Thursday, September 20, 2007

Spaced Oddity

Elmore Judd - Insect Funk

Elmore Judd are an unusual group comprising some of North London’s finest musicians, including the superb drummer Tom Skinner and keyboardist-songwriter Jesse Hackett, with whom I used to attend Ian Carr’s jazz workshops at the WAC Performing Arts and Media College. Hackett has been both shrewd and fortuitous in making useful friends through his participation in Damon Albarn’s Mali Music project. The result was a deal with the excellent Honest Jon’s label (so far mainly responsible for the rediscovering of soul legends such as Candi Staton, Bettye Swann and Willie Hightower), in which Albarn has a stake.

The group have already been acclaimed as ‘genuine innovators’ by Blues and Soul magazine, although they undoubtedly wear their influences rather proudly. What is most interesting about Hackett’s approach is the way that he has conducted something of a smash-and-grab raid on recent musical history. The opening ‘Pirate Song’ sounds like a Tom Waits song, and could have fitted comfortably on Hal Wilner and Gore Verbinski’s ‘Rogue’s Gallery’ pirate compilation from last year. ‘Dead Men Walk In A Straight 9’, with its rather bizarre oom-pah backing, mines similar ground. Skinner’s drums, emphasising beats against the main pulse, pull it in other directions, creating a perplexing, perhaps drunken sense of creeping unease.

Elsewhere, the sound is deliberately skeletal, somewhere close to Hot Chip (particularly on the synth-heavy erotic squelch of ‘Funky Nerd’) but with the dry, ironic humour extracted. ‘Disco in 4 Time’ and ‘We Float In Time’ have a similarly relentless four-to-the-floor backbeat to that deployed by LCD Soundsystem and many of the other DFA acts. By way of contrast, though, the title track is radical and off-kilter, with peculiar interlocking cartoonish vocals. ‘Ultra Busy’ has a disorientating, sub-aquatic feel that may well have been influenced by ‘Bitches Brew’ era Miles Davis. They are both perverse delights.

Although Hackett, his brother Louis and drummer Skinner are all virtuosic talents, there’s more creativity than showmanship on display on ‘Insect Funk’ and it’s all the more successful because of this commendable restraint. The group dynamic involves exploring the full possibility of sound and its manipulation and there is an extraordinary attention to detail on display here. Few bands vary their texture so greatly simply through the drum sound for example – there are lightly brushed drums, electronically manipulated, flat-sounding drums, and intricate, expressive percussion tracks. The guitar and keyboard lines are carefully mapped too, always simple and adding something to the atmosphere or the groove. Hackett is not so techinically gifted as a singer, but he achieves a mysterious quality through his breathy falsetto and enigmatic murmurings. ‘Insect Funk’ is slippery but insidious and undoubtedly impressive. It would be great to see this band break out of the restrictive London bubble.

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