Polar Bear: Polar Bear Year: 2008 click here for the artist's site
It was March of this year when I heard Polar Bear's 2005 album Held On the Tips of Fingers. I found it completely moving; it was overwhelming. I didn't think that anything would surpass what I thought about their sophomore effort. However, when I heard that they were finally releasing a follow-up this year, my interest was beyond piqued - and my curiosity was rewarded tenfold. Part of what I found so impressive about Held On the Tips was its innovation and fusion within the jazz genre - it's more than just free jazz, more than avant-garde, and much more than anything traditional or simply improvised. It was forty-three minutes of super-high-quality music. When people have asked me, 'What is your favorite music album of all time?' I've never answered with a set disc; it's far too wide-open to give a favorite. However, after a few weeks with Held On the Tips I would answer, 'It's not necessarily my favorite answer, but I'd say this is the one album I'd want if I was trapped on a deseret island forever.' I didn't imagine that it could be eclipsed - and then I imported a copy of Polar Bear's newest effort, the eponymously titled Polar Bear. It has everything that Held On the Tips has, in greater abundance - fourteen songs, seventy-plus minutes of mind-blowingly awesome jazz that has changed the way I think about jazz forever, broadening my musical horizons and deepening my understanding of what jazz can mean. Polar Bear is characterized by inventive drumming, dueling tenor saxophones vying for your attention almost every minute, fun bass lines that leap up and down the neck, and something that no other jazz group I've yet heard incorporates - live, active electronics, strange sound effects, and ambient noises from British ambiance legend Leafcutter John. While it sounds like it would be a gimmick, it actually strengthens and gives the music variety. The whole group has a sense of unity and clarity that lacks in a lot of new-wave jazz. Most of the time it seems like newer jazz groups focus so much on individual improvisation that the main message of the music gets lost in the cacophony of sounds. However, while there are obviously improvised rifts, the whole thing has a very distinct sense of knowledge of where the band is going. It's an album that I can't stop listening to. It's been in my car for weeks, finding its way into the player on an almost daily basis. Usually I'll put another disc in my player, only to find Polar Bear back in there in short order. I can't think of another album that's come out this year that is more honest, beautiful, thoughtful, and introspective - it's easily (and I'm almost sure it'll stay there) the single best album that has come out this year. If you like jazz, do not miss this album - you will be sad you have up until now.
Tracks to catch: Frankly, there isn't a weak part in this entire album, but I suppose I'll enumerate some of my favorites. 'Tay' begins the record with a jaunty beat and fun interplay between both tenor saxes and the double-bass. 'Goodbye' has moments where it sounds like there are laser battles occurring amidst the soaring, avant-garde sax solos. 'tomlovesalicelovestom' is a meandering, sweet song with memorable, vibrant melodies. 'Voices' has moments where you're left wondering where it's going, only to see the resolution and be moved by it. 'It Snows Again' has some of the best harmonies between the two woodwinds - they almost sound like two parts of the same whole, they're so entertwined. 'Joy Jones' has one of the most beautiful, longing melody lines you'll ever hear - one that will resonate with you long after the disc stops spinning.
Rating: 5/5 I'll unequivocally give this album a perfect record. I don't know how people can't love it - I know a lot of people don't and won't, but I can't get over it. It's fundamentally changed the way I look at music, and is the one album I'd want with me if I could only listen to one for the rest of my life. Pick it up - if you're open to new music and ready for a change, you surely won't be disappointed.