Spring Heel Jack
Songs and Themes
I recently attended a concert of electronic new music composed for a special 20+ channel sound system involving racks of gears, teams of technicians, composers on site, a Wiimote, etc etc, and out of this apparatus I wanted epiphany. It is what I always want from electronic music, form any music, really, but especially electronic music, where the pallet is limitless. So what do I get instead? Dial tones and rain on a tin roof and blips and bleeps, with a TMX upgrade. My experience with techno/house/IDM/glitch/jungle whatever is similar. The world is your oyster, but everything you serve up still tastes like oysters. So I put on the latest Spring Heel Jack with little expectation, knowing them as one of the more respected/sanctified names in the above virgule-bracketed groupings.
And it hasn't left my iPod for a week. Turns out they took a left turn from leftfield at some point and invited some live musicians in on the party and have turned into a sublime jazz-meets-chamber music group, crafting some of the sweetest dream music this side of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Songs and Themes is as lovely an album this lean could possibly be. It is unclear what parts of this album are wrought out of core members Ashley Wales' sampler or John Coxon's guitar, and what parts are delivered by their stellar cast of guests: bassist John Edwards, trumpeter/flautist Roy Campbell, drummer Tony Marsh or guitarist J. Spaceman (ok, his telltale soaring guitar is plainly heard on "1,000 Yards") and generally it doesn't matter. These pieces are individually, and as a whole, exercises in the tension of close interplay and restraint. "With Out Words" features a string section swell crashing on the shore as if in search of a full orchestra, washing in bits and pieces of a jazz tune with it on each splash.
"For Paul Rutherford," a duet of Campbell and Marsh, is the sound of Miles Davis recordings bouncing on the surface of the moon, all dressing stripped away by the journey, leaving only the breath of the horn and the patter of toms. The larger ensemble pieces, like "Folk Players" while being rather plush in texture, are still as haunting - the vibes rattle against he slow moan of the violin invaded by the guitars and cymbals, all making perfect sense without betraying their secret logic. This is what I want out of adventurous music; make it so lovely that there is no point figuring out how it is made. "Atiphon" could easily refer to the responses in Gregorian chant or the Athenian orator that shares its name, in that it seems to be responding in eloquent and pointed tones to a question floating in the air. The album shimmers with grace and power let out in precise amounts, ethereal while remaining its warmth; seamless yet open-ended. The kind of thing I wouldn't mind hearing on a million dollar soundsytem right before the word ends, but for now, I'll just keep playing this disc on whatever lesser mechanisms I have on hand.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com