The Bubble Album Reviews No. 14

Theo Jackson – Jericho

Theo Jackson, upcoming jazz songwriter, singer and pianist (and past Durham University student), cites Jean-Paul Sartre’s words on his website: “Jazz is like a banana…it must be consumed on the spot”. Having experienced Theo’s live album launch at Soho’s Pizza Express Jazz Club, I would have to agree. Hugely gripped by the high-energy performance on the night, I bought a copy of his album Jericho. This was a bit of a mistake. However much I want it to, the recorded album just doesn’t work. Although Theo believes that jazz is best up-close and personal, he notes, “making records has become a major part of a jazz musician’s career”.

In fairness to Theo, the more I listen to the album, the more I like it. The Spanish guitar plucking, catchy drumbeats, smooth chord sequences, and soulful sax playing combine to create a really chilled vibe. It’s the vocals I’m not so sure about. The album’s starter piece, “Excuse Me”, can be praised for its engaging instrumental build-ups, but the vocal line is cheesy and feels out of place. Even the thought-provoking lyrics (“These abacus beads are worn from counting my own fault lines”) don’t redeem it. Perhaps we should blame the “contemporary musicians” that Theo claims inspired this number. But then again, perhaps not… The American edge to Theo’s vocals becomes increasingly irritating as the album goes on, and the strain that can be heard in his voice on occasion makes me feel uncomfortable.

The only song that I prefer the album recording of is “I Won’t Care”. This track allows us to breathe for a moment since it omits bass and guitar, leaving us with a dreamy mix of piano, vocals and sax. The softness of this ballad comes across nicely and when Theo uses his soft upper tones it is a delight to the ears. The album features a number of other easy listening tunes such as “Another Day Of Rain” and “Tired”, but the album lacks the pizzazz we would expect to hear from a young, upcoming jazz musician. Tracks like “Summer Sands” lose the vibrancy they are capable of in a live performance, but at least the variety of styles and time signatures within the album holds our interest. Intermissions of scatting (as in “Fairytale”) are also welcome.

Although I think Theo Jackson’s album functions best as background music for a dinner party, I would encourage any jazz fan to go and listen to him (and his sensational band) in the flesh.

By Sophie Ellis

L – Initiale

Expressing all the enthusiasm this singer deserves and aroused in France (at least in the French press) will be a difficult task. Parisian Raphaële Lannadère, alias L’s début album was released last year; it only took a few weeks before appearing in all French cultural magazines worthy of the adjective and enjoyed a nearly unanimous acclaim (apart, I heard, from a free-in-the-metro magazine somewhere), on the front cover of the preeminent magazine Télérama which called it “the most intense chanson album that has been heard in decades”. “Why this fuss?”, you ask. I would say different aspects make it an excellent/exceptional album. Not speaking the language would certainly make you miss a few, but luckily not all.

With her music, her lyrics, L creates a universe of an aestheticism that very few artists can pride themselves in having. Her high literacy shows in every line, by the refinement of structures, the style features, an extended, efficiently and beautifully chosen vocabulary. There is something of a French thing about her; in text and music, L shows a strong attachment to, and brings to revival some popular themes of French chanson that for some reason are not heard much anymore, she sings Paris, the popular districts and their dancing balls, its lights, girls in evening dresses, Piafesque astonishing romances (e.g. between the narrator and a black prostitute in an irregular situation he/she was moved by, in a modern, more political fashion, considering immigration and street-walking now ruling the milieu, in her first single “Petite“). She relates personal but not stereotypical or dramatised emotions (confer Adele’s I-loved-you-you-left-me-I’m-gonna-die-alone), such as an abstract and lyrical fade of jealousy (“of flowers and wind, Andalusian dances and sea-gulls, […] of everything that takes your heart away from me for an instant”), despair and tobacco, longing and lack of desire, the morbid seclusion of a rural village, to name a few. All this with a rich palette of colours, “carmine red on greedy lips”, verdigris of the sky, lighting effects and substances, “tar turn[ing] into vinyl”, “bilked fragrances”, “girls whose fires burn only on alcohol”.These themes are wonderfully rendered by her voice, fragile, almost childlike, but perfectly mastered, and an eclectic orchestration, that varies between and within the songs.

The album opens on “Mes Lèvres” (“My Lips”), that has a very impressive introduction, a short melody played on a forks piano, that is joined by slightly Latin-American sounding strings and percussions. It is not the only track to offer some rumba in the rhythms, more or less evidently. The album is also very much impregnated with Brit Pop, one can hear some trip hop arrangements, Radioheady features (“Hail to the Thief” period) in several songs, sixties rock on some tracks. This we owe to Babx, (good) singer in his own right, who signs here the musical coherence of the album. Shades of classical can be heard all throughout the album, a direct quote of Schubert’s Piano Trio in E flat in the song “Mescaline” that translates its sensuality very well.

The pace of the album is balanced between ballads, deliberately delivered at a leisurely pace, some in monotonous or prolonged singing (illustrating well the themes of remoteness or longing of the lyrics) still over varying musical constructions (speeding up in opposition, making a staccato progression, alternating between constancy and developments, or more classically) and more rhythmic tracks describing the hectic world of lyrical or sensual fantasies aforementioned. The meeting of these two vanishing lines seems to shape the character of L, somewhere in-between, on a bridge between sensuality and romanticism, touching with both aspects.

