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Album Review: 'If the Past Seems So Bright' by Jeremy Udden and Plainville

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Jeremy Udden's If The Past Seems So Bright
Courtesy of Sunnyside Records
Here’s a bit of a disclaimer right off the bat: Saxophonist Jeremy Udden's last album Plainville was easily one of my favorite albums of 2011. Part of what made it such a beautiful experience was the fact that I discovered it by accident. Usually when I check out an artist or an album, it has been handed to me or referred to me by some other more informed person. But I merely stumbled upon Plainville, and I was blown away by its folksy melodies. So, I had some pretty high expectations for Udden's new release If the Past Seems So Bright. I found it to be an equally beautiful follow up.

Like Plainville, the overall vibe of If the Past Seems So Bright is one of simplicity and folksy melodicism. However, it has a bit more of an edge than its predecessor. The compositions are simpler, the spaces are greater, and when the band rocks out, it descends into intense electric chaos. Much of the stark and yet grand atmosphere is due to the sparse and tasteful drumming of R.J. Miller. From the very first note of “Sad Eyes,” Miller is loudly clunking down an incredibly slow and spacious 6/8 groove, while keyboardist Pete Rende's Rhodes floats overtop of it, and Brandon Seabrook crafts desolate sounds on guitar.

At times Miller's drumming serves as a brutal counterpoint to the rest of the band, pushing things forward while Udden lithely snakes through his tunes with simple, beautiful lines, and a soft sound, reminiscent of Lee Konitz. Udden is not likely to demonstrate virtuosity, but his warm sound, simple phrases, and use of space say more than an orgy of melodic flurries ever could. Seabrook provides a variety a timbres throughout the record. Whether he's disjointedly plucking a banjo, creating minimalistic tonal landscapes, or shredding on a heavily distorted rock guitar, he always paints a beautiful portrait. Evind Opsvik lays down simple, earthy bass grooves that could be easily at home on a Bill Frisell or a Tom Waits album.

A few tracks help this album really stand out from the previous one. The third track, “Stone Free,” is an unabashed grunge rock tune. Things get loud, and Udden channels saxophonist Chris Speed through some of his chromatic lines and free improvisations, while the band drifts into drummer Jim Black's AlasNoAxis territory. Also of note are the two painfully beautiful vocal tracks, the first being “Bethel” where the wordless vocals are provided by Nathan Belhar. There is no improvisation on this track, and it serves as a mid-album interlude. The last track, “Pause at a Lake,” is a straight-up singer/songwriter folk song, featuring the acoustic strumming and vocals of Justin Keller, minimalistic accompaniment by the band, and interestingly, nothing from Udden himself.

The true highlight of this record is Udden’s song writing. His melancholic songs often remind me of the empty fields, abandoned factories, and boarded up shopping malls in America's heartland. The album could play like a sound track to a Kerouac-style journey across the prairie and small towns of North America. It's jazz, and its improvised, but at the same time its music of the people. It strikes a chord, and fills you with a sense of longing for something you're missing, but you can't quite name what it is. And the true strength and beauty of this music is what it isn't. It isn't chaotic free jazz, or aggressively swinging odd meter jazz tunes, or long-form compositions that feature long prodigious solos. It stands apart from a great deal of the modern improvised music that is happening today, because it manages to be accessible, engaging, and sincerely romantic, while still sounding fresh, new, and experimental. If the Past Seems So Bright is a great record, and one that you might want to listen to on a road trip on a lonely highway.

Release Date:

May 31st, 2011 on Sunnyside Records


  • Jeremy Udden – Alto & soprano saxophones/clarinet
  • Pete Rende – Fender rhodes, pump organ, prophet, wurlitzer
  • Brandon Seabrook – Banjo, guitar, 12- string guitar
  • Eivind Opsvik – Acoustic bass
  • R.J. Miller – Drums
  • Special Guests:

  • Nathan Belhar – nylon-string guitar (tracks 2, 6, & 10), voice and guitar (track 4)
  • Will Graefe – steel-string acoustic guitar (track 8)
  • Justin Keller – voice (track 10)

Track List:

  1. Sad Eyes
  2. New Dress
  3. Stone Free
  4. Bethel
  5. Hammer
  6. Thomas
  7. Film
  8. Bovina
  9. Leland
  10. Pause at a lake

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