Album Review: Modern Nature – Annual

Annual, the new mini-album from Modern Nature
Annual, the new mini-LP from Modern Nature

JACK COOPER has had a mercurial musical decade. Cast your mind back ten years and you’d have found him in that harbour of all things leftfield, FatCat, plying his trade in garage-motorik band Mazes. A tour with indiepoppers Veronica Falls led to a brace of albums filled with sunshiney, Californian country psych as Ultimate Painting, whose critical reception never truly reflected what a cute little band they were; and last year he debuted his latest, intriguing exploration as Modern Nature.

This new incarnation debuted just a few months ago with How To Live: a manifesto of urban-meets-rural, folksy experimentation. And now, in short order, comes mini-album Annual.

Recorded in London last December, this release sees Will Young (also of BEAK>) step aside for the time being, with Jeff Wallis and percussionist Jim Tobias stepping up. Jack says: “It feels like there’s such scope and room to grow. I want the group to feel fluid and that whoever’s playing with us can express themselves and interpret what they think this music is”.

The album had its gestation in a new notebook at the close of 2018. Jack explains: “I began filling a new diary with words, observations from walks, descriptions of events, thoughts … free associative streams of just … stuff.

“As the year progressed from winter to spring, the tone of the diary seemed to change as well … optimism crept in, and then things began to dip as autumn approached … warmth, isolation again and into winter. I split the diary into four seasons and used them as the template for the four main songs. The shorter instrumentals are meant to signify specific events and transitions from one season to the next.”

And indeed the seven tracks are difficult to separate out; the two short and five fully-fledged pieces stand as a song-cycle. Jack confirms: ““The intention with the record was for it to feel like a circle, so Wynter reflects the opening.”

There’s a lot at play here, in terms of nuance and texture: Jeff Tobias’s sax playing (and your scribe mostly, full disclosure, runs fast in the opposite direction at the mere idea of saxophones in rock) is poised and crafted, with a hint of classic Impulse! blowers like Pharoah Sanders; I can detect a little of Solid Air in there too. Arnulf Lindner’s double bass is woody and opulent in the grand tradition of Danny Thompson. The jazzy langour of tracks such as “Flourish” even brings to mind the underrated, eponymous LP The Telescopes put out for Creation.

The album is not just rooted in time, but in place, as Jack explains: “ I live on the edge of London, between Leytonstone and Epping Forest” – and for me that geography holds a key: the free creativity, the whispered delivery, a certain cool, steady gaze overall, brings to mind a more pastoral, Hex-era Bark Psychosis, fellow East Londoners, but instead of staring to the Thames, the A13 and the industry, Modern Nature gaze out to the edgelands and the woods.

There’s a temptation to see a mini-album as a slight stopgap – I’d disagree. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci’s The Blue Trees, anyone? Although it clocks in at about the 21-minute mark, Annual is a fully formed artistic statement, with layer upon layer of soundscape. It’s going to be fascinating to see where Modern Nature go next.

Modern Nature’s Annual is available now from Bella Union on LP and CD

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