Album Review: Jaala – Hard Hold

homepage_large-f4d59bbdMelbourne’s Jaala are a four-piece band, fronted by charismatic vocalist and guitarist Cosima Jaala. Having just dropped their first single in July, Jaala have spent 2015 doing some cool things – showcasing at BIGSOUND, racking up airplay and supporting friends Hiatus Kaiyote on their Australian National Tour.
Their debut album ‘Hard Hold’ was released late November. Produced and engineered by Paul Bender (of Hiatus Kaiyote), it was recorded in only a week during ‘a burst of energy’.

Jaala’s eight-track ‘Hard Hold’ is an imaginative body of work. Flirting with a variety of genres, each song on the record has a momentum that rises and swells like the tide. Somehow, throughout my listens, ‘Hard Hold’ managed to project an outdoorsy, night-time landscape into my mind – like maybe the band spent a lot of time by the sea writing these melodies and lyrics, looking up at the stars…or thinking about doing those things, anyway.

To kick off the record’s lush, playful title track, Cosima’s polished voice rolls in on a wave of contradictions. It’s simultaneously sweet, throaty, clear, hard-edged, contemporary and vintage; a little girl with a tiger’s growl. Her melodies flutter prettily around the swing of jazzy, trashy guitar chords, and rapid-fire changes of feel and time signature, all the while also conveying a certain unhinged emotion. Her howling ‘How?’ at the end was a beautiful finish to this breakup song; we all know how it feels to be left with more questions than answers.

‘Lowlands’ has a moodier vibe, its evocative lyrics and melodies recalling the likes of Mazzy Star. Strummy guitar chords, short-lived buildups and releases, and quick riff changes abound here.

‘Salt Shaker’ brings the whimsy, with more of those swift tempo and mood changes, interesting guitar riffs, and some beautifully unexpected vocal trills. Lyrically, it’s a gem: ‘I lick the salt right off my hand/ Helps me to feel like I’m still by that ocean/ That’s where I left my whole family…’ I also love the fact that the band kept the imperfection of that clanky guitar take at the beginning – a bold move, but one that makes you feel you’re right in the room with them playing. I read later that the album was ‘tracked live with limited overdubbing, keeping as close as possible to the live energy of the songs’, which explains a lot.

The ‘rockiest’ song on the album is definitely ‘Warsong’. The instruments really drive this one. I loved the long, atmospheric delays on Cosima’s vocals, but unfortunately, it meant her lyrics were basically unintelligible. I think she said the word ‘face’ a lot?

Mid-album was a good place to put ‘Order’. It’s very ambitious, but it pulls it off – constant riff evolutions, and ubiquitous, chaotic snares combine to create the most punk vibe of the record. The song was aptly named; it definitely felt like a disruption to order, almost dissonant at times. Cosima plays with vocal volume, switching between her sweet yelp and a ballsy, tightly coiled ska-style vibrato. She also introduces us to her wicked scream…along with that awesome laugh at the end.

I wasn’t that fussed on the summery, groovy ‘Double Dutch’, although it does have some fun, jazzy bass, and more of Cosima’s wonderful scream. In its good moments, this one made me think of someone frantically twirling around in a circle. Unfortunately, I think they bumped into things a lot.

‘Ticket’ is a great example of how you don’t need lyrics to rhyme to be effective. The work from drummer Maria Moles, bassist Loretta Wilde and guitarist Nick Lam is quite excellent here. ‘Ticket’s music creeps from soft and tentative to distorted and dangerous with dizzying suddenness, matching the mood of Cosima’s vocals – ‘A little too easy/ when you saw my name in lights/ A little too easy/when you thought I was a ticket…’

To finish the album, the lullaby-like ‘Hymn’ crashes at the shore; an appropriate closing track. The mix gives us the most upfront vocals of the album, and I love the song’s smooth guitar tremolo, washy drums and confessional lyrics.

Overall, ‘Hard Hold’ is a solid effort. However, whilst the music and lyrics have clearly been crafted with capable hands, the album as a piece of work can get a little grating to listen to because of the constant time signature changes, the scarcity of hooks, and the fairly consistent overall mood throughout its eight songs.

Due to the quiet vocal mix and Cosima’s experimental style, it’s difficult to make out what she’s singing a lot of the time – which is a little annoying, because the lyrics I could hear were poetic, understated and evocative. When vocals are unintelligible, music can be in danger of becoming mere ‘background music’ – but that could just be my personal listening style.

Listeners who like modern jazz, blues, and music with a progressive vibe will probably dig this record. For popular music fans, it may prove too much of a challenge.

 

Rating: 7/10

Artist: Jaala
Album: Hard Hold
Label: Wondercore
Genre: Indie Pop, Progressive, Jazz-Rock, Alternative
Released: 20 November 2015
Highlights: Hymn, Hard Hold, Lowlands, Ticket, Salt Shaker
Lowlights: Double Dutch, Warsong

This review was written by Bec.

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