Us, Today and I go back a long while. Or at least it feels that way, possibly due to the loud clicking noise my mind made when first listening to their music, back in 2013. Their second album, titled “Beneath the Floorboards” was one of the year’s revelations for me, and I’ve been awaiting a new release while uncomfortably perched on the edge of my proverbial seat. And with “Tenenemies” they have delivered a record to exceed any of my expectations.
RELEASE DATE: 27 March 2015 LABEL: Self-released
It’s a difficult thing, trying to classify Us, Today. Treading a fine line between jazz and post-rock, it feels as though this band is walking on a narrow strip of beach, one foot planted firmly on the rocky sands of the former, while the other submerged in the lukewarm, expansive waters of the latter. It is an unusual and endlessly surprising marriage between the fantastic dynamics and rhythmic brilliance of jazz and the meditative swells and textured soundscapes of post-rock. This tension is the foundation of Us, Today’s sound – an oxymoron of jazz’s impatience and virtuosity, and post-rock’s deliberate, larger-than-life sonic tapestries. “Beneath the Floorboards” explored this territory very well, with courage and efficiency, setting a high standard for the band. To take the metaphor further, if their previous record was pioneering, “Tenenemies” sounds well at home within the wilds, having built a proper shelter and demonstrating a well-rounded knowledge of the land.
Alluding slightly to the great concept albums of the 70s – a trend which even animated jazz at one point – “Tenenemies” is built around a spoken word poem by Scott Holzman, divided into three parts which act as intro, interlude and outro, and giving the record a pleasant feeling of structure and stability. The divided parts also set the listener on a path to interpret and to absorb the trio’s musical offerings as a meditation on the idea of a fragmented self, a silent maelstrom of self-deception and intimate pitfalls, represented brilliantly through the ever-shifting rhythmic patterns the music employs. That may sound dramatic, but not in a dark and brooding way. Instead, the theme is explored from an everyday sort of perspective. This isn’t the mind-shattering inner conflict of a self-loathing addict, for example. It isn’t music for extremes, focusing instead on the tremendous richness of the banal, on the great unseen effort it takes to navigate and balance through the daily flow of thoughts and feelings, impulses and taboos we build our innermost selves from. The constant companionship of these ‘enemies’ we live with, their gentle grip on our hands as we wade through the day, their soft whispers as we lie dreaming, these are the flashes this record conjures with every song.
Instrumentally, Us, Today are an unusual trio, comprised of Kristin Agee on vibraphone, Jeff Mellott on guitars and Joel Griggs on drums. However, the diversity of textures and the sheer range they can pull out of their respective instruments are truly remarkable, and the record is anything but stagnant – patient, yes; coherent, very much so, but never stagnant. The listener accustomed to the more famous post-rock acts will easily notice a very restrained approach when it comes to effects and post-processing. Us, Today have a very organic sound, grounded and almost spartan, defined by subtle innovation rather than flamboyant gimmicks. They choose to focus on precision and they build their hypnotic tracks from the interplay of well-defined, razor-sharp riffs, punctuated by the celestial vibraphone. “Beneath the Floorboards” featured a more prominent sound from Kristin, more aggressive playing, but her restraint on “Tenenemies” is just as fascinating, allowing Jeff’s masterful guitars to take the lead. Joel’s drumming is robust, tense, a very strong spine for the rhythmic acrobatics the trio engages in as a whole.
For an album such as this, the recording and mixing quality is of paramount importance. The clarity of each note, the refined musical gestures the band makes must be painstakingly captured in order for the end result to shine, and the technical team did a wonderful job. Each passage is awarded its due force, each riff is given poignancy, and the overall sound is solid, powerful, managing to avoid the ever-present temptation to treat the vibraphone as an exotic instrument to be showcased blindingly. Instead, the record often sounds quite a lot like a Hendrix jam – gritty, muscular, deeply satisfying.
Overall, “Tenenemies” is a record one might approach more easily from a jazz lover’s perspective, while presenting a stripped down, rocked out vision of the genre. It is a seductive hybrid, a rebel cocktail of (post) rock, fusion, funk and even stoner-rock. If you’ve ever enjoyed records by Terje Rypdal, Pekka Pohjola or even Clutchy Hopkins, give this album a listen. It will surely captivate you. If not, welcome to Us, Today’s world of thoroughly intellectual groove. Make yourselves at home.