Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Only In Dreams

Leila – Blood, Looms and Blooms (Warp, 2008)

As well as being a sometime keyboard player for Bjork, Leila Arab has been responsible for one of my favourite albums of the 1990s, the skeletal, deceptively simple ‘Like Weather’*. That remarkable debut and, to a lesser extent, its follow-up ‘Courtesy of Choice’ married idiosyncratic, mostly untutored vocal contributions to esoteric and imaginative bedroom productions. Yet Leila never really became recognised as one of electronic music’s pioneers, and the gestation between ‘Courtesy of Choice’ and this third album has been a lengthy eight years.

The press spin on ‘Blood, Looms and Blooms’ has emphasised that Leila lost both her parents during that eight year gap and the critical focus on this album has emphasised its concurrent darkness and sadness. I’m not really sure that it’s all that preoccupied with death, but it’s certainly fair to argue that it’s a lot less warm and inviting a record than ‘Like Weather’. Indeed, the presence of Terry Hall and Martina Topley Bird as guest vocalists immediately invites comparisons with Tricky’s Nearly God project, with which this record shares a rather introspective and claustrophobic sound.

Leila’s solo set in support of Bjork at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire left me rather cold and baffled. Not only bereft of the contributions of her vocalists, it also seemed stripped of any of the melody or thematic development that characterises her recordings. Instead, she opted to bathe the audience in a rather oppressive sonic fuzz that occasionally teetered on the unmusical and was largely uninvolving.

Luckily, the approach is less confrontational on ‘Blood, Looms and Blooms’ and this album largely plays to her strengths, albeit sometimes with disorientating and unsettling effects. This is the most mysterious and elusive of Leila’s albums so far – basking in its rather creepy, fantastical atmosphere. The arrangements are both strange and seductive, particularly when Leila leaves enough space for her singers to weave their enchanting webs. It mostly sounds like a dreamworld – sometimes dizzying and intoxicating, frequently unnerving and peculiar.

Even the chiefly instrumental works are disarming in their impact. ‘Mettle’ begins playfully, but its underlying menace bubbles to the surface with alarming rapidity, the incorporation of heavily distorted guitars proving surprisingly effective. The brilliantly titled ‘The Exotics’, with its wordless, mock-operatic vocal interjections, using voice as instrument rather than linguistic vehicle, swells like the soundtrack to a malevolent fairground carousel.

Better still, Leila’s longstanding vocal collaborators have all developed and enhanced the qualities that made them such inspired discoveries in the first place. Roya Arab proves eerie and versatile on ‘Daisies Cats and Spacemen’ and Luca Santucci powerfully conveys the sense of disturbed sleep on ‘Teases Me’. So much so, in fact, that the appearance of Martina Topley Bird on ‘Deflect’ seems comparatively straightforward and lacking bite (emphasised by the uglier, more invasive presence of excoriating electric guitars).

The cover of ‘Norwegian Wood’ seems to have divided opinion somewhat, but I think it’s a major highlight of this set. First of all, it’s an appropriate choice of song, despite its potential over-familiarity. Leila’s clever layering of Luca Santucci’s vocals results in a novel and fascinating new interpretation of Lennon’s melody. Any cover version should aspire to re-imagining a song and investing it with new life and meaning, and that is precisely what Leila and Santucci have done here. This version is laced with fear and foreboding, entirely in keeping with the album’s overall mood and themes.

There are a small clutch of mis-steps here, not least ‘Little Acorns’, where the light-hearted playfulness feels a little forced and incongruous. The beats on this track also sound a little dated and could easily have been transplanted from a Bentley Rhythm Ace record. Mercifully, the rest of the album sounds as potentially timeless as music reliant on technology can feasibly sound. ‘Young Ones’, essentially a skeletal piano recital, might assist the album’s dreamy mood, but it feels a trifle superfluous. Perhaps ‘Blood, Looms and Glooms’ is just a fraction overlong – and some more rigorous editing might have marked it out as Leila’s most ambitious and successful record so far. It’s still a terrific record in spite of this though – very different in tone and shape from its predecessors, but sustaining their inventiveness and intrigue.

* Long gone are the days when the NME could still be an influential pointer in the direction of albums such as that!

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