Eyes of a Blue Dog – Rise

RiseEyes of a Blue Dog take their name from a short story by the Latin American ‘Magical Realist’ author Gabriel García Marquez, in which a narrative of frustrated desire unfolds entirely within its protagonist’s subconscious mind. The group are less lost to abstraction, merging ambient electronic soundscapes with dark, beats-driven song.

The group is comprised of the British trumpeter Rory Simmons (also electric guitar and electronic treatments), the Norwegian drummer Terje Evensen (also electronics), and the Norwegian, UK-based singer Elisabeth Nygård. Rise (Babel Label) is their debut album.

Simmons and Nygård are both from the British experimental jazz scene—Simmons is a member of North London’s LOOP Collective, while Nygård, of Leeds’ LIMA collective, has sung on both albums to date by Simmons’ group Fringe Magnetic—but this band takes its cues primarily from the experimental hinterlands of British electronic pop.

Although their press release shies away from any such association, there’s a strong dose of trip-hop in Eyes of a Blue Dog’s musical makeup, albeit they give it a nu-Nordic twist. Nygård adopts the ingenue sing-song style of Martina Topley Bird on “Rise”, while a backing of blunted beats is reminiscent of Trick’s Maxinquaye sound. And with Nygård’s voice at a cold remove from its moody, metalliferous rhythm track, “Falling” might have been modelled on Massive Attack.

But Eyes of a Blue Dog aren’t simply derivative. Simmons combines with Evensen to reinterpret the sonic tropes of mid 90s electronica according to the current sensibilities of experimental and improvisational jazz.

“Mai” makes for a downbeat opener. Simmons plays a solo, muted, of burnished mournfulness (cf. the haunting end title theme from the movie, Chinatown) over submerged loops and a blend of kit drums and insectoid electronic percussion. There are no vocals here, and although the music for all nine tracks is collectively credited five of them are instrumentals.

A guest bassist adds low-end ballast to “Marble Faces”, as prickly guitar and trumpet loops chip away at skittering polyrhythms. Simmons’ trumpet takes the melodic lead, both here and on “Knee”, where he plays wonderfully, shaping notes from silence as if in tribute to Kenny Wheeler until electric keys pick out a counter-melody. Less successful, the repetitive/motoric “Little Piece of Everything” goes nowhere, and outstays its welcome.

Where she features, Nygård makes a big impression (the album comes over as song-based). She sounds less pliant here than either when singing standards or in collaboration with Colin Riley’s avant-garde electro-acoustic ensemble MooV. Her sticking to narrower emotional ranges suits the present trio’s songbook. She sounds something like a breathy Goldfrapp on the dark ambience of “Nothing Dies with You”; more like Anja Garbarek on “Reject the Rhapsody”, where she sings over a synthetic bass line that punches into off-kilter electro made from drive-by beats. A nice interlude has Nygård’s voice exposed, with just guitar and ghostly ambient noise for accompaniment. It’s one intimate moment on an otherwise coldly effective collection.

Nygård’s affectlessness and Simmons’ restraint suit the textures that result from Eyes of a Blue Dog’s electro-analog pre- and postproduction merger of songcraft and soundscaping. Rise transcends its influences thanks to the trio’s feeling for jazz, which they bring to bear by degrees of expressive subtlety.

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