Spring Heel Jack’s fifth album for Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series is a toughie to pin down. That’s typical for this subdivision of the label these days, but The Sweetness of the Water defies categorization because it so stubbornly mashes and mixes up soundscapes that just don’t belong together. I’m all for this level of freedom and anti-traditionalism — especially given that the only genres, save the nondescript “experimental,” this album could possibly be filed under are jazz or classical, both stalwarts of traditionalism. But at a certain point a band has to recognize its strengths and weaknesses, and the best moments on this album contradict the ideology that it was seemingly recorded under.
“Lata” opens with a triumphant, shimmering organ chord over a squawking sax and a staticky sample. And it sounds great — unabashedly beautiful yet simultaneously violent and confusing. The gorgeous organ chord progression continues and is layered with a nasty sax solo that’s totally incompatible with the music it’s obscuring. It’s a nice touch, in a sense, to veil the song’s easy beauty with the horn’s demanding difficulty (what an un-American concept!), but you’re left wishing the gratuitous had won the battle. “Track One” and “Autumn” follow similar fates, although the (sincere?) cheesy heroics of the latter sound great.
Much of the rest is very “free,” usually blending ambience and amorphous busyness with horn soloing and scattershot percussion. On tracks like “Quintet” and “Duo,” all players unite in formlessness; no instruments come to the fore or demand any more attention than the next — it’s aural abstraction. Like a lot of “experimental” music, occasionally it’s jaw-dropping, but more often it’s kinda dull. As my mom quipped about “Duo,” “It sounds like they just tossed their instruments in a blender.”
A lot of The Sweetness of the Water is either moody ambient music or free-instrumentation assaults, both of which tend to fade to background music unless the groove is perfect or one or more of the players just rocks. Occasionally it happens on this album. Occasionally. The Sweetness of the Water is a respectable attempt at a rather ideological type of music, but when your record’s unlistenable without really being that interesting, you open yourself up to the critique: “At what point is this just gratuitous?”