Avantdale Bowling Club – Trees (Album Review)

Avantdale Bowling Club (aka Tom Scott) releases new album, Trees, tomorrow. The 13thfloor’s Jeff Neems shares his thoughts today.

I don’t know Tom Scott personally, but his songs brought me to tears.

Maybe I was at a weak moment, sore, tired and stressed. Aucklander Tom didn’t know that, but his meandering yet intensely thoughtful lyrics on Trees crystalised a whole lot of things happening in my life, in my country, in my world.

It’s as if Tom ran a commentary to string together a whole bunch of important thoughts a lot of people will relate to, myself very much included.

Maybe Tom assembled, for a second time, an absolutely crack group of the country’s best jazz and soul musicians and singers to back him (presumably the same crew as the Avantdale debut). Maybe he planned to take his listeners on an aural journey through what’s going on for him: the trials and tribulations of fatherhood, the frustrations of his relationship, his penchant for intoxicants, his take on wider Aotearoa society at an increasingly crucial and fractured juncture in its history.

It would be unfair to use the simplistic and industry-hijacked phrase “rapper” to describe Tom, because he’s on another level. He’s a poet, making movies with recorded words, razor-sharp wit and elaborate rhyme schemes.

Tom probably didn’t intend to have me wiping liquid from my eyes when I listened to Trees. Or maybe he did. Tom’s a bit cryptic – at least looking (and listening) from afar.

On Trees, you’re a passenger in race through his circular and eloquent thoughts at speeds which range from rapid to languid.

You see, Tom has a gift. He doesn’t share his gift as often as people would like. It’s been 4 years – including a pandemic – since Tom dropped the first Avantdale album. Yep, he did the live Avantdale record, and it was nice, but we already knew the material.

A lot’s happened for Tom in four years, or at least it seems that way. He writes about it on the minimalist Avantdale website (where, as it happens, you can pre-order this album, including a vinyl format option). He thought a lot about what was going on around him those four years, even apparently scrapped this album and did it again because he wasn’t happy with the first time.

The heavily personally social commentary Tom delivers on tunes like Still Feel Broke, Going Through It and Friday Night at The Liquor Store gets deep inside your head, and reaches right into your soul… that may sound corny, but that’s exactly what it feels like.

As its name suggests, this album has a recurring theme which emerges immediately. Think Madvillian’s America’s Most Blunted, John Holt’s Police In Helicopter, most of Cyrpress Hill’s catalogue, Cab Calloway’s Reefer Man. You get the picture. Sprinkle that smokey flavour with touches D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, any record by A Tribe Called Quest, and the modern jazz licks of Kamaal Williams, Yussef Dayes, Alpha Mist and Tenderlonius, and you’ve got a very powerful combination of world-class musicians laying a beautiful sonic bed for a truly exceptional Aotearoa urban poet and songwriter.

Tom would likely deflect it if you called him some sort of generational spokesperson – he says as much more than once on Trees. He doesn’t even know if he’s got more of his art to give, but he’s jammed a whole lot into these nine tunes.

I gave this album two listens before committing these words to this review. The first time I listened to it on headphones, to focus on Tom’s lyrics (that’s when the tears happened). The second time, I heard it on a 1000w stereo to hear the power and delicacy of the musicians (and that’s when the laughter and smiles happened). They were different experiences, but each beautiful and draining in their own way.

And it’s important you listen to this album from start to finish whenever you can. Because none of it is skippable or passable. It’s a fable, a tale, a story, and you need to hear it in its entirety. Sure, slip bits of it onto your Spotify playlist or DJ set or whatever, but to truly appreciate it, push play and sit back and let it run.

The fact you’re reading this review means you probably already know who Tom is. You know he’s part of Young Gifted and Broke and Homebrew. Records by the latter of those two acts are changing hands for several hundred dollars online. People are prepared to pay heavily for his music on physical format.

Tom’s out on tour with the band in November. You should check him out.

I have the first album, but not had the live Avantdale experience, so I’ve got a ticket to the Hamilton show already to make sure I don’t miss out.

I’m pretty excited, and now I’m even a little nervous. I’m taking a small packet of tissues to that gig. I think I might need them. Or maybe some other people will.

Because Tom has this gift, you see, and when he shares it, it might well trigger emotions and thought you might not experience again too often in your life.

This is a very special album, perhaps even superior to the remarkable debut and as it runs the listener through a range of emotions (sadness, humour, frustration, hope, pride, exhilaration) is sees the bar raised even further by Tom Scott and Avantdale Bowling Club

Jeff Neems

(Instagram – @jeffwiththerecord)