I didn't read up on this band before I listened to the album - but I knew it was going to be a kind of post-rock instrumental album released through Ninja Tune subsidiary Counter Records. If that conjures some kind of aural image in your mind's-ear, you can be pretty sure that's what Cougar sound like. You could put them on the same lineup as Tortoise without upsetting anyone, and the production on the record is lightly peppered with some of those super-slick Ninja Tune flicks and flares. What's weird about this record is that it exchanges post-rock's jazz leanings for more of a world music or folk texture, and this doesn't always hit the spot. The other thing is that it has many tasty ingredients such as beefy sound, great playing, dynamics and variation - but they combine into a dinner that is served in a somewhat over-polite manner. Even the parts where the guitars crank up and it goes all metal just seem a bit too reserved, a bit too clean. The drumming is outstanding throughout, while final track Absaroka is the understated shining gem of the whole collection - since it taps into an American folk sound that is more typically played by Bill Frisell.
This track stands up easily alongside fellow Ninjas Jaga Jazzist, but much of the remaining album suffers from over-bake. Ninja are good at coaxing terrific second albums out of their artists, so Cougar could be a band to keep an eye on.Read more 2.5 star reviews
Live At The Royal Albert Hall
For those who are yet to see The Cinematic Orchestra live then let this wet your appetite for what is truly a unique musical experience. Without belittling Jason Swinscoe's scintillating recordings this group were born to play live. This is where they truly live up to their name and what better place to convey this than in the Royal Albert Hall. On November 2nd 2007 Swinscoe brought with him an enhanced line up which featured the 24 piece Heritage Orchestra to this historic venue and dazzled an audience of more than 4000 people.
This recording aims to convey this extraordinary live event and really the only fault worth mentioning is that a recording can't possibly do justice to this night and though many of the original vocalists are not present this CD is a close second best.
Opening with Every Day's stand out song All That You Give, this night was all about using the original songs as platforms from which to launch the musical potential that lies within this group. Like any jazz ensemble the musicians here use the original structure of each song as a base to return to after their sonic journeys into the rafters of this great venue. Flite rolls along on the trademark drumbeat while guitar and organ dance playfully around it and great swathes of strings lift and lift. Last spring saw the release of Ma Fleur which featured the achingly beautiful song To Build A Home. Changing up on the vocalist here this live version has little of the magnitude of the original and is one of the few instances where the recording triumphs over the live. However this is all soon forgotten when we enter the opening phase of the epic and now classic Ode To The Big Sea. At over 14 minutes long we revisit in striking glory the jazz routs of this band. Though dazzling in their own right the last few albums have taken Swinscoe's outfit away from the free jazz sound and it really is special to see them return in such style. Skipping along to rain-drop-like piano we build to a frantic drum solo that just about marks the mid way point. A clarinet heralds the change up and with the hall silent the experimentation really begins. Accompanied by electronic bleeps this pair really use the space provided and receive rousing applause from the crowd for their courage when the drums finally rejoin them.
The whole night is concluded with Time And Space featuring Lou Rhodes of Lamb. A sedate yet beautiful end to a very special evening. After experiencing this live show you'd want a recording such as this to keep the memory alive.
Read more 3 star reviews
You Don't Know
Throughout Ninja Tunes 18 year history the Ninja Cuts compilation has been a landmark event in itself. The label has always prided itself on its varied array of artists working in more styles than is healthy which inevitably made a compilation that was both challenging and riveting. But where other Ninja Cuts have served to showcase the labels past releases this, the 5th in the series, has a far greater agenda. Aptly titled You Don't Know it aims to alter your preconceptions of what you think you know about this label, and it does this with ease. The main reason for this is that they now have 2 other labels operating under the Ninja umbrella and all are featured on this 3 CD compilation. Big Dada and the newest addition to the family, Counter, both radically side step the Ninja norm and when put together for the first time on one compilation the result is baffling. Long term Ninja institutions like Mr. Scruff, Bonobo and Coldcut sit alongside their Big Dada counterparts like Roots Manuva and Mike Ladd. Then if you chuck in new label Counter's poster-boy Pop Levi you really do start to question just what exactly is the Ninja sound.
