Polar Bear’s Peepers album has proved to be one of this year’s most enduring listens. Distilling the individual traits that have always made them a great band – finely honed pop suss, an experimental edge (assisted, marvelously, by Leafcutter John’s showers of electronic noise) and, crucially, sense of humour – into just under an hour, it stands as their finest complete achievement to date. While they’ve hit greater heights on individual tracks in the past, it’s a wonderfully self-contained entity, pushing outward with a chaos nicked straight from punk rock and the band’s moonlight hours in Acoustic Ladyland. Even at its saddest and most contemplative, during the softly yearning ‘The Love Didn’t Go Anywhere’, it’s edgy and agitated, constantly on the verge of total collapse and liable to simply disintegrate at any time. The fact that it never does simply serves to double its charm.
So there’s perhaps an inherent danger in choosing to dissect such a strong entire work, especially if that dissection pulls in an entirely different direction. Common Ground’s pitch is a red herring really: its pairing of London MC Jyager and bandleader Seb Rochford isn’t really a Polar Bear album per se, and it sure as hell ain’t a jazz album – at least not in the strictest sense of the word. It’s certainly possible to detect Rochford’s jazz credentials scattered all over it, though they’re reconstituted and reconstructed in the service of something entirely different, slowed down, sliced into pieces and given a brooding, industrial aura. It’s sonically very impressive indeed, and an immersive space as Rochford simply smashes Peepers into a thousand tiny shards and reconfigures them in entirely new, hip-hop-tinged ways. When recognisable motifs suddenly emerge, like the gorgeous cadence that drifts from the foggy background at the end of ‘New Love’, it harks back to the original album’s form, and pushes the two records’ fundamental differences to the fore in a very direct way. Jyager’s anxious, nasal delivery rides uncomfortably above Rochford’s backing thrum; set alongside his lyrics – self-aggrandisement mixed with self-doubt in a neatly contradictory manner – the overall effect is one of stress and urban angst, recreating London’s odd, uncommunicative masses in musical form.
As a separate being, Common Ground could operate independently of Peepers, but alongside one another they serve to enhance each other; it’s probably fair to suggest that it would end up losing some of its punch were it not aligned with such strong source material. And therein lies its greatest downfall: its paired nature immediately draws inevitable comparisons with the original. And while its commitment to pushing the sonic envelope is admirable, too much of Common Ground lurks somewhere around the regions of ‘interesting experiment’. While that’s certainly not the intention with this mini-album, there’s little that captures the imagination like the dueling horns of Peepers’ phoenix-like title track, or the brooding majesty of early masterwork ‘Beartown’. Instead Rochford’s remix production – angular and edgy, like an essay subjected to the cut-up technique – lingers in a vacuum, often unsure of what to do with itself. When the threads converge, as on the scratchy, worried ‘Stay In Control’ or the excellent instrumental mindfuck of ‘Flowerpot Remix’, the results can be spectacular, and for the most part Common Ground is well worthy of investigation. Less one for the completists, more a set of insights into the mind of one of the UK’s most talented musicians, and an intriguing set of rough sketches for something far grander but so far out of earshot.
6Rory Gibb's Score