Music Review: Adult Jazz - Gist Is
[Spare Thought; 2014]
by Pat Beane
Head lowered and eyes closed, my deadened ears fill with pitch, calling me to the Abyss. The music I know is bottomless and ruined, dark stars burst inside out and scattered like vapor and static. But through my eyelids comes a faint light, and with it, a hum. At first strange and menacing, there’s warmth to it too, like it wants me to keep listening. I open my eyes to four strangers with strange accents, shrouded in light, a buzz I’d once believed, now forgotten.
They tell me a story, one that seems to come from the faraway, simpler time of 2007:
A bright, young quartet from Leeds self-produces and -releases their debut album, a project they tweaked and honed for four years, with nothing left on the cutting room floor. Their folky jazz garners comparisons to indie stalwarts like Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear, but the critics insist they sound totally their own, too. This foursome is self-possessed and their debut is full of ideas, constantly on the move, slowly revealing new tricks and evolving their sound even as the whole tightly imagined thing sounds like it’s wrapping itself up from the beginning.
They tell me though it’s not a new story, it is theirs. It is the story of Adult Jazz. The hum grows louder, and I choose to listen. As it feels more and more familiar, doubt creeps in (isn’t this the world I left behind with The Dodos?).
It feels like a waste of time to swipe right on a genre, a sound, a feeling I’ve already moved on from and already felt grow stale. But Adult Jazz have the technical chops, emotional wherewithal, and ear for endings that sound revitalizing for “indie rock” as I’ve come to know it (in the same way A Sunny Day In Glasgow seem to breathe life into shoegaze/dream-pop every few years). This is a band that makes the most out of their sparse instrumentation and pushes for piercing, passing interactions. More than a genre revival, their debut Gist Is feels like the carefully crafted project of four like-minded musicians who really know how to listen to each other.
Scene-setting opener “Hum” and the following “Am Gone” are patient, slow-burning studies in mood that turn over new sounds like little discoveries that add up. The album works best in this wide-eyed but reserved emotionality, a sort of autumnal feeling of mellow, sustained catharsis rather than sharp hooks and shouting climaxes. Not that the band doesn’t get loud. It’s on “Springful” that Adult Jazz let loose, prove their technique in earnest, and snarl. When they get rolling, like they do on the 10-minute standout “Spook,” their sense of melody and pacing earns the emotional high and resulting crash of vocalist/lyricist Harry Burgess babbling until he loses it.
That they give their songs time to breathe — more than half the tracks run over five minutes — can make the album tiresome, but with repeated listens, the song structures open up and reward in small details (a sneaking bass line, a background vocal tic). Sure, even some of the best tracks stumble over sub-Avey Tare lyrics like “My sugar veins” and “My heart is spilling all over the drums.” The band seems to know this, though, and a lot of the words get caught up and lost in instrumental swells. Burgess told Stereogum, “In every song, there’s a line where we’re trying to sum up the content of the song in a pithy way, and it always fails, and that’s kind of the running joke of the record.” This kind of self-awareness might read as insecure if it weren’t for the band’s conscious restraint elsewhere. Songs approach breakthroughs before backtracking, plateau mid-crescendo until the groove or arrangement suggests other possibilities for closure (or just close outright).
Even if I think I know how the rest of the story of Adult Jazz goes — “Spook” ends up in a car commercial or trailer for some flimsy indie dramedy, they gather cred with an impressive first US tour, their sophomore album gets Best New Music, they stagnate on the follow-up, a fandom grows, a fandom wanes, time passes, the Machines win, 0PN assumes control — Gist Is promises that, this time, it will be different. Because they sound so assured in this sound and its deviations, and because they carry ideas to exciting ends, I want to believe.