But it's not just this amalgamation of labels that mixes things up here. This is not just any old best-of compilation, it showcases artists and releases from the past but rarely in their original form. Most songs are rare or unreleased or feature special edition remixes by artists such as Modeselektor, Tiga and Susumu Yakota. There are some live recordings from Cimematic Orchestra and inter-Ninja collaborations between Mr. Scruff and Quantic. If you're a dedicated follower of this label then this approach gives this compilation more importance and relevance but it can, at times, make for difficult listening. Not only has the tracklist been treated to a brutal visit to the blender but within each song there is radical alterations and mix ups.
There is so much going on here that it's hard to know where to start. There's a definite agenda running through each CD but it's so expertly disguised it reveals itself as more of a feeling than any coherent theme. CD 1 features what you would vaguely call the core components of the original label. Mr Scruff, Amon Tobin and The Herbaliser all feature but the highlight has to be The Cinematic Orchestra's To Build A Home. It's a treat on their new album and it's epic grandure really lifts this first CD. It's beauty is highlighted when taken out of the context of a concept album and put amongst the strange folk that surround it here.
CD 2 keeps things pretty regular with smooth cuts from Blockhead, Bonobo and RJD2. Kid Koala puts in an awesome guitar cut and paste extravaganza while Homelife's Seedpod makes a well earned return. We also get a remix of Coldcut's classic Atomic Moog. CD 3 really takes things up a notch and it's here where the 'You Don't Know' title really explains itself. Kicking off with Manuvadelics manic version of Roots Manuva's Chin High we're soon into nose bleed territory with The Qemist's drum and bass belter Drop Audio. We get guided through the more avant-guard vision of Big Dada with cLOUDDEAD and Mike Ladd and DJ Shadow puts in a rare and exceptional performance with the fantastic sample heavy Bring Madlib Up. The CD ends with a curios change up of beats with the house infused remix of Coldcut's Walk A Mile In My Shoes courtesy of Tiga and Switch's remix of Pest's Pat Pong.
Though all this really does convince the listener that we don't know it sometimes makes for an incoherent listen. Showing us that there is so much about this label that we don't know can also show us that there's a whole side to it that we don't want to know. Putting up old favorites then remixing the shit out of them can be a bit of a turn off but overall screams of bravery and the willingness to progress that has kept this label on top for so long. It's artists like John Mathias and Pop Levi that make this compilation interesting. They successfully remove it from the Ninja sound we have known for years and stop this sound from becoming a cliché of itself. They sometimes make the old sound, from the likes of Mr.Scruff, sound really dated and show that had this label not moved on with its own ethos and expanded its view with Big Dada and Counter then there really would be no need for it today. In the run of Ninja Cuts compilations this one is by far the most forward thinking and far reaching. It may not be as comfortable a listen as the previous ones but that's clearly not their intention. We may hit the skip button occasionally but we must eventually salute the direction of this label.Read more 3 star reviews
It's not just great TV coming out of Baltimore these days. The city's raised profile seems to have given birth to a rising music scene - hopefully keeping the kids off the streets of Hamsterdam. Ninja Tune's own Counter Records label have harnessed the power and signed electrifying band The Death Set.
Turning their backs on the traditional stage, the band set up in the dancefloor to kick out their brand of frantic disco punk ....like a post-rave Minor Threat. Check out You Tube for some surveillance, or check them out live when they play Bardens in Dalston on February 15th.
They have a four track single - MFDS - out February 11th and a whopping 18 track album (which clocks in at 26 minutes, Ian Mackaye would be proud) out in April.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of this truly unique label they choose to shower us in gifts, I wish every birthday was like this - except mine of course. As a mark of this grand occasion those kind people at Big Dada have released an awesome double CD, a DVD and a special anniversary party.
I don't think there exists a label that is so trustworthy that you could buy any record it released in the safe knowledge that you'll love it, but for years I've been buying Big Dada releases knowing that I may not like it but it won't be anything to do with quality. The label has proved itself time and time again for an undying commitment to challenging and innovative music and the hip hop genre has been draped loosely around its neck but has never weighed down its steady upward progression. Label boss Will Ashton wanted to form a label that ran alongside yet independent of the mothership Ninja Tune label and would provide a home to hip hop misfits and pioneers.
