Over the course of 2019, Paste has reviewed about 300 albums. Yet, hundreds—if not thousands—of albums have slipped through the cracks. This December, we’re delighted to launch a new series called No Album Left Behind, in which our core team of critics reviews some of their favorite records we may have missed the first time around, looking back at some of the best overlooked releases of 2019.
Jazz guitarist-turned-electronic producer David Nord nearly handicapped Old Friends, his sophomore album as Spoony Bard, right out of the gate. By kicking things off with a rap in the Aesop Rock mold, where ev-er-y syl-la-ble rolls off the tongue in a way that’s become a well-worn cliché by this point, Nord makes it all too easy to dismiss him as an artist who’s 20 years late to the party. But the track, titled “ego trippin part 99,” also signals a willingness on Nord’s part to affect an exaggerated vocal style that works against the exotic hip-hop jazz instrumental that unfolds underneath. Nord rhymes over a delicate piano figure, a guitar with a tastefully applied wah-wah effect, keyboard strings, handclaps and a soft beat—all of which showcase how graceful his touch can be as a producer and arranger.
From that point on, however, Old Friends achieves an unexpected creative liftoff. By the time the album winds down in a gurgle of Moog and bass guitar, you’ve just sat through one of the most fluid, inspired and downright beautiful albums of 2019. On “ego trippin part 99” (a nod to golden-age hip hop pioneers De La Soul), Nord introduces himself as “Half Juilliard, half school of hard knocks.” Apparently, he felt he had to establish some kind of cred, or at least spell-out for the audience that he has feet in two different worlds. He doesn’t have to—and will likely never have to again, at least to anyone who listens to Old Friends from start to finish. Once Nord lets go of the need to dictate the context and simply allows the music itself to do the talking, the singularity of his muse comes beaming through.
With the second track “levitate me later,” Nord essentially reprises the same musical theme as “ego trippin part 99,” only this time re-constituted as a jazz fusion/prog merger that allows us to imagine a world where Yes and Chick Corea begat hundreds of musical offspring. Maybe we do already live in that world—at the very least, everyone from ’70s fusion giants Mahavishnu Orchestra to current-day omnivores like Thundercat have shown us glimpses of it. But Nord’s lilting jazz guitar chords, rubber-soul bassline and sung vocal chorus reminds us that there are entire universes still left to explore at the nexus where these forms bleed over into hip-hop production.
Indeed, if record stores were still the primary outlets for musical discovery, some free-thinking store clerk somewhere might have created a “modern fusion” section for LPs like Old Friends, Thundercat’s Drunk, Flying Lotus’ Flamagra and Teebs’ Annica (released on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label). And, as Spoony Bard proves, this new iteration of “fusion” isn’t mutually exclusive with “soulful as fuck.” On “extralewd 1,” for example, Nord crashes the same ballpark as, say, blue-eyed indie-soul outfit Unknown Mortal Orchestra with keyboard fanfare that’s so grimey and brash you’d think Nord was storming the stage at the Super Bowl draped in jewelry. At the same time, even the delightfully gaudy “extralewd 1” doesn’t deviate from Nord’s deftness with chord progressions.
Clearly, Nord is a composer with all manner of jazz composition techniques at his fingertips. He could have chosen to twist these songs into overly-complex knots, but instead, he keeps the album direct, hummable and melodically satisfying—on second thought, nourishing would be the better word. The vaporous keyboard haze that phases in and out of the (initially) downtempo “areia,” for instance, hits the ear the way a warm, homemade soup radiates from the center of your chest outwards. From there, “areia” actually takes off on a busy, fusionesque gallop. Likewise, a keyboard solo on “extralewd 1” zig-zags so wildly that it threatens to send the entire track careening off the rails (in the most exciting, tension-building way). If you zoom-in on individual parts, there’s actually a ton of high-energy, chops-in-your-face playing on Old Friends, yet Nord’s hand always gently guides the music back into a more settled gear.
Where artists like Thundercat fully embrace the chaos of splattering genres against one another, Nord has created fusion in the most complete sense: a music whose appeal is based on finding the cohesion between various influences, rather than highlight the sharp differences between them. There’s certainly room for both approaches, and with Old Friends, Spoony Bard has taken his rightful place at the table.