Inexperienced Reviewer Takes On Jazz. Jazz Wins.

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

Here's this week's review of albums I've been listening to. Some are new. Others were new to me and may be a few or even many years old.

These judgements, as all judgements, are a matter of taste. It's personal and that means they have to address the likes of a 59 year old, white male whose tastes were formed in the melting pot of 70s chart pop and early 80s Gary Crowley and John Peel. I've kept up with current releases though the music press, review sites and numerous friends.

There's so much new music around. Musical genres and influences merge to create new sounds. Established acts carve out a new direction. It's not possible to keep on top of everything. That's why I like to share discoveries, and I hope others will signpost towards or away from their discoveries too.


'Let It Be' is not as good as 'The White Album'. 'Let It Bleed' is a better album than 'Bridges to Babylon.' That's the way it is, but sometimes from reviews you'd believe that acts simply go on getting better and better or at least plateauing at the highest level they've attained. I'd prefer to say "It's OK" if that's what it is.


I should say a little about how I categorise the albums here.


The 'Album of the Week' is usually, but not always, the record I've enjoyed the most. Occasionally, as it is this week, it's a record that had me thinking most.or wanting to talk about it.


The 'Commended' category is for records that I've particularly enjoyed during the week and would like to share.


'Good Job' contains any record that met reasonable expectations. It's consistent throughout and will be one to return to, if not on a daily basis.


The albums in 'Curate's Egg' all have something going for them, perhaps in individual tracks, but it's not sustained across the whole album. It may not succeed on the terms it seems to set itself, or it may be a disappointment because i feel that the artist could and should have done better.


And 'I'll Pass. Thanks' is for those albums that simply didn't work for me. I may have picked up on them from a review that I misunderstood or was a touch misleading, or I've taken a punt on something that didn't pay off. I won't be returning to it. That doesn't mean it's a 'bad' album. If there are never albums in this category it might mean that I'm playing safe.

Each week I'll include the taster tracks in the Pop In the Real World Taster Tracks Spotify playlist. This will eventually include all the taster tracks for the previous four weeks. I hope that by listening to this you can form a view if I'm reflecting your thoughts or if we have very different tastes.


The playlist can be accessed at https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7cSveL7NpVp1xgrKxPe4av?si=SkFlSnvySeuYFpgG0WJFmA or via the Spotify link on the Home Page.


Here we go!




Album of the Week


From This Place : Pat Metheny


I first encountered jazz at university through a friend who played John Coltrane and, whisper it quietly in case you frighten the children, Miles Davis. Although I now understand enough to twig that they're probably not the easiest places to start with jazz, the problem was that I didn't know how to start listening to them. At a different level I once saw one of our lecturers - a sarcastic, brutally honest, opinionated man who was invariably right in his assessments- show his softer side playing brushed drums and cymbals in a jazz trio. My friends and I talked throughout. I didn't take to any of it. Another friend recently told me that for her, jazz is several different musicians all playing at the same time but to different scores. That's the camp I was in!


As years went by I kept hearing about jazz influences in records I liked that were more accessible. I found bands such as Portico, Mammal Hands, Avishai Cohen and The Comet Is Coming who operated at the boundary of jazz and genres I understood better. And then, earlier this year, I read 'How To Listen To Jazz' by Ted Gioia. It's an enjoyable and informative read and whilst it would be stretching it to say it changed my life, I did take this insight from it. In paraphrase, jazz is not like other forms of music. It takes time to understand the structures, rhythms and melodies that underpin great jazz performances. The beginner should simply react to the overall sound and take in what they can.


That has prompted me to give 'proper jazz' another go. I'd like to say that I opted for Pat Metheny due to his excellent reputation as a jazz guitarist (electric and acoustic), his 2018 lifetime achievement award from Jazz FM and the fact that he is the only artist to have won Grammy's in ten different categories. (Thanks Wikipedia). They're not the reasons. No, I picked him because he features with David Bowie on 'This Is Not America'. I'd heard of David Bowie!


So, how does the music - sorry, the 'sound' - stand up? Quite well actually in a seemingly chaotic kind of way.


First up, the jazz artistry, which could be overly flamboyant, is underpinned on several tracks by strings. These bring the music back to earth and provide something to cling to when the free styling threatens to overwhelm the new listener.


