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Adult Jazz
Gist Is David Peschek , August 14th, 2014 14:51

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. 'Brave' is a word that is horribly misused describing art of any kind – but Gist Is is genuinely brave, hard-won but never worthy; often brutal, sometimes disarmingly whimsical, but always rapturous. In these nine songs – one unfurling over nearly ten minutes, one nearly eight; the shortest a mere 2:30 – there is frequently sudden rupture and brain-botheringly off-kilter percussion - "my heart is spilling all over the drums," as 'Idiot Mantra' has it; always a wild sense of play but mostly – luxuriating in the spaciousness of the production – a fount of glorious, heady melody.

In terms of influence Gist Is is deliciously elusive. The band cite Micachu – another one-off  - and Bjork. You can hear, Bjork, perhaps: the wide-eyed sensuality of Vespertine and the (joy in) vocal experimentation of Medulla. At times you hear devotional singing, when singer Harry Burgess is at his most declamatory. Key also is Burgess' love of Meredith Monk; in other words, there is some precedent but it's pretty scant: Adult Jazz are their own animal. Burgess' voice is a wonder – navigating upwards from a woody tenor into a divertingly creamy falsetto wail; cooing and moaning and muttering. You can hear his experience of improv and 'free-singing', too – I would say here that freedom is reined in, but nothing about Gist Is feels reined in, even when at its most clipped and sparse and angular.

Arthur Russell is, of course, the new Nick Drake - and generally almost anything that's described as sounding like Arthur Russell appears paltry by comparison; it's impossible to replicate the intrinsic otherness of Russell's work, however hard you try. And yet: there are moments during Gist Is when i get the same feeling I had when the delirious dislocations of Russell's Calling Out Of Context first knocked me for six. In 'Donne Tongue' - Burgess at his most vocally elastic - and 'Pigeon Skulls' here, there are curlicues of vocal harmony that conjure the intoxicating delicacy of Russell's World Of Echo. That said, 'Pigeon Skulls' also makes me think of Virginia Astley, and Peter Pears singing Benjamin Britten. It's exquisite - there's a chord change at one minute in that's heart-stopping. To say it's carried by the powerful magic of Burgess' vocal, his arresting purity of tone, would be to fatefully underplay how masterfully paced it is. How notes hover for a just a fraction longer than you expect, how the spidery, rolling percussion is barely there but still holds everything together, how after over four languorous minutes there's suddenly a wild spangled whirring and then it's gone; in other words, how good the band is.

If all that makes Gist Is sound wafty and, ahem, ethereal, it isn't. It is truly other, but there's an irresistible pop sensibility here too. 'Am Gone' - which garnered some comparisons with Wild Beasts (not really accurate, but understandable since there's almost no one else down this end of the field) - and 'Springful' flirt with an artful, almost-funk (think Brilliant Trees-era David Sylvian), or something Eno-ish - somewhere between his Talking Heads albums and his 'Fourth World' experiments with trumpeter Jon Hassell. They're both hooky as hell, too, and 'Springful' teases with a loping breakbeat until you can't help but move. Once it gets going, audacious opener 'Hum' - it begins with just that, a hum, and builds deliciously - has a thunderously addictive, lolloping beat and honking syncopated brass.

The centrepiece of the album is 'Spook'. Everything Burgess has been singing about thus far culminates in 'Spook,' - all his negotiations with spirituality, with organised religion, with himself as a singer. Gist Is doesn't have much in common with Antony and the Johnson's I Am A Bird Now – except, it is similarly at the sharpest edge of the expression of queer experience in pop music. Antony said to me once, of seeing Boy George on TV, that he knew then "that's what we do, we become singers." You can't devolve Burgess' singing from his queerness or his struggles with what god means to him. His singing is a way to "flame into being," to borrow a phrase from Momus. 4:09-ish, Burgess sings, quietly but with incredible assurance, "I write these songs to trick god / And I do not take it lightly." This is music that was made because it had to be.

The record ends with 'Be A Girl' and 'Bonedigger'. The former is a giddy sloughing of constructed maleness: "the main character who carries the plot with him" finds, delightfully that "equally there's a need for being soppy on a hilltop" so "if maleness won't sob, then be a girl." 'Bonedigger' thinks doggy thoughts about, quite simply, what constitutes a dog's life. All through Gist Is the songs wrestle with identity – as it ends, they cast off first maleness and finally humanity itself. As the serpentine chorale of the song winds to a close, Burgess musing over smoky blasts of trombone, the scope of Adult Jazz's achievements slowly start to sink in. Out of nowhere, fully formed: utterly extraordinary.