Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: The Messthetics And James Brandon Lewis The Messthetics And James Brandon Lewis


Something changed when I turned 40. I developed a taste for tea. I started dressing, in the words of one friend, “like a history teacher.” And suddenly, after never giving the genre more than a respectful hat tip, I want to listen to jazz all the time.

This did not come entirely out of nowhere. I was already a bit jazz-curious thanks to indie-friendly endeavors like the boundary-pushing International Anthem label and Promises, the late, great Pharoah Sanders’ awe-inspiring collab with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. But the Austrian-born, Ibiza-based saxophonist Muriel Grossmann provided my road-to-Damascus moment.

When our upstanding jazz columnist Phil Freeman recommended Devotion, Grossman’s December LP, it caught my attention because it was released through Jack White’s Third Man Records, which has been on fire lately on the indie-rock front with releases by the likes of Hotline TNT, Snööper, and Sheer Mag. Hearing Grossmann’s Coltrane-style wailing, alongside an organist, guitarist, and drummer who were cooking with exploratory gusto, was enough to leave me jazz-pilled. It was like somebody flipped a switch. I’ve mainly been going back to all the classic bop records like some classic-rocking teenager discovering Dark Side Of The Moon for the first time, but my ear is perked for new stuff too. And thanks to the aforementioned projects plus incendiary talents like guitarist Mary Halvorson, there’s no shortage of great jazz artists straddling the gap between styles, ready to become a gateway into the genre for curious rock fans.

The saxophonist James Brandon Lewis is one of the most formidable talents at that intersection, playing brightly and boldly, with a richness of melody that makes even his more discordant skronks and flutters hit like hooks. Like Grossmann and Halvorson, Lewis is affiliated with a record label better known for rock and folk; ANTI- released Eye Of I, the more fractured and experimental of his two 2023 albums. On Eye Of I, Lewis’ tenor sax was backed by live drums and an often distorted cello, which made “Someday We’ll All Be Free” creep forward like post-rock and “Middle Ground” hit like a warehouse noise set. On closing track “Fear Not,” Lewis teamed with the Messthetics, the trio of guitarist Anthony Pirog, bassist Joe Lally, and drummer Brendan Canty.

Lally and Canty are, famously, the rhythm section from Fugazi. In the Messthetics, you can hear that old chemistry loud and clear, even when they venture away from their post-hardcore background and into jazz fusion territory. Nowadays, instead of the dual-threat Ian MacKaye-Guy Picciotto vocal attack, their rumbling foundation is topped off by Pirog’s jazz-rock shredding. Over the course of two albums for Dischord in 2018 and 2019, the Messthetics established themselves as a unique force of nature, bringing punk grit to Joe Satriani-style flights of fancy. It’s an approach that I definitely would have rejected as corny and masturbatory if not for Lally and Canty’s Fugazi cred, but the Messthetics make me remember why I once enjoyed trips to Sam Ash.

This week the Messthetics and Lewis are following up their “Fear Not” collaboration with a whole album together. (It’s already Lewis’ second LP of 2024 following last month’s fantastic Transfiguration.) The Messthetics And James Brandon Lewis is coming out through the legendary jazz label Impulse!, the cover art screams jazz, and the music itself often operates within a jazz tradition. But just as often the players lock into rock mode, keeping a swing in their step but racing ahead with a hard-hitting crunch. It’s like if the Smile stopped worrying so much about mood and texture and gave themselves over to becoming a crowd-pleasing jam band — or maybe I just say that because closer “Fourth Wall” sounds so much like Radiohead’s “Jigsaw Falling Into Place.”

Sometimes, as on opener “L’Orso,” Lewis and the Messthetics err on the side of jazz. There are traces of funky, disjointed DC post-hardcore in the track, but it follows the traditional pattern of an opening horn melody that gives way to freeform soloing before finishing out with the central melody again. Elsewhere, as on advance single “Emergence,” they lean toward the rock side; the track’s fast-plucked pentatonic foundation sounds just like a Fugazi riff, but with a tenor saxophone wailing away on top. And sometimes, they truly hybridize their jazz and punk tendencies. “That Thang” saunters forward with combustible swagger, while “Three Sisters” wafts upward like smoke from that fire’s aftermath. “Boatly” patiently creeps forward around eerie corners before building to grandiose power chords and a blaring saxophone lead, whereas “Aesthenia” remains quiet, searching, and beautiful until the end, with no need for fireworks to get its point across.

Ironically, despite my jazz newb status, it’s the more rock-oriented moments that force me to get into a different headspace. Pirog’s proudly technical approach is something I would have loved in middle school, when I was spending hours in the basement trying to solo like Kirk Hammett, but decades of indie-rock fandom has taught me to flinch at music that stinks of conservatory-honed professionalism and multi-page Steve Vai spreads in Guitar Player magazine. Those kinds of mental obstacles are much easier to overcome when the players are this talented. Lewis and the Messthetics are ideal partners in that both acts are seeking to follow their inspiration where it goes, regardless of genre barriers. But as they usher each other into unfamiliar frontiers, they might just guide you somewhere new and exciting too.

The Messthetics And James Brandon Lewis is out 3/15 on Impulse!

Other albums of note out this week:
• Kacey Musgraves’ Deeper Well
• Justin Timberlake’s Everything I Thought It Was
• Gouge Away’s Deep Sage
• Tierra Whack’s World Wide Whack
• Four Tet’s Three
• Dan Boeckner’s debut as Boeckner, Boeckner!
• Ruth Garbus, Sam Gendel, & Philippe Melanson’s Earth Flower
• Elbow’s VERTIGO
• The Black Crowes’ Happiness Bastards
• bedbug’s pack your bags the sun is growing
• Dancer’s 10 Songs I Hate About You
• Grieving’s Everything Goes Right, All At Once
• Devon Welsh’s Come With Me If You Want To Live
• Scott Stapp’s Higher Power
• The Dandy Warhols’ ROCKMAKER
• Kid Kapichi’s There Goes The Neighbourhood
• Chuck Strangers’ A Forsaken Lover’s Plea
• Brother Dege’s Aurora
• DragonForce’s Warp Speed Warriors
• Peter Garrett’s The True North
• While She Sleeps’ Self Hell
• Charles Lloyd’s The Sky Will Still Be There Tomorrow
• Heavee’s Unleash
• Marla Hansen’s Salt
• Amirtha Kidambi’s Elder Ones’ New Monuments
• Potato Beach’s Dip In
• Luke Dick’s Lockeland
• Lustmord’s Music Unseen Is Also Here
• The Dread Crew Of Oddwood – Rust & Glory
• Sunday Cruise’s Art Of Losing My Reflection
• Bob Junior’s friends vol. 1
• Beige Banquet’s Ornamental Hermit
• Reaper Mook’s Pagne Galore
• Air’s Moon Safari (Deluxe Reissue)
• The Long Winters’ So Good At Waiting (Rarities 2000-2017)
• John Lurie’s Music From The Series Painting With John
• Michael Vincent Waller’s Moments Remixes
• Autoheart’s Punch Demos
• The compilation Wax Donut Presents: Goat (A Jesus Lizard Tribute)
• Cusp’s Thanks So Much EP
• Sweet Pill’s Starchild EP
• Holly Humberstone’s Work In Progress EP
• Comeback Kid’s Trouble EP
• Canyons And Locusts’ The Red Angel EP
• dj gummy bear’s Intercession Before Charlotte EP
• nascar aloe’s SPEED EP
• extra life’s extra life EP (Deluxe Reissue)

Stereogum is an independent, reader-supported publication. Become a VIP Member to view this site without ads and get exclusive content.

more from Album Of The Week