The Bubble Album Reviews No. 20

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Portico Quartet- Portico Quartet

When the words ‘Portico’ and ‘Quartet’ come to mind, I am reminded of a Gin-soaked hangover and an album recommendation from the night before. This recommendation came in the form of the Mercury prize shortlisted debut album, Knee-deep in the North Sea. Although I was initially sceptical of the novelty ‘hang’ instrument that pervaded the album, it oozed with enthusiasm, eclectically styled pieces and a busker’s bravado which managed to win over my musical pretentions.

Remembrances aside, the Quartet’s latest production is a much sultrier, slow-burning affair than its predecessors. This is perhaps due to a change of personnel with hang player and percussionist Keir Vine replacing founding member Nick Mulver. However, I found the album to be sonically confused; a tenacious habit in the world of crossover music.

‘Window Seat’, the opening track firmly sets the tone of the album with an ebbing, swooping bowed bass and reverb-laden looping of the hang. These elements immediately give way to the white noise that then proceeds to descend upon and ultimately dominate the track. As a result, the ethereal, spacious qualities that showed promise at the beginning are swept away under unnecessary production gimmickry. This seamlessly follows onto one of the best tracks on the album, ‘Ruins’ which clearly introduces the quartet to our ears for the first time. The drum and percussion straddles between house-inspired loops and the sporadic rhythms of IDM. The melancholic saxophone motifs swoon overhead ultimately mutating into a jazzy attempt at ‘glitchtronica’. However, the stand out role of this piece goes to the droning interplay between the hang and the pizzicato bass which displays skill and restraint in holding the track together under the ensuing chaos. The third track, ‘Spinner’ begins with a tight, tense and almost combative rhythm section countered by the use of synthesiser loops and mournful saxophone vignettes. But by the end of the track, my fears were slowly being realised; the album was seemingly riddled with intrusive and unnecessary production that tried to reconcile jazz instrumentation with electronic influences.

The fourth and sixth tracks (‘Rubidium’ and ‘Lacker Boo’) on the album are twin monoliths in terms of track time and in their lack of character. No doubt owing to their close proximity to each other on the track listing, both ‘Rubidium’ and ‘Lacker Boo’ never go anywhere musically. ‘Rubidium’, shows promise half way through with contrasts between frenzied drumming and punctual synthesiser patterns. Despite this, both pieces ultimately leave me feeling rather empty to the point that even the use of production techniques such as reversed tape loops can’t save them.In between these two gigantic tracks, comes ‘Export for Hot Climates’ which clocks in at a petite one minute and nine seconds. This short, impressionistic piece is a warm, resonant affair; it displays the Quartet’s propensity for feeling despite their predilection for complexity. A direction I hope they pursue in their next release.

‘Steepless’, which features Swedish producer and singer Cordelia Dahlgren is the strongest piece on this album. It is also the most ‘commercially viable’ clocking in at three minutes and fifty-seven seconds, however this belies its virtues. It is driven by simple percussive clicking and high-hat coupled with the haunting chords of the piano leaving enough space in the mix for the cute and breathy melodies of Cordelia to take hold of your consciousness. A surprisingly tasteful synthesiser break is introduced halfway through and although I was thinking that this would lead to another wall of noise, the Quartet showed restraint and allowed the track to play out.

Conceptually, the mood of this album seems to convey the small hours of inner-city London, a time sandwiched between the bustling chaos of the capital’s nightlife and the migration of those on the graveyard shift to wherever they rest and this they portrayed well. Despite its shortcomings, this album delivers some truly wondrous tracks in the form of ‘Ruins’, ‘Export for Hot Climates’ and ‘Steepless’ but ultimately the musical direction of the Portico Quartet has been rendered confused and predictable by the aural possibilities of electronic music and their jazz origins.

By Gareth Carter

Stumbleine – Spiderwebbed

Stumbleine is a glo-fi/chillwave producer from Bristol. It’s probably better, though, to think of his music not as a genre but a time of day. While other ambient-electronic producers like Burial cover the graveyard shift, crafting the sounds of a melancholy post-club 4 am, Stumbleine punches the clock around dawn, just as the morning starts to burst its colours through mist and dew. Sometimes you might even catch him on a summer evening through the rainbow flare of a camera lens…

Ok, I know this is awful, but something about his music drives these appalling moments of faux-synesthetic pretension. To me, it seems that Stumbleine is doing something very special at a time when dubstep rules and electronic music doesn’t really mean much anymore.

His label debut Spiderwebbed is every bit as lovely as its parent MP3 releases. Drum tracks click away, slightly askew, like odd clocks. Pitch-shifted female vocals drip like raindrops or else quiver and haunt with their echoes. Fans already know what’s in store and will find it difficult to see fault in his latest release, and for newcomers there’s so much to take in. The vocal samples on ‘Capulet’ are simply gorgeous, just as CoMa’s guest-spot on ‘The Beat My Heart Skips’ is breathy, wistful, beautiful. The original vocals (both by CoMa and Steffaloo) provide a nice organic/artificial contrast with the typical shifted samples as well. This is most highlighted in the guitar-led cover of Mazzy Star’s ‘Fade Into You’, which lets Stumbleine wear his AltRock/Shoegaze influences brilliantly as he does.

