Saturday, July 10, 2004

Bill Wells w/ Stefan Schneider, Annie Whitehead and Barbara Morgenstern
Pick Up Sticks
The Leaf Label
Released: May 25, 2004
4.0/ 5

Put simply, The Leaf Label releases some of the most consistently innovative and emotive music today. It regularly defies genre, leaping between the swollen strings and electronic compositions of Murcof, to the dusty nostalgia and intimate textures of Colleen, to the fragile swaths of ambient sound composed by Susumu Yakota. Knowing this, it comes as no surprise that the recent release, Pick Up Sticks, manages to stand tall in such strong company. It’s experimentation at its finest—several musicians coming together, embracing both technology and tradition, in turn creating a record that sounds completely original. It’s a fascinating combination of minimal jazz and electronic music, augmented by organic percussion elements. Pick Up Sticks is most certainly a record that needs to be listened to intently, as the tiny nuances comprise the most rewarding moments.

The frontman, Bill Wells, is best known for his talents in composition, and his contributions to the Glascow music scene. In the past, he’s worked with names such as Belle & Sebastian, Arab Strap and The Pastels. On this release, he recruited world-class trombonist Annie Whitehead and electronic musician Stefan Schneider of To Rocco Rot as collaborators, along with German luminary, singer-songwriter Barbara Morgenstern.

Recorded in Berlin, the resulting sound is largely improvised, featuring Whitehead’s trombone work interspersed with plodding electronic beats and textures that add warmth to the arrangements. This formula is best seen on “A Soldier’s Shoulder.” The trombone is declarative yet restrained, and serves as an additional rhythmic element as it dances next to a thick electronic cadence. A processed glockenspiel adds another gentle layer to the composition, and sits amidst tinny pops and crackles of sound.

“Waft” stands as another album highlight, and though it relies more on keyboards, Whitehead’s trombone sounds melancholy and utterly expressive given the minimal, almost ambient tone of the piece. “Perfect Window” is without a doubt the best example of just how expressive the album can be despite this overall restrained tone. The mournful, open trombone sits alongside acoustic guitar and low-pitched synth pads, as a gentle flam of wood clicks the time. Despite its strengths, the arrangement is not allowed to develop quite enough, and ends before it fully unfolds, a qualm that stands with a few other songs on the album.

Despite these minor shortcomings and a few premature endings, Pick Up Sticks manages to largely revel in its restraint, working with tension as a major building block. And, to the utmost credit to the musicians involved, it must be remembered that the songs were largely improvised. An impressive feat, given the sheer beauty and emotion captured within such a minimal canvas.

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