Led Bib make music that we can affectionately call “death jazz”. Like a hideous convoy of B-movie monsters, this music emerges, roaring, from the slimy depths of the avant-garde. After squishing our major cities, it sets about pillaging the world of popular music like a scaly sax-playing Pied Piper bent on kidnapping all the indie kids. The London-based quintet have come to blow our speakers and our minds, and you’d better not fuss or cry; instead, put up and shut up, and just try to hear yourself think over the racket.
Led Bib are unthinkably accessible. They’re an intellectual challenge, yes. They’re not for the faint of heart or the sensitive of ear, sure. But they happen to be a whole heap of fun and, under their belts, they hide high profile gigs on BBC Radio 3 and at the North Sea Jazz Festival, and a prestigious Mercury Music Prize nomination for their 2009 album Sensible Shoes. Young and talented and way hip, they’re are a heap of contradictions: they’re swinging jazz cats, but there’s a glint of a polished pop sensibility shining through their stuff. It’s a sound rooted in a weird beard free jazz rumpus, but the band aren’t afraid of the funk, either, and they’re more than willing to have a good go at tearing the roof off the sucker. Just try getting a word or thought in edgewise between Mark Holub and Liran Donin’s clattering free funk rhythm section, the demented soundbites provided by keyboardist Toby McLaren, and the alto-sax double attack of Pete Grogan and Chris Williams.
Bring Your Own is a crashing, smashing pile-up of clashing colors and textures—the aural equivalent of a demented Scratch ‘N Sniff Therapy for people with synaesthesia. A skittering oddity, it manages to cover more ground in a single song than many albums will in their entire running time. Indeed, opener “Moth Dilemma” is a frazzled take on Sonic Youth’s post-bop fetish. Here, Williams and Grogan stumble into a some question-and-answer-like riffing, but nobody comes up with any conclusions. All the while, McLaren sounds like he’s trying to listen in on NYPD radio. By the end, it comes right back to where it started, and you’re left to pick at your own dandruff wondering what the hell is happening.
That confusion is a major feature of the listening experience. “Is That A Woodblock?” begins and ends in what sounds like a fiery reference to Ray Charles’s “Hit The Road Jack”, but fills up the few minutes in the middle with some squiggling geekatronic prog noodling. The same goes for the grinding “Engine Room”, the stringy “Walnuts”, which has both saxes blasting out what might be a nod to “Tu vuò fà l’americano” towards the end, and the opening few minutes of the baffling lattice that is “Little x”. It sounds like a confusing first date in a crowded fashionable restaurant that plays John Zorn and Sun Ra on the stereo. It eerily strokes your face before ordering the most expensive thing on the menu and spending the entire evening playing air guitar with the cutlery.
The important thing to note about Bring Your Own, though, is that these tracks remain songs rather than jazz-fusion wankathons. There’s a tangled method to all the madness here, but it might take quite a few listens before you reach your musical “Eureka Moment”. Yes, these songs begin in one place and end up somewhere completely different—at any one moment the whole thing is on the edge of completely undermining itself, joyriding through different paces, tones, and even genres without ever looking back.
Take “Shapes & Sizes” as an example. It begins life as the soundtrack to a murder mystery, using a variation on the bass line to Pink Floyd’s “Money” as a sound-gag. By about the minute mark, it’s completely fallen apart, refashioned as a punk-metal hybrid clad in a smelly leather jacket with a bright pink Mohawk covering its scalp. At this juncture, Holub hammers out the heaviest beat you’ll hear on a jazz cut all year, and after a minute of that, it continues to toss out plot devices almost at random.
The problem with all of this is that Led Bib aren’t the only band in the world doing this sort of thing. Sebastian Roachford’s bands Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear, who were nominated for a Mercury Music Prize back in 2005, have been pushing a punky jazz thing for years. Japanese musicians like Kazutoki Umezu and Otomo Yoshihide have been playing eclectic, explosive free jazz for even longer. Indeed, Bring Your Own is going to take an awful lot of patience for people who are acquainted with this sort of thing. It’s not even a clear-cut listen for people who are really into it, and we have to ask: is it just for freaky-deaky jazz heads, or is it meant to have a populist appeal? What are jazz-laypeople supposed to think of it? Do Led Bib expect to rope in zillions of new fans, or to sell lots of records?
The answers to these questions aren’t clear. The best thing we can do is shrug. But they’re easily ignored anyway because Bring Your Own is brilliantly entertaining. It almost seems like a series of really elaborate, and genuinely very funny, jazz-related practical jokes—like a pork pie hat with teeth marks in the brim, or a Louis Armstrong whoopee cushion. Its as irreverent as a child hammering away at a car-horn, and it’s nowhere near as alienating as some of the more deliberately difficult and super-serious free jazz records out there. It’s a great big gulp of some of the freshest air you’ll find for quite some time, and it deserves all the audience and praise it can get.
// Notes from the Road
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