Eyes of a Blue Dog are an Anglo-Norwegian trio consisting of Elisabeth Nygaard, Rory Simmons and Terje Evensen. "Hamartia", the follow-up to their acclaimed debut, "Rise", had its work cut out for it. And while many would consider them a "Jazz" ensemble (of sorts), the question that would arise would be: "Will this be more or less jazz than before?" The answer: yes. And No. And mostly: who cares?
Album opener "Spin Me" begins with a yearning vocal from Elisabeth Nygaard, before gliding through a melodic mixture of guitar and electronics. Hints of traditional folk weave in and out (particularly in the vocal harmonies), but don't let this bare-bones description fool you into thinking this is some kind of sub-par Eurovision entry. Echoes of Mimi Goese's "Soak" era recordings come to mind.
"Closer" delivers a much more sonically distinctive sound, driven, but not aggressive initially, and taking on a soul-tinged vibe with the arrival off the vocals. The chorus is languidly acrobatic and memorable, emotional without hysteria, and strong – very strong. Rory Simmons' trumpet solo in the coda rounds things out beautifully.
"Desire" has an Oriental vibe, although the beat is distinctly western. The song builds moments of tension, threatening to tear itself apart. Rather than self-destruct, instead we reach a glitched arp crescendo, warbling unsteadily into a sudden silence.
"Vicario Square" offers a dreamscape, led by beds of ambient wash and trumpet. While Nils Petter Molvær might seem like an obvious comparison, it doesn't fit: Simmons' trumpet technique is utterly different, as is his choice of notes. Instead, we have Ultravox's "Vienna" deconstructed and merged with playing more reminiscent of the solo trumpet of "The Godfather Waltz" from "The Godfather".
"Unhappy Mondays" (great title!) is a slow-burner, somewhat less immediate than the songs that precede it. Strangely, it has something of a sunnier atmosphere than the title would suggest.
The title track,"Hamartia", stutters and jitters its way through a jazzy melody, washes itself with electro dub, and lifts with a driving beat, like an acid jazz classic with its wiring exposed and sparking.
"Drug I Can't Deny" shows how the blending of a strong melody and a strong beat with a dreamlike bed of sounds can create something that possesses both energy and emotion without utilizing any standard tropes.
"Luminescence" is a wonderful little reverie, somewhat childlike (without being childish), short and bittersweet.
"Before The Night Ends" features Fyfe Dangerfield on guest vocals, and the combination of his voice with Elisabeth's is stunning. This song stands like a monolith in size (most of the songs barely exceed 4 minutes, while this one weighs in at over 6), and possess an epic quality (again I think of Mimi Goese, only this time in her collaboration with Ben Neill, "Songs For Persephone"). It's a beautiful song, and despite its length, doesn't overstay its welcome.
"Blow" returns us to that deconstructed acid jazz feeling, although there is a hint of IDM about it (harmonically, rather than those drillbuzzing beats). Personally, I feel transported to an Hispanic villa, but one about which there is a sense of some kind of threat beyond its perimeter. The strings are particularly key to the sound of this track (although there's also something about it which would allow it to fit into a Jess Franco movie soundtrack … but better not!)
"Macondo" is another reference to Gabriel García Márquez (the band name comes from the title of one of his stories), and is the location of many of his works (most notably "One Hundred Years of Solitude"). Another brief instrumental, it shares DNA with the likes of "Treefingers" from Radiohead's "Kid A", and feels like a single shaft of light leaking into the album's barn.
Eyes of a Blue Dog produce the kind of music that should appeal to those who enjoy Anneke van Giersbergen or Liv Kristine (in their less RAWK forms), or the aforementioned Mimi Goese. However, what sets Eyes of a Blue Dog apart from their contemporaries is a more experimental edge, a willingness to try alternative sounds and techniques within the pop song format. The addition of Tim Harries' bass (as found on Puul with Terje Evensen), particularly on the title track expands the sonic palette just enough to give additional impetus to the evolution of the band's sound since "Rise". Likewise, the addition of violin and cello (by Paloma Deike and Natalie Rozario respectively) increases the organic feel, and this is certainly no bad thing. Some fans of "Rise" may find this album too different in some ways (the classic "jazz" elements are fewer on "Hamartia", for example, yet the improvisational feeling is perhaps more intense), but difference in this case should not present any issues. The compositional integrity remains as strong as before, and the will to innovate more so (but without any signposting saying "innovation here" as occasionally there was with "Rise"). Clearly, the trio have the means to continue their explorations, not least exemplified by their songwriting skills (it's always easy to overlook these when faced with such clever production and arrangements).
And how did I feel after hearing their second album? I found myself eagerly anticipating their difficult third.