About Group – Between the Walls
An improvisational pop supergroup of sorts, About Group features the unlikely line up of Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, John Coxon from Spiritualized, Charles Hayward of post-punk trailblazers This Heat and Pat Thomas, who I’m informed is rather a big deal on the British jazz circuit.
They first got together in 2009 to record a single ad-lib session as part of an improvisation series on Coxon’s label, Treader. The chemistry was good enough that they reunited for another day of recording in 2011. This time Taylor provided the others with bare-bones piano and vocal demos of some songs he’d written, giving them an opportunity to think about the shape of the music before they entered the studio, but not enough time to formulate determinate parts. The idea was to ground the improvisation using some basic song structures: to pull form from the spontaneous movement of the live take.
About Group’s latest effort, Between the Walls, falls somewhere between their previous albums. About half of it derives from a 45-minute improvisation; the rest is a meditation on a number of Taylor’s demos. The band allowed themselves an unprecedented three days to record, and the result is their most focused and accessible record yet.
Taylor obviously has a knack for crafting great pop hooks. In fact, the songs he’s written for About Group are often surprisingly conventional. The effect is of a band deploying traditional progressions from roots and soul music as if they were jazz standards, useful primarily as a basis for improvisation. A cover of Bacharach’s muzak classic ‘Walk on By’, for instance, bears little resemblance to the original apart from Taylor’s vocal. As with the majority of tracks on Between the Walls, his smooth croon is subtly subverted by the insect buzzing beneath – the burble of arpeggiated synths and spaced-out Roland filters, Hayward’s quietly demented drumming and the stylish but erratic noodling of Coxon’s guitar. It’s an experimental approach for a general audience, melding pop and jazz in the manner of Robert Wyatt, Can or Sun Ra.
Between the Walls is a patient and interesting record. Thanks to Taylor’s songwriting, it never descends into a self-indulgent muso circle jerk. It’s certainly not perfect, but that’s not the goal of About Group.