It seems unlikely to me that anyone will ever sum up The Drift more efficiently than Mason Jones did in reviewing their first LP, Noumena: “Think stretched-out Miles Davis jams composed by Ennio Morricone. Not that this is that good, but what would be?”
Of course this isn’t that good, because that never actually happened (let us leave the ontological argument out of this). The Drift do pretty well against the standard; indeed, one of a few attractive things about the San Francisco quartet is how tricky they are to describe in terms of things that do exist. Trumpet, double bass, guitar and drums can interact in a lot of ways for eight minutes at a time: post-rock and ambient jazz and latter-day dub are all unreliable descriptors, just as Tortoise and Do Make Say Think and early Tarentel (Drift guitarist Danny Grody’s alt-rock day job) only come close to coming close. The Drift are not what you would call unpredictable, but their ominous coils of sound are easier to triangulate than to pinpoint, like blurry landscape paintings or floating cloud patterns. This is presumably what “cinematic” used to mean, before it lost any sense more exact than “instrumental.”
In the absence of more fixed criteria, evaluating the contours of those coils has been a question of focus. Noumena played on its cool jazz/spaghetti western vibe to enchanting effect, but it was prone to wandering stretches that weighed it down on the whole. Memory Drawings (only a little less pretentious a title, but equally apt), though hardly any shorter from song to song, fits more purpose into its canvases. The pieces go further on fewer convolutions, declaring their themes early and sustaining their momentum with masterful structuring (“Uncanny Valley”) or mounting texture (“Golden Sand”). They also sound less nebulous, more self-assured, no longer mysterious for the sake of hedging the genre question; that the band more openly reference near-contemporaries such as The Grassy Knoll and Friends of Dean Martinez is a promising sign, not a loss of individuality.
The streamlining of Memory Drawings also helps accent The Drift’s central creative tension, that between its jazz-influenced rhythm section and its moody, contemplative melodic corps. On the four-minute ditty “I Had A List and I Lost It,” for instance, Grody’s sharp, laconic guitar parts and Jeff Jacobs’s mournful horns set a tone of somber patience, pleasingly, and still unexpectedly, undercut by Rich Douthit’s skittish percussion work. It’s the kind of counterpoint that keeps the pigeonholing at bay, redoubles the band’s appeal, and makes it enticing to wonder what else they can make from the sum of their parts that we’ve only previously imagined.