Never describing themselves as a UK hip hop label, Will Ashton prefers to see it as simply "a hip hop label based in London" and with artists from the US and France on their books Big Dada must be one of the most international hip hop labels around today, and in this fact lies Ashton's most significant achievement. He has certainly championed some of the most successful UK artists like Roots Manuva, Willy, TY etc. but he has stripped them of their laborious 'UK' title and brought everything down to Hip Hop.
The CD is less of a 'best of' and more of an overview of the labels history and philosophy and it's only when this back catalogue is put together in this context that you start to get a clear picture of just how special Big Dada is. It is truly innovative but certain artists carry this flag more than others and any label boasting releases from cLOUDDEAD, New Flesh, Mike Ladd and TTC can't help to be slightly left of centre. Even from the title it's clear that Roots Manuva is the jewel in the crown of Big Dada and rightly so. I have always considered his debut Brand New Secondhand to be his finest work, but when you put them all together and drop in the flagship song Witness (1 Hope) he really is quite impressive. Mike Ladd's many incarnations keep things interesting and if things were getting a little too hip hop there's plenty of curve balls from TTC, Busdriver and newest signing Spank Rock to mix things up. What other label would put together the smooth storytelling of TY with the low down Grime of Willy? Though not particularly well represented here cLOUDDEAD really stand out from anyone and before their demise they single handedly took this label to places no other artist could go. Wherever they resided this band acted as a simmering cluster bomb blowing apart any preconceptions of genre that a label may have possessed and it took real vision to include them in the early days of this label.
Which leads me on to the DVD. Apart from the Big Dada documentary, this DVD is really about the videos. It has something like 35 videos here which must be everything that's been made. There's an impressive megamix option or you can play each video through one by one or you can set it to random so if your tv's got good enough sound this would make an awesome video juke box. Just stick it on and go about your business but you'd get snarled up on the lengthy cLOUDDEAD tour footage which is so compelling it demands your full attention. Videos from New Flesh and the crazy world of TTC are a treat, but as usual Roots Manuva steels the show with his return to his former primary school for sports day in the Witness video.
All in all this is a wonderful package indeed, and I'm not talking about Roots Manuva in his leotard. It's a great celebration of ten years of forward thinking - and for any fledgling hip hop mavericks with wild ambitions, while Big Dada is around the world must seem like a much more welcoming place.
Jackals And Vipers In Envy Of Man
Robert Squire aka Sixtoo is a man of many talents indeed and trying to pin him down to any one area is proving rather tough. He emerged from the mid 90's underground hip hop scene as an MC to be reckoned with. Sharing the stage with such visionaries as Buck 65 and Sage Francis he soon became synonymous with the Anticon/Mush collective. His 2002 release Duration saw Squire put down the mic and concentrate on the production side of Sixtoo. This has been going from strength to strength culminating in his 2003 Ninja Tune debut Chewing On Glass & Other Miracle Cures, a compelling album dripping with atmosphere. This years Jackals And Vipers builds on this formula but is an altogether darker affair.
Constructed using meticulously stitched together recordings of various live sets then taken into the studio and rendered down to their basic elements this record works as a wonderfully rich film-noir soundtrack played out in 13 movements. Each track is named Jackals & Vipers In Envy Of Man Parts 1-13 and they are designed to be listened to as a continuous whole.
Things start off pretty dark with a brief intro leading us into the drum heavy Part 2. Creeping along to pounding beats and sinister synths this awesome opener sets the tone of paranoia and pretty much keeps it up until the final movement. Though very much rooted in hip hop Squires touch is often light and it's in these moments that we see him as a master of his craft. Each sound, whether booming or whispering, is bathed in detail. Each beat comes with added effect and the samples are expertly disguised creating an impressive air of mystery that is essential to the whole. This multi layering and constant reworking can produce insanely claustrophobic compositions but can also lean back allowing strings or a delicate piano chord to evoke grand, spatial landscapes.
