Review Summary: Comfort and lethargy.
I’ve always been a bit fascinated by the forms such wondrous and whimsical ditties as carnival tunes or music box lullabies take when exposed to the wrong setting. It’s a done-to-death trope, but a consistently moving one nonetheless: a tinkling Rock-a-bye Baby emanating from a dark room; distorted playground fanfare cast out over the post-apocalypse; a protagonist having their favourite, most purile motif sang to them by the dear and terminal. This contrast often comes as a narrative bookend in whatever medium it might reside, be it a loss of all hope, or seeds planted in the rubble. The whimpering organ that brings Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band onto the stage seems to toe the line between both ends of the spectrum. Its infantile progression through an unseen carnival is marred by the way in which the instrument seems to be crawling to a bittersweet grave, fading out before it even has a chance to clarify its dying wishes. There’s a dull and droning sense of purgatory on Landmarks
, where, at its most excitable, is akin to salivating over the idea of a warm meal, and at its least, is about as affecting as the middle of the queue at the DMV. Through the more foundational elements of jazz, gospel, and aloof spots of folk, Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band capture aimlessness in every moment, for better or worse.
For all of Brian Blade’s accolades as a drummer, Jon Cowherd’s work at the keys is really what holds Landmarks
together. It’d seem with good reason too; the air of wandering that permeates throughout likely wouldn’t bare such immersive qualities if Blade were front and centre. The Fellowship Band don’t provide much room for any sounds that can’t come straight out of a traditional instrument, and so all sense of place and context is written into existence through timbre and melody. I shouldn’t harp on about the opening track, “Down River”, any more than I already have given its 56 second stature and relative disconnect from the rest of the record, but it is difficult to understate how foundational it is in setting the tone with nothing more than a mystical little motif and the disconcerting sonic attitude of an instrument that’s well beyond its sell-by date. The nigh comically forlorn “Ark.La.Tex.” seems completely foriegn by comparison on the surface, carrying with it the accuracy and articulation more commonly seen in contemporary jazz, and being directly indicative of the more literal aspects of the record. It is driven by a grimy noir motif that’s completely unwilling to resolve on the first beat of the bar; a fairly innocuous way to perform such a straight and determined riff but something welcome within the purview of the established mood of the album. Even when The Fellowship Band bring fire under the motif, with a lush and powerful polyphony of saxophone and intricate phrasings, the song always returns to its core motif. While the aforementioned aimlessness is strongly alluded to in the opening song, as well as in the eight minute title track that follows, it isn’t until “Ark.La.Tex.” and its 11 minutes of foundational uncertainty that Landmarks
as a record confidently stands without direction.
As if divinely inspired, follow-up track “Shenandoah” couldn’t be described as anything less than reverent; it is all the elements required of a congregational hymn without the congregation. The perfect setting to dispel any conceptions that Landmarks
has no direction. Yet, even the melody leading line, dictated by two saxophones (and lightly reinforced by the double bass), ends up splitting into harmony midway through, with both melodies carrying near-equal weight. It is difficult to discern which of the two lines would be sung if one person were to do so, even amidst the beautiful simplicity of the piece. It is uplifting in contrast to “Ark.La.Tex”, yet just as indecisive, even with the familiar five-into-one opening chords that empower so many organ-driven hymns with a clear sense of purpose. Even the starkest departure from the listless waverings of the rest of Landmarks
, “He Died Fighting”, comes with a sticker on the package to poison the well; the song is called “He Died Fighting”. For all its grandeur dynamically (well, to the extent anything on an album this timid can be described as such), the chords underpinning its structure spend a little
bit too long unresolved: the song is slow in tempo with a driving rhythm section backing it, a crooning solo chimes overhead, and the glow of a city summer’s evening melting out of the core progression over the span of two bars rather than the expected one. The song largely revolves around two main segments, the second being a passive rotation of one refrain on two chords, neither wanting anything to do with the surprisingly emphatic conclusion the song builds to. The crashing of cymbals and pounding of hammers as the band comes together in triumphant solidarity for what seems like the first time on the record. Yet, it’s hard to separate this victory from the bittersweet reality that “He Died Fighting”.
Almost operating as a callback to the idea of the post-apocalypse, and being reasonably close to the center of the record, “He Died Fighting” manages to sink everything after it back down into purgatory. There isn’t anything before or after its climax that carries itself with the same heft, and “Friends Call Her Dot” immediately whisks us back from the hopeful (greedy？) idea of a warm meal to queue monotony. It isn’t to say the rest of the record is all clouds and lethargy; “Embers” ends the record as a melodically cutesy affair. But given how many progressions in Landmarks
feel more than just a little lived in (as any deeply gospel infused jazz record should), there’s a sadness to the way the album bounces out. You kinda half-expect whatever nostalgic memory might be coursing through your head to freeze on your favourite frame for a few seconds before fading into a credits sequence. It seems primed for a sequel even if the overall experience was self-contained. I’m not entirely sure how much forethought went into “Embers” being chosen as the last song on Landmarks
, though I feel if it were placed anywhere else on the album, the thematic consistency of the record would be fully compromised. And if Landmarks
really had anything special going for it, that would be it. It isn’t close to the most technically complex album of its ilk, nor all that adventurous as a marrying of jazz and gospel elements. It is, in spite of these, a colourful depiction of monochromatism and the constant whir of being alive without living. It manages to rapture on anticipation alone.