London jazz punks Acoustic Ladyland return with a third album produced by long-time collaborators Paul Epworth and Robert Harder with added input from Scott Walker.
Singer/saxophonist Pete Wareham and his Acoustic Ladyland cohorts have long been at the more accessible edge of jazz noodling and their third outing continues this trend, veering from melodic and pleasant 1920s dinner party soundtracks to crashing experimental jams – sometimes on the same track, such as opener Road Of Bones.
If this is a cheap trick to sort the boys from the men (or at least those of us who can stomach some free jazz experimentation from those who can’t) it’s a good one. Vocal-free and accessibly experimental it works well as way to either entice you in further or warn you that if you don’t like this sort of thing, now might be a good time to switch off.
If you take the former option, New Me is more of a noodlefest with brass, reminding you that even the more commercial end of jazz doesn’t always understand the need to employ a tune. There are moments when they could be channelling the Arkestra though, so this is no bad thing. Sit through it and you’ll be rewarded with the all together more melodic Red Sky.
The band then veer away from their jazz roots to offer up punk sensibilities on the telephone-ringtone-gone-mad into to Paris, where female vocals from Alice Grant (also of AL bassist Seb Rochford’s other project Polar Bear) recall Polystyrene and X-Ray Specs at their best, making it one of the album’s standout tracks. It also boasts by far the best lyric of the month: “If you gave me a dog it would bite me/If you gave me a rose it would die”.
Vocals are used sparingly throughout the album – on less than half the tracks – and this helps to bring out the best in the music, complementing rather than overpowering it and giving it room to fly free. When vocals are used, it’s to great effect, such as when Anne Booty brings out a 1920’s cha-cha playfulness on Cuts & Lies. When Wareham stretches his vocal cords on title track Skinny Grin, Glass Agenda and The Rise, it produces the album’s three punkiest tracks, full of manic energy with a ska-tinged edge.
There are saxophone solos galore, but nowhere better than on the Scott Walker produced Salt Water, a paranoid jazz jam noodle that cuts to the bone, a stark contrast to the far more accessible Cuts & Lies that follows it. From here on in, the album zigzags back and forth between speakeasy foot-tapers and explosions of punk energy, alternating vocals with instrumentals, letting the music speak for itself and ensuring that when it does so, it has something to say.
Final track Hitting Home once again looks back to the jazz age, conjuring up images of girls in flapper dresses with cigarette holders, gin and tonics late into the night. It goes on too long, of course, but that’s jazz for you. It has its moments.
What comes across very strongly is the energy in Acoustic Ladyland’s songs, which promises an energetic and powerful live performance. They’re on stage in Islington in December with a full tour to follow in the new year. On this showing, they’re well worth catching while you’ve got the chance.