As the final movement draws to a close you are left with as many questions as answers but all good art should leave the viewer or listener in this way. Jackals And Vipers opens its arms and welcomes you into its hidden world of paranoia and intrigue but once you leave you'll be none the wiser as to how it was all done. It gives of itself only as much as it needs to and the rest is up to you but seeing as over generosity is often the downfall of instrumental albums such as this Sixtoo manages once again to avoid that pitfall and produce a caged piece of hip hop brilliance.
You owe me a debt of gratitude. In reviewing ‘BFI’, I have saved you from losing a precious forty-five minutes of your existence to the misery of phonic drivel. ‘BFI’, short for ‘Blue Forces Intelligence’ is an album by The Dragons, recorded in 1970 and released for the first time this month by Ninja Tune.
The pre-release hype describes the ‘Great Story’ that lies behind the album’s creation: The three brothers Dragon, (Doug, Daryl and Dennis) are unveiled as a trio of tripped-up surfer-dudes living in Malibu and working furiously after-hours to record their ‘psychedelic soul/ rock masterpiece’. I mean that says is all doesn’t it. If you weren’t getting the heebie-jeebies from the album title, then surely the proposal of a ‘psychedelic soul/ rock masterpiece’ sends you screaming for your Spinal Tap box set.
Anyhow, these ‘multi-instrumentalist sons of a symphony conductor and an opera singer’, have a great deal of trouble selling their album to a label. Which is strange really since you’d have thought an album as morale-crushingly average as this would have found a use in some Vietnam-era Abu Ghraib, destroying the resistance of its Viet Cong inmates.
The three DD’s get disillusioned because all these straight record execs, keep telling them their ‘spacey and weird, but also funky’ album is utter crap. They lope off into session work and, if you believe the myth, they all go on to be in the Beach Boys backing band. And ‘you can kind of hear that in their own sound’, as the press would have you believe. Yeah, ‘kind of’ being crucial to how you interpret that statement.
Then again, maybe I’m wrong and maybe it’s the reason that Brian Wilson has spent a good chunk of his life monumentally depressed, off his face on psychotropic drugs and hearing voices in his head. All of them presumably repeating, ‘Hey Brian, isn’t it strange how you can hear that way-out Dragons sound behind some of the most inspired and uplifting masterpieces of the Beach Boys?! Kind of’.
37 years later and the source of all this horror, the BFI master-tapes, lie quietly pulsating in rightful oblivion in the basement of Dennis Dragon’s home. Hidden, that is, until the day that Kev of DJ Food gives him a call and, ‘being a fan of all possible food-based puns’, asks if he can include the track ‘Food for my soul’, on a future ‘Solid Steel’ mix for Ninja tunes. And there you have it, as if at the opening of the musical Ark of the Covenant, we must look away from the eruption of screaming demons and evil sonic harpies pouring forth from the speakers. All because of a love of food-based puns.
‘BFI’, represents everything that went wrong musically in the late sixties and seventies; bloated ambition, walls of over-layered instrumentals, swelling chorals and pretentiousness disguised as a trippy careless, ease. The album reeks of musical shop-lifting with its cod-Doors allusions and could have done with a strong editorial hand in order to stop other parts sounding like a BBC sound effects tape; ‘Doctor Who/ 60’s psychedelica’. If you press me I’ll say the first two songs lead you into a false sense of security, and ‘Mercy Call’, the ninth track, does serve its purpose by providing some relief from the misery. However, other than that, the rest sounds like a struggle between Count Dracula and Austin Powers, wrestling for control of the Hammond organ.
Sifting through the compressed layers of dire lyrics on ‘BFI’ produces a few gems, but none shares the pertinence of; "I can’t believe that hate is real". Well Dragons, it is - and you too, reader, can share in this mind blowing revelation by popping on The Dragons and sampling a little of this ‘lost classic of psych-whimsy, Westcoast sexiness and serious musical chops’.
It's been nearly 5 years since the release of Every Day, The Cinematic Orchestra's finest moment, and anyone who was as totally captivated and seduced by that record as I was would have been eagerly awaiting Jason Swinscoe's next move. The difference between Every Day and Ma Fleur is not too dissimilar a progression from that of debut Motion and Every Day. 1999's Motion seemed to appear out of nowhere and totally went against the run of fashion for contemporary music. Its hypnotic jazz constructions and smoldering film-noir ambiance soon made The Cinematic Orchestra the jewell in the Ninja crown. The follow up took all of the mood from Motion but showed an amazing maturity in progression. It was single minded in its approach and totally dedicated in its focus. It was a truly timeless record and one that would be very hard to follow.
