by Glen Herbert
Looking at the current Billboard listing under Adult Contemporary you’ll find two Taylor Swift singles along with songs from Meghan Trainor and Ed Sheeran. “Uptown Funk!” is on there, too. If you’re an adult (which of course you are, as no one else is going to be clicking through to the Adult Contemporary chart), it’s easy to wonder all the other adults have gone. Where is our experience reflected in the world of contemporary music? We did grow up, it turns out, and our thoughts have turned to different things. Popular music, however, doesn’t often provide much space in which to think them.
Yet, there are lots of people who are, in fact, adults, which makes it so refreshing to find some of them once in a while. People like Noa, who really should be better known than she is. She released “Love Medicine” last year, yet it didn’t make the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, as indeed nothing of hers ever has. Which is remarkable, actually. Her self-titled album was produced by Pat Metheny, and it should have had a much longer life than it did. She’s performed with a who’s who of contemporary music, from Herbie Hancock to Stevie Wonder and back again. “Love Medicine” is gorgeously conceived, written, and produced. It features duets with Joaquin Sabina and Pat Metheny.
That album does what all of Noa’s albums have, which is to present the fractured, complex, mature experience of adulthood. In “Mere Words” she sings, “all these songs of love’s first light/they don’t sing ours just right.” She could describing the current Billboard Adult Contemporary listing. The people there just don’t sing our songs.
Summersett, while very different, shares the same thematic gaze as Noa, or at least is looking out at the same temporal geography. The band was formed in Montreal by Patricia Summersett and Nick Carpenter, and I suspect that you haven’t heard of them, which is too bad, because they are writing about you and they are doing it exceptionally well. “I’m Coming Over” from their debut release “Act One” is a duet between two people who have their own apartments, their own stuff, their own identities, and their own histories. Just as adults do. Their relationship is not about teen passion, it’s about finding a place for yourself, together, when being together every waking minute or petting behind the bleachers hasn’t been of interest for a very long time.
The world that Summersett describes is small (“I can be in London by breakfast”) quiet, intimate, and thoughtful. It’s a world where relationships are complex, where people “have others that we don’t quite love,” yet resist closure of those relationships for, perhaps, lots of good reasons, or then again, maybe no clear reasons at all. It is what it is. Not all questions have answers, and fault can’t be assigned. As such, Summersett captures the kind of experience that Megan Trainor won’t be singing about for at least twenty years.
The musicianship and the arrangements on “Act One” are as economical as they are complex, built around the rich tonal qualities that only acoustic instruments deliver: a pizzicato rhythm on “I’m Comin’ Over” and “Bed Bug,” or the bowed upright bass on “Amsterdam.” “Real Life” is based in a pop/rock feel, using cello and violin to fill out the arrangement and add layers of interest. Younger producers would use electronic padding within the arrangement, creating the musical equivalent of Kraft Dinner: homogenous, two-dimensional, expected. Summersett’s arrangements, in contrast, are rich, multi-dimensional, strikingly fresh and alive.
Nick Carpenter’s piano can be sparse, but always intentionally so, in the way that Keith Jarrett can be sparse, moving between unison and harmony, consonance and dissonance, in order to support the narrative of the song. The arrangements are thoughtful and intentioned, and always entirely welcome. Summersett is the kind of band that reminds you that life, good and bad, doesn’t end at 30. That’s entirely welcome, too.