Jack Hues and The Quartet – A Thesis on the Ballad EP (2016)

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When Jack Hues and Nick Feldman re-convened Wang Chung after a twenty-year layover for an EP and later a full album, it was a reunion that deserved much more attention that it received. That’s because the 2012 Tazer Up! long player patched together from songs recorded over several years turned out to be a complete return to form, and then some.

Though they still tour together here and there, we haven’t seen the two continue the comeback with a second 21st century LP yet, but Wang Chung frontman Hues remains very much engaged with making music. A side project that he started prior to Tazer with pianist Sam Bailey had grown from privately performing jazz material from the likes of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, etc. to new material written by Hues. Soon, they were a regularly gigging four-piece band with a lineup that along with Hues on guitar settled with Liran Donin on bass and Mark Holub on drums. A couple of well-received instrumental albums came forth in the late 2000’s: Illuminated in ’07 and Shattering in ’08.

A Thesis on the Ballad, officially released on May 5, 2016, represents a bit of a turning point for The Quartet, now called Jack Hues and The Quartet. For one, Hues is lending his iconic croon to the music. Secondly, the combo had recorded three volumes of EP’s featuring Hues’ melodies and lyrics taken from three poets. The third volume is the first one out, and A Thesis on the Ballad is the poetry of Kelvin Corcoran set to music.

It’s music that’s far off from the band’s Thelonious beginnings and much closer in spirit to Hues’ other, better known band. Certainly Hues’ knack for Beatle-esque pop songcraft is there (and reason enough to recommend this EP), but the production is lean and The Quartet plays (mostly) unplugged, so the more comparable album might be McCartney rather than Rubber Soul.

Hues didn’t write the words but he still had to sort out Corcoran’s works and find prose most suitable to mate with his notes. And he shows a knack for making it seem that the poems were song lyrics all along. His tempered but affected delivery brings the words of “Barbara Allen” to life that simple recital could not, especially when he reaches the last stanza, repeating the last line several times for emotional impact:

I think this song may be locked in the brain
even at death, it sounds out as cells close
– Oh Barbara Allen what have you done to me.

Then again, there are times when Corcoran may have had a song in mind all along, such as the prose for “And So,” where he wrote:

If anyone should ask you
do you know who wrote this song?
It was I and I sing it all day long.

Hues set it a simple figure, accompanied by only Bailey and Donin, keeping the spotlight firmly on the poet’s simple words. “Psychopaths” is another strong union of verse and melody, bolstered by harmony vocals. “An Expanse of Water” rocks the hardest, but that’s mainly because it’s the only one for which Holub supplies a beat; the Quartet gets by as a trio for the bulk of these songs.

There are even pangs of prog here and there: “The Truth” is an acoustic drone that sends a mild jolt with a few saws of Donin’s standup bass, and the mellow, two-sectioned “Class War and Sex War” could pass for a Dark Side-era Pink Floyd track.

The back-to-the-basics approach of A Thesis on the Ballad makes its case with the oft-forgotten art of homespun charm and the power of poetry.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at [email protected] .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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