Ma Fleur shows the same degree of progression. Swinscoe has spent years learning from his last record and this is the sound an artist getting closer to his goal. It's a concept album of sorts and is adventurous to say the least. It's the soundtrack to an imaginary film and was constructed during an elaborate back and forth process between Swinscoe and a script writer. The instrumentals were created first then a series of short story scripts were written for these with each track representing a scene. Swinscoe then reworked the music in light of the script and the process continued. The album is supposed to map the journey we all go through from birth to death and the emotions that underpin the three main stages in life. It features three vocalists who represent these stages, starting with Patrick Watson then Mercury nominated Lou Rhodes and finishing with the legendary Fontella Bass who's deep, soulful vocals provided the majority of Every Day with such grandeur and here express perfectly the feelings of loss and regret of the elderly protagonist.
The scale of ambition of this project is awesome and it's what makes it so special, but also what lets it down in places. As always the quality of Swinscoe's production and collaborators is impeccable. Patrick Watson's opener To Build A Home is achingly beautiful and his crescendo vocal range matched with the soaring orchestration makes this song and much of Watson's input a clear highlight. The Cinematic Orchestra has always been synonymous with jazz but Ma Fleur relies less on these techniques. The mood of this grand concept is what is important here and that has dictated the form of the music, resulting in a much more orchestrated structure. It's this structure that really separates this from the other 2 albums. The clear cinematic feel to it makes it flow perfectly as a record and as a film score. The songs are hard to separate and it has obviously been constructed as a whole piece. There is a lot more space between the notes here and when the long delicate periods of orchestration are punctuated with the signature jazz sound it's quite powerful. It's far more contemplative and the definite narrative that runs through it makes it far less immediate than previous records.
This is an overwhelmingly melancholic record and its strict narrative results at times in an album that takes itself way too seriously. The initial beauty wears thin towards the middle and you just want everyone to cheer up. Thankfully the final track Time And Space finishes this journey off superbly. Lou Rhodes has such a delicate and tender approach that gives this song a real feeling of hope. It's a perfect finale and has the quality of a soundtrack to the closing scenes of an epic movie. In these final scenes everything is explained, the pain and sorrow are given a reason and amidst this explanation we are comforted and gently assured that the characters we have been following will be alright. This is a beautifully tender album and though it may not be as immediately satisfying as Every Day it is a worthy successor and continues Swinscoe's reputation as the visionary captain behind this ever pioneering vessel.
Now, Listen Again
Every generation boasts that music was better "in their day," that it meant more, had more depth - but of course this can't possibly be the case. It's not the music that changes, but the listeners. We go through certain stages in our life where music means more to us and changes us. Unfortunately if my theory is correct then there is a multitude of people out there of an impressionable age that are being profoundly changed by the Kaiser Chiefs - but that's fine, they'll grow out of it.
I can count a few periods in my life when this has happened. Most of these happened when I was a teenager and blissfully unaware of any larger musical implications that were occurring, I was just listening to the music and relating to it. But the most recent example of this occurred during 1994 - 1997 and centered round a few record labels and one club in particular - The Blue Note in Hoxton Square. Drum & Bass was a mere child then, as too was the genre formerly known as "Trip Hop" (thank christ). During Goldie's Metalheadz Sunday night sessions and the Ninja Tune Stealth parties I really felt part of something important, that the music that was being played was particular to this time, to this club and to these people. You felt like you were present at the birth of a genre. The excitement in that club at that time was truly memorable and though all artists and labels concerned are still making great music today that feeling for me has never been replicated or matched and nor should it.
Until that is, I heard Solid Steel's latest mix tape by the legendary DJ Food & DK. In 2001 Solid Steel's front-men DJ Food (Strictly Kev, PC) and DK (Darren Knot) kicked off this compilation series with the awesome Now, Listen and it's been going strong ever since with mixes from Amon Tobin, Mr. Scruff and The Herbaliser. Now, Listen recaptured the electrifying creativity of Coldcut's now legendary Journeys By DJ mix from 1995 and this follow up strives to do the same. I'm not sure how anyone can get close to the brilliance of Coldcut's mix, but with this compilation the feeling has been renewed and updated. The important thing about these and all great mix-tapes is their eclecticism and the inability to plot their course.
