What We Must
The late great John Peel, cool beacon of the BBC, big brother to all music nerds everywhere, throughout his multi-decade career sifting through every style and band and honk and beat that came his way, would answer the question of what was the best year for music with the only good answer: right now. Sure there are period that will stick with you in a nostalgiast way, or even in an imagined sense of nostalgia should they have been outside your little scratch on the timeline, but when it comes to it, right now is the best, because its where things are happening. This concept had a big effect on me when I first felt its blow. Instead of spuriously exploring the past, which will be around forever should things get really slow, dive into the now and find what really sticks with you.
So, since starting this gig at outsideleft, I've been immersing myself in the here and now musically with a greater saturation than even in my college radio days, when I had nothing better to do and have been having a new favorite album all the time, sometimes changing daily. And for about a week running now since it blew onto my desk, the album I keep running back to with squealing glee is What We Must by the 10-piece Norwegian instrumental conglomerate Jaga Jazzist.
So many things work against it on the outset. For one, 10 people in a band is clearly too many to have any kind of cohesiveness. Also, though I like me the post-rock, often the jazzier aspects of it get a little wanky. And Jaga is not scared of Jazz end of the post-rock equation. In fact if Tortoise is the post-rock Weather Report, then Jaga Jazzist is its Chicago (albeit with Peter Cetera locked up in a crate somewhere) How can I even defend a band that I can compare to Chicago, much less laud it? I ask myself that question as I listen to this for the 4th time today. Fuck it, let's hear that Chuck Mangione horn part again and bask in its glory.
Maybe its like the use of limits in calculus, where you get as close to some mathematical impossibility, like dividing by zero, with out going all the way there to explore the nature of infinity. Jaga equals the limit as x approaches cheese to explode with exuberant musicality.
The opening number "All I Know is Tonight" is seemingly the thesis for the album. Its multi-tiered melody is a regiment of horns marching on the shoulders of an insistent drummer and two interlocking guitars, with everyone in the group doing something different but coming together in one glorious noise. When people are describing so-and-so a band as symphonic in sound, they are missing the mark, because this stuff is truly symphonic, nuanced rock/jazz/beauty unafraid of that potentially embarrassing trumpet arch that almost ruins it, but in fact makes the song.
The more majestic drift of "Stardust Hotel" and "For All You Happy People" might summon up some analogies to the greatest-thing-i-ever - heard of two years ago, Iceland's Sigur Ros, in its expansive pacing and huge, huge sound (plus the fact that Sigur Ros was touted as the favorite band by then defacto coolest kids in school Radiohead, and Jaga is now garnering similar praise from the universally acclaimed Mars Volta) , but there is much more swing to Jaga's punch, where small subsections of the song occasionally geyser up through the guitar clockwork and ice sheets of keyboards and horns.
"Oslo Skyline" has a pointillist structure to it that will register as good to fans of Tortoise and the like, but its the transcendent "Swedenborgske ROM" that is the real beauty on this album. I hate to keep making snow and Arctic circle analogies for a band from up on that part of the map, but there is a frittered Aurora Borealis cosmic electricity about this track that is undeniable. "Mikado" has the jauntiest funkiest step to anything on the album, making a bamboo forest of synth rushes for the guitars to ghost themselves around before the horns invade and flood the terrain. Sitar like drones and brass clouds adorn "I Have a Ghost, Now What" which closes out this incredible record, swelling up into a black hole of noise and martial snares.
If you can't tell, I am gushy about this record, even more so than I normally am, but I promise, Jaga Jazzist delivers on my overwrought promise. Best album I've heard this year so far, and I've heard a lot of albums.
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