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Jamie Cullum – Taller

14 Jun

When I first discovered Jamie Cullum in the late 2000s, he had already recorded five studio albums, and was playing in jazz festivals around the world. And while he was the kind of musician who brought his grandmother’s carpet to lay out on the stage at Blenheim Palace, he was also full of irreverent energy: stomping his feet on the keys of the piano, slapping his palms all over and underneath it, jumping on top of it and leaping off. His vigour was electrifying, and even deeply moving for a reserved person such as myself.

The Pursuit (2009) marks a neat halfway point between the start of his career and now, and it was in the album that followed in 2013 that I first began to hear creeping hints of self-doubt and insecurity:

As I sit and wait for some answers
The questions go round like a kamikaze pilot
Enlightenment’s just a romancer
I wish it were here burning brightly through the skylight .

Family life seemed to bring a new introspective quality to Cullum’s music. It’s not easy to slow down and take stock, to critically examine the costs and rewards of a glamorous profession in the arts, and to confront the fear of failure.

“Innocence is nice, but the world offers us more and it’s wrong not to take it.” As we grow older, so many of us feel that we have irrevocably lost our access to uninhibited creativity and joy. But the complications of being an adult unlock an unfamiliar kind of happiness, and an emotional depth we could never have imagined in innocence. The chords behind the crescendo of “Drink” conjure up with great accuracy the vertiginous relief and fear that accompany the first sensation of joy after a long unhappiness.

But the cheeky musician we’ve known is still around, and he announces it in the title of his latest album. Taller marks a milestone in a twenty-year-long career in jazz music. A bold, effervescent, and unceasingly fun artist now stands at the sobering brink of his forties; and the music inspired at this juncture is nothing short of a gift to everyone who has followed his work over the years.

Jamie Cullum is a small, if dynamic, man, and there has been no dearth of leg-pulling in the tabloids and on the internet about his height, and about his marriage to a substantially taller woman. The fact that he addresses this perceived deficiency head-on indicates that he hasn’t lost his sense of humour, and also that the discontent that has been simmering in the previous two albums will be explored more fully in this one.

“Usher”, the fourth track on the album, is a full-blown sonic party reminiscent in the best way of James Brown and the golden age of Soul. It’s crunchy and granular in a way that is profoundly satisfying (especially if you, like me, have been unable to avoid Trap and American R&B, the slickness of which, though often soothing, can quickly lose your interest). But the lyrics are not quite as cheerful as the music. And it’s a similar story with “You Can’t Hide Away From Love”, another favourite from the album: its lush orchestral arrangement recalls Audrey Hepburn movies, but with menace.

It’ll give you two black eyes
And discolour all your skies

It’ll have you on your back
And break into your flat

So reel me in
Till I’m gasping for air;
There’s no love without despair

It’ll shake you to your core
And leave you crying on the floor
But I’m telling you you can’t hide away from love.

This album examines not only personal demons, but also shared anxieties. Volume 2 of The Eighty-Eight, “an adventurous magazine for the occasional thinker” (or “an occasional magazine for the adventurous thinker”), which Cullum puts together with his friends and family, features a poignant essay about his Indian and Burmese heritage. More than one song on Taller references Brexit, the refugee crisis, British imperialism, and perhaps even the Me Too movement.

Cullum dwells on the unease of living in these times. There’s a stripped down version of “Mankind” on his YouTube channel well worth a listen. The irony of this composition is that it combines gospel music with lyrics that say “so long to sacred,” but there is a refusal to give up on people and the idea that love will conquer all. As Kristin Scott Thomas’ character in Fleabag puts it, “people are all we’ve got.”

This album is an exploration of fundamentals, and Cullum sings repeatedly of digging and searching deep within the earth. One cannot help but think of Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging, and the hope and doubt it expresses about writing and creative work as activities that productively uncover and reveal. “The Age of Anxiety” quotes WH Auden (“only love is what survives of us”), and imbues the song with its apprehension of mortality.

Age of Anxiety, Live from Craxton Studios

Cullum’s interest literature and great works of poetry (his favourite writers are Virginia Woolf and Paul Auster) is perhaps what gives his lyrics their unusual and beguiling quality.

The fact that he has always been an expressive vocalist only makes this better; and speaking of vocals, “Monster” showcases a falsetto range we’ve never heard from him before.

Literary inspirations aside, Cullum draws from an eclectic range of musical sources. For a few years now he has been reverse-engineering pop music on his YouTube playlist The Song Society, and curating more challenging compositions for his program “The Jazz Show” on BBC Radio 2. It’s fascinating to see these influences coming together to form an album that sounds — fittingly for a crossover artist — unique, and one that does not sit comfortably in either the pop or the jazz genre.

The great thing about the songs on this album is that they’re more than just tunes. Each song develops; it meanders into different moods and colours and tones. If you were to leave a song midway, you’d probably miss the best part, and definitely miss the whole story. The album requires, and rewards, patience. This is the kind of art I find myself most grateful for these days.

