Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Don't Forget It's Dumb Luck That Got You Here

Reviews of ‘Icky Thump’, the new album from The White Stripes, have been predictably gushing, but also intriguing. First of all, there’s been a peculiar discomfort over Jack White’s appropriation of a Northern phrase for the album’s title. I rather like it actually, as it provides a suitably onomatopoeic description of Meg White’s untutored drum sound, which inevitably underpins everything here. Secondly, many have come close to using that ghastly critics’ cliché the ‘return to form’ after the ‘murky’ or ‘confusing’ ‘Get Behind Me Satan’. I don’t feel that album did anywhere near as much to obfuscate or confound as some suggest, containing as it did some of the group’s most infectious material (‘My Doorbell’ and ‘The Denial Twist’ in particular). It also did much more to expand their rather limited palette than ‘Icky Thump’ manages, in spite of good intentions and the appearance of the much maligned bagpipes.

‘Icky Thump’ starts impressively with the colossal title track, built on skewed stop-start rhythms, heavily distorted guitars, and unsubtle synthesiser blurts. For a songwriter rarely explicitly political, the track also sees Jack White make some telling but ambiguous points about the Bush administration’s stance on immigration (‘White Americans, what? Nothing better to do?/Why don’t you kick yourself out, you’re an immigrant too/Who’s using who? What should we do?/Well you can’t be a pimp and a prostitute too’). ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As Your Told)’ is the most memorable song here, with some neat guitar work and an infectious tune. Towards the end of the album, they also capture something powerful on the brilliant ‘A Martyr For My Love For You’.

Some have hinted that the overall sound is bigger and more robust. This might be true, but it’s also cleaner and less brutal. There are even a handful of songs that could almost be described as subtle. Advance word left me expecting a heavy beast of a record – but even after three or four listens, I can’t help feeling there’s something missing here. Yes, there’s a greater range of instruments (heavy 70s organ, synthesisers, the aforementioned pipes), but this mostly seems to make the music sound more dated and less timeless. By contrast, the use of groovy piano and marimba on ‘Get Behind Me Satan’ gave the music a different texture, and took the group into new spaces. The increased reliance on irritating squealing guitar effects and elaborate solos doesn’t much help here either.

A prime example of the problem here is ‘300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues’, which veers between delicate rustic sections and curtailed explosions of noise. Unfortunately, it also has a completely forgettable melody. I always feel Jack White sounds better when vocally untamed (as he is here on the excellent title track and the bizarre Corky Robbins cover ‘Conquest’, a kind of heavy metal mariachi song), or trying to force too many words into too small a space. Here, he simply sounds vague and nonchalant. It doesn’t help that ‘300 MPH…’ drags on, in cumbersome fashion, for over five minutes. As a clipped three minute blast, it might have been more effective. There are a clutch of tracks which hit all the hardest buttons but really fail to linger in the mind (‘Bone Broke’, ‘Little Cream Soda’, the rambling ‘Catch Hell Blues’).

These are small problems though when compared with two tracks that are completely unbearable. ‘Prickly Thorn But Sweetly Worn’ is a woefully unconvincing folk pastiche which is swiftly followed by Meg White’s mercifully brief spoken word piece ‘St Andrew’. This seems intentionally incomprehensible, her obscure vocals set to a concoction of bagpipes and percussion, with no discernible purpose or direction. Sequenced together they sound perverse, two lightweight throwaway jokes bizarrely placed at the very heart of the album. If they are attempts to inject some humour into proceedings, they look rather silly when placed next to the deliriously entertaining ‘Rag and Bone’, with its comic exchanges between Jack and Meg.

By far the best thing about ‘Icky Thump’ is its song titles, many of which demonstrate that Jack White has a confident mastery of the language of the blues (‘I’m Slowly Turning Into You’, ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You’re Told)’, ‘I’m A Martyr For My Love For You’ etc). Musically, it largely fails to live up to these ambitions. At its best (‘Icky Thump’, ‘I’m Slowly Turning Into You’, ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is…’) it sounds like business as usual, which whilst not necessarily a bad thing, risks becoming tiresome away from the alchemical thrill of their incendiary live shows. At its worst, it’s actually rather embarrassing. Luckily, it ends with redemption of sorts, as the countrified ‘Cause and Effect’ is sweet and clever. Yet, for me, the overall impression for me is that Jack White is running out of ways of assimilating old ideas, all too frequently resorting to gimmicks and pastiche. In the wake of the Stripes’ success, numerous ramshackle rock n’ roll duos have been springing up all over the place. It would be particularly galling if Jack White was to become his own worst imitator. ‘Icky Thump’ might be the first warning sign that this is a realistic possibility.

