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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

Polar Bear – Peepers – Album Review

The greatest artists in British jazz for a generation, say some, and it's hard to find fault with that

Written by Gareth Ackland

I thought I’d gone wrong. I pressed play and… drums (so far so good), stuff then (wait for it) a guitar!?! Have I put on a Maccabees CD by mistake? No, thumb the drumming’s too, too wowsome. My confusion lasted for a full 15 seconds before the sax hit me. But still, a guitar? Polar Bear are opening an album with twang rock guitar?

Maybe you don’t know Polar Bear. Maybe you need to change your friends. If my friends hadn’t told me about Polar Bear, I would have ditched them. Except that I wouldn’t have known what they hadn’t told me about, obviously. Polar Bear are a jazz outfit of indistinct number. Let’s say five, which includes Leafcutter John, who’s like Aphex Bez. It’s complicated. Their last proper album, ‘Held On The Tips Of Fingers’, was the token jazz nomination for the Mercuries a while back and should have won because it’s one of the best four things jazz has done since 1963 and it pisses on anything that ever wins a Mercury Prize.

Band background: part 2. Sigh. There’s a body of bands. Effectively, Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland are each other’s opposite ventricle, sharing a drummer and a saxophonist. And then there’s the F-ire skin, the Teversham spleen, blah blah blah blah. What you need to know is whether you should buy this record: you’re not adopting sextuplets. The short answer is “Yes, It’s excellent”. The long answer is “I wouldn’t start my Polar Bear collection with this”.

The really long answer is that this is their most Ladyland-like album yet. There’s less emphasis on finding complex beauty and arranging it cleverly, a la Duke Ellington or Charlie Mingus. There’s more emphasis on finding a groove and a handful of notes and getting a stink on, a la Acoustic Ladyland. Interplay is discarded in favour of immediacy. Drum yogi Seb Rochford is chief songwriter in Polar Bear and his new songwriting mantra is, “let’s not write it, let’s just feel it”. Bap Bap Bap, indeed. So we’re left with a performance album, and the performances are stunning. Pete Wareham is on top form (I’m assuming I can tell the difference between the two saxophonists, like I can tell Cab Sav from Merlot), and I might even call this some of his best work. Tom Herbert on double bass is lovably sturdy, yet cuddly. Seb Rochford is brilliant, but not showy. There’s no risk of him ever turning Billy Cobham (limitless ability and diminishing soul) on us. And it’s probably on the album’s more tender moments that we discover what a delicate and sensitive collaboration this is. Ego is not an issue in the least.

But it’s not just one flavour. Think smorgasbord. We find lively bouncy grooves like “Happy For You” and “Peepers”. Stocking-filler curiousities like “Drunken Pharoah” and “Bump”. Romantic tearjerkers like “The Love Didn’t Go Anywhere” and “Want To Believe Everything”. And impressively, hypnotically, boldly, we have “A New Morning Will Come” and “Finding Our Feet”, which sound like nods toward Boards Of Canada or Plaid fortified with jazz wisdom.

The spread of guitar-infection from Acoustic Ladyland’s last album is hardly the most significant development in fact. It’s the lean toward simplicity and punch. It’s not something I’d hoped for. Rochford is as good a composer, songwriter even, as he is a drummer (which is really really good, by the way, thus no offense to the Maccabees earlier), so it seems daft to put that strength to one side until he next thinks of a spare bandname. All the same, this is a brilliant album by the only first rate act of their kind around. A band totally on top of their Bap Bap Bap.

But I wouldn’t start my Polar Bear collection with this…

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