20 February 2010

Jaga Jazzist - One-Armed Bandit


Ninja Tune (2010)

Half a decade after the gorgeous What We Must, Jaga Jazzist finally return with a band album. Lars Horntveth did recently release an album of his own, the forty-minute song Kaleidoscopic. And he was involved in the second National Bank album, in 2008. But it's not the same: you hear something as life-affirmingly perfect as All I Know is Tonight (a cruel edit, I must add), and you naturally want more Jaga. It'd be nice to think Shining's leader, Jørgen Munkeby, threw the gauntlet to erstwhile bandmate Horntveth, as both bands' albums have been released at the same time. That theory is yet to be confirmed, sadly. After such a long time away from the game, and with such a lush album to follow, it's interesting to see what this Norwegian nonet have to say for themselves.

After 'The Thing Introduces...', a preface so slight as to nearly not exist, the title track spoils us with almost too many sonic riches. It goes through so many changes of mood, tone and instrumentation that you imagine it might soundtrack one of those TV shows whose title sequences show the cast members' different personalities. Maybe if you ran the Desperate Housewives theme (a real highlight of Danny Elfman's career, its arrangement is pretty mind-boggling for such a brief piece of music) over the Thundercats visuals you'd get a real-world example of what this song is about. It's like Henry Mancini stepped out of cryogenic suspension in search of a modern equivalent of Charade or Arabesque to soundtrack.

'Banafleur Overalt' is classic Jaga, in as much as it recalls the last album's sense of lake surface-serene beauty without overly troubling one's aesthetic sensibilities. It's the kind of chilled-without-being-bland thing that fans of early DJ Shadow or Cinematic Orchestra tend to love, while also turning off the people who'd rather a bit more grit in their life: it could be accused of being background music by those more churlish than your reviewer. Besides, the rhythm section really fires it up about halfway through, taking the song on a joyride before returning it to its more careful owners, Horntveth and the keyboardists.

Rather more earthy is '220 V / Spektral'. Despite the similarity of nomenclature, it doesn't really sound like anything off Squarepusher's Just a Souvenir. Clarinet drifts up like smoke signals in the right speaker while electronics stew away in the left, before electric guitar texture adds grain to the mix. As the sonic picture fills, everything suddenly drops out again. That punchy rhythm remains as buzzing bass and crystal-sharp clarinet take centre-stage. Maybe this binary is what the title is referring to: a song of two halves in which noise and clarity, electricity and ethereality coexist. Similar is the shimmer of 'Toccata'; waves of piano sparking over and over, like Philip Glass and Trent Reznor dropping Es and re-fixing the latter's 'La Mer', as booming brass and breakbeats gradually take over.

The trick Horntveth and co. hide up their collective sleeve, and the main detail that differentiates it from What We Must, is this sting in the record's tail. 'Prognissekongen' echoes the title track in as much as it assaults you with change after change, but each time returning to a familiar phrase to keep the composition grounded. Everyone has their own riff, and plays it at the same time, but it all seems to fit. 'Music! Dance! Drama!' is the popcorn percussion of Prince's 'Sign 'O' the Times', paused and stretched out into a frozen moment, before the band realises the tape's stuck and get to work cranking up the machinery for another dose of magic.

Concluding piece 'Touch of Evil', despite the name and occasional guitar riffola, doesn't sound all that malevolent. I'm not sure Jaga can do. It is suggested by the respective bands' current cover art, but it is becoming ever clearer that Jaga Jazzist and Shining seem to have a yin/yang relationship, however unintentional. The darker and more brutal one gets, the other is equally more pleasant, but no less technically astounding. It's almost like a martial arts film. It may be another half-decade until the next album, but there is enough here on which to feast for a while. I just hope that, if Jaga are the yin to Shining's yang, the bands never reach a state of quiescence.

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