Steve Jansen: Slope

Slope is one of those special albums that occasionally appears when a “back-up” musician, normally relegated to the shadows, tentatively steps into the spotlight for a brief moment before just as quickly stepping out of it. Of course, Steve Jansen is no mere back-up and, furthermore, Slope is no tentative outing. Aside from being David Sylvian's brother and one-time Japan band-mate, Jansen also has contributed significantly to his more famous brother's solo career (Jansen's drumming is heard on Brilliant Trees and Gone To Earth). David returns the favour by singing on a couple of Slope's tracks, with Anja Garbarek, Tim Elsenburg, Nina Kinert, and Joan Wasser also taking turns. Though vocals and lyrics are handled by others, Jansen's responsible for the compositions which, in classic one-man band fashion, are assembled via multi-tracking (Jansen plays drums, percussion, guitars, piano, Rhodes, and contributes sampling and string arrangements too).

The music defies easy categorization but might be described as a midpoint between Burnt Friedman's electronic jazz and David Sylvian's atmospheric songwriting. “Grip” casts its restrained spell using a tastefully modulated weave of electronic percussion, piano, strings, skittering accents, and trumpet and voice samples, with additional interjections from Theo Travis's icy saxophone. The mood and melodies are largely querulous throughout this remarkable overture. Going it alone on “December Train,” Jansen is literally a multi-limbed orchestra, judging by the subtly charging arrangement of horns, bass, drums, and guitars. Elsewhere, instrumentals like the neo-classical clarinet, piano, and strings setting, “ A Way of Disappearing,” act as bridges between vocal settings.

On the vocal front, Jansen gets a lot of mileage out of his guests' contrasting styles. The aptly-titled “Sleepyard” unfurls languidly with Elsenburg contributing a sleepy vocal over a downtempo arrangement of vibes and strings. Garbarek drapes her faerie-like coo over the percussion-rich funk of “Cancelled Pieces,” while Feiner's gravelly voice lends a funereal air to the curdling “Sow the Salt.” Sylvian lays his dramatic quiver over the ruminative ballad “Playground Martyrs” and then returns, accompanied by Joan Wasser, for the slow-burning swagger of “Ballad of a Deadman,” perhaps the album's most memorable and evocative song. The piano-based blues-dirge “Life Moves On” moves us into the album's final stages, after which “Playground Martyrs” is reprised in a delicate ballad treatment featuring Kinert's supple voice that provides a stirring close to this beautifully crafted collection.

February 2008