Electronic music not aimed squarely at the dance floor must present all kinds of marketing problems. The eclecticism of sounds and influences, the potential for innovative work to also sound like easy-listening background music, the diverse target audiences, and the expectations set up by downtempo’s commercial success in the mid-to-late ‘90s—all of these factors mean that wonderful releases can easily slip through the cracks, marketed (if at all) to the wrong audience in the wrong manner.
Given the absence of dedicated publications—even dance magazines with one-page “chillout” summaries have mostly disappeared from the stands—seasoned fans know that a surer way to discover new artists is to follow labels. In recent years, outfits like Brighton-based Tru Thoughts have nurtured and signed talents including Bonobo, Jon Kennedy and Nostalgia 77, before handing them off to comparative behemoths like Grand Central and Ninja Tune.
It’s in this context that Dublin-based label Elusive Recordings is worth a look. A compilation entitled Eklectra was released earlier this year, showcasing Irish electronica. It featured work by, among others, label owner Felix Rex (Esoterica) and Jimmy Behan, a producer who had some releases on another Dublin-based small label, Kin, three years ago.
Behan has supported Four Tet and Manitoba on tour, and shares much of the sonic vocabulary of “folktronica”. Days Are What We Live In has a crisp, clear upper mid-range; spare, sparse piano and keyboard figures dominate. There are the same splintered fractions of guitar licks and reversed fragments of sound that Four Tet has made its own. The album’s lower range is generally filled with warm, throbbing sounds; the effect should be hypnotic, cumulative. Drum sounds, when used, punctuate the shimmering structure.
None of this, at this point, is exceptionally original, though it is rare for it to be done this well. Behan’s production is thoroughgoing without flooding out the details; rarely is the listener railroaded into focusing on one sound above others, and there is enough here to reward repeated listenings with previously unheard—and unexpected—details.
Certainly there are some weak points. The opening track, “Granby Row”, suggests Zakir Hussain’s Making Music, an album that Four Tet quoted in 2001’s Pause. But it remains the least interesting track on the album, along with “Normal Situation”, which was Behan’s contribution to Eklectra. The relatively staid and conventional acoustic guitar riffs suggest the kind of atmosphere favored by bands like Lemon Jelly: good-natured and open, but ultimately rather shallow and directionless.
In other tracks, the chord changes and song structures are slightly too conventional. Perhaps this is necessitated by the vocals that appear on “Deeper Than Heaven” and “Complete”, presumably there to appeal to those who enjoy the likes of Zero 7.
The album’s strongest material is less obviously commercial. “Hanover” has a long introduction filled with fluttering, shimmering sounds heard, as it were, in glimpses; for the rest of its length it revolves around a hypnotic organ figure. The title track builds similar structures over a much deeper, richer throb, filling in the gaps with shuffling drum programming. In these songs, where he uses loops at all, Behan’s taste is for unresolved, partial figures; moments that seem certain to resolve but disappear abruptly, their place taken by fragments of other sounds.
At moments the album veers toward the entirely ambient end of the spectrum, with Behan feeling out sounds for pure texture. There are the buzzing, rattling overtones that accrue at the edges of “Dandelions”, or the rich and sonorous harmonics that rise off the aqueous warmth and wooden percussion of “Under the Woods”.
There are moments of great prettiness here. They remain opaque, which is both frustrating and quite deliberate: this music is all surface. It is meticulous, measured, finely-crafted. If it fails to move or arouse, that is as much a feature of the genre as it is a failing of imagination. But there is an element of the conventional here, particularly in the more guitar-based tracks, which prevents the album from becoming compelling or from cutting very deep. It’s hard to imagine Behan deconstructing a song in the manner of Four Tet’s baroque and finely grotesque treatments of Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand” and Bonobo’s “Pick Up”. That said, this is a solid and well-made release from an increasingly interesting label. Watch for future releases.