Now, Listen Again is a mash-up masterclass. Things kick off with the sample "Listen, that's the sound of ground being broken, it will sound familiar" and though this may not be groundbreaking music it's the familiar sound of the ground they broke a decade ago and it still sounds fantastic. Early on we get a brilliant fusion of Eric B & Rakim and The Human League's Being Boiled and move through Ram Jam's Black Betty, Primal Scream, Aphex Twin via a masterful megamix of DJ Shadow's back catalogue that blends effortlessly into the original Organ Donor sample of Giorgio Moroder's Tears. The obvious high point on this mix is the introduction of New Order's dub mix of Blue Monday, The Beach, out of The Irresistible Force and into the dirty 2 step beat of Big Dada's Part 2 featuring Fallacy.
Now, Listen Again doesn't have the dizzy peaks of it's predecessor but is a much more even mix and over-all is a more satisfying listen. The refreshing thing about this compilation is it's willingness to take the cheesy route. As we are guided through old-school hip hop, Drum & Bass and sun-soaked soul we see tones of well disguised rarities, but also glorious amounts of well trodden crowd pleasers. Enough water has flowed under the bridge for these mash-up veterans to simply enjoy their art and this is the sound of them doing just that. Since the demise of The Blue Note, Solid Steel's exit from BBC Radio and the suffocating fad of mash-up mania the mix tape has never sounded so good as it does here. It has re-ignited the spirit of the mid 90's with a wonderful blend of honest nostalgia and forward thinking optimism and was indeed "Food For My Soul."
A foley room is a place where sound effects are recorded for films. It's totally soundproof, clinical, methodical and has an eerie sense of lifelessness - except for the strange sounds that are produced there. This goes some way to describe the latest album by Ninja Tune's maestro of sound manipulation Amon Tobin. Tobin's previous work was entirely constructed from found sounds, but his sources were usually vinyl. Foley Room sees Tobin turn a corner in his compositional process and the entire album is created from recorded sounds both in the foley room using manipulated instruments and also from street life, zoo life and just about anything you can think of that makes a noise.
Of course, this has all been done before - but Tobin's unique methods and musical understanding make this a truly engaging listening experience. This record crawls, oozes, slithers, crashes, scrapes and sometimes pummels it's way through your head in much the same way that every Tobin record does, but this seems to be a lot more focused. It's a predominantly beat driven record, but the sources of these beats are so expertly masked that your ear soon stops trying to identify recognisable sounds and just allows itself to be taken over by the other-worldly quality of the sound. And this other world is no jolly romp in fields of poppies. Tobin's soundscapes are always ominous and this is no exception. The beats often seem to be created by an army of insects and the orchestral sounds that underlie all this invoke visions of impending doom. Though named after a room devoid of atmosphere, this album is all about atmosphere. It has the feeling of a soundtrack and is incredibly visual.
And talking of visuals, the LP comes with a 20 minute documentary about the making of the record and really helps to explain the process. We see Amon and his team take to the streets with highly sensitive recording equipment and dig out the tools with which this record is constructed. He visits motorbike garages, CD production factories and even a safari park where he records all manner of wildlife. Classical strings and drums are used in the foley room, but are manipulated and reconstructed through the sampling process. Peanuts are scattered on bass drums and drum kits are forged out of metal bowls of various fullness bobbing around in water pools. The interesting thing is seeing all this and Tobin crouched, headphone clad, next to the tracks as a train roars past and then listening to the record and seeing how these recordings have been used to create the most remarkable textures and how some really beautiful music has been born out of this apparent chaos.
The Moonstation House Band
It seems that T Rex is having something of a comeback in 2007. What with the debut album by Ninja Tune's Pop Levi and now this - David Vandervelde's The Moonstation House Band. It has all the folk-slide 70's warmth-sleaze of the much missed Bolan but that being said it's still a fine listen. It's a brief introduction, weighing in at just over half an hour, but my appetite is certainly moistened.
