Flunk occupy the stylish middle-ground between the sumptuous synth-jazz of early Air and the poppish coffee-bar trip-hop of Morcheeba. This might seem to be perhaps the least ambitious musical territory possible, but it’s hard to argue that they aren’t very good at what they do. Much as Zero 7 have built their career on very tastefully extracting the best bits from the multitude of down-tempo acts which preceded them, Flunk have found no small success in the same field by applying themselves to the execution of a well-delineated formula.
Thankfully, it’s a winning formula. “Down-tempo” as a whole may be electronic music’s equivalent of comfort food, at least ever since the stylistic edges were sanded off trip-hop — acid jazz, for its part, has rarely been inclined to the same kind of virtuoso flights of fancy as regular jazz — but there is something to be said for comfort food. Groups like Flunk, who exist in the quiet median where acid jazz, trip-hop, synth-pop and dub meet and commingle, are dedicated to crafting well-conceived ballads and atmospheric sketches comfortably designed to sooth and satisfy. If we had a modern equivalent of AM radio, this is what the stations would play.
And that’s hardly a bad thing. There is definitely something to be said for music that tries so hard to be winningly appealing. On first exposure, singer Anja Õyen Vister’s voice may seem an affectation (like a much less ambitious Bjork) but once you get past her odd inability to pronounce the letter “v” she’s quite an endearing presence. Thankfully, producer Ulf Nygaard and guitarist Jo Bakke seem well-suited to the task of finding attractive contexts in which her vocals can shine: lush, but not so much that her girlish voice becomes thin and reedy by comparison.
The album begins strong, with “Play”, pitting Vister’s voice against an ominous synth riff that blossoms from a sinister King Crimson-esque presence into a strangely reassuring melody line. The addition of a crisp beat and Bakke’s guitar work add layers of momentum that eventually build into a swooping chorus. “On My Balcony” begins with more of Bakke’s guitar, sliding around a sensuous rising bass line. “Spring to Kingdom Come” is one of a few tracks with darker implications, featuring a melancholy acoustic guitar offset against an anxious rhythm.
“I’ve Been Waiting All My Life to Leave You” introduces a surprising country element, with Bakke playing a respectable approximation of a warbling Nashville slide. “Blind My Mind” introduces a larger scope, with a more ambitious pop hook abetted by a fuller sound. The album’s one major conceptual misstep is a cover of New Order’s “True Faith”. It’s not necessarily a bad cover, but considering that the group’s first major success came with a popular cover of New Order’s “Blue Monday” (on 2002’s For Sleepyheads Only), it seems more than a little calculated.
The last third of the album assumes an increasingly melancholy flavor, with the wistful “Probably” and the mournful “All My Dreams On Hold” highlighting the group’s ability to wring pleasing pathos from simple melodies. “Kemikal Girl” ends the album with Bakke’s simple acoustic strumming offset against Vister’s never-more-winsome words.
Flunk are a good band with modest ambitions, and there’s really nothing wrong with that. If you’re looking for high-concept or cutting-edge, you won’t find it here, but those willing to contemplate a more tranquil musical design will find much to appreciate on Morning Star.
// Notes from the Road
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