Acoustic Ladyland / Polar Bear
Last Chance Disco / Held On The Tips Of Fingers

Babel Label
A- / B+

f you’ve paid attention to the Mercury Music Prize this year you’ll have heard of Polar Bear, but the chances are that you won’t have actually heard any music by them unless you saw their scintillating performance at the awards ceremony, because no one ever seems to pay attention to the token genre choices by the panel. You probably won’t have heard of Acoustic Ladyland at all however, even though the two groups share three members—drummer Seb Rochford (who leads Polar Bear), saxophonist Pete Wareham (who leads Acoustic Ladyland) and bassist Tom Herbert. Keyboardist Tom Cawley completes acoustic Ladyland, while Polar Bear’s other key member is saxophonist Mark Lockheart. Both groups are apparently at the heart of the currently vibrant London jazz scene, which isn’t something I know much about, not being from London.

Polar Bear are surprisingly acoustic for a modern jazz group; we’ve been conditioned since the mid-90s to expect modern jazz by cool young men to make nods to hip hop and dance music by mixing in all sorts of electronics and drum n bass templates, but not here. There’s no electric guitar here, and not even an acoustic piano, never mind a Rhodes. What we get instead is drums, double bass, and duelling tenor sax with occasional touches from trombone, violin, cello and acoustic guitar (one track each), which makes for a very interesting change of dynamics from what you might expect, the ensemble accentuated over any individual members, the saxophones duelling in order to carry tunes rather than obliterate each other, and regularly coming together to chorus a motif, while the rhythm play does far more than just keep time.

This ensemble ethos, and a slight air of irreverence, mean that Held On the Tips Of Fingers is a very modern record even without the metaphorical bells & whistles that you might expect mixed in. Paul Morley called it “dream jazz” and you can see why from the delirious late night bar-room oompah of “Beartown,” which I can imagine enormous grizzly bears given to drinking and bouts of melodrama getting wasted and dancing to before bursting into tears and returning to their log-cabin homes. “Fluffy” has these mad little rhythmic clicks and bells going on as well as some atmospheric weirdness, the double bass occasionally growling like a, well, I imagine a bit like a polar bear. “To Touch The Red Bricks” is a briefly cool shuffle that makes you want to dance, and there’s some strange and unidentifiable squeaking, tiny alien voices maybe, over the top of Herbert’s jaunty bassline on “Your Eyes The Sea.”

You could, if you wanted to simplify, say that Acoustic Ladyland are Polar Bear + electricity, but it’d be more accurate to say that Acoustic Ladyland are more like Polar Bear if they’d been electrocuted. Lots. Last Chance Disco, in contrast to its sister album, is a perfectly glorious racket of a record, still an ensemble adventure and still thoroughly modern but injected with a completely deranged energy. If I was into neologisms I’d call it “punk jazz,” but that sounds strange and frankly disturbing, which is, if not entirely inaccurate, perhaps slightly unfair.

With song titles like “Iggy” and “Ludwig Van Ramone” (get that razorsharp opening riff) you know you’re not in for beard-stroking tastefulness, but you’re still unprepared for quite what happens. Wareham’s sax mimics wailing electric guitars (there’s no guitar credited on the sleeve so I can only assume that the furious heavy metal in the final minute of “Deckchair” is all his doing) as well as Coltrane-esque solar meanderings and hooks, while Tom Herbert’s furious electric bass playing swings from kinetic funk licks to outrageous, driving punk/metal riffs that are likely to upset middle-aged men with patches on their jacket sleeves, and Tom Cawley paints Rhodes fills in the corners of the sound and washes electric noise everywhere else. As for the fantastically-coiffed Seb Rochford, well… good grief, his drumming here has to be heard to be believed, at times sounding like a one-man Boredoms, the energy of Moon and the control of Leibzeit tied together.

The energy, dynamic and attitude of Last Chance Disco means that at times it sounds like nothing so much as Dismemberment Plan or Morphine, while the quieter, cool moments are the kind of thing that David Holmes loves putting together for Soderbergh soundtracks. Highlights include the multi-sectioned “Om Konz”, the weird handclaps and sneering of “Perfect Bitch” and… well, the whole damn album is just great, to be honest, a relentless ska-punk-jazz-metal conglomeration that shouldn’t work but does.

I’m always scared of writing about jazz because I don’t KNOW anything about it, at least not anything concrete—with no musicological insight all I can offer is my reaction and opinion as someone who owns maybe three or four dozen records that you’d have to call jazz plus a load of stuff like Can and Four Tet which borrows heavily from jazz while still managing to be something else entirely. And my opinion is that these are both fantastic records, easily two of the most enjoyable I’ve heard all year. On initial impact I’d say that Last Chance Disco was the better, but its slightly schizo tone and energy may mean it doesn’t quite have the longevity of Held On The Tips Of Fingers for some. Whatever, they’re both great, and deserve to be heard by far more people than just the usual dedicated jazz-heads. Seek them out.

Reviewed by: Nick Southall
Reviewed on: 2005-09-12
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