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“All My Gray Skies Turn to Blue:” Dubstep, Jazz, or Somewhere in Between, Has Submotion Orchestra Given Us 2011’s Finest Hour?

September 24, 2011

For the purposes of this review, let’s talk genre for a minute, shall we? Since I first stumbled upon the Leeds band Submotion Orchestra a few days ago, everything I’ve read about the band has linked them to the once-underground, now-fully-mainstream-integrated genre of dubstep. The more I listened to their remarkable debut album, Finest Hour, I began to mentally paraphrase the old Don Henley “Boys of Summer” lyric: “I thought I knew what dubstep was. What did I know?”

I don’t want to belabor the “Is Submotion Orchestra really dubstep?” point, because I’m not qualified to answer the question. Frankly, the genre is almost completely alien to me, besides superficial familiarity with Burial, James Blake, and a couple of other standard-bearers. I can say that the Submotion Orchestra sound is more organic, more acoustic, and more song-oriented than what I thought would be welcomed into the dubstep fold, even as Finest Hour does feature some of the heavy bass, skittering beats, and washes of manipulated digital sound that are more characteristic of the genre. Who knew that a dubstep track could fit in well between Stan Getz and Burt Bacharach on the (hypothetical, but I wish it weren’t) Legacy of Cool Jazz and the Brill Building radio hour?

My final genre-related thought is that if I were an influential person in the movement to keep jazz relevant in 21st century pop culture, I would kidnap Submotion Orchestra, call a press conference, drag the band to a podium, and announce to the world, “This is the future of vocal jazz!” The alluring Ruby Wood is a jazz chanteuse of the highest quality, and looking at the bios of the band members, I see that nearly all are alums of the Leeds College of Music and several are active in other jazz combos. Even the band’s DJ/producer/sound manipulator, Ruckspin, is a classically trained violinist. In short, this band has jazz chops, and if I were Verve or Blue Note Records, I would sign this band immediately and send out a video news release, titled “Jazz is Alive and Well,” with nothing but this:

OK, on to the music on Finest Hour, which, whatever you want to label it, is some of the most elegant and moving I’ve heard all year. Never showy, always fitting with the needs of the songs, Ruby Wood’s vocals are accomplished, soulful, and sweetly aching. Side note: as indicated in the above video and this longer full-band performance, Wood is a transfixing stage presence. Eyes closed, smiling like one who has known both great joy and great sadness, slowly gesturing for emphasis, Wood inspires adoration. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that she’s breathtakingly beautiful as well as profoundly talented.

The other musician who commands immediate attention is horn player Simon Beddoe, who primarily plays flugelhorn and trumpet and even uses mutes, which I love. Beddoe’s conversational playing achieves what all great trumpet work does—adding a haunting, cavernous, sensual air with every note. His phrases somehow sound like falling teardrops, and when he sustains a long note three quarters into the album version of “All Yours” as the rhythm section finishes building back up to full strength, it’s almost impossibly lovely. Unlike what I experience with the average rock guitar solo, the moments leading up to one of Beddoe’s several Finest Hour solos (as on “Suffer Not,” for just one example) are filled with actual anticipation. I always know he’s about to say something.

In all, I wouldn’t change a second of the aptly titled Finest Hour. Along with every song on the album, I highly recommend two pre-album singles, “All Night” and “Sunshine” (the source of the lyric quoted in the title). All are available in the U.S. via download on iTunes or eMusic. Call it jazz, call it dubstep, call it what you will—this is near-perfect music, and Finest Hour is a solid contender for my favorite album of 2011.

  1. Anonymous permalink
    September 25, 2011 8:55 am

    Wow. That’s gorgeous. This makes me wonder what Portishead would have sounded like if headed up by Sade.

  2. Lloyd permalink
    September 25, 2011 12:36 pm

    Agreed. The album is a bit darker and moodier in spots, with a harder production edge than the acoustic video above, but it’s all just beautiful to me.


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