Canadian singer-songwriter Jonah Yano is known for his experimental low-fi and unique build-ups, but in his second album portrait of a dog, released January 27, 2023, under Innovative Leisure, he introduces a new realm of nu jazz and whimsical vibrations. Yano started his music career in 2016 by recording tracks on his phone, advancing his piano and guitar skills over time. In 2020 he released his debut Souvenir that received widespread acclaim from Billboard, NME, The Fader, and more, kickstarting his full-time life as an artist. Leading up to his sophomore LP, he’s created tracks with BADBADNOTGOOD (who also helped produce this album) and MONEY PHONE, and opened for Clairo’s European Tour. portrait of a dog, however, is an eclectic take on the nu jazz movement, one where instead of focusing on electro beats to accompany brass instruments, Yano uses acoustic guitars, strings, and even a bass to get the job done.
“leslianne” introduces the album in Yano’s classic styles. Its low-fi energy is familiar and comforting, but as it progresses the dreamy song brings in folk tunes and orchestral soundscapes. In complete contrast, the second track “always” is parallel to the works of Bruno Major, Yano’s skillful piano abilities joining drum impressions for an intense, lively chorus. These opposing forces of deeper string instruments and more upbeat rock melodies blend together intricately rather than destructively, a true measure of Yano’s growth within his music.
The third song, “haven’t haven’t” warps in character yet again, the piece deterring off into a more reflective path. The use of string instruments elevates the track to its full depressing potential as Yano worries about the end of a great relationship. “The light we won’t turn on/ Too scared to touch it all/ Afraid of how we’d fall/ Fall against the ground.”
“portrait of a dog” finds itself a third into the twelve track collection, the album-titled number perhaps the largest shift from Yano’s previous low-fi styles to more intricate jazz. With his delicate voice that ranges to whisper-level heights, the entirety of the song feels weightless. And yet, Yano has managed to bring in heavy electric guitar themes to befriend his signature drums and piano, an ensemble that should not sound as dreamy and whimsical as it does. “portrait of a dog” is also another brilliant example of the singer’s lyricism to not overpower his one-man band, but to enhance it. Yano sings, “There’s something about how you/ Were holding on to grief/ The tide doesn’t change the sea/ But it sure sinks its teeth in me/ If I’m holding on to you.”
The seventh song “in sun, out of sun” features performative artist superstar Slauson Malone on a groovy jazz-filled song whose energies carry on to the next track “so sweet.” Yano also collaborates with Sea Oleena, an experimental dream-pop musician, on the tenth song “quietly, entirely.” These two joint-pieces, brought together by several other songs like “glow worms” that go far beyond the realm of fairy tale whimsicalities, are unlike any nu jazz ideas. Through electric guitars, bass, violins, drums, and pianos no one piece is like another, making portrait of a dog a full tonal look on the lack of limits for any artist.
“song about the family house” differs the most from the previous ten songs. Instead of playing into another jazz-filled, or even low-fi-pop narrative, the piece is entirely acoustic and fragile. As Yano works through his own upbringing — the complexities he experienced being raised in a Japanese household in the western world — he transports listeners on a nostalgic journey back to their own lives, a long-awaited “welcome home” for those who have been waiting to hear it. Yano takes the time to focus more on the lyrics of the piece to fulfill this grounding experience, closing off the track by singing, “So bury me on Jefferson Street/ Replace me with concrete/ And all of the stories I’ll keep/ Between family/ It’s just me.”
“the ordinary is ordinary because it ordinarily repeats” closes the album on a full jazz piece fusing together that of traditional New Orleans jazz and Yano’s new take on the genre. portrait of a dog is all over the map when it comes to sounds, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Instead, it’s a fifty minute cluster of a new age of music, one that does not worry about defining the boundaries and instead, breaks them.