October 5, 2010

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Today is Matt Shea’s birthday. He is now old enough to rent an orchestra. 

Reading over reviews and write-ups of the Cinematic Orchestra’s Every Day, it’s litle wonder the album didn’t prove more popular. Phrases worryingly similar to ‘musical saviours’ and ‘album of the year’ were bandied about, and yet it remains a remarkably undiscovered piece of work. Perhaps it fell between the two stools of DJ culture and jazz. Or perhaps, as some fans would snobbishly contend, it was a too challenging for the masses. Or maybe it stemmed from the perception that Ninja Tune was past its prime.

In retrospect, Every Day closely reflected the label’s early millennial attitude. No longer was it Ninja Tune’s heyday. Yet rather than pumping dry the well of audience goodwill that had powered their engagingly goofy, tricked-out mid-90s releases, the label subtly changed gears, growing comfortable with a wider mandate. Every Day seemed a direct result of this more inclusive approach to releasing music,  making the departure from its predecessor all the more apparent. 1999’s Motion was impressive but almost self-consciously so, boxed in by its liberal sample-use and rigid reflection on its influences. It was nu-jazz done the 1990s Ninja Tune way, endlessly engaging but not always totally convincing.

Every Day would prove a much more refined record. Where Motion was rambling and ambitious, Every Day was crisp and immediate – band leader Jason Swinscoe pushing the Cinematic shtick beyond ultra sophisticated mood music. Swinscoe’s first trick was a clear improvement in his songwriting – hardly any of the Cinematic releases since have matched the artistry on display here – and his second was intelligent collaboration.

The most obvious is Fontella Bass – the leather-lunged yet velvet-tongued former wife of Lester Bowie and erstwhile member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago – whose immense presence features on opener “All That You Give.” It’s a cagey way to begin the LP, Swinscoe simultaneously sealing the lid on the Cinematic Orchestra’s past and providing a template for the group’s change in approach. Bass imbues the track with a priceless poise, her lament anchored by a coyly deployed sample of Carlos Santana and Alice Coltrane’s “Angel of Air.”

The only problem with this stunning opener is that it marks Bass’s mid-album contribution on Evolution as being disappointingly flat. In a delivery that precursors Patrick Watson’s often toneless contributions on 2007’s Ma Fleur, Bass wrings her way through a song that seems constructed rather than written. Thankfully, Evolution’s sequencing and easy groove prevent it from damaging the album as a whole.

Roots Manuva is the other big name ring-in for Every Day, the Stockwell rapper applying one of his most thoughtful, heartfelt flows to the stately “All Things to All Men.” This 11-minute epic is the record’s centrepiece and probably the greatest cut the group have so far recorded. Swinscoe again etches his sampling delicately, trading on a John Barry-Carolyn Leigh theme before allowing the group to unfold it into a majestic vehicle for Manuva’s restive vocals.

But as impressive as both Bass and Manuva are, Swinscoe’s newfound appetite for collaboration played out much more significantly at the micro level. Bassist Phil France co-wrote and co-produced most of the tracks here, as well as delivering a brilliantly spidery, explorative bass line to the album’s elegiac coda, Everyday. Rodhri Davies’s harp makes a contribution that’s much more than mere window-dressing, both introducing All That You Give as well as putting to sleep the dizzying outro on “All Things to All Men.” Arguably most important of all is Luke Flowers. The remarkably gifted jazz drummer anchors an arkful of players but still finds time to bend minds with his soloing on “Flite” and “Man With the Movie Camera.”

Every Day would not in the end redraw the face of music. Nor would it win many ‘album of the year’ votes. But perhaps, in hindsight, it was best that way. This is after all an exceptionally cathartic suite, more likely to change your life than change the game, and its lack of popular acceptance makes it easier to hold on to a little piece just for yourself. It may not have the turnkey accessibility of Ma Fleur, and you won’t hear it backgrounding any whiskey/camera/soft drink ads, or making an appearance on Grey’s Anatomy, but Every Day is the Cinematic Orchestra’s most accomplished work, and remains one of Ninja Tune’s finest releases in the new millennium. –Shea

Download:
MP3: The Cinematic Orchestra ft. Fontella Bass-“All That You Give”
MP3: The Cinematic Orchestra ft. Roots Manuva-“All Things To All Men”