At this point, Coldcut is electronic royalty. Between putting out groundbreaking remix work, running the most excellent Ninja Tune record label, setting new standards in DJ mixing and maintaining a high level of compositional quality throughout their careers, Jonathan More and Matt Black have pretty much done it all, and done it at levels that most artists could only aspire to. What are they trying to prove by putting out another album, 20 years into their career?
The quick answer is that they’re not trying to prove anything. They don’t need to prove anything. This is a duo driven by the music, creating for the sake of creating, and Sound Mirrors is the sound of these two old friends having a right blast doing just that.
The first thing that’s immediately noticeable about Sound Mirrors is the impressive guest list, as Coldcut is evidently having too much fun here to keep it all to themselves. Jon Spencer, Roots Manuva, Saul Williams and Robert Owens are all here, and their contributions are nearly as vital to the album’s success as those of More and Black themselves. Of course, the duo can’t resist occasionally showing up their guests, keeping a couple of tracks to themselves, and often outshining the vocals and instruments that the guests provide.
Sound Mirrors sounds as though it’s split into two “sides”, as its opening half takes something of a kitchen sink approach to the music, while the second half displays more subtle, minimal work. Opening track “Everything is Under Control” is indicative of the first half’s tendency to just keep adding things to the music, as multiple drum tracks and buzzy synths are augmented by guitars and a screamy chorus vocal from Jon Spencer and a couple of rap verses from Mike Ladd. Together, the four folks responsible for this glorious three-and-a-half minute mess one-up the collaboration between The Crystal Method and Beck that never happened. Not to be outdone, Roots Manuva turns in an incredible performance on “True Skool”, busting his unique flow over a vaguely tribal beat that wouldn’t sound out of place on M.I.A’s album. The layering on the Robert Owens collaboration “Walk a Mile” is slower, but a deceptively simple starting rhythm is made complex via a clicky percussion track laid on top of it, while unexpected synth stabs punctuate particularly moving lyrics, all of it eventually climaxing under a sea of strings. Owens gives an energetic, emotional vocal performance, daring listeners not to get hooked in. Even slower tracks like “Sound Mirrors” and Saul Williams’ “Mr. Nichols” are lush and deep, practically begging for listeners to pick apart their myriad pieces.
It’s a track called “Boogieman” that changes things. “Boogieman” is based almost entirely around a thick 3-3-2 beat and a short, jumpy synth pattern, while Amiri Baraka’s non-sequitur-based verses mesh seamlessly with Coldcut’s cut-up aesthetic. “Just for the Kick” is a straight-up techno tune with enough twists and turns to make it signature Coldcut, and “Whistle and a Prayer” is a collaboration with Fog that sports a sparse, clicky beat and human whistles that double melodies with a cello. Indeed, while the second half of Sound Mirrors might not be as immediately enjoyable as the first, it is at least as conducive to repeated listens that will uncover new subtleties that are easy to miss in the constant repetition of many of the tracks.
Beyond the individual songs, there’s just something about Sound Mirrors that sounds utterly different from the typical electronic production. Calling it ‘electronic’ is really doing it a disservice, as an awful lot of the instruments here sound as though they’re live—there’s more meat to it than ‘electronic’ implies. It’s an album of music that you can dance to. It hops genres like a frog does lily pads, it changes the palette of sounds from song to song, and it makes perfect use of every single guest that dares make a contribution. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, really—this is simply Coldcut’s way of making a point, that when they’re on, nobody can touch them.