Monday, April 19, 2010

Dive In

Pantha du Prince - Black Noise (Rough Trade)
Caribou - Swim (City Slang)

There's already a sense that 2010 is shaping up to be a particularly fine year for electronic music. We've already enjoyed superb albums from Four Tet and Hot Chip, and there have been a number of releases I haven't yet managed to digest (including Autechre). Although there's an argument that his debut album 'This Bliss' (released in 2007) is even better, Pantha du Prince's 'Black Noise' adds to the list by virtue of being a lush, compelling piece of work. Like its predecessor, it's a rapturous and immersive experience.

This is spare and minimal music that still finds room for a warmth and beauty amidst the mechanical precision. It's repetitive and relentless but in a pleasingly hypnotic, rather than irritating way. The overarching atmosphere is rather magical. A number of the titles are almost onomatopaeic in their aptness ('Lay in a Shimmer', 'The Splendour', 'Bohemian Forest') such is the glimmering, haunting effect of the music.

Much of this is achieved through percussion sounds - be it the clicks and clatters in the background or the steel pan and glockenspiel sounds that yield the subtle but charming melodic lines. The music unfolds slowly and delicately, somehow achieving an effect that is both melancholic and euphoric, reflective and uplifting.

The last album from Caribou, aka Dan Snaith and the artist formerly known as Manitoba, 'Andorra', won Canada's equivalent of the Mercury Music Prize whilst continuing his preference for bucolic, hazy psychedelia and chaotic, cluttered percussion. It was an appealing, summery set but one that hinted that Snaith's sound, however distinctive, may have run its course.

Pleasingly, he has refreshed and refined his approach on 'Swim', which manages to combine some familiar elements of the Caribou sound with at least one eye firmly fixed back on the dancefloor. This is certainly the grooviest album Snaith has made yet - his rhythms have been stripped back to their most essential elements and a lot of the dense noise has been removed. This doesn't mean there isn't room for ambition - towards its conclusion on tracks like 'Hannibal' and 'Jamelia' have bold, expansive arrangements that suggest Snaith may have been listening to Ennio Morricone or David Axelrod.

'Swim' is most surprising when at its simplest and most direct. There's a touch of Prince to the propulsive but light disco of 'Odessa' that makes it both fluffy and infectious and curiously intelligent. On 'Sun', some of Snaith's recognisable concerns reappear, but it's a much more shimmering and aquatic creation, with plenty of breathing space. Perhaps most impressive of all is 'Bowls', the album's stunning, wonderfully linear centrepiece.

Snaith is not blessed with the world's greatest singing voice and there are plenty of borderline Caribou admirers who might well be completely converted were Snaith to abandon singing entirely. 'Odessa' at least hints at a use of his voice that is both more sensible and more creative - the delivery is largely conversational. It's when he attempts to make his vocal the melodic heart of his music that it risks descending into fragile whimsy. Still, the music that dominates 'Swim' is so resonant and so elegantly constructed that this is ultimately a minor concern. This is one of 2010's most enjoyable and adventurous albums so far.

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