By Hippolyte Pier Astier

Robert Glasper Experiment – Black Radio

MC Guru of the prophetic East Coast hip-hop outfit Gang Starr foretold in 1990 that it would be ‘the decade of a jazz thing’. Twenty years onwards and we find hip-hop and jazz still share a profitable relationship, and beat-makers still voyage into the colossal jazz canon for the rich store of material. The fourth studio album of Robert Glasper meets hip-hop and jazz in a close collaboration instead of appropriation which makes for a unique record.

Black Radio is the latest instalment of the musician come urban supergroup Robert Glasper Experiment who push the boat out of the safe harbour of any discrete genre. Glasper, accomplished jazz pianist in his own right, takes the seat at the head of a table which boasts a vast assemblage of all-star talent (Bilal, Lupe Fiasco, Erykah Badu and Mos Def number among the ranks). ‘Experiment’ is perhaps the foremost impetus of the occasion and we find Glasper become the catalyst to the host of talented reagents in a volatile atmosphere of creative energy. The result is an album which sits at the confluence of genre as each tributary of jazz, R&B, hip-hop and rock collect to exhibit the manifold musical personality of Glasper.

The laid-back, assured preamble “Lift Off” builds the groove that furnishes the album, which remains cool as an absolute cucumber throughout. At the close, we find a chorus of mic checks which characterize a variable and cooperative spirit, and red-hot collaborations on each track offer the album an individual breath throughout. Glasper has a gentle and melodic touch, with relaxed harmonies that roll off the big kicks and the percussive bass always to leave ample space for each artist to communicate their own ideas. The tremulous and inimitable vibrations of Erykah Badu fit like a glove over the slender fingers of Mongo Santamaria’s jazz standard “Afro Blue”, and Mos Def, here under the guise yasiin bey, lends a barrage of energetic exclamations to the spirited title track “Black Radio”.

Special commendation we must award to Lupe Fiasco for his own valuable inclusion of the word ‘transubstantiation’ to the lexicon of hip-hop in his own existential examinations in “Always Shine”. The biscuit is taken, however, by the bold funk-vocoder revision of the teenage angst anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in which we find Glasper at his most playful and audacious. Nothing, we feel, is outside of the wide field of influence that Black Radio assembles for a record that is not so much a revolution but a provocative and rewarding convergence of disparate genre and talent.

By Patrick Bernard

Life Without Buildings – Any Other City

Life Without Buildings were a short-lived, Glasgow-based indie rock band who released one full-length in 2001, before splitting up a year later. A posthumous live release followed in 2007. However, upon listening to Any Other City, it is clear that Life Without Buildings are one of those bands who manage to crystalise their entire ethos and aesthetic in one perfect album (see: Young Marble Giants, Lift to Experience, The Avalanches – probably).

Musically, one might want to lump Life Without Buildings in with the mid-2000s post-punk revival. While they do bear the hallmarks of post-punk inspired music – spiky guitars, a prominent and forceful rhythm section, Life Without Buildings also show the influence of the post-rock scene, especially fellow Glaswegians Mogwai, in their use of guitars to create a melancholic, atmospheric sound. These influences are evident in slower songs like album closer “Sorrow” and US bonus track “Daylighting” (look it up), which act as a perfect soundtrack for walking through deserted city streets at night, the clean guitar figures circling around the subdued drumming and bass work.

These songs form counterpoints to the more upbeat material to be found on the album. Songs like “Philip”, and “PS Exclusive” manage to sound like forgotten classics from some non-existent 80s indie band. While Life Without Buildings certainly wear their influences on their sleeve (The Modern Lovers, Television, to name two), they manage to take these touchstones and make them their own, creating a sound which is unmistakably theirs.

Any discussion of Life Without Buildings would be incomplete without mentioning singer Sue Tompkins. Joining the band after its formation, Tompkins is a painter by trade, which may explain her highly unconventional lyrics and singing style. Tompkins alternates between “normal” singing and what can only be described as a hybrid between speech and song, often within a single line. Her lyrics are delivered in a stream of consciousness style, with phrases being deconstructed, repeated and examined. After an initial period of acclimatisation, Tompkins’ lyrics take on a lyrical sensibility and simplicity, which is quite unlike what one might find in the music of Life Without Buildings’ contemporaries. The instrumentation forms an excellent canvas for Tompkins to decorate with her half-remembered thoughts, nonsensical remarks and moments of genuine pathos. It is an inviting combination.

Since their breakup, Life Without Buildings have developed something of a cult following, and with so many bands from yesteryear reforming, it would be tempting to imagine Life Without Buildings returning to the more widespread acclaim they so obviously deserve. This seems highly unlikely as Tompkins has returned to painting, with the other band members involving themselves in other projects. In this reviewer’s mind, a reunion would be superfluous, as Life Without Buildings have managed to say in one album what most bands take a career to achieve. A gem.

By Rafael Lubner

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