Seb Rochford’s Polar Bear have always been appealingly resistant to easy pigeonholing. Yes, the most immediately ‘jazz’ of his many projects they may be, but there has always been an awful lot more going on under the surface. Take 2005’s Mercury-nominated Held On The Tips Of Fingers as an example. The first Polar Bear album to feature abstract beatmaker Leafcutter John, his subtle contributions carved out a physical space for the rest of the band to operate within, surrounding drums, sax and bass with a bewildering array of clicks, whistles and swift ultrasonic pulses. If reverb and delay provide a open spatial geography for music to operate within, tracks like ‘Beartown’ and ‘Fluffy (I Want You)’, with its haze of melody and motion, went one further and defined that world in detail.
While their self-titled follow-up expanded these horizons, stretching their sound outward to embrace a widescreen, cinematic approach, fourth album Peepers contracts that space inward to produce a different beast again. It may have something to do with Rochford’s decision to record the album in as close to the live setting as possible, performing mic’d up as a group, but its twelve tracks are the band’s most immediate and intimate yet. It couldn’t be better titled – everything on Peepers is wide-eyed and full of youthful exuberance, possessed of an infectious energy that leaches from the speakers as though the band themselves were playing inside. From the off, the low-slung groove of opener ‘Happy For You’ bursts outward in a whirl of colour, Leafcutter John’s diffuse guitar strums bringing it the closest Polar Bear have ever come to Acoustic Ladyland’s brazen rock energy. And as ever, at times Pete Wareham and Mark Lockhart’s sax conversation comes close to one-upmanship, phases of locked co-operation suddenly dropped for furiously traded one-liners.
Where Peepers really improves on their previous albums though is its fluidity, the band’s many years spent playing together suggesting an effortless ease with one another. The result feels more natural than anything they’ve yet recorded, the improvisation tighter and more intuitive than ever before. The lopsided shuffle of ‘Drunken Pharoah’ pits the arrogant swagger of Rochford’s percussion against threatening stabs from Wareham and Lockhart, generating an aura of coarse unpredictability appropriate to its name. And when they drop the pace during the soft melancholy of album highlight ‘The Love Didn’t Go Anywhere’, instead of aimlessly meandering they bring every detail into sharp relief in turn, as though placed under a slowly shifted lens.
What makes Polar Bear so hard to pin down as simply a jazz band is an elegant willingness to bring outside elements to the table. Both Rochford and Leafcutter John are restlessly inventive in their approach to rhythm, timbre and tempo across Peepers’ length, Rochford as comfortable with smoky 1920s grooves as with the martial stomp of the title track. On ‘A New Morning Will Come’ they experiment in drone, sax generating a backdrop of drifting ambience, and ‘Hope Every Day Is A Happy New Year’ (aside from having one of the best titles I’ve heard for ages) is infused with the delicate thrum of electronics just within earshot. In a RBMA interview with Kevin Martin of King Midas Sound last week, he spoke about how restrictive inbreeding within a sound leads to stagnation; what Polar Bear offer is musical cross-pollination, an open door approach to influences that informs everything they record. That this attitude is so fully explored on Peepers makes it their finest effort yet, a rough-cut gem that reveals different facets of itself from every angle.