And there are lots of solos and changes of tone that are impressive musically. 'Sixty-Six' starts as an attractive, calm piano led tune before throwing in everything over the course of its 9+ minutes. Perhaps the cover art should have prepared me for this. It's a whirlwind, and there's a real sense of this in the music as different musical elements are blown up into the air before landing all mixed up in a different place.


Remembering the advice to react to the sound, it comes as a joyous surprise to catch a piece of fleeting and fragmentary melody which comes from nowhere before vanishing back whence it came. It's hard work focusing on the sound, I can tell you, and I found that my attention was wandering in and out. It strikes me now that may be a very jazz way of listening reflecting the prominence given at different times to different instruments. And, you know what? That feels OK.


I found that through this sound based approach I was enjoying the effect even if I wasn't understanding the music. I was grateful for the title track, 'From This Place' which features vocals and provides a breathing space. I was surprisingly thrilled by 'America Undefined', a 13 minute epic of freely wandering solos and crashing cymbals that reaches a climax big enough for a nation. 'You Are' is a genuinely lovely track. These moments make up for the seemingly aimless soloing that features elsewhere.


But if there is one moment that won me over, and gives me the encouragement to dip my toes deeper, it comes six minutes and 22 seconds into 'Pathmaker'. There's a fleeting one off sigh of a sound that encapsulates the freedom of expression found here, but also forms an emotional connection that draws you back. It's the sense of a moment that everyone else may miss. A personal, secret moment that is yours to share with Pat Metheny and him alone.


Taster Track : You Are


Commended


Isle of Dogs : She's Got Spies


She's Got Spies is Laura Nunez who can sing in three languages. The mental complexity that brings is not reflected in her simple, catchy, naggingly infectious songs. She's shares her name with a Super Furry Animals' song and you can see how they've influenced her sound alongside the likes of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. (That feels like namedropping when I haven't heard much by the latter, so to preserve the integrity of the piece, the style I was most reminded of was 'Happy Jack' by the Who in their off beat pop phase.) Above all this sounds like a personal record in the sense that what we hear sounds like one person's idea of what they want to record rather than something that has been overly influenced by producers, managers or record companies. That's good.


The album sounds appealingly homemade and there's a genuine singalong quality from the simplicity of every song. 'Harasho', one of three Welsh songs on the album, introduces some prettiness, as does 'Where Did You Go'. And even if 'Mank Shoreshank' crosses the line into silliness, I bet it will go down a storm at gigs.


Taster Track : Mariah Pariah


Closeness : Native Harrow


A couple of the reviews I've read about this record describe it as folk. I'd disagree with that. There's certainly not a "Hey nonny no" from a merry milkmaid in earshot. Rather this is strong, traditional pop songwriting, backward looking in the sense of reflective lyrics, and musical influences. Let's describe it as folk influenced, but not exclusively so.


The stronger influences here are from the Summer of Love before it turned to psychedelia but at the point where some of the artists went mainstream Tracks recall the Byrds, Blue Mink, softer Fleetwood Mac and even the Carpenters. There's positivity and reassurance on tracks such as 'Carry On' which may be welcome after 2020. 'If I Could' is strangely reminiscent of 'The Pushbike Song', but in a good way. (And believe me there is a good way for that to happen!)


This album is unlikely to change your life or perceptions of music. It could, however, be just what you need to unwind and feel comforted after a gruelling day, period or year. There's nothing wrong with that.


Taster Track : If I Could


Good Job


Some Kind of Peace : Olafur Arnalds


Olafur Arnalds records on the wonderful, calming, intense Eased Tapes record label. The Broadchurch soundtrack he composed highlighted the atmospheric, sombre but strangely comforting music he's made his signature sound. That effect is pretty much summed up in the title of this record. It's peaceful but perhaps not quite as we know it.


This is almost music. Tracks draw together bird song, static hiss, weird vocals and the main tunes into something not quite any one thing. 'Woven' and 'We Contain Multitudes' could be descriptions of the songwriting process, as well as two of the strongest tracks on the album. 'Still / Sound' is like a musical lava lamp shifting its shape and sounds throughout.


In the end this is generic Arnalds, but well worth your time and a decent introduction to his music if you need it.