Taller is an invitation to revisit Jamie Cullum’s oeuvre; because the seeds of inventiveness and thoughtfulness were always there. I’ve been rediscovering the deluxe version of Catching Tales, for instance, with its cover of “Everybody Loves The Sunshine”, which is a youthful, groovier expression of “Drink”, the backbone of the new album. I am so excited to dip back in to this amazing body of work. There is no doubt about it: Jamie Cullum is a peerless and towering talent.

By Eesha Kumar

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Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, Pt. 1

10 Jun

It’s 2008. The indie rock world is on a multi-year high – after the Strokes’ game-changing debut in 2001, there is a virtually non-stop stream of buzzy indie rock bands: Franz Ferdinand, the Libertines, Kaiser Chiefs, the Arctic Monkeys and so on. Many wonder: will there ever be a need for yet another indie rock band?

Through all that noise, Foals managed to prick up the world’s collective ears with their blistering math rock debut album, Antidotes. Math rock – with its frenetic arrangements and asymmetrical time signatures – had of course been around for a couple of decades (see: Slint, Polvo), but Foals served to bring it to the forefront of the ’00s resurgent indie rock scene.

Over the years, Foals released three more albums; but for many fans from the original Antidotes era, the band has strayed from its trademark sound into a slightly different tone. “Spanish Sahara” from 2009’s Total Life Forever featured on that era’s edgy prestige TV shows (Skins, Entourage). “Mountain at My Gates” from 2015’s What Went Down starred on the FIFA 2016 soundtrack. There’s nothing wrong with these things, of course; but the new material didn’t capture your undivided attention in the first two seconds – as did, say, Antidotes’ “Balloons” or “Red Socks Pugie”.

The fifth album, 2019’s Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt. 1, changes that trajectory. Here, the band seems to have finally figured out how to piece together the irrepressible energy of the first album – jagged riffs and sing-shouted lyrics – with the more mainstream, polished feel of the latter albums.

There are several stand-outs on this album. We already wrote about “Exits” – a slithering majesty of a track that moves seamlessly from the dramatic to the psychedelic over the course of a showstopping six minutes. (Do also check out the music video, featuring Game of Thrones’ Isaac Hempstead-Wright.) Another must-listen is “Café D’Athens” – a fascinating juxtaposition of aloof vocals layered over nerve-wracking, tinny beats; think Radiohead meets Hercules & Love Affair.

What we really love about Foals is their ability to conjure up abstract feelings within decidedly non-abstract music. “White Onions” summons a claustrophobic feel with its repetitive riffs and non-stop drums; aptly, the lyrics reference lairs, mazes, cages, and fighting for air. “Syrups” is sexier: a thick bassline leads into heady guitars and steady drums, eliciting perhaps a mysterious road-trip into the clear night sky (“’Cause I’m about to take flight / Please don’t ask me why,” chime in the prescient lyrics).

This is the reason that Foals are featured on so many soundtracks: they are exceptionally gifted at pinning down moods and feelings within the confines of their spindly guitars and relentless beats. The band’s first four outings tended to focus on one part of that two-part puzzle: either the feelings or the music.

With Everything, the band has finally put it together. Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt. 1 is one of the best albums of 2019 – and, as luck would have it, we are still due for Pt. 2. We can’t wait.

Big Thief – U.F.O.F.

7 Jun

U.F.O.F. is a beautiful, delicate and scarily intelligent folk-rock album. It’s gossamer and lovely in sound and filled with intricacies and flourishes and sparkles.

“Betsy”, for instance, is calm and unhurried and tranquil. “Jenni” feels like a gentler, slower “Jeremy” and while that may sound like it misses the point, the result is no less intense for how slow it burns. “From” is tender and sophisticated.

For all that softness though, the album is also able to carry off the Velvet Underground-like “Contact” which goes from a slow start to a distortion both unexpected in such a soft album and brilliant for it.

The vocal quivering in “Orange” engage and the lyric of “Orange is the color of my love” is novel. Similarly in “Century”, Lenker’s voice wavers around where you would expect and the unbalancedness that engenders is excellent. It slips a little at the end of the song though and it’s not quite strong enough to carry the vocal-only segments of “Magic Dealer”, but those are the exceptions in a mostly wonderful album.

For all of the innovation of the album, it’s still extremely approachable. The country jangles in “Cattails” are a fascinating evolution of this soft-rock sound, but it also works well on the surface. This is an album that greatly rewards effort from the listener. It has lots of little brilliances flowing through it and is confident enough not to clumsily draw attention to it.

However, no matter your approach, you will enjoy this album. Even at the most shallow listen, it’s exceptional. If you’re willing to meet it halfway though, it’s transcendent.

Jamila Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY!

29 May

There’s a lot in play with the new Jamila Woods album Legacy! Legacy! The panorama of black excellence is fascinating. Her use of it to examine herself is even more so. Her mixing in of current events is provocative. Above all though, her voice and her sound and the R&B that she has made is exceptional.

