[15 November 2011]
Acoustic Alchemy make as radio-friendly a contemporary jazz song as anyone out there, and over the past 20 years the UK institution has created a discography of top-shelf Grammy-nominated jazz-fusion classics. They’ve undergone many personnel changes in that time, but managed to do something few bands of any genre can: innovate while maintaining a core sound. Few artists could combine reggae with aspects of Chinese music and still sound recognizably like themselves, as Acoustic Alchemy did with their first hit “Mr. Chow”.
Their newest, Roseland, is yet another smorgasbord of styles. There are remnants of funk-tinged reggae (“The Ebor Sound System”), Latin fusion (“Sand on Her Toes”) and country (“Roseland”). “Right Place, Wrong Time” dips back into a more classic jazz sound with plenty of experimental noodling and discordant keyboard womps. The mix of styles guarantees a wide base of possible listeners, especially younger ones, in an era where cherry-picking songs $.99 at a time is commonplace. The entire album might only fit into the collection of a contemporary jazz fan, but parts of it could fit anywhere.
The most interesting thing about Roseland is how extensively it bridges the gap between “adult” contemporary jazz and modern indie-friendly music whose fan base is anything but “adult”. It should come as no surprise. We’re well into the era of bands influenced as much by Hall & Oates as by The Beatles or Led Zeppelin. Many young artists today had to have parents that (like mine) enjoyed the musicianship and relaxing vibe of whatever contemporary jazz station serviced their city. But it’s startling to listen to a jazz group founded in 1981 and hear similarities with bands whose members weren’t born when Acoustic Alchemy’s first albums hit the shelves.
“Templeheads” is a few woozy effects and ambient vocals away from a Bon Iver b-side. “Stealing Hearts” has singer/songwriter ala Josh Ritter written all over it. Slowed down and sludged up, the opening minute of “World Stage” could easily be a post-rock anthem on a concept album about life after Armageddon (that song would be the soundtrack to humans reclaiming the surface of the earth after centuries underground), and parts of “Swamp Top” sound more like Ariel Pink than Ariel Pink.
Of course, it’s too clean to be Ariel Pink; too clinical to be Josh Ritter. Roseland will pleasantly surprise non-jazz fans, but it’s probably not going to kick them in the gut or make them feel much of anything. Acoustic Alchemy makes me wonder what would happen if robots were used to create music from intense algorithms based on listener preference, with nothing that we would consider actual artistry behind the composition. That’s not to say that Roseland lacks artistry, but its immaculateness can leave it feeling sterile. The production is beyond clean. Everything is EQ’d to utter perfection. It feels like it was created in a cleanroom at NASA, not the pretty-but-sometimes-gritty world in which its audience lives.
The best moments are the least layered, when individual instruments are stripped from the whole and given a chance to shine. “One For Shorty” might be the best track on Roseland, where a bending acoustic guitar tra-la-las along with little accompaniment, sounding less rehearsed and more intuitive than on opener “Marrakesh”. The guitar on “Shorty” is given the first verse, the keyboard the second, and then they play off of each other joyfully with hand claps and a minimal drumbeat. And then the trumpets blast in like a runner hitting the home stretch of a race. The power of that moment is something that no robot could create.