Almost Human’s external trappings make it seem like a novelty recording, from a cover photo featuring anthropomorphic cattle being styled in a vintage beauty salon to goofy song titles not above riffing on Talking Cows’ alleged bovinity (this last word provided the name for the combo’s 2006 debut). Yet actually listening to the album, as opposed to just looking at it, results in a very different impression. While the music of this Dutch quartet certainly brims with fun, it’s no joke.
Take “A Serious Lack of Humour,” which belies its moniker without resorting to sonic lampooning. The track opens with the subtle rumble of Dion Nijland’s double bass, which sets the stage for the rest of the crew. But although tenor saxophonist Frans Vermeerssen and pianist Robert Vermeulen are introduced by a cheeky roll courtesy of drummer Yonga Sun, neither aim for easy laughs. Instead, Vermeulen locks in with Nijland and Sun, allowing Vermeerssen to stretch and goad the melody with infectious enthusiasm, before taking the spotlight for a middle section that nods to Monk without mimicking him. Then Vermeerssen returns for a concluding segment that’s literally a blast.
Elsewhere, the four demonstrate their flexibility, be it via the deliberately paced “A Stroll for Gonso,” the dark yet jaunty “Not Yet” or the free-space zone occupied by “Hang Glider.” And if “Two Guys and Beer” winds up feeling a bit too much like an incidental track from a vintage hidden-camera show (it conjures up images of a guy unwittingly striding toward an open manhole), both the punny “Mooing Around” and “Hop On, Hop Off” deliver jazz thrills that aren’t silly in the slightest.