Members of the burgeoning British nu jazz scene, Mammal Hands, are back with their gently intoxicating mixture of hooky piano and warm saxophone. Open minded fans of modern jazz or trip hop should find something in Captured Spirits to latch onto, but it does not fit neatly into any single traditional category.
Opening track ‘Ithaca’ sets the tone for the record. There is nothing technically flashy, rather a focus on tones and sonic textures. Twinkling, revolving piano riffs and patient, breathy saxophone play very slowly against both much faster, quieter, tappy percussion. It couldn’t be more different than the hyper melodic ‘Chaser’ in which all members play at speed. The urgent but simple lead piano melody is closely followed by the sax in the verses. They repeat the same trick on several songs here, something I’m not hearing other groups do. The only problem with ‘Chaser’ is that it shines so brightly that the other, gentler tracks on Captured Spirits have to compare with the intense levels of excitement it sets at the beginning of the LP.
It took multiple listens to truly understand the subtle appeal of ‘Versus Shapes’ but if you’re willing to lean in and invest time with the group there are tricksy and beguiling, hidden aspects to their writing – strange lilts and striking instrumental turns of phrase. Much easier to “get” is ‘Riddle’ which has a killer pop hook that would stand out in any arrangement or genre. The breakdown, where the performance becomes far more angular and the midrange is sucked out of the instrumentation, is to die for. It weirds up a relatively conventional song. The record closes out with the particularly romantic ‘Little One’. Swooshing piano chords and simmering cymbals litter this track.
Mammal Hands have a far more relaxed quality than more prominent nu jazz groups like The Comet is Coming or former label mates GoGo Penguin. Even at their craziest, with spun out, raspy saxophone they err towards clean and low key. To get the most out of this album you have to accept that this is in large part meant to wash over you rather than thwack you over the head with intense flavours – there will generally be no more than one prominent part playing at any time, such as the passionate sax solo on ‘Late Bloomer’. People who listen to music for it’s more atmospheric, ambient qualities will adore this LP.
Captured Spirits is out now on Gondwana Records.