Rael Jones: Mandrake
Believers Roast

On his nine-track chamber classical music collection Mandrake, composer and cinephile Rael Jones draws inspiration from a number of well-known films: the album is named after the Mandrake plant, which figures into both Pan's Labyrinth and the Harry Potter franchise, and other settings carry with them ties to Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Watership Down, and Y Tu Mamá También. Said connections are meaningful to Jones more than anyone, however, and the average listener's enjoyment of the material wouldn't suffer in the absence of such background detail.

As a composer, Jones's melodic material is accessible without lacking in integrity and emotional but not sentimental. His oft-romantic music exudes a melodic grace and at times unabashed emotional intensity (the opening “Lacuna,” for example) that calls to mind Schoenberg's 1899 work Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night). Occasional echoes of other composers surface within the pieces, Bartok, Stravinsky, and Debussy among them, but that Jones has been influenced by precursors hardly qualifies as a knock against him. Sonically speaking, it's a rich collection, with a string quintet (led by Sara Wolstenholme of the Northern Sinfonia) complemented by Jones himself, who embroiders the strings' playing with piano and acoustic guitar on some of the tracks.

One of the recording's strengths is the variety of moods it explores. Egged on by footstomps, “Feet” is an aptly titled scherzo whose devilish lead violin playing wouldn't sound out of place in Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat, and one also detects a hint of Bartok in the music's rustic folk dance character. In keeping with its title, “Jimmy Runs Home” is an impish piano piece that exudes a playful lightheartedness reminiscent of Debussy's Children's Corner, after which the combination of acoustic guitar and strings lends “Silflay” a pastoral and outdoorsy quality. It's fitting, too, that “Boca Del Cielo” is the name of a Mexican beach in Y Tu Mamá También, given how convincingly the sensual music evokes the film's preoccupations with passion and sex. By contrast, “High, Plain” offers a brief foray into shimmering nachtmusik, while the dramatic duo setting “Algernon” finds Jones providing piano backing for an emotive solo turn by Wolstenholme. At twenty-eight minutes, Mandrake is more a mini-album than full-fledged long-player, yet a clear and promising portrait of the artist emerges despite such concision.

December 2013