Put simply, the Leaf Label releases some of the most consistently innovative and emotive music today. It regularly defies genre, leaping between the swollen strings and electronic compositions of Murcof to the dusty nostalgia and intimate textures of Colleen to the fragile swaths of ambient sound composed by Susumu Yakota. Knowing this, it comes as no surprise that Pick Up Sticks manages to stand tall in such strong company.
It’s experimentation at its finest — several musicians coming together, embracing both technology and tradition, in turn creating a record that sounds completely original. It’s a fascinating combination of minimal jazz and electronic music, augmented by organic percussion elements. Pick Up Sticks needs to be listened to intently — its tiny nuances comprise the most rewarding moments.
Frontman Bill Wells is best known for his talents in composition and his contributions to the Glasgow music scene. He’s worked with Belle & Sebastian, Arab Strap and the Pastels, among others. On this release, he recruited world-class trombonist Annie Whitehead and electronic musician Stefan Schneider of To Rocco Rot as collaborators, along with German luminary, singer/songwriter Barbara Morgenstern.
Recorded in Berlin, the resulting sound is largely improvised, featuring Whitehead’s trombone work interspersed with plodding electronic beats and textures that add warmth to the arrangements. The formula is best seen on “A Soldier’s Shoulder.” The trombone is declarative yet restrained and serves as an additional rhythmic element as it dances next to a thick electronic cadence. A processed glockenspiel adds a gentle layer to the composition, sitting amidst tinny pops and crackles of sound.
“Waft” is another highlight, and though it relies more on keyboards, Whitehead’s trombone sounds melancholy and utterly expressive given the minimal, almost ambient tone of the piece. “Perfect Window” is undoubtedly the best example of just how expressive the album can be despite this overall restrained tone. The mournful, open trombone sits alongside acoustic guitar and low-pitched synth pads as a gentle flam of wood clicks the time. Despite its strengths, the arrangement is not allowed to develop enough. It ends before it fully unfolds, a qualm that applies to a few other songs on the album.
Despite minor shortcomings and a few premature endings, Pick Up Sticks manages to largely revel in its restraint, working with tension as a major building block. And, to the utmost credit to the musicians involved, keep in mind that the songs were largely improvised. An impressive feat, given the sheer beauty and emotion captured within such a minimal canvas.