guardian video series investigating the nature of modern jazz in Britain is fascinating and important. So often, jazz cocoons itself in existential worries ('is this jazz?' 'is it too accessible?') and shields itself from other forms. Yet in this country right now, there is a very vibrant scene of improvising musicians forging connections across the contemporary musical spectrum. It was pleasing to see Polar Bear's Sebastian Rochford and Pete Wareham, in conversation with Morley, highlighting the likes of Zed-U and TrioVD, but also recognise that adventurous, compositional rock bands such as Grizzly Bear might offer inspiration to the aspiring jazz musician.

Rochford appears to see jazz as more of a concept or approach than a sound - it doesn't have to swing, but it does have to be 'liberating', confident and prepared to take risks. Rochford is something of an old-fashioned collector of music who enjoys making new discoveries in independent record shops. He has absorbed a massive range of music yet the result of his avid listening is a remarkably distinctive compositional voice. Perhaps there was a danger of this developing into a formula - many will probably feel that 'Peepers', a relatively concise and focused set, is exactly what was required after the dense, sprawling exploration of their previous self-titled work (for the record, I loved that album too).

There are two central relationships crucial to Polar Bear's alchemy - the powerful connection between Rochford and Tom Herbert, which is both steady and dynamic, and the relationship between saxophonists Mark Lockheart and Pete Wareham, as contrasting and complementary a frontline as you could hope to find. 'Peepers' sees Rochford now using this foundation to branch out into new territory. Electronics wizard Leafcutter John plays guitar on a number of tracks, giving the band harmonic accompaniment for the first time. If anything, though, the effect is largely rhythmic or atmospheric, either producing ska-infused choppiness or surprising tenderness.

The exhilarating burst of unashamed joy on the opening 'Happy For You' will be familiar to long time Polar Bear fans, as will the lurching groove Rochford deploys on the hugely enjoyable 'Drunken Pharoah'. These are unselfconcious pieces of music, rich in character and humour, but with a strong musical understanding and interplay cementing them. What will be less familiar are the moments of delicacy and vulnarability that mark 'Peepers' out as Polar Bear's most varied and immersing work so far. 'The Love Don't Go Anywhere' is an impressionistic piece tinged with sadness and regret, whilst 'A New Morning Will Come' is a shimmering delight.

Perhaps my favourite moment on the album is the subtle 'Want To Believe Everything', on which the internal dynamics of Rochford's drumming are brilliantly controlled. The piece takes Polar Bear's familiar off-kilter groove and plays it out in a lighter, more airy setting. The gentle closer 'All Here' has something of an inspirational feel - like a soft prayer. It sounds like a Stax soul ballad - a Mavis Staples song as played by a jazz ensemble. This is new territory for the group, and certainly not unwelcome.

'Peepers', contrary to its title, is not the sound of a band tentatively peeping at another direction. It's a confident, assured opening of new doors. It has a raw, unpolished sound that may infuriate some but which delights me - it sounds like a real band playing intuitively.

Summer tinged with sadness

Laura Veirs - July Flame (Bella Union)

Laura Veirs is the sort of singer-songwriter it's all too easy to take for granted, releasing new albums of dependable quality at regular intervals without really making radical shifts in direction. Amidst all the noise currently being made around female talents (the elaborate fantasias of Joanna Newsom or the supposed prodigious maturity of Laura Marling), it would be easy for 'July Flame' to fall by the wayside. This would be a real shame, for there's definitely an argument to be made that 'July Flame' is Veirs' most accomplished work.

As its title suggests, 'July Flame' works as a warmer, brighter flipside to the icy charm of her previous career watermark 'Carbon Glacier'. The albums Veirs has released in between the two have all been good, but maybe burdened by the weight of one or two standout songs apiece. 'July Flame' is a good deal more consistent - brimming with largely simple, unaffected but strikingly beautiful songwriting. The arrangements are mostly minimal but characterised by delightful textural nuances.

Veirs continues to work with producer Tucker Martine and 'July Flame' contains the finest results yet from this fruitful collaboration. I became tremendously excited when I heard the news that REM were recording new demos with Martine, for he is exactly the sort of producer to reinject some mystery into that band - but it seems they have returned to the ugly, hyper-compressed commercialism of Jacknife Lee for their forthcoming album. What a shame because judging by what Veirs and Martine have achieved here - an unassuming, home recorded work still full of richness and beauty - a Martine-helmed REM might have been something both surprising and special.

'July Flame' delicately unfolds into a mission of quiet discovery. There's the gentle reverb (applied carefully and thoughtfully) that renders 'I Can See Your Tracks' a mesmerising introduction. There's the otherwordly, slightly woozy waltz of 'Little Deschutes' and the southern gothic tapestry of 'Where Are You Driving?'. Veirs seems to have ironed out some of the harshness from her voice and, whilst these songs are not without her trademark wistful melacholy, they do seem to have a warmer, more enchanted gaze. Perhaps best of all is the sensual, rapturous but avowedly linear title track.

Veirs comes across as a disarmingly modest writer and performer (and her humility comes across in her sincere tribute to legendary session bassist Carol Kaye), but also a meticulously honest one - and this is perhaps why she appears to have so many admirers. Colin Meloy from the Decemberists campaigned for 'July Flame' to get a proper release when Nonesuch records declined to put it out (did they learn nothing from the 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' farce?) and Jim James from My Morning Jacket provides some suitably spectral vocal harmonies. It's good to hear James' voice in a more sympathetic context after the uncomfortable fusions of 'Evil Urges'. I suspect 'July Flame' will be one of the albums I listen to most this year, such is its winning combination of adventure and accessibility.

The Return

I've not been able to blog in some time now. My life is taking all sorts of interesting twists and turns at the moment, involving plenty of uncertainty but also, I hope, some new opportunities. I hope, slowly but surely, to ease back into regular writing again.

Whilst I've been busy working and planning for the future, plenty seems to have happened in the world of music, not least the sad loss of two figures personally significant for me (and many others). Along with John Peel, Charlie Gillett was surely one of the two most important voices in British broadcasting. He treated his listeners with respect, trusting them to have the same keen and adventurous ears that he had. His style was totally and refreshingly unshowy and unpretentious, allowing the music to speak for itself whilst also communicating his enthusiasm and passion for it in a naturalistic, almost effortless manner. He was a broadcaster of real integrity - compromising his own tastes and interests in the service of his career would have been unthinkable. Compare this with the excitable preaching of Zane Lowe and it's easy to see what has been lost to the tradition of radio with Charlie's passing. He can't be replaced - but I do hope the World Service continues to devote a small part of its schedule to sharing music from around the world.

Alex Chilton was a more tricksy character but, at his best, undeniably one of the great pop songwriters. Big Star were a band that sounded like they ought to have had hit after hit but, in the end, they remained a cult concern. It's worth remembering that, over time, cult interest bands have considerable impact on a wide range of people - and the many tributes to Alex on Twitter are testament to the fact that conventional, commercial measures of popularity often serve to marginalise immensely significant players. 'The Ballad of El Goodo', 'September Gurls', 'Thirteen', 'Thank You Friends', 'Kanga Roo' rank among some of the finest songs I know. As a solo artist, Chilton was wayward and unpredictable - although there are those for whom the ragged charm of 'Like Flies on Sherbert' holds more interest than the more polished sound of the first two Big Star albums. There's definitely a sense that, middling quality of the recent Big Star album notwithstanding, Chilton had more to offer.

I now have a large task on my hands attempting to catch up on everything I've been enjoying recently. Blogging will probably remain intermittent as I start a month of new work on Tuesday and I really hope to get the best out of a short amount of time.