The Problem With Jagwar Ma
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The Problem With Jagwar Ma




Sydney’s Jagwar Ma are shaping up to be something of a national treasure in 2014. There are few critical frontiers Jono Ma and Gabriel Winterfield haven’t comfortably conquered with their Madchester kicks and their gains have been respectable. Howlin' dropped without the detriment of expectation, took us thus by surprise, and still teaches us about the sound it has revived. It looks like the boys have flown something in the right place at the right time.

Gratuitous hype almost always fosters contempt but Winterfield, Ma, and their buddy bassist Jack Freeman have earned their stripes in a brilliantly awkward way. This is to say they’ve cruised into success in between the savvy and casual listener streams. You’ll never hear ‘What Love?’ flogged in Target just as you won’t on triple j. That’s a bloody delicate balance to strike and will do their long-game wonders.

Jono Ma seems to be the phenom. To see the duo live is to see Ma at work: sweating over pads and strings, timing and sequencing to perfection, turning dials slightly to better phrases. His setup bloody near envelopes him but never overwhelms him. His is the finesse of an athlete. He is never out of depth, a scholar of the movement.

BUT THERE IS AN UNFORTUNATE SHORTCOMING

And at this stage it comes back to Winterfield. Gabriel owns a husky timbre that works to unhinge Jono’s synths –good Madchester mandates it should – and the two assimilate beautifully across Howlin’. His vocal character is recognisable, irreplaceable, but falls tragically short live. Winterfield’s sketchiness upsets their delicate formula. Check this out:


Gabriel sounds hollow, disinterested from the get-go. He’s a little pitchy and so sits slightly above their painstakingly crafted mix. Skip ahead to around 1.28 and you’ll get to the “how can you, how can you look so gloomy” pre-chorus part where Gabe falls flat. That first “How can you” is meant to bring everything home but the machismo is lost in his frailty.

Just so we know it’s not an anomaly, check out their recent cover of Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’:


Once again, Jono’s work is on-point. There’re resurgent 90s hip-hop vibes in there but the cool is squelched by Gabriel’s lack of vocal tact. No dynamics, no varied tones or change in volume. He is giving it straight to us without, it seems, a filter. He makes no moves to correct his pitch as he goes and distracts from the accompaniment.

Here’s a clip of the trio performing ‘What Love?’ in open-air. The quality is not great but festival footage of the guys is scarce and the proof is there anyway:


Pretty jarring stuff. They just don’t sit well together.

I don’t mean to discredit fans or critics but it is bewildering the likes of Pitchfork and The London Times account for the definitive judgement upon this act. Jagwar Ma have earned their right to the forefront for many reasons but have not been examined fairly. Winterfield has some work to do if their live presence is to prosper alongside (hopefully) many follow-up records. He may not be a lost, woeful cause, but his work does not reflect the praise they’re all collecting now.

Just for good measure:

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