Friday, May 23, 2008

The Day That Never Comes

The Shortwave Set - Replica Sun Machine (Wall of Sound, 2008)

A degree of credit must go to The Shortwave Set for their audacity and ambition. Whilst many seemed to admire the junkyard pop of their debut album The Debt Collection (myself included), it seemed completely out of step with the more tedious trends of British pop music, and was thus roundly ignored by the record buying public. The group have since negotiated themselves a new record deal and somehow employed the services of such reputable luminaries as Danger Mouse, John Cale and Van Dyke Parks. One might be forgiven for predicting some dreamy neo-psychedelia expertly fusing old and new sounds.

This isn’t too far from the truth of course, although ‘Replica Sun Machine’ lacks the spontaneity and immediacy of ‘The Debt Collection’. Occasionally, the pace feels a little leaden, and the seamless interweaving of the tracks makes the complete record into some kind of unified song cycle (unless, like me, you’ve downloaded the record from iTunes and the tracks are all broken up). Much like his contribution to the last Sparklehorse album, towards which I was completely indifferent, I’m not sure how much Danger Mouse really brings to the table here, save for a muffled drum sound and some broadly hypnotic ambience. Strip away the effects, Van Dyke Parks arrangements and enveloping melodies and we’re often left with too many plodding and rather conventional backbeats.

Perhaps this doesn’t really matter though, given that it’s precisely the sounds and orchestrations that generate the interest here. For what was supposed to be a low budget risk, the completed product sounds reassuringly expensive. The string parts are rarely foregrounded, but rather creep slowly and uneasily from the rich tapestry beneath them. The result is a strange juxtaposition of the comforting and the sinister.

For a collection that emphasises the surreal and dreamlike possibilities of music, there’s a real grounding in fear and suspense here that helps ‘Replica Sun Machine’ stand out. ‘House of Lies’ might represent a compelling attack on corrupt government, whilst ‘Replica’ hints at armageddon and nuclear apocalypse. The work is also founded on a healthy degree of playfulness and irreverence that suggests the band don’t take themselves too seriously. ‘Now ‘Til 69’ begins by riffing on Gene Vincent but suddenly veers off on a surprisingly abstract tangent.

Whilst those leaping to hail ‘Replica Sun Machine’ as a masterpiece are undoubtedly lapsing into hyperbole, it’s notable that its creators have managed to so radically reshape themselves. It almost sounds like a different band from the more sample-preoccupied group that crafted ‘The Debt Collection’. Also, given time and attention, it’s a fascinating album detailing the potential pitfalls of wrong turns, and there are times when its lush and evocative moods really work wonders.

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