The experimental British quartet's sophomore effort is sort of like Radiohead on laughing gas. This is mostly a good thing.
Leeds is the British town that gave us Malcolm McDowell, Corinne Bailey Rae, the Who’s game-changing 1970 live album, and a bunch of soccer players. It’s also responsible for one of the more unusual recent indie musical exports: the four-man band known as Adult Jazz. Following up their 2014 full-length debut album Gist Is with the EP-length Earrings Off!, the band may be comprised of adults, but their only real concession to jazz music is their near refusal to adhere to pop music arrangements or instrumentation. If anything, what they do sounds like it may have begun in concept as pop, but at some point the band members came into possession of some powerful hallucinogens and the end result is a very twisted, distorted version of contemporary indie pop. (Note: I’m not insinuating that Adult Jazz ingests illegal drugs, nor do I condone this practice. If anything, if this stuff was created sober, I applaud their ability to create this kind of music in such a lucid fashion).
“Oh, so they’re kinda like Radiohead,” you may be thinking at this point. Well, no. While Thom Yorke’s boys create music that is oddly conceived but also deadly serious and often melancholy, Adult Jazz have crafted a sound that is trippy but endlessly giddy. It’s not unlike a musical version of Thomas Pynchon: you have no idea what they’re trying to achieve, but it’s still infectious and often hilarious.
I’ll have to crib a little bit from the album’s press release for some introductory analysis of Earrings Off!, since the lyrics are buried under massive processing and are therefore difficult to decipher on their own (more on that later): the album is “…about masculinity -- embodiment, privilege, legitimacy and limitation… about picking your ideal body, and playing with body language to achieve authenticity.” In other words, it’s a concept album that examines the concept of gender identity. I think.
But again, it’s hard to tell when you’re being assaulted with an unusual (yet refreshingly unique) barrage of instrumentation. As a young band of indie weirdos, they’ve been compared to, among others, Joanna Newsom, Dirty Projectors, and Grizzly Bear. Yet they manage to easily carve out their own sound, which is one of heavily processed keyboards, distorted and over-modulated production, jittery drums that never seem to hold a steady, dance-friendly beat (again, this is a good thing), and the gorgeous, heavenly crooning of frontman Harry Burgess. The whole thing sounds like it’s constantly on the verge of collapsing under its own weight.
Of the album’s tracks, only four of them can really be considered fully formed -- nestled between the longer tracks are three “interludes,” all consistently titled: “(Cry For Time Off)”, “(Cry For Coherence)”, and “(Cry For Home).” What these three songs have in common besides the titles are the fact that they’re all brief and that they all manage to run the gambit from playfully experimental to maddeningly annoying. “(Cry For Time Off)” sounds like a contemporary string quartet run by drum machines and robots; “(Cry For Coherence)” sounds like a couple of school kids playing with a vocal sampler before their parents catch them; and “(Cry For Home)” is a little under two minutes of a heavily processed didgeridoo played by someone who’s probably never played a didgeridoo. Sure, it all sounds like it was a lot of laughs to make this stuff in the studio, but putting these brief snippets on the album seems like the result of some sort of band dare to which no member was willing to back out. It’s all well and good to put goofy interludes on a full-length album, but as part of a collection as brief as Earrings Off!, it tends to threaten the band’s credibility.
Which leaves us to the full-length tracks. There’s definitely more than a glimmer of pop smarts, not to mention highly competent musicianship and gloriously inventive arranging skills, but caveat emptor: you really have to be in the mood for it. On the title track, things start out innocently enough, with a loping drum machine beat, bleating synths, and oddly placed strings driving the point home while Burgess sings a true childhood story about he and a friend putting gold star stickers on their ears (therefore beginning his longstanding views on gender identity, apparently). Soon, everything speeds up, the instrumentation gets more intense, and Burgess’ tenor swoops up into an impassioned tenor that may or may not be heavily symbolic. It may not be jazz, but it sure ain’t Justin Bieber.
“Eggshell” continues in the same vein as the title track, with a pulsing, futuristic synth running through the song while Burgess’ voice is buried under thick layers of processing. The song eventually takes a breather while horns lay a brief salve on the wounds created by all the pummeling. But at least “Eggshell” has a beat to latch onto; “Pumped From Above” is easily the hardest song to get through, with a drunken electronic trombone riff repeatedly crashing down on the whole thing, sounding like a good idea for about 10 seconds. The interludes may require patience to sit through, but “Pumped From Above” is more than six minutes long. It’s the best example of Adult Jazz being weird simply for the sake of being weird, and therefore it’s the album’s biggest flaw.
“Ooh Ah Eh” is also a challenging piece of music but is a major step forward after the migraine-inducing “Pumped From Above”. Built on a series of robotic vocal samples, it sounds like an outtake from Todd Rundgren’s seriously overlooked A Cappella album, and makes a solid effort at creating something beautiful and melodic out of such unusual ingredients.
I give Adult Jazz a bit of a hard time in this review, but it’s mainly due to the fact that when Earrings Off! is good, it’s very, very good. When it’s not so good, it sounds too much like forced experimentation. This is a band that I am looking forward to hearing a lot more of in the future. I may even look much more fondly on this album in the coming months. After all, it took me a solid 20 years to finally appreciate Captain Beefheart.