Jason Swinscoe’s Cinematic Orchestra have always proved in the past that it is possible to produce laid back jazz that is interesting rather than hotel foyer muzak. The epic Every Day from 2002 was a high watermark for their brand of electronic jazz. Swinscoe isn’t the most prolific of producers and, aside from the Man With A Movie Camera soundtrack, Ma Fleur is the first full album since then. It’s a record that has received gushing reviews in some quarters, but in truth it’s a very frustrating and at times downright annoying album.
There is a fine line between laid back grooves and bland supper club gloop, and it’s a line that the Cinematic Orchestra cross all too frequently with this release. There are more vocals than hitherto. Four of the tracks feature a singer called Patrick Watson, a poor man’s Antony Hegarty (and I can’t bear him either). All four are excrutiating sub-Jeff Buckley piano ballads as syrupy as treacle. But even they aren’t quite as awful as the closing “Time And Space” sung by Lou Rhodes – earth mother hippy drivel that even Sinead O’Connor would be embarassed by (although the song does have a long and enjoyable instrumental coda). There are, nevertheless, some superb passages across the record. The short “Prelude” is a lovely string interlude. “As The Stars Fall” is old-style Cinematic Orchestra – a bass and string led instrumental that has a bit of life to it. And Fontella Bass makes a welcome reappearance on a couple of songs. “Familiar Ground” is forgettable, but “Breathe” is a great track. Bass is reputedly in poor health, but she still sounds just fine here. Her voice is bluesy and earthy and never less than compelling.
All in all, it’s a record that will probably appeal to Michael Parkinson and the acolytes of jazz-lite. Maybe there was a conscious decision taken to target Katie Melua and James Blunt fans. From here, Ma Fleur is a wretched disappointment. The fact that there are two or three really good tracks just makes it the more frustrating.