There’s a fiction writing style called head-hopping. It’s when a single story is told from the point of view of many different characters. The story intro begins with Character A, then the point of view shifts (or hops) over to Character B who tells the story as they see it, then Character C gets a turn, maybe a return to B, and so on. It’s a tricky style to wield, and it’s why it’s done infrequently and, often, badly. And that’s understandable… it’s a tough proposition just to take a spark of creativity, bring it to blossom, then nurture it through a story arc life all the way to its final resting place of The End. For a writer to attempt this creativity life cycle from multiple angles adds a degree of difficulty to an already difficult challenge. It’s too easy for a story to end up jumbled and incoherent. It’s really not advisable.
It’s also not a style unique to fiction writers. Musicians do it, too. But whereas the writer expresses points of view through words, musicians do it through sounds. Similar to the risk posed the story, an album can end up lacking cohesion and identity. It’s really not advisable. But, damn, when it works, the result is a thrilling ride of notes and themes. Personally, I run into very few albums that successfully pull it off, but when I do, they sit near the top of the favorite albums on my shelf.
That brings us to Threads Orchestra, and their album Threads.
Your album personnel: Adam Robinson (viola), Julian Gregory (violin), Chris Montague (guitar), Kit Downes (piano), Rus Pearson (bass), Kristoffer Wright (drums), and Semay Wu (cello).
This album is not a fusion of jazz, classical, folk, Americana, tango, and rock. This is a story told from the point of view of each of those characters.
The album opens with the avant-classical piece “Attached.” It’s a fearful beast, drawing inexorably closer. Skeletal piano lines ominously announce its arrival. Strings use harmony like sharp blades of steel. Drums are the thumps of heartbeats gone cold. What we have here is a horror story.
But that’s not how second track “Gene Wilder” sees it. Opening with sprightly piano trills and plucky strings, it’s a happy afternoon love affair. And if there were any question about this, when the strings swoop in like sunlight, the terror of track one is a distant curiosity.
However, third track “Titus Salt” elicits imagery of Big Futures and setting out on a journey of self-discovery. The melody is fragmented, and presented in escalating steps. It endows the tune with an asymmetry that is simply intoxicating, much like watching each mesmerizing step of a tightrope walker, and the exhilaration of vicariously experiencing the sudden fear of falling and the recapture of balance. Heavy on the strings, but judicious in parsing out time in the spotlight, this is a sound very reminiscent of Bill Frisell’s Disfarmer/Signs of Life bluegrass Americana. It’s also my favorite album track.
Fourth track “Jay-Zee” begins quiet as a mouse, then explodes into folk and tango, gypsy strings, a jazz piano solo, guitar rock solo, and a rhythm section that borders on both jazz and rock. It’s a tempest of a song, and its fury can make it easy to forget anything that came before.
Now, let’s talk about what’s come before and what’s still ahead. Telling the story from multiple points of view, head-hopping, is more than just switching whose eyes the story is seen from. Because, ultimately, it has to be a single story, a cohesive solitary point which the differing views are all staring at. There have to be commonalities, connecting attributes to show that this is one story as told by many people and not just a collection of vaguely interwoven stories that only share a front and back cover. On Threads, yes, the album is told as through the points of view of many characters, but each tune shares elements which bind them into a singular tale.
The heavy avant-classical of the opening track is a motif that makes appearances throughout. It may never dominate again as it does in “Attached,” but other characters/songs register its presence throughout. No different than the jazz and Americana and tango and rock in the first half of the album; they also make return appearances. For a story, it would be described as establishing the community; for an album, a cohesion of sound. But however it’s described, it has to do with tying it all together.
On fifth track “Inheritance,” it’s a quiet ballad of comforting strings, lilting piano, reassuring guitar, and the quiet ambiance of the sun setting over the horizon, street lights dotting the landscape, and a city letting down its guard as the day comes to a close.
Of course, the onset of darkness brings us back to the dangers of night. But where the opener was pure fear, there is a Halloween whimsy on sixth track “Oliver Reed.” The Norman Bates strings are juxtaposed against tango and gypsy swing, and it’s easy to chalk the willies up to the fun kind of scared, which, in the end, is no kind of scared at all. Fun wins yet again.
Album closer “T&C” has finale written all over it… a triumphant march off to the horizon after overcoming conflict and obstacles, of all the characters reveling in the moment together, as one. Piano is head held high, strings uplift the spirit, guitar is a wide grin, and drums & bass are a comforting patter of It’s Alright Now. It’s a gentle swaying tune, a stroll that feels at times like swing. It’s a happy ending and it’s the words The End.
Astonished that this excellent album didn’t hit my radar in 2011, I’m glad to have discovered it at all. Threads Orchestra will be releasing a new album in 2012, details to be reported later. You can be sure I’ll be reviewing it, and if it’s anything as wonderful as Threads, you can expect another enthusiastic recommendation.
The album is Self-Produced. It was released in 2011. Music from the UK.
You can stream the entire album, and purchase it, on their Bandcamp page.
Also, you can stream the entire album on their website, which has an embedded Soundcloud player.
Download a free album track at AllAboutJazz courtesy of the artists.
Also, I wrote a First Impressions article on this album a month or two ago for Bird is the Worm. You can read it here to see what my very first thoughts were on my very listen listen to Threads, as it was happening.