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Jaga Jazzist - The Stix

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Artist: Jaga Jazzist

Album: The Stix

Label: Ninja Tune

Review date: Jul. 28, 2003

Fusionary Tactics

Although they’ve been a relative unknown on this side of the Atlantic, Norway’s Jaga Jazzist have spent the past ten years honing their deft blend of jazzy, melodic post-rock and thumping electronic programming. At times their music can conjure up the oft-maligned term “fusion," but Jaga’s alloy is stripped of all limp elements and replaced with an almost prog-inspired knack for quirky time signatures and quick shifts. The Stix, their second full-length, represents a further refinement of the efforts that first came to light on their debut A Livingroom Hush (reissued domestically by Ninja Tune). The melodies this time out are dizzier with more complex arrangements and effortlessly integrated electronics to boot. Whereas their debut at times felt like too much of a forced electro-acoustic pastiche, The Stix revels in smooth seams and graceful transitions.

The first few tracks on The Stix quickly cycle through all the things at which Jaga Jazzist excel. “Kitty Wú” opens things with a fine mix of heady, ascendant melodies that pass through horns and synths alike against a trade-off between rhythmic electronics and wily drumming. “Day” emphasizes pulsing beats, loping melodies and sky-high shoegazing synths, segueing nicely into the skittering drums, urgent harmonies, and over-the-top horn bleats of “Another Day”. “Suomi Finland” slows down and spaces things out a bit. This track relies less on sonic overload and temporal dexterity than its predecessors, initially allowing for keyboards to compete with vibes for the dominant melody, pausing for a brief interlude of guitars and flutes.

The remainder of the record finds the band spinning variations on their central themes. “Aerial Bright Dark Round” is more pensive and brooding than anything else here, with a neat contrast of grainy electronics and forlorn brass that eventually gives way to swelling synths. “Toxic Dart” again finds sputtering electronics squaring up against sax lines, thus setting the table for the full-band climax with electronic and acoustic drums clattering away against simple guitar refrains, while “I Could Have Killed Him in the Sauna” works the climactic interplay of the band to great, swirling effect.

The album becomes problematic at points when it seems as though the band’s main desire is overload – that is, piling layer upon layer of effect and instrumentation in an effort to make the listener swoon or perhaps demonstrate their own virtuosity. At times it’s blindingly effective, and at others it almost feels like overkill, as if the band could have easily worked with a few of ideas and explored those to more fulfilling conclusions. It almost feels as though, when listening to the album as a whole, that such a rush of shifting melodies and time signatures makes it distinctly difficult to retain anything. Admittedly, subtlety might not necessarily be Jaga Jazzist’s method of choice, but there still is something to be said for more understated approaches and textures.

In the end, though, any complaints leveled against The Stix are relatively minor. This is still exhilarating music that’s expertly composed and played. One would hope that in the future Jaga Jazzist will slow down and explore some of the neglected corners in the basement of their composition, or rely less on busy arrangements to convey a full effect. Whatever the case may be, while presenting no astounding leaps forward in terms of concept or composition, The Stix still survives as a great and meritous listen. Having achieved success in their homeland in both the critical and commercial aspects (this album debuted at No. 3 on the Norwegian pop charts), it would be nice to see Jaga Jazzist experience similar accolades in this country as well.

By Michael Crumsho

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