Jono McCleery - There Is Album Review
Let's get one thing straight from the off; I'm a grizzled part time rock hack, and when I see a bio that mentions not just Jeff Buckley and John Martyn in it as artist reference points - and then goes on to throw in Nick Drake and Marvin Gaye for good measure - my bullshit-o-meter starts going off like an IED. Jono McCleery's second album therefore arrives with not so much a ripple but a tidal wave of expectation set against it, on the basis that anyone who even allows their PR's to casually mention Buckley, let alone Drake, needs to be delivering on their promises, and how.
On the other side of the equation you know that Ninja Tune - McCleery's perennially excellent label - also include on their roster the likes of Coldcut, FaltyDL and The Herbaliser. Knowing they rarely allow their standards to drop beneath fascinating, and with curiosity duly piqued, I dived in to There Is with as close to an open mind as is possible, at least for someone still bitter that The Twilight Sad seem destined to never play the One Show.
It would be easy to put something like "It was a journey I was glad I'd taken every step of" or even "Pass me that dish of humble pie please, I'm starving", but it's simply more appropriate to state that There Is is a truly wonderful record, crafted with intelligence, sensitivity and guile. Not quite in the bracket of Buckley's seminal release Grace - but not far from it - that McCleery has remained in relative obscurity probably says more about taste making in general than about his work. After self releasing his fan-funded début in 2008, tours with Bonobo, Fink and the late Gil Scott Heron have led him to a place of obvious supreme confidence, his music appropriating late night reverie via skeletal jazz, stripped back, uplifting soul and slivers of hip hop, doing for the genre what the XX did for dance music you can't dance to.
Glitzy, over produced and obvious this is not. Opener Fears revolves around a gently plucked, sub-flamenco guitar, occasional snare and the singer's voice itself, the multi octave pipes more of an instrument than anything else played. It's darkly sensuous, but the Londoner proves however that he's no one trick pony balladeer, as the likes of It's All and Garden break out into mellow orchestration and a greater feeling of purpose, the former an essay in melancholy relationships in which the doubt and anxiety breaks over a series of pounding drum fills.
It's perhaps appropriate that rather than embracing the nu-folk regime after some patronage from Vashti Bunyan, McCleery instead chooses to cover Black's Wonderful Life, a song of rare depth from a period where introspection was regarded as something of a psychological flaw. That it is probably There Is least engaging moment tells the listener both that the singer treats it with far it much respect, and that the original works surrounding it are of true quality.
Possibly the most effective of these is Tomorrow, a mini suite in two parts, the first in possession of a fragile beauty like a walk in a snow covered park, the second a double bass led, double jointed exercise in smoothness and luxurious texture. At the risk of reverting to less sophisticated superlatives, McCleery delivers the apex in the form of The Gymnopedist, an instrumental on which he manages to sound like Cleo Laine, hums only, and in so doing creates the air of a 60's monochrome Gallic film featuring a naturally vivacious Parisian femme du jour. The kind of thing that will send Zane Lowe into some kind of Kiwi grump and may have your dad sticking his head round the door to ask who's this, it's another of There Is exercises in making the whole far greater than the sum of its parts; in this, like Buckley, McCleery seems to relish in his role as inventor in chief. It would be criminal, if predictable, were this record to disappear of the face of the earth in commercial preference to a thousand less deserving outfits. But if it does, we'll always have Paris.