It’s been so long since I’ve listened to something and truly felt it was new. Something so daring, so confusing, you want to swear by it, become it, destroy it or be destroyed by it. This year, there’ve been plenty of albums that I thought were good, but only a handful that I’ve sunk my teeth into, that are destined to bookmark this era — wherever we are — in a deeply enriching and absolutely stunning melange. I’ve found this is in Primal Scream’s Xtrmntr and Radiohead’s Kid A, and now, here, with Wax Poetic. Whatever it is that that’s going on now, it’s best spoken through digitized sensual beats, misplaced jazz experiments, borrowed messages.
Wax Poetic savor trip hop traditions and translate them into a language that’s transnational, transcultural, and transhistorical. Starting in New York club as a jam session experiment between permutations of horn players, singers, rappers and Djs, Wax Poetic is currently a 5-member outfit lead by Turkish/Swedish saxophonist Ilhan Erashin. What they’ve developed on their first studio album is part Portishead, part Charlie Parker, and part Erykah Badu; where it locates you is deliciously hard to pinpoint — one moment in a ’40s jazz club, the next a foreign city, the next a itchy, futuristic dream. It’s these melodic and stylistic tensions — bordering simultaneously on the facile and the convoluted, the old skool and the new school — that their musical poetry waxes, and wanes.
In the first full track after their intro, (“Angels”) Norah Jones’ sultry vocals interject unexpectedly, and map the journey from faraway lands, to outer space, and back again. In fact, that’s how instrumentation continues to work throughout the album — always sexy, slightly mischievous, and definitely surprising. After that and another equally sexually charged track, “Drifting” comes the beat juggled, jazz meets speed garage “Selim II”: starting, stopping, rising and plummeting in a frenzy of horns, distorted guitars, ominous male vocals. It’s these juxtapositions (of which the album is full) that indicate the group’s thorough understanding of the current musical landscape — international fusion, internal territorialism, spiritual unrest. The lyrical content is equally complex and questioning. Songs like “Technologie” or “Mother Earth” expose the paranoia of human beings trapped in a world that’s nearly spiraling out of their control, while others toy with themes of dementia, diaspora, and displacement.
Have we as a culture arrived in a place where music can’t shock or undo? Wax Poetic ask that question and seem to answer it this way: you’ll never know unless you’re consistently trying to agitate. What they’ve done here may be what you’ve heard before, in bits and pieces, but the reaction of it all together forms a precipitate that’s wholly original. And impossible to ignore.