Release Date: Aug 5, 2014
Record label: Spare Thought
If every substitute teacher acted as Harry Burgess, the world would be much more willing to redefine pop. Fresh out of university, the Adult Jazz frontman seems to have made himself a pupil alongside his students, approaching music with the perplexed curiosity and playful spirit of someone who hasn’t been shaped by the confines of Western definitions. As a result, his band’s debut album, Gist Is, sees monstrous talent wandering with its eyes closed, trusting in itself to discover the unseen by whatever means necessary.
Let's get this out of the way right at the beginning; Adult Jazz sound like the prodigy child of Dirty Projectors and alt-J. But that's not enough. Their album, Gist Is, is a meticulously-produced contender for most surprising debut in recent memory. They deserve every bit of praise heaped upon them thus far.
Some bands lack a real awareness of how to use space; far too many artists want to fill any gaps with music, be it layering up the instrumentation, using a well-worn chord progression or simply continuing to sing/emote when there’s absolutely no need. It means there’s nowhere for the initial sketches to move into and grow. Adult Jazz does not do any of this.
Head lowered and eyes closed, my deadened ears fill with pitch, calling me to the Abyss. The music I know is bottomless and ruined, dark stars burst inside out and scattered like vapor and static. But through my eyelids comes a faint light, and with it, a hum. At first strange and menacing, there’s warmth to it too, like it wants me to keep listening.
It’s with what sounds akin to a preadolescent choirboy vocal that the artfully complex rock quartet Adult Jazz introduces its debut album, Gist Is. With Hum, his vocal lathered in autotune, (used here effectively at least, but shrill as always), vocalist Harry Burgess singeth in ye olde tongues about being wounded by five-oh or healed by the preacher man. Above a gentle blanket of organ his delicate falsetto is eventually anchored by a buzzing synthesizer, each key following his every syllable.
Given the confidence and brazen ambition on Gist Is, the labyrinthine debut full-length from Adult Jazz, it's difficult to believe they're less than a year old as a band. University of Leeds music majors Harry Burgess, Tim Slater, and Steven Wells and York University engineering student Tom Howe recorded this set in a Scottish farmhouse. The band employs a wildly recombinant methodology in this sprawling meld of sophisticated indie pop, avant rock, folk, and yes, even a hint of jazz.
They formed in Leeds and make low-key pop more exciting with their clever folk harmonies and mind-bending experimentation. No, not Alt-J – this is Adult Jazz, four men whose biggest problem will be working out how to step out from the Mercury Prize winners’ shadow. It’s all there: the sparse guitars, the minimalist percussion, Harry Burgess’ oddly pitched vocals, the vaguely spiritual intellectualism.
Adult Jazz’s frontman Harry Burgess describes his band’s sound in a press release as “that juxtaposition between, say, something my mother would like, and something she would find difficult”. It’s a dumbfoundedly suitable phrase for this Leeds-based four-piece’s debut album ‘Gist Is’ - a record that sits on the line between easily digestible pop record your parents would dig and lengthy, overbearing art rock your more in-touch mates would appreciate, ultimately flirting with both ideas for just under an hour. Opener ‘Hum’ is a daunting choice for a first track - ethereal and meandering, it trickles a literal hum gently as a stream as Burgess’ vocals elevate things slowly and sumptuously.
Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca is probably where it all began. That’s when it became common for pop music to unashamedly foreground technical ability. Since then, we’ve gotten more and more records which dazzle and bludgeon with impossible intricacies, setting into motion a trend which has intensified to a point where Owen Pallett can write essays turning the most seemingly banal pop songs into the subjects of serious study.
In the early-to-mid 2000s, unconventional, long-form song structures became something of a trend in North American indie rock, which created resonances with the flashy, epic-poetic progressive rock of the 1970s. The music of Leeds-based quartet Adult Jazz recalls this (now somewhat unfashionable) approach; their debut album, Gist Is, is full of formally convoluted songs which seldom run shy of five minutes, and feature plenty of brisk, ponderous guitar figures and difficult-to-parse drumbeats. However, the album’s complexity is the brushwork rather than the subject described; a gentle flow of melismatic, often beautiful melody takes center stage and provides the band's compositions with a necessary unifying element.
Self-released, self-produced and self-recorded in a studio they built themselves (whether they whittled their own instruments, we do not know), these Leeds newcomers are devout about DIY. That spirit of independence is mirrored in the sound of their debut album: it pings from the sublime to the ridiculous like Dirty Projectors and Tune-Yards ricocheting off the rubber walls of a padded cell, with frontman Harry Burgess's elasticated vocals acting as a well-oiled instrument. But the moments of melody here tend to wriggle off before the groove becomes tangible, as on Hum's crunchy funk breakdown, or Pigeon Skulls' lolloping coo; and while it bears some of the hallmarks of previous indie greats – the scratchy, swerving qualities of early Grizzly Bear; nods to Björk and Sigur Rós – overall it feels cluttered.
Adult Jazz’s debut album, Gist Is ,begins with a hum — literally. The buildup to the seven-minute-plus “Hum” is a low, slow drone (akin to a buzz) before frontman Harry Burgess’ oddly punctuated phrasing comes into play. Even then, his voice is met with multitudes of pitch-shifted, Auto-Tuned harmonies that flash the chanting out of the land of monks and into 2014’s very real present.
It feels like Gist Is came out of nowhere, fully formed. Full of wonder and joy – it's both texturally ravishing and textually fascinating: songs, in other words, that tackle big subjects – the mediation of (homo)sexuality by church and society; what it means to be a man – with a transporting grace and music whose unexpected richness, space and invention creates a profound resonance. Self-produced and released on the band's own label, Spare Thought, Gist Is has nothing to do with anything but itself, nothing but its makers and the manner of its making.
Adult Jazz’s debut LP, Gist Is, is not at all about the gist. There’s nothing general or broad here; there’s no one main point. The album is an impeccably belabored, precise work, each chord and vocal flux acting as a pin point on a map defined by strict boundaries. But Gist Is is not some mass-produced product of capital and industry.