Taster Track : We Contain Multitudes


Waves of Haste : Hjalte Ross


Waves of Haste is a thoughtful and reflective record, perhaps a little too subdued for its own good in places. Opener 'Accidents' is insubstantial in itself but sets the mood of the record and serves to draw back the curtain on what follows. There's a poppier side to it too. 'Adrenaline' and 'Thinking About You' are the strongest tracks and, coincidentally or not, both feature brass to give the songs more momentum and oomph. At these points the closest link I can think of is to an act such as Teitur.


Taster Track : Thinking About You


Galore : Oklou


I struggled with this record at first. It has many flaws. For all that, it's also the record that intrigued and even beguiled me the most this week.


Let's start with the downside. It's vocoder heavy. If that doesn't bother you, you're in for a treat. The music performs a number of tricks to draw you in. When they fail, as on 'Girl On My Throne' the results can be dull.


Now for the positives. This is an album that sounds like the soundtrack to a closed community, serving it musically as monasteries were served by Gregorian chants in the past. If you can buy into that, if you can lose yourself in the songs as the music encourages you to do, you'll find much here to enjoy. There are trills and hooks that dance across the surface like fire flies across a lake. The record ends with an extended ambient fade out of night sounds including dogs barking in the distance, crickets and other sounds. It works well in context. It's that sort of record.


It's hard to find close comparators, but if pushed I'd describe it a RnB interpreted by a mix of Imogen Heap and Enya. I hope that helps.


Taster Track : Unearth Me





Places : The Last Detail


I came across the Last Detail a few weeks ago, on the back of the last A Girl Called Eddy album. This EP is a collaboration between A Girl Called Eddy and Mehdi Zannad from Fugu who I came across and reviewed for the first time last week. It's a small world.


This captures the joyful, top quality songs of both acts. 'Places' is an exuberantly over the top pop piece building to a brass led crescendo. 'Killing Time' is a good song too. So are they all, all good tunes. You may anticipate a 'but' coming though, and it's this. There's a sense of this EP being compiled of leftovers and fragments that, whilst good, did not fit with the fuller more rounded songs needed for an album. It's worth a listen if only because it may lead to a greater appreciation of both acts.


Taster Track : Killing Time


Free Now : Drew Citron


There are lots of albums exploring relationship issues at the moment. I guess there always have been. This is another to add to the list but it's a good one.


On Bandcamp, Drew Clinton talks of working through a relationship to reach a more positive place. Making this album sounds as if it was a big part of that process. Inevitably it's more backward looking with songs such as 'Kiss Me' and '17' looking at the past to make sense of it rather than the present - although 'Free Now' covers that base well.


Where this album stands out though is that it presents the voice of an angel over driven guitars. It floats around the point where jangle pop and grunge are on more than nodding terms. It is, above all, where sweetness meets passion.


Taster Track : Summertime


Curate's Egg


#1 : The Brothers Steve


This is template pop drawn from pub rock as it morphed into new wave and eventually gave birth to Britpop. It's OK but generic and, to be honest, underwhelming. All the right components are there, proficiently done but a killer stand out track would be nice, something to stir the blood. 'Songwriter' sums up the state of play well. As it is this sounds like the kind of song played by the featured band at a high school prom. It's what someone else thought a cool band should sound like. 'Beat Generation Poet Turned Assassin' comes closest to breaking the mould and hints that a better album is within their grasp. Sadly, this isn't it.


Taster Track : Beat Generation Poet Turned Assassin


I'll Pass. Thanks


Silver Ladders : Mary Lattimore


Mary Lattimore is a harpist, and I would usually take that as a warning sign that this was unlikely to be for me. What drew me to this record was that it's collaboration with Neil Halstead who is the guiding light of Slowdive but, more excitingly for me, he was also the man behind Mojave 3 who are responsible for a couple of the most listened to songs in my i-tunes library. What would he bring to the party?


To be honest I'm still not sure. This is still a harp album. It's used cleverly in places, for example in 'Til A Mermaid Drags You Under' where the harp conjures images of sporadic water drops. In 'Silver Ladders' the tone changes down markedly around two and a half minutes in. That may be where Neil Halstead's contribution is most heard.


To these ears this album is worthy and well played but overall it's dull and not for me. It certainly could not compete with the 2020 Bake Off final running at the same time!


Taster Track : 'Til A Mermaid Drags You Under






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