The Nicest Jam


Which is the nicest jam? A song, to answer.

‘And in the olden times they’d put it on wounds.’

Is that true? I’m not sure about blackcurrant jam specifically, but they certainly used sugar paste, and sometimes still do – in Kenya, for example, to treat gunshot wounds. Packed in a wound, the sugar draws out the moisture and makes it harder for bacteria to survive. And I imagine that blood, mixed with sugar, doesn’t look entirely unlike jam – shiny and sticky and strange.

The etymology of ‘jam’ is rather sticky, too. It’s a whole lot of meanings boiled down together in a great, stainless steel preserving vat. The verb ‘to jam’ probably came first, as in phrases like ‘jam your clothes into a suitcase’ or ‘jam your foot in the door’ (though the word is probably unconnected to a door ‘jamb’, which comes from a whole different part of the proverbial kitchen). From this sense, the sticky sweet conserve ‘jam’ gets its name, made as it is by squashing or ‘jamming’ fruit together in a pan and then squashing or ‘jamming’ it some more into a preserving jar. Then later on comes traffic jams, and jammed radio signals, and jams as ‘sticky situations’.

How all this trickles over into music isn’t clear. Again the verb probably predates the noun. Jazz musicians would improvise or ‘jam’ together, a usage which dates back to the 1920s, and which might have something to do with lots of musicians’ ideas being squashed and ‘jammed’ together in one room, or might have something to do with the music they made being ‘sweet’, a kind of bonus treat they enjoyed after their regular payed sessions and gigs. The idea of sweetness gives us the musical noun ‘jam’, as in: ‘dude, that Floridada is one sweet summer jam’.

Noah Lennox from Animal Collective describes being on a plane and opening up one of those sealed, airtight packets of jam, the surface perfectly flat, smooth, glistening. He looked at it really closely and decided that this was what Animal Collective’s new album should sound like. That is, ‘really synthetic and sharp and futuristic looking,’ but also ‘tangy and sweet, almost in a kind of aggressive way’. Shortly after that came Strawberry Jam. The cover image, shot by Avey Tare, is a close-up of a sticky, red splodge, at once familiar and alien. And indeed, aeroplane jam is the perfect analogy for Animal Collective’s music: the normal, the everyday, made to feel very strange and surreal through a combination of close examination and unfamiliar context. How weird it is that you can be 35,000 feet above the surface of the earth and still spread strawberries onto bread?

So, jam and Animal Collective. Animal Collective and jam. Here’s four more points of comparison:

1) In a purely musical sense, they’re surely a ‘jam band’. Their music is rooted in improvisation as a compositional technique, in a way that links them to classic jam bands like the Grateful Dead. Up to and including Centipede Hz, their music was mostly worked out and written in a live setting, songs changed night by night while on tour, kinks worked out, transitions altered, sounds played around with. I’ve only seen the band live once – around the time Merriweather Post Pavilion came out – but it was enough to get a feel for how the experience differs to listening to them on record. They’re much freer, looser, a bit shambolic. The live show captures the spirit of the guys who made Spirit, messing around, putting together sounds they like, recording ideas on their front porches. A sense of play runs through all their music: they ‘jam’ it out.

2) At the same time, they’ve increasingly moved towards tighter pop structures and what might be called ‘summer jams’. The new record, Painting With, wasn’t road-tested and improvised like their previous efforts have been, but written mostly in the studio, and it subsequently feels a lot tighter than anything they’ve made before. It’s full of bright, buoyant tunes I can imagine playing in the car, windows down, sun shining, or as a soundtrack to a BBQ, or an afternoon on the beach. This idea of the summer ‘jam’ – a catchy tune, a sweet summery pop song – feels antithetical to the idea of a band ‘jamming’, and I’m not sure how exactly the ideas connect. But it’s interesting that Animal Collective straddle both concepts.

3) Jam, the literal jam you spread on your toast, as something that’s both organic and synthetic. AnCo have always been interested in mixing organic and synthetic sounds. They’ve always melded the two, found the synthetic in the organic (think of all the minimal techno listed as influences in the liner notes of Person Pitch, probably the warmest, most organic sounding record Noah’s ever made: Basic Channel, Luomo, Dettinger, Wolfgang Voigt) and the organic in the synthetic (those dominant modular synths on Painting With are just so damn squelchy­-sounding, like a Florida swamp; I can practically smell them as I listen.)

4) Jam in its original sense, as a verb; that is, ‘packing a lot of stuff into a small space’. Across the last two albums especially, the band have been exploring how dense they can make their songs, how packed with different sounds, and the aesthetic seems to have put some people off. (Think of the now infamous burrito comment in Pitchfork’s review of CHz). But I personally love this dense, jam-packed noise they make. I love those dense slabs of synth that smash you over the head at the start of ‘Moonjock’, that busy breakdown in ‘Monkey Riches’. I love the sound of all these sounds being crammed together, bubbling and spluttering.

Whenever I eat jam, then, I get an Animal Collective song in my head. They feel ‘jammy’ in lots of ways. They are truly the nicest jam, even over blackcurrant.

A final note. It’s not just music where jam has become associated with improvisation. Joan Miró once used some spilled blackberry jam as the beginning of a painting, building an intricate composition around the accidental splash. I’m not sure which painting though. But you can listen to this masterpiece of jam-making while you imagine it.


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