Stephen McCraven ‘Killing Us Hardly’ (Private Press) 4/5

If you look at Stephen McCraven’s CV, he has pulled almost every single thread on the ball of twine of jazz that it’s more of a tumbleweed. From gospel to fusion, to funk to blues, he has applied himself and his kit to most with a progressive vigour, but with the rare ability to still be largely accessible and inclusive. This more mosaic, rather than genre-railroaded, approach is the best way to look at Killing Us Hardly. Press release cynicism and mockery is one of my favourite hobbies, aside from watercolour, but I was left a little unsatisfied with the rather helpful adjectives used in the one for this record. The phrase “psychedelic fresco” seems to capture this record rather well, but perhaps I wouldn’t look for too much weirdness in the psychedelia, more a sincere enthusiasm and maniacal grin.

The core of Killing is McCraven’s versatile handling of the drumming and steady leadership of the grooves. Pleasantly, and confidently, placed as the governing but unobtrusive band leader, slightly behind in the mix, McCraven could be said to be back-seat-driving all the way. This I mean as a benefit to the record rather than an insult. The ambitiously large range of musicians on show throughout the twelve tracks would at first seem to be a gargantuan task in creating cohesion, resisting show-boating or sacrificing elements to mere vignettes, but McCraven and the producers have managed it. Each track has a definite sense of itself and each works as a part of an identifiable whole.

Before a more detailed glance over the tracks on show, I would like to state that the vocals and lyrics on Killing are not all to my taste. I personally found almost all vocals to distract me from the music. If one is looking for something more esoteric, conceptual and thought-provoking, I would offer the suggestion to not listen too hard to the lyrics. For an example, however, of how uninitiated (and rather foolish) I wondered if “B M F” stood for “Bromsgrove Motor Factors” (a splendid second-hand dealership in the midlands), before I realised the entire track was a sort of homage to Isaac Haye’s “Theme from Shaft”. This is merely a taste thing. There are clear messages of freedom, community and sense of belonging. Indeed, the international feel of the vocal performances is a fine part of the record, giving a noble sense of a global effort, but I often felt that I wanted to get to the breaks and back to the grooves. The exception for me is the fusion-croonin’ on the tracks “Chloe” and “Berlin”, which are odd, simple and smooth.

Musically, however, it is hard to give an effective summary due to the wealth of content on offer, but I will give it a go. A stand-out thread is the Hammond by Jean Wende and the late Tom McClung. I have a slight fondness for the sound of Hammond when done well, and certainly both players smear and stab their way through any track they are on (see “Same Ol’ Deal”). Often it is hard to pick the percussion apart from McCraven’s kit, but this is an effective and successful thing. The rhythmic bond is at times joyously busy (see “We Can’t Stand It”). The bass guitar stays fairly steady, but is let loose wonderfully on “Elisa”, which is unto itself a sort of space-luau lounge affair. The whole track reminded me of the 1904 classic “Come Take A Trip In My Airship” sung by Welsh baritone JW Myers (but that might just be me), but with far more sass.

There are a lot of great moments on Killing, diving between funk, blues, fusion, jazz and then more expansive and freer parts (the stand-out final track “Bad Rabbit”). But there is constantly the looming presence of McCraven’s sometimes intense, sometimes laid-back, sometimes sparse and sometimes bustling drumming. Always there, but never dominating or over-shadowing other players. This is the record’s success; a great example of collaborative playing, a wide-ensemble working well, and considering the scope (and my own picky cynicism) there’s so much to find you’re bound to love some and love some less. One, however, cannot help but enjoy and celebrate the cheerful, enthusiastic and chock-full-of-musicianship that Killing Us Hardly is.

Thomas G.J. Sharpe