Album: Stephen Jones

1985–2001, Easy!Tiger
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The Independent Culture

Better known by the Baby Bird persona through which he brought a welcome air of sardonic estrangement to Britpop, Stephen Jones is a man of many musical masks. Despite selling over two million records (most of them, admittedly, copies of his Big Hit Single), he's actually one of British music's most underrated talents, the overwhelming familiarity of "You're Gorgeous" tending to conceal the more diverse aspects of his work.

Hence, presumably, the reversion to his real name for this compilation of previously unreleased instrumental pieces. After all, why hide behind a pseudonym when he's presenting what, according to his press release, is "the music that means most to him"? And rightly so: reflecting Jones's abiding interest in movie soundtracks, the 24 tracks come across like a film composer's showreel, displaying the impressive breadth of his talents across a vast range of tones and textures.

It's certainly packaged with great love and care, as a triple-pack of three-inch mini-CDs, surely the cutest (and most collectable) of digital media, with each batch of eight tracks hanging together as a self-contained sequence. The first is reminiscent of Brian Eno in his Music For Films/Before & After Science period, with lots of ethereal textures conjuring up crepuscular moods: the whispering ghosts and wistful keyboards of "Nevercoming Home"; the glistening purity of the piano and string pad in "Nervous Ice In Cheap Cola"; and most dramatically, the poignant desolation of "0-1-800-JESUS", where the music's gentle swells are ultimately beached on the frozen wastes of a televangelist sermon, one of the occasional disarming vocal samples Jones employs to populate his pieces.

The second disc signals its difference with the lovely "Arthritis Kid", a winsome, jaunty confection of what sounds like celeste, breakbeat and a small child's prayer. From there on, the music seems to grow muscles, with a series of engaging breakbeat montages like the trip-hop noir exercise "25 Watt Halo", the bustling "Tolls On The Freeway" and the evocative "Gang Cult No.5: The Black Reindeers", every bit as menacing as it suggests. Jones's penchant for quirky titles peaks with the third disc, where "Baby Jesus Opens His Presents" (expectant xylophone and synthetic flute) rubs uncertain shoulders with "Tealeaves On The Rooftiles" (a long, reflective keyboard piece bookended by bustling intro and outro) and the frankly undeniable closer, "Commercial Suicide".

What's especially striking about 1985-2001 is the variety of emotional colours Jones conjures up, and his particularly fine ear for the power of resonance, with lots of chimes and other high, bright timbres employed to illuminate those emotional colours. In most cases, the mood of a song is so specific you never notice the absence of words. Indeed, in a period when virtually all genres are dominated by arid, lyrical cliches and off-the-peg attitudes, this is an instrumental album that speaks more loudly of real living, breathing humanity than many songwriters' entire careers.