Polar Bear – Same As You: Round 84, Nick’s choice

Polar_Bear_Same_As_YouIt wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Polar Bear have been one of my favourite bands over the last decade, since they first came to my attention as the ‘token jazz nominee’ in the 2005 Mercury Music Prize for Held On the Tips Of Fingers. I feel like I’ve talked about them a lot at record club but never played them – although I did play their (now defunct) rambunctious sister-group Acoustic Ladyland once upon a time.

Polar Bear have been notable for their constant evolution between – and sometimes within – records, but last year’s In Each And Every One pushed them in quite radical, and at times unrecognisable directions; it sounded like the work of a completely different band to their previous record, Peepers (to be fair, there had been a 4-year gap).

Somehow, Same As You manages to do the same again, and sees them broaching even more new ground. Mixed in the Mojave desert, Same As You appears at first glance and from a distance to be sparse, arid even, but upon closer inspection reveals huge detail and perpetual, subtle movement. Where its predecessor occasionally obsessed over the gloomy end of the emotional spectrum, its minimalism occasionally burst by skronking intensity, Same As You is quietly positivist and relaxed, its sunny, love-fuelled intent laid out in a spoken-word introduction about “life, love, and light”.

The key components of the album are Seb Rochford’s polyrhythmic drumming and Tom Herbert’s almost dub-y stand-up bass playing; they form a low-key, constantly shifting bedrock for tenor sax and electronics to subtly explore. Nowhere is this clearer than the 20-minute rumination of “Unrelenting Unconditional”, where Herbert’s nimble fingers are the absolute driving force for most of the running time. Solos exist, but they paint in the margins most of the time, and never seem to be overtly seeking attention.

After the spoken-word intro, “We Feel The Echoes” sets the tone for the album by almost completely disintegrating after four minutes. The tune slowly re-emerges, but it’s so low-key as to almost seem apologetic for being music; and yet it’s beautiful.

If Kamasi Washington’s The Epic is probably the biggest (in every sense) jazz album of the year – an acclaimed, hip-hop circling crossover success that lasts for THREE HOURS and celebrates an entire history of American jazz – then Same As You is almost its opposite: where The Epic is grand, flamboyant, searching and, well, epic, Same As You is quiet, humble, and contented, even as it explores new spaces and sounds. I like The Epic a lot, but through admiration and awe by and large; I love Same As You in a very different and much more personal way.

Rob listened: I loved this. I didn’t get sparse or arid vibes from it as Nick suggests. Instead, in its spaces and absences and digressions ‘Same As You’ seemed intimate adn human. From the grain of the voice that opens the record, you can hear the movement and concentration and the fingerprints of the people who made this music, in each pawed bass string, each brushed snare drum and each pushed sax key. We heard this straight after Grouper, another artist unafraid to remove herself from the foreground and let the world around her and the world in the listener’s head fill the spaces. I got the warmth that Nick describes, but not from sunny sounds, rather from the feeling of being in the company of good people making beautiful music.

Tom listened: This was a strange listen to me, a bit like one of my victoria sponge cakes, it was delicious all the way round but sagged a bit in the middle. So I was immediately hooked by the voice and atmosphere of the spoken word opener which led into the equally fine We Feel The Echoes. From there I don’t recall much until the gargantuan last track which lasted for twenty minutes and at no point felt too long! So, whilst I didn’t unequivocally fall for all the tracks on Same As You, I very much enjoyed at least 35 minutes of it!

Acoustic Ladyland – Skinny Grin – Round 18; Nick’s choice

There was a little organisational chaos around this week’s DRC – we were meant to meet last week, at Tom’s with a complicated theme involving some serious (for us) logistical planning, but things fell through, so we rescheduled a regular, unthemed meeting for my house at short notice. So it seemed logical to go back to my mental checklist of albums I first thought of when DRC was conceived, and this excitable slice of “punk jazz” has now wormed its way to the top of that pile.

Released just before Christmas in 2006, I reviewed Skinny Grin at the time, and made bold claims for its genius and potential as a marketable crossover from the vibrant London jazz scene that’s produced seemingly scores of tokenistic-jazz-choice Mercury nominations – Polar Bear, Basquiat Strings, Portico Quartet, even avant-rock choices like The Invisible. I was convinced that Skinny Grin would garner universal acclaim and massive success.

Sadly, although it definitely got the acclaim, its bizarre choice of release date saw it fall into the cracks between Sufjan Stevens Yuletide boxsets and Celine Dion best-ofs, and nobody outside the crowd of usual suspects seemed to become enthused by it; it was too late to make any 2006 end-of-year lists, and by the time the 2007 ones rolled around, it had been forgotten in favour of Battles, who did a similar thing but seemingly from a different direction.

Acoustic Ladyland started their career with an album of, unsurprisingly, acoustic jazz reinterpretations of Hendrix tunes, and then spectacularly found their own sound at the edge of jazz, punk, the avant-garde, and metal with their second album, Last Chance Saloon, which came out around the same time as Polar Bear’s acclaimed, Mercury-nominated quasi-crossover, Held On The Tips Of Fingers; the two

Skinny Grin itself is frenetic, groovy, teetering-on-the-edge-of-chaos stuff. One track is mixed by none other than DRC-fave Scott Walker, who adds what sounds like a muzzle of angry electronic bees to the jerking, multi-directional instrumentation. Guest vocalists, and bandleader Pete Wareham, trading saxophone for microphone, add a punky, poppy dimension to some tracks, but it’s the (predominantly) instrumental tracks that hit the hardest, packing a progressive punch that transgresses genre boundaries like little else I’ve heard before or since. It’s not just jazz fusion; it’s far more exciting than that.

Tom Listened: I am amazed at how consistently Nick manages to choose records that I don’t know, most of which it’s turns out, I really like! This was another one, captivating from start to end, hard to pin down (was it jazz? rock?, fusion? – horrible word that), yet so effective in doing what it was setting out to achieve. I liked the vocal tracks just as much as the instrumental ones and would look forward to exploring Skinny Grin further, despite the fact the band have such an awful, and totally misleading, name. Well done Nick – another goodie!

Rob listened: I loved the first track which seemed cast as a face-off between a cocktail jazz quartet and a herd of straining mid-90s metal apologists. Which is all good in my book. As the record progressed, it started to lose focus, a sense of purpose, for me at least. I liked the compressed thrash jazz workouts wherein Acoustic Ladyland genuinely seemed to be onto something, combining the free associative joy of both genres without, apparently, doing either a disservice, but the more the record went on, the more I found my attention drifting.