For their third album, About Group is still chiseling away at the niche they’ve created as a foursome, through a mutual love of experimentation, improvisation and pop songwriting. Of the four members, Alexis Taylor is not only the biggest name working on the project, but also the most easy to identify by the work on new album, titled Between the Walls. But despite Taylor’s unique voice, noticeable for anyone familiar with his work in Hot Chip, About Group has not taken off commercially in near the same respect. And regardless of whether this album somehow finds an increased audience, it will be their last as a four-piece together, as Charles Hayward has announced that this will be his last album with the band.
For the unfamiliar, About Group was founded as a way to create music from a spontaneous collaboration. Their first two offerings were both recorded in a single day, with the framework of the songs being previously written by Taylor and then brought to three musicians to see what they can make out of it, basing their decisions on quick impressions and instincts. It sounds like a cool idea, and it works as well or maybe even better than expected (in that it sounds professionally made), and Taylor has long been a strong enough songwriter that at their core, About Group is going to have a big positive just from the start.
And, About Group is not made up of unwilling participants. The band, rounded out by John Coxon and Pat Thomas, are game to jam, and jam is what they do. Between the Walls is strongest when it keeps the jams on songs shorter. On “Words,” Taylor has a keyboard-driven melody that remains unadorned at its base, similar to the vocal inclinations of James Blake. About Group manages to catch the song at its fragile points and turn it into a busy and unsettling composition, filling in the gaps with atonal elements that are hinted at in the album’s opening minutes and repeat throughout.
“Make The World” mines a comparable territory, and though not indebted to noise, the song makes it clear that the band is clearly aware of the most talked-about experimental genre right now, and that it also works through improvisations. On “Nightlife/Sinking,” Taylor lays down a gentle, emotionally honest keyboard ballad, and in the back is a faint organ that seems to be going free jazz at the same time as the song, to the point that it is unnerving, like two people in adjacent practice spaces who would never meet but are jamming from a distance. This sensation, though likely unintentional, is funny if you think about the title of the album and how some of the songs might sound between the walls on two distinct creators.
The difficulty in such a project is that Between the Walls is not being vetted as it would in traditional songwriting, and ultimately is not as enjoyable—as least not in the same way. Where musicians can listen for the choices and the technique on an About Group album, the average fans will catch on to the fact that work offered little time to be recorded will keep your interest for a proportionally small time. Or, the other danger is that a song written quickly might inadvertently ape, say, Amy Grant’s church-gaze classic “El Shaddai,” as “I Never Lock That Door” does. Between the Walls is an album about process and unless you were there, you’ll never understand or appreciate it like the four principals. But, as is, it’s still an enjoyable listen and an admirable project, and one that will continue to draw curiosity, even without Charles Hayword.