Review Summary: One-Armed Bandit is a smart album for smart people, but in making the most technically proficient album you're likely to hear in 2010, Jaga Jazzist lose some of the immediacy that made them so lovable on What We Must.
To understand the content of One-Armed Bandit
, one must first comprehend what exactly preceded it. On What We Must
, Jaga Jazzist created some of the most exciting and gorgeous instrumental music this side of post rock. There was something beautifully spontaneous and heartwarming in the album’s atmosphere; horns textured the sounds with a soft and pillowed bed. Brilliant ideas sounded as if they’d been stumbled upon unwittingly and thrillingly after late night struggles to find some ever-elusive missing element that would take Jaga Jazzist’s undeniable talent to surreal heights. And What We Must
had a bevy
of such missing elements, each song containing a magnificent hook that Jaga Jazzist used to buttress their tower of virtuosity. For example, the reason a song like “All We Know Is Tonight” opens up so stunningly over time is that once the initial infatuation with the yearning trumpet line fades, one realizes a masterful foundation that keeps the song fascinating and stubbornly enduring.
On One-Armed Bandit
, Jaga Jazzist emerge a different beast; sonically the same, but instead of aiming for stars and bliss they deliver something surprisingly close to snarky and sardonic. One-Armed Bandit
’s press release plays up two key elements of the recording process. One: Jaga Jazzist approached the album with their tongues a little more firmly in their cheeks, making what one band member described as “Zappa influenced, humorous prog rock,” and Two: they wrote it down. Bandit
marks the first time Jaga Jazzist have decided to physically compose their music on charts, which allows for the record to simultaneously showcase Jaga Jazzist parodying their influences in homage while highlighting just how brilliant and talented they are. One-Armed Bandit
is nothing if not technically astounding. Jaga Jazzist open the record on the attack with their compositionally masterful title track, a driving blend of the groovy and the avant-garde. However, as the record chugs on, listening to the band quote Steve Reich in tracks like “Toccata” or laugh at their ability to be ridiculous with “Prognissekongen” leaves the impression that One-Armed Bandit
is frustratingly inorganic, a product of theories and experiments instead of inspiration.
Between What We Must
and One-Armed Bandit
, it sounds as though Jaga Jazzist elected to try to show off how awesome they really are and in doing so lost the spontaneity and honesty that made them endearing four years ago. This sounds like an amateur criticism (This generally boils down to “The songs just aren’t that catchy
, man”), but understand: the catchiness was intrinsic to What We Must
’s striking success. Without it, One-Armed Bandit
tends to simply exist, giving us paper reasons to care without aural ones. Yes, Bandit
is as proficient and as smart a record as you’re likely to hear this year, but rarely does it engulf you as thoroughly as Jaga Jazzist have proven capable of doing in their past. In Bandit
’s homogeny, there is no shame in unconsciously losing focus, because the band places its faith in its compositional wizardry. They know they have the impressive skills and the impressive charts to make certain of the music’s quality, and the sly nods to prog and minimalism referred to in the press release sound like the band doing it for the sake of doing it. Bandit
is a smart album made for smart people, and something that garnered them critical acclaim in the past is lost. So yes, One-Armed Bandit
is a good record. But Jaga Jazzist can do better.