One of the inescapable realities of being a music critic is that one only has the opportunity to cover that which one hears. And so – despite the most valiant efforts of a conscientious publicist who’s working the account – if an email goes unopened, if a one-sheet goes unread, there’s every chance that some fine music will escape the notice of said reviewer.
That almost happened here. The PR rep handling the self-released Music for Cats – the latest from instrumental jazz duo After Ours – first emailed me about the record in July. Whoa. Somehow I missed that email, plus more-than-I-can-count followups sent over the following months. And while in some cases persistence can be an annoyance, my sense is that he had done his homework and truly felt I’d be the right audience for the music of this duo based in Michigan and (locally, here in) Asheville.
So he persisted. And I am grateful that he did. Because Music for Cats is among the most enjoyable albums I’ve heard this year. So good, in fact, that it really belongs on my Best of 2023 list*. I finally read and responded to his late-December message, listened to an evaluation stream, and said “yes please” on a physical copy (vinyl, as it happens).
After Ours self-describe their music as head-nod jazz. The duo is looping guitarist Eli Kahn and drummer Arthur Schroder, and the music they make is expansive, sounding like much more than two musicians. They claim influences ranging from hip-hop to folk to rock, and I do indeed hear all of that and more in the grooves of Music for Cats. Sometimes Kahn’s guitar sounds like a sitar; other times he reminds me a bit of Robert Fripp. And Schroeder’s breakbeat-informed approach bridges the space between ‘50s hard bop and hip-hop. Some found-sound vocal snippets are folded into “Cerberus,” the album’s opening cut.
This is some very accessible music that’s cinematic in scope. The hooks are sharp as they’d be in rock or pop, the grooves as deeps as the best funk, and the playing as warm and expressive as the finest jazz. You’ll hear bass guitars, vibraphones, synthesizers and other instruments (most by Kahn), and they’re all seamlessly integrated into the music. Sometimes – as on “Aloe Vera” – you won’t be sure at first if you’re hearing a guitar, sax or synth. And ultimately it doesn’t matter: the music is the ting, and the delivery device(s) aren’t the point.
Head-nodding indeed it is. Those who enjoy New Mastersounds but are open to something a bit dreamier and contemplative will most certainly find pleasure in this music. At time – and in part because of the vibraphone – the music may evoke thoughts of early ‘70s crime-and-spy jazz, but then the corkscrew guitar parts suggest something closer to Larry Coryell, Frank Zappa or Steve Vai. It’s a neat trick to make music that’s thrilling and laid back at once, but that’s precisely what Kahn and Schroeder have done with this superb album.
* I’m now revising said list of four albums to include Music for Cats and one other.