Album review: Modern Nature – Annual

Album artwork

Words by Alexandra Dominica

Following the untimely demise of the colourful country psych band Ultimate Painting, Jack Cooper returns again with Modern Nature, something of a curious but delightful anomaly in the scene whose experimentally abundant sounds reside in both bucolic folk, jazz fusion and indie spaces. Joining Cooper, we have a collaboration between Jeff Tobias of Sunwatchers and percussionist Jim Wallis whose sounds make root in the minds of the listener and bloom, decay and fall through the ever changing seasons of the human psyche. Under the wings of Brighton label Bella Union, Modern Nature releases Annual, a mini album that serves as a welcomed seasonal companion to their 2019 debut How to Live.

Interchanging between soothing instrumentals and traditional folk pieces, Annual illustrates the workings of our mother nature, as beautiful as she is unforgiving. From springtime renaissance to the vigour and vibrancy of summer, then through fall the autumnal leaves flowing down the river to the comforting quietude of winter solace. Jeff Tobias’s interwoven incantatory sax reverberates with the sparkling spiritual nuance of Alice Coltrane while influences from 60s jazz vanguards like Pharoah Saunders are also audible. Cooper shares his vocal duties with Kayla Cohen of Itasca for “Harvest”, which provides the sharp injection of zest needed for the middle section of the record, and she sings with supreme verve and flexibility before the album plunges into the meditative purdah of “Ritual” and “Wynter”.

Here Cooper has honed his focus, but the question of that sharp artisanal focus detracting from their initial allure is yet to be answered. For their listeners their penchant for the bizarre and eclectic continues and their future ventures are certainly an exciting prospect – perhaps a taste for what is yet to come. Annual is a different creative direction of course and one can appreciate them for stepping temporarily out of their menagerie of sounds into the calm seasonal clearing. Most of the tracks are guitar-led, with “Flourish” being the jazziest and most inviting track of all. Pastoral field recordings drift through, whilst rising melodies refract with brooding symphonies and saxophone accents. Modern Nature might be nascent in formation, but at times they encapsulate and echo the breadth, texture and scope of Talk Talk.

 Introversion, self-exploration and creative freedom – Cooper delivers here his inner monologue and his playfully cognitive thought patterns mixed with gentle landscape observations. It’s a gorgeous subtle progression of musings and feelings, but this at times comes across somewhat abridged. It’s almost as if the beginnings of something magical, i.e. the shorter instrumentals had yet to be fully evolved. Yet, this does not detract enough from its concise and clever construction as a musical, mind-altering almanac.

There’s certainly scope and room to grow here and as Cooper himself encourages, freedom of expression is welcomed, “I want the group to feel fluid that whoever’s playing with us can express themselves and interpret what they think this music is.” That sentiment is one of the reasons why we love them. Annual is certainly a departure from both How to Live and Nature and it is clear Modern Nature are certainly evolving, in whichever way. This album is not so much sectioned but as a whole behaves as one mutable, circling entity that feels like a divine rehearsal, and we can’t wait to see where they go next.  

Annual is out now on Bella Union

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