kinny Grin, Acoustic Ladyland’s third album, could—if you were so inclined—seem like the greatest, most revolutionary record of the last few years; a marketable, avant-garde jazz/punk/experimental crossover album that must have V2 rubbing their palms with glee, given the superlatives being tossed its way. Not bad for a group that began life as a Jimi Hendrix tribute band.
Acoustic Ladyland’s mission may well be to bring jazz to a wider audience, but it could also be to just have an enormous amount of crazed fun. Words like “angry” get bandied around a lot in reference to their music, but “excitable” would probably be more appropriate; their enthusiasm sprouts energetically from the adrenaline rush of seeing just what they can do next. Skinny Grin starts with a delicately deployed piano before a melange of furious, compressed noise erupts and destroys everything around it. It’s almost a trend in current jazz, this attention-seeking juxtaposition opening an album—e.s.t. do exactly the same thing on Tuesday Wonderland—and it could be considered unnecessary.
As could second track, “New Me.” It’s two-and-a-half minutes of frenetic squall that seems like clever musicians making noise for the hell of it, tempting baffled critics to proclaim it “art” rather than appear foolish, a deliberately obtuse fug to ward off unwary trespassers. Or, on the other hand, a visceral blast of punk energy augmented by jazz technique, depending how you feel.
What’s less debatable is the thrilling groove of “Red Sky” which follows, or the astonishing, outrageously textured synaesthetic sonic revelry of “Salt Water (Scott Walker Mix),” which would be the highlight of the album were it not for bandleader Pete Wareham’s sax line five minutes into “The Room,” just as the chaos of the vocal section is broken away into placid waters for the final time—about the most beautiful twenty seconds of music I’ve heard in an age.
Skinny Grin makes much greater use of vocals than the band have before (guests Alice Grant, Coco Electrik, and, for most of the latter half of proceedings, Wareham himself taking to the mic) but it’s not in an overtly pop way—there are hooks here for sure, vocal and musical, but the frenetic musicality is in another realm altogether from most of the populace of the top 40. From the micro-chops of “The Rise” and dirty funk jerks of “Cuts & Lies,” to the mental electronics opening “Paris,” Acoustic Ladyland’s relentless pace, scope, and innovation is astonishing, whether it be emanating from Wareham’s saxophone, Seb Roachford’s drums, Tom Herbert’s bass, Tom Cawley’s keys, or any of their numerous collaborators (as well as Walker, Grant, and Electrik, input comes from producers Robert Harder and Paul Epworth as well as No Wave sax pioneer James Chance).
Skinny Grin transports Acoustic Ladyland from an exciting diversion into something approaching essentialism—the accomplishment with which album closer “Hitting Home,” another vocal cut, emotes as much through its beatifically wistful groove as its lyric is proof of their mastery and evidence of their importance. Molding Coltrane, Hendrix, Morphine, Napalm Death, and a million other sounds into something genuinely new, genuinely exciting, and genuinely, bafflingly wonderful, Skinny Grin is very, very close to being an actual bona fide masterpiece; pretty much guaranteed to blow the back of your head off.