Putting Sneakster’s Pseudo-Nouveau/Fifty-Fifty on the boombox is like entering a sonic room. It’s multidimensional music, and sounds come and go all around you as you get further inside. There’s a constant rolling bass sound, fuzzy beats and lots of quiet clanks, clangs, blips and buzzes. And above it all rises a female voice, that of Sophie Hinkley, a voicethat alternately soars and whispers, but is always beautiful.
Sneakster is a duo consisting of Hinkley and founder Mark Clifford, also of the electronica act Seefeel. Pseudo-Nouveau is their debut album, released abroad in 1999, and just now in the U.S., with the addition of Fifty-Fifty, a three-song EP of Pseudo-Nouveau remixes by Robin Guthrie.
Sneakster’s sound is very much based on the aesthetics of dub reggae. Superficially both share a similar bass sound, but more importantly both have a sense for space within a track, for setting up an atmosphere. Sneakster blend this dub approach with mid-tempo, soulful dance music. This is perfect chill-out music, dreamy but not in a standstill, “music sculpture” way. It’s pop music, but with an ambient glow.
Sophie Hinkley’s voice is central to nearly every Sneakster song. And what a voice it is, with an amazing range. Much of the time she chooses to sing in a hushed, almost-spoken sexy style; and then she’ll do something like she does on “Fireheart,” where her voice rises to nearly operatic heights. Her voice is one reason why Pseudo-Nouveau bypasses the potential for sameness or mediocrity; another is the variety within the Sneakster sound. They have their own sound, and the songs work mostly within a similar realm, but then there are places throughout the album that are truly surprising. One is the afore-mentioned “Fireheart,” which uses repeating synth patterns that are more akin to Philip Glass than to pop or dance music. Another is the recurring use, on numerous songs, of crackles and pops that resemble radio fuzz (not dissimilar from the sounds Pole works with), adding yet another layer of texture.
The three songs that comprise the Fifty-Fifty EP are a pleasant surprise, because they aren’t the sort of thing you might expect from “remixes.” I know, in these postmodern days a remix can sound many different ways, but I still expected either an added uptempo dance edge or radical reworkings. Instead, Robin Guthrie has taken the original tracks and shifted their focus a bit, spotlighting certain sounds or elements over others, or adding new sounds that add more sides to the music. The remixes are brilliant in their low-keyness. In this way they fit right in with the rest of the album. Sneakster work with sound in a really low-key but genius way. It’s a recording where the silent passages are as purposeful and important as the singing, and all the elements together form a complex and intriguing piece of art.