Somewhat Electrifying Electro
Poisonous Relationship is the moniker for a 26-year-old from Sheffield, England, named Jamie Crewe. And that’s pretty much all his publicity bio has to say about him, aside from listing that he’s a “singer, songwriter, producer, designer, artist, and writer.” So all you really have to go by is the music, which comes in the form of a debut full-length “album” called Garden of Problems (how’s that for setting yourself up for critical barbs?). I use the term “album” loosely, as there are just six songs – one of them being really a minute long fragment – and it’s only out on vinyl and in digital formats. “Glorified single” might be another way of putting it, but this isn’t your typical DJ’s seven-inch. No, Garden of Problems has a flow to it, with one song bleeding into the next, so it’s actually more than a mere DJ’s tool, it’s a secret weapon: your average house DJ can put the needle down at the start of the first side, move away from the turntables and go work the crowd, flirt with members of the opposite (or same, depending on one’s inclination) sex, and grab a few drinks before returning about 20 minutes later to change discs. Nobody will notice, for the songs simply don’t end – they transform into the next cut. That’s one of the artistic flourishes about this record. And it turns out to be a bit of a saving grace as Garden of Problems does indeed have its share of issues – namely, some of this, with its mid-tempo beats and shuffles, is kind of hard to dance to (and that’s the point of club tracks, right? You gotta move.) However, it is also disarming at times in both its sense of experimentation and reverence for ‘80s-style electro. Well, so long as you don’t notice that the beats are pretty much lifted wholesale from “Planet Rock”.
Things actually get off on a rather mixed footing with “Men’s Feelings”, a classic-sounding electro cut that’s precisely 10 minutes on the dime. There’s a nice shuffling beat, though it does clearly owe a debt to 1982 and the TR-808, and when Crewe starts singing the signature choral loop, “Men’s feelings / Tell me more about men’s feelings,” you imagine him in the shrink’s chair doing his best Freud impression as his voice is silky smooth – but it’s also as though someone’s been listening to quite a few of those Weeknd mixtapes that circulated a few years back. However, the track is minimal at best, and one’s feet don’t exactly feel compelled to do more than move from side to side. The steel drum touches are nice, though. I suppose it kinda works, but it’s more for the chillout room than the club proper – making it a bit hard to really parse the point of “Men’s Feelings”. However, things gradually uptick from there. “Nobody” has a nice salsa rhythm to it, and there’s the presence of curt keyboards meant to sound like a sax wafting in and out of the mix. The mood is still low key and slightly stirred, but, being little more than half the length of “Men’s Feelings”, it’s more digestible, and even has the debonair feel of late ‘70s Steely Dan.
But the best has yet to come. “Nite Birds”, which closes out side one, is the clear standout on Garden of Problems. Featuring vocals fed into a Vocoder and then sliced and diced every which way to tomorrow, “Nite Birds” is the one moment on Garden of Problems where Crewe reaches out of his natural comfort zone and grafts house keyboards to this Cuisinart approach – making the track something that closely resembles Flying Lotus circa the early part of Cosmogramma. It’s great, and you’ll wish that the album was more for the “Nite Birds” and less belly-gazing about “Men’s Problems”. And as for side two? Well, it neither reaches the same highs, but it doesn’t really scrape any low lows, making it resoundingly average at best. The samba beats return on “Yellow Poppy” and there’s some glorious pitch shifting at the start of the piece, but, for a notable portion of the seven-minute runtime, that’s all there is until some harps enter the fray and make the song even more undanceable. Not. Sure. What. The. Point. Of. This. Is. And then there’s a bit more of the same on the aptly-titled “Endless Pleasure”, so apt in name as it sash-shays on for more than 12 minutes, with all sorts of loopy vocal effects.
All said and done, Garden of Problems feels, at times, like an artist trying to discover what his voice is by incorporating a pastiche of other genres into the electro formula. Some of it works, but some of it is more listenable as musical wallpaper than anything that gets the high tops in gear. In the end, the purpose of Garden of Problems is unclear: its format would suggest that this is something for DJs to spin, but it also has more “album” ambitions as well. It’s as though Crewe expects the best of both worlds, which is a hard thing to slice – especially when you’re just starting out, as he is. The disc is certainly likeable enough, and there are glimmers of talent on display, but some of it also seems like throwing ideas onto a wall to see what sticks. Which is strange considering just how damn compelling “Nite Birds” is. Crewe might be a jack of all trades, based on his experience in the arts. Garden of Problems proves that Crewe might want to pick one of the things he’s done and become less of a dabbler and more of a master, as there’s some really defining moments on his debut. Will it be enough to warrant more than a cursory inclusion into some DJ’s set? Well, it depends on the room, and Garden of Problems really doesn’t know what one it’s playing to. Still, it’s got enough to engage to warrant, at the very least, a listen for those who have the patience for watching an artist work out his imperfections.
// Notes from the Road
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