The Nits' first release after leaving Sony, Wool is a fine album characterized by an autumnal mood and, for the first time, more than a hint of jazz. Founding members Henk Hofstede and Rob Kloet are augmented not only by the usual corps of semi-permanent backing musicians, but by the soulful vocals of Leona Phillippo, a string quartet, and a horn section. Perhaps unwisely, the album opens with its three strongest tracks. "Ivory Boy," whose lyrics were inspired by a fan of the band who died of cancer, is one of the most startlingly beautiful and original songs in the Nits' repertoire. As he approached 50, Hofstede's voice was starting to acquire a smoky intensity and has rarely sounded better than it does here. An extraordinarily intense string arrangement, in which soaring harmony emerges from strident discord, brings "Ivory Boy" to a breathtaking close. "Walking with Maria," with its altogether more comforting strings and a languorous flügelhorn solo, has the timeless feel of a jazz standard, while the sparse "26A (Clouds in the Sky)" features some stratospheric improvising by Phillippo and a unique electronic effect on her voice that gradually s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-s out the phrasing without affecting the pitch. These may be Wool's high points, but there's still plenty more to enjoy in what follows. Most of the tracks are characterized by a jazz-tinged drowsiness that never quite settles into an easy listening rut. "Crime and Punishment" is an exception, with its Arabic saz solo introducing a meditation on terrorism that some listeners might find ill-judged at best and simple-minded at worst. "I cannot understand why they blew up a car/With a man and his wife," sings Hofstede, and who could argue? The album's melancholy mood is finally shattered by the frenetic closing track, "Frog," which sounds a little too much like a last-ditch attempt to dispel the gathering gloom, and certainly belongs to another album.
by Christopher Evans