There’s plenty more imitation on offer this week, chiefly in the form of a handful of French electro releases owing a substantial debt to Daft Punk. Justice are already infamous for their scene-shaking ‘We Are Your Friends’ (a deft remix of Simian’s ‘Never Be Alone’) from last year, although I much prefer the insistent, uncompromising ‘Waters of Nazareth’ single, which is probably the most successful track on their intermittently wonderful debut album. The collection veers from generic house music to overtly cheesy disco (the ghastly ‘D.A.N.C.E.’, lyrics delivered by a group of helium-voiced kids and seemingly aimed at an aerobics market) via a good share of inventive moments too.

The segues between tracks attempt to make it cohere, but it veers haphazardly between the highly portentous and the ultimately silly. The best tracks are a lot of fun, and benefit greatly from some ingenious squelchy synth and unfashionable slap bass sounds. Sometimes, as on ‘New Jack’ they become excessive, and there’s so much cutting up and playing with the central themes that it just becomes grating.

I remain unconvinced by the vocal tracks, which sound self-consciously trendy. ‘DVNO’ seems to be striving for Jamie Lidell disco-funk territory but it sounds forced and contrived. ‘Thhee Ppaarty’ starts promisingly enough, with a skeletal theme in half time over which the spoken vocal is delivered, but it eventually morphs into another four to the floor diso track. The opening suckerpunch of ‘Genesis’ and ‘Let There Be Light’ is brilliant though – at once playful and unreservedly excessive. Similarly, the cinematic and dissonant string lines of ‘Stress’ sound genuinely terrifying. Ultimately, though, the jury’s still out.

Perhaps it’s easy to be too cynical about this sort of music but even listening to the much acclaimed new album from Digitalism, I’m still not quite convinced. The influence of Daft Punk is still fairly transparent, but there’s less of the cheesy 80s synth emulations and a more maverick, devil-may-care spirit on display here. They shamelessly pilfer The Cure for ‘Digitalism in Cairo’, and develop some infectious riffs on the likes of ‘Zdarlight’ and ‘Jupiter Room’. ‘Pogo’ is appropriately manic, and the title track is insistent and joyful, in part reminding me of Josh Wink’s classic ‘Higher State of Consciousness’. There’s still the nagging feeling that this is playing it pretty safe for dance music in 2007 – never really breaking any particularly interesting new ground. ‘I Want I Want’ is a particularly unfortunate electro-rock crossover which could just as easily have been made by Republica. There’s also far too heavy a reliance on distorted vocals, which sound neither fresh nor particularly interesting at this time. When it comes to the crunch, I’d rather listen to more substantial recent electronic works from The Field or Isolee. The best European dance music would appear now to be coming from Germany, not France.

It’s a little wispy and elusive, but after a few plays I’m really starting to like ‘Dumb Luck’, the new album from Dntel. Jimmy Tamborello is best known to me as one half of The Postal Service collaboration with Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie, and his own work follows a similarly collaborative impulse. Unlike Stephin Merrit’s work in the guise of The 6ths, where he essentially employed other singers to assume his voice, Tamborello has sought creative and compositional input from his co-conspirators. The results are never any less than interesting, and Tamborello’s overall guiding hand lends the album a mysterious and impressionistic mood, not too far from an electronic Yo La Tengo. Even the usually histrionic Conor Oberst sounds dignified and restrained on ‘Breakfast in Bed’, and there’s an eerie calm permeating the whole record. ‘The Distance’, featuring Arthur and Yu is gorgeous in its premeditated simplicity, and ‘Roll On’ provides a fresh, arguably more appealing context for the musings of Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis. The album as a whole hangs together surprisingly well.

It’s been six years since the last Fridge album (2001’s ‘Happiness’) but the individual members of the group have packed rather a lot into that space. Kieren Hebden has released one excellent album and one adequate one as Four Tet, Adem Ilhan has recorded two lovely solo albums and drummer Sam Jeffers has made headway with his design company. Hebden has also found time to produce James Yorkston and record three albums of collaborations with legendary free improv drummer Steve Reid. The last thing anyone was really expecting was another Fridge record but here it is, released surreptitiously, despite the group’s increased profile as a result of their extra-curricular achievements. Some have chosen to criticise this rather curious album on the basis that it too obviously displays the individual preoccupations of the group’s members. This is true enough – the opening title track is percussive and emphasises sound rather than melody, much in the same way as the recent Hebden/Reid collaborations, and elsewhere there are hints of the acoustic meets electronic rustic atmospheres of Adem’s solo work. The combination of ideas is sympathetic and effective though, and the group sound expressive and relaxed on hazy experiments such as the lovely ‘Oram’ and ‘Insects’. There’s a benign warmth to much of the material here that distances it from much improvised machine music. ‘The Sun’ is a delightful and understated work that doesn’t outstay its welcome.

No comments: