A Single Day at the Improv
When I was working as a freelance arts reporter in 1998 within the bowels of the Ottawa Citizen, a major daily newspaper, an item crossed my desk that is worthy of bringing up here. I was to write a brief preview piece about, if I recall correctly, a jazz guitarist who was visiting Ottawa, Canada, to play a show. When I wrote that small article up, I cribbed a line from the press release that gushed about how this artist improvised live in concert, virtually making up new songs as he went along. Well, I got my hand slapped for that. An editor pointed out to me that this was hyperbole, that there was no way any artist on the planet was that good, that nobody could create something new and listenable to on the spot. I suppose you could try telling that to Miles Davis (even though he’s dead) and the roster of musicians that played with him, though it should be noted that even an album like Bitches Brew was cobbled together using only the best takes from particular pieces of soloing.
I bring this up because the second album from About Group – which is a kind of supergroup or side project comprised of Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor and members who have played with This Heat and Spiritualized, among others – is an experiment that sees music more or less being created on the spot. The band initially had improvisational origins, seeing as though the musicians who form About Group – Taylor, Charles Hayward, John Coxon and Pat Thomas – first came together in 2009 to make a record having never played together before heading into the studio to cut it. This time out, for their sophomore album Start and Complete, the songs were written by Taylor during the past few years and some of them, but not all, were given out to other members of About Group on CDs as piano and vocal demos to hear only a few days before they were to head into the famed Abbey Road studios to record.
This move was done so that no band member would know any of the songs that they were given well enough to have specific parts, or be prevented from playing the first idea that popped into their heads. What’s more, the entirety of this recorded product was taped during the course of a single day, which seems to be a part of a larger trend here emerging amongst indie musicians considering that New Numbers’ Vacationland and Andy Friedman’s Laserbeams and Dreams, albums that I’ve recently reviewed, were also cut during the course of less than 24 hours. (Is it really a matter of aesthetics or has studio time really gotten so pricey that bands have to now zip in and out as quickly as possible? I wonder.)
The end result is not exactly the train wreck that you might expect, considering that the band is more or less making up the songs as they go along. Start and Complete is a loose, breezy album of 13 quasi-sketches and one bona-fide long form jam, that is, upon first blush, less experimental and more of an exercise in creating groovy, slinky keyboard pop with the edges unpolished. Some of it is actually even soulful. That is not to say that the record isn’t without its own particular flaws, but Start and Complete is strangely listenable and compelling on its own hastily recorded terms.
The natural starting point in talking about Start and Complete comes about two-thirds of the way through. “You’re No Good” is not only the album’s first single, it is a sprawling 11-minute epic cut loose: a cover of a 1967 song by avant-garde composer Terry Riley, who, in turn, was covering Harvey Averne’s Latin-infected soul version. In Riley’s adaptation, he ran two copies of the track alongside each other, blending the tapes at key points, dropping the sounds out sometimes and occasionally slowing down things, making what might have been the world’s first ever remix in the process. That spirit permeates About Group’s take, which starts out with a series of computerized bleeps and bloops, some lazy warm-up keyboard chords, before Taylor’s croon bubbles up and the band starts out in a straight-forward reading of the track. About three and a half minutes into it, however, Taylor simply sings the titular refrain over and over as various instrumentation drops in and out of the mix, before he himself is silenced, the rest of the players kick out and perform free-form over slightly shifting drum parts. From there, the song just sprawls, making it easily the most ambitious thing to be found on Start and Complete. Here, About Group showcases their improvisational chops in full earnest, and they do an agreeable job on performing a live, jazzy, off-the-floor version of the track. For a piece of extended music, it’s actually pretty not bad, in all of its slack wonder.
True, it’s still a bit long, and it just ends without a sense of flourish, but it is still fairly remarkable insofar as this is the sort of thing you might expect to find on a live album, the one place where bands give themselves the free range to just break things down and extend their songs. That said, considering that it is far and away the longest song to be found on Start and Complete, it does seem a little out of place, and you might be wondering what the point of the exercise is considering that the rest of the material is much more compact, with songs barely eclipsing the two or three minute mark except for a handful of circumstances.
The remainder of Start and Complete is generally much more pop-oriented, and there are some lovely slow stuff to be found on it. “Don’t Worry” is easily the most memorable song to be found on Start and Complete, and it comes early, with Taylor singing lazily over some brilliant electric piano riffs. The tune seems so meticulously crafted that it is hard to imagine that this was written off the cuff. “Nothing But Words” is another sterling example of ‘70s blue-eyed soul, and is a compelling case for About Group’s ability to craft detailed tracks effortlessly without seeming to make it up on the spot.
However, Start and Complete is not perfect. There is a marked decline in great songs after you get through “You’re No Good” and it just seems like the band was rushing to get the final product out the door. Listeners might also take issue with more obvious examples of experimentation, which come in the form of some of the keyboard parts. While there are moments of great chord progressions on the piano to be found throughout the album, Taylor’s right hand often plays out of synch with his left – a trait that is well evident on songs like “Lay Me Down”, which features some electronic noodling that would have been better served on the cutting room floor. This is a trademark that also befalls “Start and Complete”. Without these elements and more attention paid to creating actual songs as opposed to “what’s the first thing that pops into your mind?” experiments, Start and Complete would have gotten a slightly higher grade of 6 that it does here.
Still, About and Complete is a surprisingly engaging experience, and one that fans of the above mentioned bands, as well as those who like their musicians to play without a net, will find refreshing. You do get the sense that the whole About Group project is merely an attempt to kick some songwriting cobwebs out of the system, particularly in Taylor’s case. It’s as though he felt constrained playing within the strict rules of musicianship in Hot Chip and just wanted to move outside convention and change things up a little.
The end results are naturally a little on the uneven side, but they are far from being horrible or intolerable to listen to – quite the contrary—Start and Complete is, at times, as revitalizing in concept as a cool ocean breeze. At the end of the day, Start and Complete is hardly essential listening, but it is what it is: a dalliance. What’s more, by focusing their creative juices into forms of improvisation, you get the sense that About Group is a means to energize Taylor and allow him to go back to his day job feeling fully energized and ready to carefully compose engaging tunes. In the end, that just means that the next Hot Chip album is probably going to be an amazing piece of work, which might just be what matters most.