Often the beats are dreamlike but at the same time energetic to the point of infection, particularly in album opener ‘Cherry Blossom’ to which it’s impossible not to move. The 2-Step rhythm of ‘Kaleidescope’ also bounces along sleepily. Elsewhere, tracks like ‘If You’ are much more laidback but not in a way that feels boring or place-holding – it’s clear Stumbleine has thought about the mood and flow of the album, and though nothing much has changed within or between releases, he’s obviously dedicated to refining his sound. Besides, as the glittering, fluid synth lines on ‘Corner Of Her Eye’ show, all the little details can count for a lot if handled with care. The one concern I do have, however, is that so much of these little details are lost through computer speakers and in-ear buds; the warm bass at the heart of the record is left behind a haze of white noise. Listen through over-ear headphones and it’s another world.

In short, Stumbleine has created a wonderfully charming album that never really feels dull or repetitive, despite a strong resemblance to his previous works. If you go into this wanting decent background music and not much else, well, you won’t be disappointed. At the same time, if you want to give it your full attention, it’s a place to lose yourself. Either way, make sure you don’t let it drift past through laptop speakers.

By Bobby Innes

Max Richter- Recomposed: Vivaldi, the Four Seasons

Some albums really deserve to be listened to, and this, above all others I have heard this year, is the one. Infused with an absolutely invigorating sense of innovation as well as an appreciation for the genius that has come before. Recomposed by Max Richter is a rethinking of Vivaldi, The Four Seasons in a way that does not try to tamper with Vivaldi, but draws attention to the very essence of Vivaldi’s ideas and intentions throughout this programmatic composition. However do not think it is a purely Classical album that only music students can listen to: this is an album that will challenge and jolt the non-classical lovers potentially even more than those familiar with Classical works.

Richter said about his work: “[Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons] is just everywhere. In a way, we stop being able to hear it. So this project is about reclaiming this music for me personally, by getting inside it and rediscovering it for myself – and taking a new path through a well-known landscape” (the Guardian). The German-born British composer’s album is part of Deutsche Grammophon’s ‘Recomposed’ series which has heard re-works of music by Schumann, Holst, Mahler and others. Every composer has treated the task very differently in their use of instrumentation; the amount of the original music left unchanged; and the interpretation of how far to stick to the composer’s intentions. How Richter knew how to find the perfect balance, I do not know, but somehow he has.

I am almost sceptical to put the title of ‘Classical’ on it, in fear of imposing a stereotype of something it is not. Richter’s writing is unbelievably exhilarating to the point that I continue to replay certain sections of the tracks just to feel the same thrill from the very involved, driving string textures. Soaring over these forceful, intense string rhythms of Summer 1 for example, is the richness of the violin solo line, played so beautifully and with such deep expression by the soloist Daniel Hope. His playing is continually strong- whether it be fiery and fierce in the extremely difficult passagework that blasts through Summer 1 and Winter 1, or the impassioned yearning in the slow melodic lines of Spring 2 and Summer 2.

My favourite part? Summer 3 (3,00), where the combination of Vivaldi, Max Richter, Daniel Hope and the Berlin Konzerthaus chamber orchestra infuse to form such an intensity that you cannot help but be totally immersed in the passion of every musician involved.

Classical music has been awakened through this album in a way that is certain to ignite excitement in every listener. If I can urge you to do anything, it is to drop everything and go and listen to it now.

By Clare Everson

Plush- More You Becomes You

Some albums place themselves out of any sense of a musical spectrum. This can be done in two ways. One is to do something so different as to have no forerunners, as in Captain Beefheart or The Velvet Underground. The other, perhaps less travelled route is to have such singleness of purpose as to isolate oneself from any future musical interaction. Liam Hayes, AKA Plush, pursued the latter route in his debut album More You Becomes You. His man-and-a-piano songs are so similar to each other that it took me several listens to pinpoint where one ended and another began. That is to say, whether you would count them as actual songs. For example his two songs: “The Party I” and “The Party II” are in fact little 30-second sound bites of a chord progression. Indeed many of the songs pass by so quickly you barely notice them, and then the album is over. It doesn’t even clock past the 30 minute mark.

So it’s no surprise that this album never had much commercial success, it so successfully eludes the listener. Indeed, that was its lasting appeal to me: it was such easy listening you really needed to focus on the core of the songs’ eerie beauty. In fact the last minute and a half of the album is silence, which has a surprising effect, in that you become so lulled in the music that you don’t notice that it has ended. Another of the album’s deceptive qualities is that it seems crystallised in a nostalgic timeframe of barroom solos, which makes it so hard to believe that it was actually released in 1998.

Yet what cannot be ignored is an underlying current of loneliness between these tuneful songs. Hayes’ voice breaks in “(I Didn’t Know) I Was Asleep,” but then provides the contrast for the final driving chorus singing ‘it took me sooooo long.’ He hits falsetto too often for us not to notice vulnerability in his voice. Thus he’d perhaps be most affiliated with Alex Chilton during Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers era, where the songs contain a harrowing beauty that can’t be felt underneath the sweet melodies.

And so this album exudes a sense of discomforting leisure (just take a look at the ominously childish cover art). Hayes sings airily about sleeping, boredom and parties, but if you can grasp his lyrics, they betray a lonelier image: “I saw the party look at me,” and we realise that this man is not singing at the party, he is singing in a corner, by himself.

By Oliver White

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