In the traditions of the music it aims to emulate Vandervelde has created a concept album of sorts. Much like Bowies fictitious Spiders From Mars, this album is the sound of the mythical Moonstation House Band - a Lonely Hearts Club Band for the naughties. At least 90% of the record is Vandervaldt himself - and at the young age of 22 this is some piece of work. By consciously setting out to recapture the spirit and sound of his dad's 70's records, Vandervelde has managed to strip away all the bravado that came with this music. The camp, glam shenanigans have gone and what remains is crisp musicianship and classic melodies.
Nothin' No drifts in on a haze of woolly guitars and blissed-out vocals telling stories of "gettin' high on your front porch." It has a wonderfully nostalgic feeling to it. It's like squinting in the evening sun as you strain to see a memory long passed. Jacket picks up the pace a bit and has all the rhythmical catchiness and effortless melody of classic Bowie. Corduroy Blues is a sublime piece of orchestral delight while Can't See Your Face No More is a foot stomping anthem that if put to the closing credits to any movie would have the audience leaving the cinema on a high.
It's hard to write about this album and not dwell on the wealth of influences that have made it happen, but at no point does it hide behind these influences or collapse under them. The music oozes warmth - whether its the mid-afternoon blaze of the up-tempo tracks or the early evening haze of the slower ones it washes over you in hypnotic waves. After the lazy, peaceful close of the final track Moonlight Instrumental you feel like the lights have just been turned out on another glorious day in the sun. A day that had it all, laughter, tears, joy and pain but as you gently drift off to sleep you feel excited at what tomorrow has in store.
The Return To Form Black Magick Party
Ninja Tune have always been a label full of surprises. It has stretched and flexed to accomodate the ever increasing and varied tastes of its creators, but with Pop Levi they seem to have met their match. So they created a spin-off label just for him and give us the debut offering The Return To Form Black Magick Party. Only an artist of shameless arrogance could describe their debut as a return to form - and that's exactly what we have here. Born in London, Pop laid his early musical roots in Liverpool then moved to LA in pursuit of the 'magick' that he sees at the very heart of great music. Making up one third of free-thinking, post rock trio and fellow Ninja's Super Numeri, then playing bass for Ladytron Pop decided to go it alone and released his first EP "Blue Honey" on Counter Records in September last year. Then hot on its heals he gives us this. Mark Bolan is an instant point of recognition in Pop's sound but throughout this album we see glimpses of Prince, Dylan, Hendrix and even Jack White. But as with all quality music these influences, don't in any way confuse the sound that Pop has crafted for himself. That sound isn't easily explained as it keeps on changing. There's a very hand crafted feel to it with layers of acoustic and electric guitars punctuating washes of percussion, but this all often fed through some sort of machine and the Pop Levi sound is churned out the other side.
From the opening single, 'Sugar Assault Me Now,' it's quite clear that this is the doorway to a world far removed from our own. A world of astral energy where reality and disbelief are suspended and anything is possible. The first two tracks get things started at break-neck speed with a cacophony of stabbing guitars, fuzzy bass and more than enough hand claps. Things are taken down a notch with '(A Style Called) Cryin' Chic' with its folk blues meanderings over textured percussion. 'Skip Ghetto' shows Pop's sensitive side with a beautiful dreamy, acoustic little number only to be bitch slapped once again by the most Bolan of songs 'Dollar Bill Rock'.
The whole album follows this up and down formation, painting a very rich picture of this mans talents. It's contemplative and at the same time immensely uplifting. It's relaxing and floaty then foot tappingly addictive. It can appear to be conforming to every current fashion then rejecting it all in an instant. 'The Return To Form's' listening experience is just as up and down. On the first few plays it is thrilling and refreshing but I have to admit that the constant use of repetition in the lyrics does give it an air of emptiness. But hey it's pop music and not every moment has to move you to tears. There are plenty of moving moments here but most of them are on a level totally their own. The album makes you move and it makes you want to tell people about it. It oozes so much arrogance and confidence that it can only have been conceived by an artist with a very unique outlook on making music. It was a wise move for Ninja Tune to create an environment for this man to shine - as he has a lot to say and if this debut is anything to go by he has a myriad of ways to say it.