Posted on Aug 15th 2007 01:11 pm

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Cinematic Orchestra: Ma Fleur

Ma Fleur
Ninja Tune 2007
10 Tracks. 49mins08secs

The mid-late 90s produced a boom of acts deriving their sound from what could be called “jazz”. There were jazzy breaks, trip hop, nu-jazz, acid jazz. Swimming in this melee (and anchored on Ninja Tune, arguably the most quality label for this downtempo fix) were J. Swinscoe’s Cinematic Orchestra. After a minor splash with their debut, Motion, and an interesting fore into composing a new soundtrack for Dziga Vertov’s classic film, Man With A Movie Camera, the Orchestra released a bona-fide stunner with 2002’s Every Day. Featuring some truly soul-jarring vocals from the legendary Fontella Bass, in addition to what is possibly Roots Manuva’s finest performance to date on the introspective-without-getting-corny-or-preachy All Things To All Men, it was a direct hit to all those who claimed that such nu-jazz genres were derivative nostalgia with nowhere left to go.

So, now, five years on, Cinematic Orchestra returns with an epic hush with Ma Fleur. Conceived as a soundtrack to a film that does not exist (yet?), it features a melancholy hero portrayed by various singers, including the brilliant-as-always Bass. While Every Day relied more heavily on 21st-century musics, including synthesizers, cut up drums and vocals, and trip-hoppy bass lines, Ma Fleur is a much more restrained work. Plucked acoustic guitars, gentle strings, and slowly disarming vocals are front-and-center here; a headphone album if ever there was one. If Every Day was the chaotic sounds of an exhausted life, Ma Fleur is a weekend retreat to reconnoiter in the countryside.

There’s beauty abound here. It’s obvious that Swinscoe and co. have spent a great deal of time on these songs, making each one a mini-story in its own. This also presents an issue, as every song feels like either an epic, or a brief segue. Of course, epics are the forte of Cinematic Orchestra, making their abundance hardly a surprise. Beats are scarce, and often appear solely to drive home a theme – as in the final third of the stunning album highlight, Time And Space. Elsewhere, the absence of beats establishes overtures (Prelude) and more personal, heartfelt, lyrical recollections (That Home). On the other end of the spectrum, the ebbing bass-keys interplay of Familiar Ground and As The Stars Fall is a perfect cousin to Every Day’s chugging Burnout.

If anything, one’s major complaint with Ma Fleur could be that, at points, it’s just too much beauty. It’s a perfect album for late nights, and for contemplative, withdrawn moments. Absent is the broken beat frenzy of the past – in sticking to a theme, the Orchestra does not break from a melancholic mood, alternating between hope and desperation. Only As The Stars Fall comes close to the chaos of such diced beat exercises as Flite, from Every Day. If the Orchestra must be sticking to a theme, however, it’s a rather rewarding one, and obviously very carefully planned out. As always, they seem to know how best to lay on devastatingly fragile vocals. Listening to Ma Fleur, one can’t help but wonder whether Swinscoe also has a script written up somewhere, never to be released, to keep the cohesive whole together. At times, it’s a meandering overdose of epic beauty, but it’s gorgeous nonetheless.


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