Emotional Joystick: PLAYS!
Zod Records

In the grand tradition of ‘60s Blue Note and other like-minded jazz labels, the album title of Emotional Joystick's PLAYS! heralds virtuosic display on an instrument of choice, in this case Thomas Wincek on Fender Rhodes. Though he's joined by guests on a few pieces, the album is largely a solo affair with the splatter of Wincek's electric piano merged with frenetic drill'n'bass structures. Pairing the fluid feel of live playing with programmed beats doesn't sound like a natural fit yet here it generally succeeds, primarily because he keeps the beat structures loose and spontaneous; though obviously a well-managed illusion, the instruments sound as if they're interacting spontaneously. The band name tellingly hints at the music's tendency to shift between moods and styles, illustrated most pointedly by “Ask Me No Questions” which conflates dub, funk, jazz, and drill'n'bass into a captivating throwdown in only three minutes. Though Wincek favours a fuzzy Rhodes sound reminiscent of Miles's late-‘60s bands, the album itself emphasizes more of a soul-jazz than free blowing style (“Bottle Rocket,” “Can We Rap?”).

The album is a middling affair, though. On the plus side, there's a memorable dubbed-out, reggae-meets-drill'n'bass episode (“Reparation”) plus a single-take, jazz- and blues-flavoured Rhodes solo (“Blues for Ben”) of lounge character that offers respite from the album's otherwise dense attack. Notwithstanding a slightly acidic, soul-funk hidden track, “Sometimes Always” ends the album appealingly with buoyant rhythms and simple yet inviting melodies. Two tracks weaken the album: the piano slithers through hardcore gabba beats in “Is Dead” to annoying effect and, when cartoonish, stop-start structures in “I'm Not Elton John” alternate between pounding beats and voice samples, the joke wears thin fast and the piece ultimately seems a waste of time and energy. Still, PLAYS!' positive moments outnumber the negative. A final note: though the album's stylistic range helps camouflage the potential limitations of the Rhodes-beats combination, Wincek might consider extending the soloing duties beyond piano; the inclusion of vibes at the conclusion of “Bells Bossa” suggests what an enriching difference another instrumental voice could make to the Emotional Joystick sound.

August 2005