Lamb‘s most recent album, What Sound, is one of the great albums from 2001 that not many people in North America know about. A modest success in the UK, the record failed to make a dent on American charts. A shame, really, because What Sound, given a bit of timely good luck, had the potential to really break through in the US, especially in the adult-alternative format. Just like Dido’s No Angel, or Moby’s Play, this should have been a big hit among 30-somethings who craved good, inventive contemporary music, but had no idea where to look. It should have been playing in upwardly mobile couples’ living rooms as they entertained friends, sipping Merlot: “This CD is fantastic . . . I heard it at Virgin Megastore and had to get it.” Well, there’s still time for this excellent album to connect with us slow folk over here, as Koch Records has just reissued the album, this time, loaded with bonus remixes, b-sides, and even a swanky DVD. I mean, we can’t make the same mistake twice, now, can we?
A British duo hailing from Manchester, Lamb rank as one of the most creative electronic acts in music today. In the past four years, Lamb have overtaken Portishead as the UK’s most inventive suppliers of cool, chill-out music (it helps that Portishead hadn’t put out a new album since 1997). Since their inception in 1994, unlike the languid sounds coming out of the Bristol trip-hop scene, singer Louise Rhodes and techno ace Andy Barlow have fused their pop sound with varying styles, such as drum ‘n’ bass and jazz. The mix of jarring, hard beats with the angelic voice of Rhodes makes for a fascinating contrast, and What Sound, their third album, is loaded with generous helpings of techno wizardry and some moments of pure, pop genius.
“What is that sound / Ringing in my ears?” sings Rhodes on the opening track, “What Sound”, her sweet-sounding voice wavering, sounding like a cross between Björk and Marianne Faithfull. That sound the listener is hearing is that of an electronic act who knows how much is too much. All too often, techno artists can’t resist showing off, even a little bit, but Barlow’s musical arrangements are elegant, while remaining tasteful, as the song eases into a stuttering jungle rhythm, Rhodes’s vocal harmonies and a string section carrying the melody, the gently jarring rhythm track managing not to overwhelm the gentler aspects of the song. “Sweet”, on the other hand, is a more aggressive dance track, carried by a wickedly funky bass line provided by Michelle Ndegeocello, as Rhodes, who usually opts for more introspective subject matter, is surprisingly buoyant, as she sings joyously, “It’s so rare / To find someone / Who brings on the sunshine the way you do.” In sharp contrast, the very next song on the album is the emotional “I Cry”, which is backed up by another minimal arrangement by Barlow, and some cool backing vocals by Michael Franti.
Two songs wind up stealing the album entirely. The single “Gabriel” is achingly beautiful, evoking thoughts of Wim Wenders’ great film Wings of Desire, a song that deserved to be a big mainstream hit when it was released. Barlow’s production is heavenly, a gorgeous mix if strings, acoustic guitar samples, and some truly wondrous, understated drum beats, while Rhodes is at her most poignant on the record: “I can fly / But I want his wings / I can shine even in the darkness / But I crave the light that he brings / Revel in the songs that he sings.” Better yet is the luminous “Heaven”. One of the very best songs from 2001, its main source of accompaniment is a beautiful, slightly off-kilter, chiming guitar lick by fellow Mancunian Jimi Goodwin, from the band Doves. Sounding like a wonky old music box, Goodwin’s guitar is boosted by a multilayered percussion track that keeps the song from getting too sleepy, and combined with Rhodes’ girlish, Julee Cruise style voice (“Sleep to sleep / Sigh on sigh / On a lover’s lullaby”), it becomes a one-of-a-kind jewel of a song. Its shimmering beauty wasn’t lost on some Americans, as the song was used, to great effect, during the second season of HBO’s Six Feet Under series.
As for the bonus tracks, they’re interesting to hear, but still pale in comparison to Barlow’s original treatments. the DJ Cole remix of “Gabriel” is a more dance-friendly adaptation of the single, while the Nellee Hooper Mix of the same song is much more fitting, with a more understated helping of beats and ambient sounds. “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” is more of a straightforward jazz tune, featuring slinky double bass, some very creepy, Beth Gibbons-style singing by Rhodes, and a very cool middle section that veers off into jazz-techno free-form. The DVD is short, but sweet, with the videos for “Sweet” and “Gabriel” (which is especially lovely), as well four audio tracks.
Lamb’s What Sound is an album that deserved to become a sleeper hit in North America. It’s smart, unpretentious, and classy all the way through, and for anyone who has pored over the electronica sections of their local record store with hopes of finding some quality pop songs amidst all the pounding beats, and left feeling totally over their heads, this is the album they should seek out.