I fell for Acoustic Ladyland when Held On The Tips Of Fingers, their sort-of sister group Polar Bear’s second album, was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2005. Acoustic Ladyland’s own second album, Last Chance Saloon, came out around the same time and the two seemed to me like a perfect pair; one sophisticated, the other raucous, but both broad-minded and identifiable as the work of (almost) the same people. I hoped they’d always release albums in tandem.
Acoustic Ladyland managed to get a third album out way before Polar Bear though. Released just before Christmas in 2006, I reviewed Skinny Grin at the time, and made bold claims for its genius and potential as a marketable crossover from the vibrant London jazz scene that’s produced seemingly scores of tokenistic-jazz-choice Mercury nominations – as well as Polar Bear, Melt Yourself Down, Basquiat Strings, Portico Quartet, Sons Of Kemet, and avant-rock choices The Invisible were all connected to the same musical network. I was convinced Skinny Grin would garner universal acclaim and massive success.
Sadly, although it definitely got the acclaim (at least amongst the narrow demographic who paid attention), its bizarre choice of release date saw it fall into the cracks between Sufjan Stevens Yuletide boxsets and Celine Dion ‘best ofs’, and nobody outside the crowd of usual suspects seemed to become enthused by it; it was too late to make any 2006 end-of-year lists, and by the time the 2007 ones rolled around, it had been forgotten in favour of Battles, who did a similar thing but seemingly from a different direction.
Skinny Grin is frenetic, groovy, teetering-on-the-edge-of-chaos stuff. It starts with a delicately deployed piano before a melange of furious, compressed noise erupts and destroys everything around it. If you think that’s out there, wait until you hear “Salt Water (Scott Walker Mix)”, in which the legendary singer adds what sounds like a muzzle of angry electronic bees to the jerking, multi-directional instrumentation. Guest vocalists (and bandleader Pete Wareham, trading saxophone for microphone) add a punky, poppy dimension to some tracks, but it’s the (predominantly) instrumental tracks that hit the hardest, packing a progressive punch that transgresses genre boundaries like little else.
The way album closer “Hitting Home” emotes through its beatifically wistful groove shows that they’re not just hyperactive crazies, though. Likewise Wareham’s sax line five minutes into “The Room”; just as the chaos of the vocal section is broken away into placid waters for the final time, an astoundingly beautiful melodic run emerges. Tracks like “Cuts And Lies” are outrageously kinetic, dirty funk, though, and the reconciliation of all these different sides of the band is thrilling.
For a brief moment, Skinny Grin transformed Acoustic Ladyland from an exciting curio and made them seem essential; at least to me. They moulded Coltrane, Hendrix, Morphine, Napalm Death, and a million other sounds into something genuinely new, genuinely exciting, and genuinely, bafflingly wonderful. It’s a little intense and effervescent to throw on too often, but six years later, when I do, it’s still pretty much guaranteed to blow the back of my head off.