Wham City veteran Ed Schrader has teamed up with bass player Devlin Rice to produce one of the oddest albums to land on my desk this year. Jazz Mind, their 11-song, barely 20-minute debut, swings wildly between the apocalyptic rhythms of a stripped-down Swans and a kind of minimalist, new age psychedelia. The first two tracks pretty much stake out the poles that the rest of the album drifts between: the plodding, Pentecostal fury of “Sermon” and the sparse, watery psych of “Gem Asylum.” Schrader’s delivery in each of these modes is so different that I initially thought that the two members must have shared vocal duties. His caustic wailing on songs like “When I’m in a Car” and “Gas Station Attendant” sound miles removed from the gloomy baritone of Jazz Mind’s more sedate entries.
But some of my favorite tracks are the ones that bridge the gap between the record’s extremes. “Right” weds “Sermon’s” lumbering pace with a more restrained vocal and bolsters the Music Beat’s spare instrumentation with some lovely machine squall, courtesy of ambient electronic duo Matmos, who also contribute to two other tracks on the album. “Do the Maneuver” is an ominous slow-burner that shies unexpectedly away from a grand climax in favor of a more subtle, sinister conclusion. The least interesting offerings tend to be the ones that veer off into Joy Division territory; “Traveling” and “My Mind is Broken by the Sound” bring little of their own to the table, and even the addition of No Age’s Randy Randall on guitar can’t help the latter track from sounding like a low-rent Blank Dogs.
While the stripped-down arrangements create some obvious limitations and drive the band repeatedly towards the same motifs, it’s hard not to be impressed by how good this album sounds. Much credit is due to engineer Twig Harper (Nautical Almanac, Scheme, Mini-Systems). When Schrader pounds on his drum, we hear not just the drum, but also the way it resonates within the three-dimensional space of the studio; meanwhile, Rice’s bass melodies maintain a tight, clean tone on the more dialed-back numbers, but open up with a full-throated garage roar when things get messy.
For all its restrictions, Jazz Mind is a tasty little album. Its brevity coupled with the individual tracks suggest that Schrader is aware of the limitations of his chosen MO. And, given that the group began as a solo project for Schrader and his floor tom, there is a possibility that future outings might explore more complex (but hopefully still batshit weird) arrangements. Wherever they go from here, they’re a group worth keeping an eye on.