Critics praise a number of qualities in successful musicians including creativity, technical ability, and good taste. One trait that critics seldom discuss, however, is the ability of musicians to judge themselves accurately. Rarely, if ever, does a music critic write, “This album demonstrates that the artist really has a solid understanding of his or her own technical limitations and creative approach.” This comment, however, is an appropriate assessment of the new album Forward by Al Cowan, aka TM Juke.
“I’ve always had the feeling with music that it is good to try and bring fairly unknown if not pretty much completely unknown talents to the table because you are far more likely to find a more original and interesting sound,” says Cowan. The first song on Forward provides evidence of this philosophy in action. The track, “Damn”, immediately stands out thanks to the seductive, quasi-warble of obscure vocalist Kinny. Another track, “Skin”, features the flexible, feminine falsetto of unknown male singer Naim, and it is remarkable music.
Not all Forward‘s guests are unknown. Long-time Cowan collaborator Alice Russell sings on “So Good”, a saucy, old-school track that plays with the sexual connotations of cooking lingo. On “Electric Chair”, Elmore Judd, an up-and-comer from the United Kingdom, adds his airy falsetto to Cowan’s sonic stew. Both these tracks are highlights on an album that is already rich with vocal talent.
“I think what makes my style different is that I think I tend to nerd out on the production a bit longer,” admits Cowan. “I can spend all evening adding a little delay to a breakdown in a track or adding some extra drums for a two bar section. I think maybe there are a few more layers of sound going on.” This assessment is definitely accurate. On Forward the level of sonic detail and complexity of the arrangements are astonishing.
Cowan’s attention to detail is not always a positive quality. The song “Come Away” provides an example of the problems with his approach. The song begins with a jazzy, Caribbean piano solo, and Cowan incorporates the opening rhythms when he introduces the beat in the main part of the song. Sophie Faircy contributes effective, airy vocals, but when she stops singing and the instruments take over about halfway through the eight-minute song, the track begins to lose momentum. An organ takes center stage, and after a minute of jamming, a guitar solo begins. Both these instruments are mixed equally with the percussion and the repetitive bass, and even though they are playing solos, they are really just another piece of the rhythmic fabric. When a flutist and a saxophonist contribute solos at the end of the track, they vary their playing attack to create neat effects, but they don’t really deliver any interesting melodies. Much of the album displays a similar emphasis on texture and rhythm over melody and songcraft, and, at times, this tendency causes the music to suffer.
A lack of melodic interest is not uncommon for an album featuring downtempo electronic music. For his part, Cowan navigates this genre expertly, infusing his arrangements with healthy doses of soul and jazz, and alternating vocal tracks with colorful, intriguing soundscapes. “Bees on Mars” is a fairly straightforward dance track that has been tweaked with twitchy electronics and infused with echo-drenched instrumental licks. The penultimate track, “Life, Rain, Fall”, is a dreamy affair with sustained synthesizers and airy flute fills. The final track, “Pencils for Dolphins”, seems a little out-of-place after its melancholy predecessor, but it is still bouncy, quirky, and highly enjoyable.
“Forward is where I want to go, it’s what I have wanted to make,” says Cowan. “It’s really been a natural step from my first to the My Favourite Letters album with Alice (Russell) which taught me a lot. If you listen to those 3 albums in that order, I think it makes sense.” In this final self-assessment, Cowan also appears to be correct. On his latest record, Cowan has created an album that further establishes the musical identity he created on his first records. Forward is full of the same meticulously produced music for which Cowan is known, but it is richer and more intricate than any other TM Juke release.
Cowan’s heady tracks will definitely not appeal to all music fans. Although much of Forward is instantly accessible, truly appreciating the intricacy of the arrangements here will require more effort than many people will be willing to expend. Nevertheless, listeners looking for a skillful, intelligent record that could accompany activities ranging from exuberant dancing to quiet meditation should be able to satisfy themselves by moving Forward with TM Juke.