For an instrumental group to introduce vocals, they have to brace themselves from near certain backlash. A vocalist can immediately reshape the identity of a band or, in small doses, can confuse that identity and divide fans.
While Do Make Say Think may have proven that it is possible to incorporate a little vocal work on a predominantly instrumental album on You, You’re a History in Rust, Pelican showed us that sometimes it’s best not to tamper with an established sound on What We All Come to Need. The Samuel Jackson Five still hasn’t found worldwide recognition, so they are in a better spot to tamper.
For the Norwegian instrumental group, who built their sound around a jazzy, syncopated pop sound with inflections of folk, there appears to be a lack of certainty with the addition of vocals on their fourth and self-titled LP. Three of 11 tracks feature vocals from three very different singers.
“Electric Crayons” features the voice of Thomas Bratlie, which fits perfectly in the post-Coheed and Cambria alternative rock world. It’s a rather puzzling choice for the group, even if they do draw from similar prog rock influences. The 5/8 groove provided by the band keeps the piece somewhat afloat, but most are going to find Bratlie’s contributions off-putting.
Next up is “Ten Crept In,” with vocals by Truls Heggero of Norwegian Grammy-winning Lukestar. His vocals will immediately call to mind Michael Angelakos of Passion Pit when he isn’t straining for the high notes and his performance matches the SJ5 sound much better, at least with this one example. It even has single potential. However, with the likeness to Passion Pit he may not be the best choice to form a sound around.
With the final vocal tune, “Tremulous Silence,” Pål Angelskår (of Minor Majority – another Norwegian Grammy winner) has some sort of Neil Young-meets-Bill Callahan thing going on which doesn’t work at all when the band pumps up the distortion in the back end.
So while it’s easy to get down on the band for going with some odd choices, we can also attribute it to the fact that these guys have a really wide range of sonic potential and it would be hard to find one guy that can fit it exactly. Still, it’s hard to call this anything other than a failed experiment. Had “Ten Crept In” been marketed as a single, it would have worked much better.
What about the other eight tracks? Well, much of it is SJ5 as usual: Syncopated rhythms, noodly guitar riffs with the occasional banjo and blast of woodwinds. The band, perhaps for some continuity includes some vocal “ahs” and “oohs” from time to time in the other tracks which are inoffensive.
Supposedly this album has more of an urban vibe than its predecessor, Goodbye Melody Mountain, citing “Mockba” and its sampling of noises from Berlin at night in particular. Truth be told its hard to see what’s specifically urban about it, but all the same it’s one of the better tracks on the album.
The other highlights pop up toward the end: “Perennial Candidate” and “And Then We Met the Locals” pull out all the stops before “Low Entropy” closes the album as a mostly solo guitar piece that recalls Steve Howe’s beautiful guitar asides on various Yes tracks.
While roughly half of the tunes are on par with the quality fans have come to expect from SJ5, the vocals distort their identity and kill some of the flow. Plus, none of the three singers seem to really fit well enough to keep on board for future work. Perhaps the band should have first done an EP with vocal collaborations to test the waters before sticking them onto a full-length like this. Hopefully they’ll get this figured out for next time.
The Samuel Jackson Five – The Samuel Jackson Five tracklist:
- “Never Ending Now”
- “Electric Crayons”
- “Radio Gagarin”
- “Race to the Self-Destruct Button”
- “What Floats Her Boat”
- “Ten Crept In”
- “A Perennial Candidate”
- “Tremulous Silence”
- “And Then We Met the Locals”
- “Low Entropy”