Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.
In this evening’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we’re met with a rather fascinating artist. Nich Mueller, an alternative jazz pianist and vocalist, has recently dropped a new studio endeavor entitled ‘Culture in Flames.’ The ten song excursion through a remarkably dynamic soundscape is, in some ways, the album the independent scene desperately needed. Let’s dig right into it to find out exactly why that is...
The independent scene doesn’t have much jazz - plain and simple. I struggle to represent it here on the Spotlight and on the Jukebox Podcast. The musicians that are popular within the jazz scene are fairly underground, appealing to different subsects of jazz fans. Nich Mueller, I think, has the ability to break out of that box. ‘Culture in Flames’ is a diverse, eccentric, and even erratic experiment. It’s also an accessible one, though, which is very important.
‘Culture in Flames’ was inspired heavily by Mueller’s immersion in the culture of New York City. He cites themes such as “digital age confusion, living in corporate America, travel and self-discovery, the evolution of religion and spirituality, and personal trifles resulting from an increasingly distracting culture.” That’s a lot to consume, but it basically breaks down into Mueller working toward a contemporary jazz record that feels fresh and authentic.
‘I.D.I.C.’ is a stunning opener, exhibiting the prowess of Mueller’s intense backing outfit. His soft crooning harmonies are perfectly placed, his brass and percussion section dance in elegant harmony, and his piano’s musings are the backbone of the performance. This, more or less, is the structure for the rest of the album. Each track, however, offers a variation of that structure in an effort to make the experience consistently compelling.
‘Top Of A Tree,’ for example, infuses Mueller’s vocals far more, even toying with pop musings over a classical landscape heavily dominated by what sounds like a cello performance. Mueller’s experimentation of attaching followable melodies and vocals to his jazz instrumentation is effective, and I think it may prove invaluable in creating that aura of aforementioned accessibility.
‘Somnambularmy’ trades an acoustic piano for what sounds a whole lot like a wurlitzer. The performance actually feels a bit electronic, as if the live orchestration is attempting to mimic the sound of a hip hop beat. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve ever heard in the indie scene, and the track following it, ‘If Only,’ toys with similar creative direction. Also, it’s worth noting that Mueller’s song structure doesn’t feel bogged down in age-old jazz tropes. ‘If Only’ feels like jazz for a new generation.
‘Continuity for the Clarification Crisis’ is an excellent landscape for the saxophone, piano, bass, and drums to accentuate one another in varying tempos as the song whirls around the listener. The track is probably the best showcase of the performers on the record, which is why I think it’s good that it’s also an instrumental.
Mueller’s lyrics are probably the ironically unsung hero of the tracks they occupy. They’ve very understated and sublime - even surreal. Thus, you get lost in Mueller’s smooth croons and they blend effortlessly into his production. There isn’t a better song on the record for that than ‘Nature Boy,’ which also boasts one of his stronger piano compositions. ‘The Ultimatum,’ which is the following track, is actually the most hard-hitting vocal journey of the album, probably because for the first time on the album, Mueller’s vocals take the reins away from the instrumentation, especially in the final moments of the song.
‘Beauty, Shakes Itself’ has a lot of meat on its bone. I listened to four or five times here in my studio, and there’s a few takeaways from it. First and foremost, its execution is incredible. The song explodes out of a proper studio set-up splendidly. Second, the poetic musings of Mueller on the track are cryptic, but existentially intriguing. “Earth goes round again, fooling minds from finding what’s inside of them,” he sings before the track explodes.
‘Universe to View’ strips Mueller of his thick productions in favor of instrumental brevity, with accents his best foray through lyricism on the album. The cascading piano is so chock-full of gorgeous emotion, and in complete honesty, could have been an unforgettable finale on its own. Mueller decided to top himself, though, by offering up ‘Something to Take With You’ as a finale. Its final minute is a cacophony of alternative jazz in the best possible way.
I’m in awe of ‘Culture in Flames,’ which says something, since about fifteen records come across my desk every day. It’s a versed, intensely deep jaunt through jazz that will surely be accessible for Mueller’s own peers. It doesn’t make the genre feel antiquated or ‘retro,’ but rather more contemporary than most music. It feels ahead of itself.
(Whenever I give a gleaming review like this, I must emphasize reading the preface above. I didn’t have to.)