Every song here is named after a different cultural bastion and so we see a jazzy, fusiony sound in “MILES”, albeit one that feels a little more Future Shock than Bitches Brew. “EARTHA” has soft R&B with a clever undercurrent of electro-pop underneath it. “SUN RA” is gentle with a hypnotic beat.

Lyrically, it’s just as strong and as clever. “BETTY” has a strong feminism with the uncompromising couplet “I am not your difficult girl / throw away that picture in your head.” The chorus of “ZORA” has the pure truth of “You will never know everything / And you don’t know me.”

Everything really comes together in the two standout tracks of the album. “BASQUIAT” is magnificent. The call and response of “Are you mad? / Yes, I’m mad!” and the twists at the end of each refrain are very well done. Her singing is powerful and the base line is visceral and just when you find your feet with the song, Saba caps it with some very clean rapping.

My favorite track though is the wonderful MUDDY. The blues-rock riff underpinning the song is excellent and her voice provides a freshness and clarity that creates a beautiful tension against it. Lyrically, it’s a calculated sneer that matches the musical tone precisely and the whole sticks with you well after each listen.

What makes all of this even more astonishing is the degree of coherence in this album. Her voice remains the one constant amongst an array of sounds but it’s more than powerful enough to force a singular feel to the entire album. 

This coherence is matched by the quality throughout. This is an excellent album and one that you need to listen to. We highly recommend it.

Karen O / Danger Mouse – Lux Prima

16 May

Neither Karen O nor Danger Mouse really need to another laurel to their wreaths. They are well-known, highly successful and something of an establishment in their fields already. Neither one really needs a boost, which works out, as Lux Prima isn’t the kind of album that can define an artist. It is, however, a skillful pop-rock diversion and a fun 40 minute listen.

“Turn The Light” is just good, infectious pop. Karen O’s voice is stellar throughout. Songs like “Drown” work so well because her voice is impeccably controlled and very personal and that muddies up the slow moving but so intriguing production underneath. The closer “Nox Lumina” has a sound reminiscent of a lullaby, but taken wonderfully out of context and its mirror “Lux Prima” is a clean synth line.

The album as a whole is a little ephemeral though. It’s great to listen to, but forgettable when it’s done. The structure is a little too traditional and the album a little too lacking in innovation. Despite the tremendous skill of the two musicians and the cleanness of their sound, the whole comes off slightly shallow.

The talent is undeniably there though and comes through on every song. If you like any of the earlier work of Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) or Danger Mouse (Broken Bells, Gnarls Barkley, The Grey Album, Danger Doom, lots of other things), you’ll find plenty to like here too.

Gunna – Drip or Drown 2

9 May

Drip or Drown 2 is, more than any other aquatic metaphor, distilled. It is muted and monotonic, taking the already focused subgenre of trap and focusing it even further. This is an album that’s specific in its intent and strong in its speech.

This focus gives it a relentless feel that fully enthralls. “Baby Birkin” takes the trap tic of repeating the end of the line and does it excellently. This may be a cliche in the form now, but it keeps the song from easy resolutions and so fascinates, albeit while being mentally exhausting. There are some very strong singles in here, with “Speed It Up” being similarly intriguing and “Who You Fooling” bringing in some astonishing Japanese strings. The production is consistently excellent and Gunna mixes up the singlemindedness of the beats cleverly with his raps.

This is a very linear album though, and that focus results in clarity at its best, but blandness at its worst. It’s at its best far, far more than at its worst though. This is an exceptional album. However, in it’s commitment to fully explore every idea it presents, it ends up slightly lacking in variety. However, this is a clever, accomplished album and a strong call to attention for a rapidly rising rapper. In his smelting of the genre, Gunna has forged something unique and you should definitely check it out.

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Ancestral Recall

5 May

Ancestral Recall is fearless. Like a python, its mouth seems to have opened impossibly wide and swallowed influences larger than the album should be able to hold. And again, like the python, these influences may distend the album, but they are consumed, feeding the snake, but never overpowering its own nature.

This is an album that can be heavily industrial in “Prophesy” and then run a saxophone against it for a fascinating juxtaposition. It can be both punishing and fascinating in “Double Consciousness” which has a backbeat that latches onto your spine.

“Diviner” however is just beautiful. It’s complex and sends your mind spinning with a wonderful, delicate counterpoint that wanders through it. “Songs She Never Heard” is similarly surprisingly gentle and almost ambient at points. It does sometimes verge on repetitive, but is a very pleasing listen. “Before” is beautiful and dreamlike and yet fervent in its desire to communicate. There’s a fire underpinning even the softest moments of this album.

This is far from traditional jazz. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah has melded an astonishing array of influences into this album. And he has done it with such consummate skill and imagination that, despite a couple few burrs in the tapestry, the result is magnificent.

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