Review Summary: You got a skinny grin. You got a pint of gin.
For the better part of his early career, Pete Wareham had been stranded in utter banality – first, a session horn knee-deep in London’s jazz club scene, which by then had done away with any sort of avant-garde combustibility and had both cheeks planted squarely into elevator mode. Then a prolonged stint in Polar Bear, whose room temperature competency always betrayed the ‘experimental’ prefix the British music press had tacked onto their jazz modalities. And finally, Acoustic Ladyland, whose first album did little more than serve up a handful of Hendrix covers (hence the atrocious name), stripping the songs of all electric vigour, until what was left was as ungloriously tepid as your local open mic scenester nervously butchering away on a Sunday night.
Seemingly, by 2005, he’d had enough. On the band’s sophomore Last Chance Disco
, Wareham’s more intrepid and audacious sides finally burst forth and through. He added a proggy tonality to the guitars (upended by only the occasional metal outburst), a squawking free-form pitch to the sax, bumped up the rhythm section and added vocals, which, forgetting all boring implications that jazz might carry, were all London punk – rough and rasping, vexed and often off-cue, with lyrics that just skirted the edge of improvisational nonsense.
The reviews Last Chance Disco
garnered were much more a mixed bag than his previous efforts, which for a man who probably always fancied himself a cutting-edge experimentalist, was a grand thing, when compared to the neutered unilateral acclaim Polar Bear got from awards committees and mainstream publications. And less than a year later, Wareham was ready to deploy all his new tricks in re-honed form. So we come to Skinny Grin
Opener “Road of Bones” spends a dozen seconds or so in mid-tempo Fats Waller-esque piano twinkling, then ignites in a litany of heavy riffing, manic bass-work and saxophone that seems about ready to end it all. From there, Skinny Grin
runs through stills of mayhem subverted only by occasional instances of unabashed beauty. The moody, desperate “Red Sky” builds and builds, until it comes crashing down in a slew of brass wails. The sway-heavy “Your Shame” borrows a sense of doomed danceability from Afro-beat influenced jazz. The frantic title track and the anxious “The Rise” are as close as one gets to vocalized jazz punk perfection. And the Scott Walker-mixed “Salt Water” only aims to gut the listener – a shapeshifting show of rhythm and atmospheric electronics (James Chance, an all-too-evident influence, shows up to spar with Wareham on the track). Elsewhere, big band avant-gardener Alice Grant lends “Paris” a sense of cabaret agitation.
Behind its hobbling name, its croaking sax, and the artwork that features Russian-German expressionist’s Alexej Von Jawlensky’s stylized portrait of famed Russian dancer and drag vanguard Alexander Sakharoff, sits Skinny Grin
, an album that looks to find reason in chaos, another take on just how much structure you can maintain by hacking away at random load-bearing beams. Whatever years Wareham spent in working musician purgatory are all redeemed in these frenzied songs.
The name is still horseshi
t. The music, something else entirely.