Opinion: Disappointing Mercury Prize 2013 trying too hard

“TOKEN jazz, token folk, seven similar indie bands, two female singers, a ‘surprise’ pop inclusion; no electronica, no metal.”
That was my cynical, withering Mercury Prize 2013 shortlist prediction Tweet earlier today, followed closely by “I hope I’m wrong.”
Turned out I was wrong – but I’m not happy about it.
Because this year’s Mercury Prize could be the heaviest weighting towards electronic music yet – James Blake, Disclosure, and Jon Hopkins line-up alongside the more likely guitar-slinging lads like Arctic Monkeys, Foals, Jake Bugg etc.
But to me, this is a deliberate ploy towards electonica tokenism – an attempt to tackle one of the prize’s biggest criticisms, of the genre being overlooked.
This despite the fact that the likes of 4Hero, The Prodigy, Roni Size, Portishead, La Roux, Hot Chip etc have all featured before.
Now the relative glut of knob-twiddlers in 2013 this has left not room on the shortlist for the oft-ridiculed token jazz record, and token folk record.
Where are Lau? Or Melt Yourself Down?
One of the best things about this award is that it heralds the unheralded.
Elbow weren’t unknown when they won, but they were severely underrated – is David Bowie in their position right now, for instance?
And the unknown likes of Sweet Billy Pilgrim, or Polar Bear, or Portico Quartet would have been missed by so many people who now love these acts, were it not for their nominations – whereas the folkier acts this year, the likes of Villagers and Laura Marling, aren’t exactly under the radar.
It all leads to one of the most disappointing shortlists that I can remember.
And don’t get me started on their approach to metal music…

From the archives: Tuesday wonderful

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ESBJORN Svensson – if that name doesn’t ring a bell, then I’m telling you today is the day to listen to Tuesday Wonderland.
Because Svensson, the Swedish pianist who led Esbjorn Svensson Trio, should rightfully be up there with the likes of Hendrix, Buckley, Lennon et al.
In June last year, Svensson died in a scuba diving accident, shortly after completing uneasy listening album Leucocyte – a work also likely to go down as a cult classic.
But before branching out in challenging new directions, his 2006 album Tuesday Wonderland – the one before Leucocyte – drew a line underneath everything the group were about up until that point.
Melodic, meandering and masterful, the trio work subtle elements of rock and electronica into the mix to create one of the most accessible and enjoyable jazz albums of all time.

From the archives: Everyone needs Time Out

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TAKE Five, easily the most recognisable track on The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s 1959 jazz album Time Out, was the first ever million-selling jazz single.
You’ve heard it, even if you didn’t know it at the time.
Yet the group achieved this unprecedented commercial success while pushing the boundaries of the genre, with the album typified by the use of unusual time signatures.
In fact the seminal cool jazz album was intended merely as an experiment, and was derided by critics on its release.
But this fluid approach to the beat does not stop the album from swinging – actually Time Out is exactly that, sheer get-away-from-it-all in LP form.
Because despite the sophisticated nature of the music, there’s nothing here that in any way detracts from listening to Time Out being an absolute timeless pleasure.

Review: Tape Cuts Tape a cut above

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BELGIAN band Tape Cuts Tape really are a cut above.
The group’s second album Black Mold, in particular the title track Black Mold, shows a group which is prepared to give a groove time to grow.
The group have a basis in jazz improvisation and in rock – particularly with links to Deus.
But due to their exploratory bent the trio’s sound, although predominately a live instrument coupled with vocals approach, has more in common with the likes of electronic and trip hop acts like F Buttons or Portishead – opener Black Mold itself takes over 10 minutes for the group to explore and improvise.
A cultured effort that’s experimental without feeling the need to be mental, I suggest you let Black Mold grow on you.

From the archives: Coalisten

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TAKING their name from George “Dubya” Bush’s name for the countries he managed to rope into a war with Iraq, jazz drummer Bobby Previte’s rotating supergroup The Coalition Of The Willing’s eponymous 2006 album is a liberating listen.
Forging jazz with classic rock sensibilities, forceful militaristic drumming and a funky edge, this post-jazz masterpiece is a revolution.
Featuring talent such as saxophonist Skerik of Syncopated Taint Septet fame and mind-bogglingly talented jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, the tracks pay homage to jazz greats such as Miles Davis but sound more at home in the rock bracket.
So I urge you to be one of the willing too, to allow this maverick musical machine to ride roughshod over your expectations of a jazz record.

Review: Heliocentrics? Hel yes!

I SUGGEST that you put the new album by Heliocentrics at the centre of your universe.
Because 13 Degrees Of Reality is almost unreal in its fusion of jazz, psychedelia, electronica, funk, world, krautrock and more.
Orbiting around the one constant here – the sturdy drumwork of legend Malcom Catto – the fuzzy guitar work and incessant basslines wander like particles in a dust cloud, this musical Brownian motion knitting to create something unique that exists in the vacuum between all of the aforementioned genres.
The result is a cosmic creation that is otherworldly, epic and truly unique – and a world that’s well worth exploring.

Review: Medline tread a fine line

THE theory behind Medline’s People Make the World Go Round LP is a sound one.
Who wouldn’t want to hear fresh life breathed into classic jazz and soul cuts by the likes of Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard, the sort of tracks which were sampled to death during the golden age of hip hop by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Common and Pete Rock?
And the results teeter on the edge of brilliance – when the group grab a groove by the scruff, they really grab it, and sound cooler than a frozen Blue Note record.
But on the flip side, the results constantly teeter on the verge of cheese – at times sounding like incidental music, muzak, or just corny vocal soul.
But despite laying along that fine line, for me Medline still sound mighty fine enough of the time.

Review: Dip into Bay Blue’s B-boy bebop

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BAY Blue’s eponymous LP shows an artist diving deep into his musical heritage.
The hip-hop sampler, real name Matt Chang, has forged an album from smokin’ jazz quartet cuts, grizzled bluesmen, cool swing band rhythms and brassy New Orleans combos – resulting in a collection with a vintage, sepia-tinged feel.
The closest modern references that come to mind are the likes of The Avalanches and Kid Koala, but their scattergun approach doesn’t quite compare to the reverential feel of these tracks.
Because Bay Blue isn’t plundering the past here, he’s paying his respects to it and bringing it up to date at the same time, with a sort of B-boy bebop sound that’s all his own.

Albums of the Year: Taxidermist a cut above

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NOSTALGIA 77 normally brews up a heady mixture of hip hop breaks and funk, but alongside pianist Matthew Bourne – who I assume is The Monster – The Taxidermist sees the collective led by Ben Lamdin stitching together an altogether jazzier creation.
In addition, there’s his usual fare here too, plus sultry sax, a bit of Latin and Afrobeat tacked on, all sorts of strange influences, to create an odd animal.
It’s eclectic, and an exploration every time you listen.
If it gets your vote, click on the poll below – and if it doesn’t, let me know in the comments!

Which is the top Album of the Year 2012

Albums of the Year: Cor blimey it’s Fiona Apple

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THESE days the once-heralded Fiona Apple’s career is almost entirely under the radar – in fact she’d been writing and recording this, her fourth LP, in secret since 2008.
And the hard work – and deliberately obtuse approach – shows on the meticulously crafted The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do (or TIWIWTTDOTSAWCWSYMTRWED for short).
This is a beguiling, beautiful collection of alt-pop, conveyed simply with her unique voice and a sparsely ornamented piano basis, combining elements of experimental vocal jazz.
If it gets your vote, click on the poll below – and if it doesn’t, let me know in the comments!

Which is the top Album of the Year 2012