For an instrument that’s so heavily associated with certain genres, the saxophone is surprisingly versatile. It’s a jazz staple, of course, with players like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane having ascended into musical godhood. You’ll find it in soul and R&B, too, as well as all your favorite sophisti-pop gems.
But the saxophone pops up in all sorts of unlikely places outside of those genres, often with great success. Hip-hop? That iconic wailing noise that loops through House of Pain’s “Jump Around” is a saxophone sample. Art pop? The baroque playfulness of Julia Holter’s “Sea Calls Me Home” gets interrupted by a guy awesomely losing his shit on the sax. Even folk, a genre popularly stereotyped as three chords and the truth, benefits from a good saxophone.
Take “Cool Heart”, the new song by the American-turned-Canadian folk artist Robert Guess. It’s a warm, sweet song, tinged with melancholy and wreathed in a golden-hour glow. Folk music can get bogged down by too many bells and whistles, but everything here is skillfully deployed: the wispy backing vocals, the subtle string arrangements, the quality hooks.
The lyrics aren’t always crackling and original–the line “my love is written in the stars” is used in the chorus, without irony–but the sentiment behind them comes through in the delivery. It’s a tender song, even if the romance at its center isn’t; when Guess sings that his love is “underneath the weight of your cool heart”, he sounds like he’s more than willing to stay there, whether he gets crushed or not.
When we talk about how a song “builds”, we usually mean it starts slow and quiet before reaching a crescendo, but “Cool Heart” manages to build upon itself and flesh itself out without deviating from the quiet, lovely sound it established. There’s no grand climax, because there doesn’t need to be; there’s simply a full, complete song. The gentle melody of the chorus provides all the emotional resonance you need.
Ah, but I mentioned the saxophone, didn’t I? It’s subtle at first, rising out of the back of the mix and providing some more satisfying sonic textures for the listener to enjoy. But just after the second chorus, not long before the two minute mark, it makes a triumphant return. The tempo shifts and slows, and the saxophonist blows out a graceful, stately-sounding solo that’s all the more powerful for how short it is. It’s not a showy, Clarence Clemmons-style solo, but it suits the song beautifully, and I’d have almost preferred that the song ended that way rather than repeating the (very nice) chorus.
“Cool Heart” reminds me of “The Moon” by The Microphones, not just because they’re both folk songs with saxophones but because they share a similar wistful tone and bittersweet warmth. While “The Moon” is obviously untouchable, “Cool Heart” is an excellent song in its own right, showing that all you need to make a good song is taste, restraint, and skill. And, y’know, a saxophone.
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