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Modern Nature - Annual Music Album Reviews

The group’s new mini-album is their most consistent and focused, but by drawing their sound down to its essence, they dampen the anything-goes spirit that made them so appealing.

In the 16 months since the release of Modern Nature’s debut EP Nature in March 2019, the group led by guitarist Jack Cooper has explored krautrock, paganesque British folk, sideways In Rainbows jams, spiritual jazz, tape loops, meditation music, and the kind of minimalist indie rock Cooper forged with James Hoare in their group Ultimate Painting. Modern Nature’s new mini-album, Annual, is their most consistent and focused release to date, but by drawing their sound down to its essence, they dampen the anything-goes spirit that made them so appealing. As a result, Annual feels polished and smartly constructed, but limited in its scope—a high-definition planetarium that makes you wish for the night sky.
Annual purports to be a calendar cycle of songs, beginning at the end of the year and moving through the seasons, culminating in the return of winter. Instead, this 20-minute suite feels more like a bleak February set off by a weekend-long warm spell. The overall mood is dark, gray, and cloudy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Where last year’s full-length How to Live felt like an exurb meeting between Neu! and Fairport Convention, Annual is more at home in the territory of Songs: Ohia, Low, Ryley Walker, or the Sufjan Stevens of Seven Swans: American artists working in the dim light of midwestern winters.

This is a mode that suits Cooper well. With Will Young focused on BEAK> and momentarily out of the picture, Modern Nature have scaled down to little more than stand-up bass and shuffling drums that follow the lead of Cooper’s guitar, which curls like a flag in low wind. Like Talk Talk, a heavy influence here, this iteration of Modern Nature uses shadow and suggestion, their small size somehow standing in for the immensity of the object upon which they’re focused. Sunwatchers’ Jeff Tobias, whose sax whirled across How to Live, mostly reduces himself to textural work, laying down a high-pile carpet that serves as the foundation for many of these songs. In Ultimate Painting, Cooper perfected his sense of negative space, carving his way through the group’s albums with deceptively complex guitar lines. Here, he’s backed by a band capable of matching him step for step.

But it’s hard not to miss the risk-taking of Modern Nature’s previous releases. “Harvest,” whose lead vocal is sung by Itasca, is stroked along by swells of guitar, and just when the song seems ready to strike deeper into the darkness, it sputters out on Cooper’s brief, throat-clearing solo and a couple of leashed bars from Tobias. “Halo” glances in the direction of a long, low-stress jam à la Alice Coltrane, but ultimately decides it’s not worth the trip; a stretch that seems like the prelude to a pleasurable workout turns out to be nothing more than a yawn.

Despite its misfires, the ambitious scale of Annual’s song suite is another step forward for a young group evolving at an unnaturally fast rate. The band’s all-gates-open conceit has clearly sparked something in Cooper, who is already at work on a follow-up, and who seems more aware than ever of just how malleable a song and a band can be. All the more reason to wish he’d hammered harder.
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