53:10 min • 7Hz / The End Records • March 2, 2014
John Preston reviews
Composer and producer Neil Davidge follows a musical template that was established in the mid-nineties and is commonly known as trip hop. Craig Armstrong and David Arnold made records around this time, and also championed a sound that positioned itself at the more polite end of the genre: bold widescreen and cinematic elements used as backdrops to usually introspective, desolate vocals with slow, slurred hip-hop beats. It avoided the more fevered and claustrophobic ‘trippier’ elements that Bristol-based artists Tricky and Portishead embraced, and was, like this record, often very beautiful music. Yet the little sonic tricks and unexpected melodic turns that Davidge incorporates into the majority of Slo Lights prevent it from ever becoming just really good background music.
Davidge has assembled a cast of little known, occasionally iconic female singers to appear on all but one of the 10 songs; interestingly, the one male voice provided by Low Roar vocalist Ryan Joseph Karazija is the least distinguished performance of the lot. Davidge understands how to work with a woman’s voice, that much is obvious. He has demonstrated this ably in his past work with Massive Attack and the one song that will be forever played and revered, the luminescent ‘Teardrop’. This song played a pivotal role in cementing Davidge’s reputation; he subsequently went on to co-produce Massive Attack’s third album because of it. The first track and the title song of Slo Light closely resembles ‘Teardrop’; the softly clicking beat, the mood and structure. Stephonik Youth doesn’t, and isn’t trying to, sound like Liz Fraser – there would be little point, but she does make a real connection to the lyric “the light woke me up from the dead” and the storm of strings that invade the final minute or so establish a scene of disquieting unrest.
Stephonik Youth from New York based, and David Sitek signed, band Living Days may be the most popular artist featured on Slo Light. She gets 3 songs. But the most beguiling performance is from Welsh born indie star Cate Le Bon. Electro pop only features once here. The drum machines and tinkling synths that surround Le Bon’s affected French accent on the completely skewed ‘Gallant Foxes’ are an effervescent early treat. Following a sumptuous and uplifting middle eight that could be Kylie, Le Bon finally slows into the bizarre robotic admission of “We are horses now, we are horses….horses….now”. It’s the brightest, strangest and also most immediate track here, and one of the best.
Karima Francis may have an unexpected future ahead of her as an electro dance artist based on the fidgety and foreboding ‘How Was Your Day’. A Northern folk-pop singer songwriter who was touted as the next big thing a couple of years back, Francis has a mania and delirium to her performance that hovers above a synth line that threatens to burst out into full acid house motifs at any second. It’s maybe on this track, more than any of the others, that Davidge displays a masterful talent of opening a track up with what is seemingly the most subtle of changes. Around the 2 and a half minute mark a synth wash is introduced, and piano chords are layered over the existing instrumentation. The temperament of the track is adjusted significantly, it’s a neat trick and one repeated many times here.
Late sixties Eurovision winner and later to become Morrissey devotee Sandi Shaw is the only artist on Slo Light who has already comfortably established herself as an icon. Stunt casting in some ways maybe, Shaw is however a perfect fit here, weaving in and out of the majestic swoops of ‘Riot Pictures’. Again there are other references to classic Massive Attack and what is probably considered to be their best song ‘Unfinished Sympathy’; the relentless, flecked cowbell percussion is there, the strings and bass. Although Shaw’s vocal is oddly buried in the mix, she marks her territory in a performance that may not ever reach the desperate yowl of Shara Nelson’s but is still soulful, sad and persuasive.
There is a brief misstep with the gothic, industrial-lite of ‘Zero One Zero’, messy and in need of a tune, but this is quickly recovered with the romantic Middle Eastern swoon and drama of the official last track (there are more tracks available on other versions of the album, ‘Sensor’ featuring the incredible Jhelisa Anderson being the most essential) ‘Anyone Laughing’ which is full of space and tension and features delicate vocals by his previous collaborator on the ‘Halo 4’ soundtrack, Claire Tchaikowski.
Slo Light is an album that I have been fortunate enough to be able to live with for the last 2 months. I mention this because it is an album that almost reluctantly reveals itself to the listener and therefore some patience is required. It was, for example, tempting to write off the second, less eclectic half of the album as sophisticated music for middle-aged middle-class get togethers – always the easy accusation to throw at this genre of music – but that wouldn’t be accurate or fair. What Davidge has made is a lovingly detailed melodic album, its mood is more night than day and it exists within its own orbit and will defiantly demand your full attention. Grown up music for sure but by turns a magical, melancholic and at times satisfyingly unsettling success.