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Janus Plays Telephone

Milan Records 3991562





Matt Young - Rhodes, piano, electronics, melodica, accordion
Grant Wheeler - Turntables, electronics, keyboards, piano
Jacob Cohen - Electric and acoustic bass, guitar
Eric Heveron Smith - Trombone
Mike Birnbaum - Drums, percussion, electronics
John Phillips Sandy - Tenor sax, flute
John Waters - Trumpet, flugelhorn
Jesse Derosa - Flugelhorn
Andrew Cohen - Tuba
Whit Noble - Clarinet, bass clarinet
Russ Podgorsek - Violin
Andrew Kneble - Viola
Carlynn Savot - Cello
Cody Morrison - Aux. percussion

1. 123 Isnít Easy
2. Dark Days
3. With the Past and Future
4. Janus Plays Telephone
5. Whisper Down the Lane
6. Through the Canopy
7. Stevie Bam Jackson 

Promotional photos of The Landau Orchestra are deceptively minimalist, showing only the two co-writers Matt Young and Grant Wheeler. The sound is much thicker; it's not just a clever name. TLO's latest album, Janus Plays Telephone, is recorded with a huge line-up of fourteen musicians playing over twenty different instruments between them. It must be noted that for the following review, I have focused on the seven tracks on the standard release. However, the review copy sent included two bonus remixes of UK band 4 Hero, two remixes of the opening theme to Pan's Labyrinth and a live version of Unemployment

123 Isn't Easy begins with a ticking percussion line and thick harmonic drones in stereo, a clear instigation of the niche between jazz and hip-hop where The Landau Orchestra rests, very comfortably. The chordal movement of the horns sounds like a page taken out of Radiohead's book of thick, shifting harmony. The horn rhythms shift slightly to the side, leaving drummer Mike Birnbaum to pace in classic swing style as they interject away from the one. The sound is progressive and transcendent, individually raw and collectively smooth. Listening is like being in the middle of an ordered jam session where the musicians move in circles around you. It is the kind of music which elicits an empty interaction with the audience, as if we are intruding and, as with Radiohead, we put forth our own clumsy emotions in an attempt to feel involved. 

In writing this review, I have found it increasingly difficult to situate the music of The Landau Orchestra without doing a track-by-track breakdown. Structurally, it is better to outline a few tracks in detail just to capture the vibe. The rest should be experienced personally. While there is certainly a cohesive feel to the album, the elements of genre employed shift from track to track, so that it becomes almost impossible to put them inside a musical 'box'. Dark Days, for example, leans further towards atmospheric rock, the interaction between bassist Jacob Cohen and turntablist Grant Wheeler strikes reminiscence of Dirk Lance and DJ Kilmore's soundscapes in the lighter side of Incubus. The trumpet lines, while slightly reminiscent of Cake, are thick and raw and sit just on top of Cohen and Wheeler's slowly shifting landscape. The transition from Dark Days to With the Past and Future is one such shift, as we are taken into what is at its core a more traditional jazz style, despite the thick texture the string and horn sections bring. 

Though sidestepping a play-by-play, the title track Janus Plays Telephone deserves its own mention if only for the way in which pianist Matt Young manages to take his traditional and sombre piano opening and inject accelerant. This track swings and swells at its heart like a possessed pirate sheep, the wooden decks swelling and groaning with ghostly shivers, the percussive rattling of scattering crustaceans. And yet, what seems like the aural anarchy of a year spent at sea still carries the simple breathing melody of the strings, weightless in the ocean breeze. 

The rest of the album plays around with similar notions, layering contrasting styles to create a pastiche of sonic delight. It is no secret why these guys were chosen to provide music for Guillermo del Toro's 2006 film Pan's Labyrinth. They are doing aurally what good cinema is doing visually, learning from the masters of the art, reverberating the traditions of past genres but reworking them. Listening to TLO will not draw the jazz artist to hardcore hip-hop and the Landau strings will not draw the classical connoisseur to the art of turntabling. If this is your first introduction to the modern patchwork of contemporary jazz, you're in good hands. 

Sam Webster





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