t’s easy to overlook the simple pleasures of getting together a few accomplished collaborators in the studio and letting them play. Tortoise’s Jeff Parker here reunites with Chris Lopes and Chad Taylor, the rhythm section from his first solo album and adds Sam Barsehshet on Rhodes and electric piano, and the relaxed open feeling of the results makes The Relatives feel easy and natural, as if this was the result of just another pleasant afternoon of kicking back and playing.
That thankfully doesn’t mean that the material here is weak or the playing sloppy; the album gets off to a strong start with Taylor’s “Istanbul,” distant cymbal splashes under Parker’s comfortable and intelligent guitar. As with most of The Relatives, all four participants play subtly but with the coordinated interplay of musicians who know where the other guy is going before he gets there. Barsheshet and Parker especially dart and weave around each other’s lines; after “Istanbul” the relatively hard-charging “Mannerisms” (by Parker) provides rich opportunities for that sort of interchange, Parker’s clear tone and Barsheshet’s slightly rougher electric piano stabs complementing each other beautifully.
After Lopes’ brief “Sea Change” tensely rattles about for a few minutes the band rips into a cover of Marvin Gayes’ “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” that sounds almost loungey at first but quickly builds steam until you can hear the players yelling encouragement to each other in the background. It may be the most purely fun track here to listen to, Parker slipping extra notes and possibilities into the lines of the song, Taylor and Lopes keeping right on his tail, Barsheshet briefly, gloriously slipping out of a supporting role to break things down.
Unfortunately Lopes’ “Beanstalk,” which follows, is the only real misstep on The Relatives. Maybe I’ve just heard too much bad jazz flute, but despite Barsheshet’s skillful playing “Beanstalk” never manages to sound like anything more than exceptionally skillful Muzak. The whole thing is just slightly too smooth, especially compared to the other songs here. You get neither the heat of “Toy Boat” nor the off-kilter grace of “Istanbul” or “Sea Change,” and “Beanstalk” falls through the cracks into the horrible land of smooth jazz.
“Beanstalk” may leave a bad taste, but the title track that follows it is the strongest: as the rhythm section keeps up a hypnotic, rolling beat the keyboard pans dubbily across the mix before abruptly turning into quiet hand drums and Parker’s understated guitar. Before you know it, the electric piano is back, shading the areas around the edges of the mix, and all concerned intertwine skillfully amongst each other for a few minutes. It’s an exhibition of seamless communication and restraint, and if it doesn’t quite have the fireworks or the tangible excitement of “When Did You Stop Loving Me…” it’s just as satisfying.
The last two songs, “Toy Boat” and “Rang,” are nearly as good: “Toy Boat” lets Parker and Barsheshet switch roles as the former now colours in the edges around the latter’s propulsive Rhodes playing. But “Rang” is the real stunner: After starting out as if it’s going to be just as smooth as “Beanstalk” it quickly shifts to a seesawing two-note refrain from Barsheshet as Taylor spills drums all over the place. Eventually over the course of seven minutes all four players get a chance to take center stage and it’s a strong finish to the album.
The Relatives may not be as experimental or boundary pushing as Parker’s recent solo work, or even much of his work with Tortoise, but it’s also much more solidly satisfying. It’s easy to overlook a modest little album that gives first and foremost the impression it was fun to make, but what The Relatives lacks in theoretical importance it more than makes up for in listening pleasure.
Reviewed by: Ian Mathers
Reviewed on: 2005-02-14