‘Trees’ Album Review

Originally published: 2022-10-25
Last nontrivial update: 2023-12-01

A rap album with jazz rather than a jazz album with rap

More than four years on from the release of their self-titled modal jazz masterpiece, ABC just dropped their highly anticipated sophomore album ‘Trees’. I have a lot to say about this album, but if you want the tl;dr: its a great follow up, but don’t go in expecting ‘Avantdale Bowling Club: Part Two’.

Rather than being a progression from their previous work, ‘Trees’ narrows down its musical and thematic scope to deliver something less experimental and (arguably) more listenable, similar to Tom’s previous works (specifically ‘@Peace‘). Don’t get me wrong – the lyrics still hit hard, the bars are well-crafted, and Tom’s flow is imo the best of his career – but the album stands on its own two feet (roots?) as a standalone project. You might ask why this is the case, given the critical success of their debut. But be honest, “have you ever heard anyone driving through Avantdale playing ‘A Love Supreme’ on the siren?”. Tom writes:

this how i felt after making a semi successful jazz album that nobody in the neighbourhood i wrote it for cared about.

I cared about his last album. Immensely! But then again, as a jazz-fiend who grew up in the ‘burbs in Christchurch, I’m probably not his target audience. Regardless, this is a fantastic album that features some of NZ’s most talented musicians; Christoph el Truento, Julien Dyne, Haz (at least, on the second track), Mara TK, and many others. But as I mentioned before, the real highlight of this album is the rap itself. I’ve only listened to it critically 7 or 8 times but have already fallen head over heels in love with some of the verses. Consider:

Sound fair wanna care but I ain’t come here to volunteer
Can’t judge him though to be fair bout to go get a box of beer
Same same but different, nothing changed both addicted
Just switched up the substance from a crystal to a liquid

Why do we think we’re more sophisticated only because we sniffed it
It’s a drug when it’s in the hood but it’s all good if it’s prescription
Twisted this sickness is big business when you broke
A quick fix might feel like it might fix it but it don’t

This is but one example of Tom’s incredible lyricism scattered throughout the album, much of which touches upon real problems faced by everyday people who live on this island-nation, with a side of existentialism to boot. In line with his previous albums, I also appreciated all of the references to classic artists who laid the foundations for modern Kiwi hip hop; off the top of my head I recognised Scribe, Madlib, DOOM, Big L, and Nas, but I’m sure there’s more that I’ve yet to discover.

The production is altogether very clean, with a nice balance of live acoustic instruments and samples that sound like they were stolen from Quasimoto’s MPC. As such, I would recommend listening to this album on good speakers with a beer in one hand and a blunt in the other. I’m really looking forward to the album release tour, which I’ve booked to see in both Christchurch and Wellington, especially given how much I enjoyed the 2020 release Avantdale Bowling Club “Live”.

To conclude, this is a fantastic album that any serious fan of jazz-rap should check out. While I personally preferred the previous album’s more experimental approach, I understand and respect the decision to shift to a style that is more conventionally ‘hip hop’. I hope that we see more from ABC, but I also don’t expect anything new in the near-term future given that Tom now has two kids to raise.

Rating: 7.5/10

Favourite tracks:
 Rent 2 High, Twenty Eight, Friday Night @ The Liquor Store, Still Feel Broke

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